Sunday, July 26, 2015

MASAAN (Hindi; 2015)

By the end, Masaan (“Cremation Ground”) was very different from the film I thought I was watching after the first fifteen minutes: the opening sequence, involving a sexual encounter violated and sullied by policemen intent on cruelty and extortion, is one of the most riveting, and nauseating, representations of the police in years (only the sequence in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014), where the father of a missing girl tries to register a missing person-complaint, comes close). I was filled with loathing, and wanted to hurt someone.  That feeling stayed with me – Bhagwan Tiwari as Inspector Mishra has an important and continuing role over the course of the film – but Masaan turned out to be about something other than misogyny or the workings of a corrupt and oppressive state machine.  What that something is I’m not quite sure, but in its moodiness, its air of mystery, its poetry, I am confident Masaan heralds the arrival of an exciting, reflective new directorial talent in Neeraj Ghaywan.  To the extent Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) may be said to have spawned successors, Masaan is among the worthies.

At one level, the film is a coming-of-age story, a genre that relies on assumptions that the protagonists will be typical in some way (the Lover; the Student; the Prince; even with Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, a category – the Artist – is immediately and explicitly invoked).  But Masaan, like Udaan, wraps the bildungsroman into a narrative of exception: Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) seems like a typical Polytechnic student in Varanasi, until you appreciate that he is from the Dom caste, traditionally associated with cremating dead bodies on the Varanasi ghats – as caste hierarchies go, it’s hard to think of anyone lower down the totem pole.  But Deepak’s father has ensured an education for him, one that estranges him from the family’s traditional profession (the estrangement personified by his sullen brother Sikandar, who hasn’t been able to do what Deepak has done) – it’s not an impossible story, merely a remarkable one.  Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), the young Brahmin woman who, along with her father, is ensnared by the police in a manufactured sex scandal and resulting extortion, is remarkable for her inner strength and poise: her conviction that she has done nothing wrong seems unshakeable, not only in the face of sexual predators who want to sleep with her because, well, she’s done it once before with someone else, but also in private, before her father. 

A story about the coming of age of two people who are self-consciously atypical is not a problem per se (Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover are surely entitled to tell any tale of their choosing), but does raise wider questions of meaning.  That the stakes are higher than those involved in the story of two remarkable young people is not in doubt, given the metaphysics of death and re-birth self-consciously deployed by the film.  And there is Varanasi itself, loaded with meaning (and its ghats wonderfully shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun), sought by both the pilgrims and tourists who visit (the former are obligated to go in some sense, out of religious duty, but even the latter – of whom I was one for five memorable days in 2009 at a small guesthouse near the Kashi Vishwanath temple – are convinced that they are visiting a special place, one like no other: the city’s proximity to death has by now become a cliché, although no less true for it). 

Perhaps that is the place to begin: is the cremation ground of the film’s title Harishchandra Ghat, where Deepak’s family lives and where it plies its trade?  It might be the city itself, where dying can sometimes seem easier than living (recall the opening sequence, at the end of which Piyush kills himself; Devi is stronger, and it’s clear that option has never occurred to her).  The parallels between the two leads might offer some clues: the fathers of both, albeit at opposite ends of the caste spectrum, make their living from death and the rituals associated with it, on the banks of the Ganges (Devi’s father is a pandit and former professor of Sanskrit who now advises people on post-death rituals; Deepak’s family cremates corpses); both Devi and Deepak have had lovers from Bania backgrounds (Aggarwal for her; Gupta for him); both work for Indian Railways at some point (indeed the rail as metaphor for arrivals and departures is a recurring motif in the film); both are born into families at the end of a long tradition, but one that doesn’t sustain them any longer, and is instead something to get away from, its weight felt like that of a carcass.  On this reading the Masaan of the film’s title might be the milieu itself: life, if it is to be, must be elsewhere. 

Away from the two leads, Masaan gets plenty other things right: a host of other characters populate the film, and just about every one – ranging from Deepak’s friends to the man who baldly and offensively propositions Devi to Deepak’s lover Shaalu to the foul-mouthed boy Jhonta who works with Devi’s father, to Piyush’s mother, and the two leads’ fathers– is well-etched and aptly cast.  They seem like people who might be real, and are very far from types.  Deepak’s friends are a case in point: in most other films (especially multiplex films, where middle-class men have increasingly been stereotyped as little better than swine – the charming Queen offers a great example in Raj Kumar Rao’s character, who is not just awful but awful in a way that suggests he is meant to stand in for a whole class of Indian male) they might be stereotypical louts or lechers; here they are awkward but well-meaning, and surprise us with their sensitivity.  (Don’t get me wrong, Masaan isn’t short of assholes, it’s just that the film represents many more hues than one.)  Nor is the caste angle one-dimensional, with privileged upper-castes on the one hand and the Doms on the other: the latter’s lot is grim, but in Devi’s father and his pathetic feebleness before Inspector Mishra, we also encounter how wretched upper-caste poverty can be as well (indeed at one point Vidyadhar Pathak naively mumbles that he thought he could rely on the Inspector’s sympathy – “Mishra” is also a Brahmin last name – only to be met with derision).  No position atop the Hindu caste hierarchy will save the Pathaks: only money will.

