Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The mahatma and the movies

For someone with a rare talent for stirring imagery, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was curiously unenthused by cinema. In 1927-28, the Indian Cinematograph Committee conducted a survey on movie-viewing habits in the country. It sent Gandhi a questionnaire, and received the following reply: “Even if I was so minded, I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to a cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if it has done any at all, remains to be proved.” In an interview in Harijan in 1942, he reiterated that he had never been to the cinema, but that “cinema films are often bad”.

It must have taken some doing, but K.A. Abbas, the well-known critic, director and screenwriter (notably of Shree 420 and Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani), penned an open letter to Gandhi in 1939 in Filmindia. “I have no knowledge of how you came to have such a poor opinion of the cinema,” he wrote. “I don’t know even if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil.” He tried to reason with the Mahatma, appending a viewing list which included the American films The Story Of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Boys Town (1938) and Indian ones like Sant Tukaram (1936).

It seems Gandhi ended up watching two films in his life, both while he was convalescing from malaria in Juhu, Mumbai, in 1944. The first was Michael Curtiz’s Mission To Moscow (1943), which he apparently disliked. The other was Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943), a Hindi mythological, more suited to his tastes. A newspaper report described this private screening as a “historical event in Indian cinema”, and said that, at the end, “Mahatmaji seemed quite cheerful”.

Gandhi may not have thought much of cinema, but cinema was always interested in Gandhi. The first moving images of him were in newsreels which would play in movie theatres before the start of the feature presentation. Several can be seen online. There’s a silent reel from 1922, on the British Pathé YouTube channel, showing a lithe Gandhi on stage, addressing an assembly. The intertitle reads: “Gandhi—now condemned to six years’ imprisonment—the only cinema pictures ever taken of the notorious agitator.” He looks a lot frailer in Gandhi Fast Brings New Indian Crisis!, shot during his anti-untouchability protests of 1932.

In April 1931, the American newsreel company Fox Movietone got a scoop: Gandhi’s speaking voice (the segment was titled Mahatma Gandhi Talks—this just a year after MGM promoted Anna Christie with the tag line “Garbo talks!”). A team travelled to Borsad village to interview him; the equipment was transported by bullock cart, something which the first scene of the film (available on the GandhiServe YouTube channel as Footage-Gandhi-1931 May) makes a predictably big deal out of. Gandhi, who prefaced the interview by telling the crew, “I do not like this kind of thing, but I shall reconcile myself to it”—bare-chested, dressed in a dhoti, stares at his feet and gives brief answers on banning child marriage, instituting prohibition (“Oh, yes”) and dying for India’s freedom (he dodges, saying, “It is a bad question”). It’s hardly a compelling performance, but it didn’t matter, such was the curiosity about him at the time. The New York Times reported on a screening: “He speaks in a subdued voice, which is just audible when the theatre is absolutely still, as it was yesterday.”

In 1940, the first full-length documentary on Gandhi was assembled in India by A.K. Chettiar, a former newsreel cameraman for Pathé News in the US. Chettiar travelled the world for close to three years gathering footage; he edited down 50,000ft of material to an hour and 21 minutes. Abbas, writing in the 1940 issue of Filmindia, compared the documentary—Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet—to Joris Ivens’ The Spanish Earth and Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin, and ended by asking cheekily: “Will the first film seen by Mahatma Gandhi be ‘MAHATMA GANDHI’ starring Mahatma Gandhi?”

Around the same time the first newsreels of Gandhi reached the US, the first efforts to put a fictional Mahatma on screen were made. Historian Kevin Brownlow has a tantalizing line in his book The Parade’s Gone By about the British government approaching D.W. Griffith—the originator of the modern feature film—in London in 1922 to make a spectacular India production that would serve as an “effective answer to Gandhi”. Would Gandhi and other Indians have been portrayed as savages in that film, as black Americans were in Griffith’s racist epic The Birth Of A Nation? A possible answer might be found in the popular Hollywood adventure film Gunga Din (1939), starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The titular water carrier in this film is servile (and played by Sam Jaffe, a white man, in brownface), but it’s the villain (Eduardo Ciannelli, also white), a murderous cult leader, who’s a truly offensive caricature. He’s also dressed and presented in a manner similar to Gandhi, a fact that wasn’t lost on the Indian film press. In writing about the film, Filmindia recalled a 1935 two-reeler comedy called Everybody Likes Music, in which Gandhi was apparently “portrayed as an immoral drunkard dancing with a low woman in a cheap saloon”.

