Saturday, June 11, 2022

Karnan's song sequences: Dance me to the end of love

Mari Selvaraj is only two films old as director but he has already developed a unique vocabulary, making startling, charged works about the grim workings of caste oppression in Tamil Nadu. His first, Pariyerum Perumal (2018), was about the relationship between a young man from a backward caste and his upper-caste classmate, and the systematic oppression he faces. His second, Karnan, released last week on Amazon Prime, is about a village called Podiyankulam, historically discriminated against because of the caste of its residents; they have to beg for government jobs and can’t even get buses to stop nearby.

The film follows in the wake of caste-critical works like Sairat (2016) and Kaala (2018) in using mainstream devices to present the simmering resentment of its protagonist, Karnan (Dhanush). Of particular interest are its song sequences, Selvaraj teaming up again with Santhosh Narayanan, perhaps the most vital Indian film composer today. As with Pariyerum Perumal, the songs in Karnan aren’t interludes but little explosions of vivid storytelling.

Kandaa Vara Sollunga

The film opens with a bird’s-eye view of a young girl lying on a highway, vehicles passing on either side. We hear the high wordless wails of folk artist Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal, which leads into a series of incandescent images: women rocking babies at dusk, a man drawing on the wall with fire, flash zooms on silhouetted figures, close-ups of wizened faces, hands, tattooed backs, animals, insects. If you see him, tell him to come. Someone fetch Karnan at once, Mariyammal demands repeatedly, to the accompaniment of urgent drums. From time to time, Selvaraj shows the reason for her distress—a man in police custody, blood dripping, face covered. The song ends with the finished drawing of Dhanush’s face, even as his real face remains hooded. At once defiant and despairing, it’s a stunning variation on a staple of Tamil cinema: the hero entry number—minus the hero.

Thattaan Thattaan

A lilting love song in the A.R. Rahman mould, Thattaan Thattaan starts out as a rural counterpart to Pariyerum Perumal’s Potta Kaatil Poovasam before a brilliant turn away from the romantic in the third verse. Temporarily shelving the happy frolicking of Karnan and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), Selvaraj focusses on an elderly woman listing the virtues and hardships of the farmer clan. Our ancestors lost the uplands, our forefathers lost the farmlands, Meenakshi Elayaraja sings. It reminded me of Arivu imitating his grandmother in Enjoy Enjaami, his recent hit single with Dhee. That track too was composed by Narayanan, and shares with Thattaan Thattaan a common vision of rural pride and historical injustice (I planted five trees/ Yet my throat remains dry, Arivu had sung in that).

Manjanathi Puranam

A funeral in the village provides the setting for this folk number. As Karnan sulks after a fight with Draupadi, his older companion Yeman (Lal) sings about his wife, Manjanathi, who died of cholera. Here, too, their societal status is invoked, almost matter-of-factly (The wretched people of our castes/ Would come after us with swords). In Pariyerum Perumal, mourning prompted the haunted Karuppi. This is a more upbeat track, beautifully performed by Lal and shot without his normal cutaways by Selvaraj, with a fluid one-take movement late in the song as Dhanush explodes into dance.

Breaking Point

As the title indicates, this instrumental track is where the film turns both literally (it’s where the interval would have been) and narratively, as Karnan and a few of his fellow-villagers wreck a bus. The provocation is extreme, but Selvaraj knows how the destruction of public transport is usually spun by dominant powers, and films it with no triumph and a lot of foreboding. The music matches this: pounding drums, wails of electric guitar and mournful blasts of trumpet. Even the release promised by the visual at the start of the scene—Karnan freeing a donkey with its feet tied together—is dispelled by the final image: an eagle frozen in flight.

Uttradheenga Yeppov

After Karnan and a few others free their companions from the police, the village knows retaliation is imminent. A classical night-before-the-fight montage follows—plans drawn, weapons readied, prayers said. The words are heavy (Come, stop those cyclical wheels that trample us) but the choice of music is curiously light—not the sort of pounding anthem you would expect but a dance number with a bouncy beat, sung by the cool-voiced Dhee. The nature of the track—a village preparing for a clash with a stronger enemy—can’t help but bring to mind the Chale Chalo number from Lagaan (2001).This ties in nicely with Karnan’s thematic and stylistic similarities to the 2019 Brazilian film Bacurau, whose director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, mentioned Lagaan as a reference point.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

The waking dream of 'The Underground Railroad'

The Underground Railroad was the name given to the complex clandestine network of abolitionists, Quakers, activists and former slaves who helped spirit African-Americans to safety in the 1800s. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead imagined it as an actual railway line on which Cora, a runaway from the deep south, travels, pursued by the terrifying slave catcher Ridgeway. “If you want to see what this nation’s about, you got to ride the rails,” one of the 'conductors' tells her. “Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”

The true face of America—cruel, enterprising, grotesque, optimistic—is vividly rendered in Whitehead’s novel, and now in Barry Jenkins’ miniseries (on Amazon Prime). This adaptation tells the story of Cora in 10 'chapters', from her flight from a Georgia plantation to a very different sort of farm in Indiana. The magnificent opening sequence, with past and future mixed up in a hallucinatory montage, is a clue to the mythic qualities which Jenkins will imbue the story with, and a reminder of the particular kind of magic he can work with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, his collaborators on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.

The series is largely faithful to the novel, yet also makes a few intriguing deviations. In the first episode ('Georgia'), Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) asks to meet Cora (Thuso Mbedu) on the plantation, as her mother, Mabel, had once escaped him and he’s curious to see her daughter. This meeting isn’t in the book but it makes dramatic sense, yoking the two principals together before the chase has even begun. After a horrific killing executed as lunch theatre for white spectators, Cora decides to run off with fellow-slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre). The episode ends with them boarding the train to South Carolina.

This first episode is close to the standard Hollywood slavery narrative—producers Plan B were also responsible for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the epitome of this sort of approach. But as the series progresses, it starts alternating between stark realism and something more dreamlike. The South Carolina episode has the eerie quality of a Twilight Zone episode, Caesar and Cora stumbling on to a conspiracy behind a humanitarian programme run by white doctors and administrators for the black population. And Jenkins breaks from Cora’s story for an episode to show us Ridgeway’s tortured path from apprentice blacksmith to slave-catcher, with Fred Hechinger playing the teenage Ridgeway and Peter Mullan, commanding as ever, as his father. (The one instance where this reordering of chronology falls through is the final episode.)

It’s when Ridgeway catches up with Cora that the show really stretches out. Episode 5 has the two of them, and Ridgeway’s partner, a young black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillon), travelling through the apocalyptic, burning wasteland that is Tennessee in the midst of a yellow fever pandemic. There is less sense of a plot moving forward, more of characters being given time to despair and lose their minds. Britell’s work is especially strong here, from the blasted sirens at the beginning to mournful horns. An episode later, there’s the biggest deviation from the novel—a short episode dedicated to a new character, a young black girl named Fanny Briggs (the name pops up in Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist).

When Whitehead asked Jenkins if he had any slavery movies as models for the series he would make, the director told him he was thinking more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Both the series and the Paul Thomas Anderson films are cracked-lens views of the making and unmaking of America. In The Underground Railroad, when Caesar asks a station agent about who built the railroad, the man replies, “Who builds anything in this country?” But Ridgeway has his own vision of the country’s origins, in which the settlers are the builders. “The only spirit worth its salt is the American spirit,” he tells Cora drunkenly. “The one that called us up from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And lift up the lesser races…well, if not lift up, subjugate. If not subjugate, exterminate, eliminate.”