Vicky Kaushal makes the role of Deepak his own, in a winning performance that brought more than one smile to my face: his shyness is irresistible, and his wooing of Shaalu more disarmingly natural than any number of representations of boys from the “Hindi heartland” over the last decade (compare this to Vivek Oberoi crooning Lionel Richie songs in Omkara and you’ll appreciate what a condescending representation is all about).  But the most arresting acting in the film comes from Richa Chadda, who uses inscrutability as both woman’s shield and weapon in this film: her tightly impassive face conveys in precisely the proportion that it conceals (indeed, one might even criticize the film for making too much of this: Devi’s motivations are all but opaque, not only to her father but also to us, and perhaps even to the director), and compels attention.  Not to mention that she is insanely hot; the combination means great screen presence (oddly enough not showcased as well in Gangs of Wasseypur as here, or in Fukrey or in a blink-and-miss role in the Indian TV version of 24) that anchors Masaan.  Someone get her more roles!

Masaan only features three tracks, but each is memorable: Indian Ocean’s soulful music works very well here, not least because each song serves primarily as vehicle for very fresh lyrics.  Varun Grover’s adaptation of Dushyant Kumar’s poem is unforgettable and jarring – I don’t think I’ve gotten over these most odd of romantic lyrics, in “Tu kisi rail si guzartee hai / Mein kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon”; Grover does even better with the simple “Mann kasturi re / Jag dastoori re / Baat hui na pooree re”, and Sanjeev Sharma’s lyrics in “Bhor” are also very good.  Perhaps what I enjoyed was also the feeling that here were writers who like the rhythms of spoken Hindi in Eastern U.P., who are able to make poetry from a very popular and unpretentious idiom (another quality that links Masaan to Udaan).

In Masaan, leaving is no clean break (and not just because, as Devi’s Railways colleague Sadhya (Pankaj Tripathi) tells her, 26 trains stop at Benares, but 64 don’t, showing that it is easy to get to the city, but hard to leave): the Ganges is the site not just of death but of rebirth, and the films closing sequences make that explicit: Devi and Deepak achieve some kind of closure by casting the last physical objects tying them to their dead lovers into the water, and then meet each other and embark on a journey that signifies a beginning on the same river.  (The connection has already been foreshadowed: the ring Deepak casts away, then tries to find but cannot, ends up, unknown to Devi, playing a crucial role in her liberation.)  Kashi must be fled, but only with what Kashi gave you, with traces of what Kashi took away.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


The term "masala" has been much bandied about in recent years, all-too-often by people with scant respect or understanding of its rhythms, of the precise contexts it grew out, indeed of how vanishingly brief its efflorescence was -- essentially coterminous with the arc of Amitabh Bachchan's and Manmohan Desai's careers, more accurately with the intersection of the two careers in the 1970s and 1980s.  At some point, "masala" became a lazy stand-in, for films from any period prior to this century, for anything that pre-dated the Hollywoodization of the Hindi film aesthetic, for anything outlandish or spoofish, for films we were embarrassed about, for films we didn't just make any more.  Until, that is, we did, when, after the path breaking success of 2008's Ghajini, a particular variant of popular (primarily Telugu) cinema was able to be married to The Big Bollywood Star, and has been a fixture of Hindi screens ever since -- in a particular way.  For the likes of Ready, Kick, Rowdy Rathore, are not mainstream movies in the sense that they set the pace for the industry, exemplars of a tradition at its prime; rather, these films only make sense in the context of an industry that (commercially speaking) has moved on (to an extent because of changing tastes; but also, in no small measure, because of its ability to pitch products to smaller and smaller demographic groups.  Unlike the industries all over the world that seek to broaden their footprint, Bollywood, wittingly or no, prefers to focus on smaller groups of more affluent consumers).  Contemporary masala makes sense, and can be successful, only because there isn't very much of it, and what there is harkens to a general sense of Bollywood's history; it is thus essential that it be married to a veteran star, whose long career itself imbues him with an aura of authenticity.  That context paradoxically means that the masala movie, however well-made, simply cannot mean what it used to: its excellence vis-a-vis other films might have brought success once upon a time (think of Sholay, as opposed to Khotay Sikkay); today, its rarity, its status as a kind of specimen (the Hindi/Urdu word namoona does come to mind) is crucial.