The first actual fictional portrayal of Gandhi appears to have been the 1963 film Nine Hours To Rama. Based on a novel by Stanley Wolpert, it imagines Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, in the hours leading up to the assassination. The film, shot in CinemaScope, looks fetching but is quite ridiculous, with Indian characters played by Hollywood actors speaking English in a variety of foreign accents (José Ferrer, from Puerto Rico, and Robert Morley, from Britain, are both in brownface). Especially strange is the Germanic Indian English that issues from Godse, played by Horst Buchholz, best known as the youngest hire in The Magnificent Seven.

Gandhi, thankfully, is played by an Indian—J.S. Casshyap, who had earlier acted in a couple of films and written the dialogue for Bombay Talkies films like Achhut Kanya (1936). He is there in a few scenes, and is only given pious banalities to mouth, but it’s nevertheless a terrific imitation. In fact, Casshyap gets closer to Gandhi’s speaking style than Ben Kingsley did two decades later in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).

It isn’t surprising that Casshyap is a trivia question while Kingsley’s performance is regarded as one for the ages. Gandhi is stolid, stirring, reductive and eager to please. It’s not a film many Indians can be objective about, having grown up with annual doses of it on TV every 30 January. It remains one of the most inspired bits of casting in film history: a little-known Shakespearean actor from England playing the Mahatma. That Kingsley’s father was Indian—and Gujarati—was offered as justification for his casting. To be honest, not much justification is needed. It’s a fascinating performance, even if a large part of that fascination is seeing a white man transform himself into a fairly convincing Indian. Had an Indian actor played the part, it’s unlikely the Western press would have gone into such rhapsodies as they did with Kingsley.

Kingsley emerges from the film more Gandhi than Gandhi (when a statue of the leader was unveiled in London in 2015, Tushar Gandhi apparently alleged on Facebook that it resembled Kingsley more than his great-grandfather). Even writer Salman Rushdie, who excoriated the film in his essay "Attenborough’s Gandhi", admits at the end: “The form of the film, opulent, lavish, overpowers and finally crushes the man at its centre, in spite of Ben Kingsley’s luminous performance (at least he deserved his Oscar).” How much easier the film would have been to dismiss had Attenborough taken Jawaharlal Nehru’s suggestion for the role—Alec Guinness!—or gone with his other shortlisted candidate, John Hurt.

It’s unfortunate that so many screen Gandhis have been in English-language films. There’s nothing more irritating to the Indian ear than the singsong tilt that Kingsley, and others in his wake, adopt—intentionally or not, it has become the supreme aural caricature of an Indian speaking English, along with Peter Sellers in The Party and Apu from The Simpsons. In this regard, Rajit Kapur’s South Africa-era Gandhi in The Making Of The Mahatma (1996) comes as a bracing antidote. Though he speaks English in the film—not, it must be said, one of Shyam Benegal’s best—it’s of a straightforward, no-nonsense variety, the kind a young lawyer would use. The opportunity to play a younger, pre-mahatma Gandhi frees Kapur up to introduce notes of obstinacy and even cruelty in his portrayal that might not have been available to other actors playing the man. He allows the activist, and then the leader, to emerge by degrees; it’s only towards the end that we get glimpses of that beatific Gandhian confidence.

Kapur’s portrayal was the first significant screen Gandhi in the wake of Kingsley. Over the phone, I ask the actor whether that definitive performance had weighed on him. “The first few days, yes, but then I had to obliterate all those thoughts,” he says. That he was playing Gandhi, he says, was in itself a huge burden. “You feel that 20,000 people are going to comment on it—you’re not only playing a known figure, but the Father of the Nation. That fear was there, but it eased off after a week.”

In the years since, Gandhi has been played on the big screen by, among others, Annu Kapoor (Sardar), Naseeruddin Shah (Hey Ram!), Darshan Jariwala (Gandhi, My Father), four times by Surendra Rajan (The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, The Last Days Of The Raj, the web series Bose: Dead/Alive), and twice by Neeraj Kabi (Viceroy’s House, the TV series Samvidhaan). Each of these interpretations is of an older Gandhi. The differences are subtle: Jariwala’s Gandhi has slightly accelerated speech, Kabi’s (in Samvidhaan) an unsmiling directness. The closest Gandhi got to the cultural mainstream in India was probably Rajkumar Hirani’s comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), which is more about the benign myth than the man. As Rachel Dwyer writes in her essay "The Case Of The Missing Mahatma: Gandhi And The Hindi Cinema", “This is not a political Gandhi but a Gandhi who is an inner conscience and moral guide, a fairy godmother who will help us realize today’s dreams.”

