Thursday, October 31, 2019

The art of the unhurried interview

George Plimpton, American sports writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, was an evangelist for the art of the interview. “Try to think of the interview as a dramatic form in itself," he advised a contributor to the journal, “where one’s tools are very much the dramatic devices: character buildup, suspense, surprise, argument even." On another occasion, he said, “The best interviews not only divulge something about the character of the writer, but have a surprise or two in them, and maybe even a plot."

Film interviewing in India rarely fulfils the Plimptonian ideal. Too often, it’s a less-than-illuminating barter of print space for a star’s time. Even the better interviews centre on films about to release, thus limiting the scope of the conversation. TV interviews are mostly cosy affairs, with anchor and guest trading gossip. Cinema-centric publications are few, and even in these interviews are “pegged" to release dates.

Every journalist has at least one story about when they kept talking with a subject for hours until, magically, something was revealed. Indian film stars rarely grant that kind of access and Indian film journalists rarely seek it. Unless you are lucky, the 20-minute discussion that fills a half-page in a daily will yield little more than rehearsed answers.

Still, a few individuals have been steadily pushing the practice of the unhurried interview. They work in markedly different fields: as an author, a TV anchor, a preservationist. But they are united by a determination to reveal the workings of Indian film, and to record the memories of its practitioners while they are still around.


There’s nothing like the moment when a seasoned interviewer says, “I didn’t know that."

One such admission comes 110 pages into Conversations With Waheeda Rehman, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book-length interview with the actor. They have already spoken about her famous films with Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool) and her lone collaboration with Satyajit Ray, Abhijan. Kabir brings up Guide—perhaps Rehman’s most celebrated performance—and asks her if she had read R.K. Narayan’s source novel before it was turned into a movie. Rehman replies: “It was Mr Ray who asked me to read the novel because he was considering adapting it."

Kabir’s research is clearly exhaustive—one of her earlier questions is about a portrait of Rehman painted in the early 1960s by Kaagaz Ke Phool’s set designer, M.R. Achrekar. So when she reveals that she wasn’t aware of a detail this significant, what she’s really telling the reader is: How exciting! Over Skype, Kabir says it always makes her very happy when her subjects say something she suspects no one knows. “You know you haven’t heard it. And you can see they are excited, and they talk faster, and if you try and interrupt them they won’t listen to you."

Kabir started out in the 1970s as an assistant to other directors, including French legend Robert Bresson. She helped organize Indian film festivals for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and directed the 1989 documentaries In Search Of Guru Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan: Follow That Star. But it was Movie Mahal (1986-88), a 46-part guide to Hindi cinema that she made for British TV, which prompted publisher Rukun Advani to suggest she do a book-length interview.

Kabir was initially hesitant, but when she approached Javed Akhtar with the idea he was enthusiastic. The result was Talking Films, a freewheeling discussion about Akhtar’s screenwriting career as one half of the iconic Salim-Javed duo (the two would later sit down for another book, Talking Songs, in which Akhtar discusses his equally influential career as a lyricist).

At the time, Kabir couldn’t have known she would become synonymous with the interview book. She has since published conversations with Waheeda Rehman, writer-director Gulzar (twice), singer Lata Mangeshkar, composer A.R. Rahman and percussionist-composer Zakir Hussain. Each discussion usually stretches over 16-20 sessions of about 2 hours each, in person or over Skype.

It’s useful, Kabir says, to establish one’s own credentials as an interviewer early on. “The most important thing is to surprise them, because they have done thousands of interviews. If you ask them ‘What’s your most important film?’ and they say Guide, that’s the end of the conversation." She believes the interviewer’s voice can be present in the discussion without making it to the page. “Often I am an active participant, but when I complete the book, I cut my questions in half. I don’t want the reader to think I am a smart-ass."

Once the conversations are done, Kabir gives them out for transcribing. When they are returned to her, she edits each session one by one. “Then I start cutting and pasting so it flows. If someone talks about tomatoes and then in the next session talks about tomatoes again, you have to join them in the book. A conversation needs to be a seamless advance."


In 2018, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur was invited to screen Celluloid Man, his documentary on film archivist P.K. Nair, and give a talk at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. He spoke, as he often does, about the vast swathes of Indian cinema that lay undocumented. Afterwards, he was approached by the Academy, which has been recording oral histories—career-spanning interviews with actors, directors and technicians—since 1989. Would Dungarpur like to conduct his own oral histories with Indian film professionals?

A history-minded documentarian and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), an organization dedicated to the preservation of cinema, Dungarpur had already dabbled in oral history. He had recorded Gulzar at length on tape and shot for 4 hours with actor Kamini Kaushal. Celluloid Man itself was a sort of oral history of Nair. “I was anxious that nothing was being done to archive these legends on film," Dungarpur told me when we met at the FHF office in Tardeo, Mumbai. He immediately said yes to the Academy.

Before Dungarpur and his team could start, though, they had to learn how to conduct the interviews—which meant unlearning what they knew about interviewing. “Oral history is all about the speaker deciding what they want to say," Dungarpur explains. The camera would not move. There would be no leading questions or interjections. This is the exact opposite of Kabir’s approach, where the interviewer’s personality shapes the conversation as much as the guest’s. Here the interviewers must subsume themselves for the sake of the discussion.

The FHF started out by researching each subject’s life’s work, doing some in-house and outsourcing the rest to film scholars they trusted. A detailed filmography was assembled in each case, key films identified, and a questionnaire prepared. Rohini Singh, who worked at the FHF and assisted Dungarpur on the histories, says the conversations usually lasted 4-7 hours. “This is the longest interview most of them have sat for. We have to reinforce the idea that this isn’t any old interview, that they are the narrator."

Since February, the FHF has interviewed film-makers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Ratnam, actors Amitabh Bachchan, Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Vishwa Mehra, Raj Kapoor’s uncle. I was shown excerpts from a couple of conversations, which will eventually be made available by both the Academy and FHF. Mani Ratman talks about the perils of directing great performers: “You realize that the better the actor, they can convince you with anything, and you have still got to make sure the edges are sharp and they don’t stray." Asked what acting means to him, Bachchan gives a reflex sound bite (“It’s a job"), but, faced with silence, expands this into a thoughtful response, speaking almost wistfully about how the current crop of actors immerse themselves in their characters whereas he “just wanted to learn the lines".


