Monday, February 18, 2019

Gully Boy: Review

There’s a phrase that echoes through Gully Boy like a talisman. Bohot hard, fledgling rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh) is told again and again, as encouragement, as validation. It’s a compliment the film would badly want paid back to it. But it’s not that easy. ‘Bohot hard’ is the gulf between Murad coming up in confidence-annihilating open mics and Singh getting to rap not just because he’s good at it but because he’s a famous actor and people are happy to let him. It’s also the distance between the lives of Singh and director Zoya Akhtar and the sort of people whose lives they’re putting on the screen.

If Gully Boy earns its props by the time it’s done, this is testament to its immersion in, and respect for, the world it springs from. The first thing we see on screen is a shout-out to “the original gully boys, Naezy and Divine", the rappers whose stories formed the basis for Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s script. Other rappers turn up too, in small roles or as performers. A lot of the film is shot in Dharavi – where Murad lives with his father, mother, grandmother and brother – but the neighbourhood isn’t exoticized. Or rather, it is, but by a group of tourists on a “slum tour", a knowing bit of us-versus-them positioning by Akhtar, sold wonderfully by Singh (Murad looks more amused than angry at strangers entering their home).

Gully Boy lasts 153 minutes, and there will be those who’d prefer to cut short the gradual build-up. But there’s so much happening in each frame that I was happy to let the narrative move forward at its own pace, repeat itself a little. It's overstuffed in the best sense, with music and movement and slang, and half a dozen characters who could be at the centre of their own film. There’s Safeena (Alia Bhatt), Murad’s hot-tempered but devoted girlfriend, who’s studying to be a doctor. There’s Murad’s friend, Moeen (Vijay Varma), a mechanic, carjacker and drug dealer, with the same burning anger but nowhere useful to channel it. And there’s beatmaker Sky (Kalki Koechlin), who carries with her the promise of a richer, smoother world.

When we first meet Murad he’s studying in college and writing rhymes with no intention of actually performing them. Safeena’s the one bright spark in his otherwise difficult life: money is tight, and his father (Vijay Raaz) is dismissive of him, cruel to his mother (Amruta Subhash), and has just brought home a new wife. One day, Murad attends an open mic hosted by local rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and offers him his rhymes. Sher pushes him to perform – which he does successfully. He fluffs a subsequent rap battle but the seeds are sown. Soon, he’s recording his first single.

This is where Gully Boy nearly lost me. First, there’s the contrivance that Murad, faced with the first proper recording of his life, seemingly spits it out in one go, no false starts or flubs. Then there’s the montage that accompanies the track, “Doori" – a music video of sorts, with people from Murad’s neighbourhood. It’s an object lesson in how not to shoot poverty, all immaculate framing and gliding camerawork and meaningful close-ups. Singh is shown rapping the last few lines in the studio, and I was left thinking how much better it would have been if we’d stayed with him.

Koechlin’s Sky comes across as a stand-in for Akhtar and Kagti, a curious, well-heeled artist who genuinely believes that talent overrides one’s circumstances. Murad knows better, but he’s also falling for Sky and the life that she represents. She takes him out on a graffiti run one night, tagging billboards with skinny models and fairness cream ads. Since Koechlin has herself modelled for various fashion brands and Singh has been rendered visibly darker for this role, it’s a little difficult to untangle the politics of the scene from the people in it. This is at best a glancingly political film. The Dub Sharma track “Jingostan" might have references to lynching, but it’s presented innocuously, without context. “Azadi" hints at demonetisation, but ducks the controversy it courted in changing the caste references in Kanhaiya Kumar’s original chant by leaving that bit out altogether.

Given the testosterone levels of Singh’s last two performances – a warrior king in Padmaavat, a cop in Simmba – it’s a relief to see how much he holds himself back in Gully Boy. Though he’s a bit too buffed-up to suggest an ordinary kid, his body language is toned all the way down. MC Sher is the alpha in his scenes with Murad – a huge compliment to Chaturvedi, but also to Singh’s willingness to pack his jack-in-the-box charisma into a more contemplative package. Similarly, Vijay Varma, though physically less imposing than Singh, is more intimidating in their confrontations.

For much of the film, Safeena doesn’t have much to do besides support Murad’s dreams and be jealous of any woman paying him attention. Even when her own ambitions are made clear, it’s not the best-defined part, but it has the funniest lines, and Bhatt renders Safeena both lovable and slightly demented. After she attacks a girl for sending Murad a Valentine’s Day message, they have an argument. Suddenly, she stops frowning and flashes Murad a beatific smile – a change of mood that’s scarier than her earlier ferocity. Singh and Bhatt make a lovely pair – I don’t know if any other combination of Hindi film actors could so casually pull off the scene in the train compartment where they kiss, then talk a bit, then kiss some more, like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

More than the Eminem-starrer 8 Mile, which it shares a few plot points with, I felt the ghost of Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro hover over this film. The relationship between Murad and his father isn’t too different from that of Salim and his father, except in Mirza’s film it’s the son who’s hot-headed. There’s also a similarity in the way Mirza shot Bombay – all those wonderful framings of characters in everyday surroundings – and the way Akhtar and cinematographer Jay Oza go about their work here. There’s the memory of another Mirza film, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, in the scene where Murad visits Moeen in jail. In another scene, the volatile Moeen reveals his own hurt. That’s another Mirza trait – an innate sympathy for all underdogs, deserving and undeserving.

In Sky’s house, Murad places one foot in front of the other and measures the length of the bathroom. We don’t see it, but he probably goes home and checks if any of the rooms in his place are that large. Before launching into his final song, he tells the audience about his journey. He murmurs softly into the mic, like someone at their first karaoke. Then the beat drops, and he’s a volcano. It’s a hard-won transformation – bohot hard – and it rings true.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: Review

At the start of A Damsel in Distress, PG Wodehouse mock-complains about the demands on the modern novelist to get to the point of the story. “He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar," he writes. “Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces."

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, playing at a picture palace near you, is inspired – as screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal revealed in an Instagram post – by A Damsel in Distress. It takes from Wodehouse’s novel the idea of a young man following the girl who crashes into his life back to her country home, where a complicated love story ensures. But it doesn’t heed the warning in its opening paragraph. Far from leaping into the middle of the tale, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film only comes out and says what it must when it’s halfway through. This arrives in the plainest possible form: Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja) saying, “Main ek ladki se pyaar karti hoon (I’m in love with a girl)."

Up till this point, the film dances neatly around the unhappiness of Sweety and the fury of her brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). The makers, too, danced around the topic while promoting the film, avoiding any direct mention of queer romance, putting just enough in the trailer to suggest that the problem isn’t Sweety falling in love with a Muslim man, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), but elsewhere, in particular the brief visual of two women being pulled apart.

