Saturday, April 27, 2024

A Hero: A good deed is punished

“How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world,” Portia says in The Merchant of Venice. We know by now that, in Asghar Farhadi’s films, it’s only a matter of time before well-intentioned candles are snuffed out. The Iranian is one of cinema’s reigning pessimists. He’s not a moralist in the traditional sense but someone interested in testing the limits of moral behaviour, especially when such behaviour is not to one’s advantage. More than any other director working, his films ask with uncomfortable directness: What do you think you'd do?  

A Hero, which played at Cannes last year and won the Grand Prix, begins with Rahim (Amir Jadidi) starting a two-day release from prison by meeting his brother-in-law on a construction site near the statue of Xerxes. We see him slowly make his way up the scaffolding. Farhadi doesn't usually favour the long drawn-out shots you'll often see in Iranian films; his cutting is more Hitchcockian. Farhadi making us aware of his protagonist's laboured ascent is a warning: Rahim’s happy to be out of prison and may have had a secret windfall, yet this will be a difficult slog. 

The windfall is a discovery his girlfriend, Malileh (Maryam Shahdaei), made while he was inside, a purse with no identification and 17 gold coins. Their plan is to sell the gold to pay off the large debt he owes Bahram, his ex-wife’s brother-in-law (he was in prison for non-payment). But somewhere along the way, Rahim’s conscience kicks in; his sister’s questions about the mysterious purse and delays at the merchant’s store seem to him divine warnings. And so, over the disappointment of Malileh, he leaves a message at the bank that he has someone’s gold coins. Soon, a distraught woman turns up and takes the bag from his sister while he’s out. 

At this point the story takes a very Farhadi turn. Rahim’s good deed is publicised by the prison authorities and picked up by the local media. All of a sudden, he’s a celebrity. A charity organization hosts a fundraiser so he can pay off Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh, wonderfully sceptical). It’s going so well, and then—like so many characters in Farhadi films—Rahim, rattled by a stony HR executive, makes one error of judgment. And everything unravels.

Did Farhadi have that moment himself, when he asked his student to sign over the idea to her film to him? Azadeh Masihzadeh participated in a workshop by Farhadi in 2014-15, where she made a short documentary called All Winners, All Losers (it’s on her YouTube channel, with English subtitles). The subject was one Mohammad Reza Shokri, whose story is clearly the basis for Rahim’s. Masihzadeh said she discovered and researched the case, and was shocked when Farhadi’s film turned it into fiction, giving her no credit. She filed a complaint with the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, who ruled in Farhadi's favour. Farhadi sued Masihzadeh for defamation. Masihzadeh sued Farhadi for copyright infringement. This month, Farhadi lost the defamation suit. The other case has gone before a second judge. 

Whatever you feel about the case—and the courts seem inclined towards Masihzadeh till now—Farhadi doesn’t come off well, possibly a plagarist, at best taking advantage of a power imbalance. But watching A Hero with some knowledge of the ongoing trial is a richer, if more conflicting, experience. The film asks what it means to be moral when reputations and livelihoods depend on you bending the truth. It’s possible to feel for Masihzadeh and to marvel at the thought of a director obsessed with moral grey areas landing himself in one: a meta-tale worthy of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up

Amir Jadidi plays Rahim as someone who’s self-aware enough to know that his open nature and ingratiating smile might open doors that his moral strictness has closed. We know Rahim isn’t making up the purse story but it’s nevertheless interesting to see Bahram complain that he was taken in by his innocent manner when he lent him money. Farhadi, as always, builds tragedy as an accumulative, causal thing. No single action of Rahim’s is irretrievably damaging. But placed in order, they snap together like locks.

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Dasvi: Review

Maddock Films once made a good movie, Hindi Medium, about education and personal betterment. A spiritual sequel, Angrezi Medium, showed diminishing returns but was kept afloat by the tenderness of Irrfan Khan in his final performance in a theatrical release. Dasvi is another variation, and by far the least essential. Tushar Jalota’s film, co-produced by Maddock and Jio Studios, is direct-to-OTT in the way films used to be direct-to-video: not worthy of a release in theatres, thrown out like so much chum into the vast seas of undiscriminating content on Netflix and JioCinema.

From the very first scene, where Ganga Ram Chaudhary (Abhishek Bachchan), chief minister of the fictional Harit Pradesh, mispronounces the names of Putin, Trudeau and Biden in a video, you know the kind of laboured ‘family’ comedy this will be. Chaudhary is soon behind bars in a teacher recruitment scam, but not before installing his wife, Bimla Devi (Nimrat Kaur), on the CM’s seat. After rebelling ineffectually against the tight ship run by superintendent Jyoti Deswal (Yami Gautam), he surprisingly decides to study and clear his 10th standard exams from prison.  

There’s nothing in Dasvi that doesn’t feel lazy. It looks like it’s been shot on two basic sets and Bachchan’s front lawn. A no-nonsense female professional is repeatedly reduced to the cliché of an angry cat. Sachin-Jigar underscore the jokes (such as they are) with brass farts and clownish keys. The graphics in the Twitter-storm montage—a dreaded mainstay of social media-era Hindi cinema—are stunningly amateur. There's no consistency in the lessons for the exams: Chaudhary is studying advanced math but doesn't know his letters or basic grammar. Then there’s the bit where he’s shown participating in the Indian freedom movement: so obvious, so stupid.

The film draws inspiration from political stories that are decades old: Ganga Ram and Bimla inspired by Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi, who did a similar switch back in 1997. Bimla posing with a handbag and getting a statue of herself made points to Mayawati’s time as Uttar Pradesh CM—another dated reference. The only recent parallel is former Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala, who also served jail time in a teacher recruitment scam and sat for his 10th class exams there, in 2017. 

The film can’t seem to decide if Chaudhary is an oafish thug, a lovable scamp or a good soul gone astray, so Bachchan plays all these possibilities, often in the same scene. It’s not very impressive—Bachchan’s always had a heavy hand with comedy—though hardly as monotonous as Gautam’s straight-ace cop. Only Kaur has some fun with the blithely ambitious Bimla. Because she’s seduced by power almost from the start, we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing her break bad. But she’s the closest thing in this film to an actual unfeeling, power-hungry politician; Ganga Ram Chaudhary is sentimental whitewashing. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

What to watch after The French Dispatch

The pandemic may have deprived us of the chance of seeing Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on the big screen but there’s some comfort in the fact that it’s finally streaming in India (on Disney+ Hotstar). The film is a triptych of stories (plus a prologue) set in Paris, each centring on a different piece by a fictional New Yorker-like magazine called 'The French Dispatch'. Working with his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman, composer Alexandre Desplat (in witty form), and a cast too expansive to list here, Anderson pushes his singular ornamental style to its limits. For those who were delighted (as I was) by the film and are keen to stay immersed in that world, here’s a selection of related features, documentaries and film criticism.

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)

The French Dispatch is studded with references to Gallic cinema. If you are in the mood for more, there’s no better overview than the two cine tributes Bertrand Tavernier made towards the end of his life. In My Journey Through French Cinema, Tavernier talks about his inspirations—from François Truffaut and Jean Renoir to lesser-known figures like Guy Gilles—for over three hours, mixing anecdote and film appreciation. Not satisfied with this, he then made a companion series called Journeys Through French Cinema (2017), spread over seven hours.

La Chinoise (1967)

The middle story in The French Dispatch concerns two young students, played by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri, and their participation in the fictional “Chessboard Revolution” of 1968. Though it unfolds mostly in black and white, it’s reminiscent of a 1967 colour film by Jean-Luc Godard about a group of young Maoists in Paris debating the merits of violent revolution. Shot in ravishing bold colour by Raoul Coutard, La Chinoise is alternately provocative, frustrating and tartly funny. This is Godard at the end of his first golden period, a year away from embarking on explicitly Marxist film-making. Anderson mimics the almost surreal fervour of Godard’s firebrands discussing politics. There’s another borrowing, on the soundtrack: a cover by Jarvis Cocker of the Mao Mao number from Godard’s film.

Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1973)

As an American food writer named Roebuck Wright, Jeffrey Wright gives The French Dispatch’s most moving performance. We see him first as an older man, being interviewed on TV, where he’s asked about a famous piece he had written. We then see a younger Wright, on assignment to write about a chef, getting dragged into an adventure when his host, a police chief, gets a phone call saying his son has been kidnapped.

Wright is partially based on James Baldwin, another black, gay author and critic who lived in Paris for decades. In a documentary short from 1973 (streaming on MUBI), we see him spar with white English reporters and later relax in the company of black expatriates. It’s a fascinating mini-portrait, made poignant by Baldwin’s attempts to alternately evade and get through to his obtuse interviewers. The pain and pride of Baldwin finds an echo in Roebuck’s “solitary feast” monologue, in which he says, simply, “I chose this life.”

How Wes Anderson’s Style Changed After Animation (2019)

Anderson has such a distinct aesthetic that dissections of his films constitute a small cottage industry. One excellent theory about Anderson’s evolving style is put forward in this 11-minute video essay by Julian Palmer on his YouTube channel, The Discarded Image. Palmer argues that Anderson’s style underwent several subtle but recognisable changes after he made his first animation feature, Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). The films that followed were more “designed”, with increasingly complicated action choreographed like one would with stop-motion figures.

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

In the first story in The French Dispatch, Benicio Del Toro plays a painter in prison and Léa Seydoux a guard who poses in the nude for him. This is a miniature riff on Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. This 240-minute film is a deconstruction of the artistic process, a gradually unfolding power struggle between a great painter and a nude model.

Mon Oncle (1958)

There are several references to French director Jacques Tati, whose intricate gags have been an inspiration for Anderson in the past. The most pointed is in the very first scene. A waiter carries a tray laden with liqueurs up the winding diagonal stairwells of The French Dispatch building. This is a tribute to a scene in Mon Oncle in which Tati’s Monsieur Hulot takes a similarly circuitous path up the side of a building that looks much the same as this one.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

Filming with fire: Behind Indian documentary's biggest year

(This was a cover story for Mint Lounge. It won a Red Ink award in 2023.) 

