Saturday, July 8, 2017

MOM Review

A R Rahman, in the 25th year of his career, when he could simply play in his comfort zone and yet excel every time, chooses to compose and produce a largely esoteric, experimental and minimalistic soundtrack for debutant Ravi Udyawar's film - Mom. The songs suggest a definite soundscape that belongs to the film.

And then I saw the film.

The first thing that struck me about the film, more than its soundscape, was its photography. It struck me in my eyes. It is that obtrusive. And that is a cardinal sin. If your frame is noticeable before what's in the frame, you are doing exacty opposite of what is expected from a good photographer. And these visuals don't justify what it wants to tell. It's just there to show-off one's skill. See that shot with just a dim red light in frame that is constantly seeking your attention?

Among many other cliché scenes in the film, one is how one character finds modern-art pedestrian. The film is exactly that: looks arty, but, with its populist politics and message(s), is terribly pedestrian. You have a mom on a mission (to revenge the rape of her step-daughter), and two stock-characters: a seedy, Bengali private detective from Paharganj (Nawazuddin in truly "special appearance" because his make-up and look has no other business than 'look, how real our portrayal of characters are'); and an honest-policeman-who-can't-do-much-because-stuck-in-bureaucracy Akshaye Khanna.

There are scenes written only for the characters to spew one or two taali-seeti seeking lines, and otherwise have very little narrative purpose. Be it "Iss desh me rapists ko thappad bhi nahi maar sakte" or an age-old SMS: "Bhagwan har jagah nahi ho sakte isiliye toh maa banayi hai". The dialogues elsewhere is, again, very pedestrian. (The confrontation scene between a rapist and the detective is solid cringy.)

Then there is problematic representation of transgender characters: we meet two of them as students of Devaki, the Mom (Sridevi), who later uses them in her revenge plan. She makes them disguise as sex-workers. Nothing wrong in being  sex-workers, but using trans characters for it because 'oh, to make it look real' again? And that is the only raison d'être of these characters in the film. It not only then comes across as robbing them of the power given in their introduction scene (that they have started up a business) but also makes the empowerment look as tokenism.

And the most problematic is its climax (which even elicited applause from the audience): the victim step-daughter, who had been treating her stepmom unfairly even when the former was almost in comatose condition in an ICU, finally accepts her after she has killed the rapist right in front of her. The film wants to peddle this desperate, quick-fix ideology, and sadly but not-so-surprisingly it seems to be working for a few audience.

Mom is a populist film. That is not a problem. Problem is: it masquerades as a high art. Could this be a subversion, or a subtext of a high-society, well-guarded woman going off-boundaries, on roads? But there is very little that supports this case, because the filmmaking is so inert that it is oblivious to any class hierarchy and its issues, which in a rape revenge film, surely cannot be overlooked.

ARR in an interview told how he asked the director to tweak a scene so that he could fit in a semi-classical track in the soundtrack - Be Nazara. What is the longest song in the album, appears for fleeting seconds in the film, adding nothing but Style. Now you get some idea what the makers wanted to achieve in this film. The esoteric sight and sound of this film constantly tells where the film wants to belong -- which is definitely not with the masses. So, you have a film which is not true to its content, and its form misleads its content.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rangoon

(This is not a review. I was so overwhelmed by the film and its layers, themes and characters that I had to put down what -- and how -- I saw few of them. This might read like I am trying to make myself understand the film. So, spoilers ahead, of course.)


A film set. Shooting crew – all male. It’s a musical opening scene, fantastic one at that. All are singing in the praise of one woman – Julia. Miss Julia.

Director cuts the scene. He approves it. Producer appears from the top, with unmistakable tyranny, and orders one more take to be shot, with altogether new and more daring actions.

Mujhe Mrs. Billimoria huey bina nahi marna hai,” tells Julia to him.

“You are Julia. Miss Julia… My Julia,” replies Rusi Billimoria, the producer.

Julia is the identity he has given to her. Her real name was Jwala Devi, we learn later. She was a gypsy, a street performer. Rusi spotted her and bought her from her mother for a thousand rupees, we learn this in a different scene even later.

These verbal details are spurted casually in a funny conversation. You gather these fragments and connect to know the character, their story. Even for a minor character of a Japanese soldier, we first see him singing, while held captive in a deserted church; later, he tells he is a music school graduate; even later we also see him playing a mouth organ.

Rusi bought Julia when she was 14. She is now star action actress of his studio. And he is in love with her. He calls her “kiddo”. Their relationship is very dominant-submissive. Patting his thighs, he asks her to sit on his lap. She submits.

And then there is Jamadaar Nawab Mallik. He comes in the picture as a personal bodyguard of Miss Julia. And with him, she falls in love… that spiritual kind. They realise that when they are away in a jungle and in deep mud. It’s perhaps a foreshadowing that their love story is meant to be doomed.