Along with his suggestion of Guinness as Gandhi, Nehru had another (and better) piece of advice for Attenborough: “Don’t deify him.” Cinema has struggled to resist the temptation to do so, repaying Gandhi’s suspicions about the medium with unquestioning love. Given his appropriation across the Indian political spectrum, a truly challenging Gandhi film doesn’t look likely in the near future. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with looking closely, in scratchy newsreels and glossy biopics, for glimpses of the human within the Mahatma.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Padmaavat: Review

It’s 2018, and we’re making movies that are unironically in love with the idea of women burning themselves alive to save their honour. Padmaavat doesn’t see jauhar—the Hindu practice of self-immolation by the women of the losing side in a war—as a particularly gruesome by-product of defeat. Instead, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film spins this horrible fate as nothing less than outright victory.

Jauhar is, of course, historical fact, and no one’s suggesting that a film cannot be made on it. But a film that shies away from the compulsions that must have driven at least some of those deaths, which instead wraps the act in poetry and piety, is a worrying one to encounter in this day and age. I’d assumed Padmaavat would make some sort of warped point about jauhar as an act of female agency: I choose to kill myself rather than be raped and enslaved. Yet, even this choice is denied to the women. In a scene I found grimly amusing, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) actually has to ask her husband, ruler of Mewar Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), for permission to commit suicide if things go wrong.

The one with the power to make it all go wrong is Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, equal-opportunity lover and all-round psychopath. When Ratan Singh’s exiled former teacher tells him of Padmavati’s beauty and predicts that their futures are linked, Khilji becomes obsessed with her. He travels to Chittor with his army, gets himself an audience with Ratan Singh and demands a glimpse of Padmavati, which he’s granted. After that, it’s only a matter of time before the Rajput men do what they did in most battles—make terrible tactical decisions and die fighting bravely—and Padmavati is forced to choose between fire and a murderous lunatic who makes parrot noises.

Unlike Bhansali’s last film, Bajirao Mastani (2015), a more syncretic period epic, Padmaavat feels depressingly of the moment, a clash-of-civilisations narrative weighed down by tradition and mythology, happy to encourage the myth of Muslim invaders as lust-driven savages. When Bhansali shows us Alauddin dancing with his troops, gnawing meat off the bone, or having his feet massaged by his general, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), he is encouraging us to compare this dishevelled, long-haired, deviant foreigner with the fair-skinned, heterosexual, beautifully attired Rajputs. The Alauddin-Kafur dynamic might have been fascinating to explore (both are real-life characters), but the film is only interested in using pansexuality as a sign of moral dissoluteness.

Singh’s seething performance is, at best, an unhinged parody of a nutjob villain; at the very least, it’s lively. Padmavati and Ratan, on the other hand, are unspeakably boring, with their talk of usool and guroor and long lists of what Rajputs are known for (bravery, honour, more bravery, fair play, carrying on fighting when they’ve been beheaded). Having named the film for her character, Bhansali struggles to find anything worthwhile for Padukone to do. On more than one occasion, she’s reduced to dressing Kapoor (if that sounds in any way sexy, let me disillusion you right away). Apart from one bit of enterprise in the middle, this film may as well have been called “Khilji”.

Padmaavat feels like Bhansali’s attempt to carve out some of that Baahubali territory for himself. This includes the decision to make the film in 3D (or make it in 2D and convert it later), a first for the director. Bhansali is a remarkable visual stylist, but the detailing that he normally brings to sets and costumes seems to get lost here. The images in the foreground are a lot sharper—a waste of screen space, considering this is a director who packs every inch of his frames with purpose. Some of the scenes are actively worse for being in 3D; during a battle sequence, flaming arrows are beautifully framed against a dark sky, but the sensation of them flying into your glasses a second later ruins the effect.