The above accounts for many of Salman Khan's recent films: unquestionably Southern masala in one sense, films like Dabangg, Dabangg 2, Ek Tha Tiger or Kick were also careful not to alienate the multiplex audience, packaging what they were selling in tongue-in-cheek humor, and Hollywood length (Dabangg, for instance, was under two hours in length).  They were easy to consume, both for an audience that wanted "this sort" of film but couldn't get it anywhere else, and for an audience who needed escapist fare but was embarrassed by itself for being so silly.  Kabir Khan's Ek Tha Tiger offered a fascinating glimpse of the potential and pitfalls of this sort of film could be: shorn of sexism or even the overt nationalism that one might have expected from its subject (an Indo-Pak romance between two spies), just as the film gets interesting, with the star-crossed lovers fleeing with RAW and the ISI in hot pursuit, it, um, ends, almost as if the filmmakers knew that you couldn't risk getting too serious, too, well, masala anymore.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and in retrospect, Ek Tha Tiger was the appetizer to the main course that is Bajrangi Bhaijaan: and a damn good meal it is (and, it must be noted, one not without some Andhra spice, written as it is by K. Vijayendra Prasad, a man credited with more blockbusters – including the continuing phenomenon of Baahubali -- than most have hits).  By now everyone knows the plot -- good-hearted Hanuman bhakt Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi finds a mute Pakistani girl lost in India, and resolves to cross the border to re-unite her with her family -- but let's pause to acknowledge that this itself is a welcome relief from the nauseating flood of routine love stories packaged as something different; or the clothes, fashion, and lifestyle ads that masquerade as films in Bollywood.  And then there is the question of the social milieu the film is set in: I found myself rooting for the fact that this film isn’t populated by people toting D&G and acting as if progressive cinema consisted of ripping off off-beat American filmmakers, rather than plagiarizing other sources.  In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, people take the bus, eat at dhabas, drink tea from roadside stalls, not because the director is trying to tell us something (in far too many contemporary Hindi films, these representations would mean either that we are talking about the hinterlands of UP and Bihar, with crazy violence sure to follow; or that it’s a question of a film about some “them”, made for some “us” that is assuredly not “them”), but because that’s simply where his characters live and how they commute to work.  It’s delightful because it’s so normal.  (That I have to make this point at all testifies to the sad pass the industry has come to.)  [In fact, Kabir Khan’s representation of the film’s worlds has led to some off-screen confusion with more than one urbane Bombayite puzzled over the use of terms like “Mohammedan” in the film – a sure sign of one’s unfamiliarity with certain North Indian milieus.]

There are other signs of a new normal: Pawan isn’t just a Hanuman bhakt but a rather closed-minded Hindu: he’s the son of a RSS shakha pramukh, is shocked by even the smell of meat wafting over from a Muslim neighbors house, and is completely disgusted to see the child he’s so fond of wolf down chicken.  He’s also communal, pleading for Hanuman’s forgiveness upon entering a mosque, is shocked that the child in his care even wants to tie a thread at a dargah, and further evidenced by his desperation to come up with an explanation of the girl’s meat-eating ways that doesn’t have her be – shudder – a Muslim.  Kshatriyas eat meat, he reasons, an addendum to his earlier reasoning that the girl’s light skin means she must be a Brahmin.  And then there’s his literal-mindedness: much of the film’s comedy is centered on Pawan’s attempts to live his life according to the precepts of Lord Hanuman: never lie, deceive, or do anything under-handed. All this isn’t just director Kabir Khan and writer Vijayendra Prasad looking down at some simple-minded bigot who makes the rest of us feel better about our own “tolerance”.  On the contrary, the representation of Pawan’s bigotry as completely, banally, normal, so much so that it’s Pawan’s lover Rasika who seems odd when she snaps that all this stuff about staying away from those of “paraaya dharm” is nonsense, stays with the viewer.  Pawan’s attitudes aren’t abnormal or unusual, they are all too common across large swathes of Indian society, and the film doesn’t let us forget it precisely because it evokes that reality in a seemingly non-judgmental way.  

This isn’t the syncretic Hindu that we are familiar with from a long line of Hindi films, but almost the first post-Modi Hindu film hero, one with a communal identity so clearly demarcated, so abundantly policed and vigilant of borders (witness Pawan about to step into a dargah for the first time – and this is on the Indian side of the border), one might mistake him for a monotheistic fundamentalist. The jibe against the Sangh is subtle, but unmistakable: what the new normal – an ignorant one, I might add: a second after Rasika asks Pawan if he’s read the Mahabharata she remembers who she’s dealing with, following it up with “you must have at least watched the TV serial?” – amounts to isn’t anti-Muslim so much as it is un-Muslim, a conception of India and Indianness that has nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of Muslims.  The new normal, that is to say, aims at fulfilling the logic of Partition, by creating a Hindu Pakistan to mirror the Muslim one across the border.  So while I celebrate Bajrangi Bhaijaan for its insight and appreciation of the stakes here, my appreciation is tinged with sadness: because the film also reminds us, in a way no Indo-Pak bonhomie at film’s end can undo, how complete the logic of Partition is for so many people, whether they live in India or Pakistan.  Indeed that cross-border bonhomie reinforces the stability of the border, a point that seems to have eluded the filmmakers: stated differently, a more daring film would have tackled the Hindu-Muslim “borders” within a city like Delhi, and the challenges those frontiers pose to sustaining a genuinely pluralistic polity.  The Wagah border can be oppressive, but it doesn’t upset either Hindu or Pakistani nationalism because it keeps everyone in their place (to be fair, this film does have a brilliant sequence where things are out of place, when India loses a cricket match to Pakistan and everyone in the house Pawan and Rasika stay in is distraught, with only Munni jumping up and down in excitement, and then kissing the Pakistani flag on the TV screen).

