Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How Bollywood is rewriting history

In 1953, Sohrab Modi made Jhansi Ki Rani, a Hindi film about Lakshmibai, one of the leaders of the 1857 rebellion. As the British forces start bombarding her fort, the queen asks her general, Ghaus Khan, why Jhansi’s cannons aren’t returning fire. He replies that the British guns are positioned behind a Hindu temple and that he doesn’t want to risk destroying it. Lakshmibai orders him to fire back, then starts to pray. The temple survives the bombardment.
The same incident is restaged in Kangana Ranaut and Radha Jagarlamudi’s Manikarnika, another film about Lakshmibai, with Ranaut in the lead. The 2019 film has the queen riding out with a few men, somehow not getting shot by an entire standing army, and personally destroying the cannons. This sequence, though ridiculous, is in keeping with the genre’s recent muscular stance—the temple must be protected at all costs.
There has been an explosion of Hindi historical films in the last couple of years. Some are set in the distant past, others in relatively recent times of turmoil. Most of them place on the nation’s screens, and in the public’s imagination, a version of the past that’s obscured by legend and skewed towards certain narratives.
The blockbuster success of Baahubali (2015), a lavish Telugu action film set in unspecified ancient times, sent the Hindi film industry scurrying for similar epic material. Though the film was not a historical, it would, along with its 2017 sequel (which grossed over 1,700 crore worldwide), have a huge influence on the genre, which adopted its grandiose production values and overtly Hindu iconography. However, instead of inventing its own legends, Hindi cinema turned to history.
Bajirao Mastani arrived at the end of 2015, Raag Desh in 2017. In 2018, Padmaavat brought controversy—and box-office credibility—to the genre; it was followed later that year by Gold and Manto. This year, there’s been Manikarnika and Kesari. Two films about the Marathas are coming up: Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat releases next weekend, and Om Raut’s Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior in January. There have also been several works of historical fiction in the last couple of years, with invented characters but based on real events: Begum Jaan, Rangoon and Firangi in 2017, Thugs Of Hindostan in 2018, and Kalank and Laal Kaptaan in 2019. (For the purposes of this piece, 1947 is the broad cut-off point for what qualifies as historical.)

Why is the historical—a genre out of favour for years—suddenly back in Hindi cinema? It may have something to do with the box-office success of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, a flamboyant look at the 13th century Delhi Sultunate ruler Alauddin Khilji and his obsession with (the possibly fictional) Rani Padmavati, wife of the Rajput king of Mewar. With Hollywood making alarming inroads into the Indian market and streaming platforms drawing audiences away from theatres, Hindi cinema now needs its own big-budget offerings—and history is a ready source. Despite the controversies before its release—or because of them—Padmaavat earned 572 crore worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing Indian films ever. Kesari, about an 1897 battle between Sikhs in the British Indian army and Pashtun tribesmen, also earned an impressive 207 crore.
There’s another reason. Historical films allow directors to play up present-day beliefs while evoking past legends. On email, Katherine Schofield, senior lecturer in South Asian music and history at King’s College London, says these films are useful for understanding modern values. “Film scholars talk about the historical film as providing a ‘heterotopia’—literally ‘another place’—in which to play out the political and social issues of the present day. We should be reading these films not for what they tell us about the past—even the most factually accurate films have to make enormous concessions to telling an entertaining story—but what they tell us about us, now, in the present day."

Take Panipat, a reimagining of the storied 1761 battle—regarded as one the biggest clashes of two armies in the 18th century—between Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) and the Marathas under Sadashiv Rao (Arjun Kapoor). The trailer, released on 4 November, comes with an intriguing tag line: “The great betrayal". A clue might lie in historian T.S. Shejwalkar’s 1946 monograph on the battle, which Gowariker has confirmed is the source material for his film. His study says that although the Marathas lost, “on the moral side their record is very clean", and that the “ultimate result of Panipat was to make the way smooth and clear for the English". It seems likely that the “betrayal" will be of India itself—possibly the decision by ex-Mughal serviceman Najib-ud-Daulah to side with Abdali. It’s also a good bet that the Marathas will come out looking saintly, defeat conferring martyrdom on them as it did on the Rajputs in Padmaavat, the Sikhs in Kesari and the rebels in Manikarnika.
What does a battle fought over 250 years ago have to do with the present day? More than you might expect. In January, Amit Shah, Union home minister and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that the forthcoming general election would be “a decisive contest, like the third battle of Panipat". “The Marathas had won 131 battles," he said, “but lost one decisive battle, which led to 200 years of colonial slavery." While referencing one of the greatest “Hindu" defeats, Shah also spoke of the BJP’s commitment to building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Less than a year later, with the road to the temple’s construction now clear after the Supreme Court verdict, Panipat is set to release on 6 December, the day of the Babri Masjid’s destruction in 1992.
Every generation makes historical films in its own image. In the years before independence, stories about Indian kings (mostly Hindu) fighting foreign powers (mostly Muslim) were seen as an allegory for protest against British rule. Today, in a time of similarly heightened nationalism but no occupying force or officially declared wars, the same stories take on a more troubling patina. Earlier this month, The Caravan quoted Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh joint general secretary Krishna Gopal as telling an audience of Muslim professionals a day before the Ayodhya verdict: “There came a phase in our history when outsiders destroyed this country’s temples." Fuelling the idea of Muslims as historic outsiders on the big screen may just strengthen this narrative.