How necessary is the elaborate build-up to the big reveal? Some might say that Hindi cinema has waited over a hundred years to say something like this, and another hour won’t kill anyone. This is true, and there will be audiences who would prefer to be eased towards it, even if they know what’s coming. Never underestimate the gingerliness with which Indian viewers react to same-sex love on screen. When Sweety tells Sahil her secret – he’s fallen in love and tracked her to her hometown, Moga – he bursts out laughing. So did several people in the theatre, even though the scene isn’t played for comedy.

These nervous laughers are the ones Ek Ladki is hoping to appeal to. In the run-up to the release, it was suggested that this might be mainstream Hindi cinema’s first queer romance. It achieves something less exalted: the first major Hindi film in which queer love is a central plot point. The actual romance is bundled into one flashback. By placing Sweety’s partner in another country, the film avoids having to depict same-sex attraction. The film has a lot to say about how queer love affects heteronormative family structures, but not much about queer love or identity itself.

The setting is small-town Punjab, but there’s none of the specificity and sharpness of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana or Jugni. Chopra, a first-time director, collaborated with Dhaliwal on the script (the dialogue is by Dhaliwal). The writing feels somewhat old-fashioned, with comic routines announcing themselves as such, with silly music and exaggerated accents. Nor is it exactly subtle. Acting in Sahil’s play, Sweety appears on stage in a glass box. It’s almost as if she… wants to break free?

I don’t want to suggest that a Bollywood star playing a gay character in a big-banner film isn’t a huge step forward. This is a country where a 1996 film about a lesbian romance was violently protested, and which still regularly censors non-hetero narratives. For all its frustrations, Ek Ladki may be the sort of patient queer-love explainer India needs. The parallels with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge are likely no accident: a girl who won’t go against her father’s wishes; a plan hatched to win the family over. The classic modern hetero romance becomes a model for a same-sex one. Sweety even has Simran’s passivity, allowing her father, then her brother, then Sahil, to speak for, and over, her.

During the opening credits, names appear on screen, then burst into what seem like petals. Dhar’s mild-mannered film does something similar, setting off a bomb under a hetero cinema tradition, but turning it into something soft and pretty so as not to alarm the viewer. The most self-aware line comes right at the end, when, faced with the prospect of a pairi pauna from Sweety’s partner, her grandmother says: “I haven’t changed that much." But she’s changed a little.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thackeray: Review

There’s a scene in Thackeray which reminded me of the Nazi-era cartoon Of the Little Tree Which Wished for Different Leaves. In this short propaganda film, a man steals the leaves of a tree in the forest. The thief is a Jewish caricature: big nose, beard, shifty manner. It was made in 1940, three years before the Looney Tunes short Tokio Jokio, which caricatures the Japanese for American viewers.

Early on in Thackeray, in Mumbai’s Eros cinema, the audience is enjoying an animated short before the main feature. Cartoonist Bal Thackeray (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the crowd, and as he watches, the film on screen is replaced with one that’s forming in his mind. In it, people from various communities – primarily south Indian, but also Punjabis and Parsees – are bullying a hapless Marathi man. It’s a neat way of showing how the plight of the “Marathi manoos" was so all-consuming for Thackeray that he saw it wherever he went. I don’t know if he ever watched the Allied or Axis war cartoons, but he’d probably have approved of both.

Thackeray details Bal’s rise from cartoonist and agitator for the rights of Marathi people to founder of the Shiv Sena. And I do mean detail. The film is a Wikipedia page come to life, stopping at every major and minor signpost in Thackeray’s adult life. We see him address rallies, saying things like, “Now we won’t fold hands, we’ll break them"; launching the Marathi publication Marmik; founding the Shiv Sena, having the last word in meetings with Indira Gandhi and George Fernandes and Javed Miandad.

The anti-outsider plank of the Shiv Sena is brushed aside as the justifiable anger of an oppressed community. Still, the film waits a while to play its ugliest hand. Thackeray, by now king of Mumbai, goes to a Muslim neighbourhood and addresses a rally, asking the crowd to live together in harmony and not let politicians divide them along religious lines (very rich coming from him). The next scene shows Muslim men on the rampage, hacking people to death and setting a cop on fire. Every time we embrace them, they cut our throats, Thackeray tells his people. “Kuch nahi ho sakta hai unka (nothing can be done with them)."

Muslims are again shown as the first aggressors in the Mumbai riots, through a scene in which a Molotov cocktail comes to rest near a crying child. Children are again used in a scene showing the Mumbai blasts. The unspoken, obvious indication is that one community was massacring innocents and the other was protecting itself. Thackeray is asked in court about Sena men playing an active role in the riots. He gets away with saying that he visited riot-hit areas and controlled his people.

Director Abhijit Panse is a former Sena man, currently with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Additionally, the film is being presented by Sena MP Sanjay Raut. A critical biopic was never on the cards; the only question, really, is how vitriolic it was going to be. Thackeray is 2 hours and 19 minutes, so the hate is spread out. The problem is, the scenes which exist only to praise Thackeray’s altruism and courage are bland. The nasty moments kept me engaged and enraged.

Sudeep Chatterjee’s photography, in black-and-white and colour, classes up the production: there’s a wonderful bit of framing with a shaft of sunlight, a sleepy man, a poster and a cat. Before he starts dressing like the older Thackeray, Siddiqui, in his white kurta and glasses, looks and sounds as he did in his last Hindi film, Manto. It’s a potentially great part and Siddiqui is authoritative, but he can’t take us inside Thackeray’s head the way he did with Manto, mostly because there’s no desire on the director’s part to explore the psychology of his subject.

I’ll leave you with a scene from after the riots. Thackeray’s car is approached by a Muslim woman and her family. She asks to speak with the politician. Inside, she tells him that their house was burnt down and begs for his help. Thackeray agrees, saying his quarrel isn’t with her religion. He then notices her husband looking at his watch. It’s time for namaaz. Thackeray invites him to offer prayers right there. As the camera pans over to the man kneeling, a statue of a tiger comes into the frame and there’s a loud roar on the soundtrack. That’s the film saying: we’ll allow you to pray here, but don’t forget whose jungle it is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi: Review

Period films will often tell you more about the state of the country than contemporary ones. A little over halfway through Manikarnika, the British lay siege to Jhansi. Their canons fire upon the fort but aren’t met with any response – the guns are positioned behind a temple, which the Indians won’t risk destroying even if it means losing the war. But wait. I have a plan, announces Jhansi’s queen and commander, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut). Audience waits expectantly for brilliant tactics.

What we get instead is the queen bursting out of the gates on a chariot, reins in hand, charging the British troops. Even with the element of surprise, she has a lot of ground to cover, and a whole army to shoot at her and a few followers on horseback, but the British seem incapacitated by this straightforward frontal attack. A couple of them fire at her, but she ducks. Apparently, one can duck bullets. She takes out the cannons, then hacks her way back to the fort, unscathed.

