Sunday, May 12, 2024

Cirkus: Review

There should be a way to get unhinged Ranveer Singh performances without having to see Rohit Shetty films. Singh is not as effective here as Simmba, where he threatened us with a good time before the film collapsed on itself. But even in Cirkus—a considerably worse film—his exertions are something to hang on to (at least in the first half, after which he seems to run out of gas). When his voice goes high and his body arranges itself at weird angles, he’s more a Looney Tunes creation than a flesh-and-blood actor. It’s a pity no one can encourage his natural silliness the way Shetty does, for no Hindi director makes films that are more determinedly, defiantly stupid.

Cirkus begins in the 1940s, with a doctor (Murali Sharma) out to prove, for some reason, that upbringing matters more than bloodlines. As an experiment, he interchanges babies between two pairs of twins at an orphanage who are up for adoption. Both sets of brothers are named Roy and Joy by their new parents, circus-owners in Ooty and a wealthy couple in Bangalore. Ooty Roy develops his own circus act—‘the electric man’—in which he joins exposed wires on stage (a childhood accident has made him immune to electric current). Bangalore Roy is trying to woo heiress Bindu (Jacqueline Fernandez) without running afoul of her status-obsessed dad (Sanjay Mishra). I wish I could tell you something useful about the two Joys, but they’re just… there.  

Bollywood rules dictate that separated twins must feel some unexplained connection that precedes their meeting. Thus, the electricity that courses through one Roy turns the other into a livewire, though he doesn’t know why. Naturally, a large part of the film is extended scenes of both Roys electrocuting people. It’s funny the first time and maybe the second, but after a dozen attempts you’ll start to wonder if actual electrocution is a worse fate than watching something this juvenile. 

After the Bangalore Roy and Joy turn up in Ooty, the film becomes a series of mistaken sightings. Shetty doesn’t bother distinguishing the twins, which would've at least given Singh and Varun Sharma a chance to show some comic versatility. Both sets of brothers look, sound and act exactly the same. Both families live in mansions. Maybe that’s why the twins don’t meet till the very end: the viewer would barely be able to tell them apart. 

It seems almost cruel to bring up RK/RKay in the same breath as Cirkus—one of the year's best and a leading contender for the worst. But Cirkus forces that comparison on itself by attempting to reference and pastiche ‘50s and ‘60s Hindi cinema. So you get songs from that era (‘Aao Twist Karein’, ‘Babu Samjho Ishaare’) used as comic filler and Mishra talking like Dev Anand crossed with Ajit crossed with David. It’s depressingly unimaginative—especially in a year where several Hindi films have made witty use of old songs. 

After Singh gives up the ghost, the film becomes a purgatory of bad slapstick and recurring gags. Pooja Hegde, as Ooty Roy's wife, tries to play it straight. Shetty regular Siddhartha Jadhav shrieks and mugs gratingly as a criminal with a Little Richard bouffant. Deepika Padukone turns up, presumably to ask her husband what he was thinking when he signed the film, and hurries off after a forgettable dance number. The only performance with some wit is Vrajesh Hirjee’s sinister auto driver. It apparently took four writers—Farhad Samji, Sanchit Bedre, Vidhi Ghodgaonkar and Yunus Sajawal—to come up with ‘bulbul, hit me’ as the English translation of ‘aa bail mujhe maar’. And that’s the best joke.

I foolishly assumed a film called Cirkus might actually be interested in the workings or even the nostalgia of travelling circuses. But that would involve actual effort, research, thought put into design. So much easier to not have any characters apart from Roy and Joy who work in the circus. Similarly, why bother trying to figure out what Ooty and Bangalore might have looked like in the ‘60s when you can have sets that look like an Archies comic threw up?

Any such complaints will be dismissed by Shetty and team as the griping of elitist snobs. You see, they make films for real viewers—mass films, family films. I can picture one such unit out to see Cirkus: mom dozing off; dad bored out of his skull, wondering why he insisted on a family outing; daughter busy on Instagram; son making plans to watch Avatar again. No filmmaker working today has made a virtue out of doing less.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

IFFK 2022 diary: Stories of collapse and renewal

Four minutes into Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, the film’s title flashes against a dark blue background, replaced by pulsing lights. This morphs into a thicket of trees seen from above, through which is visible a search party with blinking flashlights. The screening was on the sixth day of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK); for many it was the third film on that day, so some amount of fatigue would have been natural. Yet, this little trick was greeted with an audible gasp. Not for the first time that week, I felt like I’d found my people—the sort whose minds are blown by things like scene transitions.

Some of what I saw in Thiruvananthapuram was standard film festival audience behaviour. People clapped when a famous director’s name was onscreen . They applauded if the film had won a prize at, say, Cannes. But some things were unique to IFFK audiences. I’ve never seen so many stick around to complete difficult films, be it Bela Tarr’s Damnation or Ann Oren’s Piaffe. I’ve never seen a packed theatre watch a silent drama in rapt silence (F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise), laughing or applauding at the right places. This enthusiasm was matched by the organizers allowing as many as possible to watch the films, to the extent that, in many screenings, walk-ins sat in the aisles (I myself did this in Alam, my penultimate screening in a long but rewarding five-film day).

My festival began with two of the best films I’d see that week. There have been a number of fine naturalistic films about children lately—Playground, Petit Maman and Softie, all in 2021—and Close is a stunning addition. Lukas Dhont’s film won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2022, and, to my mind, deserved the Palme d’Or more than Triangle of Sadness. Two Belgian schoolboys spend all their time together, a friendship so close that their classmates wonder aloud if they’re gay. This leads to a heartbreaking separation, filmed in beautiful warm colours and anchored by the impossibly delicate performances of Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele.

Corsage, by Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, is in the vein of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a historical figure viewed through palpably modern eyes. Its subject is Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who ruled Austria and Hungary in the second half of the 20th century. As played by Vicky Krieps, she’s a fascinating, contradictory figure: a reluctant monarch, prone to depression and sudden whims, dismissive of the pomposity of courtly traditions, smart and sharp-witted. Bored by her stuffy husband Franz Joseph I, she seeks diversion in trips abroad, horse-riding, and the company of her gay cousin, old lovers and friends, and a young man who’s developed a prototype for a moving picture camera. Kreutzer doesn’t adhere by historical record or shy away from anachronisms, instead creating a spiky, thoroughly modern period heroine.

There’s been some wonderful cinema coming out of the so-called Arab world in recent years. One of the best films I saw last year was George Peter Barbari's Death of a Virgin and the Sin of Not Living, from Lebanon. IFFK had three fine and very different films in Arabic. Firas Khoury’s Alam is a high-school film set in modern-day Palestine. Tamer is your average teenager, neglecting his studies, disappointing his principal father, trying to impress the new girl in class. But a plan to raise the Palestinian flag in place of the Israeli one on the school building brings with it the excitement and dangers of political engagement.

Lotfy Nathan’s Harka is a slow-burning film —inspired by an incident of self-immolation that triggered the Arab Spring—about a young Tunisian man who wants to leave the country but finds himself caring for his two younger sisters. The pick of the three films, though, is Taarik Saleh’s Boy From Heaven, a religious suspense film that plays like a story arc on Homeland. The gaze, however, is inverted, not Western and Christian but African and Muslim. Adam, the son of a fisherman, is accepted to the prestigious Al-Alzhar University in Cairo. His plans are derailed when he’s dragged into a net of political intrigue surrounding the election the new Grand Imam. Saleh’s script, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes, is unusually philosophical for a breakneck thriller, and Tawfeek Barhom is superb as the terrified but quick-thinking Adam.

Triangle of Sadness drew a large crowd, as Palme d’Or-winners always do. I thought Ruben Ostlund’s film—about a luxury cruise that’s shipwrecked—was a disappointment, blunt in its critique, shallow in its skewering of shallow people. But wow, did it work with this audience. Every broadside launched at capitalism was greeted with laughs and cheers. This was a running theme through the festival, where anything left-leaning, anti-imperialist or vaguely revolutionary was met with enthusiasm. Alam, awarded best Asian film and best debut director at IFFK, turned out to be a raucous screening, the political awakening of Palestinian teens resonating with the young audience.

Whenever Iran goes through a tough time, its cinema only seems to dig deeper. I saw two sublime Iranian films at IFFK (there was a third that I missed: Leila’s Brothers, starring Taraneh Alidoosti, arrested last week for protesting the execution of Mohsen Shekari). No Bears was Jafar Panahi’s last film before his ongoing imprisonment for alleged anti-government protests; he was earlier forbidden from directing, an order he subverted with a series of sly, metafictional films. No Bears has the self-referencing structure of those works, with Panahi in a village on the border with Turkey, directing a film about a couple illegally crossing the border. But the tone is bleaker, the delight of outmanoeuvring authoritarianism now replaced by pessimism and self-examination.

If No Bears has a heavy heart, Imagine has a sprightliness that bears comparison to Richard Linklater’s Before series. (One should remember, though, that Iranians own the conversations-in-cars genre.) A cabbie in Tehran is captivated by a passenger who scatters her brother’s ashes and proceeds to tell him her life story. This is repeated with all his subsequent passengers, all talkative women in a spot, all played by the magnetic Leila Hatami. Light on its feet, clocking in at 78 minutes, it’s a reminder that romantic comedy-dramas don’t need to be high-concept or star-driven. All you need is two appealing strangers talking the night away.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Avatar: The Way of Water: Review

All my life, I’ve seen films ranging from mildly entertaining to barely satisfying described as ‘one-time watch’. Apart from ‘masala’, no other term is used as frequently or with less discretion by Indian viewers. The general idea used to be: any film that isn’t great but doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out. Then, in 2009, Avatar introduced a new kind of one-timer. 

Whatever you think of its artistic value, it seems pointless to argue—as many have done—that Avatar had no cultural footprint. In transforming 3D from a gimmick to a mainstay of commercial cinema, it altered the landscape beyond recognition. And it wasn’t just that. Avatar gave us the sort of film that would not—could not—be properly effective on any screen but the largest one. The worth of these films was intrinsically aligned to spectacle; what soared in a theatre viewing was, on a TV screen, diminished, silly. People started using ‘theatre watch’ to describe films you should watch once, and only on the big screen.  

