Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Bollywood's small-screen year

Cinema halls closed down before the rest of the country did. This speaks to the hold of moviegoing over the Indian public—a hold that was relinquished for perhaps the first time in the medium’s history. There was no way that movie halls—crowded, enclosed—could run. And yet, how would India run without the movies?

The year began auspiciously. The Ajay Devgn-starrer Tanhaji collected ₹367 crore at the box office (it ended up as the year’s biggest earner) in the second week of January. In March, the action film Baaghi 3 collected a respectable ₹137 crore. Then covid-19 struck, and theatres closed. Film-makers and producers took the only call they could: to go online.

After a lean couple of months, the first big film intended for theatrical release premiered on Prime Video in June—Gulabo Sitabo. July saw the release of Dil Bechara (Disney+ Hotstar)—Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous release—Shakuntala Devi (Amazon) and Raat Akeli Hai (Netflix). The films kept coming, though, apart from the Akshay Kumar-starrer Laxmii, which premiered on Hotstar in November, big banner spectacles (like Sooryavanshi) opted to wait it out.

The streaming industry benefited from a mass of viewership with nowhere else to turn. Subscription video-on-demand had a 55-60% year-on-year growth in 2020, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry. “The responsibility of being able to distract people from this unimaginable crisis was humbling,” Srishti Arya, director, Original Films, Netflix India, says. While the platform wouldn’t share numbers, Arya says that along with an overall increase, foreign language shows and films saw a pronounced uptick in viewership.

Other platforms too benefited from a captive audience, aided by critically lauded shows. Amazon had the Middle Cinema-esque comedy Panchayat and the gritty, intricately structured Paatal Lok. Hotstar scored a hit with Aarya. And SonyLIV caught many by surprise with Scam 1992, an absorbing look at the Harshad Mehta story. It was perhaps the first time the three-four best Hindi streaming shows in a year outstripped the best Hindi films in imagination, daring and storytelling verve.

Directors and actors, conditioned to pre-release promotions, had to adjust to streaming premieres. “This isn’t how we had planned it,” said Alankrita Shrivastava, whose Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare premiered on Netflix in September. “It’s strange to have a film come out and you are not hanging with your cast and crew and friends.”

While streaming had a standout year, theatrical exhibition plummeted. The first six months of shutdown resulted in estimated losses of ₹3,000 crore, Mint reported in September. Some theatres opened in October, at 50% occupancy. The first major film to release was Tenet in early December, which grossed ₹10 crore in two weeks—not big numbers for a film by Christopher Nolan starring Robert Pattinson, but a start nevertheless.

Sanjeev Bijli, joint managing director, PVR, describes the eight-month closure as “an unfortunate pause”. Exhibitors would be eyeing Wonder Woman 1984 (which released in India on 25 December) closely, he said. “We are looking at two-three regional films in January, and hopefully some Hindi films will also get dated. Then we are on our way to achieving business as usual. Everyone’s watching out for the results of Wonder Woman. There’s a certain number of admissions that we all have in mind which will, I think, encourage producers to release their films.”

Assuming people start returning to theatres in large numbers by mid-2021, will it be business as usual? A successful film in theatres can, of course, reach a far wider audience than digital. But there is the uncertainty of box office, while digital allows producers to recover their costs before the film premieres. Will mid-budget indie increasingly opt for a digital release? “I think it will be a question of figuring out what strategy is best for your film,” Shrivastava says. “I just don’t want it to become a situation where theatrical becomes inaccessible for smaller films.”

Warner Bros created a storm last month when it announced that its 2021 titles would release at the same time in US theatres and online, on HBO Max. While HBO Max hasn’t yet launched here, this could encourage a further reduction of the theatrical window (the gap between theatrical and online release) in India. Bijli isn’t worried, though. “The window will hold,” he says. “You have seen the backlash in the US. I believe there are a lot of Indian talents who are putting in their contract that they want a theatrical release.”

The film industry will also be tracking with some wariness the government’s decisions on streaming content. It was announced in November that OTT would ncome under the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. This likely means that streaming content will come in for some sort of censorship (the Central Board of Film Certification is under the I&B ministry)—something it has avoided till now. It seems likely that the aftershocks of 2020 will reverberate through 2021 in Indian cinema.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 26 December 2020.

Coolie No. 1: Review

The new Coolie No. 1 is bait, which I will not be taking. There will be no 3,000-word essay about how the Govinda film is a cultural touchstone. Coolie No 1 was a Telugu film first, with Venkatesh and Tabu in the lead. The 1995 Hindi remake by David Dhawan was sweet and dumb, but it didn’t matter. Govinda was at the height of his comic powers then; he only had to open his mouth and audiences would start giggling. Ever wondered how bad those Dhawan films of the ‘90s would be without Govinda in them? Now you know.

If there was an assemble-a-Hindi-movie-star kit, I imagine the result would look a lot like Varun Dhawan. He’s cheeky but non-threatening, has the right kind of jaw and the requisite number of abs, can dance and clown around and fight. He has everything except personality, the one thing that Govinda—whose jawline wouldn’t cut butter—had in spades. It shows in his repeated adoption of accents and personas through this film—now Bachchan, now Mithun. Govinda was so singular a being it didn’t matter who he was playing—the character was Govinda. Dhawan is a blank slate looking for something to mimic.

David Dhawan, Varun's father, resurrects his 1995 film almost scene-for-scene. Raju (Dhawan) is a coolie at a Mumbai railway station. One day, a photograph of Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) sails into his hands, and he’s in love. As luck would have it, the person whose hands the photograph flew out of is a matchmaker, Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who’s looking to get back at Sarah’s status-obsessed father (Paresh Rawal) for rudely rejecting a boy he proposed. They conspire to pass Raju off as Raj, scion to a business empire. There is ready irony here, for Dhawan is a scion of sorts, who’s play-acting at being poor, whereas Govinda was performing the same scenes as someone who came from very little making fun of the super-rich.

Paresh Rawal is no Kader Khan, but not to the extent that Farhad Samji is no Kader Khan. By now inured to Samji’s rhyming tendencies, I only winced a little when Rawal exclaimed “Heaven on the docks, whiskey on the rocks”. This was followed a while later by “Heaven on the docks, the door (inaudible) has locks”; “Heaven on the docks, I am the lomdi and I am the fox” (fox is lomdi in Hindi); “Heaven on the docks, have you packed your small frocks?”, when he’s pimping his other daughter out to what he thinks is Raj’s identical twin. There are four more instances, once again with 'frocks' and the rest with ‘box’.

In one scene, Dhawan does decent impressions of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Ranveer Singh and Amitabh Bachchan, and gets complimented by Jaffrey. I wonder if Dhawan ever watched Timex Timepass or Videocon Flashback as a kid, shows in which a mercurial Jaffrey switched between characters and accents like a pan-Indian Robin Williams. He’s delightful here, adopting a heavy voice, wig and glasses to pass off as Raj’s secretary. That the film drops him for the last hour is both crazy and in keeping with the hundreds of other inexplicable decisions that make up this infantile comedy. Let me end by saying: for Christmas, I did not ask for Varun Dhawan in a pink nurse’s uniform saying, “Very shitty policeman, I like your cap.”

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 25 December 2020.

AK vs AK: Review

Vikramaditya Motwane’s fifth film is a feature-length goof, 108 minutes of mockumentary mixed with deliberately sloppy action and industry satire. Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap play versions of themselves that correspond to their actual filmographies and idiosyncrasies. Kashyap holds a grudge against the actor for not doing 'Allwyn Kalicharan' all those years ago (a film of that name was actually shelved), and rejects Kapoor’s offer to work together. Matters escalate at a public event, with the two exchanging verbal jabs and Kashyap throwing water in Kapoor’s face. When the fallout renders Kashyap a pariah in the industry, his assistant Yogita (Yogita Bihani) suggests a way to get back at Kapoor.

Here’s where things get weird. Kashyap’s plan is to kidnap Sonam Kapoor, Anil’s daughter, and then follow the actor with a camera as he tries to find her. The resulting film will be Kapoor’s first ‘real’ performance, he says. Kapoor obviously doesn’t believe him, but is then shown a video of Sonam held by masked men. And so he sets out on the Mumbai streets at night, Kashyap and cameraperson Yogita shadowing him. Since Kashyap has announced this guerilla-style project as his next film, everyone assumes Kapoor is in character. “This isn’t acting,” he tells the police chief. “It doesn’t feel like acting,” the man compliments him.

For AK vs AK to work, one has to, at some level, buy into this version of Kashyap actually kidnapping a star's daughter. I just couldn’t do that. For one, the Kashyap of the film is awfully close to the Kashyap of real life. Had there been some separation there, or had he been playing a Kashyap-like director, the suspension of disbelief would have been easier. It’s difficult to care about the fate of Sonam Kapoor or to feel sympathy for the increasingly frantic Anil if you’re not convinced she’s in danger.

It is, admittedly, fun to watch Kashyap and Kapoor trade insults. Motwane, working from a screenplay co-written with Avinash Sampath, with dialogue by Kashyap, proceeds at a manic clip. The trio race from police station to Boney Kapoor’s home to housing society musical programme, getting bloodier as night inches towards day and the hour of Sonam’s threatened death approaches. After a point, the plan starts to backfire on Kashyap, which is when the film ought to really kick in. It never did for me—and an 11th hour twist, though amusing, wasn't entirely unpredictable, and was reminiscent of the Japanese zom-com One Cut of the Dead.

As with all films about the inner workings of the film industry, there’s a ton of meta-referencing. Kapoor dances to ‘My Name Is Lakhan’. Kashyap is compared to Martin Scorsese’s pubic hair. Kapoor’s Dil Dhadakne Do is misremembered as “Dil Dhoondta Hai”. Kashyap describes their project as the “first realistic film with a superstar not directed by Shyam Benegal.” Much of the riffing is along the faultline of industry insiders versus outsiders: an in-joke of an in-joke, considering two of Kapoor's kids are actors. My favourite bit is when Harshvardhan Kapoor, Anil’s son and star of Motwane’s last film, is auditioning for Kashyap. As he’s leaving, he turns and says, “Motwane fucked me with Bhavesh.”