With its mixture of pumped-up nationalism, religiosity and utter stupidity, this scene feels like present-day India as much as it does something out of 1857. Manikarnika, directed by Ranaut after Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi left the production, is a slow-building, sustained surge of patriotic fervour, as messy and inflammable as a geyser on an oil rig. It’s based on the story of the Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who assumed charge of the kingdom after her husband and son died, defied the British and ultimately died in battle. Her story passed into folklore, and it’s the legend – not the historical figure but the mardani of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem – that has made it to the screen. You can't blame the makers – films on early Indian freedom fighters based strictly on fact would be depressing viewing.

The film begins as Baahubali did, with a special child being lifted out of the water (the two films share a screenwriter, KV Vijayendra Prasad). She’s named Manikarnika on the advice of a priest, who says she’s made for great things. The film then jumps ahead in time, and we see the grown-up Manikarnika, blue sari billowing like she’s in the Alps in a Yash Raj film and not standing in a field holding a bow and arrow. Her tiger-shooting and sword-fighting abilities land her an offer of marriage from the royal family of Jhansi (she’d grown up under the patronage of the Peshwa in Bithoor). And so she becomes Lakshmibai, wife of Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), who loves the arts and fears the British.

Manikarnika is sledgehammer-simple. Gangadhar is a gentle soul and not much interested in warfare, so of course he wears bangles. Manikarnika, on the other hand, melts her jewellery to make weapons. Love for the motherland is expressed non-stop, issuing florid from the pen of Prasoon Joshi, current Central Board of Film Certification chairman and one of the architects of the BJP’s “acche din" campaign. The Peshwa talks about “matrubhoomi ke liye niswarth prem (selfless love for the motherland)" as the highest ideal. There’s a song with the refrain “Main rahoon ya na rahoon, Bharat yeh rehna chahiye (Whether I’m there or not, India should remain)". There are more exhortations to die for one’s country than there were in the war film Uri a fortnight ago.

This patriotism is mixed with religion until the difference between the two fades. I noticed more gods here – as idols, paintings, sculptures – than in any Hindi film I’ve seen. The battlefield rings with cries of "har har Mahadev". Gangadhar watches a musical performance about Shiva. Manikarnika tells her adopted child the story of infant Krishna. She’s described as “saakshaat devi ka roop (a goddess come to life)". She appears in the nightmares of the British general as the avenging Kali. The last image in the film is an “Om" written in fire.

It’s not much of a jump from here to Manikarnika turning up to save a calf from being slaughtered. Ranaut knows that whatever liberal cred she loses by extolling gau raksha will be more than made up for by the mass audience that’ll lap up the scene. She’d laid the foundation for it months ago, when she told Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev on his talk show that people on the unit had warned her against shooting a gau raksha scene. “The prejudice is really agonising," she said. “But then a lynching takes place and you look like an idiot. And then you jump to the other side, which has always been criticising and never wanting to protect cows." She went on to talk about how liberals were always criticising the armed forces. Weeks before that appearance, she’d endorsed Narendra Modi as prime minister, saying that he hadn’t gotten the job “because of his mummy-papa" and that the country needed to be “pulled out of a pit". Manikarnika is the culmination of this political positioning, a film which shares the obsessions of the right: religion, nationalism, the military.

Ranaut, as first-time director, brings some of her own can-do spirit to the film. Lakshmibai is cast as a proto-feminist who says things like “Jab beti khadi hoti hai toh vijay badi hoti hai (when daughters stand up, the victory is bigger)." When she’s informed of her meagre military strength, she sets about training the women of Jhansi to fight. Throughout the film, it’s the women who take important decisions and the men who are weak or greedy. Manikarnika is almost superhuman; fine for the film, less so for Ranaut, who’s at her best playing brittle, life-size characters.

Manikarnika is the sum of what it’s saying – it doesn’t have visual stratagems strong enough to distract the viewer. It lacks the intricate design of Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat and the muscular drive of Baahubali, only coming to life when it borrows the bloody graphic novel look of Zack Snyder films (such as the sequence where the queen slashes her way through a dozen enemy soldiers). The CGI work is slapdash, though, to be fair, rendering “queen jumps off fort wall on horseback, survives" would tax the best in the business. The production and costume design is budget Bhansali, Ranaut’s sarees paling in front of the many, many silly hats worn by the East India Company men.  

Exploding the canon with Mark Cousins

Though TV audiences in the UK knew Mark Cousins as the host of Scene By Scene and Videodrome, it was his 2011 documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey which announced him to the world. This 15-part film is, as the title indicates, a history of cinema, but viewers expecting the familiar narrative of Europe and America influencing each other over and over, with the rest of world cinema putting in cameo appearances, would have been startled. Cousins used the film to place directors like Guru Dutt and Youssef Chahine on the same pedestal as Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, and challenged viewers to revise accepted ideas of cinematic quality.

Cousins, who lives in Edinburgh, had a busy 2018. His documentary The Eyes Of Orson Welles, a tribute which began with a gift to Cousins of hundreds of artworks by the director, premiered at Cannes (it also played at the Mumbai Film Festival). He wrote The Story Of Looking, an exploration of the ways we take in the world visually. And he’s putting the final touches on a documentary called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. This 16-hour film, which focuses on women directors from all eras and from around the world, will premiere sometime in 2019, though excerpts have already been shown in festivals. We caught up with Cousins at his hotel in Bandra, Mumbai before he left for Mehboob Studio—he was eager to see the soundstage where Guru Dutt, a favourite (he has a Kaagaz Ke Phool tattoo), shot one of his most famous scenes. Edited excerpts:

What gave you the idea for ‘Women Make Film’?
I became increasingly frustrated at the kind of conversations that movie-lovers have. They talk too often about the same films again and again. I’ve always been interested in what I don’t know. I heard about this Bulgarian film-maker, Binka Zhelyazkova. I thought, wow, why have I not heard of her before? Her work is wonderful and incredibly popular in Bulgaria. A third of the population was going to see her films. Kira Muratova for me was as great as Martin Scorsese. How many people have heard of her work?

I first started gathering the information about six years ago. I just started going to the film archives of the world and saying, who are your great women directors? In Bulgaria, in Albania, in Hong Kong, they said who they were. I did it on the back of other things. We had no budget for this film at all. We just funded it ourselves because nobody wanted a 16-hour film about the great women directors. Then, because of (Harvey) Weinstein, it became more topical.

We need a revolution in cinema because it’s been far too dominated by men. But we also need to remember the great women film-makers who have been written out of movie history.

You wrote in ‘Sight & Sound’ magazine in 2015 that the starting point should be to “assume (women directors) are out there".
You have to. My background is science—the scientific method is that you have a theory and you try to disprove it. If you can’t, maybe you’re right.