Avatar: The Way of Water is the most beautiful theatre watch you could imagine. When its predecessor released, it was a seismic jump in effects technology; all anyone could do for years was play catch-up. Once they did, films went louder, bigger. Perhaps sensing that there was only so much branch left unsawed in that direction, Cameron sets his sights on a different frontier in Avatar 2. Instead of scale, he opts for richness. There is an extraordinary tactility to the film. Everything feels supple and life-like, from a shimmery polyp to a fish struggling on a hook. The images breathe, something I wouldn’t say about even the strikingly imaginative Denis Villeneuve, let alone a Marvel film. 

In the time since the Na'vi uprising that marked the end of first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have been living a life of familial bliss. They have four children: sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and daughters Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri, whose birth mother, Grace Augustine, is in an inert state (both roles are played by Sigourney Weaver). Jake is fully Na'vi now, chief of the Omaticaya clan. But his old life intrudes in the brash form of military man Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed in battle by Neytiri but back as a super-Avatar—a T-800 to Jake’s pre-conversion Terminator from the first film. To save the clan from Quaritch and his forces, Jake decides to go into hiding with his family. They’re taken in by the Metkayina reef tribe, who live off the ocean, communing with aquatic life.

Any animator will tell you water is devilishly difficult to create on screen. There are issues of movement, transparency, shade, reflectivity. Avatar 2 is three hours long; two of those are spent in or around water. Cameron would have known that the success of film would hinge on water looking real, figures moving through it realistically, coherent and visible action being staged in it. That he manages this so convincingly is the film’s towering achievement. I saw an actual ocean yesterday, but I prefer Cameron’s.

Yet, all this will hardly matter once the film leaves theatres weeks or months later. Just as the rainforests of Avatar were neutered by the laptop and TV screens they were seen on, so will Avatar 2’s play of water. What viewers will be left with is flat, boring dialogue—a feature of the first film as well—and storytelling that’s simple and unlayered. No one has anything interesting to say; all that isn’t strictly functional is hippie eco-utopian babble. The cast is hard-working rather than exciting. The only soul-searching character is Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy who's friends with the Na’vi. All the texture is in the visuals.      

The film’s politics are much the same as the first time: respectful of indigenous cultures, critical of colonization and ecological terrorism. A lot of big Hollywood films are similarly positioned now; Avatar 2 has the same bland virtuousness. There is a nice extended sequence that shows the hunting of tulkun, a whale-like creature sacred to the Metkayina, by humans. But the only detail with some bite is when Quaritch says he’ll bring back Sully family scalps, a reversal of filmic tradition where the scalping antagonists were indigenous people.

You can see why Cameron took all these years to come up with a sequel: he probably spent months just figuring out how someone might roll their eyes underwater (he does and it’s brilliant). He has hinted at plans for other Pandora ecosystems and worlds, to be explored in three further films. If this comes to fruition, it could well mean we’ll never see another Cameron film outside the Avatar universe. As gorgeous as Avatar 2 is, as unrivalled as Cameron is in doing this exact thing, I regard that as a loss. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

'Jeanne Dielman' and canons in flux

In 1952, Sight & Sound, a British film magazine, asked 63 critics to name their top 10 films of all time. The 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll was repeated every 10 years, with a growing corpus of voters. Bicycle Thieves topped the first poll, and Citizen Kane the next five. In 2012, it was dethroned by Vertigo. The 2022 poll was announced last week, with over 1,600 critics from across the world voting. Of all the films tipped to be No.1, no one could have predicted Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

A simple description of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film is that it observes a Belgian housewife, played by Delphine Seyrig, going about her day. It is calm and unhurried, not a lot of camera movement, long takes. We watch Jeanne as she cooks, cleans, eats with her husband, takes care of her son (we also learn she's a sex worker). The running time is over three hours. It takes time and willingness to settle into the rhythms of the film but the payoff can be a kind of revelation.

In the 2012 poll, Jeanne Dielman was at No.36. In the intervening years, you could sense its stock rising. It placed third in a 2019 BBC poll of the greatest films directed by women. Film canons have always been skewed towards male directors from the US and Europe. Akerman’s film was already well-known in art film circles but to jump so many places and become the first film by a female director to top the Sight & Sound poll suggests tectonic changes in cinephilic attitudes and discourse over the last decade.

I use the term “art film” with care. Jeanne Dielman is the first instance of a dyed-in-the-wool critic’s film topping the poll. Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Bicycle Thieves have their mysteries and challenges, but all three are films a lay viewer can appreciate without too much difficulty. Whereas I don’t see how anyone can argue that Akerman’s rewards are more hard-won. This is not a knock against Akerman's film. Jeanne Dielman is an important film and a difficult one: It should be possible to admit the latter while believing the former.

I do feel that the “greatest ever” entry in any field ought to have a quality to it that when someone with a curious mind but uninitiated with the discipline regards it, they can understand what makes it great. Jeanne Dielman, in my eyes, does not have this quality (I am aware that this is an entirely personal yardstick). Still, I would say that the poll has done its job perfectly. Critics are meant to argue for works that the public is unaware of, or is unable to appreciate without context. For 70 years, the top positions were passed around between acknowledged (male) masters: Welles, Hitchcock, De Sica, Ozu, Renoir. Akerman is like a splash of cold water on an exercise that badly needed that sort of shock. Suddenly, there’s an edge, an excitement to the discourse, a sense that a particular kind of cinema has ‘won’.

There’s another wrinkle in this time’s poll. Forty-eight of the titles, including Jeanne Dielman, have been released by the influential US-based distribution company Janus Films, which feeds the Criterion Collection, a leading physical media label. The tastemaking of Janus/Criterion is all over the list. The only non-US, non-European films that aren’t theirs are Tropical Malady and two by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a less US-Euro-centric list than last time, but most ‘discoveries’ seem to be happening through a single channel.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

An Action Hero: Review

Seems like yesterday I was hoping for a Ayushmann Khurrana film that set him free from the shackles of social reform (it was seven weeks ago, when Doctor G released). Just like that, Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero releases—no message, no redemption arc, only Khurrana being shallow and calculating and eminently watchable. All I can say is, if I knew it was wish-fulfilment month, I’d have asked for something else.

Maanav is not a stand-in for Khurrana; this is clear five minutes in. He’s an action hero, something Khurrana has only been in one film, and doesn’t seem to do middle-of-the-road dramas, Khurrana’s bread and butter. Right away, we know this won't be the meta-fiction of Fan (Iyer allows himself one such reference, when Maanav tells a reporter, in all seriousness, “I have a social responsibility”). Instead, An Action Hero is a sly, nimble thriller, as unimpressed by Bollywood as it is scathing about the people who hate it. 

After a long day’s shoot in Haryana, Maanav just wants to take his expensive new car for a spin. But the entitled younger brother of a local councilor has been waiting for a photo-op, getting ominously angrier with every brush-off. When Maanav zips off in his car, Vicky chases after, catching up on a deserted forest road. There’s an argument, a threat, a push. Suddenly, Maanav is standing over the dead body of a young man he just met.

Things get much worse when Vicky’s older brother enters the picture. Maanav, having fled to London (“It’s what Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya did”), is considering turning himself in when Bhoora turns up in kurta-pyjama and dowdy coat, shooting two cops who are making a house call on the star. He has a haircut as uncool as Anton Chigurh’s, and, as played by Jaideep Ahlawat, has something of his bloody single-mindedness too. He won't kill Maanav softly, insisting on hand-to-hand combat. But years of pretending to be an action star have turned Maanav into a surprisingly tough customer.

Thus begins one of the funnier deadly pursuits in recent Hindi film. As Bhoora finds his target slip out of his grasp again and again, his irritation builds. This is where the film really starts to cook, because there’s no one better than Ahlawat at looking disgusted at the plans of god and man. Khurrana is a good match, with as baleful a stare. Neither is a classical fighter—though Maanav tries some fancy kicks and flips—so their clashes have a slapdash quality, in particular a messy encounter in the kitchen. 

As with most Anand L. Rai productions, the writing (by Iyer) is salty and the characters eccentric. There’s an image-conscious don, a thoroughly unlucky assassin, a chef-lawyer-hacker. I loved the Haryanvi journalist who mangles car names, and the henchmen who Maanav tries to bribe and who decline saying, “We love our job.” There’s also a running babble of news anchors yelling about Maanav with no evidence or interest in what’s actually going on. Iyer is attempting to send up the depravity of TV news in India, but it wears thin after a while, not because it’s an inaccurate impression but because the original is so ridiculous that there’s no room to satirise. More interesting, I thought, are Maanav’s actions after Vicky’s death. It’s absolutely an accident, and Vicky was the aggressor. But Maanav’s instincts are the same as any rich, powerful kid in this situation: flee, cover up, throw money at the problem (Akshay Kumar, playing himself in a funny cameo, responds to Maanav’s plea for advice with a plea of his own: don’t tell anyone you met me). Bhoora and Maanav both dismiss their hangers-on as ‘fakes’, but their own facades crack as well, revealing two men driven by ego and self-preservation rather than honour or any innate heroism.   

Watching the hysteria build back in India, the don tells Maanav that, as a famous person who’s slipped up, he’s now seen by all as an opportunity. This is the spirit that animates An Action Hero, a society on the edge resentful of the rich and powerful, waiting to tear them down even as they grimly hang on. To me the final gambit felt too clever, an overreach both difficult to buy and unnecessary. I liked the sideshows but all I really need is Ahlawat and Khurrana in a room, trying to hurt each other’s feelings.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

Qala: Review

Of the many inspired touches in Qala, the most incisive is the recurring use of a Himachali lullaby. The melody is enough to move you to tears, as Mohit Chauhan’s version of the song used to do to me. Sireesha Bhagavatula sings it here, unaccompanied, and it’s just as pretty. But the words carry a dark undercurrent. A mother sings to her young girl, why do you look so wan? The daughter replies that a peacock singing in the forest has stolen her dreams. We’ll get a gun and kill the peacock, the mother says. No, we mustn't, the girl says, we’ll just silence it, lock it up in a cage. And there are two lines that aren’t used in the film: Where do the moon and stars go?/ mother, where do the ones we love disappear?/ The moon hides and so do the stars, daughter/ but those we love don’t go anywhere.