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh were inside the plane, on the tarmac at Delhi airport. The makers of Writing With Fire knew the Academy would be announcing the shortlist of 15 for the Documentary Feature Oscar anytime. Their expectations were tempered—no Indian film had gotten this far. Thomas opened her phone and checked WhatsApp. She let out a shriek: “We made it!” Some six weeks later, Thomas and Ghosh were on solid ground—and on camera—when they became Oscar nominees: the fourth Indian feature ever, the first documentary.

This isn’t the only Indian non-fiction film in the past nine months to record a historic first. In February, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize , the top award for a non-American documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. And last July, Payal Kapadia’s A Night Of Knowing Nothing won the L’Oeil d’Or, awarded to the best documentary across categories at the Cannes Film Festival.

The critical success of these three films has propelled Indian non-fiction into a rare international spotlight. There have, of course, been several acclaimed documentary film-makers before them. Anand Patwardhan, the most well-known director currently working, won the top award at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), arguably the world’s biggest documentary showcase, for Vivek (Reason) (2018). Experimental film-maker Amit Dutta continues to churn out beautiful, idiosyncratic works of art. Still, over the last decade, something seemed to shift. Non-fiction cinema had always been the province of young, independent directors in India but increasingly, there was a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of the form.

It started with small commercial releases—a rarity, then and now—for Jaideep Varma’s Leaving Home (2010), Faiza Ahmad Khan’s winsome Supermen Of Malegaon (2012), Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s sly Katiyabaaz (2013), and Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (2014). In 2016, Abhay Kumar’s Placebo, a hybrid documentary about the intense pressure on students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, streamed on Netflix. Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man (2016), a fly-on-the-wall look at the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, battled the censors before releasing in theatres. The Cinema Travellers, Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham’s film about mobile cinemas in rural India, premiered at Cannes in 2016 and was awarded a L’Oeil d’Or special mention. Rahul Jain’s Machines won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for cinematography at Sundance in 2017. “I really think better work has happened in India in non-fiction than in fiction (in recent years),” says Shaunak Sen. Certainly there’s more of a sense of individual vision, from the spooky animation in Placebo to the joyful musicality of Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar’s Up Down & Sideways (2017) to the jangly verité of An Insignificant Man.

And yet, the scene is far from ideal. For starters, you have to go to great lengths to see these films in India. Because there are barely any repertory theatres here, festivals are usually the only way documentaries make it to big screens. Even that isn’t possible a lot of the time—despite multiple festival showings and small commercial releases abroad, A Night of Knowing Nothing, Writing With Fire and All That Breathes have not screened in India yet. OTT platforms have shown little interest in showcasing creative documentaries. A good many of the Indian fiction films that have won international prizes in the last decade are streaming somewhere. But it’s as if Indian non-fiction doesn’t exist.

It’s tough to get an independent film made in India. It’s even tougher to make independent documentaries. Creative-minded independent documentaries with a political edge… really, it’s a miracle they exist. State funding in India is negligible; studio backing is non-existent. This means a good many of these films are being made with foreign grants or funds or as co-productions. The pool of talented personnel is small; a great fiction cinematographer or editor need not be as adept at documentary work. And, very often, there are political hurdles to cross. All this adds up to a complex, exciting moment for Indian non-fiction film.

Mud on the lens

Years before the elation on the tarmac, Thomas was on a dirt road in Uttar Pradesh. She was tracking Suneeta as she reported on illegal mining, a damaged road and a dharna in progress (Ghosh was filming at another location). Their shoes were caked with mud, they were tired from walking. Bigger problems presented themselves when an all-male crowd threatened to turn hostile. In the film, we see Suneeta gather herself several times before soldiering on, explaining that it’s to their benefit if she gets to talk about their issues. Finally, the crowd relents.

Suneeta is a journalist with Khabar Lahariya, a Dalit-led news agency run entirely by women. Thomas and Ghosh, who are married and have worked together for over a decade, approached them in 2016 to explore the possibility of a film. It helped that the women had seen their work and “knew our political lens”, Ghosh tells me when we meet in south Delhi. It was a fortuitous time, with Khabar Lahariya about to pivot away from print (it’s primarily digital now, with 555,000 subscribers on YouTube). One of the early scenes has Meera—one of three characters the film follows—explaining the basic functions of a mobile phone to the gathered reporters, several of whom have never owned one. In another scene, Meera teaches the English alphabet so they can identify the phone buttons.

Writing With Fire begins in 2016 and continues up till the 2019 general election. “We had a conversation with them, saying this is going to take time,” Thomas tells me. “Initially they would ask us, aren’t you finished yet? Then, after the first year, they just got bored.” We see Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta at work, reporting on strikes, rapes, murders and the elections. In one tense sequence, a Hindu Yuva Vahini member Meera is interviewing pulls out a sword. We also see the women at home, with their sceptical families. On more than one occasion, they return from a long day’s reporting to immediately start cooking dinner at home.

The inequities of the caste system hang over the film from the first frame. The women being Dalit informs everything from their living conditions to the access they get to the stories they report (there’s one on the government’s failure to build free toilets). “In our region, if you are a journalist, it meant you were upper-caste,” Meera says (the film-makers too are forward caste). An old man tells Meera his house is out of the way because the whole village considers him untouchable. He ends by saying he can’t name anyone because they might kill him. (In a statement on their website on 21 March—a little over a week after the 2022 UP elections, won by the Bharatiya Janata Party—Khabar Lahariya said the film incorrectly showed them as “an organisation with a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party”, indicating the BJP and its affiliates. The directors responded over email that their engagement had been “long and sustained”, and they believe the film “fairly represents their journalistic practices and the range of work that they do”.)

Writing With Fire looks like a layman’s idea of a documentary: skilful, unadorned handheld images. The makers split up to follow the women as they reported, Ghosh shooting on his own, Thomas with cameraperson Karan Thapliyal. They used Canon DSLRs and relied on natural light and the rugged backdrops to do their work for them. “It looked really cinematic,” says Ghosh, “like something out of Sholay. You are really going back to that Panavision landscape.”

“We are very different as people and as directors, so every time we collaborate there are lots of fireworks,” Thomas laughs. Ghosh edited as they went along, both to get a handle on the material and to be able to pitch for funding, while she worked on “bread-and-butter” commissions for Black Ticket Films, the company they started. “That saved our life,” Ghosh says. “If you are looking at something you shot in 2017 two years later, you won’t have the context of the day unless it’s edited.” In 2019, they stopped shooting, and the film started to shape up. The first lockdown of 2020 helped, with Ghosh and Thomas decamping to a house in Himachal Pradesh to work on the edit. “Editing can be a brutal process, so being in a healing space really helps,” Ghosh says. The film came together in time for a Sundance 2021 premiere, where it won the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change.

Experiments with truth

“Intervention is a good word,” says Payal Kapadia. I'd actually said 'invention', but agree that 'intervention' has a nice ring to it—of formal practice, and also a tension between material and creator. I'm speaking to Kapadia, writer-director of A Night Of Knowing Nothing, and Ranabir Das, the film’s producer, editor and cinematographer, over Zoom. It has been eight months since the film premiered at Cannes, enough time for it to sink in that they beat directors like Todd Haynes, Andrea Arnold, Marco Bellocchio and Sergei Loznitsa to the L’Oeil d’Or.

A Night Of Knowing Nothing had its genesis in their time as students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). In late 2016, Kapadia and Das started shooting on campus and interviewing their friends. They had no plan for what they wanted to do with the footage. “We would shoot now and then, when something came up,” Kapadia says. “It was going on, like a parallel life.” It was only in 2019 that things began to coalesce. A French producer Kapadia was working with suggested she make this while they awaited funding for a fiction project. “If you are making films independently,” she says, “you have to do two-three things at once, otherwise it’s very difficult.”

Around this time, Kapadia and Das found the connecting thread. At regular intervals in the film, a woman identified only as L reads her own letters to a lover who has stopped replying. We learn later that he belongs to a forward caste, while hers is an oppressed one, and that his parents oppose the relationship. L is the invention (or intervention) I was referring to: The letters were written by Kapadia and fellow FTII student and film-maker Himanshu Prajapati. The interviews Kapadia and Das had amassed over the years, and their own experiences, informed the letters, which are bruisingly intimate and politically charged. Beautifully read by Bhumisuta Das, they reminded me of the ghostly narrators in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), films that blend documentary into their fictional narratives.

Kapadia, who mentions Marker as a favourite, says they didn’t want to make a film that was “simply factual or chronological”. “I was very interested in this kind of hybrid, which can very seamlessly use fiction and non-fiction to complement each other,” she says. L’s words are overlaid on everyday scenes from the FTII campus, shot in ghostly black and white by Das (on digital, but treated to look like 16mm film), and images of student protests that marked the appointment of former actor Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairman. Film-maker friends shared their footage of protests on other campuses. From various archives, they sourced vintage 8mm colour film of weddings and parties. The mix is hallucinatory and unsettling, underscoring L’s apprehensions about her relationship and the state of the nation.

At times, A Night of Knowing Nothing is right at the border of experimental cinema. In this it aligns itself with a long tradition of documentarists who use the techniques of experimental film. Kapadia herself pushed these boundaries with her student film And What Is the Summer Saying (2018), where hand-drawn images are superimposed on the landscape (that film’s dream imagery and voice-over seem to anticipate her first feature). Yet, A Night Of Knowing Nothing’s formal innovations accentuate, rather than obscure, its concern for embattled public institutions, religious minorities and critics of all stripes.

The sky is falling

In 2018, Shaunak Sen was in Cambridge on a fellowship. It had been three years since his first film, Cities Of Sleep, had released and he was eager to “pour (himself) into something”. That something turned out to be The Peregrine, a 1967 memoir by J.A. Baker. Sen had nothing more than a minor interest in ornithology but the author’s obsession with falcons spoke to him in a profound way. He also read Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, a dazzling 2014 memoir about loss and recovery. These texts attached themselves to an image he had been living with for years. “Before I have characters or a theme, I have some sense of vague texture at the back of my head—a sensorium,” he tells me over coffee. “For me, it was the grey hazy monotone skies you see in Delhi.”