Anil Kapoor, to his credit, is along for the ride, and Motwane and Kashyap reserve the sharpest jabs for their own brand of cinema. Yet, it’s hard not to see AK vs AK as an after-hours idea, the kind that might seem revelatory at 3 in the morning after a few drinks. The one-line is irresistible—“Anurag Kashyap kidnaps Anil Kapoor’s daughter”—but it’s still sketch material. Blown up to feature-length, it plays like a grungy, scrappy vanity project.

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 24 December 2020.

Sound of Metal: Review

(This review contains spoilers)

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a conservative elder’s idea of a heavy metal drummer: tattooed, white-haired, grouchy. He used to do heroin. He's the sort of person who’d bristle at someone asking, doesn’t all that loud music hurt your ears? He plays in a noisy two-person band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). They’re on tour, living out of his RV. Then Ruben’s ears start buzzing.

Soon, he can’t hear anything but a faint noise when someone’s talking a foot away. The descent into deafness is swift. There’s no creeping loss, just a warning shot or two, and he can’t hear. It’s a smart decision on the part of director Darius Marder and his brother and co-writer, Abraham Marder (Derek Cianfrance, whose own films have a similar unsparing tenderness, has a story credit). By emphasizing the suddenness of the loss, we’re thrown into Ruben’s panicked state of mind as he first covers up his condition, then latches onto the silver bullet of a cochlear implant.

Marder heightens the sudden change by repeatedly switching between Ruben’s soundscape—a buzz of white noise—and the actual volume of the world (the sound editing team deserves all the praise it can get). The scene where Ruben goes for a checkup is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen this year. A doctor says random words out loud, asking Ruben, hooked up to headphones on the other side of a glass pane, to repeat them. Marder thrusts us into the scene without any preamble, placing us first in the room with Ruben, guessing at words he can barely hear, and then switching to the doctor’s side, with Ruben’s incorrect answers now audible. The doc gives it to him straight: he's only catching 20-30% of the sound around him. Ruben still looks confused, so he tells him, bluntly though not unkindly, “The hearing that you lost is not coming back.”

Lou, fearing that Ruben will start using again, takes him to meet a counselor named Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a program for hearing-impaired addicts. Ruben enrolls reluctantly, yet takes to the life surprisingly well, learning how to sign and helping out with deaf children at a school. We begin to see him as an empathetic young man, clearly devoted to Lou. All the same, it’s clear that in Ruben’s mind, this is a temporary refuge, not his future.

Sound of Metal is built around an exceptionally moving performance by Ahmed. Present in almost every scene of the film, he conveys Ruben’s panic and frustration without making sentimental appeals, those strong-man-in-agony scenes that win you Oscar nominations. In tandem with cinematographer Daniël Bouquet’s searching closeups, his performance seems to burrow into Ruben and present him to us without any artifice. He’s surrounded by members of the deaf community in smaller parts, though the principals—Ahmed, Raci, Cooke (affecting, if you can ignore the white eyebrows) and Mathieu Amalric in a terrific cameo—are hearing actors.

Without ignoring the opportunity this role would have presented for a deaf actor, one might argue that the casting of a hearing actor is somewhat justified here, since they can imagine the helplessness of someone who’s suddenly lost the ability to hear. Raci, too, is a hearing actor, though someone who grew up with deaf parents, and who runs a deaf theatre. The veteran actor's weathered face and gruff manner is a counterpoint to Ahmed’s barely veiled turmoil. There’s a wonderful scene where Joe tells Ruben that his house runs on the belief that being deaf is not a handicap, and that Ruben’s desire for surgery is damaging to morale. “There are too many others to consider,” he whispers and signs.

The open-ended way Sound of Metal leaves us again runs contrary to the sewn-up endings of similar films. In bed with Lou, the Sid Vicious tattoo on his chest a reminder of an artist who surrendered to his demons, Ruben seems to access the stillness Joe challenged him to find. “It’s okay, Lou,” he says, “it’s okay. You saved my life. You made it beautiful. So it’s okay.” He leaves the next morning, alone. The last scene is him sitting on a bench, the ringing church bells a dull metallic clang in his ears. He takes off the hearing device and looks around. His expression gives nothing away. We have no idea how he feels about the first day of the rest of his life.

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 23 December 2020.

Listening to music in a pandemic year

In 2020 we listened to music because what else was there to do? We listened to escape. We listened because we were bored, or to switch off the world. We listened in desperation and in hope, with great concentration and with half a mind on the work we were ignoring.

This experience of listening was inevitably linked to the circumstances everyone found themselves in. Music was chosen to fit surroundings as people quarantined in small or big houses, with people who shared their tastes or didn’t. So much of the music this year would have been heard on headphones. Some of the best albums were recorded during lockdown; even the ones created earlier seemed to resonate with the times. And every so often something would break through the pandemic haze and serve as a reminder of the wide world out there on pause.

While most of us spent the first months of lockdown glaring at articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic, there were some who got down to work. On 24 July, Taylor Swift surprised everyone by announcing she’d not only recorded her eighth studio album but it would drop that same day. folklore was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote 11 of the 16 tracks, and Swift’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. The partnership between the three, and guests like Bon Iver, was achieved remotely, in a somewhat exalted facsimile of our own Zoom-mandated lives.

Despite being assembled at a remove, folklore was immediate and cohesive. I’d never paid much attention to Swift’s music before, but one evening, walking by the sea past what seemed like the entire young population of Mahim, I heard the album through. It was a richer sound than I expected, Swift singing over hushed guitars, piano, strings, eschewing pop hooks in favour of something more hypnotic. I liked it fine off the bat, but I certainly didn’t count on returning to it week after week. Did this mean I was now a Swiftie? Was I obliged to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions? (I did)

Unlike folklore, which is spare but polished, Adrianne Lenker’s album really did sound like it was recorded during a pandemic. In March, the lead singer and guitarist of Big Thief repaired to a one-room pine cabin in Massachusetts. The room, she wrote, was “like the inside of an acoustic guitar” and she felt the urge to capture its sound. She asked producer Philip Weinrobe to come up and join her. They recorded for a month and a day, 12 tracks making the cut for an album released in October, simply titled songs.

Lenker was dealing with a painful breakup at the time of recording, and there’s a deep sadness that belies the pretty guitar figures the songs around built around. I cover you with questions/ Cover you with explanations/ Cover you with music, she sings on zombie girl, a confession familiar to anyone who’s tried to paper over a fraying relationship. Heartbreak crystalizes Lenker’s already intimate songwriting into diamond-hard fragments of grief—on forwards beckon rebound, she sings in her strained high voice: Mystery of lack/ Stabbing stars through my back. The isolation and resultant creative burst might have helped Lenker purge herself of some of her sadness. “These songs have helped me heal,” she wrote in a note. “I hope that at least in some small way this music can be a friend to you.”

The artist who fully embraced all the possibilities of a lockdown album was English pop star Charli XCX. On 6 April, she announced on Zoom that she was starting work on a new album. “I’m only really going to be using the tools that I have at my fingertips—the people I can reach online, the tools I have in my house—to create my music, my artwork, my videos,” she said. From the start, it was intended as a truly collaborative record, with Charli not only documenting the making but inviting fans to participate. She posted vlogs tracking her progress, asked for suggestions on song titles and artwork and musical direction. The first video, Forever, released on 17 April, was a masterful four-minute edit of clips sent in by fans going about their lives in lockdown. The album, How I’m Feeling Now, released on 15 May, less than a month and a half after work began. And although its hard electronic dancefloor sound didn’t scream ‘lockdown album’, the lyrics were perfect pandemic ennui: I'm so bored/ Wake up late, eat some cereal/ Try my best to be physical/ Lose myself in a TV show/ Staring out to oblivion/ All my friends are invisible.

In a year where our rooms became the world, music allowed us to imagine other people in other rooms. Lenker’s instrumentals, a companion record to songs, consists of two extended guitar pieces, in which you can hear the squeak of every chord change, the sounds of scraping and shuffling, bird calls, the wind, the crackle of a fire. The exquisite mostly chimes has Lenker picking softly over mandala-like wind chimes. The last minute is just a delicate crackling, like someone walking over pine needles. music for indigo is a spare acoustic collage, 18 minutes into which Lenker sighs and says “I’m starting over”.

I found myself looking out for similar cracks in the surface, even in the albums recorded pre-pandemic. You can hear Fiona Apple’s dogs on the title track of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (they’re credited with ‘backing barks’). “Sounds pretty sick”, someone remarks at the end of Dandelions, from Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP. The beautiful bass-drum intro to Young Man’s Game on Fleet Foxes’ Shore—another album recorded mostly during lockdown—earns a “perfect”, possibly from creator Robin Pecknold. In another year, I might not have paid attention to these wrinkles, but in 2020 they were a comfort: signs of life, even as our lives stood suspended.

It was a great year for music that asked you to lean in and listen. A move from laptop speakers to headphones, and from Mumbai to a freezing Delhi, allowed Lenker’s albums to grab hold of me. Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher also took a couple of listens before I could appreciate the elegant string arrangements and wistful double-tracked vocals. The last track is a slowly mutating number that closes with a chorus triumphantly repeating ‘the end is here’. This song, and the album, were recorded before the pandemic, but two lines from it describe perfectly the anxious lazy surrender of lockdown: When I get back I'll lay around/ And I'll get up and lay back down.

I spent most of the year indoors in a one-and-a-half-room Mumbai apartment. Instinctually, I found myself playing a lot of music that reverberated nicely in that limited space without straining my ears or my neighbours’. Women in Music Pt. III, by the Los Angeles sibling trio Haim, arrived at just the right time: sunny, earworm-y pop-rock with shades of Fleetwood Mac but also Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Walk On the Wild Side Lou Reed. On Alfredo, The Alchemist served up cloudy R&B and jazz and psychedelic guitars for Freddie Gibbs to rap over. These albums—and Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory, and the ones by Fleet Foxes and Bridgers—were the third bowl of porridge: not too loud, not too soft, just right. But there was only one artist whose sound seemed to fill the room and then stretch into infinity: Julianna Barwick, who builds multilayered vocal overdubs into ecstatic loops of sound on Healing is a Miracle.