The longest-running film interview show of its kind in India is on Rajya Sabha TV, a channel few even know exists. Guftagoo has aired weekly since 2011, with more than 350 episodes in the bank. Its host is Syed Mohd Irfan, whose unassuming manner belies his reputation as an incisive interviewer. He worked for years as a freelance broadcast and communications professional in TV and radio, teaching, doing voice-over work, and hosting the popular vintage film music programme Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya on FM Gold.

Irfan started Guftagoo with the idea of chronicling, for half an hour every week, a little piece of Indian cinema (the full episodes, which sometimes last an hour, are on RSTV’s YouTube channel). That so many luminaries have passed on without being recorded spurred Irfan. “I didn’t know who Iftekhar was," he said over the phone from Delhi. “I didn’t know Mukri either. Who was Om Prakash? What was Hangal’s life story?"

RSTV may not be prestigious but it has over three million subscribers on YouTube, which is where, Irfan says, most people watch his show now. And since a Parliament channel doesn’t care about inviting guests based on whose film is releasing, Irfan can talk to pretty much whoever he wants, about whatever interests him (four consecutive episodes last year were with Telugu writer-director B. Narsing Rao, French subtitler François-Xavier Durandy and Hindi film actors Konkona Sensharma and Anupam Kher). He assembles the show by himself—a habit formed in his radio days—doing his own research and making guest bookings.

Most of Irfan’s guests are happy to be interviewed by him. The conversation with the late Tom Alter has a warm start, with smiles on the host’s and guest’s faces. Singer Usha Uthup starts hers by saying she’d been hoping to be invited, and telling Irfan, “Mujhe khaas taur se aap pasand hain (I like you in particular)."

Yet it’s not always smooth, and that’s when you see the steel under Irfan’s unruffled manner. In his conversation with Piyush Mishra, the actor sits in a strange sideways fashion, shoulder aimed at the camera, remarks addressed to the side. Irfan lets him finish his first answer, then says firmly, “Aankh se aankh mila kar baat kariye (look me in the eye and speak)."

The opening moments with Jackie Shroff are even more tense. Irfan starts by asking the star about his parents. Shroff bristles. “Don’t you think you are asking me to go a little deep, asking me about my mother who’s no more?" he snaps. “She’s everywhere, but that doesn’t mean I have to dig her up." Irfan remembers thinking then that the interview was over. But he keeps his composure and Shroff’s mood quickly lifts. It ended up as one of his most popular episodes.

Irfan talks about finding the sur (tune) of an interview. You can see him discover it more than halfway through his conversation with Akshay Kumar. Kumar responds to the host’s questions about his early life professionally, without much show of emotion. Irfan keeps at it patiently, probing the actor’s mentions of his interest in sports, trouble with studies, and strict father. It bears fruit in the 17th minute, when Kumar opens up and recalls how he once told his father, who was berating him for his low marks: “I will become a hero one day." Suddenly, guest and host are laughing and the interview has found its music.

Most Guftagoo sessions unfold at the guests’ homes. This allows for a new setting every week, but it also leaves Irfan at the mercy of the surroundings. As he notes wryly: “In Bombay (Mumbai), someone is always cutting stones." In a 2016 episode, after a series of thuds from the construction work outside, voice artist Chetan Shashithal interrupts his story and advises the sound engineer to adjust the volume so the microphone isn’t damaged.

Sometimes, though, setting and subject align beautifully. Writer and comedian Varun Grover told me that when he was interviewed, “Irfan very calmly took me aside and said ‘Hum log thoda itminaan se baat aap bataaiye kahaan comfortable hoga (We are going to have a relaxed chat…you tell me where you will be comfortable).’ I told him we can sit on the floor. He agreed."

Irfan doesn’t like keeping a set of questions in front of him. He’s calm, even bland, on the surface, but is searching constantly for a thread to the discussion. Sometimes, he already has it—a remark on another show by actor Pankaj Tripathi about how there’s a woman inside him—but he seems to relish seeking it out. “He seemed to be in a trance throughout, stable and fixed gaze," Grover says about his experience on the show, “and absolutely focused on giving the conversation a unique character. After watching the interview, I think I realized what he was going for. Slow-burn but with bursts of high-flame stir-fries in between."

These high-flame stir-fries often take guests by surprise. “People actually start crying," Irfan says. “I have to take a break."

One can see the influence of Guftagoo on Neelesh Misra’s Slow Interview series (on YouTube). Kabir’s work can be said to have cleared the way for interview books like Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations With Mani Ratnam. Some interview-based Indian cinema podcasts (Anything But Bollywood, Cinema Beyond Entertainment) have also surfaced.

These are encouraging signs, even if the slow film interview has a long way to go before it takes root. We have already failed to preserve our silent cinema. Every few months, another unrecorded fragment of our film history passes away. Simply by getting experts to speak, Kabir, Irfan and Dungarpur are working as archivists. The conversations may be unhurried, but the task could not be more urgent.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jabariya Jodi: Review

A few weeks ago, Hrithik Roshan was on the big screen, doing battle with the Bihari tongue. It was, like everything the actor does, labour-intensive. Still, honest effort will get you somewhere – after all, Hrithik completes 20 years in Hindi film soon. Will Sidharth Malhotra, whose Bihari accent in Jabariya Jodi comes and goes like a bad habit, be around in 2032? It seems unlikely. You might look like a Bernini sculpture, but eventually people are going to expect you to do the job you’ve been hired for.

And what of Parineeti Chopra? She murders Bihari as comprehensively as Malhotra (whom she starred with in the odd but involving Hasee Toh Phasee in 2014), but a bigger problem might be the “Parineeti-type" character she’s chosen to play (or been handed) again. She had considerable success early on, in films like Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl, Ishaqzaade and Shuddh Desi Romance, playing outspoken, impulsive women. But that sort of adorable impetuosity has become familiar: Diana Penty in Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016) and Kriti Sanon in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) are just two recent iterations. When Chopra revisits it in Jabariya, it’s a strange case of stereotype meeting originator.