Padmaavat and Kesari are set several centuries apart, but in each the protagonists are brave patriots, and the antagonists barbaric Muslims. It remains to be seen how Abdali and his people are portrayed in Panipat but the Afghanistan embassy to India has already expressed concerns about “insensitive/distorted depiction of (Abdali’s) character". The trailer shows the Afghan king with a blood-streaked face, ranting about conquering Hindustan, while Arjun Kapoor’s smooth-cheeked Maratha general talks about defending his land—a juxtaposition reminiscent of Padmaavat, in which Ranveer Singh’s psychotic sultan faced off against Shahid Kapoor’s bland patriot.
Panipat director Gowariker has suggested that the “Indian" army in the film would be an inclusive force. “By the time (the Maratha army) reached Panipat, there were 50,000 soldiers," he said at a press conference earlier this month. “There were Hindus and Muslims. It was a cooperative kind of army, I felt it was important to bring that to the screen." It should be intriguing to see how the Lagaan director’s pet theme of different clans and creeds coming together in the service of the nation plays out.
“Movies are made for the market," says Rana Safvi, an author and historian documenting India’s syncretic culture. “You are catering to what you think is going to sell." What is being sold, by nearly every Hindi film in 2019, is national pride. So much so that patriotism has become just another ingredient, to be inserted at regular intervals like one would a fight sequence or a comic track.
Patriotism is especially prominent in recent historical films. From Padmaavat to Tanhaji, nothing is more important than protecting the motherland. In Manikarnika, the queen’s all-consuming love for her country gives rise to a slur that’s common today, points out historian and Lounge columnist Manu S. Pillai. “There’s a scene where she calls Scindia deshdrohi (traitor to the nation). This is not the kind of vocabulary that existed in that time."
The weight of nation-love has hobbled otherwise sensible films, like Reema Kagti’s Gold, about the building of independent India’s first hockey team. It stars, as the team’s architect, Akshay Kumar, Hindi cinema’s patriot-in-chief in the last couple of years (Hum India ko dekhega—I will look out for India—he says at one point). If you ignore the flag-waving and anthem-playing and assertions that winning the 1948 Olympic hockey final against England would be “revenge for 200 years of slavery", Gold is a good test case for debating what bits of history can and cannot be altered. Is it all right, for instance, to show the score in the final as 4-3 in India’s favour, when in reality it was a one-sided, cinematically unappetizing 4-0?
I ask Rajesh Devraj, credited with the film’s story, about the rules he set for historical invention. Devraj, who stresses he isn’t responsible for the final screenplay, says he wouldn’t have changed the final scoreline. As an example of the sort of thing he would change, he pointed to the scene where the Indian players take off their shoes to counter wet conditions. This might well have taken place; 1948 star Balbir Singh recalls it happening, though other accounts are silent. Even if it didn’t, Devraj says, there’s enough historical precedent for barefoot Indian athletes for this to work as a narrative device. “It’s really a metaphor. When they take off the shoes, they are rejecting colonialism. It’s them saying, this is how I played back in my village, I need to feel that contact with the soil."
Gold offers up a soft vision of Indian glory, achieved by a mix of classes and creeds. Other historical films, however, are dialling up patriotism into a clash-of-civilizations rhetoric.

In the trailer for Om Raut’s Tanhaji, Ajay Devgn’s titular Maratha general tells a young boy they will defeat the Mughals just as the Pandavas won against the Kauravas (a similar comparison is made in Padmaavat). It goes on to describe the 1670 Battle of Sinhagad as “the surgical strike that shook the Mughal empire". The term “surgical strike" entered the public lexicon after Indian military action against Pakistan in 2016, and was cemented by the success of the film Uri this January (several BJP leaders adopted its famous line, “How’s the josh?"). That a film promo would associate the Mughals with the uber-villains of Indian mythology and then with Pakistan tells you a lot about the nation and its cinema in 2019.
“You can see a change," Safvi says about the Panipat and Tanhaji trailers. “It’s becoming slightly more Islamophobic. It’s a more aggressive tone."
In recent historical films, Hindus are more visibly Hindu. The Tanhaji trailer shows Devgn sitting beside a fluttering bhagwa dhwaja—the saffron standard of the Marathas. But there’s an addition: the Om symbol. This is almost certainly a leap of imagination; the Maratha flag had nothing printed on it. Muslims have also seemed more Muslim on screens in 2019: Kohl-lined eyes followed viewers from Gully Boy to Uri to Kalank to Panipat.
The most partisan contrast was in Anurag Singh’s Kesari, a violent war film in which Akshay Kumar plays the leader of 21 Sikh soldiers who died fighting an army of thousands of Afridi and Orakzai Pashtun tribesmen. The battle took place in 1897 in Sarhagarhi, in the North-West Frontier Province, then part of India. As soldiers in the British Indian army, the Sikhs were fighting other Indians for the British. The film, though, deliberately paints the tribesmen as marauders and the Sikhs as patriots fighting only in name for the British. In one particularly insidious scene, the film’s chief antagonist, a fanatical religious leader named Khan Masud, orders the beheading of a woman who tries to run from her abusive husband. As the execution is about to be carried out, he recites surah Al-Fatiha—a common prayer in praise of Allah. At the last moment, Kumar saves her.
Singh isn’t done labouring the point. He has Masud call for jihad (holy war) and repeatedly take Allah’s name while discussing battle plans. Then he restages the beheading with the same woman, and again the prayer is recited—only this time she’s killed. One of the last scenes, as the last of the Sikhs are dying, is of the tribesmen looting their supplies.
Throughout Padmaavat, we are told of the amazing things Rajputs can do, from walking on burning embers to sacrificing their life to uphold truth and freedom. There are no songs of praise for the Khiljis, even though Amir Khusro, the pre-eminent poet of his age, is in their ranks. They have a reputation for pillaging and raping; they are wild and dusty and dressed in dirty robes, while the Rajputs are perfectly attired. It’s unfortunate that Ranveer Singh’s turn as Khilji is the one spark in a dull film, for his unhinged performance only draws attention to a characterization that leans far too heavily on Muslim invader tropes. The real Alauddin was certainly a tyrant, but the Alauddin of Padmaavat is a sadist, a psychopath and a rapist who stages an eight-month-long siege so he can enslave one woman. The image that seems to have stuck with everyone most is of him biting into hunks of meat (“It seemed very barbaric," Safvi says).
The one thing that Bhansali doesn’t do is link Khilji with any personal religiosity—though in the world of this film, a person who doesn’t believe in God is to be suspected. Alauddin’s object of desire, though, is compared to a goddess several times in the film. By the end, she’s a literal deity; “Today, she’s worshipped as a goddess, destroyer of evil," read the credits. This is similar to Manikarnika, which also elevates its Hindu queen to divine status. As she slashes through British soldiers on the battlefield, her face smeared with blood, she is Durga’s wrath incarnate—which is why we hear a few lines from Aigiri Nandini, a Sanskrit song in praise of Durga, being chanted.

