Friday, April 12, 2019

Kesari: Review

Midway through Kesari, there’s a scene where an army comes into view over the crest of a hill, a long line of drummers in front. Watching this from the vantage point of Saragarhi fort, Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar) – with a regiment to command and facing almost certain death – decides he has time to drum-battle the Pathans. He turns up with a dhol and starts beating on it. There’s a whole valley between them, and at least 50 drummers on the other side, but somehow his playing not only reaches them but throws them off their rhythm so badly they stop.

This inane scene kicks off an hour of non-stop carnage, as Pathans lay siege to the fort and are miraculously held off for a day by 21 Sikhs. This battle actually happened: in 1897, the 36th Sikh regiment of the British army held off a large attacking force of tribesmen (10,000 in the film) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Saragarhi fort was important in establishing a line of communication between two larger British forts on either side. By the time reinforcements could be sent, the 21 men had been killed and the fort lost, though their brave last stand made it easier to recapture.

Throughout the film, director Anurag Singh contrasts the two forces. It’s curious he’d work so hard to paint the attackers in such a negative light. The Pathans fight dirty, are disrespectful and untrustworthy; the Sikhs are brave and men of their word. The Pathans are sadistic and cruel; the Sikhs provide water for the wounded of both armies. Though they’re devout, Ishar Singh and his men are broadminded enough that they help build a mosque in a nearby village. The leader of the Pathans, on the other hand, is a religious fundamentalist. He talks of jihaad and, at one point, is asked by a chieftain why he keeps bringing god into military matters. In a shameful scene, he orders the beheading of a woman while chanting prayers – a bit of caricature that exposes the film's noxious politics.

The Sikh regiment is obsessed with manhood. The term mardangi comes up several times. There’s banter about conjugal relations and a playful pass by one man at another elicits a panicked reaction. In contrast, the top shooter in the Pathan army wears makeup and is effeminate. It’s worth remembering that even Padmaavat had othered the Muslim “invader" in a similar manner with Jim Sarbh’s polysexual general.

We spend enough time with the 21 men in the run up to the battle that most of them get assigned a quirk or a talent. Kumar is the lone well-known actor, so the scenes inevitably pivot back to him, but there’s a lifelike camaraderie between the actors that could have become something in a smarter film. Once the attack commences, though, Kesari turns incredibly violent and increasingly monotonous. Singh shoots most of the action cleanly and without pretension. But there’s no variation, just a series of gory shootings and stabbings, and the effect is numbing instead of visceral.

This is the third Hindi war film this year after Uri and Manikarnika. Unlike those two, the motherland isn’t as central a concern here as Sikh pride. It's a wonder Kesari wasn’t made in Punjabi. The concerns are Punjabi, the characters are from there, but the language spoken is equal parts Hindi and easily understandable Punjabi. It may have India’s most bankable star (hidden under a gigantic beard), but it’s difficult to imagine why a non-Sikh audience – even in the excitable state the nation’s been whipped into – would care about a film so dull and monochromatic. There’s a worthy tribute due to those 21 men, but this reductive, gratuitous film isn’t it.

List of fury

In conversation with Vasan Bala, prior to the release of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

Like so many who grew up in the VHS era in India, Vasan Bala fell early and completely under the spell of Hong Kong commercial cinema. He especially loved the martial arts films churned out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest from the 1970s-90s, starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu and Sammo Hung. “It all started with Bruce Lee and Enter The Dragon," Bala says over the phone. “It was passed down from generation to generation in my family."

Bala is now passing this love on to the viewer with Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, his second feature after Peddlers (2012), and his first to get a theatrical release (on 21 March). It’s an action comedy about a young man, Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani), who doesn’t feel physical pain, and who puts this condition to use by training in martial arts and fighting criminals. Chinese action cinema aficionados will note dozens of references to seminal films strewn through Mard. We asked Bala to curate a list of 10 such titles that influenced him and his film.


It was the first Bruce Lee film I saw. It made me want to jump and kick that high. I saw it before Enter The Dragon, at a relative’s house down south. It was a biggish gathering. I think most of them drifted away—my dad and I might have been the only ones to see it through. In one of the scenes, Bruce Lee goes to a garden and there’s a Chinese guy dressed as a sardar and a sign that says “Dogs and Chinese not allowed". Lee kicks the sign. It was the first time he was trying comedy and get-ups.

I was thinking Surya could wear what he wears in Fist Of Fury—the bandhgala—but the Longstreet ensemble was the coolest one. The last shot in Mard is from Fist Of Fury.


One, it’s obviously a great film. Two, Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) made two great Return Of The Dragons in Shiva and Satya, about an alien landing in a place and becoming the saviour. The back alley fight in the film and the climax with Chuck Norris—they were the greatest things ever filmed. Having that intercut of the cat, preparing for the fight, loosening up—I’ve never seen those kinds of things.

You know how there are stages in these fights—first the villain, then the hero, then there’s a break and they try and understand each other and then they go for the final thing—that whole pattern of editing comes from Return Of The Dragon. I’ve used it in a particular fight in Mard.

What I like about Bruce Lee is that he respects his opponent. Even when he kills the guy who raped his sister, there’s this slight remorse on his face. There is a bit of that in Mard for one specific opponent.