Not everything brilliant was easy listening. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters was probably the best album of the year, acidly funny writing married to a roiling, pulsing, organic sound. Yet each hearing demanded something, which meant it wasn’t the easiest record to play on repeat. The same was true for Mama, You Can Bet! by singer-songwriter Jyoti, a thick mixture of jazz, spacey funk and eclectic vocal stylings. It was stunning, but the sort of stunning that takes time to recover from. Then there was the music too wild and specific to retrofit into the pandemic experience, in particular Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 and Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye, searing hip-hop from Trump’s America and Brexit Britain (the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests were still on when the latter released, so Riz saying 'Now everybody everywhere wantin' their country back' hit especially hard).

When music couldn’t speak to the pandemic experience, the visuals did. Videos started to resemble National Geographic. Fleet Foxes debuted Shore on YouTube along with an hour-long film with tasteful shots of streams, fields, animals, birds, mountains. Lenker filmed the woods around her cabin for a series of scratchy videos. The album cover of folklore has Swift in a forest, dwarfed by tall trees. For the video for In Light, Julianna Barwick assembled a “small quarantine crew” —a director, a DP, and a ballet dancer—“who set out to the dunes, the forest, the ocean, and the hazy universe that is the salton sea.”

Two videos I saw within weeks of each other struck me as a perfect double bill on the sudden outlawing of touch. Perfume Genius’ Describe has a group of scraggly men and women living on some sort of post-apocalypse farm. The weird antagonistic dancing and saturated, sensual look seemed to echo a world driven half-crazy by restrictions on physical contact. Repression was replaced by orgiastic excess in Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, which begins with the warning “This video is dedicated to touching. May 18, 2020”, and then makes good on it. (Styles made his video as a comment on the lockdown; Mike Hadreas, whose performs as Perfume Genius, shot his before.) There was also the cheerful sight of the Haim sisters—patron saints of brisk walking—striding across the screen in Don’t Wanna. Touch was still limited, but movement was back.

The music keeps coming. Right now, I’m listening to Fuubutsushi (風物詩), a pristine amalgam of classical and jazz by four musicians collaborating at a distance; We Will Always Love You, the third album by shimmery electronica patchwork geniuses The Avalanches, and Swift’s second surprise album of 2020, evermore, another hushed set of folk and country tunes. The year’s almost over. We’re still in our rooms. The beat goes on.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 20 December 2020.

Moments in Hindi cinema: 2020

It was, everyone will agree, the worst of times. Three months into 2020, the pandemic shut down cinemas, which have now reopened but are struggling to bring back the crowds. With no other option, Hindi cinema picked up the pieces and set up shop on streaming platforms. And though it was a year of loss for the industry, at least we had the movies. From the dozens of Hindi films (some of which made the festival rounds before 2020) that saw a digital or theatrical release this year, here are 10 special moments.

‘Angrezi Medium’: Irrfan closes his eyes

When Irrfan Khan returned from his treatment for cancer abroad and shot for a film for the first time in more than a year, fans allowed themselves a little hope. But those close to the actor knew the truth. Perhaps this is why his friend, director Homi Adajania, ended Angrezi Medium—the last film many of us saw in theatres before the lockdown—with a shot of Khan, his head slightly out of a car window, a beatific smile on his face, closing his eyes. It felt like goodbye. A month and a half later, the best actor of his generation was no more.

‘Sir’: ‘Ashwin’

She calls him by his name. It may not seem like much, but this moment is the culmination of 100 minutes of carefully wrought romantic tension. Over the course of Rohena Gera’s film, we see Ratna (Tillotama Shome), a domestic worker, and Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), her employer, develop a halting attraction to each other. Finally, in the last shot, she ceases calling him “Sir”, a heart-stopping moment—and an indictment of a culture in which a domestic worker using an employer’s name can be the whole point of a film.

A hug in ‘Thappad

Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) is slapped by her husband during a party at their house. She passes the next day in a sort of daze. When she goes to meet her friend Shivani (Dia Mirza), who witnessed the incident, they talk about marriage and loyalty but Amrita can’t bring herself to mention the slap and Shivani doesn’t broach the subject. Instead, she tells Amrita she wants to give her a hug, which her friend gratefully accepts. This sisterly solidarity is the first bit of support Amrita gets, a small kindness that sets her on the road to a painful but necessary decision.

Fatherly advice in ‘Gunjan Saxena’

Sitting late at night with her father at the dining table, aspiring air force cadet Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) brings up something that has been troubling her. “The air force would expect all their pilots to be patriotic. But I just want to fly planes,” she says, wondering aloud if she’s committing “gaddaari”. Her father (Pankaj Tripathi), a former army man himself, tells her if she loyal to her job, the question of betraying her country does not arise. It's welcome deflating of nation-love, all the more surprising for turning up in a film about the armed forces.

The second call in 'Cargo'

In Arati Kadav’s lo-fi sci-fi, a lone demon aboard a spaceship, Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), helps the recently deceased to the afterlife. One day, over his objections, a video call is placed to an old lover of his on earth. In a lovely bit of meta-casting, Mandakini is played by Konkona Sensharma, Massey’s director in A Death In The Gunj. Prahastha and her have a superficial conversation, avoiding the subject of why he left and cut off all contact with her years ago. They hang up. Then Prahastha calls back, and this time they talk for real. Mandakini tells him she feels like she’s talking to a ghost. Prahastha agrees, saying, “I feel like the people who come here are alive and I am the ghost.”

The time lapse in ‘Bhonsle’

We see a man pass a dreary day in a flat in a Mumbai chawl. His name is Bhonsle; he seems to be in his 60s, and has just retired from the police force. He makes tea, drinks it with a plain pav—probably breakfast. He scrubs the floor, washes his clothes and hangs them out to dry, makes lunch and eats it. All the while, music plays on a malfunctioning radio. The same actions are repeated later in the day—or is it another day? The mundanity, the loneliness, and the surrender in Manoj Bajpayee’s silent performance are underscored when, between cuts, the character ages dramatically. A white-haired, wizened man now performs the same actions. Director Devashish Makhija returns to the comparatively younger Bajpayee, but these few shots make clear that we have just witnessed the rest of this man’s life.

'Raat Akeli Hai': 'Rang Saaf Nahi Hai'

In Honey Trehan’s detective noir, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Inspector Yadav is first seen in a photograph his mother (Ila Arun) shows a prospective rishta at a wedding. “Rang saaf nahi hai (he’s dark-skinned),” the girl says. “Par mann saaf hai (but he’s good-hearted),” his mother replies. The deftness of the answer can’t erase the sting of the immediate rejection. Later, when Yadav’s mother admiringly compares him to Ajay Devgn, we realise that Devgn and Siddiqui are perhaps the only male stars working in Hindi cinema today about whom the girl would have been able to make the comment.

‘Bebaak’: The deleted text

On her way to ask for a loan from a religious trust so she can continue her studies, Fatin (Sarah Hashmi) texts a classmate. He asks her where she’s headed. She starts to write “Bhendi Bazaar”, a Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai. She then deletes this and types “Town”—upscale, secular. This little detail tells us everything about Fatin’s uneasiness with being associated overtly with her own community, a theme that runs through Shazia Iqbal’s short film.

A sound memory in ‘Shikara’

Shiv (Aadil Khan) runs through the streets of Srinagar looking for Naveen (Priyanshu Chatterjee). They are Kashmiri Pandits, thrust into the tumultuous events that led to the exodus of the community from the valley. He finally sights him standing in a small group. Then there’s a gunshot, and Naveen falls slowly to the ground, dead. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra adds the sound (though not the visual) of birds flying after the gun’s report. It’s a callback to his most famous film, in which Anupam Kher (coincidentally, a Kashmiri Pandit) is shot by gangsters, the flight of pigeons around him lending the film its title—Parinda, or bird.

'Class of '83': Strike

Five cops, batchmates at the academy a few years earlier, get together over a seafood dinner at a no-frills restaurant. One of them says something disparaging about striking mill workers (Atul Sabharwal’s film is set in 1980s Mumbai). This rubs another the wrong way; his father is a mill worker. Their argument threatens to boil over but one of the group plays peacemaker and the offended party ends up admitting his helplessness over his father’s condition. It’s a terrific scene, clipped and efficient, smartly performed by all five actors, the dialogue slipping from Hindi to Marathi and back. Though primarily a genre film, Class Of ’83 finds ways to dovetail with the history of the city, and few events were more seismic that decade than the closing of the mills. The film literally inserts bits of history as well, splicing shots from old Films Division newsreels into the action.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 18 December 2020. 

Mank: Review

Among other things, Mank might be one of the nicer things a son has done for a father in the movies. David Fincher’s father, Jack, wrote the screenplay. They tried to get it made, unsuccessfully, and Jack died in 2003. Then, in 2019, Fincher announced it as his next film. It’s out now on Netflix—the story of Herman Mankiewicz drying out on a ranch in the Mojave desert and writing Citizen Kane. It's also the story of a man to whom writing clever comes easy wondering if he’s ever written something good.

Like Kane, Mank starts with a broken man in bed and proceeds to delve into his past. Mankiewicz was an alcoholic and a gambler, and it was Welles, then a wunderkind of radio and theatre, who sent him to the ranch with a secretary and a nurse and no alcohol, to recover from a broken leg and write. Liquor eventually made its way there, but the plan worked, with Mankiewicz turning in over 300 pages in the allotted 60 days. Interspersed with his pained progress are flashbacks—the text on screen resembling instructions in a shooting screenplay—to earlier in the decade, with Mankiewicz part of the brilliant, unruly posse of newspapermen-turned-screenwriters who defined the Hollywood of the 1930s.