In a piece on Whitehead’s novel in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the institution of the Underground Railroad is “one of the few slavery narratives that feature black Americans as heroes—which is to say, one of the few that emphasize the courage, intelligence, and humanity of enslaved African-Americans rather than their subjugation and misery”. This is even more pronounced in the series, where Jenkins reduces the number of white characters. Except for Ridgeway’s father (a good man but not heroic), the slave hunter is the only white character of force and prominence—aided by Edgerton’s tortured, scary performance. But there are instances of black heroism everywhere: Caesar and Royal (William Jackson Harper), the two men who love and help Cora; John (Peter De Jersey) and Gloria (Amber Gray), owners of Valentine farm, the black Eden where Cora ends up; Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), the pragmatic orator who debates John in a scene that’s like a church revival; Mabel (Sheila Atim), whose determination and sense of justice Cora inherits; Cora herself, stumbling from one hell to another, yet enduring.

The flammable sheen of Laxton’s camerawork helps set apart The Underground Railroad from other filmic visions of slavery, which tend towards the stark and grim. Each state looks different—the urban polish of South Carolina, the burnt earth of Tennessee. Lens flare is deployed frequently, sending rainbows and prisms across the screen. This visual heightening is in step with the air of surrealism Jenkins maintains. In one extended dream, Cora finds herself at a station. She wants to buy a ticket and move on but she hasn’t yet given her ‘testimony’. “The train is leaving, and you have not found your words,” the ticket-seller tells her. Slavery is the nightmare from which America is yet to awaken, Jenkins seems to be saying. All that anyone can do is keep striving to find the words.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai

Most Salman Khan films now are just a bunch of references to earlier, slightly better Salman Khan films. These are interspersed with fight scenes with (one imagines) a well-paid team of body doubles for the 55-year-old star, who does less and less with each successive film, unless he has Ali Abbas Zafar pushing him to try something, anything. Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai has in-jokes about Khan's Bandra home, his record of releasing films on Eid, his long-running gig as Bigg Boss host. It repurposes lines from his Mountain Dew ads (“Darr ke aage... zindagi”) and the 2009 action film Wanted. “Ek baar commitment kar di toh main apne aap ki bhi nahi sunta,” Radhe growls, before adding, “I will clean this city up.”

Radhe is post-criticism, post-intelligence, post-caring. It’s barely a film—but that’s not surprising coming either from Khan or director Prabhudeva, whose last collaboration was the mind-melting Dabangg 3 (2019). Radhe is mercifully under the two-hour mark; perhaps the film was cut down from standard theatre length when the makers realized people would be watching it at home. Khan plays the now-familiar figure of the Bollywood killer cop—97 encounters, 23 transfers—called in to put an end to the drug-peddling of Rana (Randeep Hooda) and his associates. Khan does this singlehandedly, as you’d expect, with time in between to romance Disha Patani, an actor three decades younger than him.

This is an acknowledged remake of the gritty 2017 South Korean gangster film The Outlaws; it takes the story, some of the fights, and the score. But Khan doesn’t have the intensity to do brutal action anymore—he’s barely credible jogging in the park. Everything about the film feels hurried and cut-price. The action has the flat, jerky look of digital. The screenplay is fight dance fight dance sermon fight. Jackie Shroff, playing Khan’s superior officer and Patani’s older brother, looks fetching in a slinky red skirt (don’t ask) but puts in about as much effort as Khan, which is to say no visible effort at all (the scene where the two of them have to act surprised to see each other, but have obviously forgotten how that complex emotion is portrayed, is a classic of sorts).

It’s nice to see city streets on screen, even if it’s a ghost Mumbai. But apart from these glimpses, and moments when the stupidity prompts a chuckle (Khan shouting ‘Undercover!’ as he starts to dance), Radhe is a supreme drag, and another outing for the trigger-happy enforcer cop in Hindi cinema. It’s not as concerned with flag-waving, thankfully, as other recent cop films. The only time the nation is invoked is when Khan repeats the ‘I will clean up the streets’ line and then says ‘Swachh Bharat, jai Hind.’ Had he added ‘Stay home, stay safe, get vaccinated’, this would at least have given Radhe a reason to exist.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Milestone

Ivan Ayr’s first film, Soni, was composed only of single takes, which lent a buzzing immediacy to the action. His second, Milestone, which premiered in the Orizzonti section at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and is now on Netflix, at first seems to be cut from the same cloth. The opening scene, with Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver, reaching the warehouse is an unbroken shot: He walks in and out of the garage, chats with colleagues, the hard morning light rendering everything blue and grey. His back gives way loading a piece on to the truck, at which point, after five minutes, the scene cuts.

After the title sequence, the film resumes, a minute-long shot of Ghalib driving his truck, observed from the passenger side. Once the vehicle comes to a halt, he gets out. The camera continues to look at him through the open door; it would require some complex engineering to continue this as an unbroken shot. Ayr teases expectations by holding the shot for a few seconds, then there’s a cut. The rest of Milestone alternates single takes with conventionally edited scenes. This seems to me a mature decision. Soni was a rarity—a technically complex film that felt like a simple one—but to do the same thing twice would come close to a gimmick.

Ghalib is from Punjab but lives in Delhi, alone. He's mostly on the road (when we see him in his apartment for the first time, the bananas have rotted away). He has clocked 500,000km, more than any of his peers. His back is troubling him, yet he plows ahead with work, doing overtime, driving day and night. We learn that this punishing work rate is born of tragedy. His wife, Etali, died by suicide not long ago, after their marriage hit a rough patch. Back in his village, Ghalib sits with the sarpanch and Etali’s father and younger sister, who hold him indirectly responsible for his wife’s death. Ghalib, while maintaining his innocence, offers them a large sum of money as recompense but is rejected. He’s given 30 days by the council to make another offer.

Ayr could easily have made Etali's family's demand something material—more money, land—which would have made the 30-day period a countdown of sorts. Leaving the terms up to Ghalib is an anti-narrative move. It leaves the film somewhat formless, even after the introduction of a green new employee, Pash, whom Ghalib is told to mentor. Ghalib gruffly teaches the young man some of the basics; for instance, don’t show all your papers to highway cops, as this will just make them search the vehicle and increase the bribe amount. Yet Ghalib knows his own job may not be secure if Pash becomes a competent driver.

Milestone hints at larger conflicts, often obliquely. Ghalib’s wife was from Sikkim, his neighbour’s wife is from Kashmir—this could be coincidence, or an indication of the skewed sex ratio in many northern states. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of the divide between the bosses and drivers on one side and the loaders (or “labour”) on the other. They are unionised, so their strikes are an inconvenience for Ghalib, who has to strain his back further with loading. Yet when Ghalib confronts a union leader (poet Aamir Aziz in a fine cameo), we learn that the wage increase they are fighting for is a mere 2 rupees. “At least make our case when you sit across his desk,” he tells Ghalib. “We're not even allowed in the office.”

Suvinder Vicky has been in several recent Bollywood Punjabi films (Udta Punjab, Kesari), and was terrific in Gurvinder Singh’s arthouse Punjabi feature Chauthi Koot. He looks a bit like Alfred Molina; he has the big man’s expressive eyes. Ghalib drapes his sadness like a shawl, taking it with him wherever he goes. The only time he seems slightly happy is when he’s on the road, chatting with puncture repairers, dhaba owners and drivers he knows. Vicky is wonderful in the role, his gruff manner belied by a gentle voice, hinting at the deep reserves of grief in Ghalib and his frustration with his life. “I do this job because this is who I am,” Ghalib tells his boss. “My plight is that this is all I am.”