Abhay (Malhotra) is a Patna tough, an arranger of jabariya shaadis – forced weddings. He kidnaps grooms who ask for dowry and forces them to marry at gunpoint; the girl’s family pays Abhay’s father for services rendered. It’s as barbaric a practice as dowry, but director Prashant Singh and writer Sanjeev K Jha treat it as a joke: Look at those unhappy men from wealthy families who will almost certainly take their frustrations out on their new brides! One such comic scene has Abhay sending up a punctured condom to the married couple they have under lock and key – the idea being that a pregnant woman is tougher to abandon. For a film ostensibly concerned about a woman’s right not to be sold as a piece of property, this is a stunningly tone-deaf piece of writing.

It’s at one of his shotgun weddings that Abhay runs into Babli (Parineeti Chopra), whom he was in love with as a child, before her family moved town. They fall for each other again, but when her father (Sanjay Mishra, visibly bored) finds out, he decides to get her married to someone else. Of course, Abhay is hired to jabariya Babli’s wedding. She gets mad, kidnaps him. He kidnaps her. There’s a slo-mo sad song fight sequence. There’s something about six pheras.

As Babli’s steadfast friend and emotional piñata, Aparshakti Khurana does his reputation no harm. This is the only silver lining I can offer. It’s been a year of offensively bad films – PM Narendra Modi, Thackeray, Kesari. But anger and disgust will keep you awake, which is more than I can say for Jabariya Jodi.

This review appeared in Mint.

Judgementall Hai Kya: Review

One of the people thanked in the opening credits of Judgementall Hai Kya is Sriram Raghavan. Whether or not he was involved with the film, this nod by director Prakash Kovelamudi and screenwriter Kanika Dhillon isn’t out of place. The film unfolds in Mumbai and London, but the real setting is Raghavan-land. There’s a death in the first few minutes. There are posters that read “Grand Guignol" (and actual Grand Guignol). And there’s that creeping doubt: should we be enjoying this?

Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) has acute psychosis, attributed to her inadvertently causing the death of her parents when she was a child. She’s paranoid, nervy, in and out of psychiatric institutions. She won’t take her medicines, so she hears voices in her head. Her work as a dubbing artist for pulpy south Indian films probably isn’t helping with her equilibrium: she’s a voice in someone’s head herself. She sees signs everywhere, literally – a man holding up a placard with fortune-cookie messages.

When a young couple moves into the apartment she’s letting out, Bobby quickly becomes obsessed with Keshav (Rajkummar Rao), who enters her dubbing-session fantasies and sets off RD Burman roars in her head. She’s clearly unstable – spying on the couple as they make love, hallucinating about cockroaches – and for a while that’s all this film is about. But then there’s a grisly accident, Bobby and Keshav are both suspects, and the tone switches from dark to pitch-black.

Ranaut’s willingness to inhabit different shades of instability has made her one of the most exciting Indian actors of the past decade. She’s always played women on the verge: Woh Lamhe, Fashion, Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel, Simran. So it’s somewhat surprising that when she now plays a character who's over the edge, it feels a little second-guessed. The hysterical laughter, the sudden rages – I felt I was watching Kangana imitating Kangana playing one of her characters.

This feeling of meta-ness isn’t accidental. In fact, Judgementall Hai Kya is at its most intriguing when seen as a commentary on Ranaut’s career. There are nods, not exactly subtle, to films like Revolver Rani and Manikarnika. Old co-stars turn up: Rao, Jimmy Sheirgill. Bobby is accused – as Ranaut has so often been – of lies and unstable behaviour, and she responds as Ranaut always does: head-on. “Character mein ghus jaati hai (she really inhabits the character)," someone says of Bobby – again, something that’s often been remarked about Ranaut.

When the action moves to London, the film simultaneously opens up and spins a little beyond reach. Here’s where the Raghavan comparisons end: Judgementall Hai Kya has a brilliant premise, but lacks the corrosive wit and discipline of Andhadhun and Badlapur. The icy glide of Raghavan’s stories is matched by his implacable control. Kovelamudi, on the other hand, tries to heat things up, pushing Rao and Ranaut – both capable of great subtle work – into awkward excess. The one person who benefits from this is cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, who gets to shoot Christopher Doyle shimmers, Emmanuel Lubezki jitters and classic Universal black-and-white.

The passage where Bobby is spying on Keshav got me thinking how often Ranaut plays sexually empowered women. In Revolver Rani, in Rangoon, she’s the initiator, the aggressor. Her objects of desire feel the intensity of her gaze; so does the audience. This is where the actor is in her element – inhabiting characters who invite judgement, then gleefully calling her critics judgemental. In a manicured industry, she remains a fascinating question mark.

This review appeared in Mint.

Looney tunes: The moon in music

"If you want to write a song about the heart/ Think about the moon before you start," Paul Simon advised in 'Song About The Moon'. It’s not just the heart, though—the malleability of the moon as a symbol allows its use in an impressively wide range of songs. Musicians working in everything from country to ska to post-rock have linked the moon to loneliness, romance, madness, vampires, werewolves. It’s a quiet observer in Elvis Presley’s ethereal Sun Studio recording of 'Blue Moon' (“You saw me standing alone"), a confidant in Sting’s 'Sister Moon' (“I’d go out of my mind, but for you"). It’s a bad combination with all the rum Chuck Berry is drinking in 'Havana Moon'. It can be a portent of bad times ('Bad Moon Rising') or a marker of good times ('Dancing In The Moonlight').

Two famous classical pieces with “moonlight" in their title began life as something else. Claude Debussy’s 'Clair De Lune'—French for “light of the moon", from a poem by Paul Verlaine—was originally called 'Promenade Sentimentale'. But perhaps Debussy recognized that the crystalline notes suggested a lunar light, because he changed the name before the suite’s publication in 1905. To complicate matters, there’s another 'Clair De Lune', composed in 1887 by another Frenchman, Gabriel Fauré, which also takes its title from the Verlaine poem—though this is a vocal piece, while Debussy’s is for piano.