Padmaavat’s fraught production is an extreme example of the kind of problems that can accompany the making of historical films in India today. During the film’s shooting in 2017, the Karni Sena, a fringe group in Rajasthan, alleged that the director was shooting a dream sequence with Khilji and Padmavati. They vandalized the sets and later threatened to cut off actor Deepika Padukone’s nose. Release dates were announced and deferred. The Central Board of Film Certification showed the film to a panel of historians, who passed it. The final film was as deferential to Rajput pride as the Karni Sena could have hoped for, but the threat lingered on. Every historical film since has inspired claims of “hurt sentiments".
One can only speculate if the attacks had a role in moving Bhansali towards safe, “respectful" ground, and whether the film might have ended up differently if there weren’t any threats. Between 2015’s Bajirao Mastani and 2018’s Padmaavat, you can feel the genre ossify. The earlier Bhansali film seemed open to possibilities—of poetry; of a certain syncretic tradition of cinema; of love between a Hindu king and a Muslim queen; even the idea that king, queen and new queen might coexist in a respectful, impossibly good-looking triangular relationship. Padmaavat, on the other hand, seems stifled by tradition, dulled by duty, with nothing more to offer than centuries-old ideas of honour and sacrifice.
If service of the nation is the top priority of the modern Hindi historical, upholding traditional values comes a close second. The Tanhaji trailer has an unusually specific shout-out, with actor Kajol saying, “When Shivaji wields his sword, the honour of women and janeu (sacred thread) of Brahmins remain intact." It’s curious that a film about Shivaji’s general (of Koli caste) would make this pointed a reference to Brahmin dignity—and deem it important enough to include in the trailer.
An earlier evocation of the caste system was in Baahubali 2 (2017)—not a historical, but a template in many ways for the genre—when prince Amarendra Baahubali says: “God creates life, the Vaidya (physician) saves it, and the Kshatriya (warrior) protects it." “Kshatriya" turns up twice in Manikarnika, both times to specify that the future Rani of Jhansi, though not herself of the warrior caste, possesses its best qualities. Padmaavat treated jauhar—ritual self-immolation by women so they wouldn’t be captured by the enemy—with reverence. The climactic scenes, with hundreds of stoic women led by Padmavati running towards the fire, are drawn-out and disturbingly triumphant.
Conservative ideas of sexuality hold sway. In both Padmaavat and Kesari, the top soldier in the Muslim army is gay. The sniper in Kesari has long nails with red polish and rouge on his cheeks. In Padmaavat, the character is a historical figure—Malik Kafur, a eunuch presented to Alauddin as a slave, who, incredibly, rose from there to attain the rank of general. Several accounts of the time suggest that Alauddin and Kafur were lovers. In the film, Kafur dresses his king (as Padmavati dresses hers), rubs his feet in a bathtub. The Binte Dil song sequence, where Kafur serenades Alauddin and his female companion for the night, might be the first openly bisexual love ballad in Hindi cinema.
Normally, queer texts turning up in historical dramas would be welcome. But by ascribing feminine traits to the deadliest solider in the enemy camp, the films seem to be inviting a contrast to the manly Rajputs and Sikhs on the opposing side. Moreover, the three queer characters (if you include Alauddin) are shown as sadists and betrayers—a worrying conflation of deviation from the sexual majority with moral deviance. The sniper gleefully shoots a fallen Sikh soldier in the leg. Alauddin stabs his king in the back; Kafur shoots Ratan Singh in the back. “Alauddin’s implied relationship with Kafur is portrayed as yet another sign of his untrustworthiness—a stigma many bisexual men have to contend with in modern life," Schofield says. “In their own time, close romantic, erotic, and even sexual relationships between men of different social statuses were not only commonplace, but often held up as the ideal, as in the beautiful poetry written about the relationship between Mahmud of Ghazni and his slave Ayaz."

Though it’s beyond the ambit of this piece, Hindi cinema has also been scanning recent history for source material. The subjects chosen are, unsurprisingly, either concerned with national pride (Mission Mangal, Pad Man—both with Akshay Kumar) or focused on events that show the present administration in a good light (PM Narendra Modi) or the opposition in a bad one (Indu Sarkar, about the Emergency; The Accidental Prime Minister, about the UPA government). Or the military: After Uri’s success, two period war films are in the works—Bhuj: The Pride Of India, about the 1971 war with Pakistan, and a Sam Manekshaw biopic starring Vicky Kaushal as the Field Marshal.
History is amended all the time. This is a necessary churn, allowing suppressed voices to enter the conversation, but it can also give rise to exclusionary narratives. If Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa has his way, a key figure like Tipu Sultan might not appear at all in school textbooks. In October, speaking at a seminar at Banaras Hindu University, Amit Shah said: “There is a need to rewrite the Indian history from India’s point of view, but without blaming anyone." His 30-minute talk presents India’s ancient history as a long string of Hindu achievements, with a stray mention of Sikh gurus and mentions of “hundreds of years of slavery".
This particular vision of history may well match what we see on our screens in the immediate future. Next year there’s Tanhaji, and a Marathi film about Tanaji Malusare’s king, Chhatrapati Shivaji, starring Riteish Deshmukh. There’s a biopic on Prithviraj Chauhan, another Hindu king who fought Muslim invaders, with Akshay Kumar in the lead. Few of these are likely to treat their subjects like flesh-and-blood humans. “Deification clouds a mature historical understanding of these real figures," Pillai says, “but there’s this trend in India that promotes them to divine status because otherwise our confidence will suffer."
There’s a scene in Padmaavat where Ratan Singh tells Khilji: “History isn’t just written on paper which you can burn." For a film whose titular character might be drawn from a poem written two centuries after the events in it took place, this is a bold statement. It seems to suggest that what we think of as history could also include legends passed down from generation to generation, not just words on paper. This gives the film-maker a wide range of crowd-pleasing material to draw on, but what of the impressionable viewer who ends up believing that Manikarnika rode a horse off the edge of a fortress and survived what appears to be a 30ft fall? Perhaps future films could carry, in the style of tobacco warnings, little fact-checks in a corner of the screen, informing us when history is being rewritten.
This piece appeared as the Mint Lounge cover. 

'I remember all the mistakes I’ve made. They’re like scars': Simon Taufel

As a dispassionate deliverer of decisions on the cricket field, Simon Taufel was a familiar face on television screens in the 2000s. The Australian stood in his first One-Day International in 1999, and his first Test in 2000. He quickly developed a reputation for calm, accurate decision-making. He was named ICC Umpire of the Year five times in a row, between 2004 and 2008.

Since retiring from international cricket in 2012, Taufel has expanded his ambit to leadership training and development, using his experiences on the field to help businesses and institutions. He’s now written a book on the subject—part memoir, part self-help manual—called Finding The Gaps. In Mumbai to participate in the Tata Literature Live festival, Taufel spoke to Mint about the infamous 2019 World Cup final overthrow, how umpires practice, and why he doesn’t like to officiate when his children are playing.

In your book, you write about how you would feel the nerves on the morning of a Test, just like players.
Feeling nervous is actually a good thing, provided you’re able to control your nerves. I was always anxious about my performance. If you get over-anxious you tend to worry too much. But if you manage that well, those nerves help you to be on top of your game.

Was there a point you realized you were operating out of fear of making a mistake?
I’ll tell you how that manifests itself in the extreme, which produced my worst game of cricket (June 2004 at Trent Bridge, England playing New Zealand). When I started to make one or two mistakes early on, I started to beat myself up mentally, and then I was making more mistakes. I think I made six or seven.

I learnt a lot through that experience—that I need to keep things in perspective, focus more on the process, and be kinder to myself. If you can do that you’re likely not to make a second or third mistake. In my experience, players will forgive the odd mistake. But they won’t forgive two. And in the third umpire’s box—no mistakes.

Do players have a good memory for decisions that go against them?
Some do. It’s surprising how quickly players move on. My mistakes, I remember all of them. They’re like scars, all memories attached to emotion.

You said in an interview once that on the subcontinent, umpiring is seen in terms of decisions and mistakes, whereas in other countries it’s more about people-management.
There’s a very strong view on the subcontinent that decision-making is the be-all and end-all of officiating. In the West, there’s a slightly different take, which is that, to go from good to great, you need the soft skills.

One thing I learnt from (former umpire) David Shepherd is that you need good people skills and to be a good person. Because when your decision-making lets you down from time to time and you have none of the other skills, you’re gone. Preparation, attitude, coachability, resilience, leadership, humility and honesty, managing conflict—they’re the things that’ll give you sustainable success.

