Saturday, May 30, 2020

Gamak Ghar: A homecoming in Madhopur

There couldn’t be a better time for Gamak Ghar to turn up on Mubi. After two months of lockdown, we’ve become attuned to our surroundings and have attained a level of familiarity with our houses we didn’t know was possible. This makes it easier to appreciate Achal Mishra’s debut feature, which looks calmly and patiently at a house in a village called Madhopur in Bihar. Even by arthouse cinema standards, this is not a narrative-driven film. Instead, its attributes are those of mood and observance and quiet revelation.

The house in the film belongs to Mishra’s grandmother. Though his parents lived in Darbangha, they’d visit Madhopur – just 10 minutes away – for mundans, weddings, chhat puja. Still, Mishra wasn’t overly attached to the place growing up. But one day, in 2017, he found a diary belonging to his grandfather, the writer Kedar Nath Mishra (a similar thing happens in the film). Along with typical entries, purchases and expenditures, there were notes by his grandfather of his attempts to make it in the film industry. He’d never met his grandfather, but it stirred something in him. Around the same time, his mother brought up the idea of renovating the house. Mishra realised that he wanted to preserve the house in some way, and started batting around ideas for a script.

Gamak Ghar is set in three different time periods, starting in 1998 and ending in 2019. This three-part structure occurred to Mishra early on. “I wanted to see the progression of time,” he said. “More than that, I wanted to see that house in different seasons.” He’d been photographing Darbangha for 4-5 years and had become attuned to the different colours that greeted him when he visited in summer and monsoon and winter. There was also the oblique influence of David S Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), another film that looks at a house over a period of time.

Mishra put out ads online for actors, though these didn’t always have the desired effect. “I used to get people posing with guns – wanting to be a hero,” he said. He ended up casting a mix of actors and non-professionals. The film doesn’t have anything that resembles a “performance”. It’s as if the camera is eavesdropping on a real family as they go about their lives. Mishra’s unobtrusive technique furthers this impression: lots of static camera shots, at a remove from the action. It’s easy to see the influence of two of his favourite directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, with his evocative films about memory and family, and Yasujiro Ozu, master of the still “tatami shot”.

This is a rare film in Maithili, a language that’s seen scant cinematic representation (unlike its Bihari cousin, Bhojpuri). Mishra spoke the language but not fluently enough to write authentic dialogue, so he took the help of a local professor to fine-tune it. When he started shooting, he realised something was off. He felt like he was “imposing these dialogues on people who are more real than what I have written them to be”. So he tossed out large parts of the script, asked the actors to converse as they normally would, rewrote until the film felt organic.

Because of the stillness of so many scenes, the film’s production design and photography and lighting are inseparable. As a preparatory exercise, Mishra would visit the village daily and photograph locations they planned to use. “We’d have 2-3 scenes in mind and we'd figure how to shoot them. We'd then take pictures, which would become our final storyboard.” When Avni Goyal joined as production designer, she took on the process of ageing the house, so that it looked different when the film jumped ahead in time.

Mishra hit on a way for the film itself to look different over time. He filmed each period in a different aspect ratio: 1998 in boxy 4:3, 2010 in 16:9 and 2019 in Cinemascope. It’s the closest Gamak Ghar comes to a big arthouse gesture, and Mishra was a little hesitant. Still, he felt it fit the narrative. “Since 4:3 is almost squarish, you have people close together, the frame is always filled. That is how family photographs are. When you’re seeing a first part, it's a memory that's being show to you.” The shift to 16:9 and, later, Cinemascope, brings with it more negative space, which was in tune with the emptiness of the house once its owners died or built their lives elsewhere, visiting less and less frequently.

Gamak Ghar premiered at the 2019 Mumbai Film Festival. Mishra had shown the film to family members before but it was only after the premiere that his parents realised their son had made something special. Though he says he never thought much about filming in his native place and language, he admitted it was nice when people came up and told him, “We’ve never seen our part of the country like that on film”. There’s a wealth of specific customs and details captured, but several scenes should strike a chord with viewers anywhere in India – like the morning ritual of an extended family touching feet and accepting prasad, shown here in a minute-long shot that unfolds like a piece of choreography. 

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

‘The Eddy’ blows hot and cold

Initially, The Eddy feels like less than the sum of its parts. The first two episodes of Jack Thorne’s Netflix series about a jazz band in Paris are entrusted to Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016). They’re shot by Eric Gautier, one of the best cinematographers working today. The leads are André Holland, indelible as the diner chef in Moonlight (2016), and Joanna Kulig, who gave a full-throttle performance for the ages in Cold War (2018). The music is by Glen Ballard, best known for producing the Alanis Morissette album Jagged Little Pill, and composer Randy Kerber (who also plays the band's pianist).

Yet, despite the beautiful grainy look and intricate unbroken shots, it doesn’t quite lock in. The band isn’t firing on all cylinders when we first see them – something bandleader Elliot (Holland), a former piano virtuoso, now a divorced American expatriate in Paris, pointedly mentions. It’s a bold move, starting with low-energy performances, hoping the viewer will notice the difference when the high-voltage ones come around. But it’s a while before the band really kicks into gear (for me, it was in the latter half of the second episode). There’s a bit of a Chazelle hangover too: Elliot admonishing the band is reminiscent of JK Simmons’ diatribes from Whiplash, and the idea of a struggling but driven pianist-composer isn’t far from La La Land.

Seven of the eight hour-long episodes centre around, and are named for, a different character (the last one is simply called “The Eddy"). The first, “Elliot", introduces its sour namesake; his daughter, Julie (Amandla Stenberg), just arrived from America; the six members of the band; the ebullient owner of the club they play at, Farid (Tahar Rahim), and his wife, Amira (Leïla Bekhti). We find out Farid’s somehow indebted to gangsters, and that Elliot fled his home country after the death of his son. There’s a violent incident and its aftermath. Even at an hour's runtime, that’s a lot to take in. It’s a relief, therefore, when the second, Julie-focused episode slows down somewhat and the characters come into sharper focus.

It’s in the third and fourth episodes that the series starts to cohere. This might have something to do with the passing of the baton to French filmmaker Houda Benyamina (her electric 2016 feature, Divines, is on Netflix). The show takes on a more European feel, with the American indie squabbling of Elliot and Julie replaced by different storytelling rhythms. There’s a long, beautiful passage dedicated to a traditional Muslim funeral, and a cathartic musical celebration afterwards. In the fourth episode, the band’s bassist, Jude (Damian Nueva), a junkie with a gentle, sad face, finds out his former lover is getting married. Impulsively, he offers to be a witness at her registration and later smuggles the couple into a fancy wedding where the band is booked. This leads to two of the best musical scenes in the film, neither of them jazz.

At the wedding, the band is asked to play the dance number "Elle Me Dit". In Chazelle’s hands, the scene might have remained an excuse to sneer at pop music, but Benyamina turns it into something joyous, a bit of cultural anti-elitism very useful in a series about serious jazz musicians. Later, in a restaurant, Jude sings his own composition for the couple, accompanied by a few patrons tapping on tables and shouting encouragement. Nueva, who’s from Cuba, is wonderful in the part – like the other band members, he’s a professional musician in real life.

The other two directors, Alan Poul and Laïla Marrakchi, can’t match the visual excitement of the Chazelle-Benyamina episodes. Their episodes are generally arresting when the storylines work (Julie’s adventures with Sami, one of her father’s employees; drummer Katarina’s miseries; anything to do with the band) and drag when they aren’t. With Elliot constantly putting out fires on the home front and trying to keep both the police and the mob at bay, Holland spends most of the series looking harried. He’s a subtle actor, the kind you can call on to show a tiny flicker of an unarticulated emotion – but perhaps the series needed a more blatant charisma for its central character. Kulig is a casting coup – a fine dramatic actor who’s also a singer – yet her Maja feels like an early draft of the many-shaded vocalist she played in Cold War (it doesn’t help that she’s saddled with Ballard and Kerber’s awful lyrics).

The Eddy is happily European – half the dialogue is in French, the opening title is “une série originale" and the closing credits have “réalisé par" and “avec" (I can’t decide if Julie being told Eid is “Christmas for Muslims" is a parody of American insularity or an explanation Netflix thought was necessary for viewers there). It’s also impressively multicultural, something which flows from the diverse makeup of the band: Polish singer, Cuban bassist, Croatian drummer, American pianist and horn players from Haiti and France. There’s a lot of potential here: winsome cast, talented players, a breadth of storytelling. With more consistent writing and direction, this show could soar. The first take isn’t bad, but I’d like to see The Eddy break for café and cigarettes and return for another crack at it.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ema: Review

Pablo Larraín's Ema begins with fire, ends with family. On these two axes is plotted this strange, hypnotic, bruising film by the Chilean director. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Gastón, director of an arty dance troupe in Valparaiso. But it’s his wife, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a dancer in his company, 12 years younger to him, who’s the unstable centre of the film. We see her in the street with a flamethrower in the first scene, and it only gets crazier from there.

The couple had adopted a young boy named Polo, but gave him back when he proved too wild (he burnt his aunt’s face). To make matters worse, it was Ema who – in Gastón’s version, though it’s believable – taught the boy to play with fire. She wants him back now, but the adoption agency isn’t going to repeat its mistake. “Surely he has another mom who’s better than you," a blunt official tells her.