The actual title of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight Sonata'—one of the most famous pieces in Western classical music—is 'Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia'. It was only five years after his death that the nocturnal mood of the minor key beginning moved poet Ludwig Rellstab to describe it as “a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne". The name stuck.

Jazz is a nocturnal genre, and more than a few moon-related tracks appear in the canon. Glenn Miller’s 'Moonlight Serenade' is a classic swing ballad. 'How High The Moon' was a Broadway duet before Ella Fitzgerald made the song hers in a bebop-inflected 1947 session. Harold Arlen’s 'It’s Only A Paper Moon' also started as a Broadway tune, but over the years was passed from one jazz legend to another, two highlights being Fitzgerald’s vocal version and Coleman Hawkins’ instrumental.

Years later, Peter Bogdanovich thought of calling his 1973 film “Paper Moon" after the song. He rang up Orson Welles for advice. The older director responded: “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title."

Moon music can also be challenging, cutting-edge. From as early as the fourth century till fairly recently, the word “lunatic" stood in for all kinds of mental illnesses. The word has its origins in the belief that the moon has the power to make people lose their minds—the Latin lunaticus is “moonstruck". No musician captured this idea better than the German Arnold Schoenberg, whose 'Pierrot Lunaire' (Pierrot Of The Moon) was a scandal when it was debuted in 1912 and is startling to hear even today. This is a German translation of French poems set to music by Schoenberg—though it may not be like any music you have heard. Voices soar and dive, never settling on any distinguishable melody. Instruments saw away at the edges, as if part of a whole different conversation. The effect is bracingly atonal—mondestrunken, moon-drunk. Unsurprisingly, Icelandic avant-pop singer Björk has covered 'Pierrot Lunaire' in concert.

The moon landing spawned its own musical legacy. In 1947, bandleader Les Baxter recorded Music Out Of The Moon, an album notable for combining an orchestra with the keening wail of a theremin, an electronic instrument which soon became synonymous with sci-fi cinema. This obscure record fulfilled its destiny, as it were, when Neil Armstrong took it along on cassette on the Apollo 11 mission and played it in space. Stepping out on the lunar surface after Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin played Frank Sinatra’s 'Fly Me To The Moon'—making it the first piece of music played on the moon.

Back on Earth, not everyone was excited about the space race. African-American poet and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron released, in 1970, the protest song 'Whitey On The Moon' ("No hot water, no toilets, no lights/ But whitey’s on the moon"). Decades later, R.E.M. weaved conspiracy theories surrounding the lunar landing into one of their most resonant compositions, 'Man On The Moon'.

Both Music Out Of The Moon’s 'Lunar Rhapsody' and 'Whitey’s On The Moon' feature in First Man, the 2018 Damien Chazelle film about Armstrong and Apollo 11 mission. The film’s score is composed by Justin Hurwitz, who—like Baxter—combines traditional instruments with a theremin (“We’re used to hearing a theremin in sci-fi movies and sort of B movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s," Hurwitz said in an interview. “What if we used it in a really expressive melodic way?"). The scene in which Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, walks on the moon is accompanied by an unforgettable shimmering score, the thrum of the strings suggesting the thrill of discovery, the theremin shading in a bit of mystery.

This is a far cry from the other famous movie moment with astronauts on the lunar surface: the “monolith" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stanley Kubrick scored this with the terrifying choral buzzing of György Ligeti’s 'Requiem'. Those with faint hearts can seek comfort in Johann Strauss’ 'Blue Danube Waltz', used for the moon landing scene in the same film. There’s no one kind of moon song.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

The German who changed Hindi cinema

Josef Wirsching was an up-and-coming cinematographer in Germany in the early 1930s. As the Nazis were tightening their grip on the industry, India was coming into its own as a film-making nation. Wirsching had enjoyed working here in 1925, shooting the Indo-German silent film Prem Sanyas (The Light Of Asia) with actor Himanshu Rai.

In 1934, Rai and his wife, actor Devika Rani, founded their own studio, Bombay Talkies, eager to put to use what they had learnt on their visits to the German film industry. They also knew that an infusion of foreign talent would distinguish their productions from local competitors. So they invited Light Of Asia director Franz Osten, who brought down his team: Wirsching, production designer Karl von Spreti, lab technician Wilhelm Zolle. They joined the ranks of other émigrés seeking refuge from fascism in India: writer Willy Haas; Walter Kaufmann, composer of the All India Radio theme; Paul Zils, who helped grow non-fiction film in the country.

The Wirschings—Josef and his wife, Charlotte—settled down in Mumbai. Their lives took a difficult turn when World War II broke out. Josef Wirsching, a German national, was held in internment camps in Ahmednagar, Dehradun and Satara. In her programme note for an exhibition of Wirsching’s photographs at Serendipity Arts Festival in 2017, film historian and college professor Debashree Mukherjee writes of a photograph from the Dehradun camp of Josef drawing for his infant son.

As their star director of photography, Wirsching shot several seminal Bombay Talkies productions. He’s also credited with bringing German expressionism—characterized by heavy shadows and dramatic compositions—to Indian cinema. In the 1935 thriller Jawani Ki Hawa, Mukherjee writes, “Wirsching composed frames with huge pools of darkness, sharp highlights, eerie shadows, distorted angles, and sets which appear to overwhelm the humans. In his next few films for Bombay Talkies, Wirsching frequently framed characters through arches, doorways, and windows; favored eccentric camera angles; and masterfully molded light to create shadows and pools of darkness."

His expressionist style found its ideal showcase in Kamal Amrohi’s 1949 film, Mahal. The Gothic narrative gave him the chance to use shadows and canted angles; a look that would also influence the India noir films of the 1950s. Madhubala’s entry scene is a classic, but the whole film is really a tour de force of feverish photography. V.K. Murthy, a production assistant on that film, must have been taking notes; he later created similar Gothic magic on the Guru Dutt production Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Wirsching died in 1967, before the completion of his sole colour film, Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), shot in CinemaScope and Eastmancolor, a landmark of romantic excess.