Did the crowd ever give you a hard time?
There are times when you walk off the field—at the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground) or at Lord’s you have to walk through public areas—and there are uncomplimentary comments questioning your decisions. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not. You try not to engage. Just once at the SCG and maybe at the Wanderers, I just stopped and looked at the person as if to say, that’s out of line.

You write about training off the field and maintaining a performance diary. Did you know of other umpires who did something similar?
Not at all. I really enjoyed trying to go places where people in my side of the sport hadn’t been before. The performance diary was around sleeping patterns, food and what sort of routines you get into on the umpiring circuit. I’d keep a diary of when I’d wake up, when I’d go to bed. I’d combine that with a food diary. In the morning I’d take my heart rate and give myself a happiness score out of 10. Then I’d try to track those results to my better days of umpiring.

Did you have ways to visualize yourself officiating in a match situation?
Cricket’s funny, where we don’t actually practice like we play, even the players. Very rarely can we simulate how we play in a practice scenario. On a match day, I’d do a couple of laps of the ground and start to feel the atmosphere and visualize what happens from when you walk out there to getting that first ball right.

We’re lucky in the subcontinent that most of the practice sessions occur right on the ground. In other countries, the practice nets are outside the stadium. In the 2011 World Cup, I used those net sessions to really soak up and visualize the atmosphere of the crowd, the bounce, carry, pace...

When you talk about third umpires, practice looks like a Skype session. We use video examples, most of which are put on a drive which other umpires can use as a third umpire net session. There are a couple of boards that are using virtual reality as a way of helping on-field umpires.

You’ve spoken about the importance of umpiring partnerships.
There are some umpires who you’ll naturally work better with because you’re similar or you’ve had that off-field relationship. If you need to be a team in the match, it’s really important to be a team away from the match, doing some sightseeing, starting to know each other. When the match comes and you have to make some tough decisions, you want to be side by side.

After retirement, did you find yourselves umpiring in your head?
I’m certainly watching the umpires. I’m not a good cricket-watcher, I’m looking at why the umpires are doing the things that they are. It’s like going to work.

Your comments on the umpire’s decision to award six runs, as opposed to five, for the overthrow off the fourth delivery in the 2019 World Cup final were widely discussed.
Hopefully people from that example will appreciate how difficult officiating can be. My comments were purely designed to educate and provide clarity. People were unfortunately putting too much focus on one delivery as being the determinant of who won and lost.

I spoke to (on-field umpire) Marais (Erasmus) later. He said he thought the comments were fair and objective. My motive is never to criticize match officials because I know how hard it is.

Do you have a favourite decision that you made?
We tend not to remember the fantastic decisions; we tend to remember the bad ones. I don’t think there’s a favourite but it’s always nice when you see the ball so well—like a caught behind, you know it’s past the bat and it’s hit the bat pad.

Was it satisfying to be vindicated upon review?
Absolutely. Let me give you an example. 2011 World Cup. Johan Botha is bowling against the West Indies. Big appeal on Chris Gayle, LBW. I give it not out. South Africa review. I went upstairs. There’s a delay on ball tracking. It’s the longest two minutes of your life when your decision’s being dissected.

I start to think, if I get this wrong, in my first over of my first match of the World Cup, what does that look like? Then it comes back: umpire’s call. And I’m going, yes! You celebrate that internally but you can’t show any emotion.

Do umpires enjoy the game while on the field?
Some do, some of the more natural umpires. Me, I disengaged from the players or the emotion of the contest because that helped me focus on what I had to do. I tended not to watch the scoreboard or notice who was batting or bowling.

You also write about the discomfort of officiating your children’s cricket games.
That’s happened far too many times. My oldest son has always given me a hard time when he doesn’t like my decisions. He probably gives me more grief about my decision-making than most of the international players.

I remember once, when he was little, I was umpiring at the bowler’s end, and there was a close run out appeal. His side was in the field. This poor little kid was trying to make his ground and was probably a fraction short. But he tried so hard and I thought, this guy deserves a break, and I gave him not out. Harry just went to town on me. Another time, he asked for DRS, and then said to his mum: “I don’t want dad to umpire at any of my games."

This interview appeared in Mint.

New Kings Of The World: Review

The central argument of New Kings Of The World is encapsulated in two sentences separated by a paragraph. “This run of American pop culture was uninterrupted for decades, unhindered by any serious global competition," and, a little later, “But new cultural industries have flattened the playing field." Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto’s new book is a consideration of recent cultural phenomena out of Asia—Bollywood; Turkish TV dramas known as dizi; K-pop. These genres, she argues, speak to a world transformed by urbanization and mass migration better than Western cultural offerings can.

Indian readers may find themselves skimming through the early Bollywood chapters: crisp but familiar snapshots of Hindi cinema history. Bhutto does posit one intriguing theory—that the patriotic romances targeted at non-resident Indians in the 1990s and early 2000s (and treated with a kind of benign nostalgia by critics here) may have led to the aggressively nationalistic films of today—but the decision to keep Shah Rukh Khan as a focal point is a conservative choice. Khan always makes for good copy, but is no longer a culture-defining force; I would have loved to see Bhutto train her dry wit on someone like Akshay Kumar or Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Bhutto knows that Khan isn’t all he used to be. “With his rivals snapping at his heels, today Khan seems marginalized, or at least viewed with suspicion by India’s increasingly muscular right wing," she writes. Outside India, though, he is still supreme, and Bhutto illustrates this by setting one chapter in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where he’s shooting an episode of a TV prank show, and another in Lima, where Bollywood fan club members swear by him.

New Kings Of The World is a rare book one wishes were twice its length. Just look how far and wide Bhutto ranges in her discussion of dizi, starting with the Pakistani TV dramas of the 1980s and weaving in Turkey’s insecurities about its place in the world; the tropes of dizi; the reasons for its pan-Arab popularity; the nuances of dubbing in fusha (formal Arabic); and the view from a refugee camp in Lebanon. It is, pun not intended, dizzying and impressive, but there is a longer book hovering over the slim frame of this one. This might have allowed more parallels to be drawn between the genres—for instance, if the national sentiment that led Turkey to create TV set in a fabled past bears comparison to Bollywood’s attempts at overtly patriotic historical drama.

K-pop is relegated to the epilogue, for some reason, but it’s a sparkling chapter, right from Bhutto’s description of the form (“the kind of music you might play in an interrogation cell to induce talking except for the irritating fact that it’s genuinely catchy"). You can sense the author enjoying herself, dropping arcane trivia into footnotes and transcribing the bizarre lyrics of BTS’ 'War Of Hormone'. Again, there is so much of interest here that it’s frustrating the chapter runs a mere 16 pages—just a discussion of how the Asian financial crisis might have led to K-pop could have filled that space.