Neither Ema nor Gastón seems fit to be parents: they’re barely keeping it together as human beings. Their relationship is coming apart spectacularly. “Right now Polo is shedding tears of rage because you abandoned him," Gastón tells his wife as they’re sitting in bed. When Ema says they both abandoned him, he replies, “It hurts a lot more to be abandoned by your mother." She accuses Gastón of turning his back on the boy when he was starting to trust him; he uses her line: “We both abandoned him." It’s like Scenes from a Marriage on uppers.

This conversation, or something very much like it, continues, after a musical interlude, in another scene, Ema and Gastón sitting in chairs across from each other (this sort of elliptical editing is typical Larrain). “You wanted him to burn the house down so I’d have to, I don’t know, give him back," he says. She blames the whole mess on his infertility. He says the boy only liked her because she flirted with him. “You fucked up my life," she tells him. “I was a little girl and you didn’t take care of me."

This would be an unwatchably caustic film had Larrain treated it in the spare, sober manner of his Post-Mortem (2010) or The Club (2015). Instead, he pitches it – visually, tonally, emotionally – right on the brink of sanity. Unlike his other films, this one is awash in colour, scenes popping with purple and pink and orange. Nicolás Jaar’s score pulses and seethes; the reggaeton Ema and her girl gang love to dance to thumps, rattles. Some of the images are straight out of a Lynchian dreamscape: a cat in the freezer, playground swings burning in the night, girls clambering over each other to sniff a barman’s chest.

The film has a fluid, freewheeling sexuality. Ema can’t seem to stop seducing people – a fireman, his lawyer wife, the principal of a school. In one scene, a member of her posse talks about wresting control from men. “I’m not interested in sex. I’m interested in emotion. I like the mess. The twisted power it has." When another friend asks Ema if she’s thought of her sexually, she says “All the time", then points to each of the girls in turn, saying, "And about you… about you…"

Bernal has worked with Larraín on two of the director’s best films, the Pinochet-era No (2012) and the Borgesian biopic Neruda (2016). Here, he plays a variation on his orchestra conductor from the TV series Mozart in the Jungle, someone as obsessed with detail and control of his group, but a considerably meaner spirit. Bernal has a great boomer rant about reggaeton and objectification, but otherwise cedes control of the film to Girolamo. She’s spectacular, with her white hair and astonishing mobile face, dancing like her life depended on it, setting literal and figurative fires.

Ema isn’t a film that always seems in control of itself – not surprising, given the on-the-fly methods adopted by Larraín, with dialogue written during the shoot and lines given to actors a day before, or on the day of, their scenes. But control seems like such a staid quality when you have a film this nasty, sexy and jolting. They only cause each other pain, yet Ema and Gastón’s movement is always towards each other. Like Phantom Thread, another film about a warring couple who just can’t quit, Ema ends up in a deliciously untenable place, with something familial rising from the torched remains of a relationship.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Eight scenes to remember Irrfan

The last Hindi film in theatres before the lockdown was Angrezi Medium. It will also be the last new Irrfan Khan film we’ll ever see. The actor died this morning, at Kokilaben hospital in Mumbai, after a two-year battle with cancer.

There has perhaps never been a Hindi film actor so unanimously regarded as the best of his generation. Irrfan’s body of work is vast and staggering, from early glimpses in Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), his breakthrough with Haasil (2003) and Maqbool (2004), and the remarkable films that followed: The Namesake (2006), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), Piku (2015), The Lunchbox (2013), Qissa (2013), Talvar (2015). He was also a rare Indian actor in demand in Hollywood, appearing in blockbusters like Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016) and critical successes films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life of Pi (2012). From the scores of memorable moments he’s left us, we pick eight that give a sense of his journey, his unique star quality and his versatility as a performer.

Letter never sent
Irrfan was initially slated for a longer part in Salaam Bombay (1988), his first film, but proved too tall and rangy. Director Mira Nair, taken by his look, offered him a one-scene cameo. Krishna, the film’s young protagonist, wants to send a letter home to his mother. His earnestness is contrasted with the brusque responses of the roadside letter-writer, played by Irrfan. After the boy leaves, Irrfan gives the kind of piercing sideways glance that would become so familiar to Indian moviegoers, and crumples up the paper. There are people who watched the film when it came out who’ll tell you they saw greatness in that lean young scribe.

These eyes of mine
Irrfan’s breakthrough came in 2003, playing a thug involved in student politics in Haasil. The scene in the movie theatre is the one everyone remembers, with Ranvijay (Irrfan) hilariously telling his posse to adopt guerrilla tactics. But there’s a scene later in the film which I can’t shake. Sitting by the lake, Ranvijay asks Jimmy Shergill’s more polished student why women are scared of him – a rare contemplative moment for this violent, crude character. “I have a clean heart too, but it’s all about appearances. What can I do, god has given me these eyes". Irrfan lightly slaps one eye as he says this – a funny, revealing gesture.

‘Meri jaan…’
The strangest love scene in Hindi cinema. On at outcrop overlooking the sea, Nimmi (Tabu) trains a revolver on Maqbool, her secret lover and right hand man of the gang lord whose mistress she is. She won’t give it back unless he says meri jaan (my love); she fires into the air, scaring him. So he says the words, first under duress, then like he’s actually enjoying it. Irrfan’s changing expression each time he repeats the phrase is a perfect acting exercise, one of many in Maqbool.

As Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake, an Indian professor in the US, Irrfan has a gentleness that’s heartbreaking. In one scene, he gives his college-bound son (Kal Penn), named for Gogol, a copy of The Overcoat for his birthday. He’s about to tell Gogol the story of how he got the name, but Pearl Jam is blaring and the boy is distracted, impatient with his father. Irrfan’s silence before he gives up, pats his son on the shoulder and leaves, is beautifully poised – a moment of connection almost forged, and then lost.

Something new
Irrfan could do more with nothing than any other Indian actor. The scene in The Lunchbox where Saajan, a widower who’s withdrawn from life, eats food cooked by Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for the first time, is a tour-de-force of minimalist acting. It’s delivered to him by mistake, and Irrfan conveys, through sniffs, pauses and tentative bites but no words, just how unusual it is for this man to be eating food that actually tastes good.

Hero entry
An out-of-focus figure in the distance limps towards the screen as a wicked bass riff plays. It’s the Omar Sharif entry in Lawrence of Arabia, except here there’s snow, not sand. The figure comes close and is revealed to be Irrfan, in a shawl, black hat and dark glasses. I saw Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) in an old Delhi theatre: when this scene played, the audience cheered like they would for Rajinikanth or Shah Rukh Khan. It’s testament to Irrfan’s popularity that he’s the one given the “hero entry" in the film and not Haider himself, played by Shahid Kapoor.

Ladies’ man
As talented a dramatic performer as he was, Irrfan could also be loose and charming and attractive, playing memorably opposite actresses as different as Tabu, Natalie Portman and Deepika Padukone. The scene in Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) where he meets Parvathy on a blind date is a comic gem. She’s prim and composed, he’s in a red jacket and shades and won’t stop talking. “Sandwich?" he asks at one point, with a pained expression. “Shouldn’t we just drink poison?" Somehow, Irrfan also manages to make this overbearing weirdo likeable – a feat that would have been beyond most other actors.

There’s a strange beauty to Irrfan speaking English. He hits unexpected syllables, rhythms, which gives his speech a distinctiveness that’s denied to his more fluent Hindi. You can hear it in the monologue from Life of Pi where he talks about his late father. “I suppose in the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go," he says. “But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye." It’s almost inconceivable that we have to let go, but let’s take a moment and say goodbye to Irrfan.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Pissed off, funny and warm

In the 2019 film Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez's stripper performs a show-stopping pole dance to Fiona Apple’s "Criminal". It’s an unusual choice of song, a dark, jagged number instead of a floor-burner. But it’s also apt. Part of the film’s charm is its cherry-picking of cultural ephemera to match its 1990s setting, and Criminal is certainly an off-kilter late-'90s moment. The scene made me think of Apple – something I hadn’t done in years – and wonder what she was up to. Turns out she was putting together what could be the best album of 2020.

It opens with Apple singing: I've waited many years/ Every print I left upon the track/ Has led me here. This seems about right: Eight years have passed since her last album, and Fetch The Bolt Cutters does feel like a reckoning, not to mention, in its more violent moments, an exorcism. Apple has always been a confessional songwriter, and on her fifth album (released 17 April) she whittles memories long past and recent, traumatic and comforting, into diamond-sharp vignettes.

This is an album built on percussion. The rhythm figures aren’t drawn from some exotic strain of world music, as they would be on a Vampire Weekend record, but they’re prominent and agile, with a skittishness that matches Apple’s nervous energy. The first sound on most of the tracks is Amy Eileen Wood’s drums – "I Want You To Love Me" begins with a series of clicks and clacks and gentle cymbal hits, "Rack of His" with four smart whacks, "Ladies" with a jazzy shuffle.