There’s a reason these lines aren’t sung. The reassurance the mother in the song offers is not replicated by the mother in the film. Even without them, though, it’s perfect for Anvitaa Dutt’s film, which is a thing of tenderness and violence and beauty. It almost feels like Qala is extrapolated from this, like Lootera was from O. Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’. There’s a girl with dreams deferred. A songbird silenced. The sort of mother who’d kill a peacock for singing.  

We first meet Qala (Triptii Dimri) at the height of her fame as a Hindi film playback singer. A crowd has gathered to catch a glimpse of her on the balcony. For a second, she’s an apparition, a beam of light, before we realize it’s sunlight reflecting off the gold record she’s holding. Inside, she takes questions from the press. She starts off serenely but tension builds as the sexist questioning continues. Then one reporter asks about the time her mother had come down to promote her brother. Qala shuts down. “No,” she says, looking away. “She has no son. There’s only me. Only me.” 

This is true, and also untrue in profound and damaging ways. There could have been a brother, if he was not lost in utero. Would Urmila (Swastika Mukherjee) have been a different kind of mother had the first thing she learnt about her daughter not been that she'd absorbed her sibling’s share of nourishment in the womb? She’s a distant, pathologically demanding parent from the very start, playing a harsh classical vocal on the gramophone as she rocks her child in the cradle, no love in her eyes (Amit Trivedi does a terrific job with the songs, which span thumri, folk and old Hindi film, and the shimmery score).  We learn that Urmila’s grandfather was a famous thumri singer, and that she sacrificed her own musical dreams because it was more acceptable for a man to carry forward the legacy. Qala grows up in a gothic mansion in the frozen wilderness of Himachal with a singular mission: to become the voice of her gharana, and thereby win her mother’s affection.   

There were baroque touches in Dutt’s first film, Bulbbul. In Qala, these flourishes are woven into the fabric of the entire film. Apparitions appear in mirrors. The screen is flipped 90 degrees, turning an emotionally fraught moment into a physically impossible one. As Qala’s mental state fractures under the cruel instruction of her mother, it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from hallucination. A party turns phantasmagoric. A bug flies into an eye. A silver ball of mercury is a visual rhyme with a water droplet, which becomes a dozen shining drops, which become sleeping pills. Dutt and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan work wonders, the images following a kind of dream logic. There’s a transition from Qala standing in a spotlight in the snow to her recording for the first time in the studio. During a later recording, at the peak of her inner tumult, she imagines the studio filling with snow and breaks down. 

Perhaps Qala might have moved on, found satisfaction in her success and the friendship of lyricist Majrooh (a warm, watchful turn by Varun Grover), if the only thing she had to shake was her mother. But there’s something else—another brother that never was. At her first public showing, Qala is surprised to hear that a young folk singer named Jagan will be performing after her. And she’s shattered when she sees her mother moved to tears by his voice. (Jagan is played by Babil Khan, who is so incredibly pained and who so resembles his father, Irrfan, in some scenes that it made me start.) When Urmila brings Jagan to live with them, Qala’s humiliation is complete. He’s everything she isn’t: beloved to her mother, a natural talent rather than one who’s taken it up as a mission, a real orphan instead of a child with an absent parent. Even when she’s eclipsed him, he haunts her. The Bergman-like harshness of the family drama is confirmed by a replication of the famous framing of the faces in Persona.

As Bulbbul was feminist horror, Qala is feminist psychodrama. It is particularly interested in women’s prescribed roles in the first half of the 20th century, and the limits placed even on trailblazers. Qala is discouraged from becoming the torchbearer for her gharana. Naseeban Apa (Tasveer Kamil) is a rare film music composer, but must ignore the gossip this generates. Qala hires a woman as her secretary, but only after arguing with a man about how it would look. The photographer who visits Qala for a magazine shoot is a woman, modeled on Homai Vyarawalla. Qala tells her in passing she loved her set with Indira—a reminder that a woman would be in charge at the top too. Yet, even she is relegated to the back of the room by male journalists during a press meet, and has to be called forward by Qala. 

One revealing scene sees a doctor called in to check on Qala, who’s had a breakdown. “There’s commotion… here,” Qala says, touching her head. “And fear… here”—indicating her heart. The doctor brushes it off as a ‘ladies’ problem’, a case of acute artistic sensitivity (hysteria was a common diagnosis that sent healthy women to mental hospitals even in the 20th century). She asks him to prescribe sleeping pills. “Aap sochna band kijiye (stop thinking)”, he advises. There’s a sense, in this scene, and many others, of everything reinforcing everything else; the long shadows in the room hinting at the shadows in Qala’s mind, the billowing curtains behind her patterned like skeletal trees in the snow. 

Urmila’s hate for her daughter is so all-consuming and inexplicable that it seems to me to inhibit Mukherjee’s performance. But Dimri is startlingly good. She plays Qala at three stages in her life—as a young woman in the shadow of her mother, as a callow singer striking out on her own, and as a successful artist —and brings to each a different sort of tremulous intensity. There’s a long sequence where she’s recording her first film song in which she nearly falls apart as a result of nervousness and abuse. The change in body language when she finds a way to bury the pain and adopt a persona is near-miraculous. She shows, for an instant, how there can be noise in the head and fear in the heart, yet a song on the lips. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

'Argentina, 1985' and the use of filmed history

The first scene in Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 (on Amazon Prime) has a powerful man getting a report from a spy. The man is the Argentinian public prosecutor, Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), the informant his son (Santiago Armas Estevarena). The boy is reporting on his sister’s date with her boyfriend, who his father suspects could be a mole. Now, Strassera is revealed to be a good and courageous man, and the import of the scene is comical. Still, he’s firmly told off for spying on his daughter—initially by his wife, later by the daughter herself. It’s a small example of how the fear and doubt of a dictatorship can rub off on the best of people.

In 1983, Argentina had just emerged from a military dictatorship that lasted seven years. During that time, thousands of men and women were intimidated, tortured and killed by the military authorities, who used the threat of guerrilla fighters as an excuse to fight a “dirty war” against opponents of all stripes. Democracy returned after Raúl Alfonsin was voted in as president. What the top military brass probably did not expect was being put on trial for their crimes. Known as the “Trial of the Juntas”, it was the first time a country’s military commanders had been tried in a civilian court.

When the film begins, the trial has not yet been confirmed—and Strassera is not exactly looking forward to it. “Of course I’m scared shitless,” he tells his calm wife, telling her it could be a trap by the generals, who still wield a lot of power. But he also knows that as public prosecutor he has no choice but to accept it if the judges agree to try the case—which they are shown doing in a fluently choreographed sequence. Strassera hopes to assemble a legal team with the help of Carlos (Claudio Da Passano), his theatre-director friend, but they just end up saying “facho” (fascist) and “super-facho” to each other’s suggestions (the word, heard through the film, should resonate with viewers today who are used to seeing it brandished in any sort of political discourse). This allows for a delightful montage where the deputy prosecutor, a passionate young man named Luis Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) and Carlos hire a bunch of students out of college.

Argentina, 1985 might sound like cinematic spinach: a film with a dour lawyer as hero, with the recounting of multiple horrifying testimonies from the junta years. Yet, Mitre somehow also makes it fleet-footed and winsome. There’s a Spielbergian zip to proceedings. Strassera gains in moral stature as the film goes on, Darín’s expert underplaying making the moments when the lawyer’s reserve cracks all the more memorable. And there are close to a dozen lively characters playing off him, the canniest of whom might be his precocious son.

This melding of sober historical moment and caper-film lightness reminded me of another South American film. Pablo Larrain’s No (2012) is set in the run-up to the 1988 Chilean plebiscite, when the country’s citizens were given the chance to decide whether dictator Augusto Pinochet would remain in power—as epochal and volatile a moment as the junta trial. Adman René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is tasked by opposition leaders to direct a single commercial that will convince the public to vote “no”. His masterstroke is to create something colourful and fun instead of informative and depressing. Saavedra is a composite but the campaign is real—you can watch the commercial on YouTube.

I was particularly taken by the decisions taken by these two films with regard to using actual footage. Larrain took the bold decision to shoot No with specially assembled U-matic cameras that aped the look of television in the 1980s. The result looks like a home video, a mistake. But it allows Larrain to use the news reports of the time and the actual campaign ad without any visual dissonance. It doesn’t just look like 1988, it looks like it was made in 1988. “This bold gambit makes for a shadowy, flaring, low-definition eyesore of a movie—until you appreciate its ingenuity as a special effect, naturalizing the archival artifacts in its midst and…enabling an immersive yet thoroughly mediated experience of history,” wrote Denis Lim in Artforum.

Mitre finds a similar, though less radical, solution. Argentina, 1985 is beautiful to look at, at times with the luminosity of a Norman Rockwell still life. There’s nothing that’s hand-held or cheap-looking. However, in a few of the court scenes, Mitre, without warning or ostentation, slips in footage of the actual witnesses testifying. These inserts look markedly different from the rest of the film but make visual sense if you consider how they are prefaced with shots of news cameras in court. We are seeing them as someone watching on TV in 1985 would. This idea is followed through in the scene where a journalist catches up with Strassera for a sound bite, and the shot where he replies has the same blanched, retro look as the inserts.