When Sen returned to Delhi, he began to look for people who had a deep relationship with the skies or birds. He chanced upon two brothers in west Delhi, Nadeem and Saud, who tended to injured black kites. Sen and a small crew followed the brothers and their associate, Salik, for two years. While that might seem excessive, Sen says this level of immersion is necessary to get a sense of the rhythm of a place. It also took time to get the brothers to stop noticing the camera. “The idea is to recede completely,” he tells me. “I would say to them, go about your work, aaj hum deewar hain (pretend we're a wall).”

Sen knew he wanted to make a film about non-human life in an urban setting, what he called “life writ large”. His team started by listing visual ideas—a snail crawling across a garbage dump, for instance—on a large board. “The footage we have of animals in the city can make three other films,” Sen says. He was clear they weren’t making a nature documentary, though—everything would be as the naked eye sees it. “None of us has any training in wildlife shooting, which is actually a good thing,” he says. “But it took forever.”

The majority of documentaries, even very good ones, are built around testimony and narrative. All That Breathes is unique in being driven by the visual. Sen uses slow pans and changes of perspective to construct scenes that reward the patient viewer. One gradually unfolding shot shows a spider web in the foreground, then reveals a night watchman and two dogs in the background, then shifts focus again to catch two lizards in the foreground. When we met, Sen spoke admiringly of the films of Viktor Kossakovsky and Gianfranco Rosi, masters of the languid, slowly revealed frame. He was able to get Ben Bernhard, cinematographer on several Kossakovsky films, to shoot part of All That Breathes; after the German left, the film was shot by Riju Das (Saumyananda Sahi, a cinematographer who straddles fiction and non-fiction, also worked on it for a while).

Sen knew the film he wanted to put together was tricky: staccato scenes of the brothers interspersed with three- or four-minute takes of natural life. He felt unhappy and adrift until he watched The Truffle Hunters (2020)—a documentary about old men and their dogs in Piedmont, Italy—and recognised its editing was the key to unlock his film. Fortuitously, he was able to hire Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, the Danish editor of The Truffle Hunters and The Act Of Killing (2012), arguably the most famous documentary of the last decade. Bengtsen encouraged Sen to go with his gut. “What is the stomach saying?” she would ask when he deliberated too long. Her process involved taking prints of the scenes and arranging them on a big board. Every day, Sen would turn up to find the scenes had moved position.

The stormy present

In All That Breathes, Nadeem, Saud and Salik have a brush with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests and the subsequent riots in the Capital. The toxicity of the skies and the air finds an echo in the ugliness of political polarisation. Indeed, these three very different films are linked, first and foremost, by their politics. The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh is noted in A Night Of Knowing Nothing and Writing With Fire. The CAA protests are an important part of All That Breathes and Kapadia’s film. These film-makers studied at FTII, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia—universities that have been the site of frequent student protests against the present Union government and have consequently had to endure vilification and physical intimidation.

Anyone who embarks on a politically charged documentary in India knows they will have to deal with government censorship. Patwardhan’s Vivek, about sectarian and caste violence, was denied a censor exemption—standard procedure so films can play at festivals—by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. It was only when Patwardhan appealed in the Kerala high court that it was allowed to play at the 2019 International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK). In 2017, in the run-up to the same festival, the ministry had refused censor exemptions for three documentary shorts—March March March, The Unbearable Being Of Lightness and In The Shade Of Fallen Chinar, all on politically sensitive subjects. That year, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had asked the makers of An Insignificant Man to get a no-objection certificate (NOC) from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his predecessor, Sheila Dikshit, a bizarre condition that was finally quashed by the now defunct Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). Kamal Swaroop’s The Battle Of Banaras (2015), shot during campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha election (by then Gujarat chief minster Narendra Modi, among others), was rejected by the CBFC and the FCAT before the Delhi high court ordered its release (it remains mostly unseen). Director Ashvin Kumar battled the censors on Inshallah, Football (2010) and Inshallah, Kashmir (2012), even though both won National Awards. More recently, veteran documentarists Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan were named in a chargesheet by the Delhi police as co-conspirators in the 2020 riots for being part of a WhatsApp group.

In a worrying new development, several documentary makers told me, on condition of anonymity, that money due to them from foreign grants and funds was being withheld, for no clear reason. “It’s happening to particular kinds of films and particular kinds of film-makers,” one of them said. This, in turn, is raising concerns among funders in the West involved with politically sensitive Indian non-fiction projects.

If foreign grants become harder to access, it would greatly affect the means of funding for Indian non-fiction makers. There are only a few home-grown options for documentary funding: India Foundation for the Arts, Public Service Broadcasting Trust (currently not commissioning) and Films Division (whose fate is unclear given the announcement by the government to “merge” it with the National Film Development Corporation). As a result, Indian documentary-makers pitch for a variety of foreign grants and funds or enter into co-productions, which entails making a part of the film in the country offering the financial support. A Night Of Knowing Nothing was funded by a Sundance grant, the IDFA-Bertha fund, and regional and national funds from France. Writing With Fire also tapped multiple international funding agencies. All That Breathes was private equity funded, a process in which the funder recoups a prefixed amount once the film is sold and then enters into profit-sharing. The Cinema Travellers got money from six different grants, which Madheshiya and Abraham assured me is quite normal for an independent documentary.

A creative documentary is by its nature a long-term project. The films by Sen, Kapadia, and Thomas and Ghosh took four-six years to make. “Film-making is quite lonely if it’s not a big production,” Kapadia admits. After fighting to pitch a film, fund and make it and get it into leading festivals, it’s no wonder directors might feel that pushing for distribution in India—a country that watches little independent cinema—is one battle too many. Since physical media is all but extinct in India and documentaries hardly ever make it to theatres, I looked at some of the OTT platforms to see the options available if a viewer were inclined to watch a good Indian documentary. Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video had almost no Indian non-fiction films. Netflix, which once hosted films like Fireflies In The Abyss (2015) and Celluloid Man (2012), has just a handful now. Only MUBI, with 24 titles in its library, offers some choice. The best option is still YouTube, where one can access the extensive archives of PSBT and Films Division, the works of directors like Patwardhan and Lalit Vachani, and recent milestones like Placebo and An Insignificant Man.

“There is no ecosystem,” Nilotpal Majumdar, head of the non-fiction incubator DocedgeKolkata, gently insists over the phone—no funding, no government support, no audience. Over the last two decades, Docedge has been trying to build one. This yearly event brings together in-progress documentary projects and various stakeholders (broadcasters, producers, distributors). The film-makers are mentored in intensive workshops, working with experts who help hone the pitches, before they present to potential collaborators. Docedge was the first incubator of its kind in Asia, and remains the only one in India, Majumdar says. Every film-maker I spoke to mentioned it as a game-changer.

Non-fiction film in India today is a tight-knit scene, with directors mentioning each other in conversation and being thanked in the credits of each other’s films. Some are trying to give back to the community. Directors Khushboo Ranka, Shaunak Sen and Archana Phadke (About Love) are planning an initiative called India Docs. “Other countries have funding for global projects; here we don’t have funding even for Indian projects,” Ranka tells me. “Development funding is the most difficult to get but it is the most critical. It becomes a magnet for additional funding.” India Docs will offer a development fund of Rs 5 lakh for non-fiction films to get off the ground.

Despite all the hurdles, there’s every reason to be cautiously optimistic. “The outside world was always curious about Indian documentary but now they believe in it,” Majumdar says. Sen thinks that in 10 years’ time, we will look back on the past year or two as a moment of major change. Recent Indian fiction films like Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019), Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar (2019) and Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020) have used the grammar of non-fiction in fascinating ways. Hopefully, the current will flow the other way as well, and documentaries will start using more of the techniques and visual strategies of fiction. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), an exquisite work of metafiction, the film-maker tells the cinephile conman he’s following, “This camera is here so you can explain things that people might find hard to understand or accept.” At a time when understanding and acceptance are in short supply, we can only hope cameras will be there to explain.

Published in Mint Lounge.

RRR: Review

RRR has the most amazing meet-cute. A bridge creaks as a steam engine chugs across. There's a mishap, and the river below catches fire. A boy on a raft is caught in a flaming circle, debris falling around him. It seems hopeless but then two men, one on the bridge, the other on the banks, lock eyes. Instantly, with no words exchanged, they start to execute a ridiculously complex rescue involving a horse, a motorbike, a long rope and a generous interpretation of the laws of physics. There’s also a flag with ‘vande mataram’ on it, which struck me as a needless detail until its function was revealed. It was a reminder that while S.S. Rajamouli’s action may not always seem sensible, everything’s usually there for a reason.

Though Raju and Akhtar are meeting for the first time, we’ve encountered them earlier, in their spectacular individual ‘entry scenes’. Raju (Ram Charan), an officer in the British army, singlehandedly pummels into submission a large protesting crowd. And Akhtar, actually a Gond tribal named Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), fools a wolf into chasing him and ends up apologizing to a tiger (don’t ask). Bheem is in Delhi to rescue his niece, who’s been abducted by the sadistic General Scott (Ray Stevenson) and his evil wife and is being kept as an expert henna-applier. Raju, charged with finding Bheem, poses as a revolutionary. Neither knows what the other looks like, and they become fast friends after the bridge rescue.

Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem were actual early 20th century Telugu revolutionaries. RRR is not so much a biopic as a wildly operatic imagining of their partnership. These leaps of fiction allow Rajamouli to break with tradition and frame the freedom struggle in triumphant terms. Yes, there’s plenty of Indians tortured and killed, but the real point of the film is Raju and Bheem coming up with ever more inventive ways to exterminate comically evil white men. RRR essentially asks: what if we were the scary ones? It’s the same wishfulness that drove Inglourious Basterds, victimhood transformed into righteous superpowered strength. 

Fans of the Baahubali films might miss the world-building; three hours long, RRR keeps a tight focus on Raju and Bheem. Yet, the three films have a lot in common. Rajamouli works through similar themes, lionizing the tribal strongman, with his connection to the earth and the forest, as well as the archetypal (Hindu) warrior. Though it’s more subtle than Baahubali 2, with all its talk of kshatriya valour, RRR’s emphasis on ‘lineage’ suggests that Rajamouli continues to be impressed by the neatness of the caste system (adivasis are referred to as sheep who become agitated when one of their lambs goes astray). There’s a good deal of Hindu iconography, with Raju transforming into a Ram-like figure and Alia Bhatt cameoing as his partner, Sita. 