The band is small – Apple on vocals and piano, the inventive Wood on drums, Sebastian Steinberg on bass and David Garza on guitar. Everyone doubles up other instruments. Everyone does percussion. There’s an airiness to their playing that’s jazz combo-like, though the tracks themselves are tightly structured. The intimacy of a small band reflects in the recordings: you can hear breathing, the vibration of a double bass. Four dogs are credited with"backing barks". Apple cusses audibly at a mistake. It’s the most authentically homespun sound since The Basement Tapes.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters dares you to treat it as background music. There’s a constant sense of unsettlement: rhythm patterns abruptly change, often twice or thrice in the same song; vocal registers shift without warning. On "Newspaper", a complicated song about two women connected through shared bad experiences with the same man, harsh drums provide no relief from Apple’s ragged vocal. "I Want You To Love Me" closes with throaty squeaks, the kind of sound a wild bird, or Yoko Ono, might make. Sometimes it’s a word or a phrase that explodes: “strawberries" in "Heavy Balloon", “so much" stretched over eight syllables in "Rack of His".

The instrumentation is sparse, which places Apple’s rich contralto front and centre. She pushes it farther than ever before, unleashing a variety of growls, yelps, snarls and, particularly on "Drumset", throat-grazing John Lennon shouts. At times, the percussiveness and the delivery come close to rapping, or at least a lively poetry reading. The dense rhymes further this impression – On I go, not toward or away/Up until now it was day, next day could be a Q-Tip rhyme. Apple goes in other directions as well, ending the noisy Relay with wispy unaccompanied trills, singing “wipe it all away" like Snow White in the forest.

Some tracks lull you into feeling secure, then drop the bottom out of your world. "For Her" clatters along like a '50s girl group number, with handclaps and bright harmonies. The wordplay is dazzling: Look at how feathered his cocks are/ See how seamless his frocks are/ Look at his paper-beating over that rockstar/ Look at how long she walks and how far. Suddenly, everything comes to a halt. There’s a second of silence, then Apple bellows like a gospel singer: “Well, good morning! Good morning! You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in."

Pitted against the darkness is Apple’s knack for pithy comic gems (I would beg to disagree/ But begging disagrees with me) and moments of hard-won happiness. On "Shameika", she recalls how a schoolmate once encouraged her, and transforms that memory and a couple of others into a self-affirming self-portrait: I'm pissed off, funny and warm/ I'm a good man in a storm/ And when the fall is torrential, I'll recall/ Shameika said I had potential.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Never Have I Ever: Review

A couple of years ago, Indian- and Pakistani-origin performers on US television were having a collective moment. Mindy Kaling had wrapped up The Mindy Project and was rubbing shoulders with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8. Aziz Ansari had done two critically acclaimed seasons of Master of None. Hasan Minhaj had his comedy-news series. Kumail Nanjiani was on Silicon Valley and writing and starring in The Big Sick. That moment may not have passed, but representation, in and of itself, is no longer the distant summit it used to be. We might now be at a stage where we can ask these creators and showrunners whether, having transcended diaspora stereotypes themselves, they are continuing to dismantle them.

Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever (streaming on Netflix) proceeds steadily till episode 4, when it breaks down and indulges every NRI stereotype possible. There’s an Indiana Jones reference. There’s a video with an elephant and the Taj Mahal. "Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna" plays at a Ganesh Puja (the song also played in Extraction; Netflix might want to update its Hindi film playlist). There’s a “Bollywood dance". There’s a woman who’s ostracised because she fought with her Hindu family in Chennai to marry a Muslim in the US. There’s a priest called Pandit Raj – an unlikely name, worse when you consider that Raj, along with Kumar, is the go-to name for Indian characters in American shows.

There’s also a girl whose dream it is to go to Princeton and whose mother tells her to corner a college counsellor who might help her get into an Ivy League school. This is Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an outgoing nobody who starts school year determined to change everyone’s image of her as the harp player whose father died during a recital. The first episode has a scene familiar from every teen comedy ever made, the one where the nerds – Devi and her friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) – decide this is the year they’ll find eligible partners and become cool.

Ramakrishnan was chosen out of 15,000 aspirants for the role of Devi. She’s an easy comic presence from the first scene, where she asks a panoply of Indian gods “What’s popping?" and to bless her (and her botany textbook). She gives Devi a Ferris Bueller-like hustle, cooking up crazy plans on the fly. Almost all of them backfire, like when she asks her crush, Paxton (Darren Barnet), who barely knows she exists, if he’d like to have sex with her – and he agrees, but she can’t get to first base without bailing. Poorna Jagannathan – rather wasted in big-ticket series like The Night Of and Big Little Lies – is also excellent as Nalini, Devi’s mother, though it's weird to hear her do an "Indian accent".

The writing, by Kaling, Fisher and several others, is best when dealing in comic barbs (“discount Luke Wilson"), and especially weak whenever Devi’s cousin from India, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), is speaking (“I have a choice, between my family and a life of shame, that will disgrace me and my descendants for generations"). The smartest ruse, though, is having tennis player John McEnroe narrate the show. It’s a creative leap, with a thin explanation behind it, but the weirdness of the juxtaposition works.

There’s a conundrum at the heart of the show, which is much better when it avoids “Indian" situations and focuses on Devi’s life as an average school-going 15-year-old, obsessed with boys and her image. But remove her Indian identity and there’s little that’s unique about the show. Everything seems familiar, from the overeager teacher to Devi’s carefully diverse posse (Indian American topper, biracial science whiz, Asian American drama geek – and an added queer element). Paxton is every beautiful, unattainable idiot in every teen drama. Ben (Jaren Lewison), Devi’s class rival and, unless the show swerves unexpectedly, the boy she’ll develop feelings for once she’s over Paxton, is a lonely rich kid whose parents don’t spend any time with him. It’s like an assemble-it-yourself teen sitcom.

Episode 8 is the one outright winner, its opening minutes a series of great gags: Devi turning a request to model clothes into an outré photoshoot, Eleanor reeling off two hilariously bad impressions, and the best McEnroe joke of the season, his Hallmark homily cut off at just the right moment. But then the next episode comes around, with enough accents to populate a Gurinder Chadha film. It ends with a confrontation beautifully acted by Jagannathan and Ramakrishnan. Yet this too feels calculated, a Very Special Episode markedly different in tone from what comes before and after.

In a revealing scene, Kamala watches Riverdale and marvels at the outrageousness of American teen dramas. The truth is, shows like Riverdale and Euphoria and Sex Education have pushed the teenage TV show into adventurous new realms. Never Have I Ever, by comparison, feels safe – too amiable to cast aside, too generic and slight to stand out.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Extraction: Review

Sometimes the smallest detail can trip up your experience of a movie. Forty minutes into Extraction, Tyler (Chris Hemsworth) and Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) are dodging gunmen in a Dhaka building. They break into an apartment, and the famous intro to "Didi Tera Dewar Deewana" plays. They alight a floor, 10 seconds pass. Then, from another apartment, we hear snatches of "Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna". What are the chances that two instantly recognisable songs from two of the most famous Hindi films of the '90s are playing at the same time in present-day Dhaka? If this were set in the US, an equivalent scene would be Tyler rushing past one apartment as Rick says “Here’s looking at you, kid" and another as Kane says “Rosebud". Not impossible, but unlikely.

Sam Hargrave’s film starts in earnest in Mumbai, with the kidnapping of teenager Ovi, whose father (Pankaj Tripathi, sadly just the one scene) is India’s biggest drug lord. The abductor is, naturally, Bangladesh’s biggest drug lord, Amir (Priyanshu Painyuli). Tyler – ex-Aussie military, now a mercenary – and his team are called in to do an “extraction": find the boy, get him out, get paid. Also in Dhaka is Saju (Randeep Hooda), sent down by Ovi’s father to oversee the rescue, but with plans of his own on how to achieve this.

Tyler does get Ovi out, but his escape from Dhaka is ruined by Saju’s double-cross and the local police closing all exits at the behest of Amir. The film's big setpiece is a very long one-take sequence in which Tyler kills his way from the streets into a building and out again, a terrified Ovi boy tagging behind. No-cut extended action is no longer a novelty for moviegoers, but it’s still an impressive trick if handled with some wit and variation. Tyler’s bloody progress, though impressively choreographed, becomes somewhat monotonous – he moves and executes his kills like a soldier, all precision and no personality.

Its action may not spark much joy but when Extraction settles down for a quiet moment, that’s when you’re in real trouble. Not content with giving Tyler a formulaic tough guy backstory – his life falls apart after his six-year-old dies of cancer – the film also makes rich, unhappy Ovi, unloved by his own dad, the perfect candidate for a father figure. “He thinks of me…more like a thing than a person," he says, unburdening to a complete stranger who just killed several dozen people and hit the one person he knows with a truck. Later, Ovi tells Tyler, “You drown not by falling into the river but by staying submerged in it", because that’s how Hollywood thinks 14-year-olds in India talk.

Extraction is written by Joe Russo, and is produced and based on a story by him and his brother, Anthony, co-directors of four Marvel films. The source material, a graphic novel, is set in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay – the film simply swaps one third world country for another, as American movies tend to do. It’s disappointing that the Russos, coming off the success of the last two Avengers films, would choose to put their weight behind yet another attempt to turn white protagonists going on a killing spree in foreign lands into some form of soul-searching. Tyler is treated like a gentle soul in torment, despite his frequent reminders that he is a killer for hire.