The irony, of course, is that Mank at his most miserable produced the one work everyone remembers him by (Welles would have been successful whether or not he’d made Kane). That it doesn’t dawn on Mankiewicz until late that he’s working on something substantial, that he finally realizes it and asks for the screenwriting credit he was forgoing, lends the film a poignance that’s accentuated when one thinks of Fincher’s father writing this in his sixties. “What year is it?” a plastered Mank asks his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton). “I should have done something by now.” Show me a writer who hasn’t said that in their twenties, thirties, forties…

The rumour ever since Fincher announced the film was that it's based on the book-length Pauline Kael piece “Raising Kane”, in which the New Yorker critic argued (among other things) that Mank had a larger hand in the writing of the film than Welles. Though the piece has some wonderful writing on '30s comedies and about Welles himself, it was seen as an attack on the director and many of Kael’s theories were rebutted (some by Welles, via acolyte Peter Bogdanovich). The film certainly seems to draw on the piece for its anecdotes—Herman saying “The white wine came up with the fish” after he throws up, for instance—but ends before the Kane script goes into revision. In other words, aside from a line at the end, it's not interested in who wrote how much of Citizen Kane.

While the focus is on Mankiewicz, the film also shines a light on another forgotten real-life figure wrapped up in the Kane mythos. Marion Davies was an actress, the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and a friend of Mank’s. Since everyone recognized Hearst as the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, it was assumed that Susan, the chorus girl whom Kane falls for in the film, was Davies. “One can sometimes hurt one’s enemies, but that’s nothing compared to what one can do to one’s friends,” Kael wrote, adding that, through the vapid figure of Susan, “Marion Davies was nailed to the cross of harmless stupidity and nothingness”. But Amanda Seyfried plays Davies as the charming, funny hostess she was, a vivid performance that challenges us to see her as something other than a victim or a punchline. “Marion Antoinette… marionette,” Mankiewicz mutters – but she isn’t.

For those familiar with Welles’ movie—most of humanity, one would like to believe—there is enough spot-the-reference material to keep that 10-second rewind button in frequent play. Deep focus compositions abound, a technique made famous by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, in which the background and foreground are both clear. In several scenes, beams of light cut the room into ribbons, another visual motif from Kane. During Mank’s trips to San Simeon, Hearst’s pleasure palace, you can see things—exotic animals, cavernous rooms—that eventually made their way into Mank’s script. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score plays wittily on Bernard Hermann’s classic one, though the uptempo jazz is the studio scenes is a bit too chipper.

With its rat-a-tat dialogue and screwball performances, Mank is Fincher’s most eager-to-please work, but also the least likely to succeed. It’s in black and white, and not the lustrous black and white of Roma or Cold War. The acting is deliberately 1930s. The one well-known personality, Orson Welles, is a peripheral figure. There’s no stunt casting: Oldman (wonderfully weary as Mankiewicz), Seyfried, and Charles Dance as Hearst will be familiar to most, but only those who saw The Souvenir will recognize Tom Burke (playing Welles), and it’s unlikely anyone will know Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer), Ferdinand Kingsley (excellent as Irving Thalberg), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph Mankiewicz) or Sam Troughton (John Houseman).

This is a film wholly absorbed in the Hollywood of the 1930s. It makes no concessions if you don’t know about Mayer or Thalberg or Hearst. You need to understand why Herman cracks up when his brother Joseph tells him things are so bad “F Scott Fitzgerald is referring to you as a ruined man.” When, in an early scene, Charles Lederer meets, for the first time, Ben Hecht, S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman and Charles Macarthur, it’s a funny but commonplace scene unless you know that you’re seeing the authors of Scarface, A Night At The Opera, Notorious, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century and Kane together in one room. A major plot strand concerns writer Upton Sinclair’s run for governor of California in 1934, and Mank’s uncharacteristic investment in it. Resonances with the present day notwithstanding—the American public’s perennial mistrust of socialism, fake news circulated by Sinclair’s rival—the connection to Mankiewicz, never the politically active sort, might stem from something more basic. As someone tells him at San Simeon: “You always side with the writer.”

Mank sides with the writer too. There’s a point in the film when Mankiewicz is done with the script, but doesn’t care what happens to it or whether he gets credit. “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination,” he says. “Where he takes it, that’s his job.” How he goes from there to asking for the writing credit that’ll ensure his place in history is a touching progression that’s all the more surprising coming from a director’s director like Fincher. To adapt a line from Citizen Kane, Mank promises the war and then supplies the prose poems.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 5 December 2020. 

Ramachandra Guha: A lifetime of cricket

Note: This was my first (and, till date, only) sports cover story for Mint Lounge.

Sports writing, if unchecked, can quickly acquire spiritual fervour. The great Neville Cardus once wrote of Lancashire batsman Reggie Spooner: “(He) was one of the cricketers who, when I was very young, made me fall in love with the game…. The delight of it all went into my mind, I hope, to stay there, with all the delight that life has given me in various shapes, aspects, and essences. When the form has gone—for it is material and accidental, and therefore perishable—the spirit remains.”

Ramachandra Guha is less prone to ecstasies than Cardus, but the delight of cricket went into his mind at a very young age as well. He was four when he watched his first match, and not much older when he witnessed what would become his first cricketing memory. A visiting team was playing a local club in his home town of Dehradun. In the opening over, the Sikh captain of the visitors hit the ball out of the ground. Rain stopped play soon after. The match, Guha, 62, writes, “lasted five, perhaps ten, minutes. But I can see that hook shot still.”

In the foreword to The Picador Book Of Cricket, which he edited, Guha writes: “The cricket-book market nowadays is cornered by ghosted autobiographies and statistical compendiums. The essayist, the biographer, the traveller and the roving correspondent: there is scarcely any space for these kinds of writers any more.” This was in 2001. By then Guha had written two books on cricket, and edited a third. He wrote another in 2002, A Corner Of A Foreign Field, described by Australian writer Gideon Haigh as “not so much a history of Indian cricket as a cricket history of India”. Now, he has published a fourth, The Commonwealth Of Cricket, in which he’s a concise essayist, a biographer, a traveller (into his own past), a correspondent—and a witness to over half a century of cricket.

Guha has been writing on the game, in his unassuming, anecdotal style, for 28 years. Apart from commentator Harsha Bhogle and select Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and IPL power brokers, he is one of the few Indians known for their involvement with the game in a non-playing capacity (he was, he insists during a Zoom call, an “utterly mediocre cricketer”). His appointment to the Committee of Administrators (COA)—a panel of four formed in 2017 to temporarily run Indian cricket and implement the Lodha Committee reforms—was an acknowledgement of his standing.

Guha is, arguably, the foremost authority on the evolution of the game in India. Wickets In The East (1992) was a state-wise look at great players past and present; Spin And Other Turns (1994) paid tribute to the superstars of the 1970s and the enduring traditions of Indian cricket; A Corner Of A Foreign Field examined the sociological and political history of the game. This new book, though a personal journey, is also the journey of modern Indian cricket, from the maiden series win over England in 1971 to the World Cup triumphs in 1983 and 2011 to the IPL-saturated present.

His first two cricket books, which arrived at a time when there wasn’t much Indian writing on the game outside of newspapers and magazines, broke new ground, sports writer Sharda Ugra tells me. “When he wrote Spin And Other Turns and Wickets In The East, it came at a time there was scant space for a reckoning and a remembering of a particular time in Indian cricket. Ram is the generation that remembers ’71. These were stories that were told by our dads and our uncles but he gave it a proper frame of reference. It was an understanding and an interpretation of that age that was far removed from just the scorecards.”

Rohit Brijnath, Mint Lounge columnist and an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, says Guha may have benefited from not being a journalist. “He came to the game from another angle, which I always found refreshing. I wasn’t a great reader of cricket history—more of other sports—but he made me interested and became a strong part of my education on Indian cricket. Even though he is a grown-up historian, you can always find in his writing a boy’s love for a game.”

A cricketing life

This book is the culmination of Guha’s lifelong obsession with the game. It’s a memoir of sorts—his journey, but only the cricket bits. We see him as a young fan in Dehradun mentored by his cricket-crazy uncle, Durai (to improve his nephew’s catching, he once surrounded the boy with flowerpots and whacked balls at him). Later, he played for the local Doon School, and for St Stephen’s college in Delhi. By then, he had realised he would never be good enough to represent state or country. His passion for the game, however, was undimmed—though temporarily impeded by geography and a spell of Marxism that saw him give up his cricket library. He retains his all-consuming love for the Karnataka state team and the Friends Union Cricket Club in Bengaluru.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” C.L.R. James asked in his classic book on West Indian cricket, Beyond A Boundary. Guha, of course, knows of a great many things—he has written on the environment, penned the astonishing political history India After Gandhi, and, more recently, a two-volume biography of Gandhi himself. It was a desire to write something less taxing and serious that led him to start work, in 2019, on his first cricket book in 18 years. “I wanted a release from scholarly, heavily footnoted work with not much emotion,” he says on the Zoom call. “So I said, let me have fun, and I started writing this.”

You can tell Guha’s having fun just from the book’s expanded title: A Lifelong Love Affair With The Most Subtle And Sophisticated Game Known To Humankind. It’s an indulgence, he says, an imitation of the pompous titles of 19th century books (he disappeared during our call to find one particular long-winded example). But there’s another, slyer reason. “The ‘most subtle and sophisticated’ is to tease my friends who follow the EPL and the NBA and the Masters—chaabi dena (winding them up), as they say,” he laughs.

This certainly is one of Guha’s blithest works, full of affectionate pen portraits and remembrances of events from decades earlier. From his early years, he shows a knack for bumping into famous people. The “bearded white man” denying Guha’s team a win in Dehradun turns out to be actor Tom Alter; Puducherry lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi gives him and his college teammates a ride to the ground in a police jeep. He’s in a train compartment with quizmaster Neil O’Brien and future politician Derek O’Brien when they hear of Roger Binny scoring a Duleep Trophy hundred; when he watches Kapil Dev score his first Test century, the couple sitting in the seats next to him are broadcasters Prannoy and Radhika Roy.

