Tuesday, May 28, 2019

MUBI’s parade of roses

It starts with two intertwined figures, their outlines razor-thin black, the rest of the screen blinding white. Though we’re only shown close-ups, we can tell it’s a man and a woman. Or can we? After the ghostly love scene is done, we hear the woman speak, just offscreen, and the voice is our first clue that what we have seen might not be the heterosexual coupling cinema has conditioned us to expect. She comes into view, asks the man to zip her dress up. “How do I look?" she asks. “Beautiful, Eddy."

Eddy, a trans woman, is the sensual, unstable centre of Funeral Parade Of Roses. Toshio Matsumoto’s film, released in 1969, has since become a cult favourite, both for its depiction of underground queer culture in 1960s Japan and its avant-garde madness. The film revolves around the rivalry of Eddy (played by the androgynous Japanese TV and film star Peter) and the older Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), hostesses at a gay nightclub. “You look exactly like a girl," an interviewer tells the kimono-wearing Leda. “How long have you been a queen?"

Other interviews are conducted on the streets, as if for a documentary. One shy individual responds to a question about how long he’s been a gei bōi—local slang for effeminate homosexual men, which the subtitle translates as queen—with “since last December". Asked if he likes men, he answers, “I like gays, that’s all." He ends by saying he was “born this way".

Funeral Parade Of Roses is only incidentally interested in empowerment, though. Matsumoto’s real aim is anarchy, achieved partly through the film’s subversive content (an orgiastic party; drag queens using the men’s loo) but more through its radical form. The action is interrupted by intertitles, speech bubbles, freeze frames. Eddy crashes into a food vendor on a bicycle and we are assaulted with rapid-fire images of spilt noodles, a woman bleeding on the floor, a creature crawling out of a man’s face. Around the 39-minute mark, there’s an epic “freak-out", a phantasmagoric series of images that goes on for minutes.

The film may have been ahead of its time, but Matsumoto was also tapping into the zeitgeist. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick ended 2001: A Space Odyssey with a freak-out of his own (there’s a long-standing rumour that Kubrick liked Funeral Parade and borrowed from it for A Clockwork Orange). Japanese cinema, too, was churning out deliriously inventive works in those years: Seijun Suzuki’s mind-bending Branded To Kill (1967), Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969), Shūji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets (1971). The psychedelic movement was cresting in San Francisco. Underground directors like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and experimentalists like Stan Brakhage were challenging received ideas of film. “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open," a young director announces, attributing the quote to “Menas Jokas"—though he means Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde American film-maker.

A month ago, your options would have been buying Funeral Parade Of Roses on Blu-ray (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series) or praying for it to make an appearance at a film festival near you. This changed at midnight on 6 May, as the film was added to MUBI’s India roster. It will remain accessible to the streaming service’s subscribers for 30 days.

MUBI was started in 2007 by entrepreneur Efe Cakarel, after he found himself in a Tokyo café with high-speed internet but nowhere to stream the kind of cinema he wanted (on that day, Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love). He came up with the idea of an “online cinematheque", a changing roster of hand-picked films that would remain accessible for a limited period. It was initially called The Auteurs but wisely went in for a name change. Today, it has some eight million subscribers.

MUBI is entirely unlike other popular streaming services. Though you subscribe to it the way you would to Netflix or Amazon, there are only 30 titles at any given time. Each day, one film is added, and another leaves the roster. In an age when streaming services are vying to give the consumer as wide a selection as possible, MUBI has resolutely stuck to its curatorial approach. It offers a mix of auteurist and independent cinema, classic Hollywood, experimental and left-of-field choices. “We show titles from studios as well as smaller distributors, sales agents and independent producers, as long as they meet our standard of quality," Cakarel says on email. “Also, we like to show ‘hidden gems’—high-quality films which get overlooked or failed at the box office, but nonetheless are worth watching."

Last year, MUBI announced that it was partnering with Times Bridge, the global investment unit of The Times Group, on an India-specific launch. Cakarel says they are still in the planning stage. “It’s possible we will launch multiple channels to target specific audience segments in India," he writes. “For example, we may launch both a ‘MUBI India’ channel, featuring only Indian content, and a ‘MUBI World’ channel offering primarily English-language Hollywood content, along with some international titles."

You can scroll through the 30 titles on offer on MUBI without having to sign up. At the time of writing this, subscribers in India could watch William A. Wellman’s 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred, three films each by Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, John Carpenter’s pulp classic They Live and the S&M exploitation film Olga’s House Of Shame. This might sound impossibly eclectic, but if you have been on MUBI for a while, you will know that this is a representative sample.

At ₹500 per month, MUBI is more expensive than Amazon and Hotstar, though less than Netflix. It obviously isn’t a service for everyone: If at least a third of the titles on the roster at any given time don’t interest you, it might not be worth the money. The cost, however, may not intimidate the average viewer as much as the idea of limited choice and placing one’s faith in expert curators, as one does at film festivals.

Yet, consider this: How many films do you actually stream in a month? How many of these are compromises, reruns, comfort food? If you are a serious film enthusiast in India, you already have to contend with a depressing lack of festivals and repertory houses and physical media. Why deny yourself the one good streaming option?

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Aladdin: Review

Who were Disney’s three wishes for director of the new Aladdin? Given the brain-deadening faithfulness with which their animated classics have been remade as live action films, one would presume they’d look for an unambitious stylist. Rob Marshall might have gotten a call – but he’s between Disney films. Bill Condon? Tom Hooper? A dozen wishes aren’t enough to explain Guy Ritchie, who’s never composed an elegant frame in his life, at the helm.

If you’ve watched the animated 1992 Aladdin enough – either with children or as a child yourself – you might find yourself uttering the lines in Ritchie’s film before they’re spoken onscreen. The characters, too, will be familiar: “street rat" Aladdin (Mena Massoud), princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and his parrot, the flying carpet, Abu the monkey. Massoud even looks like the cartoon Aladdin, with his expressive eyes and bony structure. The only real change is Will Smith’s genie, who talks at a more easygoing pace – a boring but understandable decision to not try and replicate Robin Williams’ manic patter in the original.

Right from the opening number, in which the singer ululates “Arabian niiiiights, Arabian moooon", the Middle Eastern clichés are unrelenting. You have flying carpets and magic lamps, scimitars and sorcerers, a pet tiger, and a song that boats of Prince Ali – the result of Aladdin’s first wish – having “slaves, servants and flunkies". Then there’s the usual cavalier attitude towards accents. Kenzari does a passable evil “Arab" snarl. Smith, Scott and Massoud don’t even bother. The charming Nasim Pedrad, playing Jasmine’s maid, does Los Angeles one line, Tehran the next.

Aladdin resembles in many ways a failed Bollywood historical. Jasmine’s pink, gold and green ensemble looks like a reject from Ashutosh Gowarikar’s unsurpassably tacky Mohenjo-Daro. There’s a dance sequence which is just crying out for an Indian film choreographer, though that’s more palatable than a shoehorned-in “empowerment" number, which has Jasmine bellowing “All I know is I won’t go speechless" (after it’s done, the fake prince still has to rescue the princess).

Disney has been remorseless with its remakes, regurgitating the animated classics frame for frame, note for note. There's something off-putting about their confidence in churning out 15, 20, 30-year-old films almost exactly as they first appeared. The dearth of original ideas in Hollywood is scarcely worth commenting on, but audiences too are hugely complacent, and complicit. Aladdin is the worst kind of studio “product": $183 million dollars spent without grace or wit or intelligence. It’s also a continuation of Hollywood’s inability to deal with Middle Eastern characters as anything but fundamentalists or exotic caricatures. Call it harmless fun at your own peril.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

PM Narendra Modi: Review

PM Narendra Modi was supposed to release on 11 April. At the last minute, the Election Commission decided that a partisan film on a prime ministerial candidate playing in theatres while polls were on might have some influence in a country where WhatsApp forwards are considered a legitimate source of news. The film opens on the first Friday after the election, a day after the BJP won in a landslide, giving Modi a second term as PM. What was probably intended as an advertisement for the candidate now becomes part of the victory lap.

When they really like a film, critics sometimes worry about being able to transmute the experience into words. Omung Kumar’s Narendra Modi leaves me with a similar predicament: I don’t know if it’s possible to adequately convey how utterly devoid of merit it is. To say this is the worst film of the year (and it’s been quite a year already) is almost kind. What it is, really, is a debasement of cinema and the best instincts of art.

It's also quite a trip, almost as if a film on Modi and a parody of that film were existing in the same frame. The goal is to present him as some kind of exemplar saint, and the makers don't seem to care how stupid they look doing it, which results in scene after scene of simplistic hero worship. A few of my favourites:

Young Narendra, whom we’ve already seen saluting the flag, serves tea to a mother bidding farewell to her soldier son. He refuses to take money from them, saluting the soldier instead and getting a salute in return.

Narendra, now grown up and played by Vivek Oberoi, is acting in a stage production. He won’t say the lines given to him, and starts lecturing the other characters on stage about the ills of dowry. The audience applauds.

Later, as a rising party member of the BJP, Modi organises an "ekta yatra". On a bridge in Srinagar, they come under fire from terrorists, but Modi won’t duck or lower the flag he’s holding.

An armed, angry mob passes in front a television set. They pause as Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, gives a speech about religious violence. The swords drop from their hands. Riot cancelled.

Much later, this gem: “Hinduism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of thinking. It’s what makes this country secular”.

Finally: “Modi isn’t a human being, he’s a way of thinking.”