After all the death threats and destruction of property and compromises, it’s as many of us suspected: the Karni Sena has unwittingly been protesting a wet dream of Rajput pride. Pride beyond logic, pride in defeat, in suicide, in abetting suicide. Perhaps the richest irony—and the biggest disappointment—is the similarity between the Sena’s vision and Bhansali’s. The only lessons worth taking from Padmaavat are sartorial, but this thin epic is likely to be parsed for meaning by millions in the coming weeks. When none emerges, we’ll likely do what we’ve always done—fall back on tradition.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A truth beyond reality

Young people in Poland do the best drunken existential rambling. They say things like “Your empathy is really stellar” and “My sense of stability has never been more out of whack”. And they’re always in motion—or at least that’s what All These Sleepless Nights makes it seem like. Michal Marczak’s film follows two young Warsaw residents, Michal and Krzys, as they bounce from one party to another, blow off steam with angsty worrying, and generally live a life without visible responsibilities. It’s shot by Marczak himself in the manner of Emmanuel Lubezki, regular cinematographer to Terrence Malick and Alejandro González Iñárritu; the camera dives and swirls and seems intent on conveying the thoughts of the protagonists.

As an immersive look at contemporary Polish rave culture, this would have been a striking film, but what makes All These Sleepless Nights one of the most exciting cinematic experiments in recent memory is how it blurs the line between fact and fiction. Though the film won the directing award in the World Cinema—Documentary section at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it isn’t exactly non-fiction. Krzys and Michal weren’t actors, but young men Marczak met at a house party. They drew on their own lives for their “performances”, and the film follows them for a year and a half as they hang out, party and fall in and out of love.

Marczak brought the ever-readiness of guerrilla film-making to his semi-fictional story. “We had everything prepared, always, for any occasion: rain, underwater, everything,” he told MovieMaker magazine. “Everybody was always on the phone on standby. We could really be any place in the city within 20 minutes and do our shoot.” This commitment to capturing elusive revealing moments lends a vivid immediacy to almost every scene in the film. You know certain reactions would have been discussed beforehand, movements choreographed, but it all looks so real. And who’s to say it isn’t?

Inasmuch as any film can be regarded as the truth—you are, after all, watching only the maker’s truth, a subjective cutting and arrangement of moving images—it is documentary that’s supposed to carry the burden of authenticity. Yet, from the start, non-fiction film has shown a tendency to shake off this burden. Explorer-prospector-director Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North is one of the first great documentaries—the life of an Inuk hunter, captured with an eye for dramatic detail. Only, as it turned out, several of the details that so dazzled audiences in 1922 were Flaherty’s embellishments, including the substitution of a traditional spear for Nanook’s regular hunting gun. Nanook wasn’t even Nanook: his real name was Allakariallak, and his “wife” in the film was actually Flaherty’s companion.

Even before he began making movies, Orson Welles was pulling wool over people’s eyes—or ears, with his realistic-sounding but entirely fake "War Of The Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938, which convinced several listeners that aliens had landed in New Jersey. His debut feature, Citizen Kane (1941), is one of the most influential films of all time, and very modern in its challenge to audiences that they would not be emerging from the theatre with any clear “truth” regarding the central character. Three decades later, abandoned by the studios and making films on the fly, Welles would further muddy the relationship between fact and fiction, artist and viewer.

In 1972, Welles told critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that he was making a film on art forger Elmyr de Hory, his biographer Clifford Irving, and millionaire inventor Howard Hughes (who Clifford wrote a fake biography of). “A documentary?” Rosenbaum asked. “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film,” Welles said. That it certainly was. There’s nothing quite like F For Fake (1973), which is about whatever Welles told Rosenbaum, but also about Picasso, Oja Kodar (the director’s partner), magic tricks, the 1938 radio broadcast, and the making of the film itself. These various strands of deception are tied together with brilliant associative editing and the smoothness of Welles’ baritone—saying so much, saying so little.

One strange detail about F For Fake was that it was funded with Iranian money, and had its premiere at the 1973 Tehran International Film Festival. Could this screening, and possible subsequent ones, have meant that it was seen and appreciated by budding directors who’d go on to make their own sly, rough-edged, quasi-documentary films? Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), in particular, is difficult to imagine without the influence of F For Fake. Though the two films have different techniques and philosophies, they are united in their determination to continually shift the narrative sands under the viewer’s feet.

When Kiarostami read about a man named Hossain Sabzian, who’d impersonated director Mohsen Makhmalbaf—posing as him to a couple and taking money from them to make a film—he thought it might lead to something. So he went to the prison where Sabzian was being held and interviewed him, and somehow inserted himself in the courtroom during the trial. Then, he got Sabzian and the people he misled to play themselves, restaging, with a few adjustments, the events that resulted in the man’s arrest. The result certainly isn’t documentary, but is it fiction? The courtroom scenes are real, as are the scenes in jail. In a sense, it’s all real. Sure, it’s “performed”, but what we think of as real life in documentaries is also a performance, a face presented to the world.