For a work of cultural criticism—not always a guarantor of big laughs—New Kings is frequently, slyly funny. Here’s Bhutto on the Turkish series Ask-i Memnu: “It was fifteen episodes in before I could actually tell whose ask (love) was memnu (forbidden) because of all the ask floating around." And, in two successive footnotes: “This was (Shah Rukh) Khan’s fifth Rahul"; “His seventh Rahul". At 165 pages, this is a bite-sized book, easily consumed in a sitting or two. A follow-up (“Fresh New Kings Of The World" has the added benefit of sounding like a K-pop song title) would be welcome.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

The globetrotting stars of modern arthouse film

There are moments in The Lighthouse where, if I squinted a bit, I could have sworn the part of Ephraim Winslow was being played by Daniel Day-Lewis and not Robert Pattinson. The Maine lobster fisherman accent adopted by Pattinson for Robert Eggers’ 2019 film about two lighthouse operators in the 1890s somehow brought to mind the menacing oratory of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. And Pattinson seems to disappear, as Day-Lewis would, into the hulking physicality of his character, grunting, cussing, farting, pleasuring himself and reacting to an aggressive seagull with a panicked decisiveness worthy of Buster Keaton.

It has been an astonishing few years for Pattinson. He broke out as a teen star, first as Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films, then as Edward Cullen, the vampire lead of the Twilight trilogy. But as the last of the Twilight films rolled out in 2012, he headed on an unexpected path, starring in David Cronenberg’s sleek, disturbing Cosmopolis. He began working with directors from all over, eschewing anything even marginally mainstream. He also showed a keenness to bury his matinee-idol looks—he spends The Lost City Of Z in a bushy beard and glasses, and ends The Childhood Of A Leader as a skinhead Hitler of sorts. And there were his accents; his Dauphin in the recent Shakespeare adaptation The King has a French accent so extreme, it’s almost a mockery of the lugubrious film it’s in.

What sets post-Twilight Pattinson apart from his peers is the way he has single-mindedly sought out the indie/arthouse space (though Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming Tenet and his casting as Batman should mark some kind of return to the mainstream). Pattinson has also—unusually for an American actor—shown a keenness to work in, and with directors from, other countries. He auditioned for Claire Denis’ High Life, was told he was too young, but persevered until the French auteur cast him four years later. He has worked with directors from Colombia (Ciro Guerra, Waiting For The Barbarians), Germany (Werner Herzog, Queen Of The Desert), the Netherlands (Anton Corbijn, Life) and Australia (David Michôd, The Rover), and even when he is working with American directors like Brady Corbet on The Childhood Of A Leader, the film has a European setting and feel.

Around the time Pattinson was making the jump from mainstream to arthouse cinema, his Twilight co-star, Kristen Stewart, was also headed in a similar direction. First, she worked with Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles on his adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s cult novel On The Road. Then she headed to Europe, collaborating with French director Olivier Assayas. Her performances in their two films together—Clouds Of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper—were revelatory: brittle, original and subtly devastating. It’s altogether fitting that she was cast as Jean Seberg—an American actor who made her most inedible film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, in Paris—in Benedict Andrews’ Seberg.

Who are the other globetrotting world cinema stars today, actors who work across industries and oceans? The first name on such a list must be Juliette Binoche, whose longevity and fearlessness as a performer has rendered her almost without peer. In the 30-plus years of her career, she has worked with masters from Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-hsien), Iran (Abbas Kiarostami, twice), Japan (Naomi Kawase), several from America and Britain (most memorably in The English Patient and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being), Germany (Michael Haneke, twice), Poland (Krzysztof Kieślowski), and just about every major modern French director. It’s not surprising that both Pattinson and Stewart have found themselves playing opposite her, in High Life and Clouds Of Sils Maria, respectively.

Spanish and Latin American actors have proved particularly good travellers in recent years: Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Maribel Verdú, Diego Luna, Édgar Ramírez. But if there’s one name that brings together different strands of world and popular cinema, it’s the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. He shot to fame in thrilling, volatile films by then-emerging Mexican directors—Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. Since then, he has worked all over the arthouse world, with idiosyncratic talents like Jim Jarmusch and Michel Gondry and titans like Herzog and Pedro Almodóvar. His partnership with Chilean director Pablo Larraín in No, Neruda and Ema might be the most rewarding actor-director team-up of the decade. He also managed five seasons of sublime comedy as orchestra conductor Rodrigo De Souza in the American series Mozart In The Jungle.

Acting talent moving across international borders isn’t a recent phenomenon: few working in film today have ranged as far and wide as Michel Piccoli or Max von Sydow. Still, such cross-pollination has been gathering steam since the internet started radically expanding people’s exposure to each other’s cinemas. Golshifteh Farahani’s fame in Iranian cinema has led to her finding work in France (Eden), India (The Song Of Scorpions) and the US (Paterson). Actors like Vincent Cassel, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe and Viggo Mortensen have shown similar exploratory instincts. When Maggie Cheung starred in Assayas’ Irma Vep in 1996, her otherness was at the heart of the film. Today, South Korea’s Kim Min-hee acts alongside France’s Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera, Hong Sang-soo’s Cannes comedy, and it seems like business as usual in the arthouse world.

This World View column appeared in Mint Lounge.

Ford v Ferrari: Review

He may not churn them out like Michael Curtiz, but James Mangold has range to match the Casablanca director. He’s bounced from shadowy crime film (Copland) to nervy indie (Girl, Interrupted), romantic comedy (Kate & Leopold) to big-budget nonsense (Knight and Day). The general consensus was that his last feature, the dour X-Men standalone Logan, was excellent (it was – for a comic book franchise film). His latest, Ford v Ferrari, finds him in a much happier mood.

In the early 1960s, Ford was in a slump and Lee Iacocca, then an up-and-comer in the marketing division, had a radical solution. To get the kids buying your cars again, he told Henry Ford II, you need to make one that can win a race: not dusty NASCAR, but shiny Le Mans in France. Ford agreed, and Iacocca drafted in designer Carroll Shelby to come up with a machine that could compete with reigning champion Ferrari. Shelby, in turn, brought in English race car driver Ken Miles, known for his brilliance inside the car and his short fuse outside it.

This much is fact, but it’s the shading within the lines that makes this an unexpectedly light-footed and pleasurable experience. Mangold dresses everything up in Jacques Demy colors. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography has a sun-kissed glint. And there’s a fantastic ‘60s pop soundtrack: the Kingsmen's version of "Money (That's What I Want)", the lesser-known Byrds instrumental “Stranger in a Strange Land", James Burton’s supercharged “Polk Salad Annie".

Casting Matt Damon as Shelby and Christian Bale as Miles is a canny decision for the contrast it offers up. Damon is one of the least demonstrative performers out there; it’s not often you catch him 'acting'. And you’ll rarely catch Bale not acting—he does everything he can to make sure you’re not looking at anyone else when he’s onscreen (Mangold had used him similarly in 3:10 To Yuma, opposite the introverted Russell Crowe). He seems to relish being able to speak in his native accent here and generally play the fool. Damon holds the film steady, Bale does everything but address the camera.