But -- and this is perhaps the best thing about this film -- Bajrangi Bhaijaan's magic lies in the sly way it upsets expectations by making an "other" of its lead protagonist, and, by extension, of the audience.  The film’s second half is set entirely in Pakistan, and at one fell swoop it is Pawan who sticks out like a sore thumb: his name, the words he uses, his religiosity, makes him seem as aberrant in Pakistan as, well, a Muslim guy at a RSS shakha.  I can’t think of another Hindi film that does so much with this trope, in the sense that Pawan isn’t oppressed in Pakistan for his religion, it’s just that his oddity is reinforced at every turn (the scene where Pawan asks for vegetarian food at a roadside dhaba was hilarious, and rang true, reminding me of more than one Muslim acquaintance), and he has to cope with being strange in a milieu that otherwise includes plenty of the familiar.  This is a double estrangement, not simply borne of alien-ness, but of an alien-ness that also feels, in many ways, familiar.  (Perhaps I should speak of a triple or even quadruple estrangement here, given that Pawan is played by Muslim Salman Khan; but a Muslim who can recite the Hanumanchalisa with no trouble at all, and one who is himself, in a perverse twist that would have done Proust proud, closer to the Hindu Right than just about any other Muslim celebrity in India.)

The second half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan introduces us to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing the rather shabby Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab, who becomes smitten by the story of the big-hearted Indian on an odyssey to re-unite Munni with her parents.  Salman Khan’s character is strangely passive and quiet in the second half, and Nawazuddin propels the action here, with wonderful comic timing and that ever-present misery in the actor’s eyes.  It isn’t often that one speaks of another actor in a Salman Khan film (Nawazuddin himself had no more than ten good minutes in Kick), but it must be said that he has tons of screen time, and holds the film’s second half together.  I could see this film again just for him. That’s not a knock on Salman, but merely an acknowledgment that Kabir Khan hasn’t been as flattering to him here as he was in Ek Tha Tiger: there are fewer great dialogs, only one crowd-pleasing action sequence, the music – as one would expect from Pritam – is pedestrian, and no Sallu song choreography worthy of the name (E le le is not a patch on, for instance, Hum ka peeni hai from Dabangg; although the Kukdu ku song celebrating the charms of non-veg food, features delightful lyrics by Mayur Puri).

What is the film’s message (apart, that is, from, as Baradwaj Rangan has noted, the notion that Salman Khan is a wonderful human being)? That we should all get along, for sure, but there’s another, more sly thread here: what happens to Pawan illustrates the limits of literal-minded adherence to religious or moral precepts – if you keep admitting you crossed the border illegally into Pakistan, expect to be beaten by the police and border security personnel, however pure your intentions – and on more than one occasion, Prasad and Kabir Khan evoke the Mahabharata: Rasika does it most explicitly early on, trying to explain to Pawan that he needs to add some Krishna to his Hanuman bhakti.  “Never tell lies” is not just a moral precept, it’s a sure way to make one’s life unlivable.  By film’s end, Pawan seems to get it: he still won’t tell lies or deceive, but will mislead and enable others to do so to serve a good end.  Chand Nawab has never heard of the Mahabharata, but the writer ensures we are reminded of it in the latter half of the film: as every good Hindi film fan knows, Natwarlal is the most masala-friendly of all Deities.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

UN Musings...

A Thursday morning rant in response to this piece by Ashok Malik in the Times of India; in particular to this excerpt:

The [UN] Security Council is not merely a microcosm of the General Assembly; it was never intended as such. The idea that the permanent segment of the Security Council must mirror ethnic and regional diversity, with a sort of diplomatic affirmative action, is ridiculous.

The idea that calls to make the permanent membership of the Security Council more representative of the world's diversity is "a sort of diplomatic affirmative action" is offensive. Malik is certainly right that the Security Council wasn't set up to be a microcosm of the General Assembly, but he doesn't explain why it's a bad idea for the permanent membership of the Security Council to be more democratic; this isn't about "affirmative action", but about credibility: the UN's mission might have more credibility if it weren't just seen as a collection of rich bullies, and hold-overs from a war won seven decades ago at that. More broadly, of course, arguments like Malik's point to the increasing convergence of what passes for realpolitik with the Indian establishment, and an identification with the world-view and aims of the world's status quo Western powers. Malik refers to India "under-selling" its role post-independence (it seems the dig at Nehru is obligatory in India these days); to paraphrase Malik, the notion that this had anything to do with India not getting a permanent seat on the Security Council is "ridiculous", and only makes sense in the context of the usual right-wing charge that "we would have been great had Nehru not happened". Malik and his ilk ignore the ideological dimension to this: in the 1950s India had a very different conception of itself and "who it stood with" than it currently does -- in the former instance the self-image was of standing in solidarity with the world's underdogs; today there is no such conception, and in fact the obsessive anxiety is that we not be confused with any of those underdogs (Africa? Heck that's affirmative action!).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

O KADHAL KANMANI (Tamil; 2015)

An hour into Mani Ratnam's latest film, I realized I was enjoying myself quite a bit, even as the skeptic in me wanted to yell that there wasn't much to the film, in terms of either plot or theme: nothing much happens in the film, nor does it take us anywhere the director's earlier love stories -- principally Alai Payuthey and Mouna Raagam, released, respectively, fifteen and nearly thirty years ago -- haven't already taken us.  There is, as expected, a sensational background score -- credited to, apart from AR Rahman, Qutub-e-Kripa, the students of the KM conservatory associated with Rahman -- and a winning performance by Nithya Menon in the female lead role, but no real meat or edge.  If Ratnam's films are divided between those that aspire to "more" than popular cinema (Iruvar, Dil Se, Aayutha Ezhuthu/Yuva, Raavan/Raavanan) and those that aspire to make the popular film as classy as it can be (Thalapathi, Alai Payuthey, Thiruda Thiruda), O Kadhal Kanmani definitely falls in the latter category.  But even in that category, it is a slight film, its love story and the protagonists at the heart of it no more than mere sketches, their tribulations the result of purely internal hesitations and reserve (neither believes in the idea of marriage with its permanent commitment and the cost it entails to one's autonomy; but since films could barely exist without forming couples, the viewer knows to pay no heed to Aditya's and Tara's words), and not evoked in the most compelling fashion.  Some of this might be attributable to the actors -- Dulquer Salmaan, for instance, is charming as the male lead (a video-game developer recently arrived in Bombay), but compared to Alai Payuthey's Madhavan, he seems shallow -- but not all of it: Nithya Menon is a lot better than the earlier film's inert Shalini, but her character (a student of architecture, originally from Coimbatore) makes much less of an impact.  O Kadhal Kanmani is, like more than one Ratnam film, not the most tightly written (and as is also true of more than one Ratnam film, its first half is better than its second).  The film is a bit of a soufflé, light and fluffy but without much of an after-taste, at least one that isn't provided by the older couple played by Prakashraj and Leela Samson.

The film gets the soundtrack it needs -- it is, by now, hard to tell which of Ratnam and AR Rahman is the muse, and to whom -- and the very texture of O Kadhal Kanmani is suffused with Rahman's magic, by way of both songs and background score.  The fanboy in me certainly missed the videos of earlier Ratnam films (Parandhu Sella Vaa is the only choreographed set piece here, cute but hardly one of the director's most memorable), but perhaps that is fitting, given that the director has arguably taken the Tamil and Hindi song-video to its limit.  In exchange Ratnam scatters snippets of the songs throughout the film, making of them an aural Siamese twin to the film's theme of young love in Bombay (the moody and beautiful cityscapes on the CD jacket best make the point). It might be churlish -- although no less accurate for that -- to observe that the film is not the equal of Rahman's music, but that music undeniably works best in the context of this film (at least where tracks like Mental Manadil, Hey Sinamika, and Kaara Attakaara are concerned; the classically-inspired masterpiece Naane Varugiraen stands on its own, and perversely isn't done justice to in the film): more than one song had grown on me before I watched the film, but was rendered indelible after I'd done so, in a manner reminiscent of my encounter with Rang de Basanti.

And yet, by the end of O Kadhal Kanmani, I realized that I might have been missing the point of the film: Bombay, beautiful Bombay, in its real and cinematic avatars, appears to be the raison d'être of this film, and perhaps the most plausible kanmani on offer.  Not for nothing does the film begin with Dulquer's Aditya Varadarajan disembarking at CST/Victoria Terminus, and catching sight of Nithya Menon's Tara, her image framed, de-stabilized, and finally obscured by passing trains in possibly the best train shots of even Ratnam's long career.  Indeed, over the course of the film the couple seems to meet more often in BEST buses and local trains than seems plausible for the iPad and iPhone wielding yuppies these two seem to be, and the reason is surely that O Kadhal Kanmani is Ratnam's paean to a city that he loves, in the manner one loves a city one has discovered later in life, too late, that is, to take for granted.  As with so many films from decades ago, the city's lodestars are (apart from CST) the Gateway of India, the Worli sea-face, and the public transport system, each of these sites charged with years of not just social but cinematic meaning that made the experience of watching them on-screen moving in a way quite independent of the unfolding love story.  The romance, in short, serves as backdrop to Ratnam's representation of a city he clearly loves.

Stated differently, things happen in this movie -- a sudden rain shower, a frantic car ride through a crowded bazaar, bus-rides after dark and during the day, encounters in local trains -- because they are opportunities to represent the city, more accurately opportunities to represent aspects of the city depicted in the films of an earlier era.  And there's no doubt his city is Bombay: Ratnam seems to bear no rancor over the change to Mumbai -- Aditya (a video-game developer whose city -- and next game -- is "Mumbai 2.0") corrects Leela Samson's Bhavani (diagnosed with Alzheimers) when she refers to "Bombay," with a glib (albeit not mean) "It's Mumbai, not Bombay" -- but Ratnam cannot resist an implicit reproach: "When did they do that?" Bhavani wonders, and it's not hard to pick up a note of bewildered regret that isn't just Bhavani's Alzheimers talking (the director is less convincing in "Mumbai 2.0" as well, and the film's anime sequences, while bold, seemed to belong in a different film).  Ratnam has the film's leads stick to old Bombay when they're outdoors: with the exception of a scene or two on what appeared to me to be Juhu Beach, an underpass out of the Bandra-Kurla Complex, and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the film does not venture into the "suburbs" except by implication (Aditya and Tara regularly meet and shop in the city's new malls, most of which are north of Bombay's old core).

But, as befits a director who has been preoccupied with domesticity for decades, O Kadhal Kanmani is just as lavish in depicting Bombay's interior spaces, principally the grand old apartment in Gamdevi that Ganapathy (Prakashraj) and Bhavani live in, suffused with the grace and love intrinsic to Ratnam's idealizations of married couples -- so much so that the elderly couple serves as the movie's scene stealers, making their younger twins (who board with them) seem callow or narcissistic. And if there has always been more than a little idealization of a certain kind of Tamil middle-class man and woman in Ratnam's work, represented here in the form of Ganapathy and Bhavani, it is important to remember that the director does not (unlike most contemporary Hindi filmmakers) merely represent the social privilege of a particular class (much less celebrate its consumption patterns) but asks more of "his" people: by way of culture and a commitment to liberalism, by his nudges to them to stand for something (it is unclear if Aditya will ever pass muster on this front, and Ratnam is naturally more interested in Tara).  You see it in that Gamdevi flat with its high ceilings, old french windows and musical instruments -- I can't think of another film set in Bombay with a more lovely dwelling -- and there's more than just the apartment voyeurism of big city dwellers operating here: a life with grace is possible, Ratnam seems to be telling us, and while it needs love for sure, it also needs sensibility.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Note on NH-10 (Hindi; 2015)

There was a fair amount in the NH-10 trailers that I find off-putting about contemporary Bollywood: the utterly (and to me, somewhat alienating) Hollywood cinematic idiom, the sense that the film's audience must share the socio-economic aspirations of the two lead characters, the sort of de-racinated upwardly mobile Indians presented as normal, almost the only "normal" in a milieu where to be "ethnic" is to be associated with violence and deprivation's dark heart. Director Navdeep Singh's film (his second, after the atmospheric Chinatown remake Manorama Six Feet Under) certainly pushes those buttons, but there's much more to the film, making it one of the best (and certainly the most harrowing) Hindi films of the last few months.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A thought on Shamitabh's Trailers...

Shamitabh trailers HERE

When I think of Balki’s work I am reminded of those painters, like Picasso or Turner, who take something we all take as a given– light, shape — and bring it into issue by making it the subject of the work (thereby changing our perception of the world). Balki has something of the same vibe, of an experimenter, of someone who wants to play with his material, except his material isn’t some universal given, but Amitabh himself (although that choice speaks volumes about Amitabh’s role in Bollywood). So these films are exercises in distorted Bachchan effects — more accurately, exercises in what happens if everything remains the same, but Bachchan is distorted (a child of his own child in Paa; a disembodied voice in Shamitabh). All this could be fascinating (perhaps as an oeuvre, when one looks back at it a few years later, rather than film-by-film), but Balki also gives off the vibe of an ad man, and as such, the risk is that it won’t amount to anything more than mere effect. That is, does Paa tell us anything about the nature of the Amitabh phenomenon, or of the wider world when the world’s Amitabh is distorted? Not to detract from the film’s enjoyability, but I would say that it does not. Shamitabh from the trailers seems even further along the path of the gimmick (Paa at least had a moving story of loss, fatherhood as its narrative core).

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A quick note on PK...

The biggest intellectual issue I take with PK is one I often have with very many "well-intentioned" Hindi films, namely that it re-characterizes a straightforward political position into notions of fact/falsehood, even more so sincerity/insincerity.  Thus the trope of the two-faced politician is a common one in Hindi films, but also in Indian society (I couldn't even begin to count the number of times people have told me that communal statements by politicians don't matter because what these chaps are "really" interested in is making money); the resulting cynicism has the virtue of not accepting the authority of those in power as a given, but is associated with the vice of paralyzing any kind of political thinking -- since the practice of politics ends up viewed as essentially the deployment of a kind of hypocrisy.  PK's godmen suffer from the same problem: although the narrative arc initially seems to target the un-reasonableness of religious practice (and, delightfully, its complete relativism: the wine that is the blood of Christ itself becomes disgusting when transposed to a Muslim context), by the end it muddles into questions of fraud, and these take over the film.  Any number of other issues are also loaded onto the charlatan (played with trademark comical nastiness by Saurabh Shukla), and before too long we also find in him the Muslim-baiter, the media manipulator -- in short, he becomes the very bete noire of the (imagined?) liberal audience.

But this doesn't logically follow: any number of Hindu godmen are anti-Muslim fanatics, but they aren't anti-Muslim BECAUSE they are charlatans.  Perversely, by drawing an equivalence between illiberal, bigoted politics and sincerity, Hirani's film lets the godmen of all religions off the hook: the problem, we are made to see by film's end, is the "wrong number" of fraud, an incorrect connection tied to all sorts of ills.  There is nothing in this to discomfit too many, either believers or godmen, since they can always resort to the place where PK doesn't go: the abode of the sincere (and what, after all, is fanaticism but sincerity taken to great extremes?).  It's a bit of a cheap shot, the cinematic equivalent of Anna Hazare's movement: who, after all, is FOR corruption?  [That the likes of the VHP and Bajrang Dal have nevertheless found this film objectionable is almost comical: they have demonstrated that however modest it may be, in them the film has found its target, not for charlatanry but for bigotry, the very raison d'être of these groups.]  A progressive politics founded on such easy notions of truth and falsehood is building on sand -- what if Sarfaraz had in fact been a cad and a cheat?  Would that have vindicated the godman's bigotry?  It certainly SHOULD not, but the film points to a different direction.

I don't mean to be harsh on the film: the experience of watching it was very enjoyable, and PK can sustain numerous repeat viewings, on the strength of good dialog, some great scenes, the smooth staging of a relatively gentle, cartoonish world that is by now Hirani's forte, and an excellent, utterly convincing performance by Aamir Khan.  But it lacks the edge it might have had (imagine a film that targets the bigotry of Shukla's character more directly, rather than the fact that he is also duping people) -- frankly, I wish Hirani had explored a different possibility inherent in this script about an alien stranded on Earth and forced to learn our ways, namely the utterly provisional nature of just about every social convention (whether pertaining to food, drink, dress, or religious practice).  There are a few sequences early on that touch upon this theme (the temple-church-dargah juxtaposition with Aamir showing up with bottles of liquor at the last of these is my favorite), but the film isn't interested enough in this vein, treating this comedy as appetizer for the main course. A pity: it would have offered a surer, funnier base from which to mock India's bigots (of any religious persuasuion, or of none).

Monday, October 06, 2014

HAIDER (Hindi; 2014)

Haider is at once the strongest and weakest of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations: most of the film has little to do with Hamlet, except in the loosest sense, and focuses on the efforts of one Kashmiri Muslim youth (Shahid Kapoor, the Haider of the film’s title) to find his father Dr. Hilal (Narendra Jha), who has joined the ranks of the disappeared after he secretly treats a militant leader in his home, even as Haider’s mother Ghazala (Tabu) draws closer to her brother-in-law Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) in the wake of the tragedy.  Paradoxically, these are in fact the strongest portions of the film, which is perhaps the only popular Indian film “on Kashmir” to be made for adults.  Freed of the need to draw cartoon characters (the Good Kashmiri Muslim oppressed by the state; or the Good Indian Army Officers protecting the state from evil jihadis), writers Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj give us human ambiguity.  It would have been easy to have Dr. Hilal treat the militant because of his devotion to the Hippocratic oath – but the doctor is coy about his political sympathies (even to his wife), and it is entirely possible that he is a sympathizer; his son Haider is more openly hostile (and nor is this a function simply of his father’s disappearance, as a flashback shows); and his wife Ghazala isn’t ideologically committed to either side so much as fearful.  Even the Claudius of this tale is not hateful: Khurram’s name is well-chosen, the writers preferring to evoke the specter of the Mughal Empire’s most glamorous fratricidal monarch, Shah Jahan, rather than its most infamous, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb.  This concern with his characters’ irreducible humanity, be they Kashmiri militants or ruthless local politicians (but not, it must be said, Indian soldiers), is perhaps the most Shakespearean thing about Bhardwaj’s adaptation.  As homages to the Bard go, one could do worse. 

One could also do better: the movie degenerates as it starts to hew more closely to the plot of Hamlet, until, by the end, we are left with a farce that has little to do with either Hamlet or good cinema.  It’s a great pity, because through the first two-thirds of the movie Haider is Bhardwaj at his most cinematic: the pacing is fantastic, the narrative grabs you and won’t let go, to the point where I realized on multiple occasions that I was half-holding my breath while watching the movie unfold – it didn’t seem to matter just what was happening on screen, I couldn’t keep my eyes away.  And oh, those visuals: this isn’t the Kashmir of picture postcard valleys, but possessed of a more ordinary beauty, shabby and wild.  Crucially for the film’s texture (and perhaps for its politics), this beauty isn’t merely natural, but cultural: we see the insides of wonderful old Kashmiri houses, intricately carved woodwork (in one scene, a jaw-dropping headboard serves as backdrop to Tabu’s face when she wakes up), and fabrics so lovely the heart aches to reach out and touch them (the stand outs for me were a shawl Kulbushan (playing Haider’s grandfather) wears in a flashback sequence at his home; and Tabu’s black kurta with green embroidery at a public meeting: these are objects so lovely they wound).  Nothing in Maqbool, Omkara, or Kaminey prepared me for the open spaces and trees in Haider, and while cinematographer Pankaj Kumar surely deserves a lot of credit, the memory of The Blue Umbrella suggests that Bhardwaj might have an especial affinity for the Himalayan winter.  Not since Mani Ratnam’s “Satrangi” video from Dil Se has anyone captured any part of Kashmir so memorably – and that song was all of seven minutes; Bhardwaj’s visuals demand more patience here, and their rewards are gentler.