Long-time Guha readers will notice several familiar stories here—the perils of having already written three anecdote-filled books on Indian cricket. Guha says that while most of the material is new, “I did wonder, how many of my old stories should I tell afresh, and can I tell them in a more interesting way?” Sometimes he embellishes; the edit note in The Picador Book Of Cricket about Viv Richards hitting sixes out of Feroz Shah Kotla stadium “literally all the way from New Delhi to Old Delhi”, is here transposed on to a single mighty hit, followed by the line: “In this city of kingdoms a new king had announced himself.” Some of the old stories have acquired punchlines over the years. In one of the early books, Guha wrote about Bishan Singh Bedi’s drop in form coinciding with his “whiskey waistline”. Later, when he met the spinner in Bengaluru, Bedi corrected him: The weight gain wasn’t because of alcohol, he had given that up by then.

For all its nostalgic warmth, the writing is also an elegy to a kind of cricket fandom that’s largely extinct. The fealty Guha shows to club and state is a rarity now, replaced by garish IPL fan bases. “It’s a lost world,” he agrees, “but it’s a world that nurtured and trained our greatest cricketers. There would be no Erapalli Prasanna without City Cricketers, no Sunil Gavaskar without Dadar Union, no Ajit Wadekar without Shivaji Park Gymkhana. There’s a story I told in an earlier book, when Gavaskar came off a flight from the West Indies to play for his club the next day. So it’s important not just in my life, or the lives of fans like me, but in Indian cricket history.”

I ask Guha if this sort of historically minded approach has also become a rarity. He feels cricket writers should retain some idea of how techniques have changed, what the “Bombay tradition” was—but it doesn’t matter much for players. “Cricket has changed so much that I don’t think (Virat) Kohli needs to know how Gavaskar batted, or (Jasprit) Bumrah needs to know how Kapil Dev bowled.” He chuckles remembering the time India was 403/0 at the end of the fourth day of the Lahore Test in 2006, with Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag batting. They were asked about possibly breaking the Vinoo Mankad-Pankaj Roy world record of 413, the highest opening partnership. “Dravid gave a ponderous reply and Sehwag said something like, yeh Mankad-Fankad kaun (who is this Mankad)? I said, that’s why he bats like he does—he’s unburdened by Mankad.”

Guha’s memories of watching and, in later years, meeting Indian cricketers form the bulk of the book. There are, however, two chapters on foreign players, material taken from an aborted book he had written in the 1990s. We get Guha’s impressions of legends like Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Shane Warne, though the most entertaining bit might be the few paragraphs on the 1960s English batsman Ken Barrington. Guha recalls how a Punjabi player he knew would pronounce the name “Bringtin”, and speculates how this might become “Bearing–tone” in Kolkata. Barrington once told a journalist the secret to his success in the subcontinent was eating eggs and toast wherever he went. Guha supplies the clincher: “I retold this tale to an older colleague of mine in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘During the Test match at Eden Gardens I myself threw him an orange, which he caught, peeled, and ate fully.’”

Playing on a sticky wicket

The other non-Indian chapter is dedicated solely to Pakistan. Guha admits he intended this as a statement, given that cricketing ties with Pakistan have remained suspended for the better part of a decade—2008 was the last Test, and 2013 the last bilateral One Day International—and its players are not allowed to participate in the IPL. “I thought it was something I had to do,” he says. “It’s not just a nod to political correctness—cricketing-wise, Pakistan was very important for my generation.” Though Guha steers largely clear of politics, it does make fleeting appearances, like his own detention in December last year at a Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest in Bengaluru. This too is linked to cricket; Guha had earlier asked his uncle if he would continue to support the Union government if they arrested his nephew.

In an otherwise sunny book, the two chapters on Guha’s time in the COA are sobering. The committee was appointed by the Supreme Court in January 2017. He was brought in, along with ex-Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, banker Vikram Limaye and former cricketer Diana Edulji, to implement the Lodha committee reforms (formulated after the IPL was hit by multiple match-fixing and conflict-of-interest controversies), and to temporarily run Indian cricket. An outsider, and an IPL-hater to boot, Guha was always going to be in the eye of the storm. It was a frustrating and largely fruitless time for him, and he resigned in July that year (the committee itself continued till 2019). In the book, committee head Rai comes across as tentative and starstruck, though Guha reserves his most damning criticism for players whose silence he sees as having been bought by the BCCI. He points to players with conflicts of interest, like Gavaskar, who ran a player management company at the same time he was a commentator for the BCCI, and—in what must have been more upsetting for Guha, given his love for Karnataka cricket—Dravid, who was coach of the U-19 India team and mentor for the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL at the same time.

Though he mostly relied on memory to write the book, Guha was helped by a diary he maintained during his COA stint. The chapters are a checklist of everything that ails modern Indian cricket: the jobs-for-the-boys incentives of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the blatant conflicts of interest this has engendered, the neglect of state cricket, the deference to superstars, and the bullying nature of India on the world stage. He says he quit because the Supreme Court had lost interest in pursuing the matter and he realised he could only effect minimal change.

His sympathies, as always, lay with those whom he saw as the building blocks of Indian cricket. “An ordinary assistant coach in the National Cricket Academy can’t go join an IPL team,” he says. “I spoke to two such people, fine coaches, but not at the level of Dravid or (M.S.) Dhoni. They were told they can’t take the IPL contracts they were offered. The people in the Board want it to be that way. But you see the Supreme Court granting bail to Arnab Goswami and not to other journalists, so maybe this kind of selective justice is part of the Indian system.”

Guha recovers his good humour in the last chapter, in which he lists some of his favourite cricket writers, among them Cardus and James. He tells me he admires several younger Indian sports journalists, but wishes they would take out time to write books. Top-flight cricket writing today has mostly graduated online, in the form of long profiles or the odd exceptional match report. Books on the game, especially from the subcontinent, mostly tend to be player bios or (ghosted) memoirs; Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits From Pakistan, Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman, Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones and Prashant Kidambi’s Cricket Country are accomplished exceptions. Guha says that while he'll continue to follow the game he's been involved with for almost 60 years, he may be closing one door. “I look forward to the Test matches next month, and I look forward to seeing my club play when the pandemic allows, but I am almost sure this is my last book on the game.”

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 21 November 2020.

Ludo: Review

A gangster lies in a hospital bed, neck in a brace, both arms and one leg in casts. On the adjoining bed lies a man who’s under arrest for the murder of a builder, actually committed by the gangster. Outside the window is the long yellow neck of a crane. It’s being operated by a Mithun-impersonating waiter who’s been asked by the love of his life, who’s married to the murder suspect, to effect a jail break.

No one in Hindi cinema today makes films like Anurag Basu. Even when the results are unwieldy—as is the case with Ludo—it's the sort of vibrant mess that’s unique to him. Post-Barfi (2012), it’s become possible to identify a Basu film from just a few frames, a distinction he shares with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In Ludo, as in Barfi and Jagga Jasoos (2017), he creates a visual and sonic world that’s almost cartoon-like, dressed up with primary colours and bright sounds, in which he sends characters in search of family or some vital connection.

After an unnecessary framing device, the first of the film’s intersecting stories is introduced with an overhead shot of a floor like a chessboard and a green door kicked in by contract killer Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi), who shoots a man in a bathtub. Ventriloquist Akash (Aditya Roy Kapoor) finds out there's a video of himself and Shruti (Sanya Malhotra), a one-time casual partner, having sex that has surfaced online; when he discovers she’s getting married in a few days, he goes to warn her. Rahul (Rohit Saraf) is a put-on store employee and Sheeja (Pearle Maaney) an equally harried nurse who get mixed up with Sattu. Dhaba-owner Aalu (Rajkummar Rao) is approached by Pinky (Fatima Sana Sheikh), his one true love, and the wife of the man arrested for the murder that Sattu commits, for help. There’s also Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), an ex-con just out of prison, who bonds with a young girl who fakes her kidnapping to get her parents’ attention.

It’s a lot—and this is before the stories start to intersect. Ludo is two-and-half hours long, yet with so many characters it still manages to feel hurried. Some of the narrative joins are clever but more often it feels like Basu is simply throwing his odd couples together to see what happens. There’s nothing like the elegant structure of Pulp Fiction (1994), the granddaddy of the hyperlink film, or the merciless loop of Amores Perros (2000). But Ludo is similarly ambitious, jumping not just between stories but also across time frames, going forward, then back, making detours and sideways hops.

I was reminded of one hyperlink film in particular—Thiagarajan Kumararaja's Super Deluxe. That 2019 Tamil film had four or five seedy intersecting narratives, and an eye for eccentricity and colour codes (the palette for Basu’s film is provided by the red, green, blue and yellow pieces on a Ludo board). If Super Deluxe and other gritty Tamil comedies like Jigarthanda (2014) are a source of inspiration, the inclusion of Pistah, a supercharged track from the 2013 Tamil-Malayalam bilingual film Neram, might be a nod in that direction. There are nods in other directions as well: the father of a kidnapping victim getting instructions on a moving train is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). And Shruti saying “I know where I’m going” is a possible tribute to the 1945 Powell-Pressburger film of that name, which also has a young woman who must choose between a wealthy suitor and an exciting but broke companion.

Some of the sub-narratives work better than others. The Bittu track is blatantly sentimental, the scowling thug gently steering the chatty young girl out of trouble. The Rahul-Sheeja bits derive excitement from their collisions with the other plots. Rao is funny as the hopeless romantic who can’t say no to the woman who’s not only married but has a child, but it’s difficult to get a read on Pinky, who spends the whole film in tears or close to it. In a film full of men coming to the rescue of women, Sattu’s relationship with a no-nonsense nurse (Shalini Vatsa) is a welcome reversal, with the gangster made a little more human by her kindness.

The only pairing that really sparkles is Akash and Shruti. Their first scene is wonderful—she thinks he’s taken the video and is there to blackmail her; even as she starts hitting him, he can’t stop laughing. Malhotra somehow makes her status-obsessed, honest-to-a-fault character winsome. Shruti is blithely blunt, telling Akash “You’re really not photogenic at all” when they first meet (she means he looks better in person). Even better is her frank assessment of his prospects: “The problem isn’t that you aren’t rich. It’s that you will never be rich.” Akash accepts all this with a rueful smile—he loves her but, unlike most Hindi film heroes, he doesn’t want to burden her with that.