Larrain created his film in the image of its setting. In this, he follows in the footsteps of directors who have looked for ways to render history more authentically. For Winstanley (1975), Kevin Brownlow went in search of the exact breed of cows that would have been around in the 1600s. Juho Kuosmanen used a dreamy Kodak 16mm black and white film stock to transport audiences back to the 1960s in The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki (2017). Mitre’s innovation is subtler but no less thoughtful. He hasn’t yanked us out of the world of his film, and he has found a way of allowing history to seep in.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

Bhediya: Review

‘Blue Moon’ will never sound the same once you’ve seen An American Werewolf in London. David isn’t doing too badly for someone who not long ago lost his friend in a wolf attack and was himself bitten. Yes, he sees dead people, but he’s also struck up a relationship with a pretty nurse. We see him alone in his apartment. He’s normal at first but then clutches his arm as Creedence Clearwater Revival warns about a bad moon on the rise. What follows is a classic horror scene, David transforming, with the assistance of Rick Baker’s masterful practical effects, into a werewolf. His painful groans are made even rougher by the song that accompanies his transformation: Sam Cooke’s satin-smooth version of ‘Blue Moon’.

I wouldn’t be surprised if American Werewolf was the model for Amar Kaushik's Bhediya. Bhaskar (Varun Dhawan), an ambitious contractor, is also bitten by a wolf in the wilderness—the forests of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, where he’s trying to garner local support for a road project. He too falls for a doctor, a vet named Anika (Kriti Sanon, fetching in shoulder-length hair). And he transforms in a room by himself, contorting painfully just as David did. It’s not as scary or memorable as American Werewolf, though. This could be because of the CGI, which while serviceable doesn’t have anything like the tactility of Baker’s work. But it’s also the music, a blatant rip-off of the Stranger Things theme, which blandly reinforces what we’re seeing rather than providing a counterpoint.

It's not like Bhediya can’t do musical jokes. After one of Bhaskar’s transformations, his friends Janardan (Abhishek Banerjee, funny even the jokes aren't) and Jomin (Paalin Kabak) go looking for him. With no way to contact their friend, they try howling into the night. It doesn’t work, of course, but then Tera Suroor starts playing in the car, the closest thing in Hindi film music to an animal yowl. The wolf immediately appears. The next gag is even better—“chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai” playing as a penitent Bhaskar holds the same briefs he was wearing the previous night when he transformed (it’s a pity they couldn’t resist putting it in the trailer). In a later scene, we hear a few lines of ‘Aanewala Aayega’, a nice little nod to the 1949 gothic ghost classic, Mahal

Himesh, Jungle Book, Kamal Amrohi, some Shaun of the Dead, some John Landis. This might seem a surprisingly eclectic mix, but as the recent Phone Bhoot showed, recent Hindi horror-comedy owes at least as much to Hollywood templates as homegrown ones. Bhediya knows it’s speaking to an audience that’ll recognise a Breaking Bad reference and also chuckle at a mention of Jaani Dushman or Junoon (even if they haven’t seen them). Kaushik is something of a template-setter himself; his Stree jumpstarted Hindi comic horror in 2018. It’s been diminishing returns for the subgenre since—a trend that Bhediya doesn’t quite reverse.

Part of the problem is Kaushik and screenwriter Niren Bhatt’s rendering of Arunachal Pradesh. They want to make jokes about chow mein and Bruce Lee, in line with the film’s unapologetically juvenile humour. They also want to show that they know better. So they try everything. There are racist jokes, but also a hurt lecture by Jomin. The locals are superstitious and gullible. There’s an ancient healer. A private militia turns up for no good reason. But Bhaskar and Janardan are also parodies of a certain kind of dumb north Indian.

During the initial wolf attack, Bhaskar shimmies up one of the trees he’s so keen to clear away, only to have it crack and bend, exposing his backside to the animal’s claws. It’s an early sign of the forest turning on him, a way of saying ‘reckless deforestation is bad’ without actually saying it. Of course, there’s only so much subtext a Hindi film will indulge. As an outsider to the state and an enemy of the environment, Bhaskar is always headed for a major talking-to. It comes via Anika, healer of animals, lover of nature, the one articulate representative of the region who just happens to look nothing like the other locals.   

Bhediya is not on the level of Stree, which had a better comic ensemble and a way with language. It's a sight better than Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Phone Bhoot, the other horror comedies this year. I’m not ungrateful for small mercies, though it’s also becoming clear the genre needs a transformation soon, preferably with a cool soundtrack.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Drishyam 2: Review

What makes moviegoing worthwhile even when the movies aren’t satisfying? Ranbir Kapoor dancing. Ranveer Singh smiling as a prelude, a warning. Alia Bhatt really listening to what the other person is saying. Nawazuddin Siddiqui thinking. Vidya Balan furrowing her brow. Hrithik Roshan being incapable of seeming in any way ordinary. Deepika Padukone crying.

These are evident pleasures, shared by millions. To them I’ll add one that’s more personal: Akshaye Khanna sauntering into a film and changing its tone. He's been doing it for five or six years now, in films as varied as Mom, The Accidental Prime Minister and Section 375. He smiles and scowls, contorts his face, waggles his eyebrows, as if to ask, aren’t we all here to have fun? He no longer has to carry the burden of stardom, so he can afford to be eccentric, to look like a dandy or sport a bald head. He seems to exist both in the films and above them, looking down from a height with amusement at the exertions of serious people. 

Most of the first half of Drishyam 2 is Khanna-free—a pity, since the Salgaonkar family are (like in the first film) completely uninteresting right until movie-mad Vijay (Ajay Devgn) starts putting his elaborate schemes in motion. Elder daughter Anju (Ishita Dutta) is a nervous wreck, haunted by memories of the night she hit her blackmailer, a young man named Sam, with a pipe and accidentally killed him. Her mother, Nandini (Shriya Saran), is, if anything, in even worse shape, going to pieces at the mere sight of a cop. Vijay, who ran rings around the cops back then, is still unflappable. Unlike his wife and daughter, he’s moved on, opening a movie theatre and working on a screenplay he hopes to produce. But seven years on, the town hasn’t forgotten the scandal, and neither has Sam’s mother, former IG Meera Deshmukh (Tabu).  

The first half of Drishyam 2—which, like Drishyam, is a remake of a Malayalam film starring Mohanlal—is a steady accretion of detail (including a chance sighting of Vijay on that fateful night) leading to the point where the new IG, Tarun Ahlawat (Khanna), can reopen the case. The first time we see Ahlawat, he’s playing—or contemplating playing—chess while two officers wait in the other room. One of them explains that not only does the IG play chess against himself, he will not move a piece until he’s thought of his opponent’s move, which is to say, his own. “He’s crazy, but a genius. Eccentric, but methodical.” We got all that from the weirdo staring at the chessboard with all the pieces in starting position.

Drishyam 2 would probably be a better film if Anju and Nandini had any kind of poker face. But lord, is it fun to see Ahlawat make them jump. He turns up unannounced at their place when Vijay is out. He tells Nandini he’s the police. “Police?” she says, ready to cry. “Chor-police? Wohi police,” Ahlawat replies with a grin. He goes on about a bug that’s destroying the soil in which her flowers grow, bottom-tier intimidation talk that wouldn’t rattle a child, except this is Nandini, who we realize Vijay has kept in the dark for good reason. 

Abhishek Pathak’s film, co-written with Aamil Keeyan Khan, starts moving very quickly once Ahlawat assembles the pieces. The pacing was different in the first film, which had about 45 minutes of buildup followed by two hours of Vijay outwitting cops. By packing Vijay’s ingenuity into a shorter timeframe, Drishyam 2 risks a distracted audience. The one at my screening definitely was, though they visibly enjoyed the film after intermission. So did I—though I wish it had done more with Vijay going from storyteller by necessity to screenwriter. Cinema cannot, will not save you every time. 

Devgn does nothing wrong and nothing memorable. He plays Vijay as a boring winner, a measured, resourceful spinner of tales. It’s not that he isn’t believable, but this is the sort of film that begs for a witty performance, not a stolid one. Picture Khanna as Vijay and imagine what we’re missing out on.  

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Uunchai: Review

Three friends show up a fourth friend’s birthday, bearing a poem as a gift. The birthday boy—actually an old man, like his three friends—asks, as he always does, for a different present. He wants to climb till the base camp of mount Everest. His friends groan and decline, but Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa) doesn’t give up. “I am dead serious,” he says—an unfortunate turn of phrase, as he has a cardiac arrest that night and passes away in his bed.

Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), Om (Anupam Kher) and Javed (Boman Irani) gather the next day to perform the last rites. Afterwards, Javed suggests immersing Bhupen’s ashes at Varanasi. But Amit has just learnt that Bhupen took their drunken reversal from the previous night at face value and booked them all on a trek to Everest base camp in two months’ time. He feels they owe it to him to go—and although Om and Javed, both store-owners in Delhi, have huge misgivings, they eventually agree to get in shape, travel to Everest and scatter their friend’s remains in the place he loved most.

So begins a film that’s gentle and meandering, full of laboured life lessons and old-person comedy. Uunchai is too mild and simplistic a road movie to even compare with something like Piku (Bachchan is the calm one here, and Kher the whiner). But Sooraj Barjatya out in the open is certainly more fun than Barjatya cooped up in a mansion. As the trio—plus Javed’s wife, Shabina (Neena Gupta), and a fellow-traveller to Kathmandu, Mala (Sarika)—motor their way through Uttar Pradesh and up north, there’s a sleepy rhythm to their bickering that I rather enjoyed. The idea is to drop Shabina—who doesn’t know her unfit husband is planning to climb mountains—off at their daughters’ home in Kanpur, and proceed via Gorakhpur, where Om might reconcile with his estranged older brother.

It doesn’t work out, of course. The daughter and her husband tell their parents, politely but clearly, that they had prior plans that didn’t involve four guests dropping in announced. Om’s family home has decayed, and with it his relationship with his brother. Amit himself is hiding secrets behind his façade of a successful author. The purpose of the film is now apparent: the trio will go from town to town picking up emotional crises, which will finally be resolved in the cold, clear air of the Himalaya. 