There’s another matchup, not as apparent but just as effective. In a wonderful, almost silent cameo, Remo Girone plays Enzo Ferrari, racing car designer supreme. Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) goes to him with Ford’s offer to partner up on a car; the master’s response, delivered in halting English, is devastating: “Tell him he’s not Henry Ford." The reserved, European artistry of Girone’s Ferrari is contrasted with the all-American force of Tracy Letts’ Henry Ford II. Letts is so blustery and god-like that the scene where he breaks down after enduring a high-speed lap in his own racecar lands perfectly. “I had no idea," he tells Shelby repeatedly.

In 2013's Rush, Ron Howard – like Mangold, another metteur en scène – made a racing movie that people who don’t care for the sport could watch. Ford v Ferrari has a similar quality, though it delves deeper into the mechanics of the sport. The valves-and-engines talk flew past me, but when Miles is strapped in and driving, it doesn’t matter. As an F1 non-watcher, I’ve never had occasion to appreciate the high-risk game of chicken that is two drivers, neck and neck, accelerating as they approach a turn. Mangold achieves this through sound design and rapid cutting – a concise example of action cinema problem-solving.

Ford v Ferrari isn’t the wittiest film, or inventive in its narrative strategies. It is, instead, what used to pass for a Hollywood tentpole offering before franchises took over everything: just clever enough, and satisfying in its bigness. It’s the sort of film you can enter at any point when it comes on TV and would probably see through to the end.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Bala: Review

Ayushmann Khurrana has steadily been making his way up the body in his efforts to expose the frailties of the modern Indian male. He started below the waist with Vicky Donor, reached the heart in Meri Pyaari Bindu and Bareilly Ki Barfi, down again for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, before heading back up, all the way to the vocal chords, in Dream Girl. Now, with Bala, he’s reached the northernmost bastion of male insecurity.

Hair – in particular, its absence – is the unusual subject of Amar Kaushik’s film. Khurrana plays Balmukund Shukla, a fairness products sales agent in Kanpur, whose fortunes in the follicle department have taken a tragic turn. Once he had floppy, wavy hair that made him a school favourite. At 25, it’s down to a few wispy strands and Bala is desperate for a solution, his litany of home remedies starting with herbal oil massages and getting progressively disgusting from there.

When it all fails, Bala takes the extreme step of wearing a wig. This turns him from an irritable nebbish into a confident charmer – a funny transformation, though without the comic punch of Rajkummar Rao breaking bad, under Khurrana’s tutelage, in Bareilly Ki Barfi. He uses his talent for movie star mimicry to win the affections of Tik-Tok star Pari (Yami Gautam). Soon, they’re talking about getting married, even as he wonders how he’ll tell his supermodel fiancée the truth.

Kaushik draws parallels between the difficulties faced by balding men and dark-complexioned women in India. It’s not the most equal of comparisons – there are, after all, solutions to hair loss, even if they don’t work for Bala – but the film does well to show the straightforward cruelty and discrimination that society sanctions in both cases. Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), a tough-minded lawyer, has been hearing jibes about her skin colour (from classmate Bala as well) since she was a child. It’s limiting her marriage prospects now (not that she cares), just as Bala’s baldness is hampering his.

Latika is a strong-willed person, comfortable in her skin and fiercely dismissive of efforts to hurt her self-esteem. The problem, though, is that Pednekar is playing her practically in blackface. It’s a weirdly self-defeating move for a film to say all skin tones are beautiful and then cast an actor who everyone knows is significantly fairer than what she's shown to be. It’s the perennial Hindi film problem: they want the issue, not the actual representation. The cherry on top: in 2012, Yami Gautam featured in a fairness cream ad.

Gautam is excellent, though, turning her character’s straightforward shallowness into something appealing. Pari places a huge premium of outward appearances – my looks are all I have, she tells Bala – which is why it’s such a huge betrayal when her husband’s true face is laid bare before her. Gautam’s reaction in that moment is masterful, a mixture of comic incomprehension, creeping horror, hurt and anger.

Khurrana continues to be one of the few Hindi actors willing to play unlikable losers. He mixes that up with wig-wearing hero here, but it’s Bala's insecurities that make for the best scenes, like when he explodes at his father (a tremendous Saurabh Shukla) for passing on baldness and diabetes to him. It’s a pity his films are turning preachy – he has a knack for moral confusion and weakness that’s at odds with the bland certitude expected of movie leads.

In his first film as director, last year’s surprise hit Stree, Kaushik showed he had an ear for sonorous writing and the rhythms of life in Tier II towns. His delight in language continues here – ‘lolup’ gives him such a kick it turns up again in the next line (the screenplay is by Niren Bhatt). Like Stree, this is a strong comic ensemble, Khurrana and Gautam supported by Shukla, Seema Pawha (sporting a moustache for some reason), Abhishek Banerjee (so adept he almost slips the breathtakingly racist “Malinga cut" line past you), and Javed Jaffrey, coming out tops in a scene with duelling Bachchan imitations. But whenever Pednekar is onscreen, things fall apart. The central quandary is that Bala would have seemed skewed and farcical with only male baldness to concentrate on. It needs the skin colour scenes – but it really didn’t need the blackface.

This review appeared in Mint.

Drive: Review

The studio behind Dhadak, Kesari and Student of the Year 2 has finally found a film that isn’t worth releasing in theatres. Dharma Productions’ Drive has apparently been ready since 2018. It’s out now, exclusively on Netflix, and while it’s tough to make a case for Tarun Mansukhani’s film being released anywhere, at least theatre audiences have been spared. You can’t get a ticket to ride – and you shouldn’t care. As for those of you who blunder into its headlights online, it’s between you and your conscience and the left-facing arrow which is all that separates you from the BoJack Horseman episodes you’ve been meaning to catch up on.

You can see why Dharma would want to dump Drive online. I don’t know if it’s tougher to buy Jacqueline Fernandez as the high-heels-wearing winner of a drag race or as the leader of a criminal gang, but it’s not a decision I want to have to make in the first five minutes of a film. Tara and her cohorts are planning a major heist – at Rashtrapati Bhavan, no less. The government gets wind of this and sends its man to infiltrate the gang. An hour later, Sushant Singh Rajput is giving Fernandez a foot massage (they’re barely friends at this point) while laying out his master plan (it involves rats).

Even by the low standards of Bollywood heist films, Drive is supremely lazy filmmaking. Most everything that happens is patently ridiculous – my personal breaking point was the scene in which the gang stands perfectly still so that the security team of (I assume) one of the most secure buildings in the country thinks the system has frozen. The Dhamaal-meets-Italian-Job aesthetic is a monument to bad taste. Everyone looks exhausted, from Pankaj Tripathi, who can barely keep his eyes open, to the extras in the background who can’t be bothered to cheer properly.