When Bheem tells the tiger he’s sorry that he has to use him for his own purposes, I was expecting some sort of payoff. What I got was beyond my wildest dreams, with Bheem attacking a party at Scott’s mansion with a menagerie of wild animals. For five blissful minutes, the screen is a mess of tigers, wolves and stags crashing around, impaling and dismembering British soldiers. It’s the craziest of RRR’s set pieces, though the one in which Raju is perched on Bheem’s shoulders the whole time runs it close. The poor Brits lose on every front. When an officer tries to shame Bheem with his European dance moves, Raju kicks off the thumping ‘Naatu’ and the duo easily win the first revolutionary Indo-British dance-off. 

‘Naatu’ is a welcome light touch in a film that gets high on macho posturing. So strong is the male energy that the two love interests barely register as romantic figures (Olivia Morris' Jenny is there because she’s useful, Sita is practically a goddess). Desire is sublimated into the most ardent of male friendships. In one scene, Raju grooms his friend for a date (after, one imagines, bathing and dressing him). “He is a volcano,” he longingly says later. “When you looked at me like that,” Bhim says, “I just felt like competing with you.” If that’s what the kids are calling it these days. 

RRR subtly recasts the Indian freedom struggle as a primarily Hindu movement. Lord Ram literally appears at the end to defeat the British. There’s a lot of ‘vande mataram’ glimpsed and shouted. The song sequence that accompanies the closing credits pays tribute to freedom fighters across the centuries—as far as I noticed, no Muslims or Christians, one Sikh, the rest Hindus. Akhtar is merely a disguise for Bheem to cast off; Muslims and Sikhs figure only as powerless members of the crowd. RRR is delirious fun and not a virulent majoritarian film—it might just displace one from theatres—but it’s telling that the pan-religious overtures that used to be such a big part of Indian commercial cinema are now seen as unnecessary. When you buy a ticket to a Rajamouli film, you’re paying for the bonkers action fantasia. The benign Hindu rashtra fittings come free. 

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Bachchhan Paandey: Review

Without intending to be, Bachchhan Paandey is a neat commentary on the options available to talented character actors in Hindi cinema. You can play it straight and escape with your dignity (Saharsh Kumar Shukla, Abhimanyu Singh). You can ham it up and book yourself a dozen other teeth-grinding roles (Sanjay Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi). Or you can collect the cheque and hope no one asks you why you’re playing the mute mother of Akshay Kumar, who’s just three years younger than you (Seema Biswas). 

Then there’s Arshad Warsi, whose career has stagnated to the point that a third lead in a big film counts as an unqualified win. If you’re a Warsi fan—which is to say, a moviegoer with good taste—it’s impossible not to wince through the film’s ham-handed attempts to pay tribute to his legacy as a sidekick hero. “Secondary heroes often overshadow the real ones,” aspiring director Myra (Kriti Sanon) tells struggling actor Vishu (Warsi), citing Circuit in Munna Bhai MBBS. This is empty flattery; Bollywood is almost always at the service of the star. The one popular solo lead Warsi originated, the lawyer in Jolly LLB, was passed on to Akshay Kumar in Jolly LLB 2

Myra and Vishu are in the dusty Uttar Pradesh town of Baagwa to stalk dreaded gangster Bachchhan Paandey (Kumar) and gather enough detail to make a film on his life. This was also the premise of Karthik Subbaraj’s deliriously entertaining 2014 Tamil film Jigarthanda, which has now, somewhat belatedly, been remade in Hindi. But while Subbaraj is a director with style to burn, Farhad Samji is basically a writer who has churned out so much successful cringe comedy for so long that he’s making his own films now. When the stuttering jokes commenced, I braced for a long, familiar slog.

Yet, as the film went on, I found I was rather enjoying myself, not a feeling I'm accustomed to when imbibing something by the writer of two Golmaals, three Housefulls and the matchless Street Dancer 3D. It’s not that the film was particularly good—it just wasn’t bad for a surprisingly long time. Gavemic U Ary’s cinematography was quite fetching. There were some nice throwaway details, like gangsters playing flip the bottle in the background, and Warsi’s perfectly timed “What’s up?” to a henchman on a deserted road in the dead of night. And one brilliant gag: gangster Kandi (Shukla) racing home in anguished slow motion, Tadap Tadap blaring on the soundtrack, to try and prevent a family viewing of a blue film. 

After Paandey gets wind of his pursuers and decides to star in his own biopic, the film loses steam. Because it’s Kumar in the lead, there’s a tepid backstory that explains why Paandey became a brutal killer. Jacqueline Fernandez is mercifully dispatched after a few mispronunciations and a song; no such luck with Tripathi’s Gujarati acting coach. More fundamentally, the film never works out why Myra and Vishu, who are supposed to be relatable empathetic types, remain unperturbed by all the torturing and killing happening around them. 

In the opening scene, as Paandey takes his time setting a journalist on fire, Pendulum (Singh) tells the victim: “This is just a formality. You’re already dead.” The line isn’t there in the Tamil filmwhich is notable only because there’s hardly another moment where Samji’s film improves on Subbaraj’s. The remake is just a formality. Jigarthanda has already killed.   

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Jhund: Review

A man stands on the railway tracks, in the path of an oncoming train. He’s disheveled and frail, probably in his twenties but seemingly done with life. We brace for suicide by train. At the last moment, he jumps to safety. As he catches his breath, he hears the commentary from a football game. He climbs over the wall—there’s always a wall in Jhund—and joins the spectators. He overhears a team talking about a missing goalkeeper. And just like that, he’s in front of goal, making a save.  

Sports isn’t life in Jhund, it’s a lifeline. Time and again, the film reminds us: these are the stakes, this is what it means to be playing. On the one hand, there’s the same hard life, but with some self-respect and acclaim; on the other is disappointment, incarceration, even death. Most Hindi sports films dedicate themselves to the glory of the school, the nation, the struggle of the talented underdog. Jhund is about barriers erected by caste and the lengths those without privilege must go to surmount them. That it tells a tough story with colour and humour and style more than justifies the hopes placed on Nagraj Manjule’s Hindi debut.

It's an indication of where its gaze will be concentrated that Jhund doesn’t start with Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). Instead, in a wonderful opening montage with an Ajay-Atul theme that splits the difference between Ennio Morricone and AR Rahman, we’re introduced to the youth of Gaddi Godam, a slum in Nagpur, snatching jewelry, cruising the neighbourhood, getting high. Bachchan doesn’t even get an ‘entry’ scene: instead, Don (the charismatic Ankush Gedam), on the run from upper-caste bullies, turns a corner and runs into him. It’s a wry nudge from Manjule—for caste to make it into a mainstream Hindi film, it literally needs to crash the party.

Vijay, a teacher at a local school, is intrigued by Don and his wisecracking friends. When he sees them play football in the rain with an empty canister, something clicks. The next day, he turns up with a ball and offers them five hundred rupees if they’ll play amongst themselves. He does the same the day after that, and on until they stop expecting to be paid but want to continue playing. As their skill increases, Vijay organizes a game with the school team. Symbolically, the jhund enters not from the front gate—where their friends are being denied entry—but by scaling the wall. They’re dressed to the nines: shades, suspenders, caps, boots, a statement of pride before inevitable defeat.

Manjule has fun staging the game—my favourite detail is the delighted spectator in a floral shirt of the sort Bachchan might have worn in the ‘70s—but it’s really made resonant by what comes later. Vijay’s team sits in his drawing room and, one by one, they start to talk about their lives. Though the mood is one of camaraderie, the stories are disturbing and sad, and everyone’s in tears by the end. This scene could easily have been inserted before the game, to key up its emotional impact. But Manjule knows that’s too easy, too quintessentially sports movie. 

Like Sairat, Jhund is a film of two contrasting halves. Another director might have ended with the school game, but Manjule keeps expanding the ambit, as Vijay tries to send his proteges and others like them across the country to a world slum soccer tournament. While this sacrifices the film's tight focus, it gradually helps reveal a vast, broken system. One subplot involves Rinku Rajguru’s tribal girl not being able to apply for a passport until she produces identity proof, which her family doesn’t have (there’s a pointed reference to the government’s ruinous citizenship drive). Their search for something this fundamental involves luck and a couple of good turns. Manjule isn’t known for giving his characters an easy time; here at least he places people with power in a position where they can do the right thing. 

Bachchan is at his gentlest, a quietly determined Vijay to rival the many explosive ones he’s played. There’s one concession to the audience—a big speech he gives in court. The curious thing is that while Jhund absolutely benefits from Bachchan’s presence, it’s not difficult to imagine the film with another actor. Yet, it’s unlikely the film could have been made, in Hindi and on this scale, without his participation. It’s not Vijay’s film, it's Don's and Baba's and Razia's and all the other youngsters. But, in one crucial way, it might also be Bachchan’s. 

There’s really nothing in recent Hindi cinema like Jhund. The grammar employed here can be found instead in other Indian language cinemas: Marathi (Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat), Tamil (Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai), Malayalam (Kammattipadam) and others. It’s not just that these films concern themselves with the realities of caste and the rural and urban poor. They also seem more agile, more adventurous and alive to the world around them. Several times in the film, Vijay uses the word zariya: sports as a means to a better life. In its unflinching but euphoric manner, Jhund shows a way to a more charged Hindi cinema. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

The Worst Person In The World: Sweet and sour love

In its last few editions, the Oscars have been exhibiting a strange trend. Every year for the last four years, one foreign-language (which is to say, non-English) film has been chosen, unofficially, as the awards’ favourite child. In 2019, it was Roma (10 nominations, three wins), odds-on favourite to win Best Picture before the award went to Green Book. In 2020, it was Parasite (four nominations, four wins), which made history by winning Best Picture and Best Director. The following year, Minari, made in the US but with Korean dialogue, had five nominations and one win.