If we say there aren’t many women directors today—which is true—does that mean that there have never been many? Our political arguments today about the fact that there aren’t enough women film-makers can blind us to the fact there have been many film-makers in countries from Sri Lanka through Korea to Senegal.

Did you find that people in the countries you visited didn’t know about their own female directors?
Well, yes. That’s why I went to the archivists, a lot of whom were female. But I talked to young Chinese, Bulgarian film-makers who don’t know who their women directors are. It’s the fault of the film magazines, TV programmes, historians who aren’t addressing this stuff. But we have to blame ourselves also. When Kira Muratova died, lots of people said “I’ve never heard of her". Some of her work is free on YouTube. It’s really easy to Google “great female directors from Russia". We have to blame our own lack of curiosity if we haven’t typed in those five words.

You’ve structured the film as a masterclass.
Yes. It’s 40 chapters, asking very simple questions—how do you do an opening shot, how do you film war, how do you film sex? Nothing about the female gaze, how women make films differently from men. There’s a real danger of gender stereotyping. I’ve heard people say Kathryn Bigelow makes films like a man. I think, fuck that, she makes films like Kathryn Bigelow. Does Pedro Almodóvar or Youssef Chahine or George Cukor make films like a woman?

You’ve consistently challenged the idea of traditional film canons. When did you start breaking away from them?
When I was 12, I loved the idea of a film canon. I needed to be told what to watch. I didn’t know who James Whale was, who Douglas Sirk was. When I was 22, I was getting a bit tired of that. I started to realize that there’s Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty. I was looking for an African canon. And guess what, the African canon could plant a bomb under the European and American canon. When I was 32, I started thinking, what about Indian cinema, why have I only heard of Satyajit Ray?

Each canon should explode the previous one, plant a bomb. I’m not against the idea of canons—but I reject the idea of a single canon, or a canon that is everlasting.

Are cinephiles today curious about lesser-known cinemas and film-makers?
I think canons still have a pretty strong hold. I’m pretty optimistic about most things, about this I’m not. Like when she dies (points to his Kira Muratova tattoo) and people say I haven’t heard of her, I just want to say, for fuck's sake, why not? When I was young it was really hard to see films. Citizen Kane I heard about when I was 9 or 10; I had to wait 10 years to see it. Now you don’t need to wait 10 seconds.

If you’d said to me a decade ago, suddenly film will become massively available on something called YouTube or DVD, I'd have said, hallelujah, the problem is solved, people will fall in love with every type of cinema. That hasn’t happened. People’s curiosity has lagged behind the availability.

What spurred you to write a book about “looking"?
I’ve been interested in looking all my life. At school I was a slow reader. When I was presented with a page of text, I was scared, but the visual world came to me very quickly. At a time of new looking technologies like Skype and VR, I wanted to write a history of how we got to the point of a deluge of looking, the overload of screens, and is this good or bad. And the answer is: both.

We are sitting in one of the most visual countries in the world. India and Mexico are the two places in the world that seem to do visuals better than anyone. Walk out on to any street in India and you’ve got a visual overload. It’s not just about the amount of things that are happening, it’s the amount of decoration, the way colour is used, the way banyan trees are hung.

Your documentary on Orson Welles is also about looking. It’s amazing how we keep turning up new stuff on Welles.
I thought, what else is there to say? Then I saw the drawings and paintings. The fact that there are a thousand of’s like I said in the film, he didn’t write an autobiography, he drew an autobiography.

It’s been eight years since ‘The Story Of Film’. Have there been any films or directors since that you’d like to have included in it.
Yes. Have you seen the new Spiderman film? I thought it was dazzlingly original. If I was doing a new chapter in The Story Of Film, it would be in there. Then there’s the use of sports cameras. Did you see the documentary Leviathan, about fishing? That would be in there. Jonathan Glazer’s film about the alien, Under The Skin, that’s amazing. Also, film-maker Alice Rohrwacher, she’s really great.

Besides ‘Women Make Film’, do you have anything else out in 2019?
A film I did is starting to go around. It’s called Storm In My Heart. I discovered that two famous American women were born on the same day in Brooklyn. One was Susan Hayward, who was the biggest box-office star for a few years in the 1950s. The other was Lena Horne, the famous African-American singer and actor. Because she was African-American, they shot her Hollywood films in such a way that her scenes could be cut out for the southern states, so the white racists didn’t have to see her.

I’ve taken one of Susan Hayward’s films and one of Lena Horne’s and intercut them. The complication is that the African-American woman came from the upper class and the white woman was from a lower class, so intercutting the films says something about gender, race and class.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Why Cheat India: Review

In his first scene of Why Cheat India, Rakesh (Emraan Hashmi) does the worst thing an Indian moviegoer in 1997 could possibly do: tell someone watching Gupt for the first time that Kajol is the killer. Granted, he’s revealing this to someone who isn’t very nice, but there is such a thing as basic human decency.

That introduction is also a warning that the film may not know how to deal with its central character. The scene begins with a group of friends – including Satyendra (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee), who’s just qualified for a top-flight engineering college – being bullied out of their seats at the cinema hall. The same toughs then try to move Rakesh, who single-handedly beats them up even though one is carrying a gun. This is the only physical violence on Rakesh’s part in the film. The scene isn’t there because it’s in his character; director Soumik Sen probably just wanted a “hero entry" and settled for the easiest one.

The confusion about what Rakesh is supposed to stand for continues through the film. He’s revealed to be an examination fixer, someone who arranges for entrance tests to be taken by brilliant students on behalf of rich, weak ones. Satyendra becomes one such exam-writer, his father’s debt on his behalf making him easy prey. Rakesh is consistently terrible through the film; yet, Sen won’t allow him to become unsympathetic. Instead, he’s given speech after speech in which he paints himself as some sort of Robin Hood, redistributing wealth to poor, smart students.

There were no such delusions in the man on whom Rakesh is clearly modelled. Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) is one of the great antagonists in movie history because he’s gleefully, wholeheartedly amoral. He exploits young Bud Fox but is also fond of him, much like Rakesh both uses and feels responsible for Satyendra, shepherding him through the early days of college while also putting him on a punishing schedule of proxy exams. Like Gordon, Rakesh is married and involved with another woman. And sure enough, he ends up using Gekko’s famous phrase: greed is good.

There’s another reference, this time from an Indian film. In the scene where Satyendra is on the phone with Rakesh in Jhansi, there’s a poster for Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya (1975) on the wall behind him. It’s an apt comparison: Jana Aranya begins with a scene of cheating in an examination hall, and is a story of middle-class dreams and corruption. It’s also a reference for the sake of it. There’s no good reason why there’d be poster of a Bengali art film on a wall in Uttar Pradesh in the late ‘90s (it’s different in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, whose satirical universe allowed for the use of Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul film posters).