I assumed, wrongly, that this film would unfold largely in the mountains. But one-and-a-half hours in, we’re still futzing around in UP (the full run-time is 170 minutes, a Barjatya trademark that hasn’t changed). The accumulation of problems, the reiteration of infirmities is just too leisurely for an audience that now has cell phones to check in the theatre and TV shows in which 13 important things happen in the first five minutes to go home to. By the time the three are slipping on ice, testing the patience of tour guide Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra), I was sympathetic but quite distracted. 

Kher overdoes his havering old crank part, and Bachchan doesn’t really let us in (that might be the point, since his character has a history of shutting people out). But Irani is delightful in his usual way, doing actorly things in the background. The film wraps up their problems so neatly and abruptly that it’s easy to forget they’re actually heading into an extremely uncertain future, though the end credits push the mood towards cheeriness. This is not just a film about old people, it's a film like an old person: soft-edged, slow-paced and wistful.

This piece was published in Mint. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

Monica, O My Darling: Review

The first kill in Monica, O My Darling had me chuckling with delight. In a control room of a robotics factory, engineer Gaurav (Sukant Goel) is watching a video of Shalu (Zayn Marie Khan), the woman he pines for. A colleague, Dev, turns up, excited. He’s just proposed to someone, and she's said yes. Even before he confirms it, we know the new fiancé is Shalu. The camera stays on Dev as he walks over to a giant yellow remote-controlled machine with a claw-like hand, which is whirring for some reason. When he turns his back on the machine, the claw arches menacingly. There’s a terrific comic beat as he turns and the arm retreats as if caught in the act. Then, in the space of a few seconds, the arm darts forward, knocks Dev down, grabs his head and twists it violently. Screen goes red like a giallo. Stabbing violins on the soundtrack like the shower scene in Psycho.

The 2011 TV movie Burūtasu no Shinzou has pretty much the same scene at its start. So too, I’d guess, does the novel of this name by Keigo Higashino, the source for both TV movie and Monica. The credits sequence that follows, however, is recognizably Vasan Bala, a pastiche of old school ‘vamp’ numbers, with backup dancers in ruffled shirts and a siren punctuating her song with coquettish English phrases. It’s a hoot—and there’s a special thanks in there for Sriram Raghavan, probably because Johnny Gaddaar plays on TV later on, but perhaps a more elemental debt as well. Raghavan’s films have people who exist outside of morality, in a realm of pure motivation. Monica, bookended by deaths, populated only by murderers, is cut from the same cloth.

It’s been six months since the incident—deemed a technical malfunction—at Unicorn Robotics. Gaurav is now married to Shalu, who also works at the company. Her brother, Jayant (Rajkummar Rao), has just been promoted to the board of trustees. He’s a golden boy: hardworking, self-made, dating CEO Satyanarayan Adhikari’s daughter, Niki (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), more a son to the old man than his own son, the hulking Nishikant (Sikandar Kher). But Bala and co-writer Yogesh Chandekar also show us the cracks. When Gaurav gifts him a congratulatory watch, Jayant waits till his back is turned and tosses it into the wastepaper basket. He's barely been promoted and he already thinks he’s better than middle management. 

Oh, and golden boy is cheating on his devoted partner with Monica (Huma Qureshi), Satyanarayan’s secretary. What’s worse, she tells him she's pregnant with his child, matter-of-factly toting up the living costs he’ll have to incur for the baby’s upkeep and her silence about the affair. Jayant would have probably gone along with the blackmail had Nishikant not summoned him and another co-worker and told them they were all being extorted by Monica. At Nishikant’s urging—Sikandar Kher is brutish in an absolutely compelling way —they decide the only way out is to murder Monica and dispose of the body. 

I won’t reveal more—and there’s so much more. Bala has fun with the other kills too, including murders yet uncommitted and ones that never take place. In keeping with the pitch-black comic tone, the police inspector that turns up is the opposite of a moody investigator. ACP Naidu cannot contain her enthusiasm at the prospect of tripping up criminals, Radika Apte channeling the febrility of her Lust Stories character in an enjoyable comic turn.   

One particular mystery is signaled so clearly that you know the film isn't serious about hiding it. It's an ambitious move: letting the audience think they have it figured out, then yanking the rug at the last moment. It just about holds up—though, as Naidu gleefully points out, there aren’t many left to suspect by the time the film wraps. 

Bala’s last feature was the riotous martial arts comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Monica has the whacky energy of that film, but less sunny, more constricted. The set-pieces are thought-through, unusual. During a fight in a factory booth, we remain on the outside, looking at the combatants through soundproofed glass, their bloody exertions muffled. An elaborate sequence involving kulfi, a high-rise and a piece of incriminating paper is stretched like the tennis match in Strangers on a Train, our delight in the deliciousness of the predicament competing with our desire to see the person escape it. 

Then there’s the little details studded through the film: the casino chips Nishikant rolls between his fingers, the Giant Robo t-shirts Jayant wears, the cops asking uncomfortable questions with a painting in the background that resembles blood splatter. A knock-down-drag-out fight is choreographed to a faux-Goan folk song (Varun Grover as comic lyricist). Achint Thakkar’s clever soundtrack pastiches Morricone, R.D. Burman, ‘80s disco (Bye bye, adios!) and gentle Jagjit Singh murmurings, though nothing’s better than the sincere-sounding violins when Jayant is reassuring his boss that he won’t do anything to let down the firm. All manner of films are waved at in passing—there’s everything from a bicycle thief to a cousin Vinnie.

Qureshi is smart casting as Monica. Her go-to mode has always been unflappable, which makes her just right for a resourceful seductress with an eye on her future, running rings around a bunch of weak men. Rao plays up Jayant’s cowardice—his voice quavering when Monica blackmails him—even as the plot turns on his resourcefulness. It’s a great slimy performance, a reminder of how unpredictable early-career Rao could be.

When Jayant is reeling off an elaborate alibi, Naidu tells him he should always leave a few loose ends. Any backstory that fits together perfectly seems unnatural, she says, adding: “The beauty of humanity lies in small mistakes.” And, of course, there eventually comes a small mistake, ironically a result of trying to tie up a loose end. I was more touched by the ramshackle Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. But Monica, O My Darling, pitiless and primed to hurt, is the better film.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

Phone Bhoot: Review

Gurmmeet Singh's Phone Bhoot starts with a jump scare, but that's no indication of the horrors to come. Like how the film is a microwaving of the rotting corpse of Ghostbusters, down to the jumpsuits. Or how Katrina Kaif’s Hindi is still a punchline. Or how Siddhant Chaturvedi gets repeatedly slammed in the junk. Or how the big celebrity cameo is the Fukrey gang, minus Ali Fazal, presumably recovering from his teeth-gnashing in the Poirot film. I guess we should be thankful it wasn’t the Bangistan boys.

Horror nerds Major (Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Ishaan Khatter) are roommates, slackers who host horror-themed parties and don’t seem to do much else. They’re living proof that a Tamilian and a Punjabi can find common ground in schlocky silliness, even if one drinks lassi (in a beer mug) and the other filter coffee (in a tea glass). At one of their monster mashes, they accidently get electrocuted. When they come to, the place is buzzing with the party-going dead, including one particularly alluring ghost, Ragini (Kaif).

Ragini charms her way into their lives, a simple enough task given Gullu is a virgin desperate to please and Major a cartoon wolf with eyeballs popping out and jaw bouncing off the floor. The two have just opened a ‘phone bhoot’ helpline—who you gonna call when the Reitman estate sues you?—and Ragini argues that it would help to have an actual bhoot on the team. Every single case they're called in for just happens to be a hard-luck story, so they end up not just tackling demonic possessions but also helping free trapped souls. 

An hour in, my soul needed freeing too, stuck as I was in a purgatory of meta-references no one cares about. Kaif recreates her famous Slice advertisement. There’s a Vicky Kaushal joke. Major’s real name—I don’t think I could have misheard this—is Sherdil Shergill; if that's not enough Gully Boy for you, someone also says ‘bhot hard’. Khatter is called a “suitable bhai”. Jackie Shroff, as the villainous Atmaram, plays the flute like he did in Hero

Horror-comedy is not a distinguished genre in Hindi cinema; when the significant recent benchmark is Anees Baazmee and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the bar is pretty low. Writers Ravi Shankaran and Jasvinder Singh Bath manage a few good lines, like the helpline option you can press for “other regional monsters” if you don’t have a bhoot or chudail problem, or Gullu announcing “mehnat montage” before they go into a song. The film is constantly winking at the audience—basic gags like a voice on the soundtrack saying ‘evil laughter’ instead of actually laughing. 

If there weren’t nine failed jokes to every half-successful one, perhaps Phone Bhoot might have gotten by on its amiability. Gullu and Major do seem like genuine horror geeks; their room has everything from a Raka statue to a poster of The Shining. Khatter offers further evidence of being a performer who’d shine if he could just land an above-average production (even A Suitable Boy, you ask? Especially A Suitable Boy). It was a good idea in theory to pair him and Chaturvedi, who, on the evidence of this and Bunty Aur Babli 2, works somewhat too hard to sell a gag. Kaif can’t sell jokes either, but at least she keeps disappearing from the film. 

Stree might have kicked off the ongoing cycle of horror-comedies, but Phone Bhoot is best compared to Go Goa Gone. That 2013 Raj & DK film had a similar smart-aleck tone, though with immeasurably better writing and a realistic approach to gore that every Hindi horror-comedy since has lacked. Gurmmeet Singh’s film frays alarmingly after the one-hour mark; there’s no reason for Sheeba Chadha’s chudail to be there, and Ragini’s backstory is the laziest tragedy plotting you could imagine. The last scene, rather touchingly, offers the possibility of a sequel. Drive a stake through its heart. 

This piece was published in Mint Lounge. 