LONGSTREET (1971-72)

Longstreet was a very late discovery. It’s only when YouTube came that you could see it, because it wasn’t broadcast in India nor was it available on VHS. The discovery for me was that Bruce Lee wasn’t always the main guy. This was pre-Green Hornet. It’s an American series; he only comes in for a couple of episodes. It’s almost like Daredevil, a lawyer who goes blind. Bruce Lee plays the character who trains him. The biggest thing he taught in it was that you don’t have to be a great kung fu artist, you just have to be a fighter with an instinct.

I really love the ensemble he’s wearing in it, that maroon tracksuit and blue Onitsuka, which is why Surya’s wearing the same thing.


I saw Police Story in the mid-1980s on VHS, around the time it was released worldwide. I’m cursing myself that I’m not in Los Angeles now, seeing the 4K print (a restored version of the film which is being screened). I don’t think there has been a greater first 10 minutes in any film—the car that is crashing through the slums, Jackie Chan running down the hill, which is inspired by a stunt by Buster Keaton. Also, the shot where he stands right in front of the bus, which stops right before him, and these two stunt-men break through the glass at the top of the bus. And the climax when he comes down the electrified pole—all these stunts were real: no CG, no protection, just pure skill and madness.

No one’s good enough to replicate what Jackie Chan does. But the idea of using zero CG and getting stunts without wire work—Police Story was a big inspiration for us. We haven’t used wire work at all in Mard.

GYMKATA (1985)

America also wanted to get into the whole martial arts thing. They did have home-grown martial artists but they didn’t have the same impact. America thinks too logical in action; they want people to go down in two punches, whereas in a Hong Kong film, the action could go on forever. So they cast this American Olympic gymnast and they tried to combine gymnastics and karate—“gymkata". Ridiculous film, absolute B-movie, but my greatest memories are of watching it for the first time. It’s about this guy who enters a very Game Of Death kind of situation, an Italian village with people out to kill you. It’s almost like horror martial arts with gymnastics thrown in.

When you meet other martial artists, the first thing you ask each other is, “Have you seen Gymkata?" When they say yes, it’s like, “Ah, we understand each other." It’s a major, major cult. I haven’t taken anything from this, but there’s a VHS of it in the film.


I fell in love with this film. I saw it on VHS in the 1980s. After that, it was my greatest dream to go to the Shaolin Temple, this mythical place where you become a master. I was like, this is the life I want. I’m going to chuck everything, shave my head, reach Shaolin Temple and beg them to train me and just reach the 36th chamber, wherein I can blow everything away with the Palm of Buddha.

It was such a typical underdog story, with this guy (played by Gordon Liu) trying to figure his way out, wanting revenge, and there are all these obstacles. The take on the nunchaku, which came with three sticks, was pretty cool.

A lot of the training methods were really cool—like when he has to hop on those floating logs in the night. We kept snippets of that montage in our film.

ARMOUR OF GOD I & II (1986, 1991)

I saw it on VHS. If I rented it on the weekend, I could watch it once on Saturday, once on Sunday, and watch the climax before giving it back on Monday. There’s not one stunt I think we can recreate. There’s the climax fight in I, with the four women in high heels, and, obviously, the great Nazi bunker sequence in II.

I like that Jackie Chan gives equal footage to the henchmen, so you’ll remember them as well. They have to act, they don’t only take punches. That’s something I’ve consciously kept throughout in Mard.


This was recommended by my cousin. Again, classic case of alien who comes into a set-up where there’s an oppressor and victims and he has to be the saviour. That was one of the first times that even Chinese cinema saw that kind of action choreography. Another thing that was great was that the villain, who looks like a frail old guy, is also a formidable opponent. The iconic side profile of Bruce Lee kicking—that’s from here.

Ice-picking is used by one of the characters in Mard. That’s the one thing I got from The Big Boss.


Enter The Dragon was the greatest in terms of impact. My father had seen it, my grandfather had seen it. There was a time when the film played in half-hour episodes on Doordarshan. That’s how I saw it for the first time. I was mesmerized: the shot-taking, the way Bruce Lee is introduced.... He died one week before the release of the film and became legendary. I was born on 20 July; he died on 20 July. For me, it’s a connection.

Robert Clouse is credited as director and I’m sure he’s done a great job, but I think Bruce Lee is a great film-maker. More than skill, it was his knowledge of editing and camera angles and his knowledge of his own limitations and strong points. That is why Bruce Lee, along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, is one of the greatest actor-film-makers.

That iconic sequence with Bruce Lee, his face scratched, in the hall of mirrors—we’ve paid tribute to that in Surya’s childhood in the film.


I just flipped out on this film. It’s slightly offensive by today’s standards—there are all these clichés of Chinese superstition. But it was a riot. Even though we can grudge the American bravado, Kurt Russell kind of nailed it.

The opening theme, Pork Chop Express (sings two bars)...those elements are there in Mard as well. One of our characters, Karate Mani, has the same hairstyle as Russell’s. We also have a poster of Big Trouble In Little China in the film.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota: Review

Genre tributes are a tricky balancing act. Tip one way and you end up parodying the thing you love. Tip to the other side and you have something that’s all flash and no heart. With Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Vasan Bala manages something rare: a delirious pastiche with a heartbeat. It’s a tribute to the martial arts movies of the 1970s and ‘80s that Bala grew up on, but refracted through the prism of Hindi and Tamil commercial cinema and middle-class Mumbai. It’s also a story about the tug and torment of families, no less moving for being delivered with a wink.