Satyendra fades from the second half of the film, and the narrative – already guilty of repetition – starts to meander. Rakesh attempts a scam similar to the engineering tests, with MBA entrance exams, but with Satyendra out of the picture, there’s less at stake emotionally. I was glad for the return of Nupur, Satyendra’s supportive sister, and the one searching character in the film. She falls for Rakesh, not because he’s particularly charming but because he’s played by Hashmi and it’d be bad for the actor’s image if the female lead wasn’t throwing herself at him. Even with this dispiriting arc, Shreya Dhanwanthary has an affecting low-key presence, and her reading of the line "Bahut meherbani hai" is beautifully bitter.

There are some nice touches. Before starting to write their engineering entrance papers, many of the students place flowers and small figurines on their desks for good luck (Satyendra actually takes his flowers – marigold, auspicious – back home). And there’s Rakesh’s habit of offering prasad to everyone he meets, a constant cleansing of the soul even as he tempts them into sin. Hashmi seems to enjoy himself; if the writing was brighter and the other characters had more agency, the film might have played differently. The best moments are early on, when we’re amongst the dreams of hungry toppers and desperate parents. Once that passes, Why Cheat India becomes just another Hindi film unwilling to admit that its hero is a villain.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bollywood’s accidental politics

Imagine attempting a Hindi film double bill last weekend. You would have begun with The Accidental Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi looks lost. Sonia Gandhi looks like Nurse Ratched. The UPA government is a cesspool of political machinations. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, played by Anupam Kher, is soft, feeble. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appearing at the end in a news clip, is so much livelier.

Next up would have been Uri: The Surgical Strike. Modi’s in this as well, played by Rajit Kapur. Kher’s portrayal of Singh was on the brink of caricature; the audience snickered at the halting, high-pitched voice he assumed. But they don’t laugh in Uri, because Kapur doesn’t say “mitron", doesn’t try to imitate Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks as organized and decisive in this film as the Congress looks uncaring and rudderless in the first.

In The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh has to manoeuvre the nuclear deal past the unwilling Gandhis. In Uri, Modi doesn’t hesitate before ordering a strike on Pakistan-administered soil. The films paint a neat composite picture for the undecided voter: The ruling party is tough on terror, tough on Pakistan; the opposition is power-hungry and doesn’t have the stomach for aggressive geopolitics.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran a controversial ad in the race for the Democratic Party nomination which asked the question: “It’s 3am (in the White House). Who do you want answering the phone?" Last weekend, the Indian version of this played out in cinemas across the country. But Clinton’s was a paid political ad. This is free publicity. And the timing couldn’t have been sweeter: a few months to go for the general election, one film with an ineffectual challenger, another featuring a capable incumbent.

The day the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister released, it was shared on Twitter by the official BJP handle. Last weekend, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT cell, suggested taking the family to see both films. He also tweeted another video which has a group of stars—Varun Dhawan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, among others—shouting “Jai Hind" twice (it was a promotion for Uri). “Have we ever heard film stars chanting Jai Hind like this before?" he wrote. “This is what changed in 4 years!"

Bollywood has been chanting “Jai Hind" for some time now. And the BJP and its allies have so successfully cornered the market on vocal nationalism that any film with a patriotic bent can be seen as doing their work. Almost every month last year, some film or the other waved the flag: PadMan, Gold, Satyamev Jayate, Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran. In Baaghi 2, Tiger Shroff’s army man ties a stone-pelter to his jeep, just like Major Leetul Gogoi did in Kashmir. Later in the film, he pauses while decimating a police station, catches a small plastic India flag mid-air, and places it down carefully. This was greeted with cheers—probably emanating from the same sort of people who harass others for not standing when the national anthem is played.

A lot of this is simple commerce—patriotism is as saleable today as youthful romance was in the 1990s. With this comes opportunism. When Kangana Ranaut praised Modi and spoke against cow slaughter in July last year, it was a soft signal to his base that she’s one of them—and would they please also watch her nationalistic period film? Manikarnika, which stars Ranaut as the queen of Jhansi, who fought the British in the 1850s, is set to release on 25 January—just before Republic Day. The trailer ends with the queen saying that the difference between her and the British is that they want to rule and she wants to serve. This is the same argument Modi used against the Gandhi family in the run-up to the 2014 general election.

Thackeray also releases on 25 January, completing an unusually political month at the movies. There was some shock when Nawazuddin Siddiqui accepted the role of Bal Thackeray, erstwhile leader of the Shiv Sena, in what would likely be a propaganda film (it’s directed by Abhijit Panse, a former Sena member now with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). Why would he agree to play the founder of a party whose workers had forced him to pull out of a Ram Leela performance in his UP village? But Siddiqui has never been outspoken politically. It’s unlikely he agrees with the Sena’s ideals, but he probably weighed that against the opportunity the role represented and decided it was worth the bad press. In this he resembles much of the Hindi film fraternity, which—apart from the right-leaning Kher and BJP MP Paresh Rawal (incidentally, stars of The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri)—is establishment-leaning but says as little as it can about politics. Few could even find the courage to support Naseeruddin Shah when he was being threatened for saying he felt worried for his children in today’s India.

Last year, Chalo Jeete Hain, a short film inspired by Modi’s childhood, released. Two feature films on the prime minister are in the works—one starring Vivek Oberoi, the other, Rawal. The Hindi film industry has always flattered those in power, and will continue to do so. Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister may not have started out as propaganda. Yet, by releasing when they did, by opening alongside each other, and by feeding a larger political narrative, that’s what they ended up as.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge, after the release of Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister and before Manikarnika and Thackeray.

The Accidental Prime Minister: Review

Sanjaya Baru was media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2008. He later wrote a memoir about this stint called The Accidental Prime Minister, on which Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s film is based. In his first scene, Baru, played by Akshaye Khanna, turns up in purple jacket, green shirt, blue tie and black trousers. As if this isn’t disruptive enough, he then addresses the camera directly, and continues to do so through the film. I first thought of Kevin Spacey’s asides in House of Cards, but a better fit is the 2015 film The Big Short, another fourth-wall-breaking, multi-character comedy about large, corrupt systems.

It takes little time for The Accidental Prime Minister to start talking about what it’s really talking about. In a scene shortly after the 2004 general elections, before Singh (Anupam Kher) is appointed as prime minister, Rahul Gandhi speaks to his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in Italian, so the gathered ministers don’t know what’s been said. The charge against Sonia was always that she wasn’t from India, but it’s significant that the one line in Italian in the film is given not to her but to Rahul. After Sonia declines the post of prime minister, the film contrasts the eloquent reaction of Priyanka Gandhi with the confused, incoherent one of Rahul. Barely 10 minutes in, the film’s already asking the question.

It takes about an hour before someone says it outright. “Yeh election Rahul ke bas ka nahin hai". Rahul’s not up to this election.