And on and on. There have been films about literal gods more critical of their subject than this one. This lack of balance unites the film with two other nationalistic tracts released this year, Manikarnika and Thackeray, neither of which allow for a single flaw in their central characters. Kumar and Oberoi's Modi is without blemish: he respects women, works hard without complaining, loves his country and idolises the soldiers that defend it. He digs canals himself instead of asking for votes. He can’t stand corruption. Even when he’s the chief minister, he washes the dishes himself when he goes to meet his mother. He has a 56-inch chest, which thankfully remains covered at all times.

Narendra Modi might stick to broad historical events but the narrative it builds is a convenient and often specious one. The Ekta Yatra, for instance, is presented as a march for togetherness where it was really a show of right wing strength. The Congress high command is shown panicking before the 2014 general election because Modi has “changed the formula from divide-and-rule to unite-and-rule”. This isn’t true today, and it certainly wasn’t true in 2014.

For a lay viewer, the primary (perhaps only) point of interest is the film's treatment of the 2002 Godhra train massacre, in which 58 Hindus were killed, and the riots that followed in Gujarat, in which over a thousand people, a majority of them Muslim, were killed. Allegations that the state government under Modi abetted, or did little to quell, the rioters persist till this day, even as a Special Investigation Team later absolved the chief minister of any direct involvement. In the film, Modi is shown to be empathetic (embracing a Muslim father who’s lost his child) and capable (he brings the situation under control even though neighbouring states won’t help out). When a police officer tells him the number of Hindu and Muslim dead, Modi scolds him, saying “Aur kitna baantenge inhe (how much more will you divide them)?” This is disingenuous to say the least, given the real Modi’s penchant for divisive rhetoric.

Though the film closes in 2014, we get references to contemporary Modi-isms: he calls himself “chowkidaar” and tells a solider in Kashmir, apropos Pakistan, “ghar mein ghus kar maarenge (we’ll enter their houses and kill them)” – a line from Uri, a film released earlier this year in which Modi, unnamed but unmistakable, was played by Rajit Kapur. There’s the usual Congress-bashing, which has become so common in recent Hindi films that it’s stopped being surprising. The media, which Modi has barely engaged with in the last five years, is accused of working for the opposition and fanning religious tensions.

Vivek Oberoi has the unenviable task of playing a sitting prime minister, and a much better actor. He can barely do the accent, but it doesn’t matter – there’s too much wrong with the film anyway. In other nations, and in parts of this one, they’re making films that come from a place of courage and inquiry, sometimes at great risk to self. The makers of PM Narendra Modi, on the other hand, do little but sing praise to power.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: Review

At one point in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Keanu Reeves passes through three rooms. The first is populated with ballerinas, one of them peeling a bloody nail off her toe. The second has wrestlers tossing each other around. The third is like a conference room, with several massive oil paintings. Combine them, and you get the essence of the series, which blends grace and pain, brute strength and art together until they become one lethal, beautiful thing.

Parabellum picks up where the last film ended, with John Wick (Reeves) about to become the target of every assassin in New York City for breaking the rules of the profession by conducting business – killing someone – on the Intercontinental Hotel premises. We know by now Wick’s lethal abilities, so it’s amusing when the first site of potential violence is revealed to be the New York Public Library. And sure enough, the first of dozens of brutal fights takes place in one of the aisles, with Wick attacked by a huge man looking to pick up the 14 million dollar bounty that’s been placed on his head by The High Table, a sort of assassins guild.

There’s an ‘adjudicator’ (Asia Kate Dillon) going around sentencing people and lots of talk about services rendered and favours owed, but it’s nothing you really need to pay attention to. Everyone know that the plot in a John Wick film is just something to keep you amused until it’s time for another fragrantly violent, disturbingly eye-popping fight scene. Director Chad Stahelski shoots action as well as anyone in Hollywood right now; even in the most chaotic set-pieces, we never lose our bearings. And he keeps finding new ways for Wick to annihilate his opponents, whether it’s death by library book or the correct way to whack a horse so it’ll rear up and kick the assassin behind it (a trick so good it’s used twice).

At one point, Wick heads to Casablanca, which had me rubbing my hands in anticipation. Unlike Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which had an Ilsa caught between two men, the film makes disappointingly little cinematic hay out of this, using it only as a means to introduce Sofia (Halle Berry), someone from John’s past who owes him a favour. Their scenes together are played for emotion, but despite the best efforts of Reeves and Berry there’s nothing there, just filler before another fight.

I wonder if I’m the only experiencing franchise fatigue with John Wick 3. There’s something inherently cynical about a third film in a series. The first is a shot in the dark, the second a chance to expand horizons. But a third… that’s when you have to start asking if there's a good reason to still be around. Something has hardened in Parabellum – the smile-inducing Matrix alum reunion of Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in Part 2 has devolved into Wick saying “Guns, lots of guns". In its visual stratagems, and in its thin writing, the film is visibly at a loss for new ideas, no matter how well it executes the old ones. And the desperation to continue is clear in its muddled final minutes.

The references to The Matrix are laid on thick – there’s Fishburne in the rain as well – but I enjoyed the nods to Asian action cinema. There’s a scene with Reeves on a motorbike fighting off his pursuers with a sword which recalls a similar setpiece in the supercharged 2017 South Korean film The Villainess. And there’s Yayan Ruhian as one of Wick’s opponents, a diminutive figure familiar to anyone who’s seen him as the unstoppable Mad Dog in The Raid. It makes sense that Stahelski and Reeves would want to include a part of that pioneering Indonesian film: it’s difficult to imagine the John Wick series existing without it.

This review appeared in Mint.

Student of the Year 2: Review

In Student of the Year 2, everyone is vying for something called the Dignity Cup. Laugh all you want, but this is a Karan Johar production, and it makes sense that people are fighting to come out of it with dignity. “I haven't changed, I’m evolving," Mia (Tara Sutaria) tells her childhood friend and soon-to-be-ex, Rohan (Tiger Shroff). I don’t think one can say the same about Dharma Productions, which, with two clunkers (Kesari, Kalank) already under its belt this year, provides the answer to the question no one was asking: what if Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was a Johar film?

It’s a Punit Malhotra film, but it’s really all Johar – his preoccupations, his visions of excess, his fondness for triangular and quadrangular love stories. Like Student of the Year (2012), which he directed, this too is about male high school students in Dehradun trying to best each other at various sports and the female students who cheer them on and fall for them. Rohan transfers from Pishorilal Chamandas to the elite St Teresa, only to find that his girlfriend, Mia (formerly Mridula), now has eyes only for the school champion, Manav (Aditya Seal). He’s soon butting heads with the golden boy, and with Manav’s sister, Shreya (Ananya Panday), aspiring dancer and professional meanie.

Though it isn’t fit to wear its white shorts, Student of the Year 2 is a glossy facsimile of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, with the Pishori boys as Model College and the privileged Teresa students as Rajput. Much as the garish displays of wealth in Dharma films can be irritating, it’s nothing compared to the excruciating experience of seeing them awkwardly stick up for the common man. Who can forget Malhotra’s Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, in which city dude Imran Khan saves a village and is rewarded by a little boy telling him “I be like you, bro"? Rohan must see the emptiness of Teresa and its students for himself and return to his roots, but not before saving Shreya from a life of extreme privilege and parental disapproval (my favourite scene in the film is when Shreya, after getting slapped by her father, decides to do an interpretative dance).

In Student of the Year, Rishi Kapoor, as dean of St Teresa’s, is shown lusting after Ronit Roy’s coach. There’s a call back of sorts here, when the newly arrived Rohan is told by Shreya that the coach (played by Gul Panag) likes “strong, fair boys". As Rohan tries to charm his way into the team by stretching seductively in front of her, I wondered if any film would have played this for laughs with the genders reversed. It gets worse. A woman with short hair and spectacles arrives. She hands Panag a cup of coffee and starts massaging her shoulders. She tells Rohan, “This is ma’am, and I’m her ma’am."

Because Shroff is in the lead, there are a couple of fights, some kabaddi and a whole lot of unnecessary running. A jumping-dancing-fighting hero, words seem to emerge from him with difficulty; he's more comfortable staring down Manav than verbalising his feelings to Mia and Shreya. He’s a little old to be playing a college student, though a bigger problem is Johar’s apparent belief that he still has the pulse of young viewers. The hall I was in was only a third full, and there were only dry eyes in the house when Shreya, her family having forgetting her birthday, buys a cake, lights a candle and sings to herself. No trophies for the writer, but give Panday a small dignity cup.

This review appeared in Mint.

50 years of Hindi alternative cinema

Co-written with Jai Arjun Singh. This is the story on the Mint site. 

In 1969, Basu Chatterjee’s kitchen-sink drama Sara Akash, Mrinal Sen’s playful Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s spare, experimental Uski Roti were released. They didn’t have much in common except that they were far outside the mainstream and felt like the start of something new. This sort of film-making soon acquired a label—Parallel Cinema—and its own star directors (Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza), actors (Smita Patil, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi), cinematographers (K.K. Mahajan, Virendra Saini) and composers (Vanraj Bhatia, Rajat Dholakia). Its heyday was 1973-85, a time when film-school students took meagre National Film Development Corporation funds and tried to change society, one feature at a time.

Parallel Cinema has today been replaced by indie and arthouse, but we are taking this opportunity to celebrate a half-century of the alternative movement. We have chosen 50 films, one for each of the last 50 years, which are notably influential, obscure or under-appreciated. These have been drawn from a number of allied movements: not just Parallel Cinema but arthouse, Middle Cinema, experimental and avant-garde, documentary, indie. We have limited ourselves to Hindi-language films; we would be doing a disservice to other language cinemas if we attempted to include them. Streaming has made these films more accessible to the public than ever before, and we have indicated, wherever possible, how you can watch them.