This idea of performance in documentary was used, in one of the more astonishing acts of cinematic rebellion, by another Iranian director, Jafar Panahi. Placed under house arrest by the authorities and forbidden from directing, he “co-wrote” and appeared in This Is Not A Film, a 2011 documentary about Panahi not being able to make a film. Of course, he was, and this film was followed by two more in the same vein, Closed Curtain (which unfolds in Panahi’s house) and Taxi (like Kiarostami’s Ten, set in a moving vehicle).

Around the time Panahi was stretching the nature of docu-fiction in Iran, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn were bending documentary reality in a different way in An Act Of Killing (2012). Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, hired killers in the Indonesian genocide of 1965, recreate their murders for the camera as lurid genre film pieces. The result is supremely unsettling, though perhaps not as disorienting as The Thin Blue Line (directed by Errol Morris, one of Killing’s producers) was for viewers in 1988. That film included re-enactments of key scenes from the crime being investigated: based in fact, but shot like a neo-noir film. This soon became a common documentary technique: a step away from received ideas of “reality”, perhaps, but a way to enhance the effectiveness of the film.

When it came time to shoot with the couple he’d conned, Sabzian, the central figure in Close-Up, developed cold feet. Kiarostami tried to persuade him, telling the man he hadn’t lied but had “told a truth that’s beyond reality”. This is a beautiful encapsulation of what these films, perched on a wire between reality and fiction, set out to accomplish. When Krzys slow-dances on the streets at the end of All These Sleepless Nights, oblivious to the vehicles winding around him, it’s both real and unreal. Reducing moments like these to one or the other is an unnecessary restriction on the poetic possibilities of cinema.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Darkest Hour: Review

There were two films about Winston Churchill released last year: Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. I haven’t seen the former (starring Brian Cox), but Wright’s film doesn’t suggest any compelling reason for its own existence, besides the suspicion that if British cinema was to fail to produce a certain number of period dramas in a year, it would spontaneously combust. I cannot imagine this film adding to anyone’s understanding of Churchill, nor does it push us to think of him as anything less than a walking embodiment of the spirit of wartime England. It’s a harmless film, perhaps even toothless, about a man who was neither.

Darkest Hour covers the period from 9 May 1940, when Churchill (a transformed Gary Oldman) was appointed Prime Minister, to 28 May, on the eve of the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk. At 66, Churchill has to deal with a hostile cabinet—including Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Lord Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup)—a suspicious king, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), in addition to his own past failures in Gallipoli and India, while trying to check the advancing Nazi forces. It’s like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, minus the diplomacy and with a lot more shouting from the central figure.

Using Churchill’s typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), as a sort of audience proxy, the film treats Churchill’s drinking and near-constant bluster as adorable old-crank behaviour. There’s a musical comedy feel to the scenes where Churchill paces about with people trailing him which brings to mind The King’s Speech, another film about British leaders during World War II. Darkest Hour gives a reasonable account of the pressures the premier was under at the time, but Wright’s showy long takes and the dramatic stagey-ness of several scenes kept pulling me out of the narrative.

The film nosedives in the final stretch, with an appallingly sentimental sequence in which Churchill rides the London Underground and asks commuters what they’d do if the Germans reach their shores. Why, we’d fight, they say, with our broomsticks if necessary. This, in the film’s telling, is what gave Churchill the courage to continue with the Dunkirk plan he’d outlined, which he was wavering about before he boarded the train.

Oldman’s Churchill is a terrific imitation, and will probably get him his first Oscar, though I’ll probably remember him as the sphinx in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the punk in Sid and Nancy. As for Wright, I’d take the unbroken five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk in his Atonement over the rousing flatteries of Darkest Hour.

This review appeared in Mint.

Kerala diaries

Looking back at Indian film in 2017, it seems clear that the year belonged to Malayalam cinema. Two films from Kerala—Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries and Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum—were amongst the year’s best, and would have featured on more top 10 lists if it were humanly possible to keep up with all the different language cinemas of India. Director Mahesh Narayan debuted with the tense Take Off (available on Hotstar), about the rescue of Indian nurses held by ISIS in Iraq, an incident which also formed the basis for the execrable Salman Khan starrer Tiger Zinda Hai. And the year ended strong with Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi, which released on 22 December to excellent reviews.