But as it turns out, in the second half, Mallik is in single-minded love with the nation (He is an INA rebel). Like how Rusi is with Julia. Rusi even divorces his wife. He tells his father, “Mohabbat jaan bujh kar toh nahi ki. Bas ho gayee.” We then realise that this tyrant might have a heart after all. He would let the dead body of an INA rebel rot in jungle, but cannot gather himself to hold a gun against a kid of another rebel, despite his loyalty towards British makes him call them traitors.

This torn and conflicted love triangle finds, right in the middle of the story, the oldest symbolism in the books – a bridge. VB makes it work – adding that melancholic ‘Alvida’ track. The second time these lovers assemble near the bridge, which is at the end, a lot of water has flown under it, and they are not the same as they were.

Julia now refuses to sit on Rusi’s lap. She is realising her own identity; where her heart lies. She tells him, “Tum uda lo toh main aasmaan mein, tum bula lo toh jaangh pe. Tum kaho toh main Miss Julia, tum bolo toh mai Mrs. Bilimoria.

Nawab’s devotion for nation has broken upon her. He tells her, “Tum apne jism me bandh ho.” She was only a fairness-cream applying actress, until then, who used to roam in her tinted car in Bombay, indifferent to the freedom protests happening around. We also see one early scene in a different light now, when Rusi offers her a ring and asks to wear once the wound on her finger is healed. She tells, “(Zakham) jaldi nahi bharega,” and wears the ring over it, as if covering every bit of her childhood injury with all the luxury that is coming her way through him. It’s when the surrounding and surmounting politics hits her personally, taking away her beloved as well as her dear Man Friday, she has her realisation. It’s like her coming-of-age.

Action star Julia comes out of the screen now. She hijacks a train (This is the Rail Ki Rani film that Rusi had denied her to star in). And we head towards the climax which could be a companion piece to Haider’s climax.

Haider's finale was covered in ice; this one takes place between fire and water. If Tabu’s character was symbolic of Kashmir there, Julia is India here. How both are lost in the battle. Shahid plays rebel in both the films, but with different fates (No, not talking about Kaminey here). It is in this last moment, we see Rusi having a change of heart. He does what he had perhaps seen Julia doing on street when she was 14 – maut ka rassa (Rusi had also starred in a film called Maut Ka Rassa -- we see the poster in an earlier scene). Julia walked tight rope all her life. (It is also for this reason that I wish it was Julia who gets to do that again with the sword. It would have been a proper coming-of-age, and of course, more than that). Rusi manages to do it in the finale. We don’t see him crossing it – film fades out and ends.

The bridge to Rangoon is burnt. The rebel for freedom continues.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cities Of Sleep (Documentary) Review

Director: Shaunak Sen

In the first chapter of Anurag Kashyap’s recently released Raman Raghav 2.0, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Sindhi Dalvai (or Ramanna) surrenders to police saying he is here because he’ll get a proper place to sleep in jail; they charge thirty rupees outside. Policemen find his reason to surrender baffling, and one of them calls him a joker. What is strikingly similar between Ramanna and the protagonist of Shaunak Sen’s documentary on the business of sleep in Delhi, other than both lacking a proper sleeping place, is that both, inhabiting in the sleepless underbellies of two metro cities, are quintessential unreliable narrators. Difference: former is a serial killer, latter, a beggar.

He’s Shakeel, a migrant from Assam. Shakeel is not his real name though. It’s Manoj. He adopted this Muslim name because it gives him a sense of belonging with the people and places he walks into, which is dominated by Muslims. Naturally, a homeless, he has no place to sleep. He finds solace in sleeping shelters at night. Jamal Bhai, otherwise a tea vendor, gives cots to rent for anything between 20 and 50 rupees. It's mind-boggling to see how an entrepreneurial venture has been made out from a part of human routine.

Jamal Bhai does not trust Shakeel’s rugged and scarred face. No one does. Neither the filmmaker, nor the film. Shakeel has an impaired vision. His stories are hardly reliable. Homeless in Delhi, he has a pucca home back in his hometown in Assam. His not-so-good relationship with his father is the reason why he's in Delhi. His father wants him to have a steady job; is also willing to fix him up with one, but his arrogance comes midway. He’s also a wife-beater, he confesses. He can’t speak English, but can sing to the rap tunes of Bollywood songs. We see these flashes of his, and like a misleading compass in hand, we follow the story that has now become more about the biography of a person than a place.



Midway while filming, the crew lost Shakeel. He disappeared and was unreachable for around six months. Sen told after the screening that Shakeel bagged roles in two local TV shows in that period and one Bollywood film – Rajkumar Hirani’s Aamir Khan starrer p.k.; he’s the blind beggar on the bridge from whom Aamir takes money calling him an ATM. When he returned, he was indeed almost blind.