On YouTube you will find several films shot by Wirsching, though the prints don’t do justice to his artistry. His legacy has been kept alive by his grandsons, Josef and Georg. In 2017, they organized an exhibition of stills from his films and photographs taken by him, at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. You can also see the photographs online, on the Wirsching Archive website. There’s Ashok Kumar as a smouldering, shirtless romantic star; Devika Rani lighting a cigarette between takes; Helen sharing a laugh on set with Josef and Charlotte; a charged still of Rani and Najmal Hussain, rumoured to be in love in real life, standing in a train compartment in Jawani Ki Hawa. It’s a whole forgotten world of glamour.

This photoessay appeared in Mint Lounge.

It’s open season on film critics

Earlier this week, the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Super 30 was screened for the press. There’s a scene in which a journalist tells a powerful coaching class director at a public gathering: “Media ko dhamki nahi chalega (threats to the media won’t fly)." It’s a mildly funny moment, but the laugh that echoed through the hall was immediate and knowing. It’s clear this particular crowd was thinking about Kangana Ranaut.

A couple of days earlier, the actor had been promoting her new movie, Judgmentall Hai Kya, in Mumbai. In an amateur video of the event that circulated on social media, Ranaut is about to be asked a question by PTI reporter Justin Rao. He’s barely introduced himself when Ranaut rounds on him. “Justin, you’ve become my enemy now," she says. “You’re writing terrible things, dirty things. You bashed my film Manikarnika…" Rao defends himself, saying, “You cannot intimidate a journalist because you’re in a position of power here."

A little later, Ranaut, speaking off the cuff as she always does, says something revealing. “You spent three hours in my van," she tells Rao. “You are a friend…"

The implication here is that Rao, having been given unusually prolonged access to a star, was expected to behave like a “friend" and not like a critic. Rajeev Masand, a well-known critic and an entertainment journalist, says the misconception exists on both sides. “I think many journalists make the mistake of thinking actors (and filmmakers) are their friends," he wrote over email. “Because you see them frequently on assignment, share a laugh or two, or find yourself being wooed by them to portray them in a glowing light does not mean they’re friends."

Ranaut’s accusation will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in Indian film journalism. I gave you my time; you owe me. The implied quid pro quo extends to other areas as well. Organizers of press shows have been known to tell critics that they could go ahead and post their reviews if they were positive, but should hold on till Friday if they didn’t like the film. And in an 8 July circular, the Tamil Film Producers’ Council Consulting Union and South Indian Film Media PRO Union said they would bar critics who gave “unnecessarily harsh reviews" from all film-related events (the decision has since been rescinded).

Indian film critics had a right to feel under siege this past week. A couple of days before the circular appeared, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga was interviewed for the website Film Companion. Responding to Anupama Chopra’s question about the perceived misogyny of his film Kabir Singh, he described the criticism as “pseudo", brought up Masand’s review and called him a “fat guy", and characterized critics as “parasites" and a bigger threat to the industry than piracy. “These guys should reinforce our work," he says, “they should not hamper it." You spent three hours in my film!

“Pseudo" was also a term used by Ranaut—attached to both “liberal" and “journalist"—in a video shared by her sister, Rangoli Chandel, on Twitter on 11 July. She begins by thanking members of the press who’ve supported her career, before describing an unspecified few as “termites", “deshdrohi (anti-national)" and “nalayak (unworthy)".

There’s always been tension between the film industry and those covering it. Directors whose films aren’t received well tend to take refuge in box-office numbers, as Vanga did in the Film Companion interview (“The biggest misconception both film professionals and the public at large continue to have is that critics are expected to reflect popular public opinion," says Masand). Ranaut and Vanga’s hostility, though, suggests we may be moving onto dangerous new ground, where powerful movie stars could effectively dox those who criticize their work.

No one likes to have their work taken apart—especially if it’s done ineptly or viciously. But to dismiss criticism that bites, or simply disagrees and dissects, doesn’t augur well for the development of the form. In a mass medium like cinema, popular success isn’t a great predictor of quality. A certain amount of push and pull between creators and critics—and among critics, as we saw with Article 15—can only result in better films. As American reviewer Pauline Kael once said, “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

This piece appeared in Mint.

Super 30: Review

Trust Indian directors not to trust their material. You could hand them Casablanca and they’d go, this is fine but it’s missing a fight scene and why are people crying in the big musical number? Super 30 is on track as long as it steadily plugs away at the real life story of a teacher in Bihar who coaches underprivileged children for the IIT-JEE examination. But when the film starts to doubt whether this is enough, it comes undone.

We first meet Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) as a prodigious academic talent in Patna. He's less adept on a human level, looking for the golden ratio in his girlfriend’s face and finds her wanting, a scene which recalls the brusque bookishness of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (another trick borrowed from Ron Howard’s film is scribbles on a blackboard crystallizing and hanging in the air to present an answer). When he’s accepted at Cambridge, his postman father tries desperately to gather the money to send him there. But this brings on a fatal heart attack, and Anand is forced to sell papad door to door, his Cambridge acceptance letter becoming wrapping paper in one mawkish scene.

When coaching institute director Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes across Anand, he recognizes the prize-winning student he’d once met and hires him to teach students preparing for the IIT-JEE exam. Soon, Anand is a star professor, earning more than he can spend. Will he stray from the light? Turns out it’s nothing that a poor student working out math problems in between work shifts and a revelatory rickshaw ride can’t fix. It’s a little strange to have the moral climate of a 1950s Raj Kapoor film in 2019, with rickshaw-operators handing out life lessons and the corrupt Lallan doing everything but revealing a forked tail from his first scene.

Anand opens his own coaching centre, aimed at helping students whose families can’t afford school or coaching prepare for IIT-JEE. He accepts 30 students, houses, feeds and teaches them. It’s here that the film starts to reach, to hype up its material. There’s a competition with Lallan’s coaching centre with a contrived twist at the end. There’s a song sequence in the classroom that needs Anurag Basu’s direction (Ajay-Atul’s soundtrack and score are tuneful, but turned up much too loud and used indiscriminately). There are back-to-back scenes with an almost comical intensity – the first with the wind rattling the tin walls of the classroom as Lallan tries to intimidate the students, the second with Anand turning up in the middle of the night to yell at his charges that they have nothing and therefore have nothing to lose.