It's commendable that Milestone doesn’t take its slow burn in the direction of violence—something all too common in Indian cinema. Still, the film’s heaviness holds it back. Ayr’s control is impressive but many of the static frames are dark and just not very interesting (a long conversation between Ghalib and a drunk friend comes to mind). Ghalib’s eventual offer to the family is of a practical nature but has no resonance with the rest of the film. Naming the truckers after legendary poets Ghalib and Pash seem awfully significant—and Ayr leaves it at that. Soni was propelled by incident and conflict. Milestone, for all its formal rigour and moments of observation, stalls by the roadside.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: The Disciple

There’s a stunning scene in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar that shows a young man’s anticipation of failure. Apu is walking with his friend at night, telling him the story of his proposed novel, which is actually his own life story. He paints a rosy picture, right until he says, “Perhaps he has greatness in him, but…” “He doesn’t make it,” his friend says. “That’s right,” Apu replies, smiling. “But it isn’t a tragedy.” He goes on to describe a life lived with the knowledge of unreached potential, but still happy and fulfilling.

In Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, Sharad (Aditya Modak) is Apu’s protagonist before the fall, poised between promise and resignation to ordinariness. He’s 24, a Hindustani classical musician in embryo. He’s a student of Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid), an ageing, largely unsung exponent of the Alwar gharana. He lives with his grandmother in what is, by Mumbai standards, a spacious apartment. In the Indian tradition of guru and shishya, he not only learns from Pradhan but also waits on him, driving him to performances, massaging his aching back and legs.

If you’d seen Tamhane’s first film, Court, and were shown the static opening frame of The Disciple, you might be able to guess who the director is: a medium-long shot a stage show, ceiling fans whirring, the camera at an objective distance from the subject. We see panditji perform, Sharad sitting behind him with the other students and musicians, playing the tanpura. The next scene is Sharad rehearsing the same tune at home with his guru, and we can immediately sense the difference. When the old man sings, it sounds like a gathering storm. Sharad’s efforts are a drizzle. He seems technically sound but doesn’t have the years in his voice.

Is that all he lacks? This is the question that hangs over The Disciple, as we watch Sharad fail to take wing. At a local talent show, away from his teacher, he gives a more uninhibited performances, but fails to make the top three. He’s admonished during a public performance by his guru. Every now and then, he takes off on his bike, interludes shot in eerie slo-mo on curiously uncrowded Mumbai streets. Yet it’s unclear if even this clears his head, given how Tamhane overlays them with the voice of the pandit’s own guru, Maai, who’s brutally honest about the chances of success in the classical world. Sharad has taken on the task of digitizing her lectures, and her frank strictures seem to haunt him.

Working with cinematographer Michał Sobociński, Tamhane has added to his visual repertoire since Court (which itself was strikingly shot). There’s that distinctive precise framing—often static and at a remove, allowing the viewer to take in both subject and surroundings—but also scenes in which the camera is unchained. One of Sharad’s performances is filmed in an unbroken 180-degree arc, a movement as elegant as it is predatory. And when he’s practicing on the roof, the movement of the camera is barely perceptible, as if in congruence with the single, extended notes he’s holding.

“Once an idea has been fully expressed, don’t stretch it further,” Sharad’s guru tells him. The Disciple seems to follow this dictum. Scenes get the time they deserve, whether it’s Sharad masturbating at night in the harsh light of a desktop screen (another kind of frustration) or the extended scene at the open-air restaurant, which rapidly disassembles the film’s gospel truths. The film jumps backwards and forwards in time—though the word ‘jump’ is misleading. The transitions from Sharad as a child to him as a hopeful 24-year-old or a 36-year-old with few illusions are seamless. This too is in keeping with the film’s subject: if Sharad is to devote his life entirely to classical music, it doesn’t really matter at which stage we, the audience, come in.

In one of The Disciple's flashbacks, young Sharad is being coached by his father at home. Their session is interrupted by a friend calling Sharad out to play. I learnt classical music for several years when I was young. I had nothing like the abilities of Sharad, and none of his ambition. Still, this scene brought back memories of friends at the door, asking my mother if I was free for a game of cricket. My choice was always cricket over music. Sharad in the scene chooses play too, but his life becomes music. Yet music doesn’t fully embrace him back. He has greatness in him, but…

This review appeared in Mint Lounge. 

100 reasons to love Ray: His bag of tricks

My piece in Lounge's '100 years of Satyajit Ray' cover. We put together a list of 100 reasons; I've included my entries here at the end.

The general impression of Satyajit Ray is that of an understated, subtle film-maker. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote of his “austere delicacy”. American critic Pauline Kael, one of his biggest supporters outside India, wrote that “his simplicity is a simplicity arrived at, achieved”. Akira Kurosawa said, “His work can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river.” This view of Ray's cinema, while not inaccurate, sometimes obscures the vast array of cinematic tricks he employed to achieve his ends.

Even though the abiding impression Ray’s films give is one of calm, there are moments of memorable agitation. His 1970 film Pratidwandi, far from flowing composedly, careens forward like a raft on rapids. The anger and frustration of its young leads is reflected in the technique: shock edits, freeze frames, flashes of photonegative film—all aimed to unsettle. In one scene, Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chaterji) calls on his sister’s rich boss in his house. When the man shows up, Siddhartha jumps up and shoots him four times. Ray films this at a canted angle, like a B-movie. Barely is the shock over than it’s revealed to be a figment of Siddhartha’s imagination.

Dream sequences show up in several Ray films, and allow him to try out his more outré ideas. The one in Nayak, with Arindam (Uttam Kumar) running through a sea of cash, is perhaps the only Ray scene that could have been directed by Fellini. Compare this with the fever dream of Devi, the father-in-law having a vision of the three eyes of goddess Kali superimposing on Dayamoyee’s face, or with the dance of the ghosts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, six astonishing minutes of cinema trickery combining choreography, stark design, shadow animation and a host of camera effects.

The tag of “simplicity” belies Ray’s fondness for incredibly complex shots. Take the scene in the restaurant in Mahanagar where Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) spies on his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee)—who is having tea with another man—from behind a reflecting pillar. As the camera leaves her table and pans slowly towards Arati, we see her companion and the back of her head reflected on this pillar, and next to that, reflected from another angle, a worried-looking Subrata, the paper he’s reading filling the remainder of the screen. It’s a stunt of a composition, brilliant but not strictly necessary, and one imagines it pleased Ray to be able to pull it off.

The agitprop visual interjections of Pratidwandi find a comic counterpart in the animated character maps of Mahapurush and Seemabaddha, with faces appearing in bubbles and the relationship between them explained like a cartoon. Similarly playful is Shatranj Ke Khilari, which has a potted history lesson narrated by Amitabh Bachchan in which a cartoon Lord Dalhousie eats cherries and the camera zooms in on details in a painting.

While directors, even great ones, often farm out title and credits sequences, Ray channelled his interest in design, illustration and lettering to make his own ones distinctive. At the start of Nayak, horizontal and vertical bars appear, vanish and reappear, forming patterns, to the accompaniment of crashing cymbals and an insinuating, vaguely east Asian theme. It could be the start of a Kurosawa film. But Ray also knew when a simple, direct idea would work best, like in Mahanagar, where the camera follows a single Kolkata tram cable for the entirety of the sequence, or Seemabaddha, where a screen divided down the middle between prosaic moving images and credits anticipates the compartmentalised, time-strapped corporate world we're entering.

There are large and complicated tricks, and small ones that are impossible to forget. Years before Indian censors started slapping tobacco advisories on films, there were two perfect smoke rings in Seemabaddha. The first lingers impertinently in front of Barun Chanda’s face, then seemingly changes its mind and heads back in the direction it came from. The second, blown in retaliation, wafts towards his rival and explodes on his coat sleeve. Volumes have been written about Ray’s humanism and craft, but, like all great artists, he also knew the value of a good parlour trick.

- The shock of hearing Tamil in a Bengali film: one of the many dissonances in Seemabaddha.

- The times when Kapurush becomes noir: shadows, jagged lighting, prowling score, flashbacks cutting up the action, an air of pessimism and the possibility of crime. 