Surya is born with congenital insensitivity to pain, a bigger problem than one might think (when a wound causes no discomfort it’s easy to ignore the loss of blood). After a normal childhood proves too dangerous for the hyperactive boy, his harried single father pulls him out of school and cuts him off from the world and his only friend, Supri. His grandfather (a warm Mahesh Manjrekar) encourages his passion for martial arts, buying him VHS tapes and helping him train in secret – a nod to all those wuxia films in which a young man goes to a faraway temple and emerges a master years later.

When Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) heads out 17 years later, he’s a formidable fighter, but understandably deficient as a social being. Since cinema was his only window onto the world, life for him is now a series of action movie clichés – he sees damsels in distress and crooked cops where there are none. He’s reunited with Supri (Radhika Madan), who’s developed some mean fighting skills herself; they set out together to help his childhood idol, the one-legged Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah). Surya’s a martial arts comedy walking into two family dramas: Mani’s evil twin, the gangster Jimmy (also Devaiah), has ruined his life, and Supri’s under the thumb of her abusive father and fiancée.

It’s at this point that Mard Ko Dard introduces a nagging, intriguing dissonance. Surya is essentially a comic character, and there’s no need for Dassani – who has the affability of a young Madhavan – to go deep. But Mani is a palpably sad creation, a drunk and a failure, unkempt, halting. Similarly, the contrast between Supri’s exuberant ass-kicking and her timidity at home is jarring (she won’t rebel against her fiancée, who’s paying for her mother’s medical treatment). There’s a point being made here, about how families can wound you in ways that you have no defenses from, no matter how tough you are otherwise. Devaiah and Madan at times have the tremulous look of abuse victims – a bold choice for an otherwise sunny entertainer.

Bala comes closer than any Hindi director I can think of to making, in the style of Tarantino, a film that’s almost constantly referring to other films. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have an aesthetic of his own – anyone who can make a Kamal/Rajani joke and follow that with a reference to George Lucas’ THX 1138, all embedded within a tribute to The Raid, obviously has a singular approach to cinema. Many of the nods are to Hong Kong cinema – primarily Bruce Lee but also a great Jackie Chan moment in which Surya saves the life of an opponent by pulling him out of the path of an incoming vehicle. This crazy-quilt approach extends to Karan Kulkarni’s soundtrack, which melds rockabilly, hip-hop, funk and Hindi film strings. Kulkarni does his own referencing – Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska is done in SP Balasubrahmanyam’s heavy vocal style, and I’m fairly certain I heard a nod to AR Rahman’s dramatic orchestration for Kya Kare Kya Na Kare.

I laughed out loud when Madan does her little solo dance – it’s entirely out of key with the badass she’s playing, but what better way to communicate joy than imitating Singin’ in the Rain? Bala speaks the language of genre cinema, but with none of the condescension of the fanboy. Under all the eccentricity and slo-mo gags and Easter eggs, there’s a warmth and enthusiasm which saves the film from being merely clever. Many bones are broken in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, but not one of them is cynical. 

This review appeared in Mint.

Photograph: Review

Six years after The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra returns to Mumbai with another film about two lonely souls. It deals, as his first feature did, with that quintessentially Mumbai feeling of being lost in a crowd, unmoored in a sea of people. Unlike the central characters in The Lunchbox—who were, for the most part, alone in their homes—Photograph’s Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) live with actual or makeshift families: she in an expensive-looking house with her parents and siblings, he with four other men in a cramped room near the railway tracks. But even when they’re with company, they remain detached, floating above conversations even as they’re dragged into them.

Rafi is a photographer at Gateway of India. It’s here that he meets Miloni, and convinces her to let him take a photo. Perhaps it’s his melancholic pitch that grabs her. “Years later, when you see this photo, you’ll see the same sunlight on your face, the same wind in your hair, thousands of voices in your ears," he says. “These will all fade away." She leaves without paying him, but they find each other again. He has a strange proposition: Would she pose as his wife for a day? His beloved grandmother (Farrukh Jaffer) had stopped taking her medicines, so he sent her Miloni’s photo and lied that he was getting married. Now she’s coming to Mumbai and he’s short a fake wife.

Surprisingly, Miloni agrees. The two of them meet, first with Rafi’s irrepressible dadi in tow and then by themselves, and a tentative, halting friendship develops. Batra’s touch is anything but tentative and halting; he seemed to emerge fully formed with his first feature, and has only grown surer since. However, there’s a restraint to Photograph that seems closer to artful gesture than to anything meaningful. Malhotra looks pensive throughout. Her feet are lingered on in scene after scene, in a manner that’ll have critics scurrying for meaning (I scurried too, and came up short).

There are long silences. And there’s a lot of repetition, which occasionally goes somewhere (the softy-kulfi bit builds to a nice end), but more often hangs heavy. Photograph reminded me at times of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation: a friendship between an older man and a younger woman, and a narrative that’s in no hurry to get anywhere. Batra really takes his time, which costs the film somewhat—he’s an observant, sensitive director, but not yet a consummate enough stylist to hold one’s attention visually.

It seems unfair to say, what with Siddiqui playing beautifully against type as a gentle romantic, that this film could have done with the Nawazuddin of The Lunchbox as well. In Batra’s first film, the quiet lead performances were offset by Siddiqui’s chirpy presence. Something similar is attempted here with Rafi’s plain-talking dadi and two of his roommates (Akash Sinha and Saharsh Kumar Shukla, both excellent). But there’s no relief in the airless scenes in Miloni’s house, which are either at the dinner table or show her attempts to converse with domestic worker Rampyari (Geetanjali Kulkarni). The film never underlines why Miloni tries to reach out to her, which isn’t surprising—the implication is it’s because she now has feelings for a man whose station in life is closer to Rampyari’s than hers.