Joyland: Longing and hope in Lahore

Before you watch Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, take out 16 minutes to look up Darling on YouTube. In this student film by Sadiq, which won best short at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, a trans woman named Alina Darling, played by transgender actor Alina Khan, comes to audition at a theatre where mujras are performed. Her dream is to headline her own show—as we see in an exuberant fantasy sequence—but she will settle for being a backup dancer for resident diva Shabo, even passing for a man by concealing her long hair in a turban. The film ends with her on the bus home, having compromised but also gotten a foot in the door and saved a goat from being sacrificed. 

There’s a lot of Darling in Sadiq’s first feature, which will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (3-6 November). Joyland premiered at Cannes, the first Pakistani film to do so; it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Queer Palm. Alina Khan again plays a mujra dancer—this time her character, Biba, has her own show. Like in Darling, she has a smitten male cisgender friend who supports her. Giant cutouts of mujra dancers show up in both films. Above all, it’s the same directorial voice: composed, realistic and hopeful.

Haider (Ali Junejo) is the younger son in a middle-class Lahore family. He lives with wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer), sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani, the lead in the excellent web series Churails), their four children, and his intimidating, conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada). It’s not a comfortable existence—an air conditioner is seen as an extravagance—which is unsurprising given there are only two earning members, Saleem and Mumtaz. The early scenes establish Haider as a dreamy young fellow in no hurry to find a job: he’s happy making dal at home and playing with his nieces while Mumtaz works at a parlour. 

When a friend gets him an audition for a backup dancer at the “theatre”, he goes through the motions—until Biba walks in. He then pulls out his meagre dance moves, enough to get him hired as part of her troupe. She plays it cool, though the shy Haider is instantly floored. Their increasing closeness has the knock-on effect of ending Mumtaz’s freedom to work, even if Haider’s father and brother aren’t thrilled that he’s working at an erotic dance hall (he lies about being a manager there). 

The scenes set in the world of mujra show how, at this time, in this specific field, trans performers are an accepted part of the landscape, even wielding some power if they are celebrities. A look at the wild, dangerous but also genuinely diverse mujra scene is provided by the 2020 documentary Showgirls Of Pakistan, directed by Saad Khan (it’s on VICE’s channel on YouTube; we wrote about it here). One of three women featured is a khawaja sira (transgender) performer, Reema, who supplements her income by visiting houses with newborn babies and blessing them for money. Khan’s film would make a great first half in a double bill with Joyland—not least for their contrasting energies—and Reema’s section gives us an idea of the struggles of Biba that we don’t see. 

With her husband spending more and more time with his crush, Mumtaz, a sunny presence at the start of the film, sinks into depression. She and Haider are an affectionate couple, even when he reveals that he’s a backup dancer and Biba is trans. (He asks Mumtaz if she’s angry. “No,” she replies. Then, a second later: “A little”—a measure of the economy of both writing and playing in this film.) Farooq is a magnetic presence, showing us Mumtaz’s struggle at containing her frustrations, both with her sudden unemployment and the sexual urges her husband is too distracted to fulfil. On one occasion, she starts to rub herself while looking out of the window at a man in the alley doing the same—a scene that recalls the forthright taboo-breaking of Indian director Alankrita Shrivastava, who, coincidentally, is making a film on Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch. 

Saim Sadiq underlines the tension and claustrophobia of the household through film technique. The 4:3 shooting ratio reduces the space around the characters, boxing them in. Sadiq and cinematographer Joe Saade also keep a surprising amount of negative space overhead, which, for me, had the further unsettling effect of throwing off the balance of the frame.

Unusually for a film that features a transgender character and stars a trans actor, Joyland never feels like it’s opining on an “issue”. Instead, it remains intimate and focused on Haider, Biba and Mumtaz. Though it’s an unsparing film, it also struck me as a romantic one. Haider shyly tells Biba during his audition that he played Juliet in college. When they almost kiss for the first time, static electricity surges through Biba and she drops the cup she’s holding. And the penultimate scene, a flashback, is a brilliant, moving choice. Like all that’s come before, it’s a thing of delicacy, close observation and empathy.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Ram Setu: Review

I could sense it coming, but it was still a shock when Ram Setu went there. About 20 minutes into Abhishek Sharma’s film, archaeologist Aryan (Akshay Kumar) is reeling from the backlash to his report that concludes Ram Setu, a long stretch of shoals in Indian and Sri Lankan waters, was not a bridge made by Ram himself. The unhappiest response is from his wife, Gayathri (Nushrratt Bharuccha), who compares doubts about the bridge to the Ayodhya temple issue (it’s 2007, years before the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a trust to build a Ram temple). “That was a land dispute,” Aryan argues. “It was a matter of faith,” she replies, adding, “Some people made the mistake of asking for Lord Ram’s birth certificate.” She doesn’t elaborate, but it’s a chilling line.

You can see why Gayathri uses this example. Ayodhya was a court case for decades before it was settled; Ram Setu has also been the subject of several appeals, including a recent one to declare it a heritage monument. The unspoken implication is that the Ram Setu movement will be vindicated the same way the Ram temple movement was in 2019, and that asking for proof for something that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago is an attack on religious beliefs. This combative tone is reiterated when a holy man interviewed on TV again mentions Ayodhya in context of Ram Setu and asks which Raavan will pay the price.     

By casting Kumar as an atheist and self-described 'man of facts', the film teases its payoff from the start. Aryan will not be won over by appeals to faith. He questions the factual basis of the Ramayana. He’s Robert Langdon with better hair. You can see why shady shipping magnate Indrakant (Nasser) would hire him to lead a mission to prove conclusively that Ram Setu is naturally occurring, thus allowing it to be dredged through for a deep-sea project (this mirrors an actual stalled project). At Aryan's disposal is a ship with a state-of-the-art lab and a team of scientists. Also, a gigantic diving suit that looks like a fitter Michelin Man.

There are three dives, each funnier than the last. In the first, Aryan—which is to say the disembodied head of Kumar pasted onto the atmospheric diving suit—has to collect a rock sample. As he approaches the shoals, the soundtrack starts echoing with sonorous namahs, like he’s literally swimming into holy waters. The sample seems to confirm that the canal is older than Ram (which is 7,000 years ago, as per the film), but Aryan wants more proof. So he dives again, this time to bring a whole rock back. The cable attached to the ship is pulled away at the last moment by Indrakant's man Bali (Pravesh Rana), but an empty suit turns up. A few seconds later Aryan surfaces, walking across the barely submerged bridge, carrying the stone on his shoulder. “Woh sea pe kaise chal raha hai?” asks Sandra (Jacqueline Fernandez), environmental scientist apparently. 

The suit is sadly shelved for the third and final dive, with Aryan, Sandra and carbon dating expert Gabrielle piloting a submarine in a terrible storm, another of Bali’s not-suspicious-at-all ideas. Gabrielle, who doesn’t like Bali’s vibe, carries the stone with her—it's been revealed to date from about the time of Ram. Things go south, so very south. In the space of 10 chaotic minutes, they are saved by the stone (it floats), then by a deus ex machina tour guide played by Satya Dev, and finally by rebel fighters in a helicopter (there’s a civil war on in Sri Lanka).  

Abhishek Sharma isn’t known for a particular kind of film—his past work includes Tere Bin Laden, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran and The Zoya Factor. But the presence of Chandraprakash Dwivedi in Ram Setu’s credits—as ‘creative producer’—seems significant. Earlier this year, Dwivedi wrote and directed the Akshay Kumar historical Samrat Prithviraj: a resounding failure. There is some kinship between that film’s vision of India as essentially a Hindu nation and Ram Setu’s more subtle assertion of the same. When Aryan (not exactly a name pulled out of a hat) argues that if we can protect the Qutab Minar—“a symbol of India’s defeat”—then we can protect Ram Setu, I was reminded that Dwivedi’s film ends with a note that Prithviraj’s death kicked off 755 years of Indian enslavement.

Can one ignore all this and enjoy Ram Setu as a fantastical adventure in the National Treasure mould? I suppose anything’s possible if you try hard enough. I haven’t even mentioned the final twist, which is so outrageous I’m ashamed to say I guessed it. One scene towards the end comes with its own fact-check, which is fitting. Because when you get down to it, Ram Setu didn’t really need to be a film. This could have been a WhatsApp forward. 

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

The Education of Yuri: Jerry Pinto's sparkling bildungsroman

Midway through Jerry Pinto’s first novel, Em And The Big Hoom (2012), a window opens, briefly. The unnamed narrator, whose existence is overshadowed by his cyclonic, charismatic, mentally ill mother, gives us a glimpse of a life he’s rarely allowed to experience. “When Em was ‘high’, I could be a busy student, in every sense of the word. I could run amok in art galleries where I would write comments and sign them as John Ruskin or Clement Greenberg. I could watch two long movies back-to-back at film festivals. I could spend entire afternoons borrowing and returning books from three libraries in three different parts of the city.”

By the next page, we are sucked back into the black hole that is Em’s house. But something in this happy vision of student life must have stuck with Pinto. His new, wonderful third novel, The Education Of Yuri, plays out like those handful of paragraphs stretched over 400 pages. A bildungsroman set in Mumbai in the 1980s, it follows 15-year-old Yuri Fonseca as he meanders through his time at Elphinstone College, hungrily accumulating new experiences while simultaneously questioning every aspect of his life.

This novel is as unhurried and discursive as Em And The Big Hoom was focused and wrenching. Yuri leads the life Em’s son cannot—a college student with a relatively settled home life, high on potential, short on direction, with time on hand to think, fail, rethink. An orphan almost since the moment of his birth (his parents die in a car accident), he’s raised by his steadfast uncle, Julio—like the Big Hoom, a male authority figure of few words but utmost reliability. He’s a budding poet, with all the dreaminess and indecision the stereotype entails. Pinto lets us listen in on Yuri’s internal dialogues—though they are more like wrestling matches. Not one decision can be taken without Yuri turning it over in his mind, worrying it until it reveals its motives. “But thinking is what you do,” his classmate Muzammil tells him, “you’re thinking all the time and you’re thinking about your thinking.”