The film doesn’t have any interest in Dhaka – it could be any dirty, corrupt city where Bangla (and some Hindi) is spoken. The one local character of note – Amir – is translated for Western audiences as the Pablo Escobar of his city. Extraction is by no means a realistic film, but it is set in the real world, which means the Russos can’t fall back on comic mythos or easy utopias like Wakanda to explain its blinkered politics. If you’re looking for a palette cleanser after this, I’d recommend the 2019 Brazilian film Bacurau. Its white characters, also gathered in a poor country with the express purpose of killing its citizens, probably think of themselves as heroes too.

This review appeared in Mint.

Surveyor and surveyed in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) stands on a rocky flat overlooking the ocean. Beside her is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whom she’s just met, and has been hired to paint in secret by her mother (she refused to sit for a previous, male painter). We observe Marianne in side profile. She’s blocking Héloïse, but when she turns her head to steal a look, her subject comes into view. When she turns a second time, Héloïse is staring back at her, Haenel’s glare piercing like she already knows the truth. It’s a sign that everything in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which unfolds on a desolate island in late-18th century Brittany, will emerge from a complex web of looking – between painter and subject, patron and artist, and, eventually, two thinkers and lovers.

Later, after Marianne reveals the subterfuge, Héloïse takes a look at the painting. Her first question is: “Is that me?" In his 1972 mini-series, Ways of Seeing, John Berger observed: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

Héloïse's immediate response suggests she can’t stop surveying herself even as Marianne surveys her. Céline Sciamma’s film also understands that the male gaze need not always be wielded by men. Héloïse sees the portrait – in which she’s apple-cheeked and placidly happy – and asks Marianne if this is how she pictures her. Marianne stammers something about conventions and rules. She’s painted her subject the way she's been taught, the way it would be accepted by her male-dominated profession.

Another wrinkle is added if you consider Haenel and Sciamma were in a relationship for many years, though they weren’t together by the time work started on the film. This knowledge turns the scene where Marianne tells Héloïse that she knows she’s embarrassed when she bites her lip or agitated when she places her hands a certain way, and Haenel’s character responds in kind, beautifully resonant – for these are things one usually notices in a companion over time, not in the space of a few days.

There is symbolic weight to the story, right from the names of the characters. Héloïse was a 12th century scholar and nun, whose letters to her lover Abelard are considered an early example of proto-feminist writing (the Héloïse of the film also lived with nuns). And Marianne is, of course, the name associated with light and liberty in France – not to mention a reversal of Jacques Rivette’s 1991 film, La Belle Noiseuse, where the painter’s model is named Marianne. In at least one case, the scene makes more sense if you know the reference. Marianne sketching a mock-abortion struck me as casually cruel to the maid who’s posing, and who’s undergone the real thing earlier in the day. I later read that this was a nod to French author Annie Ernaux, who wrote about her own abortion and argued that no museum would ever hang a painting of one.

Sciamma has made three films before this – Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014) – each focused on female characters. In Portrait, men are almost entirely absent from the film. When we see a man sitting at the table late in the film, after having spent most of it in the company of women, it’s somewhat of a shock. Sciamma intended it that way, calling it a “jump scare" in an interview and adding, “The jump scare is patriarchy."

Though Portrait thrums with desire, Sciamma refuses to show straightforward lovemaking, which only makes the film sexier. Few moments in recent cinema are as erotic as Héloïse caressing Marianne’s face, after they’ve shared their first kiss but before they’ve made love, and asking, “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something? I know the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you."

As befits a film about art, you could pause the film at several points and find yourself in an 18th century painting. Claire Mathon’s photography recalls Barry Lyndon (1975) and El Sur (1983), films shot exclusively with natural light and with candles in interior scenes. But there’s little arthouse fussiness here, Sciamma’s minimalist staging keeping the focus on the characters, their surroundings and their ideas. Unlike the languorous summer of Call Me By Your Name (2017), there’s an urgency to this story: Marianne’s time on the island is limited, and Héloïse will soon be wed to an Italian nobleman. The painting will go to his house, will be his property. This leads to a fight, Marianne saying she resents her work because “through it, I give you to another". Héloïse replies, “Now that you possess me a little, you bear me a grudge."

A little later, after Marianne sketches her for herself, Héloïse teases her lover that she’ll be able to “reproduce that image to infinity". “After a while, you’ll see her when you think of me," she says, showing that she, too, can be jealous of a drawing. There’s so many ideas to unpack per scene, and so much pleasure to be derived, that the two-hour runtime seems – like the brief island idyll for the characters – all too brief.

This piece appeared in Mint.

A long way from home: Migrant anxieties in Hindi cinema

Some of the rare surviving colour footage of Partition can be seen in the 2002 documentary series The British Empire In Colour. There are scenes with people sitting on the roofs of trains, travelling by bullock cart and on foot, trying to reach or flee their homes. One aerial shot shows a seemingly endless procession of the dispossessed stretching along a country road. There was an echo of this over the last two weeks, following the prime minister’s announcement of a 21-day lockdown, in the videos of migrant workers, some with young children, crowding bus stations, walking hundreds of kilometres, only to be turned back.

Within days of the lockdown commencing, it was clear that the first crisis would be dealing with a deluge of people, many of them daily wagers who now had no job, no way to pay rent, and were therefore fleeing cities for their villages. Economic measures were announced three days later but by then the exodus had begun. And, as with the Kisan Long March in 2018, a large swathe of people who often remain invisible to city folk suddenly came into focus.

This unhappy caravan got me thinking of the reverse journey—small town to metropolis—made by a migrant in one of Hindi cinema’s most popular songs. Five minutes into Shree 420 (1955), Raj Kapoor is singing "Mera Joota Hai Japani" as he walks and hitches rides from Allahabad to Mumbai. He has left home in search of a job but finds that honest work is hard to come by and eventually becomes a cardsharp and con man. While his migrant identity isn’t stressed upon, it’s notable that his redemption starts with "Ramaiya Vastavaiya", a Hindi song with a Telugu phrase as the title, which could be seen as a nod to the many non-local cultures that make up the city.

Released two years before Shree 420, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin is the urtext for the migrant Hindi film. Inspired by the neo-realist cinema of Vittorio De Sica , it’s about a farmer forced to move to Kolkata and operate a hand-pulled rickshaw to pay off his debt back home. In an article for Café Dissensus, critic Amrit Gangar writes that the film is “a pivotal work in the cinema of migration, anticipating what would become a motif in popular Indian cinema: the villager eking out a livelihood in the city". In fact, the film seems to look both forwards and back: Snatches of Awaara Hoon (from 1951’s Awaara, another film with migration) are sung, and the brash shoeshine boys are precursors to young Vijay in Deewar (1975), a transplant from town to metropolis.

Suspended lives
At least the protagonists in Do Bigha Zamin and Shree 420 free themselves of the city by the end. Most migrants in Hindi cinema aren’t so lucky. Muzaffar Ali’s melancholic Gaman (1978) ends with Ghulam (Farooq Shaikh) at the railway station. He has endured months of loneliness and hardship in Mumbai, away from his family in an Uttar Pradesh village. But once he reaches the station, he’s sapped of resolve. He watches from behind a grill, like a convict peering through jail bars, as the train he was supposed to be on pulls away.

Ali’s film is one of the most empathetic treatments of migrant anxiety in the big city. It begins with Ghulam as an affable wastrel, with no ambition of leaving his village. But there’s no work, so he reluctantly heads out in order to support his wife, Khairun (Smita Patil), and ailing mother. He becomes a taxi driver in Mumbai but his mind is back home. Letters go back and forth between him and Khairun. She begs him to bring them to Mumbai as well but he won’t commit to that. He can’t afford the journey back home—the city is his purgatory.

Iss sheher mein har shaks pareshan sa kyun hai (why does everyone in this town look troubled)?" the famous Suresh Wadkar song asks—and Ghulam looks more troubled than anyone else. His old life haunts him, literally, as Khairun’s image appears, ghostly, superimposed on the city traffic. The two songs picturized on Ghulam are un-Mumbai-like, gentle ghazals in Urdu. A subplot gives a glimpse of another kind of migrant dream: a vague offer to go work in Dubai, with two years’ salary in advance.

Gaman derives its authenticity from location shooting and casting non-actors in smaller parts. Two years later, another film set among Mumbai’s working class took this idea even further. Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai (1980) is about a Mumbai family, but one extraordinary scene pays tribute to the migrant contribution to the city’s workforce. Albert (Naseeruddin Shah) approaches a group of mill workers on strike and asks one of them his name and where he’s from. He replies, and his companions do the same, addressing the camera. They are from Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Bihar. Each one is regarded separately, in close-up, as if to remind the viewer this isn’t a faceless mass but individuals with hopes and dreams.

Sai Paranjpye’s Disha (1990) also looks squarely at the difficulties migrants face in Mumbai, but with the director’s trademark humour. In the musical number "Bambai Bambai Bam", a group of workers contrast happy village memories with their miserable city lives. “Aisa Gokul chhoda, kya narakpuri yeh paavat hai (left paradise and ended up in a hellhole)," one sings. “Baccha jo peeche chhode woh shakal baap ki bhool gaye (the children we left behind have forgotten their fathers’ faces)," adds another. A man in a white topi, representing the city, tells them off: “Bina bulaye tum mehmaan, upar se ho namak haraam, waapas jao (you are uninvited guests, on top of that ungrateful, go back)". The song ends with the men cheerfully acknowledging their dependence on the city, but the undercurrent is one of worry and pain.