Photograph is a film shot through with nostalgia. Part of this is for the Bombay of old: single-screen cinemas, Campa-Cola, tea shops that look like they’ve been around since independence. Old standards like Aaja Re O Mere Dilbar Aaja and Tumne Mujhe Dekha Hokar Meherban waft through the scenes. The couple’s dietary kinks—no soft drinks for her, kulfi at the end of the month for him—are dictated by incidents from their younger days. All of this is in tune with their relationship, which is halting and formal in a way that seems to belong to simpler times. There’s also a fascination with mechanical processes—the groans of Rafi’s instant camera machine as it reluctantly hands out a photograph, the methodical progress of a makeshift soda factory. This is where Batra is at his best, focusing our attention on mundane things and rendering them timeless.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Captain Marvel: Review

Sparring with her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson) is told, “Humour is a distraction." The MCU tone is by now well-enough established that this can be read as an in-joke. Marvel has perfected the art of the passing – and passable – wisecrack, and Captain Marvel keeps them coming, mostly from Larson or Samuel L Jackson (as a pre-Avengers Nick Fury) but also from Ben Mendelsohn buried under green prosthetics. Of all the genres that go into making a typical Marvel film – action, family drama, war film – comedy probably earns them the most mileage, and is a key differentiator from stiff DC.

But can Marvel films be differentiated from each other? Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was supposed to pave the way for a fresh cycle of MCU movies. Yet, it feels like much of what has come before. It centers on a soldier with a hazy past – just like that other Captain. Some of the people we meet are old friends (Fury, Phil Coulson) and enemies (Ronan the Accuser). The family scenes on Earth are somewhat like the ones involving Hawkeye. There’s even a moment that replicates the comic shock of Hulk thumping Loki about in the first Avengers film. It’s shot crisply, cleanly and without personality, in the Marvel house style that only Thor: Ragnarok has been able to decisively break from.

There is one innovation, though I’m not sure it does the film any dramatic favours. Unlike nearly every superhero film apart from the Superman ones, Vers – part of a military team on Kree headed by Yon-Rogg – has her powers from the start: hands that turn into turbocharged weapons. Her superiors can switch off these powers, ostensibly because she doesn’t know how to control them, but she seems to use them just fine when she gets the chance. The slow gaining of superpowers is a basic but enjoyable genre trope, but this is ditched in favour of a protracted origin story, with Vers learning of her life as a fighter pilot on Earth in parceled-out flashbacks, and a stream of 90s jokes (the smartest of which is Vers picking up a VHS of The Right Stuff, about the US-Soviet space race). She’s also being hunted by the Skrull, green shape-shifting aliens and mortal enemies of the Kree.

The film’s political stance is somewhat confounding. On one hand, this is an ostensibly pacifist film, in which characters talk about ending all wars, and its most emotional subplot features a refugee race. But it’s also the most militaristic of the Marvel films till date, with US Air Force symbols on constant display (the military has been doing joint promotions with the film). Everyone’s searching for an all-powerful energy source, which will be used to return a group of people without a home to safety, or destroy them forever. Vague parallels with Israel aside, a military-sponsored film which insists that the Americans will use an all-powerful energy source for peace is dryly ironic.

As the first MCU film to feature a female superhero, this has been a long time coming. It’s a professional effort, with the affable Larson in almost every scene, carrying the film as casually as Robert Downey Jr did in Iron Man. As a younger, more expressive Fury, Jackson is a great comic foil, but the real surprise is how droll Mendelsohn manages to be in greenface. There’s none of the raw excitement that Wonder Woman – the first female-led DCEU movie – provided. But you don’t need to be spectacular to be deemed a success in mainstream Hollywood today; you just need to avoid being an evident failure.

There’s also a cat. You’re going to hear a lot about that cat.

This review appeared in Mint.

Soni: Serve, protect, support

Soni opens with a man following a woman on a bicycle at night, calling after her—a long, unbroken take, as all the film’s scenes are. She stops and confronts him; suddenly, he’s on the ground, she’s slapping and punching him, and there are cops pulling her away. For Indian film audiences fed on violent revenge fantasies, a few seconds of retribution won’t count for much. But Soni isn’t interested in cheap catharsis.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is part of a Delhi police team headed by Kalpana (Saloni Batra) where she’s sometimes used as a decoy to trap those looking to harm women. That Soni begins the film as a willing pawn is notable, as she later finds herself an unwilling one, grounded from duty when her temper results in a politician’s son being hauled in. At every stage, to the extent that is practically possible, Kalpana has her back, arguing her case with her commissioner husband in office and at home (the latter scene made me think how rare it is to see couples in Hindi films sit in bed and talk).

With low-burning intensity, and without ever slipping into self-congratulation, director Ivan Ayr and his actors examine what genuine solidarity looks like between women in a male-dominated workplace. Soni premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. It went straight to Netflix in mid-January, disappointing those who had hoped for a theatrical release before streaming. Things have picked up in the last few weeks with Gully Boy and Sonchiriya, but Ayr’s quiet debut is arguably the Hindi film of the year so far.

Working with cinematographer David Bolen, Ayr films his long takes with an unobtrusiveness that allows the viewer to concentrate on speech and surroundings without being distracted by technique. This is a film that lives in its details—of body language, of placement within scenes, of words that sting and disarm. There’s great warmth in some gestures, but Ayr won’t dwell on that kind of release either. Through its own restraint, Soni comments on the restraint its characters must show. When Kalpana tells Soni that Amrita Pritam titled her autobiography Revenue Stamp because she was told that her life story could fit on the back of one, it’s the quietest and most devastating of punches.