The whimsicality that’s become such a big part of Basu’s filmmaking since Barfi pervades every scene here. This might not have been a problem had the musical jokes and whacky frames been woven around something substantial. But Ludo is all filling, no pastry. It’s not clear that Basu has an exit plan, or even wants these stories to end. And so we get two quasi-Mexican standoffs, the cinephile director’s way out of screenplay trouble. In Barfi and Jagga Jasoos, there was a central quest; here there’s a maze. Despite the many incidental pleasures on offer, Ludo gets lost in itself.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 12 November 2020.

Laxmii: Review

Like everyone else, I’ve missed films on the big screen. What I haven’t missed are big-screen films, the ones with major stars and minor intellects. Raghava Lawrence's Laxmii is a reminder of the sort of plodding, patronizing, garish Hindi film that would release wide every fortnight in pre-covid times. Akshay Kumar is Bollywood’s most consistent hitmaker but this might be his sternest test—without the ritual of theatre viewing, will the audience choose to remain captive to unrelenting silliness for over two-and-a-half hours?

This remake of Lawrence's Tamil-language Kanchana begins in Daman, with a spirit freed and a girl dragged out of her house and down the road by a malevolent force, but the true horror comes a few scenes later, in a brightly lit apartment, as Asif (Kumar) tries to explain to his nephew why his wife’s parents won’t talk to them. “Her father didn’t like me being Muslim,” he says. “He’s still stuck on the whole Hindu-Muslim thing?” the child asks. “Yes, he’s still stuck on the whole Hindu-Muslim thing,” Asif replies. I’d forgotten how much heavy weather Indian screenwriters could make of scenarios that have been in circulation since the 1930s (the writers here are Lawrence, Farhad Samji, Sparsh Khetarpal and Tasha Bhambra).

The impetus for that little lecture—not the last in the film—is a phone call from Rashmi’s (Kiara Advani) mother, asking her to come home after three years. So Asif, Rashmi and nephew, whom they’re bringing up, head to Daman. Along with painful meet-the-parents comedy, a spectral presence starts haunting Rashmi’s mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra), father (Rajesh Sharma), sister-law (Ashwini Kalsekar, occasionally funny) and brother (Manu Rishi Chadha). Finally, it settles on Asif, entering him via lemongrass tea (of the two Hindi films this year to feature the beverage, Thappad is certainly the better horror movie).

Though we already know Asif is possessed—he’s shown dribbling from the mouth, teeth streaked with mud, shouting “I won’t let them go”—the first sign of the specific form this will take comes in a sari shop. He asks the attendant to hand over a sari, then another, and another. His movements and voice turn coy, effeminate. He gets up and sashays to a mirror, where he tries on the sari as his extended family look on, horrified. He snaps out of it after he’s slapped, and storms out. That night and the next day, he’s overtaken by similar possessions—wearing bangles, applying turmeric to his hands and face. He also has an out-of-body experience where he murders a man in a warehouse, because why not?

Woman-Asif is violent and superhumanly strong but the low comedy—childish name-calling, people going cross-eyed with terror—diminishes any latent threat. After flinging her husband across the room, Asif tells the sister-in-law: “Tera pati hai na, halkat, tedha hai par tera hai (this idiot husband, he’s twisted but he’s yours).” How I've missed you, silver wit of Farhad Samji.

There’s also the underwhelming central idea of a straight, macho actor playing an exaggerated version of a transgender person primarily for laughs. Asif, it turns out, has been possessed by the ghost of Laxmi, a trans woman killed by corrupt builders. Laxmi is shown as a bruiser—capable of inflicting as much damage as Asif can when he's possessed by her—but also an inspirational figure and a mentor. Actor Sharad Kelkar gives the character some dignity in this flashback, at odds with Kumar’s turn, which is grotesque and intended to be so (some might remember Kumar camped it up as a gay man in Dishoom).

Having a huge contingent of trans persons perform a wild, religion-themed dance (there's a bunch of Hindu iconography in the film) before Asif-as-Laxmi stabs, slices, dices and burns her way to revenge is one way to do representation. But it’s scarcely worse than the last scene, where Asif and Rashmi sum up the film’s Good Intentions. “There wasn’t much difference between Laxmi and me,” he says. “I used to eradicate the fear of ghosts from people’s hearts and Laxmi removed the ghost of inequality from society.” “Absolutely right,” she replies. “We have created divisions by classifying people as male, female, transgender—but when it comes down to emotions, we’re all the same.”

I’d like to tell you there’s a pretty frame or two, some nice camerawork, a scene with a novel idea. But the only evidence of good taste in 140 minutes is the straight lift of John Carpenter’s tinkling theme from Halloween. The funniest moment comes when the real Laxmi gives an emotional speech on stage. As soon as she finishes, a man in the audience jumps up and shouts “Superb!” What’s a nice adjective like you doing in a film like this?

This piece was published on 10 November 2020.

How Sean Connery escaped Bond

James Bond wasn’t the first movie series, but it was arguably the first modern movie franchise. Similarly, though Sean Connery wasn’t the first actor to play a character over a number of films, he could be considered the first real franchise star—and, by extension, the first star to try and escape one. The Scottish actor, who died on 31 October at 90, will be remembered first and foremost for playing Ian Fleming’s secret agent in seven films over 21 years. Yet, his attempts to dodge the 007 persona, almost from the start of the series, are just as intriguing.

The first Bond film, Dr No, came out in 1962. Its massive success meant that four more films with Connery in the lead were shot and released in the next five years: From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). In between the second and third film, Connery made Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock. He plays Mark Rutland, a coldly charismatic owner of a publishing company who becomes fascinated with Tippi Hedren’s Marnie, a compulsive thief with a host of psychological issues. It’s possible Hitchcock wanted to use a bit of Connery’s developing Bond persona: he’s mostly in sharp suits, is watchful and witty, and powerfully attractive (Marnie has no interest in men until she meets him). But Mark’s efforts to diagnose and cure Marnie’s seeming frigidity (after they marry, he rapes her) place him in another category: that of the controlling Hitchcock male, a type played by Cary Grant in Notorious (1946) and Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1958). It was Connery’s first challenge to audiences.

Today, it’s not enough for actors to play larger-than-life heroes for lots of money—they have to pretend it’s meaningful. Connery didn’t feel that obligation. In 1965, he told interviewer Oriana Fallaci that while he wasn’t ashamed of the Bond movies, he would “get angry when they ask me if I’d like to be James Bond, if I’m like James Bond, if they should call me Connery or Bond, when they plague me with idiocies of that kind”. By 1967, five years and as many films since 007’s birth in cinema, he wanted out. “I had become completely identified with it, and it became very wearying and very boring,” he said. He wanted to do other kinds of films—to show he wasn’t just someone who “fell into this tuxedo and started mixing vodka martinis”. So he walked out, and George Lazenby took over.

People often forget that, aside from two returns to Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Never Say Never Again (1983), Connery was 007 for just five years, an almost Beatles-like packing of colossal cultural influence into a short span of time. But what of the remaining 35 odd years of his career? After the half-decade of Bond, he spent a good deal of energy getting as far away from the character as possible. One early attempt was Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), set in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Connery plays the leader of a militant Irish worker’s group that’s disrupting work in the coal mines. In a moustache and cap, his face streaked with black, he’s a low-key presence opposite Richard Harris’ charismatic Pinkerton detective who’s been sent to infiltrate the group. Connery seems to welcome playing a man of weight and conscience—the feeling he puts into the line “I have no coolness in me at all” is tremendous.

It was with Sidney Lumet's The Offence (1972) that Connery seemed to violently exorcise the ghost of Bond. The film, which returned Connery to Britain, was his third with Lumet after The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971). He plays a brusque detective-sergeant named Johnson, who’s haunted by visions of grisly crimes he’s investigated. The rape of a schoolgirl pushes him over the edge, and he beats the lone suspect (an unforgettable Ian Bannen) to death in custody. As Johnson is questioned, we see, in flashback, the events leading up to the death.

The Offence is based on a play by its screenwriter, John Hopkins, which shows in the long, grueling scenes between Johnson and his wife, the detective superintendent, and the suspect. It’s an unremittingly bleak film, and Connery’s performance is unflinching in its darkness. When he discovers the frightened girl in the woods, Johnson gets on top of her and holds her down—though his intention is to calm her, it’s impossible not to think of this when he breaks down later and admits to having violent fantasies of rape and murder himself.

Then there’s the argument with his wife, in which he grabs her roughly, berates and, at one point, seems ready to assault her. As uncomfortable a scene as it is to watch, it’s even tougher if you know of Connery’s own attitude towards domestic violence. He said in a 1965 interview that he wasn't against slapping women, though he wouldn’t do it with a closed fist. Asked in 1987 by Barbara Walters if he regretted that statement, he said no. His first wife, Diane Cilento, claimed in her autobiography that he beat her during their 11-year marriage. This brutishness was usually passed off as roguishness or virility in most of his films, but it stayed raw and ugly in The Offence, and in Marnie, where he tells Hedren’s character, “I'm fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you”.

In the 1970s, Connery oscillated between the mainstream—part of the starry ensembles in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977), clowning with Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976)—and the esoteric (1972's Zardoz, in which he wore, at different times, a red loincloth and a wedding dress). Then he faded for a spell, only to resurface with a sharp white beard and an air of hard-won wisdom as the 14th century Franciscan friar detective in The Name of the Rose (1986). His reward was two scene-stealing parts, in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), as one of the agents hunting Al Capone, and as Indy Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). My generation knew him as a wisecracking tough guy in films like The Rock (1996) and Entrapment (1999), before The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) exasperated him enough to call curtains on his career.

In Marnie, when Mark calls his to-be wife a “little method actress of a liar”, it’s an in-joke by Hitchcock, who didn’t think much of actors asking what their motivation was. It’s unlikely Connery did either. No matter the part, his approach was always forthright. Even while straining, he seemed at ease. And occasionally, when he was shaken, he was stirring.