City crimes
A recurring feature in Hindi cinema since the 1950s has been the absorption of the migrant into the city’s criminal classes. In Aar-Paar (1954), Guru Dutt’s Kalu, from Madhya Pradesh, becomes a getaway driver for a local gang. Raj Kapoor’s migrant becomes a trickster in Shree 420. In Awaara, the protagonist’s mother journeys from Lucknow to Mumbai with her infant son after her husband turns them out; the boy grows up to be a petty thief. Over time, the crimes grew more serious. Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay in Deewar—modelled on real-life gangster Haji Mastan—moves as a young boy to Mumbai, shines shoes, joins the working class as a coolie and finally enters the underworld. Hathyar (1989) stresses the continuity of violence, as village feuds give way to gang warfare after the protagonist’s family moves to the big city.

The titular character of Satya (1998), arguably the greatest-ever Hindi gangster film, is also a migrant—though we are never told where he came from (fittingly, the role is essayed by an outsider, Chakravarthy, a Telugu actor). Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000), a film made in the wake of Satya but with a parallel cinema hangover, is a hybrid. Manoj Bajpayee’s Ram Saran has a heavy UP accent; he writes letters home, like Gaman, and lives in a room with others from his state, like Disha. But there’s also a crime narrative, as the car mechanic is forced to become a gangster.

Since migrant narratives usually involve homes left behind, homelessness in the city becomes an important theme, with the inability to secure a place of one’s own a mark of shame (Gaman) and success in this regard the ultimate achievement (Deewar). In Satya, the first thing the protagonist gets upon induction into the gang is a one-room apartment. CityLights (2014) turned this into tragedy as a Rajasthan couple is duped—as so many migrants are—into sinking all their savings into a house, only to find that it’s a scam. It kicks off a series of events which leads to Rajkummar Rao’s character taking part in a heist and his wife becoming a bar dancer—a grim commentary on the choices available to unlucky migrants. Udta Punjab (2016) painted a similarly bleak picture, putting Alia Bhatt’s Bihari labourer through hell before allowing her a measure of revenge.

The reluctance of Hindi directors to set working-class stories in foreign countries means that a potentially rich area, the issues faced by Indians abroad, has rarely been explored; we have had to make do with glimpses in Bharat (2019) and Street Dancer 3D (2020). There has been the odd urban-to-rural migration—Mohan in Swades (2004), Rancho/Phunsukh in 3 Idiots (2009)—but the anxieties in these films are limited to self-actualization. Even village-to-city stories are infrequent nowadays: The working class is seldom seen on the big screen as it is, and migrant stories are a small subsection of these.

A recent film, unconcerned with crime, allowed for a moment of gentle catharsis. In Ritesh Batra’s Photograph (2019), Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is working in Mumbai to pay off the debt his late father left his grandmother with back in the village. The old lady comes to visit, and at the film’s end, lifts the burden off her grandson. “Were you always unhappy as a child? Didn’t you laugh? Then why are you keeping those years with you like a medal? Forget those days, forget that house." Given the premium migrant cinema places on remembering, this invitation to forget is a rare kind of freedom.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

How to be a better celebrity in the time of coronavirus

On 23 March, the day after the nationwide people’s curfew called by the prime minister, Amitabh Bachchan tweeted to his 40.5 million followers. The tweet has since been deleted but the gist was the same erroneous information that had been doing the rounds on WhatsApp: that clapping and conch vibrations would “reduce/destroy virus potency".

At another time, it would be easier to dismiss this as the vague ramblings of a 77-year-old. But this is clearly a moment in our history when simple information, disseminated properly, could save countless lives. Bachchan’s words reach millions of people, many of whom are only too happy to believe a 14-hour curfew might have solved their problems, as we saw when large crowds poured on to the streets to celebrate its end. So it’s not just disappointing that the actor used his platform to play up beliefs instead of scientific fact, it’s downright dangerous.

Compare this to the video Shah Rukh Khan posted on Twitter on 22 March. For 5 minutes, the actor discusses the virus, its symptoms, the myths surrounding it and how to protect yourself. But the video is also charming because Khan keeps it light and conversational and intersperses instructions with clips from his films (“sardi khaansi na malaria hua", of course, but also the Baazigar mask). It’s the best kind of celebrity PSA, relaxed enough to draw the viewer in, clear enough to be useful. Telugu stars N. T. Rama Rao Jr and Ram Charan recorded a simple, clear, instructional message. Kartik Aaryan did his bit too, with a video of him miming washing his hands, and another where he modified his rant from Pyaar Ka Punchnama to heckle viewers into social distancing.

In the time of coronavirus, what do we look for from famous people on social media? To be a source of useful information, as Khan and Aaryan were, or a calming voice, like actor Tom Hanks was when he tested positive for the virus in Australia. But sometimes all that’s needed is a little comfort and cheer. It’s just nice rather than strictly useful to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in his home, feeding carrots to his pony and donkey and talking about observing quarantine.

The problem arises when celebrities treat cheering up the public as some kind of saintly mission. On 19 March, Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot posted a video on Instagram with a bunch of famous faces,―including Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman, Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell,―each singing a line from John Lennon’s Imagine. It’s excruciating to watch, not only because everyone’s in a different key but also because they look so self-satisfied, like they have done us a huge favour. The intention may have been to say, look, we are all in the same boat. But seeing one famous face after another reminds us that they aren’t like us: For one, they can get tested for Covid-19 much quicker than any ordinary citizen.

In place of grand gestures, this might be the time for celebrities to reach out in smaller, more genuine ways. Author Max Brooks spoke to his father, comedy legend Mel Brooks, through a glass door to emphasize the need for social distancing. Actor and winemaker Sam Neill, whose Twitter feed is a delightful mix of geese, pigs, wine and occasional movie talk, has been posting short videos, reading aloud the Ogden Nash poem No Doctor’s Today, Thank You, or strumming a ukulele and singing, with charming self-deprecation, Randy Newman’s Dayton, Ohio 1903. Richard E. Grant, in bed in his pyjamas, cracks himself up reciting the “finest wines available to humanity" line from his breakthrough film, Withnail And I. Coldplay’s Chris Martin live-streamed an intimate set,―though if you are looking for a house concert, we would recommend Keith Urban’s half-hour solo gig because it has a dancing Nicole Kidman.

If you are a creator and can be useful to your fans, that’s great. Point them to a movie, book or piece of music that will help them get through the boredom and loneliness. Show them a workout routine, share a recipe. Just don’t endanger lives or gather your rich friends to sing off-key. It’s easy if you try.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Riz Ahmed: No land’s man

In 1985, on a track called "This Is England", Joe Strummer of The Clash offered a typically blunt picture of racism: Big British boots go kick Bengali in the head / Police sit watching, the newspapers being read. Thirty-five years later, on "Can I Live", Riz Ahmed raps: Buried in a English field, they can’t dig us out/ Riots, we turned Bradford to Karbala—a reference to the 2001 Bradford riots, where the Asian community clashed with far-right groups. It would seem not much has changed since Strummer’s scathing indictment of his own country. The only difference is that British Asians have the mic now.

Ahmed’s new album, The Long Goodbye, is a remarkable work. The rapper and actor, whose parents are Pakistani but who grew up in England, gives voice to the confusion, rage and hurt of the Asian-origin communities there. The impetus might be the long build-up to Brexit and the pain it has caused for anyone seen as not sufficiently British, but the album is also a reminder that the country’s association with the subcontinent began on an unequal footing, and has largely remained that way.

Ahmed finds the perfect metaphor for this: A lover’s lament for a toxic relationship that’s finally ending. Britain’s broken up with me are the first words on the opening track, "Shikwa". Over a gentle wordless sample of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing, Ahmed addresses England as a discarded lover, mournful at first, then increasingly agitated and choked up. It’s the fleetest of history lessons, moving, in a few paragraphs, from the Mughals to Partition to immigrants in the UK, as “Brittney" takes his money, carves him up, ruins his future ("my cashmere jumper’s still stained red")—but he can’t leave her.

Shikwa is named for a poem by Allama Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan. Ahmed pays tribute to another Pakistani writer on the next track. Like Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, neither in India nor in Pakistan, Ahmed too feels like he’s in no man’s land, a Britisher who isn’t wanted in Britain. As if to illustrate the gulf between Iqbal and Manto, "Toba Tek Singh" opens with sirens and a violent motif, four notes that sound like a stabbing. Ahmed is still talking about his lover, but now he’s mocking, defiant. She wanna kick me out/ but I’m still locked in/ What’s my fucking name?/ Toba Tek Singh.

Ahmed has always been a political artist. He came to wider notice with the 2006 track "Post 9/11 Blues", which has a sense of anger and betrayal similar to his new album. The first single of the 2016 Swet Shop Boys (a duo he formed with Indian-American rapper Heems) album, Cashmere, was "T5", which pokes fun at airport checks targeting dark-skinned travellers. You can see it in his acting career too. His first role was as a prisoner and torture victim in The Road to Guantánamo, and he has since acted as a would-be suicide bomber in the comedy Four Lions and as an increasingly radicalized Pakistani man in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Minus the jokey presence of Heems, Ahmed allows himself to access emotional places that might not have been possible on a Swet Shop Boys album. "Can I Live" starts with him acknowledging that things have changed as far as British Muslim representation in entertainment is concerned. But the second half of the song turns that pride inward, as Ahmed wonders if he has betrayed his people through his very success. Am I putting my foot down, or tap dancing for the man?/ All the scars on my heart earned me 50 grand. The phrase from "Toba Tek Singh" returns: No man’s land, I’m no land’s man.