Canons are invaluable—right till the point they’re not. Indian cinephiles have long bemoaned the absence of our films in Western canons, yet keep circling back to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt and Mani Kaul. With this in mind, we have tried to avoid the already canonized Ardh Satyas and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaros in favour of equally worthy but less-discussed films. These 50 titles, together with suggestions for further viewing in each year, represent our modest attempt at an alternative Hindi film canon.

1969: Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen)
Given the deep impression Bengali arthouse made on Hindi Parallel Cinema, it’s fitting that a Bengali director helped kick off the movement. From the opening credits, Bhuvan Shome carries the shock of the new—a furious taan (flurry of sung notes) as we race over train tracks. In his film about a stuffy bureaucrat (Utpal Dutt) who goes duck-hunting in Gujarat, Sen combines the playfulness of the various New Waves breaking across the globe—animated sequences, freeze frames, a self-reflexive final shot of a movie camera—with the realist approach of Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy. He also tossed a bit of voice-over work to an unemployed young man—Amitabh something. (YouTube)
Also: Sara Akash, Uski Roti, Saat Hindustani

1970: Dastak (Rajinder Singh Bedi)
It’s significant that writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, a compatriot of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, made one of the important early films of the Parallel movement, given that a torch passed from the Progressives to Shyam Benegal, M.S. Sathyu and other socially minded directors in the 1970s. Dastak is adapted from Bedi’s Naql-e-Makaani, a play about a young Muslim couple who move into a flat, only to discover that it used to be occupied by a sex worker, who still attracts callers. You can see the influence of Bimal Roy, for whom Bedi had written Devdas and Madhumati, in the shadowy photography (by Kamal Bose) and psychological unease. As it happened, Rehana Sultan, cast opposite Sanjeev Kumar here, was in another film that year which dealt head-on with the then-taboo subject of sex work, B.R. Ishara’s Chetna.
Also: Koodal

1971: Anubhav (Basu Bhattacharya)
We spend a third of our time asleep, someone muses in Anubhav—20 years in a 60-year life. The theme of time‘s flow—and how it petrifies relationships—runs through this formally experimental film. Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) are a couple who feel they barely know each other. To convey this stasis, Bhattacharya uses naturalistic sound, unexpected freeze frames, and a self-consciously Brechtian approach to acting. Tanuja rises above the pitfalls of that device with a wonderful monologue that may remind you of Ingmar Bergman.
Also: Maya Darpan

1972: Abid (Pramod Pati)
It’s scarcely believable that the most mind-bending cinema of the 1960s and 1970s emerged from the government’s newsreel wing. Everyone from Satyajit Ray to Gulzar directed for Films Division, but it was the triumvirate of S.N.S. Sastry, Pramod Pati and S. Sukhdev that pushed the boundaries of short film-making. Pati’s Abid, only 5 minutes long, is a pop-art explosion, with artist Abid Surti posed in a continuously rearranged painted room in a succession of outsize spectacles, caps and colourful shirts (Surti says the idea was "artist is born, he creates work and passes away, but the work remains"). Vijay Raghav Rao’s burbling electronic score matches the frenzied rush of images. (YouTube)
Also: Maya Darpan, This Bit Of That India, Koshish, Piya Ka Ghar

1973: Garm Hava (M.S. Sathyu)
Not long ago, Garm Hava was a holy grail—a decent print almost impossible to get. With a recent restoration, it’s possible now to appreciate what a monument this is, a story about Partition trauma told in an intimate key. A world of sadness is revealed in Balraj Sahni’s little gestures: a shift of the eyes, a cane tapped on the floor. When a dying old woman is carried back to her marital house, the framing and sound suggest her memories of her first trip there. Many Partition films contain or allude to gruesome violence, but Garm Hava’s violence is subtler—it is about the uncoiling of the threads holding a world together.
Also: Duvidha

1974: 27 Down (Awtar Krishna Kaul)
Kaul directed one film before his untimely death—but what a singular achievement it was. M.K. Raina plays a railway employee who is drifting through life, unable to escape the shadow of his father. Working with cinematographer Apurba Kishore Bir, Kaul films Mumbai and its trains in sooty, dreamy black and white. The pinnacle is a stunning scene in which a train disgorges its passengers on to an empty platform—the everyday made magical. (Hotstar)
Also: Ankur, Rajnigandha, Avishkaar

1975: Charandas Chor (Shyam Benegal)
Benegal’s Ankur is a cornerstone of the New Wave, but it’s perplexing how neglected his second feature is. This version of Habib Tanvir’s play about a thief who speaks truth to power is one of our sharpest satires on class and religion, and a meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with contributions from Chhattisgarhi Nacha troupes). But it is also an imaginative, playful film, beautifully shot in black and white by Govind Nihalani and marked by Smita Patil’s debut.
Also: Nishant

1976: Bonga (Kundan Shah)
Studying at the Film and Television Institute of India, the serious-looking Shah discovered a talent for slapstick and made a diploma film no one expected from him—a free-association tribute to Chaplin, Godard and the American gangster film. The dialogue-less, 23-minute Bonga is about a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are irrelevant; what matters is the rhythm and exuberance, the sense of a film-maker finding his voice. Here is the palimpsest for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro; one possible reason Satish Shah got to “relax" as a corpse in that film was because of his energetic physical performance in Bonga!
Also: Manthan, Murder At Monkey Hill, Ghashiram Kotwal

1977: Alaap (Hrishikesh Mukherjee)
An Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha starrer may seem an odd pick, but Alaap was among Bachchan’s least-seen films. This tribute to the world of classical music (with a wonderful Jaidev soundtrack) also offers a “parallel" take on tropes from Bachchan’s mainstream roles: Compare the protagonist’s clashes with his father to scenes in Shakti or Sharaabi, which are in a much higher dramatic register. In the multiplex era, this film may have found its audience; in 1977, it stood little chance.
Also: Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Gharaonda, Bhumika

1978: Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (Saeed Mirza)
Mirza’s debut begins and ends with images of poor carpet-makers, but its protagonist is a privileged young man. The handsome, callow-looking Dilip Dhawan is Arvind, a businessman’s son aware of the unfairness of the world, but incapable of action. With its unusual sound design—overlapping dialogue, murmurs, an explosive percussive score for the finale—the film draws us into Arvind’s inner world. (Hotstar)
Also: Gaman, An Encounter With Faces

1979: Cinema Cinema (Krishna Shah)
A film with cameos by Dharmendra and Hema Malini on an alt cinema list? In our defence, Cinema Cinema also has excellent Parallel Cinema pedigree: cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, composer Vijay Raghav Rao, and research by B.D. Garga and P.K. Nair. This charming history lesson, presented as a faux movie screening, looks at Hindi cinema from the silents to the 1970s. It’s lovingly assembled by Shah, whose impossibly eclectic career saw him direct everything from Shalimar to Hard Rock Zombies. (YouTube)
Also: Griha Pravesh

1980: Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye)
Paranjpye’s most popular films are the warm, whimsical Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but before them came this sombre story about a blind principal and a widowed singer. This sensitively performed film was notable for her workshop methods—shot at a blind school, with unsighted children—and her emphasis on authenticity, especially in Naseeruddin Shah’s performance, which underlines unexpected aspects of his character’s personality, notably his masochism. Here’s an “angry young man" to rival Naseer’s Albert Pinto.
Also: Aakrosh, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai

1981: Sadgati (Satyajit Ray)
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil in a grim 1980s film about caste oppression sounds like Govind Nihalani or Shyam Benegal terrain, but the made-for-TV Sadgati is Ray’s other Hindi venture, a few years after Shatranj Ke Khilari. Based on a Munshi Premchand story and centring on a Brahmin priest’s mistreatment of a low-caste shoemaker, it’s full of simmering anger and builds towards an apt, poetic resolution. It is the closest Ray came to working in the Hindi Parallel movement, and it should be seen alongside the 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker—directed by Benegal, shot by Nihalani, and featuring a scene where the Bengali master supervises a bashful Puri and Patil as they dub for Sadgati!
Also: Chashme Buddoor

1982: Namkeen (Gulzar)
Perhaps even more than the other Middle Cinema directors, Gulzar adeptly toed the line between mainstream and arthouse, never more so than in this beautifully observed film which brought together a fine cast of star-actors—Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar—in a story about a household of village women struggling against immense odds. Though too downbeat in the end for many tastes, Namkeen works as a fine double bill with a Gulzar comedy released that year, Angoor. (Hotstar)
Also: Arth, Vijeta

1983: Arohan (Shyam Benegal)
It isn’t often acknowledged how self-reflexive Benegal’s cinema is—how aware of the innate artifice in even well-intentioned storytelling. His 1999 Samar offers lacerating evidence, but much earlier came Arohan, which opens with a remarkable sequence. Om Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, tells us about the story we are going to watch—about the exploitation of land tillers in 1960s Bengal, influenced by Naxalbari. He introduces the other cast and crew members—standing around on location, chatting, smoking—and then they slip into their roles. The film is showing us its hand: Look, we will do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know.
Also: Ardh Satya, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Katha, Trikon Ka Chautha Kon

1984: Party (Govind Nihalani)
Imagine a room full of Arvind Desais, but pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. In this brilliantly structured and performed film about a high-society party, the conversation converges on a poet who has removed himself from this milieu to fight for tribals. Adapted from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Party is a self-denouncement made by people who know they too are armchair activists. (Hotstar)
Also: Holi, Khandhar, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!