Things really start to unravel after the intermission. There’s a protracted sequence where the students apply their science skills to foil an armed attack; it’ll bring back memories of Home Alone even as you wonder why screenwriter Sanjeev Dutta and director Vikas Bahl are obscuring their cracker story with kids’ film juvenilia. Almost as farfetched – and indicative of the film’s simplistic outlook – is Anand’s plan to get his students to overcome their nervousness about speaking English. They’re told to perform a skit of their own devising in public without uttering a word in Hindi – anyone who refuses won’t be allowed back. It ends up working, with the class banding together and winning over an initially mocking crowd. There’s something terribly false about this moment – a celebration of Anand’s unorthodoxy at the expense of the dignity of the kids.

In last year’s Hichki, schoolteacher Rani Mukherjee is placed in charge of a classroom of children from low-income families. The film was as unsubtle as Super 30, but it did make the effort of giving the students distinct personalities and quirks and talents. In Bahl’s film, the IIT aspirants only exist be saved by Anand, not to show any individual sparks of their own. We’re told the names of some, their tragic circumstances and aspirations, but there’s little effort expended in making them memorable.

Super 30, then, is less about the 30, more about the one. That one has a heavy Bihari accent, which I won’t speak to the authenticity of, except to say it sounds like an actor trying with every fiber of his being to sound Bihari. The second hurdle, if you’re trying to appreciate Roshan’s performance, is his darker-than-usual complexion – Bollywood shorthand for “person from low-income household"; unforgivable yet shamefully common. There are half a dozen actors who’d have fit the part better, but Roshan, at least in the early stages, isn’t as distractingly emotive as he can sometimes be, and there’s a reserve to his Anand that pulls back some of the sentimentality.

This is Bahl’s fourth film as director, and his first release after allegations of sexual assault were made against him by a former employee (he was cleared by an Internal Complaints Committee). If Super 30 had told its story straight, it might have had something revealing to say about coaching class culture, Kumar’s eccentric methods, and the psychology of these students. Instead, Bahl makes a grab for Akshay Kumar territory, all good intentions and no subtext. The smarts of Queen seem very far away now.

This review appeared in Mint.

Anima instinct

Paul Thomas Anderson has been using music videos as a sketchpad between features from as far back as Michael Penn’s "Try" in 1997. In recent years, he has stepped up the frequency. Between Junun (2015) and his last film, Phantom Thread (2017), he directed videos for three songs each by Radiohead, Haim and Joanna Newsom: simple ideas, but low-key brilliant, especially the single-take "Right Now".

Now, Anderson, with his friend Thom Yorke, is stretching out. The Radiohead singer has a new solo album, Anima. Three tracks from this have been woven by Anderson into a 15-minute short film, also called Anima (streaming on Netflix). Unlike the videos he has made these last few years, this one is more elaborate. It begins with Yorke on the subway, nodding off. The passengers around him start convulsing in unison, like a dance troupe in a lucid dream. The platform he alights on soon turns into a series of increasingly surreal sets, with Yorke flung about, dodging dancers and singing “I can’t breathe" over electronic thumps (the choreographer is Damien Jalet, who worked on Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which Yorke had scored).

A clue on how to view Anima can be found in the film’s trailer, which describes it as a “one-reeler"—shorts of around 12 minutes, usually comedies, popular in the silent era. Yorke’s mugging has shades of “little guy" comics like Chaplin and Keaton, something Anderson encouraged (“He’s amazing with his body—very, very physical," Anderson said in an interview. “I just kept saying, ‘More Buster Keaton, more Buster Keaton!’"). There’s a scene out of Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, with Yorke at a 70-degree angle, braced against a wind. There are also more modern films that seem to flit through Anderson’s mind; the romantic scene in the streets at night echoes the lurching movements of Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche in Leos Carax’s The Lovers On The Bridge.

A final word of praise for the person behind the camera. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s credits include My Blueberry Nights, Midnight In Paris, Amour, The Lost City Of Z and the video for Madonna’s "Frozen". He’s a master of light—the ray of sun that illuminates Yorke’s face at the end is a typically Khondji frame. And he has never worked with Anderson before this, which raises the immensely exciting possibility of a feature film collaboration between the two.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fragile families

How do you assemble your own Hirokazu Kore-eda film? Start with absent fathers, or ones who think they’re doing a better job than they actually are. Add to this food, conversation, buried secrets, children in tough spots, local rituals, lots of natural light, makeshift families, more food. Garnish with humour. Set in Japan.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You can’t assemble a Kore-eda, any more than you can assemble a Wes Anderson or a Paolo Sorrentino. At best, you can disassemble him, and try and figure out why he’s so successful at recombining a few simple elements in film after memorable film (the same can be asked of his Korean contemporary Hong Sang-soo).

Kore-eda started in the early 1990s, making documentaries initially, then moving to fiction with the haunting Maborosi (1995). He was nominated for the Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes Film Festival, for Distance (2001) and then for Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Our Little Sister (2015).

In 2018, Kore-eda finally won the Palme for Shoplifters. The film is in cinemas this week, part of a new initiative, backed by BookMyShow and PVR Pictures, called Vkaao Gems—limited releases of acclaimed international features across Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata and Hyderabad. The film begins with a couple, Osamu (Lily Franky, a Kore-eda regular) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who chance upon a young girl, alone on a cold winter’s night. They can’t go to the police; they are shoplifters, robbing department stores and running other small hustles to get by. So they take her home, and soon she’s part of the family, living in a cramped apartment with pensioner Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, another Kore-eda favourite), hostess Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and Shota (Kairi Jō), Osamu’s main accomplice in robberies.

Because we aren’t told how these characters are related to each other, there’s an underlying tension to the film. It’s possible that Kore-eda’s previous venture—The Third Murder (2017), a rare excursion into thriller territory—rubbed off on this film, both in the parcelling out of information and the cold splash of the revelations. Yet Shoplifters is also warm and winsome, Franky’s goofiness nicely balancing out Ando’s reserve (the scene where they are eating cold noodles and she decides to jump him is note-perfect in its friendly sensuousness).