Six of the 15 tracks are spoken word interludes, styled as voice messages left for Ahmed by people concerned about his break-up. There are guest spots by Mahershala Ali, Mindy Kaling and Hasan Minhaj, and a message from Ahmed’s mother, who asks him to come home. This, though, is the tragedy of The Long Goodbye: Britain is Ahmed’s home, but he keeps getting asked where he’s really from. It makes him wonder: Maybe I’m from everywhere but nowhere/ No man’s land, between the trenches, nothing grows there.

The Long Goodbye is accompanied by a 11-minute film with the same title, directed by Aneil Karia (you can see it on YouTube). An Altman-like domestic scene with a British Asian family is shattered when Ahmed sees a van pull up and men with guns jump out. “They are rounding people up, it’s happening," he shouts. It’s too late. His family is dragged on to the street, men made to kneel, women and children shoved into a van. The police stand by, watching impassively. Ahmed is shot running to his younger brother; the other men are executed. As the van pulls away, Ahmed starts to choke out the lyrics to "Where You From", ending up talking straight to the camera.

This is a scene many listeners should be able to recognize: children separated from parents, armed militia acting with the tacit approval of the state. It’s a harrowing companion to an album that feels entirely, urgently, of its moment. Perhaps the production from Redinho could have been a touch bolder—apart from "Toba Tek Singh", there’s nothing here to match the manic beauty of his Swet Shop Boys collaboration "Aaja". But it’s enough to have Ahmed spitting his heart out, switching between languages, voicing the pain of a community: Didn’t get lucky I’m/ Straight outta luck now/ Apnay stay up now/ Sapnay stay stuck now.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Angrezi Medium: Review

The first half represents change, the second half tradition. A couple of recent Hindi films have tried to upend traditional family structures, only to reach for the comfort of normality as the narrative winds down. Jawaani Jaaneman starts to judge its footloose forty-something hero by the end. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan spends its second half trying to win over Gajraj Rao’s sulky homophobe. We see this in Angrezi Medium as well, though the moral pressure here is so subtle as to make the person it’s applied on think it’s her idea.

At the start of Homi Adajania’s film, we see Champak (Irrfan, back after a break for cancer treatment), an Udaipur mithai-seller, casually put a stop to his bride’s studies after marriage. The wife dies, and Champak swears that he’ll give their only daughter the best education possible. Tarika (Radhika Madan) grows up obsessed with the idea of studying abroad. And so Champak, though unwilling to squarely deal with the thought that she’ll leave him one day, starts putting together the money needed for her to go to college in London.

Though the comedy is sometimes too broad for even Irrfan and Deepak Dobriyal (playing Champak’s brother) to salvage, the first half has a raucous underdog energy. But once the trio leave for England, the film acquires a slapdash quality that suggests either a lack of time or screenwriting resolve. The brothers’ plan is laughable: team up with a childhood acquaintance they barely know and somehow make a large amount of money in a very short period of time, all the while carrying fake passports, in a country where they don’t speak the language. There’s the odd slapstick winner – Dobriyal twirling his arm before introducing himself as Saqlain Mushtaq is hilarious – but the writers are mostly clutching at straws.

The film also seems to realise after the interval that it lacks dramatic heft. And so, out of nowhere, we get Dimple Kapadia and Kareena Kapoor Khan, playing mother and daughter, facing off in an emotionally charged scene. The problem is, these are characters we’ve spent no time with, barely know anything about. How are we supposed to suddenly be invested in their damaged lives? The film doesn’t really care either; it just needs someone for Champak to be able to displace his fatherly guilt onto, since he and Tarika have a falling-out over her getting a job and saying she’ll pay him back for the money he’s spending on her fees.

The Tarika-Champak spat is half-hearted at best, and not great for the film, given Irrfan and Madan’s chemistry. With her wheedling voice, which seems to trail off towards the end of sentences, Madan feeds off Irrfan’s liveliness. There’s a scene where she comes home after drinking and manages to confuse her father into thinking that he’s drunk – which on paper must have seemed ridiculous, but the two of them make it work. That they spend the second half largely apart is unfortunate, though Irrfan at least has in Dobriyal a sparring partner in the same weight category, whereas Madan is given bland scenes with assorted college students.

At one point, Champak, hurt that Tarika doesn’t want him to stay with her, asks his daughter if he seems like a frog in the well, a square. Later, he turns her request for a little space – not an unusual demand from a teen – into an elaborate drama of sacrifice on his part. The upshot of all this I won’t reveal, but the film ends up with the suggestion that Tarika is indebted – not just emotionally but in practical ways – to Champak for educating her, for allowing her to follow her dream.

A film about a free and loving father-daughter relationship becomes a closed circuit. It’s that old cliché about setting someone free if you love them and seeing if they come back. But does Champak ever really set Tarika free?

This review appeared in Mint. It was to be Irrfan's last film released before his death.

Little Women: Review

Besides its five other nominations, Little Women is up for an adapted screenplay Oscar. That's just typical, you might think, Academy voters reserving a slot for the 19th century prestige production. You'd be wrong. Greta Gerwig’s film not only deserves the nomination, it ought to win. This is, above all, a startling feat of adaptation.

Until now, screenwriters have regarded Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel as text to trim down. Only Gerwig seems to have looked at it with a movie editor’s eye. She performs loving but intense surgery on the book, cutting and pasting and throwing its chronology out of whack. You can picture her in front of a huge board, moving around cards with ‘thin ice’ and ‘debutante ball’ on them. Not much is added, but because Alcott’s story is so familiar, the very rearranging of it becomes a radical act.

We start with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in a publisher’s office, trying to sell the unimpressed Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) pulp fiction. We see Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris – not vain, difficult Amy but a self-possessed woman about town. Meg (Emma Watson) has two little children. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is ill enough for summons to go out to Jo, in New York, to return home to Concord, Massachusetts. In other words, we’re in the latter stages of the book. I should confess, I had a sinking feeling here. Was the film going to use the squarest of devices – the long flashback – to pack in all the Christmas mornings and theatre shenanigans, the stuff no Little Women film can do without?

There are flashbacks, there’s Christmas, but not like you’d imagine. Instead of extended stretches of linear narrative, the film flits between the four March sisters at different times in their lives, giving us fragments of story, moments out of time. Some of the transitions are achieved with such little fuss that you can barely tell the scenes are set years apart. As the girls and Laurie frolic on a beach, Jo’s voiceover paraphrases George Eliot, Alcott’s great contemporary: “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it…" Eventually we see she’s reading the passage to Beth. If you’re not paying attention, it’s only a few beats later that you'll realise this conversation is happening many years later, on a different beach trip.

Other transitions are linked by emotional through-lines. Jo saying “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life" is followed by her younger sister’s big scene from earlier in the book, where she burns Jo’s writings in anger, then nearly drowns when she tails her the next day on the frozen lane. A more wrenching juxtaposition is Meg at her most glamorous, at a ball in a frilly dress, and then in a darkened room, married, poor and exhausted. This isn’t your typical bildungsroman, where progress from child to adult is chronological and explainable. I was reminded of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, another coming-of-age film in which the clay, the process and the finished article are all mixed up.

This might be making Little Women sound more clever than heartfelt, but the film has an enveloping warmth. The childhood scenes are all natural light and rich shades of brown (the later years are in muted blue). Alexandre Desplat’s score, with its soul-lifting directness, brings to mind John Williams. The actors do seem a little old to be playing teenagers – a perennial problem with Little Women screen adaptations. That said, Ronan is a wonderful Jo, believable as an artist coming into her own as well as someone charming enough to attract the attentions of excitable rich kid Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and Louis Garrel’s halting professor Bhaer.

It’s Pugh, though, who executes the trickiest turn, rescuing Amy from the vain, petulant girl of the book. She and Jo are set up as contrasts, but they’re quite similar by the end, with their clear-eyed assessment of their talents (or lack thereof) and chances in life (both describe marriage as an “economic proposition"). Jo is easier to lionize as an artist who follows her dream, but the film’s bruised heart is Pugh’s Amy desiring, rejecting, then accepting Laurie.

“It would be hard to find an English-language work of fiction more autobiographical than Little Women," Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker in 2018. "For almost every person in Louisa’s immediate family, there is a corresponding character, an important one, in this book." As Alcott placed herself in the book, Gerwig now puts Alcott in the film. The best line – Jo saying “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe" – isn’t from the novel; it’s something Alcott wrote in a journal. The 6.6 per cent royalty that Jo negotiates with Mr Dashwood is the same as what Alcott got.

The ending is, depending on your fealty to the original text, a travesty or a genius sleight-of-hand. Jo’s plan is to have the protagonist of her novel remain a spinster. But the publisher baulks at this, just as readers badgered Alcott so much about Jo and Laurie ending up together that she created a ‘funny match’ for her in Bhaer (though Garrel is a significant airbrushing of Alcott’s dowdy academic). Jo, ever practical, agrees to the change, and we get the famous scene where she runs after the professor and asks him to stay. But is this Jo’s ‘Jo’ or is it Jo?