And in this period when they lost Shakeel, they found Ranjith – film’s another character who adds abstract and philosophical dimension to the story. Ranjith runs a sleeping shelter at Loha Pul, an old iron bridge over Yamuna River in Delhi, which is also a makeshift cinema tent. Ten rupees for three films on a T.V. that gives over six hours of peace. He acknowledges TV as a dream dispensing machine. “The best part of sleeping while watching a film is that you can’t make out what you’re watching is a film or a dream,” he philosophizes. For him, a sleep-inducing movie is not boring, it’s magical.

It’s really magical to see what ways people find to find a peaceful sleep. Meagre labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers do look peaceful when they are asleep or watching films here. “You can be anyone here, you can choose not to be a rickshawala that you are for the outside world,” says Ranjith while talking about his sleeping shelter as an escapist outlet. But within each of them is their daily tussle of survival.

Beneath them is the turbid water of Yamuna that fishes out around ten dead bodies a month. And above them passes the busy, lively city road. They, literally, exist between life and death. Extending on this metaphysical nature of sleep, Ranjith goes on to say, “Sleeping is like existing between life and death, between light and dark, between day and night. There’s a pattern, a rhythm, like how our body rises and submerges as we breathe while sleeping.”

Cities of Sleep tells in its opening scene that sleeping, in the city of Delhi, is not just a necessity or a habit, it's a privilege. It's a luxury that many can't afford. “The city can be seen divided merely on who sleeps where.” In between this socio-economic commentary on sleeping, the same voice slips in a philosophical one, “If you want to seize control over anyone, don’t let him/her sleep.” So the tone is set right at the beginning. It doesn’t feel odd when Ranjith philosophises, a little too much, about... sleeping. His ramblings do come across as heavily constructed though. But then which art form isn’t?

However, it does feel that the director has a pre-conceived, pre-researched idea and the visuals, no matter how fluid, want to direct us towards that inherent idea. Well, that’s, in fact, the nature of cinéma vérité but the idea is not to make it feel like that. Here it does. (So, is it being too true to be, err, truthful cinema?) Like that scene where a father is applying mosquito repellent to his kids to make them sleep peacefully and Amitabh Bachchan’s voice, talking about a poor man’s struggle to raise kids, from the nearby cinema tent runs as a voiceover. And the father goes on to tell his kids bedtime story – a regular hare-and-tortoise one, which is another story whose central conceit involves... sleeping.

There’s an upper-class gaze attached in the way Sen films Shakeel, one can accuse. In a scene, Shakeel looks at the camera, and asks, “You never do anything for me; only keeps on recording me.” In another documentary (or any film, for that matter), one would deduce such a scene to a fourth-wall breaking scene where the character is directly addressing to the audience. Here, the character is talking to the maker – the observer filmmaker – rather than the audience. The scene works at an altogether another level because, in a way, by intruding himself in between the audience and the protagonist, Sen made the process even more unobtrusive.

Sen doesn’t reply to Shakeel in that scene... instantly. Sen confessed after the screening that he was taken aback for a moment and after a long pause, he did reply to him. But we don’t see that in the film, because the story that Sen wants to tell lies in that long pause. And when you have a good story in hand, as they say, don’t let facts come in the way of it.


This review was initially published at TheW14.com.

Death of a Gentleman Review

Directors: Sam Collins, Jarrod Kimber, Johnny Blank

First things first: I know cricket as much as I know Greek. Last cricket match I saw was in 2001. An exhilarating India v/s England. India not only won that match but was also exempted from paying the taxes. It was Lagaan. We could have won an Oscar too, but that’s another sad story.

That fictional match aside, it is true that cricket is a colonial gift to Indian sports culture. This Englishman’s, or as they call it, Gentleman’s game was played to promote and expand the reach of colonialism in deeper pockets of India. But what the end of imperialism meant – that the world will now embrace democracy – didn’t really reflect in the game of cricket. Imperialism never left cricket. In fact, it grew.

Death of a Gentleman is about this growing imperialism in the game and the imperialists, viz. England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Cricket Australia (CA) and, mainly, the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI).

Two Australian cricket journalists – Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber – embark upon to document stories about the dying form of cricket: the test cricket. But in the process, they find out that the reason of the death of the game is the game itself – in its other form, called T20, and its various tournaments, particularly the Indian Premiere League (IPL).


“The test cricket is a test of skills, test of courage, and test of intelligence,” says one gentleman in the film. But seems like the five-day format of the game is also turning out as a ‘test of patience’ for some of its audiences. They seek instant entertainment. Are sports the place where they should look for it? Not sure. But T20, as a condensed version of the game packed with sixes and fours, does provide some entertainment; IPL, even more… in its raw, visceral yet glamorous form. “IPL does not compete with test cricket. It competes with Bollywood,” says ex-cricketer and commentator Arun Lal.