- In Jalsaghar, the contrast between the utter artistry of the performers in Jalsaghar and the louche, drunk, dissolute men in the audience. 

- In Ray’s 1966 detective short story ‘The Emperor’s Ring’, Feluda sings a line from a thumri by emperor Wajid Ali Shah: Jab chhor chaley Lucknow nigari/Kahen haal ke hum par kya guzri. Eleven years later, in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Amjad Khan, playing Shah, sings the same lines. 

- The details in the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri: the very Bengali mix of political and literary figures; the camera jumping from one participant to another as the competition heats up, Jaya willing her object of affection on, Aparna’s graceful surrender to save Ashim’s feelings.  

- Apu telling a friend about his planned novel, about a promising young man who doesn’t make it, but still lives a fulfilling life. One of the most beautiful paeans to failure in all of cinema.

- Om Puri and Smita Patil giggling while dubbing as Ray stands behind them puffing on a pipe in Shyam Benegal’s documentary on the director.  

- Bhupati in Charulata saying, “My favourite smell – that of printing ink”: Ray channeling his childhood memories of his grandfather’s printing press. 

- Hydrolysis, hexahydroxidiamino and a harmonium in Mahapurush.

- Vicky Redmond, affectless and touching as the rabble-rouser Edith in Mahanagar.

- A scene in Apur Sansar – Apu in a field, brushing flowers with his hand – inspiring a similar one in Easy Rider. 

- Apu’s mother seeing fireflies gather above the lake as her strength slowly gives out. 

- The kiss at the end of Ghare Baire: Ray, for once, allowing passions to boil over.

- Figures sped-up like a silent comedy, moving to the beat of Ravi Shankar’s score at the start of Parash Pathar. 

'Minari' and the Korean-American dream

It’s been a muted run-up to the Oscars, a minor but happy by-product of a tumultuous time. The biggest beneficiary of this seems to have been Nomadland, which, after its wins at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, is the clear frontrunner at the Oscars. There is much to admire in Chloé Zhao’s film, especially Frances McDormand’s lead turn, but I wish some of the attention it’s getting would be directed towards another quiet (and, to my mind, superior) Best Picture Oscar contender.

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance film festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It’s the story of a first-generation Korean immigrant couple, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), who move from California to rural Arkansas with their two children, six-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). They find work as chicken sexers—a job Chung’s own father did—and Jacob uses his free time to start a farm, where he plans to grow Korean vegetables. Monica is less enthused about their moving to the middle of nowhere, living in a (stationary) house on wheels, an hour away from a hospital if David’s heart murmur acts up. In one of the early scenes, Jacob digs up a bit of earth and tells his wife it’s why he picked the place. “Because of the dirt colour?” Monica asks incredulously.

After a near miss with a tornado and a big fight (the kids fly in conciliatory paper planes from the other room), the couple decide to invite Monica’s mother in Korea to stay with them. And so the irrepressible Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) enters their lives—much to David’s disgust, who has to share his room and drink a herbal concoction she makes every day. She isn’t anything like his idea of a grandmother; she can’t bake, plays cards and swears. But she’s hardy and resourceful—when she describes the unfussy, adaptable minari plant, she could be talking about herself.

The second time I watched Minari, it occurred me how masterfully constructed Chung’s screenplay is. Little details acquire significance through repetition: the warnings of “Don’t run, David”; the burning of garbage every evening; even the drinking of Mountain Dew. Monica’s deadpan assessment of the new home (“It gets worse and worse”) in Korean is later echoed by her daughter saying, in English, “This just gets better and better.” There’s also a subtle reversal of Hollywood’s tendency to play up the foreignness of immigrant customs. The Yis are regular churchgoers, while Jacob’s helper on the farm, Paul (Will Patton), is a cross-lugging, parable-spouting eccentric. The locals use water diviners; Koreans, Jacob insists, "use their heads". There's also a clear break from the majority of immigrant stories, which tend to focus on problems of assimilation. Minari is more interested in the Yis as individuals and as a family, not representatives of a community narrative.

Like Nomadland, Minari takes its cue from its stubborn protagonist. Jacob is a dreamer—his drive to make the farm a success despite all the setbacks has as much to do with his self-worth as it does with his family (“They need to see me succeed at something for once,” he tells Monica). It’s fascinating to see Yeun, so charismatic in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), play a character with limited charm and a lot of doggedness. There’s a bit of Daniel Plainview in Jacob—except here there’s an equally determined opposite number in Monica. Both Han Ye-ri and Yeun are wonderful: there’s a believability to their fights and their compromises, a relationship past the first flush of love but with great depth of feeling.

Minari’s director is American (the film is loosely based on his experiences growing up), the production company is Plan B and the distributor is A24. Yet, it feels like a foreign film: at least half the dialogue is in Korean, and—Sundance origins notwithstanding—it doesn’t have the rhythms of a Hollywood indie. It’s closer to the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda—it shares his preoccupation with imperfect families, the interior lives of children, flawed fathers and boisterous grandmas. Minari isn’t always fluent: there’s a tendency to throw to Alan Kim (undeniably a charmer) once every few scenes, and the Arkansas residents are painted in the kind of broad strokes that would have been offensive had it been the other way round. But in its quiet way, it expands the ambit of the immigrant film in America. has it at 16/1 to win best film at the Oscars, with Nomadland at 4/1. I know those aren’t great odds, but imagine the scenes—the absolute scenes!—if a Korean-language film wins Best Picture two years in a row.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Album review: Promises

In a 1947 interview for its Jazz Book, Esquire asked drummer Gene Krupa to expand on whether he thought jazz had influenced classical music. After giving the reasons for why he thought it hadn’t—conductor Leonard Bernstein said it had—Krupa ended with a hope: “I want to hear a jazz solo weaving its intricate, dynamic melodic line across the powerful harmonies of a full symphony orchestra. I want to hear a quartet or trio of horns improvising against the background of fifty violins.”

Promises, a new album by 34-year-old electronic artist Sam Shepherd, 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, may not be exactly what Krupa had dreamt of, but it’s a unique achievement. Written by Shepherd, who performs under the moniker Floating Points, as a continuous 47-minute composition, it blends jazz and blues structures with classical arrangements and electronic textures. And it does this cohesively, maintaining a hushed nocturnal mood across its nine “movements”.

The first of these begins with the seven-note motif that recurs through the piece, played simultaneously on what sounds like harpsichord, timpani and keyboard. Sanders enters around the 90-second mark, playing within himself, but with great feeling. The motif fills the gap between his phrases, rather like the interplay between John Coltrane (whom Sanders came up under) and Duke Ellington on In A Sentimental Mood. The short second movement continues the spare but romantic feeling, like a lost noir film soundtrack, Sanders playing over subtly insistent strings.

Promises is a headphones album, superbly recorded to emphasise Shepherd’s subtle arrangements (conducted by Sally Herbert) and little bits of electronic noodling. Movement Three adds more elements that shouldn’t work in the mix—bluesy organ, the wail of a Theremin—except they do. Sanders returns, delightfully, as singer, starting off with burbling noises, like an inquisitive pigeon, then some gentle scatting and humming. When the saxophone bursts in midway through the fourth movement, it’s more forceful, a beautiful sustained tone that carries into the next.

After the sweeping, purely orchestral sixth movement comes the most perfectly realised segment—this record’s single, if you will. It begins with the now familiar tinkling motif. Sanders enters, playing breathily, intensely, in the lower register. Shepherd layers this with barely discernable wails in the higher register, and spirals of electronic sound that increase in volume as the piece progresses. A harp joins in. As the textures become denser and denser, Sanders cuts loose with a climactic flurry of notes.