This year, the chosen one is the Japanese film Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s slowly unwinding meditation on grief, loss and art. It’s a stunning film, fully deserving of the accolades it has won, but the situation it finds itself in is almost comical. It’s nominated for Best Picture, along with nine English-language films that include the star-studded but largely derided Don’t Look Up, the conventional King Richard and token indie CODA. No more than one or two of these titles would survive comparison with the best films of 2021 from around the world. The Oscars have always been English-language cinema awards; to pretend otherwise is to further a delusion that its winners are also the best in world cinema.

The film I am writing about this week isn’t the Oscars’ favourite child; it is only nominated for International Feature, and, surprisingly, Best Screenplay. Yet, The Worst Person In The World is effortlessly better than most American and British films I saw last year, let alone the handful recognised by the Oscars. It’s directed by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, his third film set in his native Oslo after Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011). A sweet-sour romance-comedy-drama, it has some of the qualities of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, but is really its own thing.

At the start of the film, Julie (Renate Reinsve), in her late 20s, quits medical studies and breaks up with her boyfriend. “He had to respect the way she took control of her life,” the voice-over says. We soon learn this is not the case, that Julie’s defining characteristic is a vague dissatisfaction with her life, with no idea how to fix it. She goes from medical to psychology student to working in a book store, and from the boyfriend at the start of the film to her professor to a model to Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comics artist best known for creating a provocative character called Bobcat.

Initially, Julie and Aksel get along fine, even though he’s 15 years older. A fracture appears on a holiday with his family and married friends: He wants children, she doesn’t, not at the moment anyway. She knows she’s drifting in life, but what is her calling? She continues working at the book store, though she doesn’t seem much of a bookish person herself. She writes a personal essay that goes viral but doesn’t show any inclination towards further writing. Then she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).

They gravitate towards each other at a party. He’s clearly more like her than Aksel—younger, more playful. The attraction is immediate—but they are both in relationships and decide they won’t cheat on their partners. This sparks off a series of mini-scenes in which the two test the boundaries of cheating. They bite one another, divulge embarrassing secrets, pee in front of each other. He inhales the smoke from her cigarette. Then they part ways. The joyous set-piece that comes a little later—Julie literally putting life on pause and running through the streets of Oslo—is likely to be talked about for years to come, but anyone who has despaired at the declining quality of modern romances will be grateful for the party scene.

“You seem to be waiting for something,” Aksel tells her early on. That sense of being on the brink of a breakthrough follows Julie through the film. Unlike what the title suggests, she’s not a bad person at all—and neither are Aksel and Eivind. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt let their characters bumble through life, likeable, normal folk who don’t have much figured out. When Julie and Eivind fight, she throws his lack of ambition in his face, which is pretty rich coming from her (it’s such an unexpected line of attack it takes Eivind’s breath away; it’s a few seconds before he can respond with, “That’s hurtful. I don’t know what to say”).

All three performers are exceptional. Anders Lie’s thoughtful Aksel is in contrast to the more emotionally cavalier character he played in Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, another excellent 2021 film about a woman faced with difficult life decisions. Reinsve imbues her complex character with humour and believability; she never goes looking for the viewer’s sympathy, which is probably why it’s so easy to give her that. She won Best Actress at Cannes for the role. It’s incredible that she doesn’t find a spot among the Oscar nominees while, say, the nails-on-chalkboard turn by Nicole Kidman in Being The Ricardos does.

Like Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (2020)—Best International Feature at the Oscars in 2021—The Worst Person In The World is a raucously funny film that turns devastating without warning. A sudden bit of bad news has Julie wondering whether she has done anything worthwhile in life. Without intending to, she finds herself pregnant. Not long after, she miscarries in the shower. We see her later, a single tear rolling down her cheek, but looking unmistakably relieved. Few films would dare allow this sort of response, let alone wrap it up in 15 seconds and move on. Like the wonderfully undecided Antonio Carlos Jobim song that closes the film (“It’s a beam, it’s a void, it’s a hunch, it’s a hope”), Julie ends the film as she began, with all possibilities before her.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Gangubai Kathiawadi: Review

In his historical epic Bajirao Mastani (2015), Sanjay Leela Bhansali evoked moving pictures in the ingenious scene where, through an arrangement of mirrors and a silk screen, the Peshwa's wife watches him in another part of the palace. In his latest film, set in mid-20th century Mumbai, there’s no need for allusion, and you can sense the glee with which Bhansali plasters the screen with movie paraphernalia. On the walls of the kotha in the red light district of Kamathipura where Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) lives, pinups of film deities—Madhubala, Nargis—outnumber mythological ones. On the street outside, there’s always a billboard or poster in view. There is one god in Gangubai Kathiawadi, and it is cinema.

Gangubai’s journey starts with the promise of film: her lover lures her to Mumbai by telling her she’ll become a star and act with Dev Anand. He leaves her at a brothel, the property of the ruthless madam Sheelabai (Seema Pahwa). From here on out, Bhansali maps her journey in cinematic terms. Her first act of rebellion is organizing a trip to the movies for the workers in the kotha. Years later, she arranges a community screening in the neighborhood as an election strategy. Everyone keeps telling her she looks like a movie star. The last lines of the film, their flavour somewhat lost in translation, are: “She came here to become a heroine, but she ended up as cinema”. 

Almost from the beginning, the film maps a relentless upwards trajectory for its protagonist. Gangu suffers under Sheelabai for a few scenes, then transforms into the steely personality she’ll remain throughout. It’s a bit too quick, but not out of character for Bhansali, whose heroines of late seem fully equipped from the moment we lay eyes on them to deal with everything fate throws their way. After Sheela tries to regain the upper hand, allowing a sadistic local thug to abuse her, Gangubai makes a risky, life-changing move, petitioning the don Rahim Lala (Ajay Devgn) for protection. It works, and overnight Gangubai is a woman of influence, pushing for better working conditions, and taking over the brothel when Sheela dies. In time, she stands for local election, campaigning on sex workers’ rights—and wins.  

This sort of trajectory might sound like an impossible girlboss fantasy. But Gangubai actually existed, and, as per S. Husain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ nonfiction book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai, did most of the things attributed to her in the film, including meeting prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to request him to legalize sex work (Rahim is a stand-in for Karim Lala, one of the first legendary Mumbai dons). Addressing a crowd at Azad Maidan, she slyly suggests that sex workers are involved in the maintenance of ‘Hindustani sabhyata’, not its destruction. One can feel Bhansali speaking through Gangubai, given how systematically his last two films were attacked in the name of Indian culture.  

When the trailer released, some suggested Gangubai should have been played by an older actor. In fact, at 28, Bhatt is the age the real Gangubai was when she sought Lala’s help. Bhatt doesn’t look much older at the end of the film than when she starts it, but then it only spans 10-12 years. Still, I do wonder what a slightly older actor—one less subtle than Bhatt but with a better death stare and more of a physical presence—might have brought to the role. You can’t read the toll of the years in Bhatt’s face, which remains moon-bright and unlined despite all the hardships. 

When it comes to minimalism, though, she's in her element. The scenes where Gangu flirts with the tailor Afsaan (Shantanu Maheshwari) are charmingly conceived, and a reminder of how much Bhatt brings to small gestures. In the romantic number ‘Meri Jaan’, they’re in the back of her car; he tries to get fresh and she rebuffs him (it recalls ‘Yeh Lo Main Haari Piya’ from Aar-Paar, a more chaste song from 1954 that also takes place entirely inside a car). Bhatt goes from coquettishness to annoyance to desire and regret, with just a few minor adjustments. 

After the lavish Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat (2018), Bhansali, working with his regular cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, is comparatively pared down here, his bold colours replaced by a blanched palette. The framing and choreography, though, is as finicky as ever, and some of the visual ideas—a dead sex worker sitting upright, propped up by her grieving friends—are striking. What the film lacks is a substantial opponent for Gangubai. The closest it comes is Raziabai (Vijay Raaz), a trans woman whom Gangu challenges in the election. She remains a curiosity—just as the eunuch general in Padmaavat was. 

It's no wonder Nehru turns up in a film that adopts the moral concerns of the 1950s films of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy. The link to ’50 cinema is made explicit when Gangubai quotes Sahir Ludhianvi’s famous lines from Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957): Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain? Time and again, it’s pointed out that Gangubai is working for the women of Kamathipura, for their children, for the betterment of society. I preferred the film in its more irreverent moments, like when Gangubai meets a reporter from the Urdu Times. Patrakar, he introduces himself. Prostitute, she replies evenly. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Céline Sciamma: ‘I want you to have the film in your pocket’

No one makes films about young people like Céline Sciamma. Nearly all her films have been about children: younger ones in Tomboy and My Life As A Courgette, the animated feature she wrote, and the teens in Girlhood and Water Lilies. An exception was her 2019 film, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a story about adults, also the first she made with a cast of professional actors. She returned to childhood as a subject, and to non-professional actors, in Petite Maman, which premiered at last year’s Berlinale. It’s now getting a digital release, premiering on MUBI on 18 February.

The film, about two girls who become friends and discover an unexpected connection, is a miniature gem, displaying Sciamma’s extraordinary facility with young performers. Lounge speaks to the director on Zoom about making the film in the pandemic, and why one should make films that appeal to children every now and then. Edited excerpts:

You had written the film before lockdown. Did the pandemic change the way you saw the project?

Yes, actually. I built up this film in my mind, like daydreaming, and daydreaming for a long time. And when I started writing it, then the pandemic happened, and I stopped. When things became fine, I read the first scene, which has these women in a nursing home. Suddenly, it felt very intimate.

The film needed to be connected to what was happening, so we decided to make it really, really fast, so that it would be in cinemas when they reopened. So the film is definitely charged from that moment. We shot it during the second lockdown in France, crossing this empty city to go to a studio. Even though the film is not about that moment, it’s linked to it.

I would imagine you couldn’t shoot with a huge crew in lockdown. Were there advantages to working small on such an intimate film?

The film is modest. It’s not like Hollywood—it’s just watching little girls eat cereal.