IPL is giving this 2-min-instant-noodles generation what they want. How does this explain the death of the older form of the sport? Take this case: In April 2012, Australia was on its tour in West Indies to play a test series of three matches other than five ODIs and two T20s. ODIs and T20s resulted into ties, but for the tests, the selectors simply couldn’t pick some of the top players of West Indies XI, including Chris Gayle who recently lead his team win the T20 World Cup Championship, as they were thousand miles away playing for the IPL. As a result, the West Indies faced a severe blow, losing 2-0 (one match being withdrawn due to rains).

Corporates and capitalists are putting monies where audiences’ affinity lies. Players are where the money is. This makes cricket historian Gideon Haigh raise a pertinent question, quite early in the film, which also sums up the film: Does cricket make money to exist or does it exist to make money?
Though the answer is apparent, the film tries to find it in profound ways. As it turns out, the simple looking money investing and money chasing business is a nexus with the then BCCI and ICC head N Srinivasan sitting at its top.

What makes him the imperialist of the game? He signed off a rule that made cricket boards of top three cricket playing countries – India, England and Australia – hold equal shares of revenue upto fifty percent of the ICC grants, thus sidelining poorer countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and jeopardizing their cricketing culture. This economic imbalance also means that there would be countries which could never play this beautiful game. They reduced and regressed the gentleman in this Gentleman’s Game to a crony, oppressive one as imagined in the colonial era.

China, for a population of over a billion, receives only $30, 000 as grants from the federation. It would invest more by themselves if cricket is accepted into Olympics. So why hasn’t ICC pushed for cricket into Olympics? To which, Srinivasan replies, with the entitlement that he assumes, that he has all the rights to put the board’s interest first.

The duo journalists take time to come up on screen and chart out the nexus equations on a blackboard, posing pressing questions. But this technique hardly works in their favor, because 1) they are bad actors; 2) pointing out questions in a staged sequence robs the film of its inherent drama. They finished documenting the story in 2015 before the main villain portrayed in the film, N Srinivsan, was dethroned from both the bodies – ICC as well as the BCCI. So the relevance of this documentary now is again slightly doubtful but it must be seen as a record of the time when the game seemed to be in peril, and probably still is.

Sneaking from the darker alleys of crony capitalism, the film, in parallel, runs into a human tale of Australian opener of Ed Cowan that shows some light. But even that is hindered as we see him going on duck in the first innings of his career’s last test. He is personified metaphor of the game we are talking about.

Death of a Gentleman is a passionate and heartfelt love letter to the purest form of cricket by two of its most ardent devotees who miss not only the gentlemen who played the game but also those who stood with them in the stadium.

This review was originally published on TheW14.com

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Kaabil Music Review


"Misdirected musical disaster"
Music: Rajesh Roshan, Gourov-Roshin
Ratings: ½ star



1. Kaabil Hoon
What transpires in the first minute of the song is musical misdirection of ridiculous proportions: there are neat claps and strings for precisely ten seconds before a jazzy saxophone, followed by vocals (Jubin Nautiyal) – so far so good – but just when Jubin changes a verse, kicks in a… dafli. And this dafli-like sounding percussion is equally supported by electronic percussion. Before I could even understand the point of it, the track has changed a few scales and has become a cacophonous disaster. The tune is inherently dated (which is Rajesh Roshan’s inextricable problem – you can’t take him out of the ‘80s), which makes it look like Roshan wants best of both the worlds here—old and new – but he cripples when electronic music is bestowed upon him. His under-confidence is visible.

Only benefit – strictly in terms of structure and not composition – that this song had due to this old-fashioned music director is that when you feel the song would end, which is around 03:50, Roshan reminds us how a tune (no matter good or bad, old or new) has to let grow organically and not chop for radio-slot length. But that portion has Palak Muchhal at her shrillest. This one title track is enough for you to dread of five more songs of the album.

2. Haseeno Ka Deewana
Roshan’s own song from Yaarana gets here what every old song is getting these days: a recreated version. Gourov-Roshin have done it. They end up making something which could be a challenge for listeners to listen it on full volume on their earphones and come out without damaged ears. I didn’t want to give it more than a single listen. All I could hear is transformers rioting with sample sounds thrown in.

3. Kuch Din
Finally a mellowed track and I raise the volume of my earphones again. This romantic track has nice tune, old-world again, but it needed an old-world singer. Jubin Nautiyal makes it devoid of any soul. But he is not to be blamed alone, as more than him it’s over-dependence on electronic and poor production value that mars the track. A naturally produced and orchestrated female version of this song by someone like Alka Yagnik would tell you what this song really is.

4. Mon Amour
The slow prelude before the main dance track is nice. The arrangement here is neat too. But it’s so generic and gets so repetitive that it becomes exhaustive to hear. And, of course, Vishal Dadlani for slightly western and energetic track is an obvious choice.

5. Kaabil Hoon (Sad Version)
The sad version rendition of the main hook of the title track by Jubin Nautiyal is so funny that you don’t feel sad or anything anymore.