The kindest cut

In July 2017, a no-budget B-movie opened in two cinema halls in Tokyo. It was called Kamera O Tomeru Na!—which, translated, means “Don’t stop the camera!". The director, Shin’ichirô Ueda, had made one solo feature, an omnibus film and several shorts. The cast was mostly made up of newcomers. The expectation was that it would run a week or two and then maybe travel to a few festivals.

Then, a small miracle happened. The people at the premiere really seemed to like the film, and subsequent shows kept selling out. It ran a week, then two, then three. It began to travel to festivals outside the country, under the English title One Cut Of The Dead. Everywhere it went, audiences went wild. It got a proper release in Japan, and ran for an unprecedented seven months. Made for a paltry 3 million yen (around ₹19 lakh now), it grossed 3 billion yen—an astonishing thousand-fold return.

Ueda’s film had its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in October. After news of ecstatic audience reactions spread, another show was added to the festival schedule. The next show in the city was at the Japanese Film Festival—essentially, free screenings of 11 recent films—organized by PVR cinemas in January. It was there that I met the film’s producer, Koji Ichihashi, and actors Yuzuki Akiyama, Harumi Shuhama and Shin’ichirô Ôsawa. They looked happy and a little dazed, a natural response to seeing your very small film blow up into a cult hit.

In the interests of a spoiler-free experience, I’ll resist the temptation to discuss One Cut Of The Dead in its entirety. Suffice to say there are a number of moments in the film that I’ll avoid here which will have you marvelling at both its ingenuity and heart (I strongly recommend watching it with a group). Like 8 and a Half or Beware Of A Holy Whore, this is a film about the making of a film, but with a genre twist. A crew making a zombie movie finds itself under attack from real zombies. Hilariously, the director, Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), hell-bent on realizing his artistic vision, decides that the shoot will go on. The result is a breathless, bloody comedy, shot—as the title promises—in one uninterrupted take.

One Cut grew out of a workshop, which might account for its scrappy can-do spirit. Ueda was inspired by a play he saw with an unusual structure (there was a minor controversy when the play wasn’t credited initially). Along the way, zombies got added to the mix. I asked Ichihashi if it was difficult finding finance for the project. He said they used the fee that everyone paid for the workshop, some crowd-funding, and his company contributed the rest.

Shuhama, who plays the poker-faced scene-stealing Nao, said her background in off-Broadway theatre prepared her for the one-take shoot. “But it wasn’t easy," she said ruefully, Akiyama and Ôsawa nodding in agreement. Over the two months the workshop lasted, they practised and refined the long take. They ended up shooting it six times. The last one was the keeper. Still, mistakes were made, some of which you can see in the film. There’s a wonderful moment where blood splatters on the camera lens. It looks intentional but it wasn’t planned, and the hand that quickly wipes it away is the cinematographer’s.

Shuhama and Akiyama laughed when I asked whether they, as professional actors, found it difficult to play performers who were blithely incompetent. Akiyama, who plays the lead actress in the production, went with her gut; Shuhama, however, was asked to dumb it down a little. The meta-meta-ness of the film took some getting used to. “When it was explained to us, it was very confusing," Ôsawa said, “but when shooting began it was okay." Still, whenever they were made to replay the same scene they had shot the previous day, so Ueda could get it from a different angle, the director would be asked, didn’t we already do this?

Underneath all the blood and gore, there’s a heart-warming humanity to One Cut Of The Dead. What starts as a backstage comedy becomes a tribute to the resourcefulness of film-making. At some point, you start rooting for these wonderfully weird people trying to make the best B-movie they can with no money or resources. It is this connection to the audience that has been a constant, from the modest initial release at home to festival showings in Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Mexico and a dozen other countries. “In Japan, film audiences normally don’t react," said Ôsawa of that first screening. “But when this was shown, people were laughing and clapping. We thought, okay, this is a film people should see in a theatre."

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Sonchiriya: Review

Sonchiriya opens with a shin-kick of an image: a close-up of a shiny dead snake head crawling with flies. It's lying in the path of a band of approaching dacoits, led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee). They stop some distance away and contemplate changing direction; a black snake is bad luck. But Man Singh picks it up and moves it aside, asks his followers to say a prayer and proceed. The reptilian motif is picked up in the churning “Baaghi Re", Varun Grover’s lyrics warning of both ghariyal (a type of crocodile) and “sarpan ki phunkaar" (a snake hissing). The film’s barely begun and it's already full of dread.

Operating on a tip, the gang takes a wedding party hostage. But the police know they’ll be there, and they’re soon surrounded. Several characters whom we’ve just met die in a dramatic, drawn-out gunfight, the sort that usually ends films. It's a deft screenwriting move from director Abhishek Chaubey and his Udta Punjab cowriter Sudip Sharma – in the spirit, if not the scale, of Saving Private Ryan, pummelling the audience so hard early on that by the time they recover half the film’s over.

The remaining baaghis escape into the ravines, where they’re tracked down by Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar), a woman on the run from her family, with a young girl in tow. She tells the bandits she belongs to their caste – an all-important detail in this universe – and appeals to them for help. But as secrets come to light, the gang splits into two factions, the larger one headed by Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey), the other comprising Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) and two other dacoits, Indumati and the girl, who’s been assaulted and needs urgent medical care.