1985: Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra)
Coming in the middle of a decade where ensemble casts of “parallel stars" had Serious conversations about Meaningful things (see the last two entries), Khamosh is one of the most fun films made by the non-mainstream regulars. Chopra had a grand time overseeing this murder mystery set during a location shoot, where Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar play the actors “Shabana Azmi" and “Amol Palekar", and Naseeruddin Shah shows up as a suave investigator. This is classic meta-film terrain, but it has genuinely scary moments —including the climactic revelation—if you watch it alone in a dark room.
Also: Trikal, Massey Sahib

1986: New Delhi Times (Ramesh Sharma)
New Delhi Times is a rare Hindi film with the moral murkiness of Z and All The President’s Men. Shashi Kapoor plays a crusading newspaper editor in this low-budget film about political corruption and media compliance that’s utterly relevant today. The unavailability of Sharma’s film has only added to its reputation as a paranoid political thriller.
Also: Chameli Ki Shaadi

1987: Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta)
On one level, Mirch Masala—about village women in 1940s’ India taking on a lascivious subedaar—is an obvious allegory, full of symbolism: not least in its final moments, where a makeshift “fort" is besieged and underdogs rise against their oppressors with the only weapon they have, something they use every day. But there is also a sense here for the keenly observed small moment: the subedaar listening to a gramophone while getting a shave, the conversations and changing equations between the women as they move towards solidarity. An intriguing companion piece from the same year is N. Chandra’s Pratighaat, another feminist work, but located in a contemporary urban setting. (Hotstar)
Also: Ijaazat, Pestonjee, The Eight Column Affair

1988: Om Dar-B-Dar (Kamal Swaroop)
Surreal, silly, anarchic, hallucinatory and a dozen other things at once. Swaroop’s experimentation—unlike the quiet films of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani—is unrestrained, with a boisterous soundtrack, rich colour and chewy dialogue. This magic realist film was unavailable for years but a small, vociferous fan base kept arguing its brilliance, leading to a small theatrical release in 2014. (Hotstar)
Also: Pushpak, Tamas, Salaam Bombay!

1989: In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (Pradip Krishen)
The title hasn’t aged well but everything else has. Pradip Krishen’s film, from a script by Arundhati Roy about a bunch of architecture students, captures the rhythms of hostel life like few Indian films. Roshan Seth, the one pro in a cast of unknowns, turns his rote authority figure into something conflicted. Roy is wincingly idealistic in the classroom and at her most alluring when combining saris with hats. It’s all bare-bones charm, from the hand-drawn credits to lo-fi Beatles covers. And yes, there’s Shah Rukh Khan in his first film appearance, arm in a cast, centre-parted hair, holding a cup like Miss Marple.
Also: Raakh, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Siddeshwari

1990: Figures Of Thought (Arun Khopkar)
This warm 39-minute film by the experimental film-maker is an inquiry into the working philosophies of artists Nalini Malani, Bhupen Khakhar and Vivan Sundaram. It elegantly combines interviews with sound collages and images of art, nature and everyday life. As a grace note, animation brings the paintings to life in the closing minutes. (YouTube)
Also: Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen, Ek Doctor Ki Maut

1991: Raman Raghav (Sriram Raghavan)
Like its titular character, Raghavan’s first film is a phantom. It barely exists: There was no theatrical or TV release when it was made in 1991, no festival showing, just a few one-off screenings and the word of film industry insiders. Raghavan told Lounge he was aiming for “a mixture of documentary and extreme stylization" in telling the story of the real-life Mumbai serial killer, played with chilling matter-of-factness by Raghubir Yadav. This raw, cine-literate film, only 68 minutes long, became a calling card of sorts for Raghavan.
Also: Dharavi, Diksha, Kasba

1992: Ram Ke Naam (Anand Patwardhan)
Patwardhan’s documentary, which tracks the build-up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, remains painfully relevant. We see kar sevaks in the film shout “Mandir wahin banayenge", a phrase which now trends on Twitter. “Those who dream of Babur, we’ll wipe out their aspirations," sing a van-full of them on the way to Ayodhya. It’s not difficult to imagine a similar scene in a contemporary film—or on the news (last month, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanath referred to a rival Muslim candidate as a “son of Babur"). (YouTube)
Also: Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda

1993: Rudaali (Kalpana Lajmi)
Along with Sai Paranjpye, Kalpana Lajmi was a rare female directorial voice in the Parallel movement. Though her Rudaali is as socially driven as anything by Shyam Benegal (whom she assisted on several films), it’s a heady sensory experience as well, with Gulzar’s salty writing and lyrics, Bhupen Hazarika’s music, and Santosh Sivan and Dharam Gulati’s vivid cinematography. Dimple Kapadia won a National Award as the Dalit widow who befriends a rudaali—women hired to weep at funerals—but can’t cry herself, though an even sadder sight is Amjad Khan as the overweight dying thakur. The actor died before the film released.
Also: In Custody, The Boy In The Branch, Maya Memsaab

1994: Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapur)
Bandit Queen opened the doors to a more spoken idea of film language and a new kind of realism in Hindi cinema. Its shadow can be spotted in films as different as Satya and Lagaan and the recent Sonchiriya. Whether Kapur’s film did right by the real Phoolan Devi is a question that keeps resurfacing—and ought to, if its legacy as a vital work, and not an object of unthinking veneration, is to endure. (Sony Liv)
Also: English, August, Mammo, Drohkaal

1995: Naseem (Saeed Mirza)
Cinematographer Virendra Saini is an unsung hero of the Hindi New Wave. He brought his eye for meticulous frames to Mani Kaul’s Dhrupad and Sai Paranjpye’s Katha, but his greatest partnership was with Mirza. Naseem was the fourth time they worked together, and though one can sense the budget was paltry even by Parallel Cinema standards, Saini’s eye for colour and his placement of bodies within a scene is as impeccable as ever. The film, made two years after the 1993 Mumbai riots, is both an elegy and a reminder, with poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi remarkable in his only screen role as the ageing patriarch of a Muslim family in the days leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. (Hotstar)
Also: Father, Son, And Holy War

1996: Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi (Sudhir Mishra)
Two years before Satya, a gangster film of comparable quality sank without a trace. It’s easier now to see it for the indie gem it was—a darkly funny mix of class satire and noir and gangster cinema. Ashish Vidyarthi is electric as the don in pursuit of an old friend and a philandering adman over one night. Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is justly celebrated; this is the one that got away. (Prime)
Also: Fire, Daayraa, Jaya Ganga, Halo

1997: Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (Rajat Kapoor)
In his unreleased debut film, Kapoor shows flashes of the dark humour which suffuses later efforts like Mithya and Ankhon Dekhi. His debut, about a cynical gumshoe (Naseeruddin Shah) entangled in a web of betrayal and murder, is best viewed as a crazy experiment: an attempt to pack the artiness of Kumar Shahani and pulpy private-eye tropes into the same frame. Kapoor, cinematographer Rafey Mehmood and a cameoing Irrfan Khan are clearly ready for bigger things.
Also: Char Adhyay

1998: Such A Long Journey (Sturla Gunnarsson)
We may have stretched the rules a bit with this one: The director and producers are from Canada, and the film is mostly in English (albeit a distinctly Indian spoken English). But in a year with several films that tried to come to terms with violent history—1947 Earth, Train To Pakistan, Zakhm—this was arguably the finest. A superb ensemble—Soni Razdan, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Vrajesh Hirjee—supports Roshan Seth’s heartbreaking lead turn as the hapless Gustad Noble, whose familial fractures mirror the larger historical schisms he’s forced to confront. (YouTube)
Also: 1947 Earth, Hyderabad Blues, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa

1999: Kaun? (Ram Gopal Varma)
The two- or three-person chamber film is hard to pull off, more so in a whodunit. Varma had already infused adrenalin into 1990s’ Hindi cinema when he made this modest-seeming thriller, shot in 15 days. Even while introducing dabs of melodrama into noir staples—the imperiled woman, the sinister stranger—Kaun? keeps its suspense taut, aided by a Manoj Bajpayee performance that has the viewer off balance. You almost expect him to channel Satya’s Bhiku Mhatre and holler “Iss film ka psycho Kaun?"
Also: Shool, Split Wide Open

2000: Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! (Hansal Mehta)
Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! was one of the new breed of indies that emerged in Satya’s wake, and used several of that film’s personnel: Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla, Vishal Bhardwaj. But this story of an immigrant who drifts into crime is also reminiscent of Saeed Mirza’s keenly observed portraits of Mumbai subcultures. It made little impression when it released, but holds up well, anchored by a stellar Bajpayee showing he could do gentle despair as effectively as rage or psychosis.
Also: Kumar Talkies, Rasikpriya

2001: Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)
Nair’s film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and later become a substantial hit in the US. Still, success does nothing to erase the indie-ness of this film, from the nervy hand-held camera to the brittle writing. In Hindi cinema in the 1990s, the wedding was often a dramatic focal point. By having a wedding as her film’s setting, but using it to explore issues of class, sexuality and abuse, Nair was fighting commercial cinema on its own turf. Nair wasn’t part of the local scene, but one can nevertheless see traces of Monsoon Wedding in the “Hindies" made later that decade. (DVD)
Also: My Mother India, Chandni Bar

2002: Kali Salwar (Fareeda Mehta)
For her Saadat Hasan Manto adaptation centred on the life of a sex worker in 1950s Mumbai, Mehta asked artist Bhupen Khakhar to paint the sets, a decision both stylistically sound and philosophically apt, given his preoccupation with bodies and desire. The narrative collates several Manto stories, but the moments of inspiration are pure cinema. The juxtaposition in the scene where film whirrs through a projector and light from the screen falls on two men watching enraptured, which cuts to the play of light on cloth being stitched as thread passes through a sewing machine, is alone worth the price of admission. (Hotstar)
Also: War And Peace, The Men In The Tree, Mr & Mrs Iyer