6. Kisi Se Pyar Ho Jaye
Gourov-Roshin recreate another song of Roshan. This one from Julie (the word Julie in the song is replaced by Jaana) with additional lyrics by Kumaar which feels like they exist in another song. Again, electronic laden, and with meandering piano bits which just doesn’t gel. Zubin, again, is not evocative at all.

Kaabil is a misdirected disaster by all measures.

Dangal Music Review

"Pritam in top form, again"
Music: Pritam
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Ratings: ***1/2


1. Haanikaarak Bapu
The album starts with this cracker of a song about Mahavir Phoghat training his three young daughters for wrestling. It gets an ironical title "Bapu sehat ke liye tu toh haanikaarak hai" and Bhattacharya's quirky pen doesn't stop here -- "Tujhse behtar toh Hindi filmo ke khalnayak hai" is cheeky at its best for this song featuring one of Hindi film's superstars. But the real superstars of the song are the kids Sarwar Khan and Sartaz Khan Barna who lend their playful voice. Rare instance where a song sung by kids isn't just a children's song. And Pritam does wonders by employing them as chorus too.

2.  Dhaakad
Starts with a folk tune on sarangi, enter electronic sound and it grows into a Haryanvi rap but the folksy elements (highlighted by a been) doesn't go missing at any point in this superb fusion. Raftaar is excellent with the rap which is punctuated by invigorating chorus for the title hook.

Aamir Khan goes behind microphone to render his version of the song which is exactly same. An actor singing the song is a marketing fad but Aamir’s attempt isn’t half bad.

3. Gilheriyaan
Lyricist Bhattacharya's obsession with plural Hindi words (the ones that ends with '-yaan') continues here to find him a new hook. The song is breezy -- I particularly like the opening. The rhythm is strongly reminiscent of Sachin-Jigar’s Jaise Mera Tu from Happy Ending. Jonita Gandhi’s mellifluous voice gives you a sour-sweet taste in your mouth.

4. Dangal
Pritam continues to employ chorus for effect here. It creates a tense mood with the strings in the start, but Daler Mehndi’s pitches in with so much power that the energy just doesn’t drop till the end of this 5 min track. It does feel a little long for listening, though. Great arrangement in the background – mainly with strings, electric guitar and bass.

5. Naina
Channa Mereya hangover is strong in the opening, only less effective. Strings are used very well here too but Arijit’s voice sounds too dripped in melancholia for this mellow track. Forgettable one.
[Update: The song really grew after watching the film -- it is very nicely picturized.]

6. Idiot Banna
A shaadi/sangeet song sung by Nooran sisters. There are nice touches – like the strings in the background in the opening – but it doesn’t escape from the trap of sounding like a regular shaadi song. Also, it does get noisy at times.


Pritam, right after Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, continues to be in his top form. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

18th Mumbai Film Festival Round-up

Mumbai Film Festival, organised by MAMI, has become an annual ritual for all the films fanatics over the years. Attended by thousands of film lovers across the country, the line-up had over 170 titles this year. It was my fifth year at the fest which was in its 18th edition this year. I saw around 20 films – liked a few, loved a few, hated some, slept throughout one or two. Here’s a round-up of top 10 films I enjoyed at the fest:




1. Under The Shadow (Babak Anvari; UK): UK’s Oscar entry for this year is a Farsi language political horror set in Tehran, 1988 during the Iranian revolution. For her active participation in the protest, Shideh, an aspiring doctor, is asked to quit the course. Her doctor husband is supportive of her but is helpless as he is posted in another city. The relationship setup in the initial minutes is very Asghar Farhadi-ish.  Peter Bradshaw, film critic of Guardian, has put it right for this film – it is Asghar Farhadi meets Roman Polanski. Horrors of political war kill dreams and ambitions of Shideh who, after her husband’s posting, is left alone with her daughter at their apartment. Their fears, insecurity (of her being an incompetent mother) and surrounding paranoia culminate into horrors of supernatural. Even though it has all the tropes of a regular horror film, it manages to surprise and shock you at right places.

2. The Untamed (Amate Escalante; Mexico): Escalante's follow-up film after Heli whose one bizarre violent scene is still etched in my mind since I watched it at the fest in 2013. He takes the bizarre-ness even further this time. A couple goes through shifts in their relationship after a meteorite has an effect over their village and due to the presence of a mysterious creature. A complex relationship drama in its first hour then opens like a thriller. It has deliciously wicked 'Tell, don't show' moments. Telling anything more would be a spoiler thanks to its anti-climactic storytelling.

3. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi; Iran): Iran’s only Oscar winner filmmaker is in his elements… so much that you can call him a formula. But you know no one else can replicate this formula. Highly original, superlative human drama that unfolds like a thriller. A couple moves into a new apartment (there’s a shot referencing his own About Elly in this moving-in scene) whose previous tenant was apparently a promiscuous woman. Characters and their motivation reflect the political-religious conflict in the state of Iran. One tiny throwaway detail towards the end sums up the entire plot and moral conflict of the film. And, as usual, follow the use of glass in the film, you will see the story that Farhadi wants you to see. This film is Farhadi’s fourth film in last seven years to be Iran’s Oscar entry.