Rajput has the fixed plastic smile of an actor who wishes his career were in another gear. Fernandez struggles with simple actions like striking a steering wheel in anger. The only thing I can get behind is the relatively trim running time – just under two hours – though I’d have been happier if the film was 90 minutes of Fernandez outtakes of lines like “Yeh hai woh Formula One driver jo kehta hai ki humein street race mein hara sakta hai". In the 1980s, films deemed too poor for theatrical release went straight to video. Drive seems like straight to digital: a film which might have once been destined for movie screens, but wasn’t worth the bother.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

River deep, garbage high

The night before my first beach clean-up, I looked up the shared document that was pinned to Afroz Shah’s Twitter page. Along with information for Week 206 (Devachi Wadi, Versova beach, 8am on 29 September), there was a short primer on the movement’s goals, and an exhortation to join the “constant work every Saturday and Sunday for past three and a half years"—work which has drawn hundreds of thousands of volunteers to Shah’s cause and seen the 37-year-old counsel with the Bombay high court named a UN Champion of the Earth in December 2016.

I reached early the following morning, expecting to be among the first volunteers. The beach was swarming. There must have been 400 people. Unlike me, they seemed to know what to do, donning disposable gloves, picking up plastic and other waste, shaking them free of sand, depositing them in large tubs. A couple of earth-movers roved around, digging up garbage that had settled too deep for human hands to pry out. Completed piles were added to the hill-like deposit away from the water, which would later be taken away by a Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) truck. This has been the scene on Versova beach ever since Shah started picking up garbage on his own, in 2015.

I caught up with Shah. We were both wearing gloves, so he offered a fist-bump instead of a handshake. He put the number of volunteers at 700. “This is too many people," he admitted. “One hundred would be better."

The following Sunday, I reached Filter Pada, a slum near Aarey Colony in Powai, for Shah’s Mithi River Rejuvenation drive (the same week, there were drives at Versova, Dana Pani beach in Malad and Sanjay Gandhi National Park, as well as in Goa, Kolkata and Meghalaya). It took a while for Shah’s team to reach. On the night of 4 October, 29 people protesting the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s tree felling in Aarey had been arrested. Several volunteers arrived on the morning of 6 October, only to find the police had cordoned off the area—and had to head back home.

The Versova clean-ups often draw over a thousand volunteers. On 2 October, a public holiday, 4,500 people turned out, volunteer Punit Punamiya tells me as we stand in a corner of Filter Pada’s Shiv temple waiting for the team to arrive. The turnout for a Mithi clean-up is usually between 50-400. There were around 40 volunteers the day I went. “Right now you can’t get inside the river," Punamiya says. “After November, we will start calling kids."

After his success at Versova—23 million kilograms of garbage cleared and, in 2018, the return of Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings to the beach—Shah had turned his attention to the Mithi. The river originates around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in north Mumbai, is fed with the overflow of the Vihar and Powai lakes, and flows into Mahim Bay and the Arabian Sea. This roughly 18km stretch runs through residential and industrial areas, its path diverted over the years by construction for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, the upscale Bandra Kurla Complex and other projects.

Once upon a time, the story goes, Mithi’s water was extremely clean. “I have met people who told me they would do wuzu (ritual cleaning) with that water before saying their prayers," says Murtaza Sadriwala of the Dawoodi Bohra community, which teamed up with Shah a year ago (they had been one of the larger groups on Versova beach the previous week). But years of sewage, chemical pollutants and garbage have choked the river.

In 2005, in the midst of an exceptionally heavy monsoon, the Mithi overflowed its banks, exacerbating a flood situation which claimed over 500 lives. This drew attention to the levels of pollution but matters haven’t improved since. This September, after heavy rain, the Mithi again broke its banks, submerging railway tracks, and forcing the evacuation of more than a thousand people who were living it.

The day I visited Filter Pada, the Mithi’s waters were too high for a proper clean-up. As a dozen or so volunteers picked and bagged whatever waste they could find on the banks, Ranveer, a long-time volunteer, showed me a bioremediation method they had set up earlier this year: activated charcoal placed in the soil which intercepts the sewage emerging from Filter Pada and releases relatively clean flow into the river. It worked until the rains started in earnest and it got choked, but Shah says they will get it running again, this time with a cover that will keep the mud out.

From its inception in November last year, community outreach has been a big part of the Mithi clean-up drive. “They used to burn the plastic before we got them to stop," Ranveer says. Sadriwala adds: “We would wear masks. Now we don’t have to do that." Shah realized that convincing people living along the river to not dump or burn their plastic was as crucial as the actual cleaning, if not more. So he and his team started knocking on Filter Pada’s doors, asking the people to store their solid waste, with the assurance that they would come by every weekend and pick it up.

Initially, they were ignored. Some assumed they were workers with a political party. Aaqib Shaikh, a third-year college student and resident of Filter Pada who now volunteers with Shah, says: “We had seen a few cleanliness drives before, so we didn’t pay much attention. But when they kept coming back week after week, we took them seriously." The volunteers would also cook food for about 50-100 people, and take it with them to the colony. They began by canvassing with 1,500 houses, Punamiya says, and now cover 3,000 houses every week.

I walked through the narrow lanes behind Ranveer, a gunny sack in my hand. He stopped at each door, knocked once if it was closed, and shouted cheerily: “Sookha kachra (dry waste)." Someone—generally a woman or a child—would emerge and empty a pile of plastic into his sack. If a household told them they didn’t have anything, he would ask them to collect and keep the following week. A couple of the rooms had already hung the dry waste outside in a packet.

All this was happening at almost a running pace, with volunteers in multiple lanes. The colony is divided among them, with individuals taking responsibility for collection and education in their assigned territories.

I was walking down a gully behind a young volunteer, Dinesh Awari, who was stressing the importance of turning up week after week, so that “his" houses eventually tired of reminders and started saving their plastic. Midway, he turned and said we could head back. The families up ahead hadn’t been explained how to segregate yet; he would get to them in the coming weeks.

As we stood in a clearing, waiting for empty sacks to arrive, three boys from the chawl, likely between the ages of 7-10, came up to us. A volunteer took the opportunity to impart a quick lesson—don’t throw your chips packet away, it makes its way to sea and fish eat it. One of the boys seemed worried that we were going to skip his house, reminding me twice to come by. Another ran off, singing “Plastic, apun ka plastic."

It’s no wonder Shah’s efforts have increasingly focused on capturing the minds of younger volunteers. He does speaking engagements in schools on a regular basis, and has a dedicated team just for outreach with this demographic.

After the collection is done, a tempo carries the waste to Andheri, where it is first segregated and then sent for recycling. In a few weeks, the river cleaning will start in earnest as well. “It’s not as exotic as a beach clean-up," Punamiya says drily. It’s also less likely to show encouraging results, at least in the short term—in a year, they have cleaned 1.25km of the river. Shah estimates it will take them at least five years to cover the Mithi’s 18km. “It will take much more until we hasten. We have over 20 million people. The whole city seems to be sleeping."