For a stretch, this is the tale of Muzammil and Yuri. Despite Yuri’s modest upbringing in Mahim and Muzammil’s in upper-crust Pedder Road, they find they are kindred spirits. Their meeting point is wordplay, a delight in the playful possibilities of language. In their first meeting, Yuri is impressed when Muzammil casually uses “misconstrued” in a sentence, and they immediately embark on a word game. A few pages later, Yuri says “subabul”, which sets them off on another stream of nonsense. This becomes their way of communicating, their conversations a series of non sequiturs, puns, obfuscations.

Pinto peppers their speech and the book with endless literary and cultural references. None of it is essential information—indeed, it’s revealing to note the kind of references that elude Yuri himself (for instance, Shakespeare, owing to his state board education). I doubt Pinto expects readers to know the Gooley-Gooley Witch, a Phantom story mentioned without context by the comics-obsessed Muzammil, or Israeli-British illusionist Uri Geller—someone’s wild guess for the person Yuri’s named for (it’s actually Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space). I recognised “sweet baboo” from Peanuts but had to look up Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. Yet, Pinto recognises that glibness of this sort is currency for a certain kind of student—especially an arts student—each bit of arcana a way of letting people know how wide your horizons are.

Pinto would have been a young man about the same age as Yuri in the 1980s in Bombay. Like the author, Yuri inclines towards writing of all sorts, in particular poetry. Pinto paints a fond picture of the city’s poets, famous and fledgling, skilled and otherwise (none more memorable than a botanist who recites terrible blank verse at a poetry meet-up). Well-known writers like Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla make cameos. Sometimes—though not often—poetry informs the prose, like when Yuri is described as “full of Provencal mirth”, a borrowing from John Keats (“Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth”). Pinto has a matchless ear for dialogue and a way with unusually precise descriptions. Loneliness settles in “Yuri’s chest like wet sand”. The brown buildings around Kala Ghoda are like “dowager duchesses, trying to maintain their dignity”. Or this Wodehouse-ian line: “Sailee smiled but of the sort that scorned the spirit that could be moved to smile at anything.”

Yuri and Muzammil are so plainly right for each other—and so wrapped up in one another—that I expected their screwball chatter to continue through the whole book. But there’s a schism—one of those college things that could be sorted out with a conversation that never happens. This opens up space in Yuri’s life for Bhavna, a batchmate who becomes his first girlfriend and educates him in matters cultural and sexual. “He was ore; she was the smelter,” Yuri admits during a gallery visit as he’s “tried out on sculpture”, having failed to properly appreciate ragamala painting. Bhavna is a rich kid too but the real difference between them is attitudinal: Yuri’s never convinced about anything, while Bhavna is devastatingly sure of everything she says and does. I wondered, at two particular points in the book, how someone so self-possessed could respond with desire or contrition to flagrant cruelty from a boyfriend. I realised later that viewed without context, Yuri’s actions are even more inexplicable—it’s just that we are privy to his thought process.

Despite the Yuri doublethink (“Is it my city? It doesn’t feel like it”), the book is a marvellous evocation of 1980s Bombay. Yuri is a train- and bus-taker, but, above all, a walker (his friends are always jumping into taxis). We see the city take shape through his wanderings: eating freshly baked pav, sitting with a crush on crowded Marine Drive, becoming an unwitting courier for Naxalites in a bustling park. In one luminous passage, Yuri walks from Nariman Point to Churchgate, then decides to continue home “along the spine of the Island City”. He walks past Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Malabar Hill, taking in the Haji Ali Dargah, Siddhivinayak temple, Our Lady of Salvation church—Bombay as a melting pot of class and faith. And then he’s home: in Pinto’s beloved Mahim.

Like Em And The Big Hoom, The Education of Yuri ends with a drink, a remark, and a single unadorned sentence. A film adaptation might have ended with a scene from a few pages earlier, with Yuri buried in a group hug. He isn’t in a better financial situation or much wiser than when he started, but I took heart from his last poem, which we see mutate and improve over the course of several paragraphs. Yuri has finally found a use for all that fussing, indecision and second-guessing. Only now he can call it editing.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.


Black Adam: Review

As Black Adam moved me to tears—of boredom, of rage—I found myself wondering if Dwayne Johnson had ascended to movie stardom in the wrong age. What if, say, he had gotten to play the roles that Arnold Schwarzenegger did in the ‘90s? He’s not a worse actor, though he lacks his weird Teutonic appeal. Yet Schwarzenegger did Terminator 2 and Predator and Total Recall and half a dozen other films people still talk about. And Johnson has one of the worst filmographies of any Hollywood titan. What film of his will you be watching in 2042? 

If anyone’s looking up Black Adam in two decades, it’ll be to understand the collapse of the studio system that made one too many films like Black Adam. Jaume Collet-Serra's film opens 5000 years ago in a fictional land called Kahndaq. It’s ruled by Anh-Kot, a despot who seeks a crystal called eternium to make into a crown that will allow him otherworldly powers. A young boy revolts against the king, and through the ancient power of shazam (I cringed as I typed this) becomes the warrior Teth-Adam. Then he’s put to sleep, and everything goes quiet for five millennia. 

In modern-day Kahndaq live Adrianne and her son, Amon. She’s hunting for the same crown that was forged all those years ago, before it falls into the hands of Intergang, the crime syndicate that keep the city subjugated. Kahndaq resembles a Middle Eastern country under Western occupation, with locals forced to pass through checkpoints and hostile towards any military. Amon tells off Intergang officers—primarily Caucasian—for being neo-imperialists strip-mining his country (it’s a hilarious speech to emerge from a boy who at other times behaves like your average American teen). Oh, to be a Hollywood studio often allied with the Pentagon cheerfully missing the irony of making a sanctimonious film about a Middle Eastern country that’s been invaded one too many times. 

In her search for the crown, Adrianne reads an incantation and, just like that, Teth-Adam (Johnson) is resurrected. He’s feeling no apparent aftereffects of his long sleep, immediately disposing of dozens of Intergang soldiers. He’s bulletproof, bombproof, has super strength and speed. He’s pretty much impervious to everything except eternium. The problem with this indestructability is that is makes for predictable action scenes. For a while it’s fun to see Johnson fling his enemies into the ocean miles away or throw helicopters at other helicopters. But the novelty of a slightly sadistic Superman wears thin. There are two set-pieces with some flair—one airborne and combustible, the other subterranean and wet—but even these seem like Snyder-lite visions. 

A quartet of B-level superheroes—Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan, mumbling behind a ton of whiskers), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell)—are sent to bring him in. In time, the film’s main antagonist is revealed, a local named Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari) who wants the crown and the power. None of it matters: Adam is just too powerful, a one-god wrecking ball destroying everything in his way. He’s clearly a hero—give or take a lot of extrajudicial killing (Hawkman’s words)—yet keeps insisting he’s not. This is tiresome to watch, yet the film has to do it because the Black Adam of DC comics was for long a villain, and they might want to pit him against Shazam or Superman in future movies. 

Of course, Superman’s indestructible too, but at least there’s an interiority with him, and emotional ties to be explored. Adam has no deep thoughts, no mission, nowhere particular to go. He doesn’t want to rule Kahndaq—he'll protect it at best—and he doesn’t want to be on a superhero team. There’s nothing going on inside, or if there is we get no hint from Johnson’s granite face. He may be the most purposeless superhero ever. 

In a scene in Adrianna’s apartment, the climactic shootout from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is shown playing on TV. A little later, Adam gets into a Mexican standoff with Intergang operatives. We're shown itchy trigger fingers. Morricone’s score—or a pastiche of it—plays. But it’s meaningless. There are no stakes; we know they won’t be able to harm Adam even if they draw first. It carries no weight, like the film, like the career of its leading man.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Doctor G: Review

Ten years after Vicky Donor, it's clear that Ayushmann Khurrana is not to be seduced by Bollywood. He’s been a bona fide star for years now, yet doesn’t do what one might think of as star projects. He seems happy acting in mid-sized films that sometimes pair him with another male star but more often with a female co-star playing someone smarter than him. These films invariably have him overcoming some sort of prejudice, which could be anything from casteism to hair loss. It’s a cinema of audience improvement through the example of self-improvement.  

The thing is, I wish he would get seduced, sometimes. He’s very watchable in pretty much everything, but there’s an edge to agenda-less Khurrana, the one who schemes his way through Andhadhun and Gulabo Sitabo. I would love to see what Imtiaz Ali, who loves to write misunderstood Indian males, could do with Khurrana, whose filmography is a relentless skewering of Indian manhood. Or to see him in a Zoya Akhtar travel film as some rich dude who doesn’t feel bad about all those wasted tomatoes. 

While I live in hope of lesson-free Khurrana, it’s likely the next few years will bring more films like Anubhuti Kashyap’s Doctor G. Uday (Khurrana) wants to become an orthopedic doctor, but hasn’t scored well enough in his entrance exams. With time running out, he ‘books’ a seat in a Bhopal medical college in the gynecology department, figuring he’ll leave after a year when he scores enough to get the discipline of his choice. Uday has no interest in gynecology, even trying to swap his seat with a higher-ranking female student who secured orthopedics. To him, it’s a female discipline, a view that’s reinforced when he turns out to be the only male student in the entire department.

With Khurrana in the lead, there’s only one way this film can go. Uday will slowly learn to listen to women and become serious about gynecology. And he will end up a sensitized human being, discarding the ‘male touch’ and discovering new-found empathy for his patients, his colleagues, and his doting but lonely mother (Sheeba Chaddha). He’s helped in this by a group of supportive seniors—including Fatima (Rakul Preet Singh), whom he promptly falls for despite her being engaged—and the severe, capable head of department, Dr Nandini Srivastav (Shefali Shah). 

Doctor G is a comedy for the most part, but there’s no real wit in the writing, only tired laughs wrung out of Uday’s mum joining Tinder or the couple who can’t conceive because the man is, umm, misdirected. Uday’s best friend (Abhay Chintamani Mishr) is called ‘Chaddi’ (underwear). Two excellent comic actors, Shraddha Jain and Puja Sarup, get little to work with. 