4. After The Storm (Hirokazu Koreeda; Japan): There’s barely anything to dislike in this warm relationship drama of a novelist-turned-detective and his separated wife. Set at a relaxed pace and in what looks like a middle, quieter town of Japan, the film’s charm will resonate with the Indian palettes who have grown on Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films. One character of the lead’s mother is a show-stealer. Simple yet profound, watching this film is like reading your favourite novel.

5. Neruda (Pablo Larrain; Chile): A brilliant biopic of revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda that doesn’t follow the regular structure of a biopic. It is anti-biopic, in a way. Not a hagiography, it puts Neruda, the poet, and his communist ideals in question. He is chased by a cop, Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is also narrating the story as if he is writing the script alongside. Digital lens flare is used to produce utmost beautiful frames; jump-cut in editing pattern is used innovatively. Smart, witty, hilarious, it turns its head and becomes poetic at the end with ease.

6. Chronicles Of Hari (Ananya Kasaravalli; India): Chronicles Of Hari is a solid examination of gender-queer in a culturally patriarchal and sexist society through the life and gender dichotomy of a Yakshagana artist who is a streepatradhari (man who plays the role of woman in this theatrical dance form). Two documentary filmmakers – a male and a female – are trying to find whereabouts of Hari, of which the female is convinced that Hari committed suicide. This is telling of female sympathy with Hari. The other sympathetic female in the film is Hari’s mother. Examining how modern society, where Sec 377 is prevalent, perceives an artist – and tries to oppress him – this is more than just a queer and intersectional feminist film. It is so brilliantly photographed that you freeze any frame, you’ll get a gobsmacking still.

7. Apprentice (Boo Junfeng; Singapore): Apprentice could very well have been a Gulzar or a Manto short story. But it cannot be a short film. The story needs a feature length to be told in visual medium, and Junfeng does it brilliantly. A former soldier has newly joined as a guard in a state prison. He is hiding something about his lost father and then he finds a father-figure in the prison's executioner. The plot is so predictable that you know right from the beginning what the last shot of the film will be. But it doesn't matter. You wait to see that. It's about "how" more than "what". Engrossing dramatic build-ups, searing emotional tension... everything photographed effectively by Benoit Soler who also shot Singapore's Oscar entry of 2013, Anthony Chen's brilliant Ilo Ilo. Chen and now Junfeng are the two young filmmakers from Singapore to watch out for.

8. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach; UK): It is this year’s Palme d’Or (Cannes) winner, and that makes it another year for a relatively mainstream content winning the top honour. Daniel Blake, a retired carpenter, in his struggle with the red tape, digital-by-default system to make way for his old-age funds, meets a single mother whom the system has failed equally. Light-hearted and funny initial minutes grow into heart-breaking and severely empathetic tale. Few cliché plot points and utterly predictable climax but one angsty scene wins everything over.

9. The Lovers And The Despot (Ross Adam, Robert Canna; US): The fact that something like this happened is so hilarious that I stopped minding its over dramatic treatment. A divorced South Korean film couple – director and actress – is kidnapped by the dictator of the neighbouring communist country for them to make films. It's a dream for any director to get to make films of his choice with all the country's money. In a Stockholm Syndrome kind of situation, he did give North Korea its first romantic film and made non-propaganda films... but now the filmmaking itself is a propaganda.

10. Cinema Travellers (Amit Madhesiya, Shirley Abraham; India): India’s only official Cannes selection this year is an outstanding documentary on touring talkies in Maharashtra. The documentary follows Mohammed, Bapu – both owners of touring talkies that takes films to villages and shows them in a tent – and Prakash, a projector-repairing engineer, whose story tells the larger theme of digital invasion in films. Beautifully shot, this docu is a relentless journey (it took eight years in making) of following a story which is told like a fiction.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mirzya Movie Review

Few minutes into Mirzya, you know that the film wants you to feel that you are watching an epic – with a capital E – but all you could feel for in the film is…nothing. And you wonder, well, yeah, how can you, as a cinema lover, not feel anything when you just witnessed the names of some cinema stalwarts in the opening credits? It’s not a great feeling. Last time I got this feeling while watching a film was during Bombay Velvet. And like Bombay Velvet, this one is bogged down by the same problem of self-seriousness.


The film is taking itself too seriously. There’s conscious attempt to make and look everything like… Epic. Which is why, despite of opening the film with a fourth-wall-breaking invitation (by Om Puri) into the alleys of blacksmiths, the film doesn’t feel inviting; it goes on its own trip. Despite of its free fluid photography, the form appears rigid. I can imagine what a hard time P S Bharathi would have had editing this film which is also a musical. Problem is, her hard time is clearly showing. The transition between two music pieces is not really in tandem with the rhythm of the frames – it makes its stellar soundscape appear patchy.