That’s the last we hear of Sanders in the piece. Two movements follow, a seven-minute one led by the same bluesy organ we had heard earlier, and a two-minute one that’s a more traditional symphonic ending. Though Sanders’ contributions are tasteful and he more than deserves a showcase like this, this is Shepherd’s achievement. Anyone who accuses him of dabbling should hear the first track on his last album, 2019’s Crush, in which jazz and classical influences are clearly discernable.

There is, of course, the danger of upsetting three separate gangs of purists with this kind of effort. Is it jazz without prominent bass and drums? Is it classical music if a saxophonist improves over a string arrangement? If your answer is “yes” or even “no, but who cares?”, then Promises is the sort of crossover that dissolves boundaries and sparks joy.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Joji

If Fahadh Faasil is the best actor in the country—and any case to the contrary would have to be exceedingly strong—it’s because he repeatedly puts himself in situations which encourage such arguments. Sure, he has abilities, but almost as important is his choice of material. Good parts find good actors only if they want to be found, and Faasil, more than perhaps anyone else, gives the impression of wanting to explore his craft rather than expand his empire. And though he’s done fine work for several directors, Dileesh Pothan in Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum has been especially successful in unlocking Faasil’s gift for subtle histrionics.

The two have reunited for Joji, which sets Macbeth in a small Kerala town in the present day. Though the source is acknowledged in the opening credits, we quickly realise this isn’t a literal adaptation. For one, Faasil’s Joji—the film’s Macbeth—is the son, not the lieutenant, of the brutish patriarch Kuttappan (Sunny PN). The Banquo figure is his elder brother, Jomon (Baburaj), and Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad)—Lady Macbeth—is not his wife but his brother Jaison’s. Syam Pushkaran, who’s written Pothan’s earlier films as well as Kumbalangi Nights, goes easy on the witches, moving woods and hands that won’t wash clean of blood—elements featured prominently in the great Hindi adaptation of the play, Maqbool.

In Shakespeare’s play, we’re impressed by Macbeth before we even meet him; he’s described as ‘brave’, ‘noble’, ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’. It’s a very Pushkaran/Pothan touch to make their Macbeth entirely unworthy. Though Kuttappan’s bullying of his sons is shocking, Joji is a difficult one to sympathise with, given his own bullying tendencies (towards the one person weaker than him, Jomon’s son, Popy) and his unpleasantness. His one gift is for low cunning —again, not a Macbeth trait—which he puts to use when Kuttappan has a sudden stroke. Faasil plays him with a kind of slouching alertness and a child’s idea of anger; after a physical altercation with his father, he shuts the door and punches the air wildly, a brilliant bit of physical comedy.

Kuttappan’s stroke isn’t what kills him—in this regard the film doesn’t deviate from the play. “My Father never did any harm to me/ Even if he hurts me/ I would happily accept it and sing hallelujah,” the gathered sing at his funeral. Pushkaran also took aim at patriarchy in Kumbalangi Nights; here he adds religion, in the form of a pompous local priest, to his targets. In a state cinema teeming with strong visual artists, Pothan is one of the most incisive, able to infuse everyday activities like a morning jog with unease and portent. Cinematographer Shyju Khalid makes the most of a handful of settings and players; particularly striking are the bird’s-eye-view shots.

All of this is tied together by one of the best background scores in recent memory in an Indian film. Justin Varghese’s mix of plaintive melodies and prodding, insinuating pieces recalls the work of Jo Yeong-wook, Park Chan-wook’s longtime collaborator. The main theme is a wintry violin piece that returns at various points in the film; during the opening credits, it leads into a spiraling Bernard Herrmann-esque arrangement. As Joji drives home at night, thinking his father has a fortnight to live, the unseemly glee he cannot show on his face is instead reflected in the playful arrangement. As the film progresses and Joji descends further into crime, the music becomes unhinged as well—sepulchral plinks, pizzicato strings, skittering percussion.

A significant—and avoidable—drawback is Rajeev Ramachandran’s English subtitling, which ranges from functional to appalling. Leave aside conveying the subtleties of the screenplay, there are errors of spelling and grammar that one wouldn’t expect in a fansub (‘anniversery’, ‘gartitude’, ‘there is an info’).

Joji might be the first memorable Indian film to be visibly set in the covid era. Characters wear masks in public, though these, as in real life, rarely cover their noses. Doctors in PPE kits identify themselves by their nicknames to their colleagues. Caregivers try to figure out how to access OTPs sent to the patient's mobile. Though the pandemic isn’t mentioned, the diseased, uncertain spirit of the times permeates the film. “We will take care of you,” Joji says to his wheelchair-ridden father, his assurance a veiled threat. “That’s what you want, right?” And a moment that’s equal parts 17th century drama and 21st century pandemic: Bincy telling her brother-in-law, who’ll spend the rest of the film lying his face off: “Put on a mask and come.”

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Sea of love: Time and My Octopus Teacher

PG Wodehouse famously said there were two ways to write a novel, as “a sort of musical comedy without music” or “going deep down into life and not caring a damn”. If one were to adapt this to documentary cinema, the two strains might be: films that show us wonders and films that reveal something about the human condition. Flaherty, Riefenstahl, Reggio, Attenborough would fit in the former category; Varda, Wiseman, Marker, Rosi in the latter; Herzog in both. Of the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars (26 April), Garrett Bradley’s Time goes deep into life and James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher shows us wonders.

Bradley approached Sibil Fox Richardson in 2016. Sibil and her husband, Robert, had gone to prison in Louisiana for attempting to rob a bank after the family fell on hard times. Sibil served three-and-a-half years; Robert was sentenced to 60 years, and stayed in prison for nearly two decades while she campaigned for his release and brought up their six children. Bradley had intended to make a short film on her, but when Sibil handed over home videos she had shot, with close to 100 hours of footage chronicling their journey, she decided to make a feature instead.

Time (on Amazon Prime) lasts 81 minutes and spans 18 years. It begins with home video footage—Sibil and Robert’s young children goofing about, being driven to school, playing in the heat of summer and in the snow. A 20-something Sibil addresses Robert in one of her recordings: “Do you know how hard I am going to be smiling when you come back?” There’s a cut and on screen is a much older Sibil, with a streak of grey in her hair. In that instant, without saying anything or indicating the timelines, Bradley establishes a small lifetime of thwarted hopes.

Both the videos and the scenes shot by cinematographers Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East are in black and white, and even though the former is scratchy and the latter pristine, transitions from one to the other are often breathtaking. Cinema is at its most profound when it reckons with the passage of time. Seeing Sibil’s boys on their first day of kindergarten, then as young men with careers and dreams, underscores the social cost of the prison system, one which Sibil forcefully argues is inhumane and slanted against African-Americans. In tracking the 18-year wait for Robert’s release, Bradley shows how prison doesn’t end at the jail complex. Sibil speaks several times of her belief that slavery gave way to the modern penal system (this film is perfectly paired with Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, which explores similar themes). Time also lends intimacy and a human face to a subject most often covered in terms of numbers and laws and from the point of view of the incarcerated.

Towards the end of the film, just before the verdict, we see scenes from the home videos but in reverse. It’s a lovely instinctive bit of film trickery, almost as old as cinema itself. Having reached a moment of truth, time pauses, retreats, before moving forward again. “Time is what you make of it,” Sibil’s son Freedom says. “Time is unbiased. Time is lost. Time flies.” Bradley’s achievement is creating a work that speaks to all these statements.

My Octopus Teacher is also an intimate journey through, and past, pain. But unlike Time, its aim is not to explain our human world but to show us worlds unseen. The primary photographer and narrator is a South African naturalist named Craig Foster, who forms an unlikely bond with an octopus he comes across while diving in a kelp forest in the ocean. He meets the octopus every day over the course of a year, photographing the stunning underwater environment and the development of their relationship.