An earlier scene plays like the film’s manifesto, Jo giving voice to sentiments that aren’t in the book (“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition, and they've got talent, as well as just beauty"). And the film does end with talent and ambition rewarded, with Jo clutching her newly published novel. Still, there’s nothing insincere about Jo and Bhaer’s kiss in the rain. It’s up to you, whether you want to believe she ends up with Bhaer, or that the dreamlike final minutes are the ending to her book.

With this combination of ending and phantom ending, Gerwig could be accused of having her 21st century feminist cake and eating it too, allowing Jo to be a defiantly single writer and having her marry a good-looking man who’s her intellectual peer. Would that be so bad? What’s the point of being an artist if you can’t give your heroes the endings you think they deserve?

This review appeared in Mint.

Baaghi 3: Review

When Agra’s finest, Vikram (Riteish Deshmukh), announces that he’s being sent to Syria, his sister-in-law, Siya (Shraddha Kapoor), says, how amazing, it’ll be like a paid holiday. “No, you idiot, it’s incredibly dangerous," says Ronnie (Tiger Shroff), Vikram’s younger brother. “The country has been torn apart by civil war, multiple factions vying for control, a dozen other countries involved, over 400,000 dead, millions of refugees…"

Would that it were so. Even the rocks-for-brains Baaghi franchise must know that Syria’s been devastated by unrelenting violence for almost a decade now. But it doesn’t care. No sooner has Vikram landed there than he’s kidnapped by an ISIS-like militia. Ronnie’s response, over in India, is: “I’ll wipe your nation off the goddamn map."

Threatening a violence-stricken nation with extermination is a special kind of low, but the film’s moral compass is broken in smaller ways as well. For the first hour or so, all we see is muscle-bound Ronnie swooping in at the last moment to save his inept sibling from local criminals. In one scene, the brothers plan things such that an older cop whose daughter was murdered is given a chance to shoot the killer in public, in broad daylight. He takes the shot, of course – Bollywood loves a good encounter killing – and the scene ends with violins and Shroff smiling benevolently.

The Baaghi films aren’t sequels, but they’re basically the same: someone close to Tiger is threatened, and he responds by killing his way to the source. After fighting a building in the first film and an army in the second, his enemy this time is ostensibly Abu Jalal (Jameel Khoury) and his followers – who kidnap people from India and Pakistan to use as human bombs in their own land, which seems like a lot of effort. But as the film keeps reiterating, Ronnie’s up against a country, as if all of Syria is standing in his way.

As his pairing with Hrithik Roshan in War showed, Shroff really needs a partner to liven up the dull, dutiful action figures he plays. We know by now that he can kick and dance and contort better than most, but there’s no evidence of further tricks up his sleeve (not that there are sleeves). Kapoor turns up for songs and bad comedy and lying to her pregnant sister about her husband being held by extremists.

All I’ll say about the writing is that gumrah is rhymed with Bumrah. It’s only been a month since Street Dancer 3D. If films with Farhad Samji dialogue must exist, could they at least be distributed evenly through the year?

As Shroff Ramboed his way to his brother, I wondered if even director Ahmed Khan knew why his film was unfolding in Syria. There isn’t a single scene that’s politically or culturally specific; Tiger could just as well be taking out tanks and helicopters in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Someone should make Khan watch Last Men in Aleppo, City of Ghosts, The White Helmets, For Sama, devastating non-fiction films out of Syria, which show a nation on the verge of being wiped off the map.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thappad: Review

It’s the scene from Awaara that modern-day viewers would like to remove a few frames of. Raj Kapoor and Nargis are frolicking on a beach. It starts out comic, then turns sexy as she dresses behind a screen. He chases her, twists her arm, pulls her to him roughly. She calls him junglee, as lovers do. He snaps, grabbing her throat and slapping her thrice. Instead of hitting back or threatening him with legal action, she grabs his leg and professes her love.

Almost 70 years later, in Kabir Singh, Shahid Kapoor slaps Kiara Advani as she tries to get him to calm down. It doesn’t dampen her love for him – she responds to his ultimatum of six hours to leave her family. Though the scene was criticised, a legion of online supporters and ₹380 crore at the box-office suggest that many in 2019 considered a stray slap a forgivable offence.

Thappad’s poster crystallises this attitude in four cleverly chosen words: bas itni si baat? – is that all? Most of the people in Anubhav Sinha’s film, built around a single slap, feel this way too, not least the perpetrator, Vikram (Pavail Gulati). But his wife, Amrita, at the receiving end of the blow, can’t get past it. Amrita is played by Taapsee Pannu, the trauma and fear perpetually on the actor’s face in Pink replaced here by a great sadness. It’s clever symbolic casting, a recognition that the difference between the violence in the two films is only a matter of degree, that “even one slap is too many" is a logical extension of “no means no".

Amrita wakes up every morning with the alarm. While her husband continues to sleep, she waters the plants, harvests aromatic leaves, grates ginger and makes tea. She tests her mother-in-law’s blood sugar levels. She then wakes her husband, brings him tea in bed. He gets ready, she makes breakfast. He’s always in a hurry to leave for work, so she runs after like he’s a school-going child, pressing food and essentials into his hands.

When we see this routine for the second time, repeated almost action for action, it becomes clear how dependent Vikram is on Amrita, and how contented she is beginning her day by making sure his day starts well. To us, the power imbalance and his self-absorption are evident, but they seem a happy couple, right up until Vikram receives bad news from work during a house party. As he yells at a colleague, Amrita tries to pull him away. Suddenly, he turns and slaps her.

Vikram’s mother (Tanvi Azmi) and Amrita’s own mother (Ratna Pathak) and brother (Ankur Rathee) are shocked, but advise her to shrug it off. For a while, she tries. We see the routine again, performed without love. But Vikram’s inability to treat the incident as anything but an accumulation of pressure on him breaks her further. When she arrives at her parents’ home one night, only her father seems to understand how serious she is about leaving Vikram. Kumud Mishra is incredible in the part, his perennially gentle tones masking the anger he feels on his daughter’s behalf.

Thappad juxtaposes the Amrita-Vikram incident with fraught relations between the film’s other couples. The domestic worker is routinely beaten by her husband; not long after Amrita is slapped, we see her slapped as well (Sinha and co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo’s view of relationships in economically backward households as violent and doltish is disappointing). There’s adultery and a scene that borders on marital rape. Vikram’s mother and father don’t live together. Only Amrita’s parents get along, and even there it’s revealed that her mother gave up dreams of being a singer after getting married. While the writers' intention is clear, the obviousness is grating. The well-observed smaller slights – complaints about cooking, unthinking putdowns – lose their sting in a sea of injustices.

Sinha’s tendency to hammer the audience gets in the way of his narratives. As if hearing thappad every few scenes wasn’t enough, whenever Vikram says the name of his boss, Thapar, it sounds like thaapad. We’re made to notice every detail of Amrita’s morning routine fall apart in her absence: Vikram not getting his tea the way he likes it, his mother nearly dying because her blood sugar isn’t monitored, even a pointed shot of the plants Amrita used to water, now withered. There are times you wish Sinha could take some of the weight off his writing with inventive filmmaking. But he isn’t a visual director, and the 142-minute Thappad mostly has the look and rhythms of a stage play.

In the absence of brevity, there’s uncommon restraint, both in staging and performance, and the kind of quiet hurt that Hindi cinema doesn’t often access. When Amrita says “Perhaps I turned myself into the kind of the person who could be slapped," it’s with a rueful self-awareness that understands why the women in Awaara and Kabir Singh respond to violence with more love.

This review appeared in Mint.

Queering Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge turns 25 in October. If the ability to turn up in other films is any measure, then it is, by some distance, the most influential Hindi film of the last quarter-century. The heroine’s stern father not agreeing to her union, the hero turning up unannounced at her home and winning over her family—all this has been assimilated into the grammar of Hindi cinema. And the climatic train scene has been redone so many times that it’s passed into parody.

Given its status as a ubiquitous reference for heterosexual love, it isn’t surprising that queer Hindi films have also borrowed the framework of Dilwale to speak to a broad audience. Hitesh Kewalaya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, released last week, explicitly references the film. It recreates the outstretched-hand train scene, uses the famous “Jaa, jee le apni zindagi" line, and Ayushmann Khurrana’s Kartik calls the patriarch a “bespectacled Amrish Puri" (Puri played the girl’s dad in Dilwale).

Before Shubh Mangal, the only mainstream Hindi film with a homosexual pairing at its centre was Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019). That film too used the broad beats of Dilwale. Sahil (Rajkummar Rao) initially falls in love with Sweety (Sonam Kapoor). When she reveals, however, that she’s in love with a girl but her family won’t approve, he turns up announced at her Punjab home to win over her family—just like Raj in the original, except Sahil is there as a friend. Anil Kapoor plays a milder version of Puri’s stern dad. There’s a train in the last scene. And there are mustard fields: the defining visual reference of Aditya Chopra’s film.