The team wasn’t that small actually, especially the camera team. This was mainly because we were working with kids, you only have three hours a day, so you have to be ready. What changes is that there was no social interaction other than work on the sets. So cinema was very central and very sacred. I am okay with that, I think it should be kind of sacred. But even the fact that we were looking at people’s faces felt incredible and poetic: cinema as a machine to watch a face, a face as a landscape.

On paper, the story that unfolds could have been a sci-fi fantasy or comedy studio film, but you treat it very naturally. Was the tone with you from the start?

No, it had to be developed. It’s true that it was found in the dialogues. When I write a film, I write the whole film. I don’t write, like, first the treatment, then the dialogues. I wrote the film from the first scene to the last. If I am blocked on scene 12, I am not going to scene 13. Writing, to me, is a mix of very long buffering in my head. And then when I write it’s very organic—a draft is out in five-six days. When you write like that, the tone appears suddenly, it’s kind of magic. You never know the actual tone till the actors are there, how they move, their attitude, their voices. So yeah, I finally had the tone of the film when I first said, action.

The film makes these imaginative leaps, like a child might while storytelling. And you show the girls playing at telling stories.

Yes, it’s like the film is Russian-dolling a little bit. The fact that when they play, it’s super subversive, and that’s what kids do. They role-play all the time. They go even further than the film by imagining they have a child together. The film is less adventurous than their own personal scripts! Those scenes were my favourite to shoot. I could do a show of 12 episodes of just that.

The film is almost novella-length.

I had this length in mind, an hour and 10 minutes. My Life As A Courgette, the animated film that I co-wrote, was an hour and five minutes. Tomboy was an hour and 22 minutes, Water Lilies an hour and 25. The fact that it’s short means it hits very hard. And it doesn’t just give much detail, it stays very minimal, so that you can take it home with you. I want you to have the film in your pocket. Then you can experience it with your own personal story.

It was also for the film to be democratic, so a child could sit through it. I wanted it to be intergenerational. Tomboy has been seen by a lot of kids in France, maybe 300,000. I get a lot of 17- to 18-year-olds who tell me, I saw it in school, it was my first arthouse film, it made me discover cinema. It’s such a privilege to have a connection to the young audience today because they saw this film as kids. That’s why, every 10 years, you should do a film for kids. When you do a film for kids, you are basically trying to put cinema into their lives.

Was working with child actors easier since you had done it before?

Well, what was different was that in Portrait I was working with professional actresses. And now I was back to non-professional child actors. It was exactly the same job. It’s the same interaction, with professionals and non-professionals, you share the ideas of the film and you are looking for solutions, for the language of the film, together. It felt like the same collaboration but with less time. No, the only difference is you actually watch them understand the craft as they are learning it. It’s beautiful, a kid understanding the language of cinema and making it their language also.

You and Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (composer Para One) continue your long-standing collaboration with a delightful song here.

When I did my first film, I asked him to do the score. We have in common a very strong relationship to childhood, and childhood expressed through music. His melodies... I feel like they are always perfect. 

I asked him [on Petite Maman] for a song that would be like a cartoon from our childhood. When we grew up in the 1980s, these (themes) were very electronic and psychedelic sometimes. And he suggested that I write some lyrics. Writing those lyrics was like writing a poem for the film. There’s very few things I like as much as the privilege of seeing someone making music.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Designing realism with Gurvinder Singh

Gurvinder Singh started with two acclaimed films set in Punjab, Anhe Ghorey Da Daan (2011) and Chauthi Koot (2015). After a film set in Himachal Pradesh (Bitter Chestnut, 2019), Singh has returned to Punjab with Adh Chanani Raat, which premiered last month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It tells the story (adapted from the writing of Gurdial Singh, whose work was also the basis for Anhe Ghorey) of Modan (Jatinder Mauhar), who has come home after a prison term and finds it tough to move on. Like Singh’s other films, it’s spare, deliberately shot (by Satya Rai Nagpaul), with outbursts of tenderness and violence. Lounge speaks to the director about casting first-time actors, and his brand of realism. Edited excerpts:

What drew you to Gurdial Singh’s writing again?

Gurdial Singh’s writings alternate between dark and light. If you see Anhe Ghorey Da Daan also, there’s an underpinning of helplessness. The characters are almost floating against that sense of darkness. With this also, I felt a kind of cyclic rhythm in the story. Things change but they never really change. The film is about the main protagonist, Modan. Maybe his personality was the main attraction for me—someone who has a sense of justice, upholding honour, somebody who can kill, yet who actually wants a simple home life, very intelligent. This kind of dichotomy I see in most people. I relate to that.

There are some bold shot decisions—like when you shoot a murder partly in long shot.

I was very clear: I didn’t want to see that close-up (though you see the actual killing from close). They come face to face in a vast open field, because the land is what the people are fighting over. Somehow the land is witness to the murder. It’s highly designed. The desire is not to be realistic.

Most people would think of your films as quite realistic.

But every shot is designed. It’s a kind of realism but not the kind that makes you forget about imagery and shot design. You are always conscious of the camera, where it’s placed or what it’s seeing. Like in this scene, you are completely aware that the camera is seeing from a distance, the tiny figures approaching each other.

Maybe it’s a new approach to realism. The setting, the stories are realistic, but the way they are directed is not. It’s not even the realism of Abbas Kiarostami, it’s not Italian neorealism. A German critic said Anhe Ghorey Da Daan was “modernist realist”, so maybe you can call it that...

You have often worked with non-actors or first-timers. What do you look for when casting?

I at least have confidence in how I am going to present them on the screen—how I will frame them, what angle I am going to shoot them from, what kind of lighting, editing pattern will be there. The difference between film and theatre acting is that on stage, the actor is the sole carrier of the drama. In films, the actor is one of the elements in the narrative.

Mainstream cinema treats actors the way they would in theatre. They want to make the actor the sole attraction on screen. But in our kinds of films we don’t want to make anybody larger than life.

When you work with a first-timer, you know it’s just a question of finding the right personality, the right face or voice, the person closest to the character you have imagined. I have cast villagers in my films—there’s already a sense of truthfulness in their being. They can only be what they are. Also, when you design shots where the camera is determined to see in a particular way, then you understand that the camera is the main protagonist above the people you see on screen.

There’s a sense of despondency in the Punjab of your films and other recent non-mainstream films set there.

I do sense a kind of forlornness among people, a lack of hope in a sense. That’s a very big theme, that everybody wants to go abroad. I am also seeing that people who couldn’t go abroad in their youth are sending their children, and then trying to go with them. So they are trying to fulfil their own aspirations through their children. A desire to abandon your own home and migrate—for me, this is one of the biggest signs of pessimism.

The farmers’ protest has brought a lot of focus back on farming, and a sense of pride in being a farmer. That is one big achievement of the protest for Punjab. Maybe this might have some effect in the long run, people will start seeing farming differently, not as backward and something their ancestors did.

‘Adh Chanani Raat’ could, treated differently, be a noir. Do you ever feel the pull of genre cinema?

No, I don’t. Maybe I can only do genre as a direction job, like if somebody came with a script and asked me to make a noir film. As a direction job, I feel I can make any kind of film. But I don’t feel the need myself to do it.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.


Gehraiyaan: Review

There’s a subplot in Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan that involves ex-advertising man Karan (Dhairya Karwa) struggling to finish his first novel. As with most writers, even good-intentioned enquiries about his progress drive him up the wall. Yet his girlfriend, Alisha (Deepika Padukone), keeps asking whether he’s almost done, and pushes him to let her read a draft. Neither strikes me as something a person in a long-term relationship with a writer would do—unless that relationship is on the rocks, which theirs is. It’s significant, then, that the first big betrayal is not by Alisha but by Karan, who gives a draft to her cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) for feedback.

By this time, Alisha is in the midst of a flirtation with Tia’s fiancé, Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), founder of a real estate firm. They meet on vacation in Alibaug, sailing there from Mumbai in Zain’s yacht (it’s to impress his clients, he explains, betraying the naivete of the very rich who think supplying context about their toys will make them seem more relatable). There, while Tia and Karan—old friends from college—unwind boisterously, their partners find themselves drawn, instantly, helplessly, to each other. 

Back in Mumbai, the two circle each other for a while, then crash into an affair, the artfully slurred vocals on ‘Doobey’ providing the soundtrack for the start of their tryst. Chaturvedi and Padukone are physically well-matched, lithe, tanned and comfortable in their bodies. Once they start spending time together, they realize they both have family trauma in their past. She’s estranged from her father, whom she holds responsible for her mother’s death by suicide when she was young; his father was a violent alcoholic. We can see why they’d gravitate toward each other, and why they’ve fallen out of love with sad sack Karan and chirpy, bland Tia. 

There aren't a whole lot of Hindi films on infidelity (a famous one is Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna; he’s producer here), and nearly all are about how cheating will make you miserable. Gehraiyaan is almost instantly miserable, yet it gets right the small acts of deception that support a larger one. Early on, even before they’ve begun the affair, Alisha mutes her texts so her partner won’t notice her phone buzzing. Both lie to Tia about a conversation they had. Soon, the deceptions scale up. He funds her yoga app. Karan proposes marriage. 

There’s a lifestyle influencer quality that sticks to the film, with its yoga, its beautifully plated meals, and its guileless rich-person speak (“I specifically asked for Burrata cheese because I know you love it but then they gave me goat’s cheese yaa. I was so fucking… are these your pills?”). They address each other as ‘yaar’ a lot, like the couple in Little Things. Alisha is the ‘struggler’ of the quartet because she knows where the garbage is thrown and couldn’t go to college in the US because her family fell on hard times. Cinematographer Kaushal Shah films everything with a beautiful manicured moodiness, all glinting blues and greys. The frames have the tastefulness of a fashion magazine spread—everything in its right place, but somehow airless. 

Batra and Nitesh Bhatia’s cutting is neat and incisive, but this is still a two-and-a-half-hour film. Much of the running time is spent in suspended artful unhappiness, before the film kicks into a higher gear. This surge comes a few beats too late—Alisha and Zain aren’t that interesting a couple to spend so much time with, and Karan and Tia aren’t interesting at all (by contrast, there wasn’t a character in Batra’s last film, Kapoor & Sons, that wasn’t fascinating). I enjoyed the slew of revelations in the final third, and a memorable nasty trick played on the audience. But it did feel like a mood piece had had an existential crisis and turned into a high-stakes drama. 