Foster tells us at the start of the film that he was burnt out and not communicating with his family at the time he took to diving. Though he returns to his troubled state at various points in the film, there isn’t much detail provided as to the kinds of problems he was facing or how his bond with the octopus helped him deal with those. But as long as the film is below water—which is a lot—it’s mesmerising.

My Octopus Teacher is a great primer on marine behaviour—everything from mating rituals to hunting and evading predators is captured in vivid detail. Foster can’t help but project human values on to the octopus. He feels “incredible pride for this animal that has been through impossible odds to get to this place”. The depth of emotion he feels is surreal at times—you could take lines from this and place them in a romantic film. “I fell in love with her but also with that amazing wildness she represented,” Foster says. And at another point: “All I could do at the time is just think of her.” The music, a mixture of overly sensitive strings and piano, perpetuates this mood.

Foster used to dive without oxygen or a wetsuit, so as to keep as little a barrier as possible between his environment and him. Even with this limitation, the footage he gathers is incredible. Riotously colourful and strange, the creatures he photographs live up to his claim that the marine world is “much more extreme than our maddest science fiction”. There are spectacular setpieces, like the attack on the octopus by a shark, with Foster tracking it from the moment of imminent threat to the eventual escape. Another scene shows the octopus as predator, hunting crab and lobster. The most cinematic moment, perhaps, is a scene where the octopus darts at a school of fish with no real intent to catch them. Foster guesses this is her playing.

My Octopus Teacher is a visually breathtaking nature documentary with a personal hook, a film that audiences found organically and loved when it premiered on Netflix in 2020. It’s only because of the Oscar nomination that one would think of comparing it with Bradley's film. Time, which won the US Documentary Directing Prize at Sundance in 2020 and landed on several best-of-year lists, is a dense, ambitious work. In terms of sophistication of technique and narrative, it is far ahead of Reed and Ehrlich’s film. Yet it’s also true that My Octopus Teacher provides the kind of cinematic rush that Time cannot. The Oscars will force a choice between the two, but both are worth seeking out as very different examples of intensely personal non-fiction.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Nomadland

Nomadland starts with a couple of shots as spare and elegiac as anything Roger Deakins might dream up. We see Fern (Frances McDormand) leaving her home of many years in the cold light of the early morning, packing her belongings into her van. She says goodbye to a friend and sets off. The houses, their clothes, the landscape, everything is blue and grey. Just when it all seems so poetic, director Chloé Zhao shows Fern doing her business in a frozen open field. And then we see the title, white letters occupying minimal space on a black screen. These opening three minutes offer a clue to the nature of this film, which situates its human figures against flat, empty landscapes, and which shows the rough beauty of the open road without hiding its drudgeries.

Much of the discourse around Nomadland, which is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Actress, has focused on the inequalities of the gig economy—a rather literal read of what’s decidedly not an “issue” film. Fern, who’s in her 60s, leaves the town of Empire, Nevada, after the gypsum factory where she and her late husband worked is shut down and the workforce laid off. Later, we see her working in an Amazon store, at a burger joint, in an amusement park cleaning bathrooms. All the while, she lives in her RV, moving from town to town, meeting up with other “nomads”. It’s not an easy life—there’s a scene that makes clear you have to defecate in a bucket if you live in a van—but for Fern, who can’t get by on benefits, it’s a way to stay independent and employed without being tied down.

Initially, my thoughts went to Ken Loach films like I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019), tales of ordinary people caught in the crush of capitalist progress. Yet, as Nomadland progressed, it became clear that Fern and others like her saw themselves not as victims of the system but as rebels against it. When the daughter of a friend bumps into Fern and expresses concern, Fern corrects her, saying, “I’m not homeless—I’m houseless.” Most of the nomads in the film are elderly, living alone, suffering some kind of loss; their fellow itinerants are the closest thing they have to family.

Late in the film, Fern makes two trips into society. The first is out of desperation: her RV breaks down, and she has to visit her sister to ask for a loan. Fern is seen as an eccentric by her brother-in-law and his friends; her sister alone understands that Fern just isn’t made for a polite suburban life (“It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting”, she says, a diagnosis Fern can’t deny). She also visits David, a fellow-nomad who has a crush on her, staying with his family for a while. But she’s ill at ease in these settings, the strain of company weighing on her like loneliness might weigh on someone else.

There’s an American strain of outdoors living that stretches from Thoreau to Into The Wild’s Chris McCandless. Fern—who doesn’t shrink from human company so much as civilisation— belongs to this tradition. She’s a tough soul, clipped of speech, stubborn but kind. Her friends Linda May and Swankie are actual van-dwellers, as is Bob Wells, who organises the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a meeting place for people who, in the film’s parlance, adopt the lifestyle. It’s a measure of McDormand’s brilliant ordinariness, after more than 35 years of acting, that Zhao can surround her with real-life persons and she doesn’t stick out.

Nomadland is being spoken of as an Oscar favourite—an unlikely one, given its tendency towards quiet and understatement. There’s a muted glow to Joshua James Richards’ cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s score, and Zhao’s editing and direction is unobtrusive (a few ripples come from intuitive Malick-style cutting). From time to time, I felt the film passes over from naturalistic to drab—you can only go so far with flat, plainspoken dialogue. But its commitment to mundanity also means that the small joys its characters experience are magnified: Fern hopping in a canyon; a young wanderer exchanging a dinosaur bone lighter for a sonnet; Swankie murmuring “Oh, I see something neat” as she stares at a spectacular sunset.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge. 

The patient revelations of Gianfranco Rosi

MUBI’s presentation of Notturno (2020) segues into a short conversation, a welcome addition to their recent exclusive releases. On a split screen, Alejandro González Iñárritu starts to ask the director, Gianfranco Rosi, a question along the lines of “What was your vision?” Three minutes later, he’s still asking it. It feels like an unintended tribute to someone whose films don’t come with clear narrative pathways or guiding lights. Iñárritu is one of the great directors of his age, but the effort of pinning down Rosi seems to briefly overwhelm him.

Notturno, Rosi’s sixth feature, is particularly disorienting. Shot for three years in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon and premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, it moves from one country to another without so much as an intertitle. The entire Middle East becomes one large conflict, a frayed map of sorrow where time has erased boundaries. It’s a bold choice, though a contentious one. By removing the specificity of the conflicts, which range from attacks by Western “peacekeepers” to atrocities by ISIS, Rosi is asking us to react to human suffering without context. Yet, Westerners seeing the Middle East as a monolithic whole is the source of a lot of the region’s problems.

Rosi doesn’t use voice-over, and on-screen text is usually limited to the start of his films. His refusal to point the viewer in a certain direction, though, is at odds with the control he himself exerts over the narrative. Even when he stretches a scene, it’s done for a reason, like the mysterious static shot of a horse standing in a city street at night, staring at the camera, in Notturno. He shoots his own films, working with a tiny crew. His images, impeccably framed and fiercely beautiful, aren’t what most viewers would associate with “documentary” (“Tarkovsky on hormones,” as Iñárritu put it). Notturno is full of these: lovers sharing a shisha, unperturbed by sounds of gunfire from the city below; an all-women militia huddled around a kettle for warmth; a tree bent over by buffeting winds, watched by a boy who’s weathering his own storm.

In the years since the Varanasi-set Boatman (1993), Rosi has become a leading voice in non-fiction film. He’s one of the only documentary makers to have won the top prize at the Venice and Berlin film festivals. He found his particular style—immersive, composed, character-driven—with Below Sea Level (2008), about flatland squatters in California. El Sicario, Room 164 (2010) followed, an interview with a masked hitman recounting his crimes; an outlier in his filmography. He broke out with his next film, Sacro GRA, which won at Venice in 2013, and followed that with Fire At Sea, winner at Berlinale in 2016.

Sacro GRA is named for the ring road that circles Rome. The film, his first feature in his native Italy, took him two years to shoot. He found his subjects in the people who live just off this road, and who work on it: a gallery of eccentrics that includes a man who rents out his palatial villa for shoots and a botanist consumed with saving palm trees from weevils. Rosi doesn’t prettify their rough existence, showing instead how it’s leavened by humour and moments of joy, whether it’s eating a melon or plotting perfect revenge against insects.

Rosi’s next film, Fire At Sea, was also shot in Italy—on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. It is, I feel, the strongest of all his films, tying together his character work and image-making with a narrative focus absent in his other work. The film contrasts the life of Samuele, a 12-year-old boy, with those of the refugees from Africa who routinely wash up or are rescued by the authorities. Interspersed with Samuele’s days spent practising his slingshot, visiting the ophthalmologist, bossing his friend, and chatting with his father and grandmother are scenes of the refugees packed in boats, lined up and searched, huddled in masses at immigration centres.

There is no direct connection between the boy and the refugees, except perhaps the doctor who treats Samuele for a minor ailment and the immigrants for life-threatening ones. The juxtaposition works precisely because of its impreciseness—a boy whose biggest worry is his lazy eye could never be compared to someone who has just travelled thousands of miles in a rickety boat, except that they happen to be in the same geographical space. In one scene, the radio station gives news of a new boatful, with several dead, then switches to news of an upcoming interruption in power supply. But Rosi isn’t pushing us to feel derision for the relatively privileged: Rather, he regards the precocious Samuele (a better protagonist than any actor could have been) with the same interest as the young refugee who looks straight down the lens of the camera, like the horse in Notturno.

There are other recurring motifs across these films. Dogs wander in and out of the frame. There are men in boats of all sizes and purposes. The golden cellophane-like sheets the refugees drape in Fire At Sea are also in Sacro GRA, offered to a protesting patient in an ambulance. There are moving scenes with elderly people: the grieving mothers in Notturno, the talkative old man and his patient daughter glimpsed from the window in Sacro GRA, the kindly grandmother in Fire At Sea. Rosi’s films usually come in under the two-hour mark. Yet they feel endlessly expansive, a wealth of experiences and emotions distilled, without judgement or explanation.

This piece appeares in Mint Lounge. 

Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is four hours long and divided into six "chapters". While “The Age of Heroes” and “Something Darker” capture something of the director’s approach, the full Snyder effect can be found in the song titles for Tom Holkenborg’s soundtrack. "No Paradise, No Fall", "The Center Will Not Hold, Twenty Centuries of Stony Sleep", "World Ending Fire", "That Terrible Strength" and “Urgrund” all point to a cinema that’s violent, mythic and cataclysmic. These qualities are contained in the music as well—Wagnerian strings, electronic groans, Middle Eastern wails whenever the Amazons are on screen, and the pounding drums Holkenborg used in his Fury Road score.

The journey of Justice League to the small screen has also been protracted, contentious and, for a while, seemingly based in myth. In 2017, Snyder had completed a fraught production, with studio confidence in him low after the stupefying Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Tragically, while he was in post-production, his daughter died by suicide, and he left the project. Joss Whedon, director of the first two Avengers films, was hired to complete it. Largely reshot by Whedon, the 2017 theatrical version was close to unwatchable, but after Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (2016), everyone just shrugged at another noisy, chaotic DC film. Everyone, that is, except a growing group of fans who insisted there was a “Snyder cut” that the studio had under lock and key.

One of the last nods in the end credits is to “All the fans that made this film possible”. It’s well-deserved, even if the Snyder supporters were, on their best day, insufferable. Yet, their persistent campaigning, which ranged from buying ad space to trending #ReleaseTheSnyderCut on Twitter, meant that when the filmmaker confirmed, in 2019, that such a cut did exist, the pressure was suddenly on the studio. Incredibly, in 2020, Warner, the same studio that lost faith in Snyder, gave him the green light to assemble what he’d originally shot. The film is now streaming on HBO Max—testament to the lengths studios will go to appease fan bases, especially toxic ones.

Superman’s death in Batman v Superman released a power surge from three “mother boxes”, hidden in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, on Themyscira by the Amazons, and, rather anti-climatically, by a scientist in a cupboard in a Metropolis apartment. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) set out to find the remaining members of a team to combat Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the scowly metallic being who’s assembling the boxes so his master, Darkseid, can become ruler of the universe or something. Steppenwolf’s excursions, and the recruitment of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher)—Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg—proceed at a pace that's at once leisurely and terribly busy. Snyder goes from crescendo to crescendo, shooting everything from intergalactic battles to Arthur walking off a pier with the same crazy bombast.

The film was shot in the squarish 4:3 format, apparently so it would play better in IMAX. Personally, I can’t complain about watching Justice League at home, where I can control the volume, and where the darkness of the colour palette doesn’t seem quite so dark. Still, after years of competent but bland Marvel films, there is a certain primal thrill in Snyder’s dark, violent action scenes, like the “golden age of heroes” battle where the Atlanteans, the Guardians and the Amazons fight alongside Zeus and Ares (looking remarkably like Snyder’s heroes from 300) to defeat Darkseid—shorter than the other setpieces, but colossally, nakedly grand. Even the momentary visions are wild: as a voiceover discusses monetary systems, a giant bull and bear clash.

What Justice League lacks is the kind of narrative intelligence that can turn its roiling surface and scale into something meaningful (beyond comic mythology). Compared to the falling van in Inception, a visual tying up various plot lines, the mother box descending in slo-mo is just another neat effect in a film saturated with them. Chris Terrio’s screenplay has all the comic book mumbo-jumbo one has come to expect from superhero films (“The anti-life equation, the key to controlling all life and all will throughout the multiverse…”), but can’t offer anything smarter than “Fuck the world” or “Let’s go find this son of a bitch” when it’s time for a one-liner.

Justice League ends with a confusing epilogue: seeds of films unmade, involving at least one character who’s been recast; bait, perhaps, to fans who’ll demand that Snyder be entrusted with future DC projects. If Justice League is his last, though, it’s not a bad resting place. The tragedy that befell Snyder has endowed his film with a resonance that it might not have otherwise possessed. Mortality and grief are major themes: Bruce’s dead parents are a constant in any Batman film, but here there’s also Victor and Arthur’s late mothers, Martha Kent’s dead superhero son, and Barry’s incarcerated father. Victor is reassembled as a robot after a horrific accident; Superman too is brought back from the dead. In a lovely scene, Barry uses his super-speed to save Iris (Kiersey Clemons), who’s about to die in a car accident. Most directors would have played this as action comedy. But here it’s sweet, almost gentle. There’s something quite touching about Snyder, through Barry, being able to save this one girl, on a film where he lost so much.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Book review: Vesper Flights

It’s hard to avoid words like ‘luminous’ when describing Helen MacDonald’s writing. There’s a soft glow that emanates from it, akin to the work of E.B. White, who also wrote beautifully about insects, animals and birds. Her sentences breathe and pulse like the living things she describes. An oncoming migraine is “a spray of sparks, an array of livid and prickling phosphenes is like shorting fairy lights”, an unborn falcon is “something that had not yet known light or air, but would soon take in the revealed coil and furl of a west-coast breeze and cloud of a hillside in one easy glide”.

In her last book, H is for Hawk (2014), Macdonald wrote about the death of her father and how she coped with it by training a goshawk. It was nature writing of the highest order, but also something more: a distillation of grief so pure it transcended the gloom. Her latest, Vesper Flights, is a collection of 41 essays, some of which have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Statesman and other publications. They're mostly short pieces—four or five pages on an average—and deal with nature in one way or another. But they also intersect with Macdonald’s life (several essays begin with her travelling, or already at her destination) and with the world at large.

By dint of when these pieces were written, Vesper Flights is a window into a Brexit-ing England and a world consumed by the refugee crisis. “I’m fascinated by the relationship between natural history and national history,” Macdonald writes—and the history she describes is often unfolding around her. In "Swan Upping", she ponders how heritage traditions might be appropriated by nationalists in post-Brexit England, even as these “skilful interactions with things that are not us” gradually win her over. The geese she observes in a Hungarian village in "The Human Flock" makes her think of the razor wire put up a hundred miles south by Serbia to keep out Syrian refugees. In "The Student’s Tale", she meets a refugee, an epidemiologist from an unnamed country; in "Murmurations", a lost passport leads to a meditation on wartime Britain. "Cherry Stones" starts with a paragraph about immigrants who’ve come to England because of food shortages in their countries of origin—before revealing the immigrants as hawfinches.

Most stunningly, in "Symptomatic", after describing with painful eloquence over a few pages the effect of migraines, Macdonald moves on to climate change (a frequent topic through the book). The turnover is so smooth that I was well into the paragraph before my brain could fully register the subject matter had changed. “For many years, a great fatalism would overtake me when I felt the first twinges of an oncoming migraine,” she writes. She relates this to denial of the climate crisis, saying: “Apocalyptic thinking is a powerful antagonist to action. It makes us give up agency, feel that all we can do is suffer and wait for the end.”

A science historian and naturalist, Macdonald has a knack for describing natural phenomena in precise, colorful ways. A drinker moth caterpillar inches forth “like a cautiously mobile moustache”. Hawfinches, “with coppery eyes set in an ink-black bib and mask”, remind her of “an exquisitely dressed pugilist”. One black-throated blue warbler is “so neat and spry he looks like a folded pocket handkerchief”. “Wood pigeons feast on the black fruits of ivy, clambering awkwardly on thin twigs and later depositing bright purple droppings under their roosts,” she writes in "Berries". “As winter progresses, some berries ferment and become alcoholic, and it’s not uncommon to see faintly disoriented birds wandering around beneath affected shrubs.”

Macdonald’s late father makes a couple of cameo appearances in the book, including a hilarious starring role in "Goats". Stu from H is to Hawk is paid tribute to in Eulogy, but the melancholy of that book has been replaced by wisdom and wonder. MacDonald’s writing doesn’t suffer from being in bite-sized pieces—I like that it allows her to range over a variety of subjects. “I am far from an industrious soul,” she writes, “except in my capacity, perhaps, to pay close attention to things.” In the days after reading this, I found myself noticing bird calls and spiderwebs in the backyard. Vesper Flights will reward your close attention.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Review: Bombay Begums

For the second time in two months, a Netflix title from India is hobbled by a voiceover in English. The White Tiger’s narration was stilted and ornate, but for sheer teeth-grating qualities it can’t match the one by 13-year-old Shai (Aadhya Anand) in Bombay Begums. When Terence Malick had the teenage Linda narrate Days of Heaven (1978), the writing and delivery were deliberately flat. Shai, however, enunciates in a Bandra-via-American-TV accent, and everything she says sounds like the beginning of an op-ed.

Barely has the series begun than we hear: “Some women secretly aspire to be queen, but society has taught them they can’t dare aspire for such big things.” Eight minutes later, obligatory Bombay plug: “How far can you go to survive in this city of dreams?” Of her stepmother, Rani (Pooja Bhatt), Shai says, “Her closet, of course, is not just full of saris but zillions of secrets”. A little later: “Do queens always have to have big bosoms?” Mercy. And this is just the first episode.

Rani—Hindi for ‘queen’—is the CEO of Royal Bank of India (the show isn't exactly subtle with imperial metaphors). Her MD has moved on to another bank, and Rani chooses Fatima (Shahana Goswami) over senior partner Deepak (Manish Chaudhari) to fill the position. Fatima refuses at first; she and her husband, Arijay (Vivek Gomber), who also works at Royal Bank, have just found out they’re having a baby. But then there’s a miscarriage and Fatima, whose marriage is visibly fraying, takes up the offer, while continuing to visit Deepak, her mentor, for advice. Meanwhile, Rani’s stepson, driving while drunk, runs into a young boy at night. The mother of the victim, dancer Laxmi (Amruta Subhash), immediately blackmails Rani, who is forced to make her the first beneficiary of a scheme for women entrepreneurs, a project headed by eager young employee Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur).

Bombay Begums is recognizable as an Alankrita Shrivastava joint. After Amazon’s Made in Heaven (2019- ), this is the second series she’s co-written and directed, and the first she’s created (Bornila Chatterjee and Iti Agarwal have two screenplay credits each, and Chatterjee directed three episodes). Her films Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare (2020) are uniquely candid about matters of female sexuality and autonomy, which is true of Bombay Begums as well. Few other filmmakers would risk having their series lead say, in reference to a planned surrogacy, “It’s just a womb”. Nor would many execute as matter-of-factly the sequence where Ayesha kisses, for the first time, a girl she’s been crushing on, then abruptly leaves, goes home and makes out with the boy she’s rooming with, the scenes linked by shots of the shorter person in each case standing on their toes to kiss.

Of the many cross-currents of conflict—the power struggle at the bank, Fatima and Arijay fighting, Shai rebelling—one expands and takes over the narrative. One night, after an office party, Ayesha asks Deepak if he can drop her home. She’s asked for a transfer to his department, and might be nursing a tiny crush on him. In the car, he forces himself on her, and, over her protests, sexually assaults her. When the matter is brought before Fatima and Rani, they follow procedure but are less than encouraging. Ayesha is asked at different points if she wants to withdraw her complaint, whether she imagined it, and to think of the abuser’s family. We’re shown—perhaps for the first time—a detailed picture of post-#MeToo life in corporate India, with the language of abuse now commonplace, the system still rising up to protect the powerful, and whisper networks instrumental in breaking the silence.

This particular storyline, directed and performed with detail and empathy, makes the strongest case for Bombay Begums. But what is timely and important need not be good art. This isn’t a visually arresting show. The boardroom scenes feel anything but organic. Despite Shrivastava’s feel for the messiness of desire, it can sometimes seem like one taboo scenario after another—teens doing coke! Rani’s husband masturbating while wrapped in his dead wife’s clothes! And the relatively short run of six episodes might have hurried the ending: the way Ayesha’s complaint is resolved, with sudden changes of heart, feels wishful, especially coming from a director who’s been anything but in the past. Yet, the biggest drawback remains the writing, which is often blunt but rarely memorable. Whenever the characters speak in Hindi, it instantly hits harder. There’s no better line in the series than Laxmi saying, “Marzi ke bina sex mein apan ka PhD hai (I have a PhD in sex without consent).”

Shrivastava has shown in her Hindi films she can write colourful, candid dialogue. Bombay Begums squanders this to a large extent. The reason, one has to assume, is that Netflix believes their big Indian titles are likelier to be successful abroad if they’re partly in English. Everyone was up in arms about the English writing and accents on A Suitable Boy last year but since then we’ve had to endure the voice coach contests of The White Tiger, The Girl On the Train and now Bombay Begums—all on Netflix in India.

Laxmi is a bit of a caricature, but Subhash—a character actor who ought to be getting leads—is funny and charismatic. Bhatt finds real soul in Rani in the later episodes, and there’s a minor turn with great charm: Imaad Shah as Ayesha’s helpful friend. With a second season clearly hoped for, Bombay Begums might have an opportunity to take its acrid corporate politicking and fractured relationships and make them wittier and more resonant. A good first step would be canning the voiceover.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.