This piece was published on 3 November 2020.

Manganiyar dreams in 'Pearl of the Desert'

Pushpendra Singh’s approach to documentary might have infusions of fictional storytelling, but there are some things you can’t plan. Manganiyar elder and poet Nijre Khan is rhythmically reciting to an audience of young children about their heritage when his flow is broken by a gust of desert wind that finds its way into the hut, covering both speaker and listener with dust. It’s a small miracle bottled, nature adding its own commentary to a scene.

Maru ro Moti (Pearl of the Desert, 2019), which is playing online at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (29 October-4 November), originated during the production of Lajwanti (2014), Singh’s first feature as director. He was talking with Anwar Khan of the Manganiyars—a desert community in Rajasthan known for their musical traditions—who asked if he’d make a film on them. Singh didn’t want to cover the same ground that he’d seen in documentaries on the community, which has become famous in recent decades through touring and exuberant stage shows. He asked Khan if there was something he could focus on. The musician told him about bhanat, a harvest ritual. “I was reading this Rajasthani dictionary and found that bhanat also referred to education,” Singh said. Already impressed by Manganiyar youngsters, who'd surround him and sing when there was a break in shooting, he latched onto the idea of a film from the perspective of a young musician.

When the director accompanied Anwar to his village of Barna, he became fascinated by the Manganiyar oral tradition of teaching. There, Singh came across Anwar’s nephew, Moti, a talented young singer. Moti’s journey—his musical education, lessons from his uncle and Nijre Khan, and his first steps towards a performing career—became the story of the film. It took five years to make, Singh returning periodically to Barna to shoot. In this time he also directed a second feature, Ashwatthama (2017); his fourth, Laila Aur Satt Geet, released this year.

In several scenes, Singh had Moti and others re-enact events. He then blended these with more traditional documentary footage captured without rehearsal. “I’m more interested in the truth than reality,” he told me, saying he wanted to give the impression of staging, and giving the example of one of the great early documentaries, Nanook of the North (1922), which was later found to have been largely staged by director Robert Flaherty. It wasn’t always the rehearsed option that made the final cut, though. There’s a spectacular acapella performance by Moti as he sits on a camel cart, leaving home on his first trip abroad. Singh shot it twice, at first capturing the audio with a basic camera recorder, and later giving Moti a proper mic. But he ended up using the raw first version.

The Manganiyar are Muslim, but their patrons are mostly upper caste Hindus, which has resulted in a syncretic art and way of life for the community. They might almost be mistaken for a Hindu tribe in the film—they use Hindu legends in their art and speech, a group prays at a temple—but there are also songs in praise of Allah, and of course everyone is named Khan. Their lower social standing is alluded to: Singh says many upper-caste patrons consider them on par with Dalits, the power imbalance clear in one scene where Manganiyar musicians sit on the ground and serenade their listeners, who are on an elevated surface. In another scene, Anwar and a few men talk about discrimination, though caste isn’t mentioned explicitly.

Singh’s approach to the material isn’t ethnographic; his aim was to make something that was both a documentary and a musical. There are stunning scenes with Moti in the desert, his voice echoing through the deserted landscape, and of bhanat work songs, the call-and-response vocals a primal link with tribes in other parts of the world (“They have this idea of projection,” Singh said, “of singing in open spaces”). Even with their recent fame outside their home state, there is a sense of the difficulty of sustaining livelihood and maintaining tradition. A man complains about the difficulty of continuing their way of teaching, upon which Singh mercilessly cuts to a group of children singing the hit film song Main Tenu Samjhawan.

At one point, Moti is warned by an elder, “Our heritage is poetry, couplets, traditional songs. You can sustain yourself with them. Do not fall into the trap of the hotels”. Yet there’s also a clear-sightedness about where the boy’s efforts should be focused. Anwar Khan, dropping the boy to his village after his first foreign tour, asks him about his plans. When Moti defers to him, he says, “You won't get anywhere if you leave music.” Moti’s answer is immediate. “I will never abandon music. I'll die without it."

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 30 October 2020.

Whose '68? 'Medium Cool' and the limitations of 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Trust Aaron Sorkin to bring Strunk & White to a riot. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), defense lawyer for the Chicago 7, the motley group of anti-war protestors accused of starting a riot on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, has just been given a tape by the prosecution. On it is student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), one of the seven, seemingly inciting the crowd, shouting: “If blood must flow, let it flow all over the city.” We flash back and forth between Tom’s recollection of the events of the night and a mock-interrogation by the lawyer. After a heated exchange, Kunstler asks, “Who started the riot, Tom?” Instead of replying, the young man says, “Our.”

This is an old Sorkin trick, having a character say something cryptic in the middle of an intense scene (like Mark Zuckerberg muttering “It’s raining” in The Social Network). Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), another of the accused, is the only one who understands what’s going on. Tom, he says, has a tendency to imply possessive pronouns—he’d meant to say “If our blood must flow”, not the cops’ blood. This has several effects at once. Tom is immediately absolved in the group’s eyes. It posits Abbie and Tom as Men of Grammar—which in a Sorkin film is everything. And because Abbie speaks up for him, Tom argues that he should take the stand in his place.

How neatly it all fits together. Tom is a good citizen, not a riot-instigator, and Abbie can testify in court, as he did in the actual trial. Yet, as I watched and marveled at the intricacy of Sorkin’s construction, something gnawed at me. I later realized it was the sheer professionalism of the scene. The timing, the impeccability of the writing, the way it ties everything up, prizes elocution over effect—it felt so smooth as to almost be a con. I'd felt similarly about Steve Jobs (2015), but at least there the airtight precision of Sorkin's writing was in line with the subject, whereas here it’s an uneasy fit with the messiness of '68.

With its syncopated dialogue and winsome cast, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is undeniably pleasurable. Sorkin isn’t a visually arresting film-maker; one gets the impression he’s writing even when he’s directing. He’s at his best deflating powerful people and institutions, and at his most saccharine when praising them. “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people,” Hoffman says in his testimony. Sorkin is an incurable romantic pretending to be a cynic—even his anarchists love democracy. The ending is an embarrassingly triumphal set-piece, with Tom reading aloud the names of everyone killed since the war began, strings swelling, almost everyone in court (including the buttoned-down prosecutor) applauding while the defendants stand with fists raised.

It’s been suggested that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is uncannily of this moment. Without dismissing such claims, I’d hazard that audiences in the 1970s, '80s, '90s and 2000s would have found it equally timely. There’s scarcely been a time in the last half century when people, especially those of a liberal bent, have not felt like civil rights are being impinged, free thinkers are being silenced and the government has something to hide. When asked if he was hoping for a confrontation with the police, Abbie Hoffman (in a beautiful line reading by Cohen) tells the prosecutor, “Give me a moment, would you, friend? I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” Sorkin fades to black, as if any answer would be unable to match something so profound.

Another view of the events of ’68 can be found in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), a film as chaotic and charged as the time it's set in. Wexler, a cinematographer, was already famous for shooting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (he’d go on to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Days of Heaven). He’d also directed non-fiction—something which would inform the unique hybrid nature of Medium Cool. The film is part verité documentary, part fictional narrative built around John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a reporter and cameraman with a local news channel in Chicago, a cool, calculating figure without much of a moral compass.

Medium Cool began shooting at the end of July 1968, and continued through the tumultuous months that followed. Wexler didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing ("I knew there would be demonstrations and that the police would suppress them," he told Time Out Chicago in 2013). One of the scenes in the film is a jokey riot simulation conducted by the National Guard, in which half the troops are dressed like hippies and the other half quell the protest. Wexler was there when the real protests broke out, incorporating them into his story, actor Verna Bloom making her way through the smoke and the chaos in a bright yellow dress.

There’s a memorable breaking of the fourth wall. A tear gas cannister lands in front of the camera and a voice says, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real.” It was real, though Wexler admitted the line was added later.

The Black Panthers figure in Sorkin’s film—their co-founder, Bobby Seale Yahya (Abdul-Mateen II), is on trial too—but they lack the edge they possess in Medium Cool. There’s an extended sequence where John tries to barge his way into a black household to do a human-interest story and gets threatened and called out. This is followed by a couple of Panthers addressing John’s camera (and the viewer). “Why you always got to wait till someone gets killed?” one of them asks. The next scene is white women at a shooting gallery.

Medium Cool is unmistakably a product of its time, with its agitprop directness, sexual openness and New Wave sensibility (you can see a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, in John’s room). It’s fragmentary and jumpy, as verité by nature is, not a polished work but one that gives the impression of having been made up on the fly. Yet, as a portrait of that tumultuous time, it embraces all the contradictions and rough edges that Sorkin’s film smoothens out to tell a more universal story.

Both Sorkin and Wexler’s films end with that famous rallying cry of Chicago ’68: "The whole world is watching". In The Trial of Chicago 7, it’s almost an afterthought, a single chant after the applause and the music is over and we’ve been told where the main characters ended up. At this point it doesn’t mean anything—the urgency of revolution has been diluted by five minutes of triumph. Medium Cool’s ending, on the other hand, is anything but victorious. There's a car crash, swift and unheroic, like the one in Easy Rider that same year. The camera pulls back from the accident, swivels and settles on… Wexler behind a camera. As we slowly zoom in, Wexler's gaze turned on his own movie and on us, the soundtrack juxtaposes "The whole world is watching" with a voice on the radio describing the mayhem at the protest site. In a film that gazes both outward and inward, it's an ending that defies any easy interpretation.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 27 October 2020.

Rebecca: Review

Last night I dreamt I saw Rebecca again. Only this Maxim de Winter had no moustache, and smiled, and didn’t seem to despise his new bride. What a let down. But Manderley was beautiful as ever, and the second Mrs de Winter still a bundle of nerves. All in all, it was the same, except in colour, and worse.

Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca exists; we know not why. A Working Title production, it’s being distributed by Netflix, presumably to cater to Armie Hammer fans who can’t get enough of the actor in sun-kissed continental settings. It’s based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier; more importantly, it’s made in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation. Wheatley makes a few tweaks—notably, a revelation that was there in the novel but which the Hollywood Production Code wouldn’t allow. Even so, this is a timid revisiting of Rebecca, neither convincingly sexy nor Gothic, as much stuck in the past as its widower protagonist.

Rebecca isn’t god-tier Hitchcock but had he made it in colour there's little chance he would have introduced his hero in an ill-fitting mustard suit. Not that the soon-to-be second Mrs de Winter (Lily James) cares—she’s so fluttery and unsure of herself she wouldn’t notice if Maxim (Hammer) was in shorts. Despite this, I prefer the Monte Carlo courtship here to the Hitchcock one. Hammer might be less de Wintry than fans of the book would like, but given the troubles his wife will soon face, it’s difficult to begrudge her an enthusiastic suitor in place of Laurence Olivier’s hilariously sour Maxim.

It’s when the happy couple come home to the seaside estate of Manderley that the film’s limitations become apparent. At every step where a reinvention is possible, Wheatley opts for a retread. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers is as cold with her new mistress and obsessed with her old one, the late, wild Rebecca, as she was in the Hitchcock film. Even Kristin Scott Thomas, as adept as any actor at icy severity, can't really improve on Judith Anderson’s performance, only replicate it. A more self-possessed Mrs de Winter might have been interesting as well, but James invests her character with jello-like fortitude, twitching and gulping and blinking her way through scenes.

Above all, it’s the same Rebecca, still whipping the horse until it bleeds, still taunting her husband with her affairs. The film still turns on whether Maxim killed her (not that it really matters). There’s a glimpse of a willful, magnetic woman in Danvers’ tribute: “She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her.” Yet, the film mostly serves up the Rebecca of 1938 and 1940: a scarlet ghost who got her just deserts. There’s little made of ‘my Rebecca’ as well—the suggestion of sexual longing between Danvers and Rebecca was laid out far more explicitly by Hitchcock, who had the housekeeper rattle her new mistress by showing her Rebecca’s underwear and recalling how she’d talk to her while she undressed.

When Wheatley does take a chance, he doesn’t go far enough. There’s a dream sequence with Mrs de Winter swallowed by creepers in the hallway that’s over quickly and too cleanly. More elaborate is the costume ball, where she’s first humiliated by her husband for wearing a gown similar to one Rebecca did, and then seemingly loses her grip on reality. The party turns into a Argento-ish nightmare, with revellers surrounding her chanting ‘Rebecca, Rebecca’—a phantom fragment of a sillier, livelier adaptation.

As the bounder Jack Favell, Sam Riley is so at ease in his villainy that he makes Maxim’s moodiness even less attractive. Between Hammer’s effortful brooding and James’ tremulousness, this is a sympathetic but uninspiring lead pair. After they’ve barely outmaneuvered him, Favell asks the couple, “I bet you think you’ve won, don’t you?”. Neither of them looks at all convinced they have.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 24 October 2020.

Hansal Mehta on 'Scam 1992'

If you consider Hansal Mehta's first feature film to be Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) and not the unreleased Jayate (1997), then this year marks two decades for the director in Hindi cinema. Since Shahid (2012), which won Mehta a National Award for Best Director, he's had a run of critically acclaimed features—CityLights (2014), Aligarh (2015), Simran (2017), Omerta (2017)—four of them with actor Rajkummar Rao.

Mehta's latest release is the 10-part series Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, which premiered on SonyLiv earlier this month. A lively, granular look at the rise and fall of stockbroker Harshad Mehta, it's his first foray into the OTT space as director (he was creative producer on 2017's Bose: Dead/Alive, starring Rao). He also has a film coming up next month, Chhalaang, a comedy with Rao and his Shahid co-star Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as warring schoolteachers. Mehta spoke to Lounge from his home near Lonavala about the warm reception Scam 1992 has received, casting the relatively unknown Pratik Gandhi in the lead, and how Harshad is yet another of his outsider protagonists. Edited excerpts:

Do you have an idea of the viewership numbers for 'Scam 1992'?

We have some numbers but there isn't any particular reliable source for OTT. There are third party numbers but all have different parameters to judge how much it has been viewed. There's something called COTT ratings that say 116 million people have viewed it.

I was asking Sony how they measure it. Their benchmark usually is the increase in subscriptions for the platform. Subscriptions seem to have spiked a lot. There's an approximate number of one crore-plus people who watched the first episode (which is free) in a period of six days.

Given the subject matter and treatment, were you surprised to hear that?

After 20 odd years, making the sort of films I do, any kind of success is a surprise. But we had been watching these episodes over the past few months. To me one of the tests was that I wasn't tired of watching them, even though we've been working on it for three years.

I never felt any fatigue. There was something about the subject, about the script, that you felt you were on to something. It's a feeling I got when I was making Shahid.

How different was it directing in this format?

The number of days I had was a quarter of what you'd take to direct a 10-hour feature. There was pressure to complete early, but because I was so used to making low-budget and independent films, the pressure did not get to me. And the actors we had, they would energise you. I had my son, Jai, as co-director, he was a huge support. We work well together, a lot of technical things I would delegate to him.

In casting the part of Harshad, with whom many viewers would have prior associations, how useful is it to cast an actor with no associations, like Gandhi?

I always feel it is ideal to have an actor who can reinvent with every character. I had seen Pratik's Gujarati films and when I met him, there was this sparkle in his eyes, a lot of energy but also this stillness. There's a Zen thing about Pratik, he's very secure about his ability to transform himself for a character. There were some ideas from my producers but that was before he came in. I did not even look at other choices.

OTT puts greater challenges on you, and you have to choose accordingly. The last script was 550 pages. So to have an actor who has the gumption to read that and build his own arc through it is very important.

As he gets more confident and rich, you see this change in his walk, a little more panache. When he's poorer, while the walk is confident, it's a little more wannabe. As he ages, he's slightly bent. Those changes, a good actor can do that.

The actors in supporting parts were fantastic. I particularly liked the smarmy bankers.

This is Mukesh Chhabra at his best—slightly odd casting. You have Shadaab Khan, Nikhil Dwivedi; you have KK Raina, whom we're seeing after a long time. Anant Mahadevan was so good—there was an intelligence about him, you sort of felt he was the governor.

'Scam 1992' uses many of the actual names of institutions and individuals in Harshad's journey. Indian films and series usually shy away from this.

There was a lot of discussion between me and my team and Sony. It was a complicated process that went through various sets of lawyers. Some names, of course, have been changed, sometimes we composited two or three characters.

When you make something based on real-life characters, that does happen. I've been through it once: on Shahid, UTV's lawyer came with some 75 points in the film, saying all of these will expose you to legal risk.

Another thing the show doesn't shy away from is the finance talk. Were there concerns that the viewer wouldn't keep up?

We had decided that if we're making a show about a financial scam we had to be respectful of the audience's intelligence. I think that's one of the things that has worked for the show. I've always been a fan of boardroom dramas, whether it is Wall Street or The Big Short. I'd seen this film Margin Call, which is underrated but so engrossing, phenomenal cast. I must have seen it five or six times. I wanted Scam to be immersive like that.

So many friends told me after watching, 'I tried to look up SGLs and BRs.' Now everyone I know is aware of SGLs and BRs. When we started we did not know what they meant. We had to ask people. We found it was very simple—and we kept it there. I think partly the show has been successful because we have not treated the audience like idiots. I am not a commerce person. If I can understand, my audience will too.

In the last couple of episodes, when the show's sympathies tip somewhat towards Harshad, Bhushan (Chirag Vohra) is a good counterbalance, showing how Mehta can be unsparing even with those closest to him.

My writer Saurav (Dey) sent me an email I'd written to the entire team around a year and a half back, when there was a block in the script and everyone was arguing about which direction we were going. I said, I see these characters as something out of a Shakespeare play. They have their failings, yet they have their humanity.

The fight between Harshad and Bhushan, that scene was shot almost in real time. I told them, don't rehearse, we'll see what happens. Think of it as an expensive rehearsal; anyway, we're not shooting on film anymore. I told my director of photography, Pratham (Mehta), just follow them, follow whatever you hear. I'd kept the whole day for the scene. It was done in two takes.

We shot it some 10 days into the shoot; there were some 70 days left. The actors had read the entire script, worked out their arcs, in order to reach that point.

You've mostly made films on outsiders—Ram Saran Pandey, the couple in 'CityLights', Professor Siras, and now Harshad.

I've always lived in Bombay. The class divide is very obvious—either you're born into money and inherit a certain amount of strength or you come from outside. The class divide between Harshad and the affluent bankers is apparent. Even the RBI governor treats him with a lot of contempt. Whereas the managers of Polo Steel treat him with a little more respect, because they are also self-made men, so there is more of a connection. My characters always enter a world they're not seen as belonging to.

Did 'Chhalaang' originate with you?

No. Chhalaang let's say is a new kind of Luv Ranjan film which is directed by me.

It's a surprising collaboration.

I wanted to surprise myself too. When Luv called and narrated this, I enjoyed the idea. And Raj (Rajkummar Rao) was already in the film. That was one of the factors—I had faith that Raj has signed the right thing.

I wanted to make something a little lighthearted. Raj and I have worked on five very intense characters. Playing Omar Sheikh (in Omerta) took a toll on him also. We felt we needed to lighten up.

It's set in Haryana, where Raj is from. It's got Satish Kaushik, whom you've seen in Scam. Baljinder Kaur, who played Raj's mother in Shahid, is in it; Zeeshan, who was the brother in Shahid, is playing his nemesis. There's Saurabh Shukla, who was in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. So it was also all of us coming together to have some fun.

Is the scene with the scooter malfunctioning a tribute to 'Chashme Buddoor'?

No, the Chashme Buddoor tribute happened in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. There was a red scooter that belonged to Saurabh Shukla which would never start.

That scene with Raj's scooter was sort of improvised, because the scooter actually didn't start. Raj is that sort of an actor—if the scooter doesn't work, he will continue. And I never say cut. A lot of things you see in my scenes are after technically you would have said cut.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 22 October 2020.