Both the opening image and the first movement of Sonchiriya are likely nods to an older film in a genre that’s analogous to the dacoit film – the Western. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) also has a group of outlaws riding into town to stage a robbery. The first thing they see is a group of children watching with delight as a nest of ants overwhelms two live scorpions. Like Man Singh’s men, the outlaws are ambushed and many die in a shootout, leaving a small group to soldier on.

If this is indeed an inspiration, it’s an apt one. The Wild Bunch was a revisionist Western, an interrogation of the genre that lay bare the brutality of the Old West. Sonchiriya is similarly jarring, a pitiless look at the Chambal ravines at the time of the Emergency, when the police had started cracking down on the big gangs – just as Peckinpah’s film was an end-of-the-West Western. It’s an ugly world, organized on the basis of caste pride and violent patriarchy, and Chaubey doesn’t allow much grace or human feeling to creep in. It’s telling that one of the few quiet moments – with the three men and Indumati letting their guard down while being ferried across a river – is interrupted by a crocodile.

There’s a bit of The Last of the Mohicans in Chaubey’s film, with multiple warring tribes and two women being taken to safety by a conscientious rebel. There’s a famous line borrowed from Chinatown, with the genders reversed. But the film that looms largest over Sonchiriya is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. It’s everywhere you look – in the near-constant violence of deed and word; in the resemblance of the girl to the young Phoolan Devi of Kapur’s film; in the poignant decision to cast Manoj Bajpayee, who played the taciturn Man Singh in Bandit Queen, as a version of the same character here, but with a lifetime of weariness in his eyes. There are several references to the fearsome “Phuliya", but when that red headband finally comes into view, I found myself out of breath.

Bajpayee, his sunken face dwarfed by a moustache, haunts the film just as his character is haunted by a little girl (the reason for this is revealed in the film’s most harrowing scene, another piece of excellent writing). Lakhna is haunted for the same reason, but the soft-voiced Rajput doesn’t have the same wildness as the other actors playing the dacoits. How much more interesting it would have been if Ranvir Shorey’s Vakil – wild-eyed, morally wavering – was the one helping Indumati and the child. Alone among modern-day Hindi film actors, Shorey has never sought the viewer’s sympathy, which has earned him the viewer’s trust.

After a slew of films about duty – to kingdom, country, state, party, family – here’s one that’s ambivalent about the notion of a larger purpose. There’s a question that recurs through Sonchiriya: what is a dacoit’s dharma? At one point an answer is given: to protect one’s people and caste, to live and pass away in the ravines, to die from a bullet. A fatalistic response, and a bracingly nihilistic film.

This review appeared in Mint.

Green Book: Review

Four years after #OscarsSoWhite began trending, there are two films by African-American directors in the Best Picture race. Both Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther examine race, the former with anger and corrosive satire, the latter through the lens of comic book mythos and Afro-futurism. Yet, neither seems to have emerged as a serious challenge to Roma for best film. Instead, another look at racial politics, written and directed by white men, is an unlikely frontrunner.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, several black musicians touring the American Deep South relied on a guidebook by Victor Hugo Green, which listed the gas stations, motels and restaurants which would serve them. In Green Book, this is handed to Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), chauffeur to Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classical pianist who performs for white audiences but isn’t welcome in their world. Embarking on an eight-week tour of the Midwest and South, Don hires Tony, a New York Italian-American tough with friends in the mob, to drive his car and see that he has what he needs.

In the beginning, this reverse Driving Miss Daisy results in bickering and mistrust. The class difference is mined for laughs – Don is an aesthete and a snob who’s never eaten fried chicken out of a box; Tony’s a working-class boor who can’t spell. But as they travel from one racist town to another, and Tony sees first-hand how the supremely talented Don is treated, they warm up to each other. Don loosens up, Tony realises that racism is bad – not a fair trade anywhere else but in Hollywood.

This is the depth that one might expect from a Peter Farrelly film, racism rendered cute and temporary with the help of a comical lug. He ain’t really racist, Green Book seems to argue, he just don’t know no better. Early on, Tony throws the glasses, which two black plumbers who visit his house drink from, into the dustbin. He ends the film by welcoming Don into his home — a Capra-esque scene that appears to vanish the racist attitudes of his extended family in a few seconds. Don’s transformation comes in a supremely condescending scene where he plays a classical piece in an African-American dive (black audiences can dig the arty stuff too!), then hammers out a blues riff with the house band (because you aren’t truly black if you only play classical – white – music).

Mortensen and Ali lean in to the stereotypes of plain-spoken working Joe and dignified black man. Neither performance is free of self-parody, but they make the film more engaging than it has a right to be. Linda Cardellini is wonderful as Tony’s wife, who starts receiving surprisingly heartfelt letters from her husband (Don’s dictating them). But all the good vibes in the world can’t hide the soft-pedalling simplicity of Green Book.

This review appeared in Mint.

Total Dhamaal: Review

After the outbreak of flag-waving that took over Hindi cinema last month, it’s a relief to be able to write a review that doesn’t read like a state of the nation address or a dispatch from the battlefield. On the other hand: baby elephant vomit. Fart gallery. Tiger extinction joke. Sanjay Mishra addressing Ajay Devgn as “bro" so many times you’ll want to retire either the term or Sanjay Mishra.

Fine, I laughed at the tiger joke. But there’s not much else in Indra Kumar’s Total Dhamaal that’s worthy of being up on a big screen – even a phone is too large a canvas for ambitions this small. This is the third film in the Dhamaal series, a trilogy so mediocre its only competition is the execrable Masti films. And the Housefull films. And the Golmaal films.