It’s only in the latter half that a subplot starts playing out, and vastly improves the dramatic stakes of the film. Uday’s mentor has gotten a schoolgirl pregnant, and has dumped the responsibility of her abortion on him. This, of course, is career-threatening stuff, and even Improved Uday has some tough decisions to make. The developing friendship between Uday and the girl, who also wants to be a doctor, is unforced and sweet—and Kashyap presents the crisis at the end in a stark, efficient manner. It’s the only section of the film when I was fully engaged. Audiences expect moral instruction in a Khurrana film like they expect waving flags in a Akshay Kumar film. Which doesn’t mean they wouldn't like to forget they’re being instructed for a while.  

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Vikram Vedha: Review

Vikram Vedha is occasionally a director’s film. It is frequently one actor’s film. But above all it’s a screenwriter’s film. Pushkar-Gayathri adapt their own 2017 Tamil film of the same name; Benazir Ali Fida and Manoj Muntashir contribute Hindi dialogue. It’s the sort of script where one could say: shoot what’s on the page and you’re home. It’s an action film with the plotting of a whodunnit, as twisty and interlocking as The Usual Suspects was in its day. 

From the start, you can sense the presence of a writer pulling the strings. A special unit of the Lucknow police is about to embark on a raid. Their leader, Vikram (Saif Ali Khan), greets them one by one on his way to kicking in the door and starting a gunfight with a group of gangsters. We learn a little about each through the skirmish and after—two brothers have just paid off their father’s long-standing loan, another has a fondness for sex workers. This kind of detailing is good writing period, but even more so when, deep into the film, the idle talk assumes a significance. Then we realize how little is wasted, how every joke, every gesture is bait to catch a larger fish.

Vikram and his team are ‘encounter’ cops, summarily executing gangsters in their efforts to catch the notorious Vedha (Hrithik Roshan), wanted for 16 murders, including a prominent MLA. In a witty sequence (a possible nod to Se7en), Vedha comes to them, surrendering himself at the station even as preparations to nab him are in full swing. He won’t speak to the others in the interrogation room, but when he’s finally across the table from Vikram, Vedha asks if he would like to hear a story. 

This is, of course, a modern version of the Vikram-Betaal fairytales, stories told by a ghost to a king, all of which end in a moral dilemma. Vedha’s first story is about how he killed a higher-up when he was just a runner in a gang. The question he poses Vikram is: did he kill the man who ordered an attack on his younger brother, or the one who actually did the maiming? Vikram guesses correctly—he punished the one with the power, not the one carrying out commands. Vedha is then sprung from jail—one of his lawyers is Vikram’s wife, Priya (Radhika Apte). But the pattern has been established. Soon there’ll be another meeting, and another story. 

It's been three years since Hrithik Roshan walked across a tarmac, transformed into a golden god by the ardor in Tiger Shroff’s eyes. His Vedha is a darker creature, unkempt, bushy beard, with a teasing tone and a casual brutality. Roshan is magnetic; it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, even if you’ve seen the excellent Vijay Sethupathi in the Tamil version. He's entirely at ease, now mocking Vikram, now pushing him to see things more clearly (Khan is adequate without being imposing). War had felt like a corner turned for Roshan, and his total command of the screen in Vikram Vedha bears this out. 

One sequence, in the flashback of the first story, is especially beautiful. In a field with tall grass, Vedha and his men find the kidnappers they’ve been looking for. ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisar’ plays on the radio, and the action matches its lackadaisical rhythms. Bodies fly in unhurried slow motion. It’s funny and somewhat abstract, a fight like a dream. 

The other action scenes aren’t quite as good, but Pushkar-Gayathri and cinematographer P.S. Vinod have a useful rule of thumb—if you don’t have anything special to offer with your choreography or fight skills, keep the setting pretty. And so we get a sequence with Vedha and Vikram facing off in the pouring rain, boxed in by giant red containers, the (overenthusiastic) score veering towards spaghetti western. And a later shootout in an under-construction building, with the framing taking in the surroundings as much as the action. Or the climactic scene where the wild fancies of the plot are grounded by the drab practicality of a factory floor.

Does every bit of cleverness hold up? Maybe not. Priya being Vedha’s lawyer feels like an attempt to tie every possible thread together. Why don’t Vikram’s superiors intervene, even when he lets Vedha go free? Why does Abbas (Satyadeep Mishra), Vikram’s friend and fellow cop, have a change of heart? The central mystery—why Vedha gives himself up in the first place—holds less interest than seeing these two men, so good at their jobs that they’ve gotten rather bored of them, try and trip each other up.

Vikram Vedha chips away at the halo usually handed to the police in Hindi films. Vikram starts off believing he’s essentially doing the right thing as an encounter cop (“We are the good guys,” he tells his subordinate). But with every Vedha story, this conviction is rattled. It ends with cop and criminal staring each other down, mirror images, separated only by circumstance. Vikram says early on, “There’s only right or wrong, nothing in between.” By the end, it’s clear everything is in between, and right or wrong are just stories we tell to make ourselves feel better.

 This piece was published in Mint Lounge.

Twenty years on, City of God still bristles

If you frequented bootleg DVD stores in the mid-2000s in search of foreign films, there were a couple of titles you would always encounter. One was Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995). Another was Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001), which had the advantage of beinga very good and a very sexy film. There was invariably a Béla Tarr title, regarded as a kind of cinephile litmus test. There was Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), surprisingly cited by S.S. Rajamouli as one of the inspirations for this year’s RRR. And there was another film by two Brazilian directors, the DVD cover of which was divided between the backs of a couple on the beach and a gang of young men, guns pointing at the camera.

The directors were Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. City Of God was the name of their film, a violent, kinetic look at life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Lund had earlier made News From A Personal War (1999), about the powerful gangs that ran the slums, selling drugs and conducting bloody warfare with each other. This documentary plays like a dry run not only for City Of God but the equally violent and more conservative Elite Squad (2007), which looked at the favelas from the point of view of the cops. Its rough shooting style is carried forward in City Of God—to an extent. Loose, hypercharged, saturated colour films were in vogue then: Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000), Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002). While the 16mm stock gives Meirelles and Lund’s film griminess and an immediacy, there’s a flashiness that differentiates it from earlier Brazilian street dramas like the harrowing Pixote (1980).

City Of God tells the story of rival gangs in the favelas through the eyes of Rocket, who desperately wants to escape his life in the slums and become a photographer. A dizzying number of characters come and go; only some—like the brutal Li’l Ze, the charismatic Benny and the reluctant gangster Knockout Ned—last for a while. The violence is constant, at times funny, at times disturbingly thrilling. But it’s never far from horrifying, a constant reminder that this is not an enviable world, like Goodfellas (1990) or Bugsy (1991).

Looking at it now, I can see why this film in particular was such a hit with viewers here, discovering world cinema one knock-off DVD at a time. It’s not just the sizzle of César Charlone’s cinematography or the incredible razor’s-edge editing by Daniel Rezende (the film opens with a knife being whetted on a stone, each motion a cut). The film felt alive, dangerous. Its rhythms weren’t those of Hollywood. Those operating outside the US-Europe stranglehold on prestige cinema probably saw it and thought: This is possible here.

That promise was made reality. City Of God has had a deep influence on cinema in this country. The most commonly cited example is Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), which we called “the most influential Hindi film of the 2010s” in a story published earlier this year. City Of God was the edifice on which Gangs Of Wasseypur was built. Kashyap told us, referring to the initial treatment brought to him, “That’s a first-time writer thing, using a famous gangster movie as a template. What I read was City Of God set in Dhanbad.”

Gangs Of Wasseypur may have started with a Brazilian film in mind but Kashyap’s biggest inspiration was the Tamil crime films of the 2000s. Fittingly, it was Tamil cinema that first took the energy of City Of God and ran with it. Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai (2006) was visibly influenced by Meirelles and Lund’s film. You can see some City Of God in Pa. Ranjith’s 2014 political gang film Madras, and even more in his 2021 boxing film, Sarpatta Parambarai. Ranjith expressed his enthusiasm for the Brazilian film, saying: “There are characters in the dozens and yet, each one has an arc…. I feel it is this century’s most important film.”

Tha. Ramalingam, art director on Madras and Sarpatta Parambarai, said in an interview that film-makers started looking at north Chennai “from a visual point of view in a very City Of God-esque format”. Vetrimaaran’s gangster saga Vada Chennai (2018) is certainly City Of God-esque in its sprawl and darting pace. Malayalam director Lijo Jose Pellissery actually made a film called City Of God, which owed little to the Brazilian film—though Angamaly Diaries, his wildly exciting 2017 gangster film, probably did.

There are smaller examples of influence too—like actor Vijay Varma saying he based his breakout performance in the Hindi film Gully Boy (2019) on Li’l Ze. City Of God’s reputation as a modern classic seems secure in India—and in its home country. It placed at No.8 in a 2015 poll by the Brazilian Film Critics Association to select the 100 best Brazilian films of all time—though there were also critics there who were irritated by the impression it created of Rio and the country as a drug-addled Wild West. This, too, is something we can relate to: When Slumdog Millionaire (2008)—an outsider’s view, and a less accomplished film—became a smash hit and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, many here complained that it would cloud how the West viewed Mumbai, and India.

Just last week, news emerged of a “sequel” to City Of God, a short film called Buscapé (“Rocket”), created by VMLY&R Brasil in partnership between Vivo and Motorola. Rocket returns to the favela to see the school his mentor has set up there. He’s still working as a photographer. The favela looks less fraught, though there’s still crime (Rocket stumbles on animal traffickers) and local bosses. The marketing demands and short running time mean this isn’t the smoothest of shorts but it’s worth it just to see actor Alexandre Rodrigues as a greying Rocket and Khalifa Idd playing Li’l Ze’s younger brother. He’s the spitting image of the brutal Ze but Rocket soon declares him “one easy-going motherfucker”. Even if it takes 20 years, change will come.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge.