Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Note on QUEEN (Hindi; 2014)

It would be easy to dismiss director Vikas Bahl's Queen as the sort of movie one has often seen in Hollywood, and that is increasingly common in Bollywood: suffused with a kind of cheap liberalism that makes one root for a sympathetic and intensely imagined female character, in a world populated by a number of men who are, not to put too fine a point on it, assholes, and who in some way, shape or form will get what's coming to them.  Queen certainly is that, but it is also quirky, charming, and at times very funny, so much so that by the end I was reminded that cheap liberalism isn't the worst thing in the world.  If movies had hearts, this one -- about a bride-to-be who won't let a little thing like having a wedding called off get in the way of a "honeymoon" to Paris and Amsterdam, each city with gurus ready to initiate her into "real life" -- would have its in the right place, even if there's never any doubt about what you'll find there.

The film is a triumph for Kangana Ranaut, who not only carries it off, but almost HAS to, for the film to be even remotely credible.  (The other actors don't have very much to do beyond play assigned stock characters -- there's a smattering of assorted Punjabis; Raj Kumar Rao's Vijay is Rani's fiancé and a prick; Bokyo Mish's Olik is the sensitive European roommate; Lisa Haydon is well-cast as a Paris hottie with a heart of gold; and the ensemble has more than a little affinity with English Vinglish, the nastiness of "Mind Your Language" smoothed into a cheerful multiculturalism.)  Rani understands what even the filmmakers do not, namely that Rani is odd, a bit of a misfit in the world, not because she is an "ordinary middle-class girl" from Delhi (the condescending way in which far too many slice-of-life films -- including this one -- are made and marketed these days), but because she is simply odd (to that end, the actress' mumbling dialogue delivery, an irritant in other films, works wonderfully well here).  Ranaut plays Rani as standing out even in her own family, a bit of a wounded bird in a stereotypically raucous Punjabi brood, more child than adult.  Ranaut is right to do so, enabling her to serve as a more effective vehicle for the film's representation of female liberation than any number of ideologues.  Stated differently, Rani isn't liberal or progressive -- she simply suspends judgment on the new people and experiences and encounters, poking gentle fun at a bourgeois tendency to the opposite.  Queen eschews many of the usual Bollywood stereotypes about Westerners (none tries to rape her; no-one is racist; and Paris (far more than Amsterdam) seems like a real place), at least occasionally turning its lens toward desi complacency.

A word about the music: the maddeningly inconsistent Amit Trivedi is in good form here, and not only with the superb remix of Anhonee's Laxmikant-Pyarelal "Hungama ho gaya" (the choice is a clever one: that song's lyrics are also about a (gendered?) double-standard, even if the video is good old-fashioned Bindu sleaze): "Badra Bahaar", "O Gujariya", and "Harjaaiyan" seem promising, although I'll have to spend some more time with the album (I came to the film unfamiliar with its sound, barring the remix).

Films like Queen do run a certain risk: commercial realities mean that they can end up pandering to the very audience they satirize, and there is a bit of that in this film too: thus, culinary xenophobia, a staple of both Bollywood and bourgeois Indian culture, is barely questioned here, despite the open invitation in the form of an Italian chef who sneers at Rani's preference for "Indianizing" every kind of food (rather than engaging with it on its own terms).  This particular story arc ends predictably: with the triumph of Indian food over other kinds of cuisine, staged in a manner that confirms prejudices rather than undermines them.  This isn't a huge deal, but is symptomatic of the unspoken taboo that Hindi films, because of Hindi film audiences, adhere to: don't make people uncomfortable (otherwise-commercial films like Dum Maaro Dum, Delhi-6 or Raavan ignore this at their peril; while even films safely couched in "art-house" idiom -- Gangs of Wasseypur comes to mind -- can be accepted if their disturbing representations are normalized at an anthropological remove: someone, somewhere out there, is this way, not us).  But while watching Queen, I didn't think any of those things, because I was too busy rooting for Rani, the woman at the center of the film, and for the underdog story underlying the casting: once an also-ran, Kangana Ranaut has left Bollywood's queens in her wake.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Phir se aaiyo...

I just saw Namkeen, a film I hadn't previously seen, and nor had I heard any of its songs.  The highlight was undoubtedly "Phir se aaiyo, badariya bidesi," a song of heartbreaking loveliness.  Asha and R.D. Burman suffuse this song with great longing as well as restraint (the latter embodied in Asha's low vocal ranges here); this has to be one of the best songs from the 1980s that I've encountered -- it is simply bewitching:


In both Namkeen and Mausam, Gulzar uses the somewhat discomfiting trope of the woman/women who need rescue, and can't be free unless and until saved by a man; that is hardly new, but in both films Gulzar also features the empathetic male figure who seems to be culpable precisely because of his engagement with the women stuck in a horrible situation; this commitment is in fact what enables him to be a traitor of sorts, to enable irreparable injury out of feebleness.  The result isn't entirely satisfying, but perhaps Gulzar is best appreciated as an evoker of mood, of a nameless melancholia that pervades so many of his films: I don't find it the most successful aesthetic when married to the figure of the lost woman, but transplanted to the terrain of a ruined city -- the Mandu of Kinara -- it works a quiet magic.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A brief note on WOLF OF WALL STREET (English; 2013)

I must confess this film left me a bit cold, at least insofar as it wasn't simply a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio to try and win an Oscar.  Leo is pretty darn good as Jordan Belfort, the self-made millionaire stockbroker who never saw a corner he couldn't cut, playing him with just the right amount of obnoxiousness and arriviste air, but the film seemed indulgent, and tonally inconsistent.  At times farce, comedy, and grim commentary on America's (and perhaps the world's) cult of money, the film is littered with brilliant moments -- a couple of DiCaprio's addresses on the Stratton Oakmont floor stand out -- but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  For that reason, it will be worth re-visiting in bits and pieces, on DVD.

But there is something Scorsese gets right, that no other such film does, certainly not in so comprehensive a way.  Other films document a fall from grace caused by hubris, without disturbing the essential glamor of the central character.  Scorsese and DiCaprio don't take this route, and the film is relentless in showing the degradation to which Belfort's character sinks (the final drug overdose; the sequence where DiCaprio gets violent with his wife, are cases in point).  The easy titillation of Belfort's enjoyment of his wealth isn't where this film stops; it's where it starts to get interesting.  It ends up some editing away from greatness.

A comment on Bollywood's masala remakes...

Responding on this thread at Satyamshot (the first trailer of Murugadoss' Holiday is out):

I’d add that the almost reflexive nature of these Bollywood remakes points to an ideological crisis where the Hindi film industry is concerned. It is almost as if these masala movies are being re-made because they’re the only way that the Hindi film industry today can imagine the idea of an Indian popular cinema, of a popular cinema that isn’t about representing a consumerist lifestyle, or a translation of a Hollywood genre. It is that idea, that possibility, that seems to have excited so many Bombay filmmakers (the Hindi industry’s own masala past is so irretrievable now that recovering it is akin to an archaeological enterprise), to the point where the latter have become like the Caucasian guy we all know, the one who thinks all Asian women are attractive. The mediocrity of the films re-made is almost beside the point; what is truly startling is the inability of Bollywood to tell the difference! The genuine remake here is the endless representation of this bankruptcy, this inability to think through the problem of popular cinema in India.

The wretched trailer itself can be viewed here.

Satyam's response is essential (both mine and his comments will seem in medias res if you haven't been following Satyamshot discussions on Hindi cinema over the years).

Saturday, November 30, 2013


RAM LEELA: When I first heard of "Rowdy Rathore," I wondered what on earth Bhansali was doing producing a film like this. The answer, evidently, was gearing up for the wretched "Ram Leela," a Romeo and Juliet story that seems quite uninterested in romance, preferring the "goliyon ki raasleela," that is to say, the IDEA of a place where people shoot up shit at the drop of a hat. Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh keep talking about love and lust, but they suggest about as much heat as ice cream (the fact that in some way shape or form, this is the umpteenth film in which Padukone plays the supposedly liberated woman, does also detract from the novelty; she might have begun wanting to bust some cliches, but Padukone risks becoming one herself: the juvenile male's fantasy of the kick-ass babe). And then there are the various references to the Ramayana, each one more forced and absurd than the last one -- or perhaps they only seemed that way to me because the script and characterisation were so thin and inconsistent (especially of Ranveer in the second half; Deepika's character is pretty consistent, even as her lover suddenly turns passive and embraces the very system he has been fighting in what can only be termed a sulk). The music is not just mediocre but odd -- it has a very 1990s sort of badness, although it is at least devoid of the completely unjustified sense of self-importance that so pervaded more than one older Bhansali film album.  Perhaps all of this would be forgivable, were the film not so tonally inconsistent: completely "straight" sequences are followed by farcical ones (eg. the "dishaaon dishaaon" song), Bhansali is clunky and awkward handling the dialog's cruder portions (precious is his forte, not earthy), and the result is the sort of mess that made me miss the purity of the vision that brought us "Saawariya". Certainly, Bhansali's latest is nowhere near as boring a film as that one, but it is also more empty. Skip this, and re-visit the far superior Ishaqzaade.

Aside: Abhimanyu Singh was excellent as Ranveer's elder brother, but his role was far too small (someone get this guy more films, please!). 

BULLET RAJA is proof that not everyone can make a masala film. Tigmanshu Dhulia, the man behind the very enjoyable Haasil, and the atmospheric Saahib, Biwi, aur Gangster, has made a turkey, a film that checks off a number of the masala movie boxes -- friendship, love, tragedy, item number, revenge -- but does so in a way that lacks all conviction and drama (oh, and the item number is simply wretched). Stated differently, people simply do things in this film, nothing impels them to that end (and more often than not, a declamation substitutes for any plot development or cinematic moment), and, as with Gangs of Wasseypur (as my fiancée pointed out), because anything can happen at any point, it is hard to take seriously the particular moment when the hero does decide to take the bad guy out. That isn't to say there was no potential: but that was drained away by some loose editing, contributing to my experience of the film as rather "flat," and continuing to drone on and on.  The bhaiyya-setting -- that is to say, a representation of U.P. and Bihar as India's Wild West, where people think nothing of massacring people and firing with gay abandon just about anywhere, and comically sprinkle their speech with mispronounced English -- has become pretty stale by the time we get to this film, and not all of Saif's pretend Brahmin bad-assery can make up for it, especially because at least this viewer was deeply resentful at the way in which Jimmy Shergill was wasted. Saif is simply not a convincing enough screen presence and actor to pull this role off, there was no villain as good as Dhulia himself was in Gangs of Wasseypur... And what the hell was Vidyut Jamwal doing here?! Ah, that "R...Rajkumar" trailer after the interval (in a theatre that was depressingly empty for a first weekend show) never looked better. But never fear, because Bullet Raja does serve one purpose: it reminds us all that we could do worse than watch Ram Leela.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mumbai Film Festival (Oct. 17-24, 2013): Round-Up

La Jaula del Oro ("The Golden Cage")

Liberty Cinema Liberty Cinema

I hadn't attended previous editions of the festival, but my fiancee and I decided to catch as many as we could this time around, not only for the foreign films, but also the Indian ones that rarely make it to wide-release or even a proper DVD release.  Over the festival week there were frustrations galore -- the organizers have set up a perverse booking/registration system that seems intended to use the internet to make life harder; a bunch of screenings weren't compatible with, um, employment; and I missed out on the films by Jafar Panahi; Asghar Farhadi; Hsiao-Hsien Hou; and Jia Zhangke) but nevertheless, there was enough magic (some of it at Bombay's legendary Liberty cinema, with its fantastic Art Deco interior still intact; Metro, sadly, is completely Ambanised as a BIG Cinemas property) to make it all worthwhile:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Music Review: MARYAN (Tamil; 2013)

In retrospect, albums like Delhi-6 seem to have inaugurated a mellow phase in A.R. Rahman’s career.  The last few years have given us a number of albums (Kadal and Raanjhana the most recent of these) to confirm the impression that the master has, where the subject gives him rein, shifted gears: the qawwalis have become more reflective (contrast “Arziyan” (Delhi-6) with “Noor-un-Alaa” (Meenaxi) from a few years earlier); the love songs increasingly suffused with a murmuring longing (“Moongil Thottam” (Kadal)), and even a jazz bent (“Aaromale” (Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya)); the sounds a bit less ornate, but just as rich. Maryan is in this vein.  It is leaner than Raanjhana (Rahman’s most recent Hindi composition), and if two of the lighter tracks are far more trivial than anything in the latter, at its best (which is to say in its four slower songs) Maryan is more reflective, almost unsettlingly so: you really miss it when the music stops playing.  This is, quite simply, Rahman’s best Tamil album in years for any director not named Mani Rathnam.

Rahman’s solo, Nenjae Yezhu, leads off the CD, a few delicate strains reminiscent of water and journeys giving way to soaring vocals that, in their sense of wonder and consciousness of a new landscape beheld, preserve a link with the very early Rahman composition “Ye Haseen Wadian” (Roja).  Over two decades and dozens of albums have barely dimmed the composer’s freshness: while the listener is aware of too much history to lend his encounter with the later work the same aura of discovery that forever tinges Roja, Nenjae Yezhu shows that Rahman remains willing to start again.  The traveler is now older for sure, but his ardor for the journey is as bright as ever.

The same sort of bucolic strains that begin “Ae Hairath-e-Aashiqui” (Guru) lead to Vijay Prakash’s vocals in Innum Konjam Naeram; Shweta Mohan joins a bit later, and the result is a melodious, if conventional, love duet, but one that is immensely satisfying – a reminder, if any were needed, that Rahman comes at the end of a long tradition.  In the final analysis, to take this most hackneyed of film music genres and keep making music that sounds soulful, not jaded, might be one of the composer’s greatest achievements.

Naetru Aval Irundhal is apt as the next track: it takes “Innum Konjam Naeram” a step further, and begins with the low notes and erotic intimacy of Vijay Prakash and Chinmayi (the simple contrast between the two voices – Prakash’s resonant bass in the words “Naetru Aval Irundhal”, reminiscent of Hariharan; followed by Chinmayi’s higher pitched, “thinner” voice, as she playfully croons “He…mariyaan” – is instantly compelling), before taking slow flight into less joyous climes.  Love isn’t just balm for the soul here, it is also suffused with melancholy, as that which will be lost.

My favorite from this album, and a song of heartbreaking loveliness, Yenga Pona Raasa is intensely romantic, taking you to a place that is familiar, sad and filled with meaning.  A song of love and loss, but not, perhaps, of loneliness (merely solitude), it brings “Kannathil Muthamittal” (Kannathil Muthamittal) to mind, although the later song sketches the contours of a soundscape that is nowhere near as lush, but marked by a trace: the afterglow of a lover’s absence.  Shaktishree Gopalan soared with the outstanding “Nenjukkulle” (Kadal) a few months ago, and is unforgettable in this far more introverted track – her pairing with Rahman looks set to give us magic for years to come.

Sonapareeya is charming without quite being memorable, the requisite “catchy number” rendered somewhat interesting by the retro – and vaguely Hindi film-sounding -- “Sonapareeya” refrain that should jar, but doesn’t.  That seamlessness is testament to Rahman’s skill, but the song is pretty modest and is a bit of filler between two outstanding tracks.  I have long been critical of Rahman’s bland rap efforts, but Sofia Ashraf’s vocals here (as, of course, MIA’s outstanding ones in “O Saya” (Slumdog Millionaire)) suggest that perhaps Rahman’s problem is male rap artists.  This album doesn’t do much to dispel that impression: I Love My Africa is unworthy of Rahman (although pretty much what I would expect from Blaaze), and sounds like something cobbled together for the 2010 football World Cup, with bits of heavy percussion, Brian Kabwe’s “Africa…Africa” refrain, and some generic mambo beats – in short, an advertiser’s idea of what an “African sound” might be like.  I wish it were the last song in the album, and thus could more easily be skipped.

Kadal Raasa Naan is actually the last song on the CD, and the opening ten seconds seem to flow from Yenga Pona Raasa (refracted through a Middle Eastern prism), before resolving into a fast-paced, and very Tamil, number sustained by Yuvanshankar Raja’s soulful vocals, combined with occasional neo-shehnai strains.  This song isn’t new, but it is pitched at an urgent level, and is stealthily addictive: I dismissed it as trivial for weeks before realizing that I couldn’t stop listening to the CD until I’d heard its last track.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

RAANJHANA (Hindi; 2013)

Over the last few years, my interest in contemporary Hindi films has plummeted; perhaps my move to Bombay has played a part in my diminished engagement, as no longing for home, no desperation for a whiff of its scent clouds my vision.  Largely, though, it is a function of the increasing soullessness of the industry’s “mainstream” products (and the films are increasingly products rather than embodiments of a living tradition), and also because the “off-beat” films themselves are often formulaic, intellectually timid and irredeemably – there’s no other word for it – bourgeois once one gets past the edgy attitude.  Old habits die hard, however, and I still end up watching many – I just don’t enjoy the experience as much as I used to, even if the thrill of anticipation as I find my seat in the hall and wait for the film to begin, hoping for trailers to delay the moment of gratification, and my willingness to give myself over to the experience (until the film itself jars me out of attentiveness first), remain the same.   Through it all, very few films surprise me – and not in the sense of plot twists (I hardly ever guess those, being much more likely to live in the present of the scene before my eyes, as it were), but in the sense of taking me somewhere I hadn’t expected to go, or showing me a glimpse of something I hadn’t expected to see.  That I expect these from cinema at all reminds me that I’m not yet jaded, merely disappointed.

Raanjhana surprised me.  Based on the trailers, I went to the cinema expecting a Hindu-Muslim love story (and yet another one where the heroine is Muslim) set in “the heartland,” one of those contemporary films targeted at urban multiplex audiences that purport to be set in small towns in U.P. or Bihar, but at the cost of the place’s specificity.  Raanjhana isn’t that sort of film: its evocation of Varanasi (a city I once had the pleasure of spending a few days in years ago) is quite specific, but more important, it does not present its lead, Kundan Shankar (Dhanush, who is fantastic here) as some kind of typical heartland hero: he remains odd, a man both in and out of place, throughout the film.  Combined with Rahman’s superb, mellow and rich soundtrack, which director Anand Rai uses better than most, these are reasons enough to watch the film on the big screen.  But there’s more: the film is often offensive (primarily in its gender politics), but it is about as close to raw as a Hindi film is likely to get (it not only features some of the most searing dialogs I’ve heard in a while; but uses words to wound, not simply gore or curses), and made me uncomfortable – a welcome respite from the mediocre timidity that dominates even “new” Bollywood.

Dhanush is excellent as a Tamil Brahmin from Varanasi, permanently stuck in his boyhood love for the (much more affluent) Muslim Zoya (Sonam Kapoor).  Dhanush has built a career in Tamil films precisely by leveraging the audience’s surprise that he isn’t the sort of guy you would expect to see as the male lead in either North or South, into cinematic impact; his shrewd film sense, and a kind of bemused intensity, only help.  “I’m odd, perhaps even absurd” he seems to say, “but this is how I am.”  That singularity is his signature: he is obviously heir to an entire tradition in Tamil cinema, but is like no-one else. And, unusually for a relatively young actor, he is able to suggest the passage of time with barely any effort.  We see this in Raanjhana, where he seems every inch the school boy in his disheveled uniform, and then, eight years later, a neighborhood tapori.  Dhanush channels the Benares ghats, neighborhoods, and, memorably, the rooftops so well that when the action shifts to Delhi, he doesn’t seem to belong on the JNU campus – the actor has been too successful in convincing us that he belongs to Benares, no less than his namesake deity, for us to believe him inhabiting any other urban space.  With his female co-star, the passage of time is about the props (pigtails and schoolgirl dress earlier on, and adult clothes and metro-lingo later on); but Dhanush doesn’t need a makeover – he simply acts.  And holds the viewer’s attention throughout a rather uneven film with his commitment; not for nothing are the film’s best, rawest dialogs given to him.  “I’ll marry the same day as you,” he tells Zoya when holding her tight but knowing she won’t be his, “even if I have to get married to a black bitch.”  The words sting, especially in the Hindi that says “kaali kutiya”; neither the filmmakers nor Dhanush are scared of veering from the anodyne, of drawing some blood. 

The same cannot be said of Zoya: Sonam Kapoor is always lovely and (a rarity among her peers) classy, but her character – spirited yet submissive; U.P. Muslim and a classical dancer, utterly modern yet inhabiting a gorgeous old haveli – is too made up, too much a figment of the male writer’s imagination (that is to say, of the maleness of the writer’s imagination) for her to hold her own against Dhanush.  The film is not as interested in knowing her as it is Dhanush, and the suspense lies in figuring out what she will do (which, in the logic of Hindi film romances simply means, will she fall in love with the this or that man?).  He cuts deep; she stays closer to the surface.  Zoya’s flatness, her filmi conventionality, is, along with the introduction of Abhay Deol as a laughably unconvincing leftie radical, an early sign that Raanjhana might end up giving less than it promises: aside from the music, Benares and Dhanush, will there be a there here?  By film’s end, the answer is clear, and it isn’t gratifying.  Dhanush is crucial to the film’s credibility, but the film falters every time it turns elsewhere.

Rahman’s soundtrack is itself one of the film’s surprises: on first listening to it I was underwhelmed by how light and mellow it seemed, but something about it meant I had to keep listening, and began to appreciate its resonance.  It lingers, and works well as an album, the songs on the CD building up to the rich tapestry of “Tum Tak.”  Rai is equal to the task, and apart from “Tum Tak” (which, counter-intuitively, occurs very early in the film), “Piya Milenge” is outstanding, while even the relatively conventional settings of “Ay Sakhi” and “Banrasiya” are elevated.  Only “Tu Manshudi” suffers from a hangover (that of Rang de Basanti), but with music like this, complaints can only be muted.  More broadly, Rai is as sensitive as Rakeysh Mehra to the dramatic possibilities inherent in using Rahman’s background music (and in turning that music off).  The two outstanding scenes (neither of which can be described without spoilers) both feature Dhanush, the first associated with the big post-interval twist and a panic-stricken Kundan in flight; and the second a wonderful vignette a few minutes later by the banks of the Ganges, involving Kundan’s encounter with a sage Brahmin.

Unfortunately, none of this (nor the moving Dhanush monologue that concludes the film) is enough to rescue Raanjhana from itself, as it wends its way from Varanasi to Delhi and becomes overtly political in the last third, degenerating into wretched farce.  I was bitterly disappointed watching this film betray itself, the promise of an unusual story about two people giving way to the usual bourgeois platitudes on what politics and political activism can be.  This stale, hackneyed representation, the sheer fakery of watching the film’s characters try and build a left-of-center political party in Delhi (the dialogs mouthed by the JNU jholawaala students caused me to cringe in my seat, embarrassed at the writing), badness that verges on parody, marred what had been, up to that point, an authentic movie-going experience.  The failure is more than just Rai’s: this generation of Hindi filmmakers can imagine many things, but politics isn’t among them (and, it must be said, the impoverishment of the imagination on this front itself speaks volumes about the politics of both filmmakers and audience).  Moreover, the fact that there even is an overtly political dimension to this film is itself part of the problem, and in this Raanjhana is a long way away from the new Tamil cinema forbears to which it pays homage.  Those films do not need politics as a prop, and are secure in the view that a story about a romance, or neighborhood friendships, or the world of a fairground or cockfighting, is inherently meaningful (even if, all too often, Tamil filmmakers feel the compulsion to invent a violent twist to jolt the audience, an overused gimmick that by now has conditioned the audience to expect it).  Writer Himanshu Sharma, it seems, suffers from some anxiety on that score, and the result is a film that tries too hard to be Important and Meaningful (without having anything more important or meaningful to say than that the government is bad, and, by implication, that the politics of the youthful is the country’s only hope).  The capitalization is painful – the film was better off merely odd.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

SPECIAL 26 (HINDI; 2013)

Little in cinema is as enjoyable, as seductively charming, as a good caper film, centered around a dashing thief and con-artist the audience has no choice but to root for against the agents of the staid State trying to foil him, a harmless outlet for what Hannah Arendt once called the bourgeoisie's fascination with criminality.  And, on paper, Special 26, Neeraj Pandey's film about a bunch of thieves who in the late-1980s impersonate one of India's pre-eminent agencies, the Central Bureau of Investigation ("CBI"), conducting raids on, and looting, dozens of people with "black" money to hide (with the real CBI in hot pursuit), should have been that kind of film.  It isn't: despite a generally solid cast and a high-quality plot (Pandey himself wrote it), the film is seriously let down by a directorial style that isn't  nearly as nimble as this material needs it to be.  In short, what Special 26 needed was elan; what Pandey offers is filmmaking that plods.  That the film is nevertheless likely to end up as one of 2013's better films is a depressing commentary on the state of the Hindi film industry.

First, to the positives: Manoj Bajpai is superb as Waseem Khan, the (almost unpleasantly) single-minded CBI officer assigned the task of putting an end to the fake CBI's crime spree.  Right from his diction to his slightly eccentric intonation to his comically furrowed brow, Bajpai hits all the right notes, never forgetting that if Special 26 isn't a comedy, it's setting is essentially comical, "inspired" by real-life incidents that border on the absurd (indeed, the "inspired by real-life incidents" line in the title credits plays an essential role in legitimating the plot; absent that stamp of approval, I suspect more than one reviewer would have dismissed the story as farcical).  Bajpai's Khan is thus no naturalistic CBI officer, but the sort of oddball official one might encounter in a novel, easily the most compelling of the film's actors.  It's great to see him in fine form, although he's lost so much weight he looks downright unwell here.  Jimmy Shergill's Ranvir Singh, playing a cop duped by the fake CBI; and Divya Dutta, playing his trusty sidekick, don't have very much to do, but execute with reliable competence.  (Indeed, given that most of Shergill's recent roles -- in Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster and Tanu Weds Manu, for instance -- have tended to cast him as an irascible, authoritarian figure, I was pleasantly surprised to see him in a mellower, more bumbling incarnation.)  Akshay Kumar's is the starry turn, as the brain behind the con jobs pulled off by the fake CBI, and he makes his way through his part with solidity, if only sporadic flair (my favorite moment is the Calcutta sequence, when Akshay's Ajay and company run into the real CBI while impersonating a team from the Income Tax Department; it takes all of Ajay's Bengali to get out of the jam, and by film's end found I myself wishing there had been more such sequences).  And the film's first "CBI" raid is gripping,  even as it pays homage to a number of Hindi film cliches about corrupt politicians and the places they might hide their money in (behind the bookshelves? In an altar?  Inside a car-seat?  Check 'em all!).  All of these are enough to make Special 26 worth a watch, and I do think the nearly-full weekend cinema hall I watched it in testifies to the fact that the film could have real legs at the box office.

But the films that veer off course by virtue of only a few tricks missed are more frustrating than those that never could have aspired to much, and top of the list of let-downs has to be Pandey's direction.  Every twist and turn is flash-backed and explained to death, almost as if Pandey believed his audience were too dense for spoon-feeding to be eschewed.  Special 26 could easily have survived poor casting choices like Anupam Kher as Ajay's partner-in-crime (it isn't that Kher is bad, as that he is stale; having shown us everything he could possibly  do in so many films, he would need to be an actor of rare calibre to continue to seem fresh, or even engaged -- and he isn't), or Kajal Aggarwal as Ajay's lover (confirming my impression that her irritating listlessness in Magadheera was no one-off).  Moreover, Pandey's style is repetitive and the film poorly edited: I lost count of the number of shots featuring groups of men marching towards the camera, or of the number of scenes that felt a couple of minutes too long; not to mention that with the exception of her last scene, every one of the heroine's scenes and the songs interrupted the narrative, bogging it down in terrain that didn't seem natural to Special 26.  Finally, no low budget can excuse backdrops of Marine Drive and Calcutta's Howrah Bridge so fake I found myself wondering if I was dealing with a spoof.   I wasn't: just a film with a solid writer and an over-matched director.  Even if the two happen to be the same person.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


I was recently asked to write a piece for the online journal Pratilipi.  The issue's theme was "freedom", and writers were free to define that term any way they wanted to.  My take is at the link below:


Monday, October 22, 2012

Archiving (a link to THE CARAVAN)


Increasingly, I find that the labor of archiving, of stubbornly standing for memory against forgetting, is heroic to me, more so than any monument; and this heroism touches me in a way that, if I am honest, even word of most deaths does not. Part of it is that the archivist deals with memory and knowledge dependent on things -- books, cassettes, film reels, CDs -- that survive, but that are very fragile. They seem vulnerable, and all the more so when we are not talking about a hallowed object, such as a book, that has been relevant for centuries; but of more recent media, destined to become obsolete every few years with unseemly haste. (This obsolescence is also dangerous, because it ties up far too much of our musical and cinematic heritage into particular media that are doomed even when they are introduced (who would bet on the DVD?), dependent on the vagaries of fashion and taste to preserve material that could so easily be lost forever: we can still read a century-old book, but it isn't too hard to imagine a world where no-one has any cassette players; in such a world, that which hasn't been digitized risks being lost forever.) Shelves of dusty audio-cassettes with reels in them, old records and video-cassettes, make claims on my sympathy that even old books do not: because they are proving even more ephemeral.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


[Image courtesy]

If you'd told me I'd end up thoroughly enjoying a film dominated by stereotypes almost out of Mind Your Language -- the warm and friendly gay teacher; the nerdy South Indian; the horny, brash Punjabi; and the brooding Frenchman are but four of the ones we'll be spending a lot of time with -- I'd have demurred. And I'd have been wrong: English Vinglish is a slight, breezy film that is quite consistent with the contemporary Bollywood trend of films that don't attempt very much -- but this tale of a "traditional" housewife (Shashi Godbole, in the only Sridevi role I've cared for) who doesn't speak any English, and her struggle for respect from those closest to her, is also well-made, seamless, and sensitive, and easily one of the best Hindi films of the year; that it is directed by a first-timer, and one of the industry's very few women directors, is surely an added plus. It is also -- when it turns to Shashi's US-based relatives -- one of the best Bollywood representations of the NRI experience (indeed, director Gauri Shinde and her husband Balki (of Cheeni Kum fame) seem determined to correct decades of imbecility in this area).

The highlight of the film for me is Shinde's deft-but-firm touch in underscoring the many ways in which women are impinged upon, without ever falling back on the film-killing truncheons of Maudlin and Preachiness. Women with spouses and children will have no trouble recognizing Shashi's inability to enjoy her morning paper; or the way her husband Satish (Adil Hussain) casually dismisses her business making and selling laddoos as just something she does. But Shinde doesn't stop there: it isn't just Satish, but even Shashi's New Jersey-based sister, an independent career woman, is not above condescending to her and taking her for granted. That is, Shinde has the good sense to appreciate that the problem here isn't about "bad husbands," but about an entire social system that tends to devalue women's work, and devalue it precisely by recasting it as a duty, obligation, or a "given" for which no great appreciation is due. Conversely, Shinde's world is also a sunny one, enabling her to explore its ideas while eschewing grimness: the result is a nimble film, where many more experienced directors might have simply made a pedantic one. To be fair, Shinde doesn't spend much time exploring other cultural issues -- the privileging of English over "the vernacular" in India is wryly noted, but our post-colonial self loathing is not analyzed (even Shashi doesn't question it) -- and after a point her film definitively commits itself to the terrain of gender rather than India's post-colonial baggage, but perhaps none of that is a weakness: a more substantial script would have been required for it, and a different kind of film, perhaps more of a laddoo than the souffle we have here.

Adil Hussain's Satish Godbole is more type than man, so much so that by the end, when Shashi says she doesn't need love but respect, I found myself wondering where she'd found the former: over the course of the film, we've seen Satish's pre-occupation, casual selfishness, and insecurity, but not really any affection for his wife. Nevertheless, it is to Hussain's credit that we never end up hating him (although, I wonder how many women are included in my "we"); I definitely want to see more of this actor. The same cannot be said for Shashi's obnoxious daughter, a one-dimensional portrayal that, I confess, led me several times to muse that she might have turned out better had Shashi given her a few tight slaps. On a serious note, interviews like this one suggest that more than a little guilt has gone into that portrayal.

Guilt certainly should be Amit Trivedi's lot, for giving us an album that is so generic I was hard-pressed to recall anything about it by the time I got home. Trivedi's recent work has been very far indeed from the subversive oddness of Dev D, and while he does need to be able to play it "straight" to thrive in Bollywood, he is hardly able to match the likes of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar at their best -- and surely, those standards aren't unattainable.

As a New Yorker (and, a very long time ago, a NYU alum) lately transplanted to Mumbai, it was a relief to find the geography and commutes of Manhattan and the area around Union Square plausibly rendered (admittedly the fulfillment of a wish, not a critical virtue in the film), but even more so to find it populated by relatively normal Westerners and Americans of Indian origin -- how many times does a traditional Indian woman walk through a subway station by herself and not get attacked?! -- far removed from the sort of xenophobic pandering we routinely see in the films of Karan Johar or the Akshay Kumar comedies. Shinde's instinctive cosmopolitanism elsewhere made Amitabh's dialog to the U.S. immigration official all more jarring: the line that Bachchan's character was visiting to "spend some dollars, you know, help your economy" was just stupid. [As an instance of pandering, though, it was clearly successful: my Lokhandwala theater audience erupted in cheers and claps. But then there's Salman Khan, a cab driver from Lahore played by Sumeet Vyas -- Shinde's slyest move might have been to make this character a stand-in for many in the audience. His "education" on difference/different sexual orientations might have been trite, but it is hard not to read into it Shinde's implicit rebuke of our penchant for easy stereotyping.] Finally -- and this is essential to understanding this film's appeal -- English Vinglish is just so darn likable: it's a light, fun film that isn't trivial, and is fundamentally optimistic about life. Throw in the most amazing collection of saris you'll ever see in a film, and what possible excuse could there be to stay away from the theater?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


There's a charming super-hero film, centered on a sassy-yet-restrained heroine, a cat-burglar who never loses her sense of humor or poise no matter what is happening to the world around her, who prefers the company of hookers and low-lifes to the dull and dreary of Official Gotham.

Alas, Christopher Nolan didn't make that film. Or perhaps, we should be grateful he didn't make "Catwoman," for fear that Selina Kyle's dark past overwhelm her verve. Instead, he's made a film where Kyle is able to do what she does best -- steal the show, right from everyone else's nose. Anne Hathaway, who plays Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, in Nolan's trilogy-ending monument of a film, is that kind of actress: she's no male fantasy of guns and boobs (a la Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2001)), nor the glamorous ice princess of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992); she's the wide-mouthed girl next door who just happens to be a very good actress, and always intelligently so (I doubt Hathaway could convincingly play a dunce). It's fitting that Hathaway's first scene features her in the slinky costume of a French maid, getting the better of Christian Bale's hobbling Bruce Wayne, before back-flipping out of Wayne Manor and into the car of a lecherous Congressman (Brett Cullen): none of the sombre (read: dull) or (in the case of the Congressman) dim-witted men who make up the rest of the cast can hold a candle to her nimbleness. This isn't method acting -- we see her coming a mile away -- just darn good fun, the way costumed characters are supposed to be. I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises in direct proportion to Hathaway's presence -- when she wasn't on-screen, I found the film plodding.

...which brings me to Batman. As I've grown older, I've lost my taste for Frank Miller-style philosophizing by way of a man in tights; instead, the Batman I find most appealing is the detective (with more than a dash of the occult) immortalized by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams in the 1970s, as much a descendant of nineteenth century sleuths and adventurers like Sherlock Holmes and the protagonists of H. Rider Haggard's fiction as of Golden Age super-hero comic books. (Just think about how many staples of the Batman Universe were born or re-born at the hands of O'Neil and Adams: Ra's-al-Ghul; Two-Face ("Half an Evil"); and even Joker -- "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge"). This isn't to deny Miller's seminal contribution to the Batman mythos (even if his most important legacy seems to have been enabling adults to consume the Batman guilt-free, as it were), but merely to remind everyone that there is a more fun way to do the Batman -- in fact, I like Miller's work more for what it enabled those after him (such as the duo of Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo) to achieve, in combining the seriousness of purpose Miller brought to the character with the zaniness inherent in the notion of costumed crime-fighters, than for anything in his Batman comics (Miller's first run on Daredevil, ah, that's another matter).

Director Christopher Nolan doesn't agree, and never more so than in The Dark Knight Rises, a film so drunk on trite metaphysics only Hathaway remembers to let her hair down and have any fun. The problem is compounded because the story -- years after the action in The Dark Knight (2008), with Bruce Wayne now a recluse -- means that Christian Bale is much less attractive than he was in the first two films, his playboy avatar barely to be seen. And this time the baddies aren't psychos so much as a cabal that wants to bring Gotham to its knees as a kind of punishment, with Batman's defeat and banishment from Gotham merely the first part of the plan. Given that Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon is as boring as ever, and with neither Aaron Eckhart nor Heath Ledger, hardly any Cilian Murphy (at the risk of blasphemy, my favorite villain in any Batman film; his few minutes here at the helm of a Robespierrean "people's court" are magical, and given that he's made an appearance in every film in the trilogy, one could be forgiven for seeing in him the presiding imp of Nolan's world, were it not for the director's marked preference for more workmanlike characters), and Tom Hardy's Bane weighed down by all of Nolan's muddled political messages -- a film largely free of either Wayne or Batman for very long stretches (much longer than any in the preceding two films) could hardly be expected to escape the quagmire. It does not: The Dark Knight Rises sinks into turgidity with every hour, and no amount of slow-talking close-ups, nor Marion Cotillard's wasted loveliness, can rescue it.

Nolan’s Batman is himself all about high-technology and Triumph of the Will -- what detective-work there is falls to the lot of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of the Gotham police department, reminiscent of the Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) of the mid-1990s (who himself becomes a cop), and a welcome presence in this film. Batman is content to evoke oohs and aahs from his audience (both on-screen and off-) by means of bikes with impossible tires and pirouettes, and choppers that look like vehicles for an alien invasion -- so much for leaving the 1950s behind. If a common thread ran through the work of O’Neill/Adams and Miller, it was the desire to strip away the encrustations that had come to obscure the DC comics myths in decades past (Krypto the Super Dog is simply untenable). Nolan, inoculated by Miller’s seriousness, re-imports far too many accoutrements -- this time, not in the service of 1950s- and 1960s-style childishness so much as to embed Batman in the fabric of law enforcement civic society. His Batman isn’t a masked vigilante, but the conscience of Official Gotham, a public service message in black leather -- well, I prefer Catwoman’s tights.

For all that, The Dark Knight Rises remains a deeply impressive film, not just in its use of the IMAX format (much has been made of the action sequences, but the aerial and wide-canvas shots are just as impressive), but in Nolan's devotion to old-fashioned, big ticket moviemaking. There are film industries all over the world, but Nolan remains faithful to the idea that Hollywood can mount a spectacle like none other, and that the industry ought not to cheapen the value of its spectacles by making them soulless exhibitions for the latest technology. In the sense of wonder it evokes, in its scale, and the knowledge that great action sequences -- such as the one at the start of the film -- are as much about choreography and editing as about technology, The Dark Knight Rises is part of an endangered breed in Hollywood. I doubt we'll be seeing its like any time soon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Note on GANGS OF WASSEYPUR II (Hindi; 2012)

I hadn't thought there would be much to write on Gangs of Wasseypur II; in the sense that I'd thought it would be just like the first film (my review HERE; discussion thread HERE) -- indeed director Anurag Kashyap had gone to some lengths in stressing that we were dealing with one film here, and that the second film was simply the latter half of a whole. This, to my mind, and especially because I had enjoyed Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character the most in the first film (he looked to be the lead protagonist in the second), was, in my mind, a good thing.

Ouch. I didn't enjoy the second outing very much. The most glaring problem is the rather poor characterization, compounded by the rather un-cinematic way it is brought about. Unlike in the first film, Piyush Mishra's voice-over routinely provides a substitute for it: for instance, he tells us that Faisal Khan is greedy and obsessed with money, and the film immediately acts as if that were true. But nothing that has gone before shows any such thing (indeed, the first film located the source of the shadow that hangs over Faisal in a childhood trauma associated with seeing his mother intimate with his uncle). So too with Ramadhir's son, who is consistently depicted as weak and spineless -- except when he suddenly isn't that way. There's more shoddiness as additional sons of Sardar Khan sons are introduced -- Perpendicular and Definite -- but the former without any purpose: he hogs the screen for his thirty minutes, before exiting the story, without any discernible impact. Ditto for the way in which various characters are bumped off; it all seems rather rushed, and by the end of it all, this viewer was left wondering where the interesting, twisted Faisal of the first part had vanished.

And then there's the long awaited climax, Faisal Khan's reckoning with Ramadhir, a pornography of blood, gore, and guns devoid of any dramatic impact. [Or necessity: the film ends because at some point, Faisal Khan decides it's time to take out Ramadhir, without regard to any of the constraints that presumably prevented him from doing so over the preceding couple of hours.] Ramadhir, easily the most interesting character in the second film, deserved better. Much has been written on Kashyap's de-construction of the Bollywood epic mode, of his eye-rolling at the pretensions of these preening characters who imagine themselves heroes and kings -- certainly that's the only way to make sense of Ramadhir Singh's extended aside on cinema, and how it makes chootiyas of us all -- but Kashyap's vision suffers from a lack of clarity. To be blunt, the film can't decide between such "de-construction" and the titillation of the gun. And titillation there certainly is, the sort of wild-eyed, orgiastic shooting that is the hallmark of what puerile men imagine other, more violent (secretly admired and desired) men do, whether in the underworld, or somewhere out there in Bihar's badlands. For all the references to cinema that, a la Iruvar, enable the viewer to date the proceedings, Kashyap's gun-play allows us to meta-date his position in the RGVerse of a decade ago, and films like Satya and Company. Ah, for the days of Gangs of Wasseypur I, when the katta meant a different pace. There's no denying that the rhythms of gun violence are surely different, and have presumably made a difference to Wasseypur, but precisely because these are susceptible to mere on-screen sensationalism, representing them in cinema requires greater thought than this film displays.

But then there's the final scene, with the three survivors in Mumbai in 2009, leading a rather normal life, before the camera pans left to rest on the large mosque in Goregaon. Kashyap compresses a whole narrative about migrants, about the histories they are heir to and carry with them, about the way in which the metropolises that we imagine are far removed from those histories are themselves shaped by them, into a few seconds, some of the best film-making in either movie. The scene can't make up for the film's failings, but it does remind us that Kashyap has the potential to be his industry's leading director; this film does not make good on that promise.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Resented

I’m in a distinct minority among my friends and acquaintances in the esteem in which I hold Abhishek Bachchan. To me, he’s one of the few understated actors we have, tapping into some of his father’s brooding iconicity in his dramatic roles, and possessed of a comic mode that, at its best, combines deadpan delivery with a kind of earnestness, a special talent there aren’t very many roles for in the contemporary Hindi film industry. But most people I meet are far more derisive. It isn’t that they disagree with me, and believe that he is a mediocre or poor actor -- that would be unexceptional. No, what is striking to me is the extent to which people will, even if they feel I’m overdoing it when it comes to Abhishek Bachchan, go further than simply saying that he isn’t a good actor, or that he has many flop films. I’ve heard him referred to as “lazy,” “dheela,” “pathetic,” “un-smart,” and even “disgusting,” “dirty,” a parasite off his wife’s celebrity, as the beneficiary of nepotism and connections a sign of everything that is wrong in India, and a source of embarrassment for his parents. Moreover, at least some of the people I’ve met who have expressed these opinions agree that he has performed very well in this or that film, which makes the intensity of the reactions somewhat curious.

There’s more: while I haven’t conducted any survey, in my travels across India it has been my experience that Abhishek is interpreted very differently the farther I go from the upwardly mobile/aspirational cinema-going classes (in India’s major metros, but hardly limited to them), and in the media and blogs that cater to them. In Varanasi, Aurangabad, Jhansi, Bhopal, and even in Mumbai, I’ve come across people from different demographics -- boatmen, auto-rickshaw drivers, college students, lawyers -- with strikingly different views on Abhishek. It isn’t that many of these people have answered “Abhishek” when I’ve asked who their favorite actor is; but Abhishek is strikingly normal in their eyes, and whether they think highly of him or not, there is no special cloud over his legitimacy as compared to other actors (and at least some seem to have a special affection for him because of their regard for Amitabh Bachchan). Certainly nobody has thought of him as unclean, disgraceful, or an embarrassment.

What accounts for this difference? Why is there so much resentment of Abhishek in certain quarters? It can’t be that his films have targeted particular demographics, the traditional audiences that often pass under the term “single screen audiences” in Bollywood parlance -- in fact, very many of his films, from different phases of his career, have been squarely targeted toward multiplex audiences (for instance, Phir Milenge (2004); Bluffmaster! (2005); or Paa (2009)), even as others (such as Run (2004); Bunty aur Babli (2005); and Bol Bachchan (2012)) have had a distinctly “massy” bent; yet others (Dhoom (2004); Sarkar (2005); and Sarkar Raj (2008)) have tried to split the difference. (While neither “single screen” nor “multiplex audience” is an especially rigorous term, they have some value as loose differentiators between more traditional audiences and those with greater investment in a contemporary Bollywood idiom that jettisons the often sprawling narratives of decades past in favor of more streamlined, Hollywood-style narratives, to which the mythic strands and melodrama of the quintessential “masala” film would be anathema. I’ll continue to use the terms here, although they cannot be taken literally -- “multiplex” means something very different in Hyderabad, Patna, and Gurgaon; and then again, in Bombay, there aren’t very many single-screens left, given the rate at which exhibitors and corporates have rushed to take advantage of the tax and other incentives in favor of multiplexes.)

Perhaps the resentment marks the divide between the new India -- lauded all over and committed to individualism and meritocracy -- and the old, where ties of kinship, community, traditional occupation and feudal loyalty trump other considerations? Viewed in this way, perhaps resentment of this ultimate star-son might even be justified, a sign of a welcome change in Indian society. Indeed, very many of the Abhishek-haters bring up the question of genealogy. In their telling, he has had a number of flops -- themselves demonstrating his uselessness -- but continues to get films because he is Amitabh’s son. The complete absence of any evidence to this effect doesn’t give them pause, so obvious do they consider the matter; nor does the long list of prominent directors eager to cast him over the years, ranging from the distinguished (Mani Ratnam; Rakeysh Mehra) to the merely successful (Rohit Shetty). Of course, I haven’t been able to make any headway by pointing out that something like eight of Akshay Kumar’s last ten films prior to Rowdy Rathore (2012) had flopped or performed middlingly at best, or even that Salman Khan himself had far more under-performers than hits for years leading up to Wanted (2008).

The more I spoke to people on the topic, the more I realized that it wasn’t about the facts: people kept returning to the question of genealogy, reacting to the perceived unfairness that Amitabh should somehow be keeping his son going. Pointing out that every second prominent person in Bollywood seemed to be related to an industry bigwig cut no ice: Hrithik is very good looking, an amazing dancer, and has worked so hard on his body, I’d hear; as has Ranbir Kapoor, who also seems to be essaying a variety of film roles; Farhan Akhtar is cool and a great director, bringing a new style to Bollywood. In any event, these gentlemen couldn’t possibly have gotten the advantages Amitabh Bachchan’s son did, even if no-one could deny that all had privileged access to filmmakers and backers. This sort of selective outrage suggested that something other than perceived unfairness was at work. The choice of insults is itself revealing: he is “lazy” because he won’t get into shape the way everyone else has (whether or not this makes for more plausible acting is immaterial: no one seems to wonder whether the Mughal Emperor Akbar, or Vijay Deenanath Chauhan redux, or Omkara’s bahubali would have such incredibly gym-toned bodies -- in contemporary Bollywood, they all do); “dheela” because he eschews both over-acting, as well as the clinical “look at me, I’m playing the role of a lifetime!” hype-machines of many of his peers (that result in roles that are much talked about, and quickly forgotten). He is “un-smart” because his basic hair style remains constant, he often features a stubble, and is about as far from the metrosexual norms of contemporary Bollywood as anyone could be.

Abhsihek is, in essence, an embarrassment, because he won’t get with the program. That is, he represents the old India for very many people, and is perhaps resented all the more because he could be new India, but steadfastly refuses to. His mode of acting -- an amalgam of Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan’s styles (although the question of Amitabh’s style is a tricky one, given how greatly it varied with period and mode) -- is characterized by reserve and understatement, and is precisely the style least likely to appeal to a new India that increasingly prefers its entertainments to enact the pantomime of newness itself. And, by implication, condemns the cinema of the past in monotone hues of melodrama and bad taste.

One sees this move in films as disparate as Luck By Chance (2009), Om Shanti Om (2007) and The Dirty Picture (2011), each of which presents rather pandering presentations of what “old school” cinema was. The new Hindi popular cinema takes its cues not just from Hollywood but also from the strut and swagger of contemporary hip-hop videos (drained of any of the social critique, protest, or even edge for the most part, that characterize that genre at its best) and from modeling, giving us the perhaps unique phenomenon of a cinema that is somewhat uninterested in the cinematic, serving instead as, merely, the country’s most reliable celebrity manufacturing industry. These cues do not just dovetail with the consumerist energies unleashed by India’s 1991 economic liberalization -- they are unimaginable without it, which perhaps explains the intensity of the post-1991 cinema generation’s identification with this mode of Hindi filmmaking. One doesn’t merely watch a film any more, one performs a kind of brand loyalty that in turn re-affirms who one is.

As I’ve argued at length on this and other blogs, I do not mean to suggest that no good films have been enabled by the industry’s paradigm shifts over the last two decades, merely that the shifts have enabled the junking of an earlier, more mythic mode of film-making (which itself, to be fair, was often un-cinematic, often privileging words and theater to images) -- but have not for the most part replaced it with anything cinematic, but instead with the sort of plastic pleasures one can find elsewhere. Stated differently, it isn’t simply the case that Hindi films have lost much of their distinctiveness over the last two decades (that by itself might represent the loss of a certain register, but the impoverishment wouldn’t necessarily mean that the newer paradigm would lead to worse films). It is also the case that Hindi films now increasingly offer pleasures that one might get from other sources -- fashion magazines, music videos, television, and the general spectacle of celebrity culture. In this respect Bollywood has much to learn from Hollywood, which, even if it has meant resorting to the rich (if juvenile) source material of comic books and endless remakes, has never forgotten that its product needs to be unique.

Perversely, the exponential growth in Hindi film receipts demonstrates this to be true: for years preceding 2008, conventional wisdom on the Hindi box office insisted that the reason films made 40, 50, 60, 70 crores was because the box office couldn’t sustain greater receipts absent infrastructure investments, such as more multiplexes; that so-called “single screen” audiences -- understood here to mean audiences that continued to hearken to older cinematic paradigms -- either didn’t exist (i.e. they had “converted”) -- or were dead-enders, irrelevant to the new economic reality of multi-hundred rupee movie tickets. In 2008, however, Aamir Khan’s Ghajini, a retrograde film if there ever were one, conclusively blew this argument to smithereens, outgrossing its 70-crore cousins by well over 50%, demonstrating in the process that “traditional” viewers, whether or not they actually watched films in single screens or plush multiplexes, remained stubbornly relevant. The film was no fluke, as proved by a succession of films over the next four years, many of them, like Ghajini, remakes of Tamil or Telugu blockbusters, and starring the once has-been Salman Khan, now re-born as the new India’s imp, who seemed to embrace all the rules -- the gym-toned body, the wannabe vibe -- while viewing them, in a mode bordering on the contemptuous, askance, appealing to both sorts of viewers in the bargain.

In terms of the larger narrative, however, the Ghajini-wave hasn’t changed the terms of the debate -- it has simply (and this is no small feat) made it impossible for Bollywood’s inheritor generation to plausibly deny that they have a class problem on their hands. Stated differently, while Ghajini hasn’t changed anyone’s mind on what new Hindi popular cinema ought to be, it has severely compromised the bully pulpit of Bollywood’s inheritors, who had grown used to insisting that they spoke for “the public” even as the size of that public kept shrinking to ever more prosperous enclaves, in the major metros, and in NRIstans abroad (hiked-up ticket prices made up for the loss of any numbers, as over the last two decades much of “the public” was increasingly priced out of what had traditionally been one of India’s most democratic entertainments). What once seemed like a question of history, of inevitability -- stubborn holdouts for masala cinema were on their way to extinction, and cooped up in smaller towns that hadn’t gotten with the program yet -- was now revealed as a class issue -- the overlap between the audiences of Singham and Rowdy Rathore on the one hand; and Cocktail on the other, was not very large. But the class issue itself didn’t prick the smugness of the industry’s inheritor generation, much less give it any pause, even if the outsized financial rewards associated with these Tamil/Telugu-remakes -- for which there are simply more viewers than for multiplex films of the sort we’ve been told for years are the future -- has left the newer breed of filmmakers scrambling for justifications other than the populist ones they previously championed. Now it’s about taste, and making classy films.

If “inheritor generation” isn’t the right term for Bollywood’s status quo, it’s because there ought be an “s” after “generation.” One of the notable differences between Hollywood and the Hindi film industry is that the latter is disproportionately dominated by children of industry veterans. Rather than name this or that star, it would be easier to go at it from the other direction: with the exception of Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, virtually every major male lead over the last three decades has an industry connection. (The exceptions prove the rule: Akshay’s lack of any connection to the industry’s power structure surely go some way toward explaining why he was relegated to second-tier films for his first decade as a hero; Shah Rukh Khan got his chance on the basis of two successful TV serials.) Women, once discouraged by conservative industry families from becoming actresses, are also now part of this inheritor generation. And it’s broader than actors: script-writers; music composers; choreographers; and directors are all increasingly the sons, daughters, and cousins of other industry veterans.

The shrinking of the industry’s ambit, its social sweep, has not been costless: whatever one might have said about the Hindi film industry of the 1950s, ‘60s, or 70s, its stalwarts -- ranging from the likes of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Bimal Roy, Gulzar, Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, Nargis, to Yash Chopra, Sharmila Tagore, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Yash Johar, and Hema Malini -- represented a social diversity that is nowhere to be seen in the industry today. The people I have named grew up in Lahore and Bombay; were Bengalis and Pathans; traced family histories to Central India and Peshawar. By contrast, their children -- and all have had at least one prominent actor or director among their offspring -- seem to have grown up within a few miles of each other, in the Bombay suburbs of Juhu or Bandra. Or, more pertinently, the films seem increasingly cosmopolitan as well as insular, more open to the world, but less so to any social class except for the one that makes, stars in, and watches the films. Lifestyle liberalism is common enough -- I welcome the messages of greater tolerance for homosexuality, female independence outside of a family structure, or sexual promiscuity -- but one finds no trace in their films (unless it is by way of an issue-based film) of so many of the problems that roil India today. (Indeed, if you want to see any kind of representation of police brutality, corruption, rural poverty, you’re more likely to find it in escapist fare like Rowdy Rathore than in supposedly more realistic films made by Bollywood scions like Farhan Akhtar.)

Poking holes in the pretensions of “new India” is hardly new, but in the popular media (both domestic and foreign) these critiques are largely statistics-oriented: how can India be “shining” if x% of its citizens are poor/malnourished/illiterate? How “new” is “new India” when its benefits seem to have visibly accrued to so few people? But mounting the critique on the terrain of popular cinema -- a subject that far too many serious Indian writers pay scant attention to, except in so far as they are seeking to make a one-dimensional critique on the representation of minorities or women in Indian cinema -- reveals that the argument is not just about facts and figures, but also about ideologies. It is precisely because Hindi films do not matter (in the sense that no one lives or dies no matter what sorts of films are or are not made), precisely because, when we talk of films we are not necessarily diverted by arguments about facts and things about India at large, that we can see that what matters in the critique belongs to the realm of the purely ideological.

We can glimpse the ideological stakes from the fact that dynastic tropes are not generally resented in India; nor are nepotistic ones (even people who complain about nepotism think nothing about criticizing relatives who have made good and won’t “help” their kin). Even with respect to the film industry, as I’ve mentioned few seem to resent the privileged access that the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan, or indeed so many have received by dint of family connection that it’s almost unfair to name only those three; and in far more momentous fields than cinema, few seem to wonder at the opportunities available to the Ambanis, Godrejs, Wadias; or indeed why so many Indian political parties end up the province of one family. Sure, if you ask them people might have something to say, but I’ve rarely encountered the sort of irritation and anger that Abhishek evokes in many. “Just because he’s Amitabh’s son...” is the sort of thing that could be quite easily applied to Omar Abdullah; Rahul Gandhi (or his father Rajiv Gandhi, for that matter); Uddhav Thackeray; Akhilesh Yadav; and many others -- and yet it is for something that pertains only to cinema that people reserve their bitterest edge. The dynastic reality is so pervasive, so accepted, it simply cannot be the reason for the sort of ire Abhishek seems to provoke.

At first blush, Abhishek Bachchan would seem to be an ideal member of the inheritors’ club: not only is he the son of you-know-who, his mother was also a prominent actress, and he grew up on first-name basis with several people (Karan Johar; Hrithik Roshan; Uday Chopra; Rohan Sippy) who have themselves made careers in the film industry. However, his friendship with his fellow “star sons” notwithstanding, there is a crucial difference between Abhishek and many of his peers: he didn’t hitch his star to “new Bollywood.” During his first few years in the industry, right from his debut in Refugee (2000), through films like Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai (2001), Sharaarat (2002); Om Jai Jagdish (2002), Zameen (2003); Run (2004), or even Dhoom (2004), Abhishek generally chose films one could generalize as “old school.” The quality of these films is not the issue -- they hardly set the box office on fire, like the vast majority of Hindi films -- but what is interesting is that these films were not only not trendy, they self-consciously seemed to be turning their back on both, the Yashraj/Johar romances of the 1990s, as well as the emerging “posh” visual aesthetic of post-Dil Chahta Hai (2001) Bollywood. Dhoom clearly aspired to the trendy, but even here Abhishek’s character was old-school, a straight arrow whose very name (“Jai”) hearkened to the 1970s.

It would be easy to dismiss the films I mention as the commercially ill-considered choices of an inexperienced actor -- certainly films like Tera Jaadoo Chal Gaya (2000) and Haan Maine Bhi Pyar Kiya Hai (2002) were very much part of one of the reigning trends, namely the romances then popular with “family” and NRI-audiences. Moreover, since Abhishek was markedly unsuccessful in his first few years, it’s tempting to dismiss his entire early filmography as determined for him: what choices could a flop actor possibly have? (The contradiction between this view and the notion that as Amitabh’s son he could coast for years is not something that gives many fans or critics pause.)

But no such explanations account for the next phase of Abhishek’s career: beginning with 2004’s Yuva and Dhoom, and cemented by Bunty aur Babli (2005) both critical and commercial success followed. But Abhishek neither chose the traditional route of using the opportunity to forge something akin to brand loyalty by reprising the roles that had made him famous -- i.e. we didn’t see half a dozen films featuring variants of Yuva’s Lallan Singh or Bunty aur Babli’s Bunty -- nor did he use his new-found commercial success to jump onto the bandwagon of “new” Bollywood (which, by the mid-point of the decade, had coalesced into something distinct enough from the Yashraj/Johar-style romances of the preceding decade as to make them seem like “traditional Bollywood,” itself a strange notion to those of us with memories stretching further back than 1995). The new breed of films -- Farhan Akhtar must be considered the patron saint of these, following up his debut in Dil Chahta Hai with the even more frankly Hollywood-style Lakshya (2004); and Don (2006), a bloodless re-make of the 1978 Bachchan classic that made the stakes clear, trying to imagine a masala film without, well, masala (the result was predictably dull) -- were typically characterized by low-key emotional engagement (and characters as likely to be inspired by American sitcoms as by Hollywood buddy movies), crisper editing, teeny bop music, and with the opulence of their Yashraj/Johar forbears updated to a sleeker, more chic (but no less plush) aesthetic.

Abhishek, it soon became clear, wanted no part of them, nor did he seem to have any conviction for the insistently low-brow version of masala that made a comeback with films like Wanted and Ready (although “comeback” is a bit of a stretch -- in these films, the mythos of the older masala epics is always mediated by a kind of tongue-in-cheek spoofery, enabling the films to appeal to at least some of the “new Bollywood” filmgoers, who can consume these “timepass” movies guilt-free, as it were). Stubbornly throwback films continued, ranging from Dus (2005); Umrao Jaan (2006), Laaga Chunri Mein Daag (2007), to Khelen Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010) and even Players (2012) and Bol Bachchan (2012). And even where he embraced newer modes of filmmaking, these were confined to middle-brow cinema, the impetus for which was either independent of “new Bollywood,” or at least implicitly critiqued much of its smug navel-gazing. (For instance, Mani Ratnam, who worked with Abhishek Bachchan in three films over the last decade, had been updating conventions of popular cinema when Akhtar was a teenager; and Ram Gopal Verma, much of whose filmography might be understood as a reaction to the Barjatya/Yashraj/Johar saccharine school of filmmaking, himself never ended up as much more than a niche taste for a certain section of young males. The Verma of films like Naach (2004); Sarkar (2005); Nishabd (2007); and Sarkar Raj (2008) was at once too dark to find wide acceptance with the multiplex audience, and too stylishly empty to avoid being overtaken by harder-edged proteges like Anurag Kashyap.)

Certainly, commercial pressures dictated nods to the mainstream, but even these are telling: Yashraj’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007), for instance (the studio’s most expensive film at the time), was certainly a NRI-romance -- except that Abhishek’s Rikki was no NRI gazillionaire or impossibly wealthy software engineer in a plush flat, but a small-time huckster and inveterate liar, almost as if director Shaad Ali wanted us in on the con at the heart of so many dreams Bollywood had been selling; Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) certainly had Abhishek ensconced in the sort of wonderland splendor we’d come to associate with Johar’s work, except that the director was branching out, with Abhishek’s Rishi at the heart of a failing marriage, with by far the most dignified performance in a mess of a film. And then there was Dostana (2008), which acknowledged Abhishek’s symbolic position in the new order: in a Bollywood dominated by metrosexuals, waxed chests, sculpted abs and calves no matter the role being essayed, there was no-one more queer than the straight guy. Dhoom 2 (2006) was pure mainstream, absolutely contemporary in how plastic it was, its embarrassingly aspirational vibe, and its fake tans, and at least where Abhishek was concerned, it showed -- with no nod or wink about it, and with Yashraj deciding to try and make the first film’s Jai a bit more obviously trendy, he was a complete misfit -- as he was in Drona (2008), a super-hero film featuring the most reluctant costumed adventurer in history.

It would be a mistake to read too much of a critique into the sorts of roles I’ve mentioned above, but a contrast with those essayed by his peers is instructive: time and again, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and even Salman Khan, have essayed roles that not only do not disturb multiplex audiences in the slightest, but in fact legitimize their aspirations. [I should add that I do not consider this illegitimate by any means; that is, my aim is to understand why Abhishek is resented, not to criticize his contemporaries for not going down his path; indeed, the far greater success that the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik have enjoyed self-evidently justifies their logic.] Ultimately triumphant lovers; army-officers; super-heros; wealthy playboys; globe-trotting executives -- they served as the audience’s alter egos, and didn’t venture anywhere near the edge of its prickly sensitivities.

Abhishek’s big commercial ventures that I’ve discussed might seem tame, but in more than one instance they touched enough of a nerve that violent reactions followed the release of films seen to be vulnerable at the box office from the first day: vituperation such as that elicited by Jhoom Barabar Jhoom continues to astound me, and is wholly out of proportion to the reality of the film. Whether you like it or not, it’s a rather slight film -- but you wouldn’t know it from reading the reviews, many of which reacted as if a crime had been committed. The same went for Dhoom 2, where the film was a huge success, but Abhishek was excoriated for being low-key, laid back, and flat, for letting the team down. In each instance there was the sense of something pent-up, that had just been waiting for release.

And rightly so: because Abhishek has been letting the team down. From the multiplex audience’s perspective, he has never embraced “new” Bollywood -- and, by implication, the “new India” of economic liberalization -- in either its “little film” avatar, addicted to romantic comedies or coming-of-age films where self-realization is itself a marker of social privilege (such as in Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara (2011)); or in its blockbuster variant, where the audience’s aspirations for Indian films vis-a-vis Hollywood -- and, by extension, for India vis-a-vis America and other established powers -- are harnessed to genres that wouldn’t seem to naturally lend themselves to Bollywood-style film-making. Each such film (Lakshya (2004); Krrish (2006); Don (2006); and Ra-One (2012), among others) is not just treated as a commercially successful or unsuccessful film, but is talked up in the film media as a national milestone and point-of-pride, a “we can make this sort of film too” moment. Abhishek is nowhere to be found on this terrain, almost as if he has seceded from this space. That he should do so as the son of the man who is today, above all others, identified with the sign called “Bollywood” (even if Amitabh was hardly a pillar of the bourgeoisie in his pomp), must make the betrayal cut all the deeper.

Moreover, the big commercial ventures are not even half the story where Abhishek is concerned. That is, his persona doesn’t simply evoke resentment by being reticent in participating in the general enthusiasm (whether by persisting with throwback films, or by pooping the party when he is cast in a film that belongs properly to “new” Bollywood) -- in a number of films, his characters seem to go out of their way to prick the audience’s complacency. In Yuva (the name means “youth”), for instance, Mani Ratnam used Abhishek’s Lallan to remind us that Vivek’s upper-middle-class Arjun was not the only face of contemporary Indian youth. Indeed, as Lallan’s last image in the film underscores, our violent ugliness, inscribed in an order where the poor must fight for scraps, might be even more important for our future than the sunshine Arjun looks forward to. Guru (2007) at first blush might have been a game-changer, given the extent to which the film white-washed the career of the late Dhirubhai Ambani (one of contemporary India’s most valorized industrialists). Even here, though, Ratnam left enough moral ambiguity (admittedly more by way of a crusading journalist, Madhavan’s Shyam Saxena, than by way of the lead protagonist) to problematize the extent to which Gurukant Desai could be swallowed as hero-material. Raavan (2010) had Abhishek purportedly playing the villain, although the game was thoroughly rigged in favor of the baddie (loosely modeled on leaders of India’s multiple Maoist insurgencies) rather than the police. The film was greeted with howls of derision, and the intensity of the reactions (remember, we are talking of reviewers who think nothing of praising Hrithik’s turn in Krrish in terms one would hesitate to use for Smita Patil) make it difficult for me to believe that the film’s humanization of a class of people the news media prefers to sweep under the (patronizing or threatening) terms of “tribal” or “Maoist,” had nothing to do with the matter.

The critique implicit in the persona Abhishek has -- wittingly or unwittingly -- cultivated over the years is not limited to his roles in Mani Ratnam’s films. It is easily discernible in even the multiplex films he does do, such as Delhi-6 (2009): here Abhishek is at director Rakeysh Mehra’s service in scraping away “new” India’s smug complacency about its pluralism and tolerance of diversity. While several films have touched upon Hindu-Muslim conflict, Delhi-6 is one of the very few to locate this conflict in society and local communities -- rather than in high politics. The message is clear: the imagined “we” of the audience cannot absolve ourselves by laying the blame for communal conflict (that we enthusiastically participate in) on politicians that we ourselves have enabled. [Perversely, in his own production Paa (2009), Abhishek turned decades of film convention on its head by playing the role of an upstanding politician, practically an oxymoron where the Indian haute-bourgeoisie is concerned.] And Dum Maaro Dum (2011), one of three films Abhishek has made with Rohan Sippy (another inheritor who swims against the current), represented the most un-compromising Abhishek intervention yet, as Sippy’s eye transformed Goa, the ultimate Indian holiday destination, into the seedy heart of new India’s darkness, with Aditya Pancholi’s Lorsa Biscuita and Abhishek’s ACP Vishnu Kamath its presiding deities (even if this Vishnu is not much of a preserver (or can preserve the Lorrys and Jokis of the world only by sacrificing himself), and is himself oriented toward death).

The resentment I’ve been referring to is not, thus, irrational. Rather, it reflects the fact that the multiplex audience correctly intuits that Abhishek is -- if not in intention, then in effect -- the site of some resistance to a program that is not just about cinema; more precisely, that is manifested in purely ideological terms in cinema. If Abhishek isn’t on board with the paradigms of “new” Bollywood, or if “new” Bollywood directors cast him to raise questions about what “new India” does or does not mean, what else does he have reservations about?

A star is a bit like a politician: unless he has a niche audience (Sean Penn; Anurag Kashyap; Raj Thackeray; Prakash Karat) (s)he specializes in the vaguest generalities, because anything too particular risks alienating sections of the target audience (it is this caution, and not necessarily any lack of intelligence or insight, that explains the vapidity of most celebrity interviews). The most skilled can nevertheless signal coded messages that privileged constituencies within the wider audience can pick up on -- thus Raj Thackeray can profess adherence to secularism and other constitutional norms, without ever compromising his standing among urban Maharastrian xenophobes; or Shah Rukh Khan can speak of his deep respect for Bal Thackeray, even though no-one really believes in any ties binding the two; or why Mani Ratnam doesn’t need to say that his politics left-of-center. The very biggest stars -- Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar -- hardly send even coded messages, and are thus permanently available to any agenda, or no agenda at all (in this they go beyond politicians, who cannot beyond a point avoid sending messages, lest they compromise their ability to differentiate themselves from their opponents). Viewed in this manner -- very different from the prism through which the Hindi film media and many fans purport to view their stars -- resentment of Abhishek comes into clearer focus, especially because his messages (perhaps because some of them have likely been inadvertent and not carefully thought through) aren’t especially coded. In essence, when we say that the actor should not be confused with his roles, we are in fact lying -- to ourselves. Because the mind cannot separate the actor from his roles -- or certainly not where the star is concerned. (It is a different case with the actor who lacks an aura, and can hence essay a variety of roles with equal plausibility, such as a Farooq Sheikh; while admirable in its versatility, the greater the extent to which an actor is able to do this, the less likely that (s)he can stand for or point to anything in particular.)

To be blunt, on this terrain, Abhishek -- by any reasonable measure the most prominent of Bollywood’s princes and princesses -- acquires the contours of a class traitor. That is, had Abhishek embraced his position in the inheritors’ club, he would have been less resented. Because the Indian audience does not resent privilege so much as the privilege of being able to renounce, even partially, privilege. The latter calls into question one’s own ethical choices, one’s own privilege, however feeble this might seem to be with respect to the advantages Abhishek has enjoyed. I attribute a large part of the obsessive focus on those advantages among many fans and bloggers to this sort of displacement: by focusing on, and even exaggerating, those advantages, our own privileges dwindle to nothing -- and hence we cannot be questioned for them. In short, so wedded are we to the fiction of the self-made man that Abhishek serves as convenient foil -- compared to him, we’re all self-made! -- and we can afford to ignore the myriad ways in which we are privileged.

Why should any of this matter, beyond the confines of film- and celebrity-junkies? Because it points to the larger blind spots that sully the polity, whether the question is of discrimination, caste-based reservations, or the displacement of adivasis for the benefit of others. In each case, urban, bourgeois opinion routinely denies the existence of any privilege accruing to the bourgeoisie at all, while displacing all such privilege only on particular personifications of it -- such as Abhishek Bachchan. But it isn’t “the dynastic” that is problematic in itself; rather, the problem arises because the dynastic element is simply one way in which privilege operates in India, one way in which access to resources, jobs, careers, and wealth are unfairly distributed. As the ugly vitriol of so much discourse on reservations makes clear, large segments of the Indian bourgeoisie are completely blind to this wider question of privileged access, preferring to pretend that the latter is the preserve only of the Abhisheks of the world. And where the dynasts pander to our views, we find it all too easy to lay our resentment aside -- those inheritors have proven themselves worthy, and may be forgiven their privilege (contrast popular denunciations of Nehru’s elitism, versus that of his daughter Indira Gandhi, who the middle class imagines shared many of their values). More accurately, their privilege, like ours, can be re-imagined as a kind of self-fashioning (Indira proved herself worthy, goddammit!), a narrative that becomes less plausible where a dynast like Abhishek abjures at least some of those advantages by using his hereditary prominence to bring our own complacency into clearer focus. Unfortunately for Abhishek, that has proven unforgivable. And while lucidity on this score cannot negate those dynastic advantages, it can at least open our eyes to the fact that such opportunistic resentment cannot pass for a commitment to meritocracy.