Padukone demonstrates again how, if nothing else, she’s one of the great criers in Hindi film history. Tia finding nothing more illuminating to say than “acchi hai” (it’s nice) after reading Karan’s draft seems to encapsulate the sweet nothingness of her character. Chaturvedi looks increasingly harried, but not much more. Rajat Kapoor supplies a necessary nastiness; they ought to have unleashed him earlier. There are moments that bruise, but Gehraiyaan can’t shake the impression of being Scenes From an Affair for the swish Instagram set. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

All That Breathes: Review

Shaunak Sen has a knack for finding poets in unusual places. In Cities Of Sleep (2015) , it’s the owner of a homeless shelter that doubles as a movie parlour, who says things like “We ingest the night”. In All That Breathes (2022), it’s two brothers in unlovely east Delhi, who tend to injured kites. “Cheelon ko gosht khilane se sawab milta hai,” one of them explains. “Woh aapki dikkatein kha jaati hain (You will be rewarded if you feed kites. They eat away your problems).”

Cities Of Sleep was a remarkable debut. A documentary about the night shelters of Delhi, it was minutely observed, empathetic but not cloying, able to see the people who populate and run the shelters as complex beings capable of grift and fabrication. It was also a smart treatise on the city and the cut-rate philosophers it engenders. All That Breathes, Sen’s second feature, playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival, builds on the strengths of his debut, while taking in more of the world.

Brothers Nadeem and Saud repair kites. In the basement of their Wazirabad home, they take injured raptors out of cardboard boxes one by one and diagnose, bind wings, give medicine, feed and house them until they are well enough to be set free. It’s a modest setup: just the two siblings and an earnest young man named Salik. Nadeem’s wife pitches in sometimes, when he’s too tired from his day job and Saud is busy. This is not a rich household—the meat grinder and the generator need replacing, and the equipment and storage facilities are bare-bones. Their application for much-needed foreign funding is rejected at one point; only towards the end is it approved.

In almost every frame, we are offered evidence of just how polluted a city Delhi has become. The first shot—unbroken over three-and-a-half minutes—tracks slowly across a garbage dump. The family discusses the day’s AQI over meals—a depressingly familiar routine for residents of the Capital. When water floods their home in the monsoon, it’s topped with snowy drifts of chemical foam. The city is fit for neither man nor bird, yet both have found a way to survive. The Ghazipur garbage hill has become a source of food for kites (one man compares them to microbiomes), and they use cigarette butts in their nests as pest repellents.

Had All That Breathes just been a nature doc, it would still have been an urgent document of its times. But Sen extends the idea of toxicity, on the ground and in the air, to human relations. Halfway into the film, protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) start appearing on the periphery of the action. Later, there are phone conversations in which the brothers and Salik promise that they are safe—the 2020 Delhi riots have begun. Like most Muslim families on the outskirts of Delhi, they are vulnerable. Saud says matter-of-factly that there has been violence just 2km from their home.

There’s a beautiful scene where the brothers are offering a prayer at their mother’s grave. A bird calls. Without moving, Nadeem says, “Spotted.” They continue to pray in silence. He had heard a spotted owlet. Their mother would have approved; it was she who instilled in them a fascination for all living creatures—not just humans and pets but “all that breathes”. Here is photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson’s ‘little human detail’: a moment that reveals everything. It’s why we understand Nadeem’s response when his wife asks him to join a sit-in against the CAA with her, saying “It’s important”. “It is,” Nadeem says. “So is my work.”

Time and again, Sen, working with camerapersons Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi, zooms in to show something—a turtle in a garbage heap, a frog in the grass— that has adapted to living in a human environment. The intricacy is often breathtaking, like the changes of focus that shows us a spider’s web, then a guard and two dogs in the background, then reveals a lizard, and another, in the foreground, all in the same shot. A wall of buildings is reflected in a puddle, around which circle a multitude of kites. In another shot, the camera dwells on a piece of plastic waste in shallow water. We see insects skitter across it and trees reflected. Then, an aeroplane flies across the surface—a small miracle.

A director with an eye for eccentricities will always be rewarded by the universe—I laughed out loud when Salik casually pulls a baby squirrel out of his shirt pocket, no explanation given. It’s testament to the patience and immersion of Sen’s approach that he is around and ready when moments like this present themselves. At times, All That Breathes reminded me of the Italian documentarist Gianfranco Rosi, whose scenes are also beautifully filmed and seem to rise from the material unforced and unbidden.

I have encountered more striking images in Sen’s two features than in all the Hindi fiction films of the last five or six years. But chances are you haven’t seen Cities Of Sleep, and you may not see All That Breathes either. I caught the former at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015; till this day, it’s neither streaming in India nor on physical media. I hope All That Breathes gets a better deal, but I'm not hopeful. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya'sThe Cinema Travellers, a revelatory Indian documentary from 2016, which won the L’Œil d’or special mention at the Cannes Film Festival, is still unavailable here. Two of the most acclaimed Indian films from last year were documentaries—Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire and Payal Kapadia’s A Night Of Knowing Nothing, winner of the L’Œil d’or award for Best Documentary at Cannes. Almost no one here has seen either. It’s high time the makers and promoters of Indian documentaries ask themselves why their work is accessible to arthouse festival attendees abroad but not to the audiences who would best understand them.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.


Visible worlds: 'Ways of Seeing' at 50

For a text so suspicious of tradition, Ways Of Seeing has long been canon itself. Given the ubiquity and influence of the book, it’s curious to think that there must still be a few people today who remember experiencing it as a bolt from the blue. Picture someone, somewhere in England, switching channels on 8 January 1972. By chance, they land on the image of a man with shaggy hair in a gallery, his back to the camera, cutting out a portion of Botticelli’s Venus And Mars with a pocket knife. “This is the first of four programmes in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about European paintings…” he says. “Tonight, it isn’t so much the paintings themselves I want to consider, but the way we now see them…”

Ways Of Seeing was originally a four-part series on the BBC, hosted by British art critic, theorist and novelist John Berger and directed by Michael Dibb. It was adapted that same year as a pictorial book that became—and still remains —standard reading for students of the arts. Few watch the series first—or at all. Yet it offers things that the book cannot, most of all Berger himself, passionate and weirdly sexy with his open-collar shirt, his expansive gestures and his glares at the camera (David Thomson, a film critic always alert to sexual charge, described him as “a spellbinder on the screen, with a slight lisp that could seem like whispered intimacy”).

In the first episode, Berger explains how photography fundamentally changed how we see art. The European tradition of painting used the convention of perspective, focused on the eye of a sole beholder. “Perspective makes the eye the centre of the visible world,” he says. “But the human eye can only be in one place at a time. It takes its visible world with it as it walks.” With the invention of the camera, paintings could be reproduced, could travel. Works of art—or sections of these works, like the Venus that Berger cut out of the Botticelli—now found their original meanings altered by what was around them (like a magazine spread) or what they are seen in relation to (someone switching channels). Having taken a knife to tradition at the start, Berger closes by quoting a stuffy academic book on Dutch painter Frans Hals, saying flatly, “This is mystification,” and inviting a group of children to interpret the paintings instead.

The second episode is the best-known portion of the series/book. It yielded the one bit of writing by Berger that lay readers, not just art students, are familiar with: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” We encounter the line at the beginning of the episode, where it’s preceded by “Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of”, a less electrifying line, excised in the print edition. “How she appears to others, and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance, for it is normally thought of as the success of her life,” he says. In the book, he adds: “The ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.” Three years before film scholar Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “male gaze” in the context of cinema, Berger was arguing something similar in art.

Ways Of Seeing has a modesty about its own aims and a desire to push the viewer into engagement. “I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be sceptical of it,” Berger says at the end of the first episode. And he ends the last with: “What I’ve shown and said…must be judged against your own experience.” This refusal to present the show’s theories as gospel is an unusually democratic gesture by a critic. You can see the same openness in the second episode, when, after discussing the male surveyor and the female surveyed, Berger brings in a group of women to talk about the same ideas. He cedes the stage to them for half of the programme’s running time—a necessary passing of the mic.

In the third and fourth episodes, Berger argues that oil paintings (and the wealth, land and objects depicted therein) reflect the status of those who commission them, and that modern publicity and advertising have replaced the oil painting. “Publicity and oil painting…share many of the same ideals, all of them related to the principle that you are what you have,” he says. He overlays vapid, glossy magazine advertisements with choral music—thus testing our alertness to something he warns of in the first episode: the ability of music to transform the meaning of images. At one point, taking off from a juxtaposition of a magazine story about Bangladesh and a luxury ad next to it, he speaks with feeling about the plight of refugees. Berger’s sympathy for the working class, the refugee and the grass-roots rebel has marked all his writing; he donated half his winnings from his 1972 Booker Prize to the Black Panthers movement in England, to call attention to the Booker McConnell company’s association with West Indies plantations and slavery. 

“Those who write about art, or teach about it, often raise art above life, turning it into a kind of religion,” we are warned. Throughout Ways Of Seeing, and in his other work, Berger always gives the impression of trying to get through to the reader, even when the ideas he’s putting forth are complex. It’s the reason why I, even with a layman’s knowledge of art, find his writing so revelatory, why his sentences often seem like the best possible statement of that particular idea. The print adaptation of Ways Of Seeing is more staccato than his normal style, which is hardly surprising given that it’s an expanded TV script. It’s still the ideal introduction to Berger: visually alive, stimulating even at a remove of half a century. But watch the series first, and imagine how exciting it would have seemed in 1972.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

The Lost Daughter: Parent, trapped

Last year, 18 film-makers from around the globe contributed to a lockdown anthology called Homemade. One of the segments was directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It featured her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, playing a bereaved loner in the woods. Only 10 minutes long, it’s funny, weird and touchingly realised. I remember thinking when I watched it that Gyllenhaal—a cool and complex screen presence for almost two decades—seemed at home behind the camera.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for The Lost Daughter. The film, which Gyllenhaal adapted from a 2006 Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, won Best Screenplay at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. It’s now on Netflix, part of a strange year-end blitz of cinema for grown-ups that included Jane Campion’s and Paolo Sorrentino’s new films.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is a college professor from Cambridge vacationing in Greece. She’s in her late 40s (though people tell her she looks younger), with a clipped British accent. Showing her the place where she’s staying, the homeowner asks if she’s a teacher. “I’m a professor,” she corrects him, with a look that says the distinction is important. We see her observing an American woman and a little girl on the beach, maybe a little too intently. And we see flashes of another woman, with a British accent, peeling an orange, a girl in her lap.