The questions that underpin Shoplifters are pet Kore-eda themes: What constitutes a family, and how much do blood relations count for? In Hana (2006), a samurai forms a familial unit with a widow and her young son, while the man he’s supposed to kill lives happily with another widow and her boy. In Like Father, Like Son, a businessman discovers that his child was swapped at birth with another family’s boy. He pushes them to allow the boys to swap households for a few months. Our Little Sister sees a young girl invited to stay with her grown-up half-sisters after their father dies; four half-siblings are forced to survive on their own when their mother abandons them in Nobody Knows. Two real brothers are separated in I Wish (2011)—one living with the mother, another with the father. Even in an atypical Kore-eda film like The Third Murder, there’s a scene with a daughter telling off her dad (“All of a sudden, you sound like a real father").

Perhaps the stormy childhoods in his films stem from the director’s own life. In a revealing moment in a 2005 interview to Indiewire, he responds to a question on what his own childhood was like with “Normal". Questioned further, however, he describes a hardscrabble existence, saying they were “pretty poor" and recalling the difficulties his father had in finding work after returning from three years in a Siberian labour camp. In a more recent interview, to Sight & Sound, he explained why the boy in Shoplifters carves out his own space in his closet. “The house that we used in the film is very similar to the house where I lived until I was 9…and there were six of us who used to live in that small house. So I used to live in the cupboard, and I wanted the story to be from the point of view of the boy who slept in that cupboard."

Nearly every Kore-eda film is touched by death: the passing of the father that sets the plot in motion in Hana and Our Little Sister; the killing that gives The Third Murder its title; the suicides in Maborosi and Distance; the yearly remembrance of the lost son in Still Walking (made not long after his own mother died); and the cruellest death of all, little Yuki in Nobody Knows. That’s a death toll worthy of Bergman, though the treatment couldn’t be more different. Still, it’s no wonder that sometimes he goes in the opposite direction and makes entire films that pass without a dark cloud in the sky. Our Little Sister is 2 hours of sibling chatter, near-constant eating and good vibes. And there’s the blithe Hana—the closest Kore-eda has come to an outright comedy—in which a reluctant samurai named Sōza (Junichi Okada) traces the killer of his father to a little village in 18th century Genroku-era Japan, but instead of taking revenge ends up settling down, opening a preschool and shyly falling in love. Sōza’s gradual rejection of the brutal samurai code is slyly juxtaposed with the legend of the “47 ronin", a group of samurai who happen to be hiding out in the same village, and who can’t see beyond the need for revenge.

Kore-eda frequently draws comparisons with Yasujirō Ozu, the Japanese master whose best-known films are gentle ruminations on relationships, family, life and death. Kore-eda has stated that his style is closer to that of Mikio Naruse–another Japanese legend—and British film-maker Ken Loach. What of his contemporaries? Edward Yang, the Taiwanese director of Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day, who died in 2007, had a similar measured pace and close observational style. There’s a less obvious comparison with Richard Linklater, who has a similar knack of filming everyday situations without affectation (Boyhood, especially, is in the key of Kore-eda). No wonder, then, that the first thing Kore-eda did after winning the Palme d’Or was fly to New York and prevail upon Linklater’s leading man, Ethan Hawke, to star in his next film.

La Verite will be the first film Kore-eda has made in another language. Besides Hawke, he has managed to rope in French cinema royalty in Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. Steven Spielberg, another chronicler of absent dads, has bought the rights to Like Father, Like Son. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, you can start with Shoplifters this weekend.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Spider-Man: Far From Home: Review

It’s mildly disorienting to go from watching Euphoria to Spider-Man: Far From Home. The teens in Euphoria attend school in today’s America, and are about the same age as those in Spider-Man, but they may as well inhabit parallel universes. On the HBO show, they’re cutting themselves and doing fentanyl and listening to Migos. In the Marvel movie, they’re fretting about holding hands and the soundtrack is the Go-Go’s and Whitney Houston.

The reason Euphoria even occurred to me is that Zendaya, who plays MJ, the human equivalent of a shrug, in the Spider-Man films, headlines the HBO show (incredibly well, by the way). I’m not saying Far From Home need be anywhere as extreme as the series to qualify as a convincing snapshot of contemporary American youth, but couldn’t it at least match up to its milder ‘80s inspiration? The first solo Spider-Man film with Tom Holland, 2017’s Homecoming, was instantly recognisable as a John Hughes tale in the guise of a superhero movie. But even though that film and Far From Home have all the Hughes stereotypes (bouncy soundtrack, ridiculous authority figures), the emotional messiness of The Breakfast Club is missing, replaced by a vague, toothless nostalgia.

There have been six Spider-Man films since the initial Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire team-up in 2002, so there isn’t a high school movie trope that’s gone entirely untouched. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers expand on an idea from the last film, where Peter Parker travels with the school’s academic decathlon team to Washington. In Far From Home, Peter heads to Europe with his class, mind set on asking MJ out. He’s dodging phone calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who’s short of Avengers – though there’s a new superhero on the scene, an earthling from another reality (you can read the mention of a “multiverse" as either a respectful nod to last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or a futile attempt to borrow some of its swagger).

The new hero – christened “Mysterio" after a news report on Italian TV – turns out to be more than competent, and more than a little like Tony Stark to Peter’s mentor-bereft eyes. Jake Gyllenhaal makes the most of a faintly ridiculous role, channelling Tony’s wiseass authority and paternal attitude towards Peter, before – this surely can’t come as a surprise – cutting loose as a cackling villain. His reasons for doing so are explained in one loud, hurried scene, as if we won’t notice the explanation stinks if it scurries past.

The school trip portions are lightly likeable: Holland and Zendaya are charming apart and together. Marisa Tomei is a delight as Aunt May – think of how much fun she’d have been as Pepper Potts. Despite their innocuousness, the most successful passages in the film are the ones untethered from the superhero storyline; the worst are when Fury and Maria Hill are shoehorned in. Everything’s on a low simmer – energy, invention, emotional stakes. Even before a post-credits scene drives the point home, this film feels like the MCU in vacation mode.

This review appeared in Mint.

Deadwood: The Movie: Review

In 2006, after two seasons of Shakespearean cussing and near-perfection, Deadwood was starting on a third. But HBO surprised everyone by not renewing the show, turning that season into a forced farewell to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and other residents of the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, so carefully sketched by showrunner David Milch over 36 episodes.