Dilwale’s ubiquity makes it a great reference point for Dhar and her co-writer, Gazal Dhaliwal, and Kewalya to hang their queer narratives on. Additionally, there just isn’t a tradition of gay or lesbian film that they could reference if they wanted to. Shubh Mangal alludes to this by having its leads sing "Yeh Dosti" from Sholay, a film with a friendship so deep that it could be mistaken for love. For years, gay viewers have located signs of pyaar within declarations of dosti in Hindi films. Kewalya turns this on its head: They are singing dosti but they mean pyaar.

In front of the demurely progressive Ek Ladki, Shubh Mangal seems especially bold. Perhaps this is the confidence lent by some distance from September 2018—Ek Ladki, which released five months after the Supreme Court’s reading down of Section 377, only brings out Sweety’s partner 85 minutes into the film. In contrast, Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar share a passionate kiss 20 minutes into Kewalya’s film. There’s another, more public kiss later at a wedding. Both films speak to the close-minded, homophobic viewer, but only one is interested in making that viewer comfortable.

There’s a small wrinkle in Shubh Mangal’s Dilwale referencing that’s particularly heartening. When Kartik comes to win his love back, he does so not as Raj (and Sahil) did, under false pretences, but as himself. Raj, though straight, had to hide his identity. Kartik is out, and proud.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Tabla rasa: Zakir Hussain’s new concerto

It has been a typically busy few months for Zakir Hussain. He reunited with his longtime collaborator, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, for a revamped version of their 1970s supergroup, Shakti. He curated and performed at a musical tribute to his father, Alla Rakha. There was an exhibition on him in Mumbai, with photographs by Dayanita Singh. And now Hussain is performing a concerto for four soloists which he has composed—Ameen, Amen, Shanti, which tells the story of three priests, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic, finding common ground—with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SoI).

The concerto for tabla and three vocalists will have its India premiere on 25 February, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. This is where I met Hussain, immersed in making a symphony orchestra, a tabla, Sufi vocals and church music sound like one coherent piece. I started by mentioning that I had been listening to his 2009 album, The Melody Of Rhythm, on the way there, which turned out to be a useful segue into the idea of composing for orchestra. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Was ‘The Melody Of Rhythm’ your introduction to writing music for an orchestra?
I am glad you heard that album. It’s an interesting one because that group— (banjoist) Béla Fleck, (bassist) Edgar Meyer and I—was the first interaction that I had with SoI. I was here for the inauguration of the NCPA, more than 50 years ago. Working with the symphony orchestra has been a great source of inspiration.

We were commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to compose a piece for their new concert hall. When it was performed, it was a big success and there was interest for us to record it. When SoI heard it, they realized this is an Indian musician involved in composing a piece that they could actually play. They could have an Indian perform and it might be of interest to audiences here. So they asked me if we could do it and they brought it here and it worked out beautifully.

After that they commissioned me to write a piece called Peshkar. Since it was premiered here, that piece has been performed in Switzerland, England, Italy, America, Canada. It’s great that SoI commissioned a piece that I wrote that’s now becoming a performance piece for so many orchestras all over the world.

Is this new concerto also commissioned by SoI?
No, it’s not. This piece is commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of the United States, which is housed in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I was thinking about a piece that would be focused on how the world is at the moment, and the way I think it should be. What’s great about this is the involvement of Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan and this fabulous opera singer called Kelley O’Connor. We were initially supposed to do it for one day but we ended up performing three nights in the Kennedy Center to full houses. Now, we have got to do it here and the singers are coming back.

Was the idea always to have vocals?
Yes, it always was in my head. Growing up in India, between 3-8 in the morning, I would spend two-and-a-half to 3 hours with my father learning Shiv stuti, Ganesh vandana, Saraswati vandana and how to recreate that on the tabla. After breakfast I would go to the madrasa and study the Quran, learning to recite it by memory. Then I would cross the street to St Michael’s high school, attend mass there and go to class. So in a few hours all these different ways of life came my way, and I interacted without being stressed that they were all different.

With a concerto like this, with several different instrumental and vocal styles, how do you start?
Different combinations of musicians requires a different way of looking at things. When we got together for The Melody Of Rhythm, Edgar said, how about giving us some melodies? I did; they worked on it for a couple of hours. This one line of melody became an orchestral piece.

With Peshkar, it was the tabla repertoire which was the source, visualizing in my mind how I would perform the material I learnt from my father. I laid all the tabla compositions down and then visualized how the violas would play this part and so on, and then assigned all the sections transposing the tabla bols with the melodic notes. Basically it was a rhythm piece: even the orchestra is playing tabla.

Ameen, Amen, Shanti was kind of a statement, so it had to be words. They were laid down first, and just humming the words in my head, the melodies started to appear. I am also going to write a fourth concerto, commissioned by SoI, a triple concerto again, for tabla, sitar and flute.

Did you stick to a particular raga while working on the initial melody?
When you are writing for a symphony orchestra, you have to keep in mind that their sensibilities revolve around harmonics. So you have to write harmonies, counterpoints, canons. So when you do that, it is difficult to adhere to just one raga. The harmony wants you to use four notes in one layer—not always will you arrive at a situation that only the notes allotted by the raga will make the harmony.

That’s why the tabla concerto was a fun thing to do, because it wasn’t revolving around a raga, it was revolving around a rhythm cycle. And rhythm is universal. Of course, having been brought up as an Indian some raga structures did creep in. But I did not tie myself down to their do’s and don’ts.

Ravi Shankarji, when he wrote his first sitar concerto, decided to put it into a particular raga. Later on, I was having a discussion with him and he felt a little restricted because he could not mess with the raga structures. So he ended up writing a piece that was more like the symphony orchestra playing the raga, but very little harmonic element involved. He corrected that by doing another concerto where he was able to open it up a bit more.

This is quite a time to be performing a piece about oneness...
Really? (laughs) I don’t believe religion belongs in politics, especially in a democracy. What I call Hindustaniyat—that’s what we need to focus on.

I think people just need to remember that this (oneness) was always the theme. When we embarked on our journey as a free nation, it was with that in our minds. So I am not saying anything new. It’s just for us to be able to notice it again, with a little more depth in our vision.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Love Aaj Kal: Review

All of film making is a gamble but some fights are tougher to win than others. For instance, you probably don’t want the screen to go silent unless you’re sure you have the audience in your pocket. You especially don’t want to do it in India, where theater audiences tend to regard silence not as an aesthetic choice but as a challenge.

Late in Love Aaj Kal, Imtiaz Ali kills the sound for a key scene – dialogue, score, everything. It isn’t the worst idea, but the audience I was with – college-going couples all – didn’t seem to think it was as emotional a moment as the film evidently did. There was a giggle, then a wisecrack. The sound was back in 30 seconds but that interlude felt like a verdict of sorts.

In a crowded nightclub, Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) stares hungrily at Veer (Kartik Aaryan). In no time, they’re shrugging off clothes on his bed. But before things can go further, Veer stops. He won’t sleep with her because he likes her too much. Zoe is understandably miffed. Who catches feelings on the bike ride home?

Veer and Zoe find love to be complicated, unreasonable, infuriating, tormenting – a worldview espoused so consistently by Ali that his films have started to assume those qualities. Like all of the director’s heroes, he falls in love hard – totally, tenderly, tragically, as Michel Piccoli said to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt. But she's been raised by her single mother to put her career ahead of everything else, and once she starts to grow genuinely fond of Veer, she gets a show-stopping case of cold feet.

Like Ali’s earlier Love Aaj Kal (2009), the present-day love story is punctuated with an earlier one, told to Zoe by Raghu (Randeep Hooda), owner of the co-working space she uses. It begins in the early 1990s, with a younger Raghu (also played by Aryan) in love with Leena (Aarushi Sharma). Like their modern counterparts, he’s diffident but determined, she’s forthright and unembarrassed—when they finally get some time alone and he can’t make the first move, she points out that if he just wanted to talk they could have done that on the phone. Ali doesn’t get as much mileage out of '90s Udaipur as the old-time Punjab of the 2009 film, though there’s a funny, unexpected scene when Raghu asks Leena to dance at a social: he launches into convulsive movement, and, after a beat, the stern, sari-clad Leena does the same.

Raghu leaving his job and family and following Leena to Delhi is twinned with Zoe’s guilt over turning down work in Dubai to be with Veer. Both Raghu and Zoe go into a tailspin because they’re afraid they’ve “committed" too early on in life. Both Kartik Aaryans pick a fight for no reason and get clobbered (not unwelcome). If only symmetry were a substitute for insight. People used to say Ali had nothing to offer besides ruminations on love; now even those thoughts have begun to grate. Self-regarding romanticism seems like the only card he can play. The problem isn’t that Zoe and Veer aren’t deep characters (which they certainly aren’t) or that Aaryan and Khan aren’t lively performers, but that the film treats their heartaches like they’re special.

There are still takers for Ali’s admittedly unique brand of romantic anguish. They will likely be thrilled, not irritated, that Love Aaj Kal has shades of most of his earlier films: a chattering female lead like Jab We Met; the heart-versus-career dilemma of Tamasha; the escape to the mountains of Highway and Laila Majnu; the entirety of Love Aaj Kal 1.0. At one point, Veer tells present-day Raghu, “Dil se bol raha hai, I feel it." Perhaps this is what Ali imagines today's viewer thinks of his films. Sara Ali Khan going “Againnnnnnn" is probably more accurate.

This review appeared in Mint.