Now, you can argue that it’s the 2009 general elections being referred to, that Gandhi was green then. But let’s not kid ourselves. In a couple of months, another national election will be upon us. Rahul Gandhi is the face of his party. The Accidental Prime Minister is an invitation for audiences to see him as comical and indecisive and a little foreign. It’s a political ad.

This is a slice of propaganda so blatant that it may as well have been made by the ruling party. Kher is a BJP ideologue and is married to a party MP. The day the trailer released, the BJP’s official handle tweeted it, saying “Was Dr Singh just a regent who was holding on to the PM’s chair till the time heir was ready?" It is, of course, only natural that the party would promote a narrative in which the opposition comes out looking silly. But it’s dispiriting to see the film industry be so obliging.

Kher playing Manmohan Singh is excellent Trojan horse casting: once he’s inside that voice and that unthreatening manner, he can slowly undermine him while appearing to be sympathetic. It’s a sly performance, with the actor subtly turning Singh’s light voice into a meek bleat and exaggerating his halting speech patterns. The impression is of an ineffectual man in the grip of the Gandhis, unable to control his party. It’s difficult to argue with the general accuracy of Kher’s imitation, but great acting is more than mimicry. There’s little empathy for Singh in Kher’s portrayal, only pity.

You know you’re clutching at straws when the most impressive thing about a film is the hair and makeup and casting. All the actors playing real-life politicians, from LK Advani to the corpse of PV Narasimha Rao, really do look the part. There are no songs, thankfully – I don’t think I would have survived a montage of Singh looking pensive as a sad Punjabi number plays on the soundtrack. The background score is so overbearing and all-pervasive you have to wonder if the composers are being paid by the second. Its jaunty rhythms match the parodic mood of Khanna’s performance – a turn better suited to a production with writing on the level of Yes Minister and not a slightly better Indu Sarkar.

In a way, the crudity of technique is only fitting. The Accidental Prime Minister was always going to be a hit job on the Gandhis first and a film second. Suzanne Bernert looks startlingly like Sonia, but doesn’t make any attempt to humanise her, turning her into an expressionless villain. A vampiric-looking Indira, her hand in a strange hook shape, glares down from a portrait. Arjun Mathur’s Rahul is feeble and confused – damaging enough considering he’s in the running for prime minister, but made even worse by the fact that his main opponent is also in cinemas this week.

In Uri: The Surgical Strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi – played by Rajit Kapur – is shown as decisive and calm under pressure. He gets to say “Jai Hind" while signing off on a covert military mission. Gandhi, on the other hand, tears up his own party’s ordinance. You realise by the end that the film’s title is a warning. It’s saying: Manmohan Singh was the right man for the job. The real accident will be electing Rahul Gandhi as prime minister.

This review appeared in Mint.

Uri: The Surgical Strike: Review

The disclaimer at the start of Uri: The Surgical Strike closes with “…a tribute to armed forces, and a new India". What this new India stands for is made clear later in the film, after terrorists have launched a surprise attack on an Indian army camp at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir. Govind (Paresh Rawal) – a possible stand-in for National Security Advisor Ajit Doval – suggests a retaliatory “surgical" strike, comparing it to Israel’s covert operation to eliminate those responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics killings. “Yeh naya Hindustan hai," he says. “Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi (This is the new India. It’ll enter your home, and it’ll kill you too)."

Aditya Dhar’s film, based on actual events from 2016, opens with two setpieces in quick succession.An Indian army convoy is ambushed in Manipur; there’s a gunfight and a truck is blown up. After that, we see Major Vihaan Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) lead an attack on a camp on the Indo-Myanmar border, where a large group of terrorists is gathered. Dhar pulls striking images out of the chaos: a rocket scorching a path through dense foliage, Vihaan walking into fire like some mythic hero. This is the sort of quick, abrasive, coherent action filmmaking that few Hindi films are interested in, let alone pull off, and it’s no surprise that the cinematographer is Mitesh Mirchandani, who worked wonders in Neerja.

These sequences represent the film in microcosm: an attack on India, and India’s immediate response. But there’s a notable difference between the two. The first attack isn’t scored; we only hear the bullets and the yells of the soldiers. The second is accompanied by thumping music. What we’re being told is: stay with the pain of our soldiers when they’re under attack, but enjoy yourself when they’re on the offensive. War isn’t terrible. Only defeat is.

Raazi, a spy thriller released last year, was peacetime filmmaking: character-driven, invested in the subtleties of language, willing to admit that there can be good people on both sides of a cross- border conflict. Uri is wartime filmmaking: taut, clipped, muscular, regimented. Even the household conversations have a militaristic sound to them. Vihaan’s mother’s Alzheimer’s is “aggressively spreading". His sister corrects her daughter’s homework, telling her it’s “more peaceful", not “peacefuler". The child’s father, Karan (Mohit Raina) – Vihaan’s brother-in-law – is killed in the Uri attack. Standing over his body, crying, rain pouring down, she yells out a war cry he taught her. It’s completed by the jawans, and her grief is weaponised.

The Uri attack is again brilliantly executed – the shot that tracks Karan as he races across the camp belongs in a Katherine Bigelow movie. Yet, it also becomes increasingly clear that whenever the film moves away from the battlefield, it doesn’t have the same edge. Dhar’s writing is fine for military speech, but flat in conversations which don’t consist of barked commands. None of the characters have any definition beyond their job – they’re just military men and women or relatives. Vicky Kaushal is a fetching stoic lead, but Vihaan is so close to perfect he’s scarcely real.

Uri resembles Zero Dark Thirty in its factual build-up to the Indian strike, but because the terrorist attack only comes halfway through, the film then has to rush through scenes of surveillance, intel- gathering, spy work and training. Suddenly, we’re checking in with the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organization, a belching Indian mole in Pakistan. The interrogation scene is over in a flash – two suspects tortured, the desired information elicited. This, too, has the suggestion of a new India: individuals and institutions doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Though he isn’t identified by name, Prime Minister Modi (Rajit Kapur in spectacles and a white beard) appears in several scenes as a hands-on commander. A surgical prime minister, and an accidental one, in theatres this week. In an election year, this is the kind of gift money can’t buy.

Vihaan, who’d quit active military duty after the Myanmar border mission to look after his mother (you better believe someone compares serving one’s mother and one’s motherland), returns to lead the surgical strikes. “Is your blood boiling for revenge?" he thunders at his men. Uri doesn’t seem to consider that his brother-in-law’s death might have some effect on Vihaan’s judgment as a leader.Instead, the film conflates desire for retribution on an individual and a national level. So confident is Dhar in the power of patriotic revenge as a narrative hook that he barely creates a villain (the closest the film comes to caricature is casting someone with a hooked nose and flowing hair as the leader of the Uri attack).