Unlike The Sopranos and The Wire, the other two shows that made HBO’s reputation, Deadwood was a critical favourite that never quite became a cultural phenomenon. Still, it’s every bit as astonishing an example of world building; by the third season, just having a character walk down a street could bring half a dozen storylines into play. In the initial years after cancellation, fans were hopeful of a renewal, but none came. Then, after years of steady rumours, HBO greenlit a Deadwood movie with the original cast in 2018.

That movie is now on Hotstar (as is the series), and is—for those who mourned the awkward end—something like a benediction. It’s directed by series veteran Daniel Minahan and written by Milch in that unmistakable, filthy, burnished tone that sets Deadwood apart from pretty much any period Western ever made. The narrative picks up in 1889, 10 years after the series ended. Time has cooled the antagonistic relationship between Marshal Bullock and former pimp and power broker Swearengen, and they band together when an old enemy rides into town: George Hearst, the businessman who tormented the town in seasons 2 and 3 and is now back as a senator.

In an age where ambitious shows are increasingly labelled “cinematic", the Deadwood movie feels like a long, excellent episode of TV. This isn’t a slight, just an acknowledgment that its virtues are the ones associated with medium: efficiency, clarity, unfussiness, and the kind of emotional weight that comes from following characters over a length of time. It’s touching and rather sad to see everyone older—Al is particularly difficult to recognize as the fearsome man he used to be—and at the stage where they can regret but not change the course of their lives. Minahan makes beautiful use of the second-long flashbacks which appear in scenes involving the same characters, as if we had momentarily entered their minds.

This would seem to be the happy ending few creators get, but, in Milch’s case, it’s bittersweet. Earlier this year, it was revealed that before he began writing the movie, he found out he had Alzheimer’s. It’s a particularly Deadwoodian mixture of sorrow and triumph. There’s a scene with the town doctor (Brad Dourif) and Al talking about his failing health. “Time flows, and it stops," the medic says gently. “It’s the dispatch I find inglorious," his companion replies, sounding like the old Al for a second. “The whole delusory fucking self-importance." When you think of Milch writing this scene, his own mortality staring him in the face, it makes the Deadwood movie almost unbearably moving.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Article 15: Review

As IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is driven to the small Uttar Pradesh town of Lalgaon to begin his new posting, the opening credits roll and we hear a familiar nasal voice: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?" Now, there’s no denying that Blowin’ in the Wind is the squarest soundtrack choice imaginable. At the same time, Ayan is just the sort of young man who’d like the song – idealistic, more comfortable speaking English than Hindi, woke but not terribly well-informed. You can picture him on the lawns of St Stephens, strumming a guitar and singing it to his activist girlfriend.

No sooner does Ayan turn off the song, though, than the film gets down to business. He asks the officers with him to pick up some mineral water; they hesitate, then explain they’re passing through a Pasi neighbourhood – chhoti jaat, low caste. This confirms what we already suspect: that caste is the cauldron in which this film will stew. A pre-credits scene had shown flashes of the incident that'll reverberate through the film – the rape and murder of two teenage girls near Lalgaon. We don’t know yet that they’re Dalit, but there’s a pointed visual of an Ambedkar statue, which is indication enough.

The scene with Ayan and the officers stumbling through the morning mist is eerily beautiful, until we see their faces crumple. This slow approach to the reveal of the bodies hanging from a tree is a rare flourish in a film that mostly keeps its head down and accumulates instead of trying to dress up its horrors. There’s something very satisfying about the way director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer, Gaurav Solanki, pile detail upon detail until the screen becomes heavy with suggestion.

Every now and then, Sinha releases the pressure. In a mordantly funny scene, Ayan asks his colleagues which caste they belong to. The replies come immediately and without embarrassment: Thakur, Rajput, Kayastha; even the Dalit officer, Jatav (Kumud Mishra), points out that he’s higher than Pasi. Ayan explodes at his men in frustration and, later, pins up a copy of Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on several grounds, including caste. The most interesting beat in the scene to me is when Ayan asks which caste he himself is. He isn’t being insincere – he can afford not to know, a side-benefit of being upper-caste. Even as Ayan indicts everyone around him for their caste-bound gaze, the film is subtly indicating his caste privilege.

It turns out there was a third girl who escaped the night the other two were murdered. Ayan becomes determined to find her, possibly alive. His best chance is to search a large swamp-like area – a detail which should confirm beyond doubt that the model for this film is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), racism replaced by casteism. But many of the upper-caste officers refuse to enter the swamp and the Dalit policemen are on strike, responding to a call by a local leader, Nishad. Given how gingerly Hindi films usually treat caste, it’s a welcome change to have one point to its all-pervasiveness, the ways it underpins every aspect of life in India.

Though he may have arisen out of the need to provide a counterbalance for the film’s Brahmin protagonist, Nishad becomes fascinating in his own right through some deft writing and the controlled hurt of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The ensemble playing is excellent, especially Manoj Pahwa, who displays surprising reserves of ferocity as circle office Brahmadatt. Khurrana’s Ayan is the stable mean of Manoj Bajpayee in Shool and Rajkummar Rao in Newton. With his inherent modesty as a lead performer and his seeming inability to be boring in front of the camera, Khurrana continues to be one of the most watchable actors in Hindi cinema today.

With the impassioned Mulk (2017), and now this film, Sinha seems to have turned a corner in his work. His approach here reminds me of the Hansal Mehta of Shahid: steady, yet searing and humane. Nishad calls his strike because three Dalit men are tied up and flogged in the street. Sinha gives the audience the image it’ll recognise – a recreation of the Una atrocity – then makes the pain more intimate, showing the men screaming in agony in the police station. Later in the film, as we look down at an overflowing manhole, the oily surface is broken by a human head emerging. Sinha shoots this in slow motion, letting the moment linger. The man deposits debris on the side, takes a breath and disappears into the black murk again. It’s a gut-kick of an image. Article 15 might not comfort the afflicted, but there’s every chance it will afflict the comfortable.

This review appeared in Mint.