Tabu deserves all the accolades she has been receiving for her performance, and then some: her wary eyes, with shadows under them, make the movie worthwhile on their own; and when we see her running after Haider after he sees her singing and laughing with her brother-in-law, her fully covered bosom disturbing the luxuriant kaftan she wears, we almost sympathize with Khurram: if ever a woman was worth betraying your brother for, surely this is the one. (Bhardwaj appreciates this fully: his Hamlet is post-Freudian, and the erotic charge when the boy Haider applies ittar on his mother’s neck, or when the adult Haider kisses it, is un-mistakable. One might speculate – although Bhardwaj doesn’t do much with it – that Khurram’s trespass with Ghazala is unforgiveable precisely because it gives flesh to Haider’s own traitorous desire.)  Shahid Kapoor does well as Haider (far better than I had given him credit for after the first trailer), although Kay Kay, while his usual enjoyable self, doesn’t imbue Khurram with the sort of nuance the role demands.  Shraddha Kapoor’s Arshia is under-written and inadequate as any kind of Ophelia, but (and this is a compliment) she is barely recognizable as the actress from Ek Villain, reminding us that few contemporary Hindi film directors are as interested in female characters – or at least their eyes – as Bhardwaj is.

A number of viewers have objected to the film's politics as "one-sided", that is, as sympathetic to the views of those in favor of Kasmir's secession from India.  The reality is a little more complicated: Haider simply underscores that every other popular Hindi film about Kashmir has been about abstractions, about the Big Ideas of Peace, Love, Terrorism, and Indian nationalism, that is to say about debates that the wider Indian public might or might not be engaged in; while Haider throws in its lot with representing the fabric of life in Kashmir for a certain kind of person at certain moment in time. That is, Haider offends inasmuch as, and precisely because, it insists on showing what the world might seem like to a Kashmiri Muslim during the state's wretched 1990s, replete with gross human rights abuses, black sites, state repression, and militancy (both Pakistan- and India-sponsored), without embedding this into any kind mainstream narrative.  If the rest of us are offended by this representation's indifference to how central Kashmir is to our notions, that testifies to our political narcissism; indeed, Haider's (understandable) narcissism -- his father's absent body embodies Kashmir to him -- unsettles us precisely because it is the local reflection of our own, more national self-regard.  Haider is uninterested in any other story but that of his father's betrayal by both his uncle and mother, and is indifferent to Ghazala's pain in being trapped in a love-less marriage; to us, who have been similarly indifferent, in the sense that we have for far too long been interested in ideas of Kashmir, and what those say about the ideas of India (or Pakistan, for that matter), rather than the people of Kashmir, Bhardwaj's mirror is discomfiting.

As an aside, there is something more than a little perverse on this insistence on "balance", on pairing State atrocities with those committed by militants, Kashmiri or otherwise.  But such "balance" yields not fairness but an equivalence between the Indian state and non-state actors, an inadvertent concession of sovereignty's attributes to those who cannot be deemed to legitimately possess them.  In their devotion, nationalism's adherents turn treasonous. More bluntly: the sort of "fairness" that would lead one to invoke the specter of militant abuses every time violations by arms of the State are discussed undermines the position of the Indian state's adherents.  There can't be any "fairness" or "balance" because there isn't any counter to the Indian state in Kashmir (to say that there is defeats the whole purpose, which is why official channels, more sensitive to the attributes and pretensions of sovereignty, prefer to deny claims of abuses, not, as Twitterati and bloggers do, cite justificatory atrocities by the other side).

I don’t mean to be coy here: the Indian Army is not the good team in this movie, and nor are the soldiers we encounter fully realized characters the way they would have been in a Shakespeare play; they serve here not as people but as threatening manifestations of a power that is malign because it is unaccountable.  And it is bitterness at this unaccountability, rather than any question of whether or not the filmmakers are “anti-national,” that serves as the appropriate frame for Haider.  The very atrocities the film focuses on – extra-judicial killings and “disappearances” too well-documented to be denied; torture; the government sponsoring of militants to fight militants (amply reported in the mainstream media itself); the power over life and death afforded by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (“AFSA”), a statute that blights life in several states, not just Kashmir – testify to this, marking out the contours of a grievously injured liberalism and political culture, of which Kashmir is merely one symptom. (Likewise, I am not insensitive to the fact that this film cleared the censors, and despite the rumored cuts and alterations that entailed, the fact that it was cleared at all is striking, and does the Board a lot of credit.)  Indeed, the injustice of this unaccountability is a better frame for the film than even Hamlet is, as Bhardwaj and Peer re-work a number of the play’s tropes into commentary on Kashmir: thus, “to be or not to be” is here not an expression of any interiority, but the state of limbo the families of the disappeared find themselves in; the same is true of the disappeared themselves, the ghosts who haunt Kashmir from beyond the grave.  It doesn’t help illuminate Hamlet for us, but it does serve to shed some light over Kashmir.