After Devgn and Mishra steal 50 crore in cash from a crooked cop (Boman Irani), they’re double-crossed by their getaway driver. He crash-lands in the mountains and, before dying, reveals to his former partners that the money is stashed in a faraway zoo. Present at this confession are three other pairs of no-gooders: ex-firemen Riteish Deshmukh and Pitobash Tripathy; Arshad Warsi and Javed Jaffrey as the bumbling Shrivastav brothers; and the almost-divorced Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit. The film tracks the progress of these four teams as they try to reach Janakpur zoo by helicopter, smartcar from hell, car with Jackie Shroff-voiced GPS, and sky-diving.

Not for the first time, Kumar aims for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and ends up with It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad Film. It isn’t crass like the Masti series – also directed by Kumar – just deeply unfunny and lazy, a series of tired gags executed by uninspired performers. It’s been a decade since Devgn’s gotten a laugh (onscreen, at least), and though it’s nice to see Dixit and Kapoor reunited, there’s no bite to their bickering. Irani is the Billy Gilbert of modern Hindi comedy, which is to say he’s nearly always better than the material he’s given. Jaffrey, clad in a green full-sleeve shirt, a yellow beret and khaki overalls with minions on them, scratching a vulture under the chin, is what passes for a bright spot.

A couple of days after the terrorist attack on Indian soldiers at Pulwama, Devgn tweeted that Total Dhamaal wouldn’t be released in Pakistan. Even in that heated moment, he managed to unite hundreds of people on both sides of the border, who immediately tweeted back that the real punishment would be to release the film in Pakistan and nowhere else.

This review appeared in Mint.

A patch of pink in the city

If you’re a flamingo in love, don’t get too attached. This is not a bird accustomed to sticking with the same partner over multiple breeding seasons. In The Thing With Feathers, Noah Strycker puts the flamingo “divorce rate" at 99%, a far cry from the deeply faithful albatross, which, when it loves, loves for life.

They may be fickle with their mates, but flamingos have shown an unexpected fealty to Mumbai. Large flocks have been recorded in the city since the early 1990s, but they’ve been around for at least a century before this. In the first Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, dated 1886, an unidentified Englishman writes about shooting two flamingos in “one of the creeks of Bombay harbour". He continues in a more poetic vein: “A flock of flamingos in-flight, with the sunlight on their red and white plumage, is a lovely sight. They usually fly in a rather irregular wavering line, the centre birds much higher than the flankers; and I have heard a flock likened to ‘a drunken rainbow’". In 1893, the Journal reported: “The Flamingo is very common in Sind; it is not uncommon near Bombay, and occurs as far south as Ratnagiri."

There are six varieties of flamingos; two of them are found in India. These are the Greater Flamingo (taller, pink bill with black tip) and Lesser Flamingo (shorter, dark crimson bill). They fly in to Mumbai from Kutch in Gujarat, their primary breeding ground, and from Sambhar Salt Lake in Rajasthan. Some may even be expatriates, from Pakistan or Iran, though we don’t know for sure yet. The Bombay Natural History Society, or BNHS, has recently started ringing (attaching a tag to the bird to enable individual identification), and GPS tagging of flamingos is expected to start soon as well.

The birds start arriving in September. Most of them settle in the extended Thane Creek, a triangle bounded by Airoli on the top, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) on the Navi Mumbai side, and Sewri on the Mumbai city coastline. You can spot the birds at Bhandup; at Lokhandwala; at Uran, Airoli and Seawoods in Navi Mumbai; and at Sewri, though the ongoing construction of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Line (MTHL) means the Sewri Jetty is inaccessible. They live on mudflats and estuaries and creeks, wherever they can find the blue-green algae that’s a staple of their diet. They feed, feed some more, perform mating rituals like their signature group dance—one of the funniest sights in nature, with dozens of bobbing heads and pink bodies sashaying on spindly legs, like a curtain call at a fashion show. Then, from May, they start heading back to Kutch and beyond to breed.

Flames on the water
The closest you’ll get to the birds in Mumbai is on a boat. There’s only one official flamingo boat tour, conducted by the Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Centre (CMBC) at Thane Creek. It started a year ago, around the time the creek was designated a “flamingo sanctuary".

We arrived, bright but not early (trips are dependent on the tides; ours started at 11.30), at the CMBC premises in Airoli. The boat was a 24-seater with a mixture of amateur birders and neophytes. One of the passengers, a retiree, said he ran his own nature club, and that some of them were going to Bhigwan, near Pune, to see more flamingos later in the month. As the boat chugged to life, we could see flamingos fly past, skimming the water, just beyond the mouth of the clearing that opens into the creek.

Within minutes, there was a burst of oohing and aahing. A large flock of flamingos dotted the creek’s border on our left—too far away to appreciate without binoculars, but still a thrilling sight. From then until the end of the trip an hour later, there wasn’t a moment when we couldn’t see flamingos. The birds stood in large groups, occasionally walking a few steps and dipping their necks to feed. From time to time, some of them put on a show, taking a few running steps on the surface of the water and launching into the air, soon joined in formation by a dozen others.

Our captain and guide, Shahid Bamne, kept up a steady patter. “They came early this year, and in greater numbers. Most of them are migratory. They come here to eat and go back to Gujarat." The mention of the state may have reminded him of something, because he added, “Let’s see which party comes to power, Rahul’s or someone else’s." Even on the open water, it’s an election year.