The final assault, conducted in the dead of night on Pakistani soil, is a serrated knife of a set piece.Yet, as one terrorist after another is shot, stabbed or blown up, you have to ask yourself what the film hopes this is inducing in the viewer. Boiling blood? Patriotic tingles? I found the first-person shooter efficiency exhausting after a while. As I write this review, I see that Yami Gautam, who plays an intelligence agent in the film, has done a promotional video as her character, in which she asks viewers to help her “interrogate a terrorist" on Google Assistant. They’re advised to say things like “beat him", “punch him" and “cut off finger". More than anything in Uri, this is the new India.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mary Poppins Returns: Review

The hollowest words uttered in Mary Poppins Returns are by Michael Banks when he throws away his beloved kite and says “No looking back." Not only does Rob Marshall’s musical continually peek over its shoulder, Disney’s entire strategy (outside of acquisition) now seems founded on looking back. This is true of Hollywood in general, now well and truly stuck in an endless cycle of repackage and refurbish. Audience cliques, flattered by the illusion of power, have become increasingly hostile to authorial innovation. This suits the studios fine – it’s easy to greenlight the same old hits, slightly modified.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a frame-by-frame remake like Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. It’s a sequel, with the magical nanny – now played by Emily Blunt – returning to the Banks family 25 years after her first visit. But there’s only the illusion of change. Michael (Ben Whishaw), the boy in the original film, has a moustache now, and a perpetually worried look – he’s in financial trouble and has recently lost his wife. We’re also reintroduced to Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, whose labour agitations are a substitution for her mother’s suffragette protests. Mary Poppins is again visiting at a time when the Banks children – Michael’s daughter and two sons – are in danger of being estranged from their father. And it ends, as the first one did, with the father rediscovering his inner child.

The parallels just don’t stop. Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep is substituted by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter (after all the fun made of Van Dyke’s Cockney accent you’d think they’d shy away from casting another American). The enemy is still Big Finance, represented here by a dry Colin Firth as the bank manager trying to repossess the Banks family home. Bravely, none of the classic musical numbers are revived, though you can hear and see their ghosts in the new ones: “Step in Time" in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic", “Let’s Go Fly a Kite" in “Nowhere to Go but Up". Miss the dancing penguins? The parrot umbrella? Admiral Boom and Mr Binnacle? They’re all back.

It’s as if Disney is worried the adults who grew up with the 1964 film and are taking their kids to watch Mary Poppins Returns will turn into sullen fanboys if deprived of familiar pleasures or faced with a Hispanic-American leading man and a few black characters. And so it gives them spoons full of nostalgia to help the (minor) revisionism go down. Apart from Whishaw’s turn, the performances are variations on the ones that came before – unavoidable, considering Blunt is playing the same character as Julie Andrews did, and Miranda’s Jack is a facsimile of Van Dyke’s Bert. But they’re also winsome, especially when Blunt rolls her eyes or flashes her razorblade grin. The same goes for the music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s lyrics – heavily indebted to the earlier film, but deft and effective.

Unlike the Paddington films, which are set in the present day, Marshall locates the action in pre-WWII London. The longing is not just for a more innocent time but for a simpler cinema, one where it’s not considered emotionally manipulative to have children sing their father out of depression. Over the next 15 months, remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin and Mulan will release. If you have memories of old Disney films, enjoy them while you can. They’ll soon be supercalifragilisticexpialidated.

This review appeared in Mint.

Simmba: Review

The year ends as it began, with an unhinged Ranveer Singh performance in a film that really needs it. While ‘Padmaavat’ (review) was built around his character’s reputation for corrupting virtue, ‘Simmba’ turns on his being moved to defend it. Spare a thought for the women in these films, whose excellent options are: burn yourself alive to preserve your honour from the marauding Alauddin Khilji, or be raped and brutalised so that Sangram Bhalerao might realise his true calling.

Before ‘Simmba’ turned, I found myself dangerously close to enjoying an entire half of a Rohit Shetty film. This is not a position I’m accustomed to finding myself in, and I blame Singh and his knowingly ludicrous performance. We first see “Simmba" Bhalerao in Shivgadh, chasing a couple of goons through a dhobi ghat. Even with the usual stop-start Shetty action, it’s a lovely sequence, brightly coloured clothes flapping and water splashing in slow motion as Simmba hands out beatings and wisecracks. Afterwards, the young cop cheerfully accepts bribes from the thieves and from the trader whose jewellery he’s recovered. It’s a part of the Singham universe, but the tiresome moral clouds of the Shetty-Ajay Devgn films are already receding.

Simmba is transferred to Miramar, Goa, a lucrative posting for a crooked officer. His first move is to seek out the local don, Durva (Sonu Sood), and promise not to interfere in his business. For a while, everything goes swimmingly, Simmba helping Durva bully people out of their property while turning a blind eye to his drug-running. He also finds time to fall for Shagun (Sara Ali Khan), a café owner who supplies lunch to the police station, and become de facto elder brother to Aakruti (Vaidehi Parshurami), a medical student who teaches underprivileged children.

If you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you know something horrible will happen to Aakruti. Part of the perverseness of Simmba is how much silly fun it is before this incident. Singh preens and pouts, mixes Hindi and Marathi and broken English. He has the ability to play a broad-chested hero and still seem like he’s in on the joke. When he shouts “Uff, taana" at a disapproving cop, or performs a jealous pantomime when Shagun appears interested in another man, the playacting is a level removed from the outright spoofery of Quick Gun Murugan (review). Like all Shetty characters, Simmba is a cardboard creation, but in Singh’s playing, his macho bluster has an underlying sweetness that renders it more winsome than the humourless masculinity of Devgn’s Singham.

The film quickly comes apart when a couple of Aakruti’s students go missing. Her search leads her to Durva’s drug-packing den, where she’s discovered by his brothers. They first try and take her phone; when she fights back, they assault and rape her. When Simmba visits her in hospital the next day, she’s barely alive. He vows revenge on Durva and his brothers, changes his corrupt ways, and that’s the rest of the film.

Even for Hindi cinema, where rape-revenge is a thriving subgenre (there were four films on the subject last year), this is pretty dire. Sexual assault is not just a plot device here, it’s the catalyst for Simmba to go from bad to good. Put more plainly, a minor female character has to suffer so that the male lead may evolve. For all its outrage over the safety of women, the film can’t help but reveal its obsession with male pride and how this is linked with the ‘honour’ of women they protect. Durva’s brothers are goaded in jail, called napunsak (impotent) and namard (unmanly), incapable of rape. There’s a lot of talk of ‘desh ki betiyaan’—daughters of the nation. Time and again, male characters are asked, how would you feel if this happened to your sister, your mother? One has to wonder whether Simmba would be this affected if the victim had been someone he didn’t know and not the girl he considered his sister.