Yet, even after having a great team -- Gulzar for writing the film and songs, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for writing the score, Pawel Dyllus as the director of photography, Bharathi as the editor, this is completely a director's film. Which should have been a achievement. But it clearly isn't. Which is why all the flaws should rightly be credited to Mehra rather than to the individual department.

Gulzar does get to display his flashes of genius here. Take the first ten minutes of the film: We are taken to the childhood of Munish and Suchi. They are school buddies. Suchi takes the caning from the teacher for homework not done by Munish. Her father is a police officer. We see him cleaning his pistol. Munish sees it too. But the only idea of what's going in the kid’s head we have is his concern for his best friend whose palms are now bruised red. You now know where it's going but nothing is as pronounced on the screen. It's minimal, it's a shocker. We hear, in Gulzar’s voice, “Ishq me aksar yeh bhi hota hai; chot kahi lagti hai, zakhm kahi par hota hai.” (It often happens in love; someone is injured, someone else is wounded). It's broken, and deathly poetic. This part should have been the prologue, and the other shocker towards the end, when Gulzar Saab reminds us the same lines again, should've been followed with a fitting epilogue. At least, the symmetrical structure and the book-ending nature of the prose wouldn't have been sacrificed with a tepid mid-act.

These two scenes are brilliant visual storytelling that only a master like Gulzar could write. Even in verbal scenes, there's a lot to admire in his minimal yet effective writing. When grown-up Adil returns to Suchi’s father reminding him about the kid who stole his pistol saying that the kid used to love Suchi and he still does, the father walks up to him and asks how did he change his name from Munish to Adil? This is great economy of words. No major slack, no melodrama heavy exchange, yet powerfully convincing. Also, when Suchi is telling her horse-riding tutor Adil about her frolic affairs with Munish, Adil fires back with go find him in Govardhan Public School. No “how did he…?”, no other questions asked, one eureka moment and that's all. Lovely economy, again.

In the same ‘grown-up Suchi meets grown-up Munish’ scene, they confront physically more than orally, you do see some igniting passion -- she ends up tearing his gunjee, you see the first-timer actors are giving their best here, but you somehow don't feel the passion. Again, it's a completely directorial flaw -- he owns each and every frame of this film. This scene is the most modernly youthful one in this time traversing tale -- there's sexual tension, there's anger, there's underlying emotion of rekindled love, but all in thought, nothing on screen. Give this scene to Imtiaz Ali and see the magic.

Mehra is more invested in the form here than the content. It's not a bad thing. Except that we as an audience aren't invested in it much. Even if you want to, you either get the feel that even the director doesn't know what he has to do here or he finds methods to alienate us in the pretence of artistic ambition if he himself isn't alienated at first place. He wants his labour-of-love frames to speak to us, not realising that he is hammering them on us with those underlining background score and slo-mo shots. Gulzar roots this Mirza-Sahiban folklore through the musical sutradhaar (in Daler Mahendi’s voice) in rustic Punjabi language. But how do you expect a Polish DoP to understand Punjabi and translate it on screen? His tracking, trolleying, top-angles, low-angles add to the good-looking style but has no sense and purpose of narrative. It is like Mehra wants to tell us time and again that there's something deep, but, afraid not, there’s nothing, at least in his filmmaking.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Parched Movie Review

Just last week we had this small film in theaters that managed to bring a nuanced dialogue on feminism in the popular medium which no Hindi film ever has. The film was called Pink. Pink too had three female characters – all victims of patriarchy (who were eventually supported by a patriarch lawyer in their fight) which makes them no different than the women in Parched except for their socio-economic status (Pink’s women are independent, working in the upper middle-class of Delhi; Parched’s are from repressed rural Rajasthan). Pink tried to deal with monstrosity of patriarchy heads-on. But Parched is so ridiculously simplistic and superficial that it remains largely an ineffective film.


The film’s problem shows up right in the first fifteen minutes of the film – it’s the perspective. It’s seen through a foreign lens (quite literally – the film is shot by Russell Carpenter, the Academy Award winner DoP of Titanic. Yes, Titanic! That’s the biggest coup the film could get). It’s not only an outsider’s perspective with which this film has been written, staged and shot but it’s very urbane – which is in stark contrast to the film’s setup, and that’s what makes it look like what they call an exotica. Oh and deserts are the first ingredient in an exotica recipe (The foreigner DoP is second).

It’s the panchayat scene in the opening minutes, I’m talking about, where a girl called Champa (Sayani Gupta) has escaped from her husband's home for being abused there. Lajjo is shocked and moved by her situation (which did provide some foreshadowing here: escape is the solution here). Problem is not the issue Champa brings up -- we are aware of it; it exists, but can we have a nuance here? Everything is so spelled out and the approach is, again, too simplistic. This scene not only sets the tone but is also the microcosm of the discourse we are about to follow. But most importantly, it tells how (un)informed the filmmaker is. No matter how aware we are of the rural issues and its discourse, when bringing it into a medium – and a popular medium like films, what an informed filmmaker could do at least is bring it with such a nuance and insight that it reminds you how burning – and neglected – the issue is. That’s a thing to learn from Nagraj Manjule – Sairat was a Romeo-Juliet story, but look what he did!