2003: Haasil (Tigmanshu Dhulia)
A year before Maqbool released in India, Dhulia gave audiences an Irrfan Khan scarcely recognizable as the understated journalist of Ek Doctor Ki Maut. As the thuggish student leader Ranvijay Singh, Khan swaggers his way through this ferocious film about college politics in Allahabad. Dhulia may not have been as stylish a director as some of his contemporaries, but he understood the preoccupations of feudal small-town north India, and, more importantly, he could write up a storm.
Also: Matrubhoomi, Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, Paanch

2004: Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap)
Many consider it Anurag Kashyap’s most “disciplined" film. That word isn’t necessarily praise when discussing a restless auteur, but Black Friday—while more focused than many other Kashyap works, and respectful of its subject matter, the 1993 Mumbai blasts—has many directorial flourishes; among them, a marvellously shot chase through Dharavi, and an extended episode involving the cross-country travels of a man on the run. Though the point isn’t underlined, this poignant pan-India tour shows him—and us—the cultural variety of a country under threat (then and now) from single-agenda forces. (Hotstar)
Also: Amu

2005: The Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bhardwaj)
Ruskin Bond and Bhardwaj are unlikely collaborators: The former’s writings are genteel, old-world; the latter’s best films are baroque, set in the contemporary Indian hinterland. But they share a penchant for dark humour, and Bhardwaj gave Bond’s short story the texture of a fairy tale, giving Pankaj Kapur one of his best roles as a Himachali shopkeeper. The Brothers Grimm come to Hindi cinema. (Netflix)
Also: Sehar, John And Jane, Being Cyrus

2006: Seven Islands And A Metro (Madhusree Dutta)
“Getting here was tough. Should I talk about that?" This statement by an immigrant seems to echo Dutta’s determination to ask difficult questions. She uses interviews, vérité photography, scenes from films, and the words of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto to create a bristling, unsettled portrait of Mumbai. It’s a reminder that documentary has as many creative tools at its disposal as fiction film. (Culture Unplugged)
Also: Riding Solo To The Top Of The World

2007: Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh)
Singh’s debut has a great establishing sequence, acquainting us with a parched small-town landscape and the daily routine of Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), an ennui-afflicted engineer and pulp writer. Asked to play detective, he finds himself in a labyrinth of deception. This part-homage to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (with nods to Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch) is a reminder that noir doesn’t have to be about dark shadows; it’s about the nighttime of the soul, even when it unfolds below a blazing Rajasthani sun. (Netflix)
Also: No Smoking, Frozen

Supermen Of Malegaon (Faiza Ahmad Khan)
One of the primary themes of modern Indian documentary is cinema itself. While fiction film gets the audiences, non-fiction has made a concerted effort to understand the ways in which cinema inspires and takes over the lives of fans. Khan’s documentary begins after a no-budget local remake of Sholay has become an unlikely local hit in Malegaon, a small town in Maharashtra, and its director has set his sights on Superman. We see the cast and crew at work, freed from the mundanity of their lives for a few weeks. The film gives them a dignity their crude efforts lack. When the director, after a failed day’s shooting, says, “There will be a lot of problems, I have to face them all," he could be Francis Coppola on the sets of Apocalypse Now. (YouTube)
Also: Mithya, Little Zizou

2009: 99 (Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.)
This film is as far from the cinema of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani as possible: no redeeming social value, just smart, fleet and funny. 2009 was a great year for just-off-the-mainstream Hindi film, and 99 got lost among films like Dev.D, Wake Up Sid, Kaminey and Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. It’s ripe for rediscovery: Actors Kunal Khemu, Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani and Mahesh Manjrekar have a blast with the Hawksian dialogue, and the blithe confidence of the enterprise—crystallized in the “Aaye hain baadshah" chorus of Delhi Destiny—seems to speak for the entire indie movement at that point in time. (Netflix)
Also: Cinema City, Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan

2010: Videokaaran (Jagannathan Krishnan)
The protagonist of this documentary is a philosophical young man who used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum. The giggling Sagai Raj is a real person, but also one of the most riveting “characters" you will see—whether he is discussing the merits of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth, relating his misadventures smuggling DVDs, or holding forth on how porn helps men figure out women. Raj is a construct of the movies he loves—and by the end he forces us to reflect on the essential, nourishing link between deprivation and fantasy. (DVD)
Also: Nainsukh, Dhobi Ghat, Udaan, Love Sex Aur Dhokha

2011: Bom Aka One Day Ahead of Democracy (Amlan Datta)
“I went for an ancient democracy and the world’s best hashish...." With these apparently disparate goals, Datta set out for Malana in Himachal Pradesh. There, he found a society that has resisted India’s attempts to bring it into the democratic fold, preferring to practise its own form of governance. The area is also the source of Malana Cream, a variant familiar to stoners across the country. The characters Datta finds are all memorable, but what’s even more impressive is how a film about smoking up also serves as an inquiry into the nature of democracy. (Culture Unplugged)
Also: Jai Bhim Comrade, Partners In Crime, Kshay

2012: Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia)
To say that Miss Lovely is about two brothers making low-budget sex-and-horror movies in the 1980s barely scratches the surface. Here is an abstract anti-narrative work that builds a sense of time and place—some scenes are intensely nostalgia-inducing—while also raising questions about masculinity. What happens when an introspective, “unmanly" man (the younger brother, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has to negotiate a cut-throat world like this?
Also: Shahid, Celluloid Man, Ship Of Theseus

2013: Katiyabaaz (Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa)
There’s an unexpectedly violent rant in Kakkar and Mustafa’s documentary when a katiyabaaz (electricity thief) starts cursing the electric company, saying he would like to hang them from their necks from high-voltage cables. It isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, but it does tell you something about the stakes of this witty documentary about the oft-interrupted supply of electricity in Kanpur and its theft by unapologetic experts. The film charts the battle of wills between officials at the Kanpur Electricity Supply Co. and cutters like Loha Singh. Katiyabaaz wears its research lightly, unfolding as a blackly comic look at official corruption and individual enterprise.
Also: Siddharth

2014: Labour Of Love (Aditya Vikram Sengupta)
Sengupta’s debut feature is wordless and wondrous. A man who works in a Kolkata printing press at night spends time apart from his wife, who works in a factory during the day. That’s all there is, really, but the film—hypnotically shot by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty—finds poetry in the transitory, whether it’s a couple managing a few stolen moments together or water bubbling on the surface of a hot pan for a couple of seconds before evaporating. (Prime)
Also: Titli, Ankhon Dekhi, Placebo

2015: Cities Of Sleep (Shaunak Sen)
Only a handful of people are likely to have seen Sen’s documentary on the night shelters of Delhi. One can only hope that access to it becomes easier, for it’s a mesmerizing film: half investigative documentary, half philosophical exercise. Wanderer Shakeel is the most intriguing character, a man so driven by a desire to bed down for the night that he keeps altering his life story to suit the situation. But there’s also the proprietor of a tented video house that doubles as a shelter, whose pronouncements lend the film a startling poetry. He ends one of his sermons with “Raat ko hum nigalte hain (we ingest the night)"—something this film does as well.
Also: Island City, Waiting, Masaan

2016: The Cinema Travellers (Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya)
Abraham and Madheshiya’s documentary hasn’t had a theatrical or streaming release yet, though its long run on the festival circuit (kicked off at Cannes) is testament to its organic, vivid storytelling. The duo tracked the makeshift travelling cinemas that roam India’s interiors, maintaining a tradition that has existed since before independence, and is now endangered. If there was ever a snapshot of the Indian film fan’s determination to locate the magic of cinema in the most modest of circumstances, this is it.
Also: Mukti Bhawan, Phobia, Autohead, Tu Hai Mera Sunday, Kadvi Hawa

2017: Gurgaon (Shanker Raman)
This is one of a few recent indie films (another obvious title being Kanu Behl’s 2014 Titli) that present the Family as a nasty, self-cannibalizing beast. Equally notable is how it achieves its effects, through a series of crepuscular vignettes rather than expository dialogue—so that what at first seems to be a plot-driven film (about a brother-sister conflict in a nouveau-riche family of builders) soon becomes languid and dream-like, as if parts had been shot underwater. People do terrible things here, yet Gurgaon has little interest in passing judgements; it observes, like we might watch fish in an aquarium. (Netflix)
Also: Anaarkali Of Aarah, Newton, Gali Guleiyan

2018: Soni (Ivan Ayr)
The neologism “Madam Sir"—often used for a senior policewoman in India—implies that respect is being offered not to the woman in the high position but to the position itself, traditionally occupied by men. Soni, about the daily frustrations of two policewomen—and what it means for such a person to lose her temper—is very aware of this. It is a riposte to the macho swagger of films like Simmba; a line like “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko"—spoken by a 13-year-old girl—contains more anger and pain than fight scenes in such blockbusters. (Netflix)
Also: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Pari, Tumbbad

Avengers: Endgame: Review

It’s a happy coincidence that the final Avengers film is releasing in the same month as the last season of Game of Thrones. Both series find themselves in a similar place, with most of the remaining characters gathered in one place, awaiting a winner-takes-all battle. There’s something of the hard-won nostalgia of the first two Thrones episodes in Avengers: Endgame, as characters who haven’t met in years sit and drudge up memories and regrets. Much of the first half of the Russo brothers’ film is contemplative, even elegiac – which has also been the mood in Winterfell this season.

If these conversations – even the joyful ones – seem heavy, it’s because a seemingly invincible enemy has forced everyone to consider their mortality. But the heaviness is also within viewers: there’s a gnawing ache to the idea that something that’s been a part of your life for years will no longer exist. In bidding farewell to characters you’ve invested in, you are, in a sense, ending a relationship. Of course, there will be a new series, a new franchise, but in that moment of parting you convince yourself that there can never be another quite like this.