Leda strikes up a conversation with the American, Nina (Dakota Johnson). Then the daughter goes missing and everyone joins in the search. It’s Leda who finds the girl, disconsolate because her doll can’t be found. “I used to have a doll like that,” Leda tells Nina. “Mina, or mini-Mama, as my mother used to call her.” Two reveals follow. The doll has been stolen by Leda. And the woman with the British accent is her as a younger woman.

The Lost Daughter has the pacing and cut-up structure of a mystery—though one that withholds both answers and questions. Gyllenhaal does something we don’t see often, painting parenthood as draining and unrewarding. Leda’s daughters are loud, insistent—we feel her need to escape even before she does anything about it. Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Hélène Louvart, cannily, don’t create a visual difference between the two time-frames. Leda’s turbulent past haunts her brittle present, so it’s only right that they look the same.

Colman, her face registering five kinds of pain at any given moment, is astonishing—and so are Jessie Buckley, scarily unhappy as the younger Leda, the deft, sympathetic Johnson, Sarsgaard in a sly turn, Ed Harris, Paul Mescal. But The Lost Daughter is so much more than an acting showcase, the kind of film that’s created to support the kinds of performances that win Oscars. Gyllenhaal finds a unique tone—intimate, caustically funny, startlingly sensual. Her camera moves right in, so close to the body at times that we can’t tell what we are looking at for a few seconds. Louvart brings the same erotic charge she did to Beach Rats, the immediacy complemented by the shard-like narrative flow assembled by editor Affonso Gonçalves.

The language used is a succession of cuts and bruises. “I’m working,” Leda’s husband says, indicating that she control their children. “I’m suffocating,” she retorts. Nina, driven to distraction by her uncontrollable daughter, asks the older woman, “Is this going to pass?” Leda, not given to false assurances, replies: “You’re so young and none of this passes.”

Through my viewing of The Lost Daughter, something nagged at me, a feeling that I had seen something akin to this. And then it hit me: it was director Jean-Marc Vallée, who died at 58 on 25 December. Gyllenhaal’s film and Vallée’s two HBO series, Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, are spiritual cousins. They are each derived from psychologically dense novels written by women and are built around complicated female characters, often recovering from or dealing with trauma brought on by family ties.

What reminded me most of Vallée, though, was the editing. Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects have the same intuitive cutting between past and present as The Lost Daughter. Time and again, Vallée would cut from the present to months in the future and then to something decades in the past, all in the space of a few seconds. It was something extraordinary in the TV landscape, a freeing-up along the lines of Terrence Malick’s intuitive edits and Pablo Larrain’s restless jumps in cinema. Vallée would have approved of how Buckley’s Leda is spliced into the waking hours and dreams of Colman’s Leda, a ghost of hard decisions past. He will be missed, but his methods have already seeped into modern American film.

“Children are a crushing responsibility.” It’s surprising to see a film so frank about the difficulties of parenthood. In one scene, Leda’s husband offers shelter to a hitchhiking couple. Leda is fascinated by how the couple made a life together while abandoning children from previous relationships. To her, they are the ones who escaped. Her daughter quotes W.H. Auden’s Crisis in Italian for the guests. The original verse, in English, reads: “Where do they come from?/ Those whom we so much dread/ As on our dearest location falls the chill/ Of their crooked wing.” Gyllenhaal’s film exists in the shade of such a wing.


Memorable moments in Indian cinema: 2021

Pulao in ‘Geeli Pucchi (from ‘Ajeeb Daastaans’)
Neeraj Ghaywan’s segment in Ajeeb Daastaans is one of the clearest illustrations of how food helps enforce and perpetuate caste-based discrimination. Bharti (Konkona Sensharma), a machine worker in a factory, and newly hired accountant Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari) are eating lunch in the canteen. Priya offers Bharti a bite of pulao from her spoon. Bharti, who rejected Priya’s offer of food once earlier in the film, shakes her head, then looks around a few times and takes the bite. Those quick glances contain a lifetime of wariness: Priya doesn’t know that the woman eating her food, from her cutlery, is Dalit, but the other workers do. Later in the film, once Bharti’s caste is revealed, she’s given tea in a steel tumbler while Priya’s mother and husband have theirs in China cups. Yet that moment in the canteen is also an intimate connection being forged, a way for Bharti – whose feelings for the new girl run deeper than friendship – to let Priya into her life. (Netflix)    

All the dead in ‘Sardar Udham’
At the heart of Sardar Udham is an excruciating recreation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Stretching over half an hour, it is key to understanding Udham’s subsequent trajectory in life. One unforgettable image comes after the killing and the rescue work. The camera pulls out slowly to reveal a field strewn with the dead, bodies still being stretchered off. The cinematic parallel here is, of course, the famous first shot of Gone with the Wind. But for those watching it a few months after covid devastated Delhi, there was another, more immediate comparison: the late Danish Siddiqui’s searing photographs of cremation grounds and burning pyres, taken during the second wave. (Amazon Prime Video)

Hope in ‘Sherni’
Forest official Vidya (Vidya Balan) and college professor Hassan (Vijay Raaz) look down upon a gigantic quarry. “This used to dense forest here,” he says. “And now this copper mine.” The tiger they’re trying to save needs to get from one end of the chasm to the other. As they’re struck into silence by the enormity of the task, director Amit Masurkar offers a flicker of hope: in the centre of the frame, nestled in the flowers through which we see Hassan and Vidya, a solitary, industrious bee. (Amazon Prime Video) 

The fight with Dancing Rose in ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’
No character this year was as memorable as the boxer Dancing Rose in Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai. In fight movie terms, Rose is the junior boss the hero must defeat before battling the final boss. But Rose, played by Shabeer Kallarakkal, is anything but a second villain, stealing every moment he’s on screen. His clowning in the ring – he dances, jumps up on the ropes, even does a backflip – has no bearing on his abilities as a boxer, something the protagonist Kabilan (Arya) realizes seconds into their fight. The two-round bout is a masterpiece of editing, sound and action revealing character. (Amazon Prime Video)

Personal turns political in ‘Karnan’
Composer Santhosh Narayan and director Mari Selvaraj demonstrate in Karnan, as they did in Pariyerum Perumal, a knack for uniquely structured political musical sequences. Initially, Thattan Thattan is a straightforward romantic number. But then the focus shifts from Karnand (Dhanush) and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), and we hear folk singera Meenakshi Elayaraja. “Our ancestors lost the uplands,” she laments. “Our forefathers lost the farmlands. We became wasteland. We became labour.” There’s a return to romance, but not before Karnan is told “You must triumph, child” – a reminder that while love and all is fine, his people come first. (Amazon Prime Video) 

Walk: ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’
Towards the end of Jeo Baby’s film, Nimisha Sajayan’s unnamed protagonist finally snaps and walks out of her husband’s oppressive home. As she strides down the road purposefully, the camera tracks alongside. We see in the background women washing clothes, cooking, bathing their children, while the men read newspapers nearby. It’s a subtle reminder that while we’ve just witnessed one woman throwing off the shackles of patriarchy, that action carries with it its own privilege. (Amazon Prime Video)

Asking for thought in ‘Milestone’
Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) is a trucker from Punjab. His wife, Etali, died by suicide, and he’s back in his ancestral village to try and make restitution to her father (Arun Aseng) and sister (Gaurika Bhatt). In front of the village council, he offers them one, then two lakhs. Both times, he’s rejected – but surprisingly, the sister clarifies it isn’t that the amount is too small. The council gives Ghalib 30 days to come up with something else. It’s a resonant idea: that the person who, in some small way, is responsible for the tragedy not try and buy out his obligations but actually put some thought into it and make amends through a personal gesture. (Netflix)

Fusion in ‘The Disciple’
Sharad (Arun Dev) is at a pivotal moment, when it’s finally dawning on him that he might not make it as a classical singer. Instead of carrying forward the name of his gharana, he’s reduced to teaching schoolkids. When one of them approaches him along with his mother and asks if he should join a fusion band, Sharad lets loose his frustrations. “Let him join,” he says in a mild voice. “But if he does, he needn’t come back here.” He carries on, laying out in increasingly harsh terms how the child had little chance of being a classical singer anyway. His anger is, of course, fed from a well of self-loathing. But it’s also, in a strange way, a kindness. Sharad knows better than anyone how difficult it is to make it in this world, especially if one isn’t the most talented. (Netflix)   

Arjun unlocked in ‘Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar’
For about 110 minutes in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Arjun Kapoor punches above his weight, yet gives little indication why Dibakar Banerji thought of him for the part of a crooked cop who goes on the run with the executive he’s supposed to kill. But he’s unlocked by something strange in the film’s final 10 minutes. To escape the cop who’s tracked him down to a town on the Nepal border, Pinky disguises himself as a woman, a chholiya wedding dancer accompanying the groom’s procession. Suddenly, tentativeness of character and actor are one, and when Pinky starts to move his hands and hips in time with the music, there’s a grace to him that I’ve never glimpsed in his acting before. (Amazon Prime Video)   

Octopus: ‘Nayattu’
Nayattu is the leanest film of the year. There isn’t a wasted frame, nothing to distract from the pessimism of Shahi Kabir’s screenplay about three cops are on the run after they inadvertently cause the death of a young Dalit man in a bike accident. The tone is set by an unusually grisly wedding song addressed to a ‘drunk octopus’: “He doesn’t give two hoots about her/he chops her up into pieces/until the knife’s sharpness wanes.” And a little later: “The knife glitters/and his wife grins in his dreams.” It’s an early warning that the arc of the universe bends towards chaos in Martin Prakkat’s film. (Netflix)

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.