This piece, part of a giving back Diwali special issue, appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Laal Kaptaan: Review

For the second time this year, Hindi cinema takes a run at a revisionist Western. Laal Kaptaan doesn't come together as satisfyingly as Sonchiriya, perhaps the best theatrical release of 2019. But that film still had the broad framework of the daaku film to play with, whereas Navdeep Singh heads into largely unmapped territory with some hunting dogs and a history book for company.

Laal Kaptaan is set in the late-1700s, a time of fantastic tumult in India. The Battle of Buxar has taken place, the Mughals are losing their grip and the British are on their way to taking control of the country. North India is a mess of competing interests: Afghans, Marathas, assorted tribes and clans. Into this bubbling stew, Singh drops a naga sadhu, played by Saif Ali Khan, who has unfinished business with a warlord named Rahmat Khan (Manav Vij).

The Western is strong in this one: there are Moriccone bells and choruses, and the sadhu is a nod to both the Lone Ranger (in that he looks like Tonto) and the Man With No Name (everyone just calls him “gosain", the term for Shiva-worshipping ascetics). But Laal Kaptaan is also a chase film, a genre Singh experimented with in NH10. Gosain has been pursuing Khan for 20 years and is finally within striking distance. Also pursuing Khan are the Marathas, whose money he’s run off with. And there’s a tracker played by Deepak Dobriyal, who’ll hunt down anyone, Gosain or Khan, for a fee.

There are shades of Aamir Khan’s trickster from Thugs of Hindostan in the tracker, but thankfully there’s more that separates than unites these two films, even though both are set in north India in the late 1700s. This is a more convincing snapshot of what the region must have been like, with everyone looking out for themselves and national identity barely a gleam in anyone’s eye. There's a wealth of eccentric period detail: for instance, the Pindaris – plunderers and foragers of the time – who set off after Rahmat Khan are presented as the film’s equivalent of commedia dell'arte or a nautanki troupe.

Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkatesha create a gritty, unstable world; even the most sympathetic character, a widow, played by Zoya Hussain, acts decisively and without mercy when she has to. The use of incremental flashbacks, though, doesn’t work as well as they might have hoped. Every 30 minutes or so, we’re shown fragments of events that went down in Buxar: rain, a boy and his father, prisoners, British soldiers, a hanging. We get a little more information with each one, so by the time we learn why the gosain is after Khan, it’s not that much of a revelation, unlike that expertly deployed, heart-stopping flashback in Sonchiriya.

The film is held back in other ways. You wish someone had given Singh and cinematographer Shanker Raman a bit of a budget for the set-pieces – there are a couple of good ideas (the Afghan ambush, for example) but little cohesion or fluidity. The performances are a strange collection of accents and attitudes. Saif Ali Khan, buried under dreadlocks, a beard and sacred ash, seethes and grimaces a lot. Vij seems to be trying to channel Pankaj Kapur in Maqbool; there’s a scene when I genuinely couldn’t make out if the source of a loud grunt was Vij or the horse or camel standing nearby. And while it’s nice to see Dobriyal get prominent billing, his clowning is one-note and his part underwritten.

And yet, Laal Kaptaan is the sort of film I wish there were more of – an exploration of the richness and weirdness of old India, one which doesn’t try to smooth the edges or create a Disney-esque franchise. Recent films have used our nation’s distant past as a reflecting pool of orthodoxy (Padmaavat) and proto-nationalism (Manikarnika). Singh, on the other hand, admits that we’ve always been a complicated, fractured country, and that entire lives can be defined by nothing more than a desire for revenge.

This review appeared in Mint.

The Sky Is Pink: Review

A film about the impending death of a terminally ill child, narrated by the dead child from beyond the grave. You can’t lose with a setup like that: even a strictly competent director could push the required buttons and reduce viewers to a sniffly mess. But you can’t win either. No matter how much you pare it down, there’ll always be someone accusing you of manipulating tears from the spectacle of a dying kid. Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink errs on the side of caution, keeping the impending tragedy in view at all times, but wrapping everything in good vibes and the kind of courage you have no option but to admire.

On the roof of an Old Delhi house, Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) wakes up her husband, Niren (Farhan Akhtar), to the news that she’s pregnant. After a quick spell of blaming each other – something that’ll recur through the film – they’re faced with the question: what next? Aditi wants to keep the baby. Niren wants to abort – with good reason. They’d once had a daughter, who died soon after she was born. They found out she had severe combined immunodeficiency, a condition which leaves its victims extremely vulnerable to infections. Any child of theirs would have a one in four chance of being born with the same.

Aisha – whose voiceover breezily informs us that “the end" has already happened for her – does, indeed, have SCID, which requires her to be in London for treatment. She grows up there, alone with her mother at first as Niren heads back to India to earn a living; then with both of them and her older brother, Ishaan (Rohit Suresh Saraf), on the outskirts of London; and finally back in a farmhouse in Delhi. Her condition makes normal life almost impossible, but she still manages to go to school (for one scene at least), paint, write, fall in love, and allay parental concerns with dry comic barbs.

Bose worked with similarly heart-tugging material in 2014’s Margarita With A Straw, about a young woman with cerebral palsy. Her new film (screenplay by Bose and Nilesh Maniyar; dialogue by Maniyar and Juhi Chaturvedi) is comfier, less jagged. The reaction shots of baby Aisha yawning and gurgling are an early indication that there will be plenty of sugar to help the grim premise go down. The long goodbye is eased by the good life, with teens lounging by the pool and domestic staff bringing them double espressos, and a bit of Zoya Akhtar-esque deep-sea diving (having Aisha come face to face with a sea turtle, a creature known for its long life-span, is a neat idea). Mikey McCleary’s score is the shiniest object of all, its jauntiness mostly at odds with the delicate emotions in play.

Zaira Wasim is a rare young actor who doesn’t go hunting for the audience’s sympathy; she plays Aisha as calm and funny instead of angry or tragic. The focus, though, remains on her parents – which is just as well, since it would have taken a different sort of film to explore the psyche of a dying teenager. In its best moments, The Sky is Pink is a perceptive look at the pressures that descend on a marriage when there’s a seriously ill child involved. The scenes with Niren and Aditi laying into each other are emotionally volatile in a way the rest of the film isn’t. Both actors respond beautifully, especially Chopra, who is believably fraught, determined and frayed by turn.

Bose’s film is based on a real-life story: there really was an Aisha Chaudhary, born to Niren and Aditi, who died at 18. This is a touching tribute to a life cut short, even if the experience is less wrenching than what one might expect. After Aisha dies, the next scene is her funeral, with loud country music trampling over the goodbyes we’ve just witnessed. It reminded me of the ending to The Broken Circle Breakdown, a 2012 Belgian film about a couple who lose their young daughter to cancer. It ends with the wife on her deathbed, the husband and their bluegrass band playing her on her way out. It’s a desperately sad scene to begin with, but as the music picks up the band members start to smile and whoop. The Sky Is Pink has similar reserves of emotion, but nothing breaks through its manicured surface in so electrifying a manner.

This review appeared in Mint.