The ridiculousness piles up as Shetty and writers Yunus Sajawal and Farhad Samji barrel headlong into an issue they seem to have no deep thoughts on. A courtroom scene has Simmba asking the judge, a woman, if one ‘desh ki beti’ can help out another. Later, a friend of Aakruti asks, “Desh ki betiyaan padh toh rahi hain par desh ki betiyon ko in haivanon se bachaega kaun (daughters of the nation are studying, but who will save them from these savages)?"—a twisting of the government’s “beti bachao, beti padhao" slogan, but to what end? The film’s idea of including women in the conversation about safety is, I guess, when Simmba asks a group which includes Aakruti’s mother and Shagun what they think should happen to rapists. Each responds with some variation on “they deserve to die". At least Shetty’s consistent: both ‘Singham’ (review) and ‘Singham Returns’ (review) ended with vigilante killings by the police.

Shagun is largely absent after the intermission; she’s extra baggage in a film that has more use for women as sisters and mothers than as lovers. Her best moment—and a rare instance of female agency—is when she tells Simmba that she likes him and demands to know whether he has feelings for her (that the cocky Simmba turns out to be a shy wooer is a nice character beat). But she’s clearly an afterthought—a few hastily written lines and a back story about a dead cop father that goes nowhere.

Singham turns up, which should surprise no one. To hear Devgn grunt his lines is to become grateful all over again for Singh’s fleet presence, even if it’s weighed down by the cartoon violence and endless posturing that make Shetty such a popular, if critically reviled, director. As a late scene makes clear, the Shetty-verse isn’t done growing. But more than expanded universes, what commercial Hindi cinema needs right now is broadened world views.

This review appeared in Mint.

Blind man’s bluff

In Indian cinema and abroad, the smartly designed trailer is an endangered species, replaced by mini-movies with most of the plot and all the best lines. This might explain the ecstatic reactions that greeted the Andhadhun trailer when it released earlier this month. To use a term that now means something else entirely, it’s a teaser, an enticement to discover a story in cinemas rather than have it all laid out beforehand.

Sriram Raghavan’s film is about a blind pianist (Ayushmann Khurrana) who is involved in the aftermath of a violent crime by a mysterious woman (Tabu). The twist hinted at in the trailer is that he’s surprisingly aware of his surroundings for a visually impaired person. Andhadun appears to be a darkly humorous noir film—territory that Raghavan has made his own with films like Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur (the outlier is the spy thriller Agent Vinod). He spoke to Lounge about writing as a team and how a 44-day shoot took a whole year. Edited excerpts:

A blind pianist turns up in another of your films, during the ‘Raabta’ musical number/shootout in ‘Agent Vinod’.
She was one of the minor inspirations of this kind of character. Lots of people asked me then, how does she not know what’s going on, is she deaf also? I said, maybe, maybe not. But yes, another character who either can see, or not...

The trailer has echoes of Francois Truffaut’s ‘Shoot The Piano Player’: a pianist involved with two women and dragged into a crime, the melding of noir and comedy and gangster genres. Was it an influence?
Shoot The Piano Player is one of my favourite films, though apparently it failed very badly when it released. I discovered Truffaut once I joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). But Shoot The Piano Player wasn’t available in the archives, so I saw it much later, once the DVD had come out.

This movie actually has nothing to do with Shoot The Piano Player—all the echoes you mention are purely coincidental. But while making the film, there’s one shot during which I’d said, “Oh this is a Shoot The Piano Player shot, we must do it."

There was one thing Truffaut had said after making The 400 Blows—something like, “This is an explosion of genres". Like what you said, comedy and drama and tragedy. I used to think, all Hindi movies are explosions of genres in that sense.

How did you decide how much gets revealed in the trailer?
I had a tough time passing any trailer. I kept saying, you can’t show this, you can’t show that. We let it go finally because it had to go.

I think we’ve gotten overexplicit. For thrillers, it’s especially difficult to carve out a good trailer. When we were trying to do this one, I was watching a lot of trailers for movies like The Sixth Sense, to see what they were giving away. There was one that I saw—I used to show it to the team and say, watch and learn. It was a trailer of Psycho, just (Alfred) Hitchcock talking to the camera in that house and one shot of the movie. It’s almost a 6-minute trailer but it’s effective.

What gave you the initial idea for ‘Andhadhun’?
There’s a short film I’d seen in 2013 or 2014— a friend of mine sent it to me. This was before Badlapur even came into process. What I’ve done is nothing to do with that film, but it was my basic germ.

Me and this guy called Hemant Rao started spitballing on it. Then at some point I got into Badlapur, so our interactions became a little infrequent. Then he started his own movie. Once Badlapur got over, I had the gist of the story, but we hadn’t scripted it entirely. I was about to start this but then I read about Kaabil (a 2017 film in which Hrithik Roshan plays a blind man). It would be a bit crazy to have two movies about visually impaired people, so I stopped.

You had a number of writers on this project.
It was me and Arijit (Biswas) and Pooja (Ladha Surti) and a fresh boy, Yogesh Chandekar. It’s very organic. I figure out the basic story. Then Arijit and me will chat about it, he’ll have some ideas. Pooja is great as a sounding board. We just sit and discuss the possible movie. It’s over a few afternoons and evenings spread over three or four months—we’ve never tried sitting for 10 days and doing it in a go.

Do you all write dialogue?
Yeah. Arijit writes in English. I also think in English. But then you keep getting disappointed when you’re translating from English to Hindi. For the dramatic scenes, I told Arijit to write in Bengali, which is at least the Indian idiom. Most languages in India, you can get a sense of what’s being said from the way we speak it.

Pooja’s Hindi is much better than ours, so we make her write a version. Then the actors pitch in. What you see in my script may not be what’s in the film. Sometimes it’s a very scary thing, when I have to shoot in the morning and the scene’s not good enough, and it’s only me there, and there’s no signal to even call the others and say, think of a better line.

How long did the shoot take?
It was a 44-day shoot, but these 44 days happened over almost a year. My director of photography (K.U. Mohanan) is a busy guy, Tabu was doing Golmaal and suddenly Radhika (Apte) got a whole lot of international projects and Sacred Games. I had to see, can I get them for two days, for five days? And Ayushmann was doing Badhaai Ho, in which he didn’t have a beard. It was crazy. I began in June last year, and 17 July this year was my last day.

Were there any particular tonal inspirations?
One of the big conscious or subconscious inspirations is Fargo, both the series and the Coen brothers’ movie. It’s realistic and yet it’s bizarre.

Having Anil Dhawan, an actor from the 1970s, play Tabu’s husband is an unusual casting choice.
Until the final casting was done, we were tossing up names. One option was taking a character actor and modelling him as an old-style star, like Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) in Dirty Picture. But the only thing was, if I did that and then wanted to have some fun with an old clip, it’ll look quite grotesque. Then this thought of let’s take an actual person arose. I knew (actor) Varun and (director) David Dhawan, and Anil is David’s older brother. I met him, and he loved the idea.