The film begins in the immediate aftermath of the Thanos (Josh Brolin) snap, which wiped out half of humanity and a bunch of Avengers. The survivors, among them Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans), are grieving and beaten. Hope arrives in the form of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) – Ant-Man – who’s somehow survived his time in the quantum realm. “Time doesn’t work the same way there," he tells the team, which of course gets Rogers, the one with the trickiest relationship with time, hopeful about the possibility of undoing what’s happened.

This backwards-looking narrative arc allows the series to bid goodbye to itself. Scenes and characters from earlier films are revisited, and some of the encounters are quite moving, not so much for what is said but for the look on the travellers’ faces (Thor in particular is allowed a lovely reunion). Some of it, of course, is fan service: Hulk shaking his head at his angsty younger self, a running gag about Rogers’ (estimable) behind. But you also get a real sense of distance covered. With the jigsaw almost complete, this is the Russos and Kevin Feige showing you the pieces one last time.

For all their formidable planning, I wonder if someone at Marvel will one day admit that they misjudged Carol Danvers’ entry into the MCU. Captain Marvel is too powerful a presence to be there throughout the film – and so she drifts in and out, with the vague excuse that there are problems on other planets as well. There’s another reason: this film is a showcase for the original Avengers team (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is back too). Johansson does her best work of the series, as do a vulnerable Downey Jr and an almost beatific Evans.

After a lot of careful brick-laying for the possibility that someone (everyone?) important will die, the film roars back to life. There’s a sprawling battle which is all kinds of confusing and only intermittently thrilling; not one moment equals the hair-raising appearance of Thor in Infinity War, yelling “Bring me Thanos". Part of the problem in multi-superhero films is the impeccably paired battles-within-battles – it’s always seemed implausible to me that Cap will end up in hand-to-hand-combat with someone roughly his own size while a few metres away Iron Man blows up alien monsters. Why doesn’t giant Ant-Man crush Thanos underfoot? I’m sure there’s a seven-page explanation some fan will have ready, but the real reason it doesn’t happen is because there’d be no battle after that.

After everyone’s done with their catharses, the question will arise: what now? Marvel has several superheroes in circulation, and who knows how many in store. Will they be deployed in another multi-film arc? Has work already started on one? The thought is somewhat exhausting – but studios don’t take breaks, and they don’t change winning strategies. The Avengers storyline ends with grace and feeling, but it took a lot, from us and them, before gravitas could be achieved. “It’s been a long, long time," sighs the jazzy number that ends the film. It really has.

This review appeared in Mint.

Kalank: Review

The last time Sonakshi Sinha was heading for an appointment with death was in Lootera, a film in which a whisper was as good as a shout. Sinha is dying again in Kalank, but there are no inside voices used here. Everyone talks loudly and confidently, for the most part in beautifully modulated Urdu. There’s more poetry, good and bad, tossed off as everyday speech than you’ll find in all the Hindi films from last year. Even the street thugs speak in complete, ornate sentences, as street thugs are known to do.

Kalank's all-out commitment to a consistently feverish emotional pitch makes it an anomaly. No one, save Sanjay Leela Bhansali, does this sort of gale-force melodrama anymore. In a Bollywood that’s trying to look more self-aware, emotion can be a lead weight. I'd be curious to see what audiences make of the film over the next week or two; the one I saw it with seemed to tire by the end of all the eloquence.

It starts with one of the strangest requests I’ve ever seen one movie character make of another. Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) is sick and only has a year to live. Her soon-to-be-dying wish is that her husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), marry again – not after she passes, but right away, so that she can watch the two of them together as she slowly wastes away (Indian cinema is a trip). So she asks Roop (Alia Bhatt), who’s understandably put off by the idea, but finds herself compelled to accept, since marrying into the Chaudhry family – whose head, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt), is a newspaper baron – will secure her struggling family’s future.

It gets better. One night, Roop, on her balcony, hears a beautiful singing voice. She decides to learn singing from the source, and tracks down Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), a courtesan who lives in Lahore’s red-light district, Hira Mandi. There, she meets an insolent blacksmith, Zafar (Varun Dhawan), with whom she’ll fall in love. Bahaar and Zafar are related. Zafar’s friend, Abdul (Kunal Khemu), is agitating for a separate homeland for Muslims (the film is set in the years before independence), which Dev’s paper strongly opposes. Balraj has history with Bahaar. And there’s a final link, not difficult to predict, that falls into place.

It sounds too convoluted for words, but director and screenwriter Abhishek Varman, working with Shibani Bathija (story) and Hussain Dalal (dialogue), moves the pieces around confidently. It gets to the point where the film can crosscut between conversations for dramatic effect: there’s a smart scene where we move from Dev and Balraj to Bahaar and Zafar and back. There’s evident nostalgia for the heart-on-sleeve cinema of the ‘70s, with all the old chestnuts of that decade dusted off and reassembled: ranting hero, tragic courtesan, labour agitations, estranged fathers and sons. Fittingly, it’s a veteran cinematographer, Binod Pradhan, behind the lens. His use of colour is striking throughout, and there’s a noirish moment with Dutt that would sit well in Parinda, though you’ll have to overlook the shaky CGI (worst bullfight ever) and the occasional stiffness of the digital image.

Though it’s Satya who’s on her death bed, Kapur’s performance suggests he was under the impression his character was dying instead. Dhawan’s snarling and preening gets old after a while, and is easily undercut by Bhatt’s deftness. It doesn’t matter much – Kalank is more written than directed or performed. This extends to the lyrics, with Amitabh Bhattacharya coming up with the marvellously syncretic "Mere tevar mein hai tehzeeb ki rangeen rangoli/ jaise, jaise ho Eid mein Holi".

This review appeared in Mint.

Free Solo: Review

Some way into his climb up El Capitan, Alex Honnold uses a rope – or, in his own words, cheats. How else does one scale a sheer granite wall if not with climbing gear, one might reasonably ask? But Honnold is a free soloist, a rare breed of climbers who attack mountains with their hands and feet and little else. Having cheated, Honnold not only aborts the climb but can hardly bring himself to inform the crew filming, as if self-preservation and fear were somehow beneath him. Co-director Jimmy Chin finds the right analogy: “It’s reassuring that Spock has nerves."

Over the course of Free Solo, we watch Spock perform feats that are out of this world, but also become a little more human. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film, which won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this year, supplies all the hair-raising moments you’d expect, with cameras peering up or down cliff faces and Honnold hanging on like Spider-man. But it’s also a moving account of a thirty-something man who’s a little deficient as a social being finding the will to open up and rely on other people. Honnold and his girlfriend, life coach Sanni McCandless, staying the course in their relationship over the course of the film seems like almost as big an achievement as his scaling El Capitan, the first time anyone’s managed a free solo climb of this 3000ft Yosemite National Park rock formation without protective equipment.

When Sanni is first introduced, it doesn’t seem like she’ll be around for long. Honnold has lived in a van for nine years, heading from one climb to another. He eats straight from the pan, with a spatula. He describes his romantic life as “trending towards a girlfriend". However, he warns, “I will always choose climbing over a lady." But McCandless perseveres and slowly breaks down some of Honnold’s defenses. We learn that he grew up shy and melancholic, taking up climbing young and gravitating towards the particular discipline that would allow him to cut himself off from society.

Honnold is so off-handedly dark it’s funny, like when he argues that any of us could die at any time and that soloing makes it more “immediate", or when he says “The bottomless pit of self-loathing – that’s definitely the motivation for some soloing." At one point, he agrees to have an MRI to see if there’s something different about his brain that allows him hang off mountains without a rope. A CAT scan reveals that his Amygdala is less easily stimulated than a normal person’s – he needs something extra to trigger emotional responses like fear and anxiety. Yet, Honnold doesn’t seem to have a death wish. He prepares meticulously, going over notes that detail every step of the climb. And he has the good sense to abort, even though doing it in front of a film crew is embarrassing.

"Free soloing isn’t regular climbing. It’s solitary and personal, and requires extraordinary concentration. You’re standing on tiny edges, small variations in the texture of the rock," Honnold explains. “If you slip your hands can’t hold you". This meant that the film crew had to be skilled enough climbers to get up to where Honnold was, but not so close that they intruded in his space. The thought of pushing their subject to take an undue risk and causing his death hangs over the makers. When Chin says “All right, no mistakes tomorrow" to the crew, it carries an almost unbearable weight.

Free Solo is beautifully shot and unobtrusively directed, but there were times when I wished the film wasn’t so American in its plain-spokenness; the best Chin can come up with when Honnold completes the climb is “That is way too gnarly." Something like the introspection of the Philippe Petit documentary, Man on Wire – another film about a man performing near-suicidal athletic feats – is missing here, replaced by the more common indie loner psychology of films like Into the Wild. When Honnold bails the first time, it’s tough not to imagine how the scene would play with a Werner Herzog voiceover on the futility of human endeavor in the face of unforgiving nature. In place of a larger philosophy, though, are moments that are direct and affecting. There’s Sanni cutting Alex’s hair before the climb. There’s Honnold seeking reassurance from a kindly older climber and bailing on the conversation as soon as he gets it. And there’s the image of him on the summit, grinning broadly, saying “so delighted" over and over, but still enough in character to tell McCandless over the phone that he won’t cry, even though it’ll probably make the movie better.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Super Deluxe: Review

Early on in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe, three adolescent boys visit a second-hand DVD store. For someone who sells cheap knock-offs in plastic packets, the store-owner has suspiciously good taste. On the walls are posters of films by Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook, and a picture of David Lynch. At the risk of reading too much into what are probably random choices, it occurs to me that, like Tarantino’s second film, Kumararaja’s sophomore effort (he’d earlier directed the neo-noir Aaranya Kaandam) also has three intersecting stories. Like Park, his sense of framing and colour seems to bypass technique and go straight to elemental pleasure. And like Lynch, there’s a leap taken – beyond logic, beyond good sense.