Flamingo count
A fortnight ago, a six-digit number sent a ripple of excitement through Mumbai’s birding circles. The BNHS began a census in May last year—the first to cover the entire flamingo habitat in Mumbai, says project in-charge Rahul Khot. The numbers from October to December were similar to earlier estimates of the flamingo population in the city: 45,999, 50,008, 53,598. In early February, they received the numbers for January: 121,935. Mumbai, through some design and a lot of luck, was home to over a hundred thousand flamingos.

I meet Khot at Hornbill House, the BNHS headquarters in Kala Ghoda, which was constructed in 1965 and retains a slightly wonky old-world charm (one of the files on Khot’s desk simply reads “frogs"). “Exciting, exciting," he says when I ask him about the census. “So far no one has given this number of flamingos in Mumbai. The maximum was 60,000-70,000—and those were estimates." But he also stresses that they’re just a few months into a 10-year study. “Once we have the complete data, it’ll be possible to do statistical modelling and see which factors are affecting the bird population—quality of habitat, pollution, heavy metals, drought..."

Both Khot and Sunjoy Monga, conservationist and author of Birds Of Mumbai, believe the drought in Gujarat last year may have something to do with the increase in Mumbai’s flamingo population. “Birds move," Monga says over the phone. “If they find a place conducive, they come there in large numbers. But this might be temporary."

Why do flamingos keep coming to places like Bhandup, with its waste treatment plant, and Sewri, with its industries and construction? It sounds crazy, but what we think of as “pollution" actually has a role in attracting flamingos. Waste matter and sewage in Thane Creek helps in the formation of the blue-green algae that’s the mainstay of the bird’s diet. Monga speculates that’s why they started flocking here in the early 1990s. “It might have to do with the refineries and industries causing gradual warming of Sewri Bay—not temperature, but general warmth of ecological settings resulting in profusion of algae and other organic growth. We have created a condition which might be called perfect levels of pollution."

Flamingos are a hardy species but there’s always the danger that pollution levels could cross a threshold beyond which it will start harming the birds. Khot says their 10-year study will throw light on this: By comparing region-wise population statistics with data from the BNHS marine life department, they can understand where the birds are concentrating and what their habitat and diet in these places are like. “Of course, developmental projects will have some impact," he says. “Untreated sewage discharge and heavy metal contamination is a concern. But flamingos live in other places with heavy industries, in Mathura, in Gujarat. So they have some tolerance."

There are other worries. A few cases of flamingo poaching have been reported in the city, and of the birds flying into high-tension wires and being electrocuted. More worrying is the construction in and around the flamingo sanctuary. Sewri Jetty—once the prime spot for flamingo viewing in Mumbai—has been closed since last year because of the work on the MTHL, which will connect Sewri to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port. There has been a visible decrease in flamingos near the jetty this season.

Khot says they’ve moved to the other side of the creek but adds that this could be temporary, given the examples of the nearby Vashi and Airoli bridges. “You can see flamingos right along those bridges, under them," he says. “So we might see that as the (MTHL) construction progresses, they may come back." It was also reported last week that a committee chaired by Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan had given wildlife clearance for a bullet train corridor to encroach upon the Thane flamingo sanctuary (3.27 hectares of forests from the sanctuary and 97.51 hectares of land close to it).

Conservation’s poster bird
Despite starting off my second flamingo-sighting expedition on a hair-raising note by pointing to thick brush some 30m away and saying “This is where they released the snakes", Prathamesh Desai proved to be an excellent guide. He would often stop mid-conversation and ask me to look in the direction of a trill or a chirp. In the 2 hours we spent roaming Bhandup, we saw a Temminck’s Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Northern Shoveler, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Rosy Starling and Purple Sunbird. We also saw, from the shore of the creek, a large flock of Greater Flamingos, and a solitary Lesser Flamingo.

While the boat had gotten closer in Airoli, being able to look at the birds through binoculars, with my feet planted on the ground, allowed for more leisurely contemplation. The flamingos also had both legs planted on the riverbed—their preferred stance while feeding (the famous standing-on-one-leg pose is when they’re at rest). Seen through binoculars, the birds revealed themselves as both beautiful and bizarre-looking, with the soft pastel shades of the body and elegant curve of the neck ending in a decidedly inelegant curved beak and a malevolent orange eye. It reminded me of a description of the bird by Kay Ryan, in her poem Flamingo Watching: She seems unnatural by nature—too vivid and peculiar a structure to be pretty, and flexible to the point of oddity.

On the way out, Desai—who works with tourism firm Mumbai Travellers and runs a club called Birds of Thane & Raigad—mentioned an allied issue: mangroves. The tree, which lines much of Thane Creek, is a natural barrier to erosion. But various projects—the coastal road, the MTHL—have resulted in mangroves being cleared. “To bring the idea of conservation to the common man, you need something attractive," he said. “If you bring more and more people to see flamingos, you are also making people aware that if you destroy their habitat, the birds will go off."

Monga can recall a time in the late 1970s when a solitary flock of flamingos was a notable sighting in Mumbai. “I stay in Lokhandwala," he says. “For 15 years, I haven’t seen a single flamingo in the creek behind my house. Now it has 200 of them some days. Malad Creek has 2,000-3,000. Obviously, they’ve spread." We may not know exactly why flamingos are flocking here in large numbers, or whether this is an aberration. But, for now, there’s a minor pink revolution happening in the creeks of Mumbai.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.