Even the language mouthed by the actors sounds forced rustic – as if they are not Rajasthanis but are made to act in a Rajasthani film (Radhika Apte, at multiple times, slips into her Marathi accent in an attempt to get that rural dialect). Which is well it is. All the falseness and cracks shows up and glares through the beautiful frames. Another extraneous element in the film is the third character of Bijli – a dancer and a prostitute. She is the symbol of (sexual) liberation here. Nothing is wrong with that—she, well, has control and choice over her body – but that’s from where the slightly misplaced sense of feminism comes in in the other two characters’ lives and in the film.

When one (Apte’s Lajjo) is in an abusive marriage and the other (Tannishtha Chatterjee’s Rani) is troubled by her growing son and his hyper-masculine ego, sexual liberation would rather be the last thing to aspire or protest for. For things to get right in their lives, this is extreme and escapist. But that’s what the film suggests. The women merely escape from their problems as if the world outside is not a patriarchal one (remember what happened with Champa?). One could say aspiring for beauty in this beautiful-looking film is going for it. Only that that conceit is hardly convincing. The last thing they do enroute their escape is… haircut. Short hair is how right-wing nuts associate feminists with. Of course, here it is meant as a metaphorical scene. But it’s again in the sense of the extreme steps.  It is Feminism 101 (Bechdel Test was invented for this movie). The story and the conflicts they (the film and the characters, both) are escaping from warrant for a drama; the solution is melodramatic. 

Pandering to the West and conforming to their sense of beauty, you know this film has no business to do with the world it’s dealing with. Pretty sure, Yadav, the director, was desperate for this film to be India’s Oscar submission – which is why it’s been quickly released on the last day of the eligibility criteria date (films to be considered for Oscar submission should have run for at least a week in theaters before 30th October this year). But hard luck, Yadav. And all the best, Visaranai. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Akira Movie Review


Problem Child 
Akira
Director: A. R. Murugadoss
Actors: Sonakshi Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Konkona Sensharma



One of the major aspects of commercial films is that they are aspirational in nature. Which is why they are commercial, at first place. They sell dreams or unrealities that don’t exist or you wish they exist off screen, outside the dark theatre. You love the hero bashing up villains on screen, delivering instant justice. He is your hero, you aspire to be him. Akira twists a few conventions here: first, Sonakshi Sinha, a female, is your hero; second, it doesn’t promise you to sell dreams, it is so constricted by realities that you feel the film is compromising of being a commercial masala film. But the latter un-convention is informed by the former one and, if you see the point, it works.

Akira was raised as a fighter by her father (Atul Kulkarni) right from her childhood (Mishiekka Arora, fine find – she does look like young Sonakshi) in the small town of Jaipur. She delivers justice, almost instantly, and establishes herself as the hero of the film. But the world has always been unfair to her. After serving three years in remand home, she comes out as a recluse rather than a raging problem child of the ‘70s masala. But she becomes a problem child – first for the system, then for the family – after she is reluctantly moved to a bigger city, Mumbai – hinting that she is meant for bigger fights, graver world. Her bigger-fight-affinity is nicely developed in two similar scenes where she is seen to be the last one to sit in the classroom as a refusal to participate in the protest for trivial canteen-food issues but also the last one to sit on the road protesting for a genuine cause against the policemen.

The main plot of the film comes rather offhanded. Akira has nothing to do with it, literally. She gets entangled into it without even knowing what she is into. The story is more like a thriller but Murugadoss brews it into his world, with his stamp. There are massy moments. There are extremely good-natured characters you would empathize with (including Akira, of course) like in a melodrama. Then there are massy moments coming from and involving these good-hearted characters. Anurag Kashyap, the enfant terrible and problem child of the indie films, plays the pot-smoking, hedonist villain in this masala. His writer-backed character has a blunt mouth causing for few guffaws in the film but he is no Nana Patekar. Konkona Sensharma, at the other extreme of the police system, plays the Fargo-inspired, well-meaning, pregnant cop, and the other female in this film who has to compromise to the system.

Akira can be a character study. When she did the right thing, she was wronged by the law. When she did nothing, she was again wronged by the system. Of course, no character can be as black-and-white as right-and-wrong but reading into her would tell you what is wrong with the society. Interference of the world in her life is so scathing that it has left her being misunderstood by her own family. In a scene, Anurag Kashyap is in a room with a sex-worker (another wronged female in the film) and there are posters of films like Sujata, Pakeezah, Dirty Picture and Kashyap’s own Dev D on the wall. Women in all these films were looked down upon by the society. Akira could, well, might end up on the same wall.