The boys are there to buy porn – 3D porn, no less. After a string of events that seems even stranger when I think back on it, one of them ends up in hospital, badly injured. His mother, Leela (Ramya Krishnan), desperately tries to arrange money for a surgery, while his spiritual guide father, Arputham (Mysskin), leaves it all up to his god. In another story, Vaembu (Samantha Akkineni), stuck in a failing marriage, cheats on her husband. However, when the man she’s having a tryst with dies mid-coitus, she not only has to come clean to her husband, Mugil (Fahadh Faasil, great at playing weakness), but also has to enlist his help in disposing of the body.

In the third – and most resonant – story, Jothi (Gayathrie) awaits the return of her husband after he abandoned her and their infant son years ago. The extended family gathers to meet him, but the person who steps out of the auto is a woman. Jothi is distraught and everyone else horrified, all except young Rasukutty, who’s excited to meet his dad and doesn’t care that she wears a sari and wig. Shilpa, whom we only see post-transition in the film, is played by Vijay Sethupathi. One might reasonably ask if the makers considered casting a trans actor in a trans role – as Aruvi did in 2017. Still, casting Sethupathi, a well-known cis male star, as a transwoman does make some dramatic sense, paralleling the shock of the family at a new avatar of someone they know so well with that of the audience seeing a transformed Vijay. It also helps that Sethupathi embodies Shilpa with great feeling, and without a hint of a wink.

Kumararaja chops these stories up and parcels them out in fragments; it might take two viewings to understand the emotional impact of the order in which they appear. This sort of hyperlink filmmaking brings to mind the Alejandro Iñárritu-Guillermo Arriaga films, especially 2006’s Babel. Yet unlike Iñárritu’s symphonies of interconnected pain, the first 100 minutes of Super Deuxe’s nearly 3-hour runtime might be the most fun any Indian film’s been since Angamaly Diaries. After that, Kumararaja tightens the screws on the audience, introducing a new character, a depraved cop named Berlin. I found the four or five scenes he’s in protracted and difficult to watch – which may have been the director’s intention.

Throughout, the film-making remains dazzling. Kumararaja has chops to spare, shooting elaborate one-take scenes with a static camera, or with a roving camera and actors in motion, or editing the hell out of sequences. Working with cinematographers PS Vinod and Nirav Shah and art director Vijay Adhinathan, he makes colours pop: there’s a lot of yellow in the initial scenes with the boys, Vaembu and Mugil’s apartment is in shades of green, and Jothi and Shilpa’s home is in rich blues and reds. Some of the ideas are perfectly simple, it’s just that he executes them better than most – Shilpa and Rasukutty strolling across the screen, a wall plastered with film posters in the background, is an image I won’t forget soon. There are scene transitions that’ll make you smile. The Star Wars theme is played Carnatic music-style. It’s all very clever.

In places, it’s a little too clever. There’s a big, big swing in one of the storylines which falls completely flat. It also feels like Kumararaja and his co-writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K Sekar), in trying to connect the stories, might have stretched themselves: two scenes in particular have “link" written all over them. But Super Deluxe is too pleasurable and fluent from minute to minute, scene to scene to get hung up on the stuff that doesn’t work.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Indian cinema's world citizen

Guneet Monga was at Sneha Khanwalkar and Kanu Behl’s January wedding in Indore when she learnt that the film she had worked on had been nominated for an Oscar. She had been buying paan while checking Twitter. “I immediately told him, 20 paan kar do (make it 20)," she says. “Logon ka mooh meetha kar doongi (I’ll buy something sweet for everyone)."

This was Monga’s second time at the Oscars. In 2010, Kavi, an anti-slavery short she produced, was up for Best Live Action Short. It didn’t win. This time, Monga wasn’t the main producer but played a key role as India producer, helping to see through the shooting. The film, Period. End Of Sentence, was a non-fiction short about women making and selling menstrual pads in a village in Uttar Pradesh. With Netflix pushing the film, its chances seemed strong. Still, Monga knew the field was strong, and personally thought the migrant-focused Lifeboat was the favourite.

Some way into the Oscar ceremony, Period. End Of Sentence was announced the winner in the Best Documentary Short category. As Monga cheered from her seat, director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton thanked a list of people. One of the shout-outs was for Monga, though she was so overwhelmed she says she didn’t hear it then. The rest of the ceremony was a blur. It was only after it ended that she could relax and celebrate. “I was asking, what is the plan for this party and that party, do we have to be invited? They said, if you win, you and the crew just walk in with the trophy."

We are sitting in the Sikhya office, Monga’s production company, in a leafy by-lane in Versova, Mumbai. Cats are sunning themselves outside, and her dog, Shifu (named by director Vasan Bala), is sleeping in the foyer. Just next door is Cat Studio Café, a feline adoption centre and coffee shop. I ask Monga how she felt when she found herself part of an Oscar-winning team. “I don’t think the world prepares you for success," she says. “It really prepares you for failure—get up again, be resilient." She says the enormity of it hit her during the 20-hour flight back to India. Her phone was full of congratulatory messages—from friends, mentors, people she had worked with once a decade ago.

One of the well-wishers was her former school principal at Bluebells International School in Delhi. Monga credits her time there with instilling in her the leadership qualities that helped her rise in the film world. At 35, she is already India’s best-known producer on the world cinema circuit, with over three dozen films to her name, many of them critical favourites. She is a regular at Cannes: Gangs Of Wasseypur, Peddlers, The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout have all premiered there. That Girl In Yellow Boots showed at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in 2010. Zubaan opened Busan in 2015—a first for an Indian film.

Monga started working part-time when she was 16—she wanted to save enough to buy her parents a house one day. She was, in her own words, “an overexcited intern everywhere", selling cheese, editing, working as a DJ. “I was a motivator and hustler bachpan se (since childhood)," she says. She studied mass communication from Delhi’s Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, then got a job assisting Anureeta Saigal, a production coordinator on foreign films shooting in India. “A lot of the energy and the calmness that you need to run a film set comes from her," Monga says. Starting as an “intern’s intern", she worked her way up to gigs as production coordinator, production manager, location manager. When her first film as producer, Say Salaam India (2007), did badly, she sold shows to students at reduced rates until the film made its money.

In 2009, Monga’s career took a turn when Anurag Kashyap asked her to produce his film That Girl In Yellow Boots. He soon offered her a position as CEO of AKFPL (Anurag Kashyap Film Productions Ltd). With Yellow Boots, Monga got her first glimpse of the arthouse circuit at the Venice Film Festival. “I went there with printing stationery," she says. “I thought, I’ll stick posters, like I used to at college festivals. We booked our stay in Venice—we didn’t even know the festival was in Lido, which is 45 minutes by water." Marco Mueller, then director of the festival, explained that she had to book meetings with foreign distributors months in advance. Monga realized she needed to build her contacts. She started visiting the big festival towns in the off-season, armed with a list of industry players to track down and meet.

AKFPL had several projects in the works and Monga found herself handling back-office duties in Mumbai for Gangs Of Wasseypur even as Shaitan and Aiyyaa went on the floor. She also started developing a project that Ritesh Batra had pitched at the Screenwriters’ Lab in Goa. This became The Lunchbox, the film that Monga considers, along with Bala’s Peddlers, the first production she could wholeheartedly call her own. The Lunchbox was a huge global hit (most of its earnings—over ₹100 crore—came from outside India), but the success was hard-won. “We sold the whole world at Cannes in one week," she says. “But when we came back to India, the studios passed." It took the film’s box-office success in the US and Europe for many to realize that Monga knew what she was doing.

Monga’s career was seemingly in high gear, but it was in reality a difficult time for her. In 2014, Kashyap decided to close AKFPL, a decision she says “felt personal". Tigers stalled, she couldn’t get Peddlers released in theatres, and Monsoon Shootout didn’t make the splash she expected. “I questioned myself, my taste, my judgement," she says. There was also unaddressed personal trauma. Her parents had died a couple of years earlier, within 6 months of each other; she had thrown herself into work then. She tried to snap out of it by travelling, learning Kalaripayattu, shaving her head—a loaded statement, considering she used to dye her hair grey to look older and be taken seriously by those who expected producers to be older males.

She flips through photographs of herself from 2010, in a sari and with grey hair. “Who would have said that I look like I’m in my 20s?" she says sadly. “It feels like I was judged and put under a lot of pressure." A renewed interest in spirituality—in particular the teachings of the late Nirmal Singhji Maharaj, known to his followers as “Guruji"—helped her emerge from her dark period. She now attends satsangs regularly (“That’s my happy space").

Sikhya is a 15-member team right now—it varies with the projects they are working on. Monga says she isn’t a micromanager, though she likes to offer feedback on whatever everyone is doing. She describes her approach as “very intuitive and impulsive", and is trying to temper it with experience. She has started taking Sundays and half-Saturdays off, though she adds that the office feels like an extension of home (her own home is 5 minutes away), and that you will often see the team there on a weekend watching a film together. In her free time, she catches up on films and shows she has missed, meets friends, colours books and sleeps.

In the works is a Tamil film with director Sudha Kongara, and another with actor Sanya Malhotra. Monga also has plans for a YouTube channel which will focus on women telling their own stories. The Oscar experience, she says, “feels like a good closure. It has been a good decade. I’m ready for the next, to win it for features..."

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Love, Death & Robots

A trailer for Love, Death & Robots released last month was a warning to viewers that they weren’t in Disneyland any more. The animated Netflix anthology series is now streaming, and, from the first episode (the order varies—I got 'Sonnie’s Edge'), it effortlessly earns its adults-only tag. Sonnie is a “pilot", combatants who are hooked up to monsters called “beasties", who duke it out in staged fights. There’s nudity, a trigger warning-worthy backstory, and copious amounts of violence.

'Sonnie’s Edge' is also representative of the realistic style several of the episodes are rendered in. This sort of animation, favoured by recent role-playing games and films like Ready Player One, has its fans, though I prefer the hand-drawn or impressionistic episodes. 'Good Hunting' combines steampunk, Chinese folk tales and body horror to original, if confusing, effect. The stop-motion 'When The Yogurt Took Over' has a gentle absurdity. And 'Zima Blue' is a standout, the bold colours and distinctive lines of director Robert Valley allied to an ambitiously philosophical story.

My favourite story by some distance was 'The Witness', directed by Alberto Mielgo, visual consultant on the recent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In a psychedelic Asian metropolis, a woman is chased down alleys and through futuristic sex clubs by a man who may have committed murder. This is irresistible pop art, as if a Satoshi Kon anime has been passed through Blade Runner.

The series is the creation of Tim Miller (director, Deadpool), and has David Fincher as executive producer. It bears the imprint of both. Sonnie resembles the protagonist of Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Miller’s penchant for coarse humour and extreme violence shows up as well. But the writing isn’t as sharp as it is in their films, and there’s little subtlety even in the best episodes. Many of the shorts are take-offs on better-known entities: 'Suits' is Pacific Rim on a farm, 'Beyond The Aquila Rift' is Solaris with a lot of sex, 'Three Robots' is a profane Wall-E.

The varying quality shouldn’t put you off. There is some savagely beautiful animation on offer. Also, it’s a corrective—possibly an over-corrective—for the tragic shortage of animation for mature audiences (outside of comedy series) in the West.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Much ado about masala

What does Shakespeare have to do with an item number called 'Jhalla Wallah'? Is the Bard more alive in the films of Vishal Bhardwaj and Sanjay Leela Bhansali than on the stages of England? These are the kind of questions you’ll encounter in Masala Shakespeare, a fascinating study of masala film (and some theatre and literature) in conjunction with the plays of Shakespeare. The book, by Jonathan Gil Harris, professor of English at Ashoka University and author of The First Firangis and other titles, doesn’t just list the films that have been adapted from his plays, but also teases out less apparent connections; for instance, comparing the multilingual punning in Hindi film lyrics to the audience-pleasing humour in the plays. But there’s an elegiac edge to Harris’ book as well, a feeling that the idea of masala—or syncretic mixture—may now be dying out. I spoke to Harris over the phone about diversity, his fondness for single-screen cinemas, and his favourite Shakespeare “spot" in a movie.

You write about how watching ‘Lagaan’ in Delhi in 2001 was “profoundly Shakespearean". Were there other such eureka moments?
The Lagaan moment was the crucial one. But there were just a series of eureka moments. Once I got it into my head that there’s something fundamentally Shakespearean about the masala movie, and the experience of the single-screen cinema, it then became unavoidable. Every time I went to the cinema, I would be thinking, this reminds of that particular play or scene. I also became increasingly aware, as Indian cinema migrated into the multiplex, that the nature of movies being made for Hindi-speaking audiences was changing. So what initially may have been a book about the incredible synergy between Bollywood and Shakespeare increasingly became a kind of lament for the passing of a way of thinking and a kind of cinema.

You set the tone early on with your criticism of Merchant-Ivory’s ‘Shakespeare Wallah’, which has no affection for Hindi cinema.
That film helped strengthen certain stereotypes about Shakespeare and Hindi cinema being fundamentally different—that Shakespeare equals high art and Hindi cinema is cheap and flashy, which is a bit noxious. As you can see in the book, Shakespeare is everything that Shakespeare Wallah claims Hindi cinema is.

Unlike many others who come to Hindi cinema later in life, you make the crucial point that masala film-making is not a genre.
Yes, very much. This is something I’ve encountered a little resistance over—quite a few people say Harris doesn’t know what masala is, he’s using the term very broadly. It became increasingly clear to me that masala is a way of thinking, a way of relating, and it was crucial to an idea of India that is encountering a great deal of resistance.

I taught a course on masala, and, on the very first day I asked the students to free-associate. It’s amazing what came back—cheap, crass, grotesque, dirty, lowbrow, unpleasant. Masala represents some kind of impurity that makes them all uncomfortable. And so what I’m trying to do with this book is make people a little more comfortable with the idea of impurity, mixture, multiplicity as a fundamental reality in India.

I found the book pleasurably overstuffed, with its digressions and sub-chapters.
Even though I’m an academic, I wanted to produce something that would produce something of the effect of Hindi masala film. I wanted to mix things up, I wanted to make sure the audience didn’t get too complacent with my arguments. I was trying to combine elements of a Shakespeare play, with the five acts, and Hindi films, with the interludes named after songs as sort of item numbers. The question of style was very important to me, because that’s my whole argument with masala.

Not many would associate ‘Jhalla Wallah’, from ‘Ishaqzaade’, with Shakespeare, but you find in its lyrics a parallel to the linguistic dexterity of his language.
So many people say, I love Shakespeare, but when I ask them why, they can’t tell me. They’ve never sat down to have an irreverent conversation with Shakespeare the way they would with a film. So I wanted to give people tools that would allow them to engage much more cheekily with Shakespeare without dismissing the richness of the plays.

I can’t tell you how much I love 'Jhalla Wallah'. I heard that song and I grasped even the first time that there was something about the lyrics that really worked in the context of the film. It taught me how to read the opening exchange in Romeo And Juliet—why the series of puns would have worked for an audience in 1595.

(Amitabh) Bhattacharya, Kausar Munir, they pun across languages with extraordinary wit. And you can see the audience getting it. That’s very Shakespearean and very masala. It’s the one aspect of masala that I think has survived into the multiplex. I keep saying to my students, if you want to find Shakespeare in writing now, look at the lyrics of Hindi film songs.

One of your bolder theories is a comparison of a vocal dip in ‘O Saathi Re’ from ‘Omkara’ and an 11-syllable line in ‘Othello’.
The first time I met Vishal Bhardwaj, I sang 'O Saathi Re' to him. I was struck that the emotional impact of the song is similar to something I was trying to teach my students in Othello, which is listening to doubt in the rhythm of the lines. I said, nothing has helped me teach the acoustics of doubt better than 'O Saathi Re'. And Vishal was very amused. He said, I never thought of it that. It may not have been deliberate on Bhardwaj’s part but because he’s both a storyteller and a musician, his vocabulary has certain uncanny similarities with Shakespeare.

We forget that Shakespeare was a poet as well as a playwright—and a poet in the old-fashioned sense, someone who is communicating with his audience in a way that involves the use of syncopation and cadence and melody. I think that’s why Bhardwaj and Gulzar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali have pulled off such successful adaptations of Shakespeare, because they’re all musicians.

How attuned are you to seeing Shakespeare in a work of art?
I remember thinking early on while watching Dil Chahta Hai, wow, this is really reminding me of Much Ado About Nothing, these three friends for whom heterosexual love is both an aspiration but also an interruption of their bond. Then came a scene in Sydney Harbour where the boat appears with the name “Much Ado About Nothing". I turned to my partner and said, oh my God, because I’d told her about half an hour ago, this is really reminding me of Much Ado.

She got to meet (director) Farhan Akhtar later, so she asked if he was thinking about Much Ado. He said, I haven’t even read it.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare ‘spot’ in a masala context?
There was one several years back. I was watching Dedh Ishqiya. The sequence where Begum Para is being wooed by the various princes who were doing shayari—I thought, this is Merchant Of Venice, she’s Portia. It was no surprise that Vishal had produced the film and contributed to it.

Towards the end of the book, you write that the masala ethos will “most likely to survive outside the cinema than in it".
I think it has to do with what I call the form of revolution. I think what we’re getting as a result of multiplex cinema, Netflix cinema, are films made for niche audiences, rather than films deliberately made in a mixed style to appeal to a mixed audience. These niche forms can be very nice, but the India of Kapoor & Sons can be a Scottish town. The idea that India is diverse, overcrowded, speaking many languages—that is given very little space.

So one has to look for other venues where that kind of plurality may have some currency. I’m seeing it in theatre. There has been an interesting turn in recent years. When I first came here the theatre students would do beautiful versions of Western plays. Students that don’t like masala films are very interested in indigenous forms like nautanki, jatra. Even though their taste in cinema is migrating westwards, they want Indian theatre. I have been able to do some quite experimental theatre with my students, where they’ve taught me a lot about grandparents’ traditions. I found them more open to doing masala conversations with Shakespeare there.

Have you seen a change in the way your students are relating to Shakespeare?
Yes, a big change. When I first came, I think students thought they were more familiar with Shakespeare, because they encountered more Shakespeare in the high school curriculum. Now the students are often a little frightened of Shakespeare because they’ve rarely read them before, but if you give them some tools, they are much more willing to reimagine him from an Indian point of view.

When I was head of the Shakespeare Society of India, we would put on a national drama competition every year, where people would do scenes from Shakespeare. When I first came to India, nearly all the scenes were straight renditions, a little bit like a karaoke bar. The last couple of years, no one does scenes in English, they do them in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bhojpuri. I think that’s very good news. It makes a much more creative and thoughtful and inquisitive engagement with Shakespeare than what the Shakespeare Wallah engagement was.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.