The Kerala film community was also the one pushing the establishment, testing boundaries. Sanal Sasidharan’s festival indie S Durga (original title: Sexy Durga) was the year’s most controversial film after Padmavat, thanks to the Central Board of Film Certification—which asked for multiple cuts—and the International Film Festival of India, which dropped the title after announcing it as part of the festival lineup. The Malayalam film community rallied behind Sasidharan, with Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, Pellissery, Pothan, Geethu Mohandas, Ajithkumar B., Anwar Ali and others signing a petition protesting the exclusion of the film. And it was a Kerala institution—the Kodungallur Film Society—which filed a petition in the Supreme Court to recall its controversial November 2016 judgement that made the playing of the national anthem mandatory in cinema halls.

Angamaly Diaries (available on DVD) opened in Kerala in March, and through unusually strong word of mouth, played in isolated screenings in cities across the country. A kinetic film about small-town hooligans in Angamaly in Ernakulum, Kerala, Pellissery’s fifth feature had a tapestry reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City Of God, but soaked in local colour, slang and food, with a gallows humour all its own. A breathtaking 11-minute unbroken take capped it all, but one of the biggest compliments one could pay this film is that, even without the shot, Angamaly Diaries would have been the most visually and sonically dazzling cinematic experience of 2017.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (available on Hotstar)—quiet, sly, measured— could not be more different on the surface from Angamaly Diaries. Yet, it is, in its own way, just as audacious, building from a straightforward incident of chain-snatching and adding detail upon detail until the moral complexity attains a level of uncommon richness. Fahadh Faasil (who’s also in Take Off ) gives a mercurial performance as the fatalistic chain-snatcher, and director Pothan and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi continue the unfussy style that one historically associates with Malayalam cinema. Its excoriation of small-town police work and the way its narrative hinges on the intersection of crime and destiny brings to mind Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai—albeit a far more easy-going (though no less empathetic) experience than the 2015 Tamil release which was India’s Oscar entry and arguably the best film of the year.

Ravi, best known for his partnership with Anurag Kashyap (Dev.D, Gangs Of Wasseypur), is from Kochi, Kerala. In addition to shooting Thondimuthalum, he directed the atmospheric 2016 neo-noir Kammatti Paadam, his third Malayalam film. “For the next five years you should see interesting films come out of Kerala,” he says over the phone. “We lost our way in the 1990s, copying Tamil, Telugu cinema. Now that we’re making original stories, looking at whatever is happening around, we’re back to making good films.”

With a roster that includes Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, John Abraham and Shaji N. Karun, Malayalam cinema has always had a tradition of quality—an idea of which might be gained from the fact that it follows Bengali (22) and Hindi (14) with 11 wins for National Award for Best Feature Film. Where these recent films perhaps deviate from this lineage is in their accessibility to the multiplex, rather than the festival, viewer (not that Kerala audiences are resistant to a little art cinema).

With a crop of talented actors (Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Parvathy, Dulquer Salmaan), boundary-pushing directors like Pellissery and Sasidharan, and a willingness to seek out rooted, resonant stories, Malayalam cinema is where it all seems to be happening. Unsurprisingly, Bollywood has come knocking: Parvathy starred opposite Irrfan Khan in Qarib Qarib Singlle last year, and Salmaan is making his Hindi film debut with Akash Khurana’s Karwaan. Pauly will star in the Malayalam-Hindi Moothon by Geethu Mohandas, director of Liar’s Dice, India’s official Oscar entry for 2014. And, according to Ravi, there’s a palpable energy now in the industry. “I worked there (Kerala) after a long time,” Ravi says of shooting Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. “There is excitement, and the market is opening up. It’s a good scene.”

Mukkabaaz: Review

In Redoubtable, a film about the personal and professional partnership of French director Jean-Luc Godard and actor Anne Wiazemsky, there’s an amusing reference to the difficulties of Design by Committee as applied to cinema. I was reminded of that scene when I saw the opening credits of Mukkabaaz, even though this film—unlike the one Godard was making—has only one director, and is unmistakably his work. First came the names of seven writers: Anurag Kashyap, Vineet Kumar Singh, Ranjan Chandel, Prasoon Mishra, KD Satyam, Mukti Singh Srinet and Anudeep Singh. This was followed by four cinematographers (Rajeev Ravi, Shanker Raman, Jay Patel, Jayesh Nair), two editors (Aarti Bajaj, Ankit Bidyadhar) and three composers (Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, Nucleya). The intern in charge of lunch orders probably deserved a credit.

The funny thing is, Mukkabaaz turns out to be exactly the sort of film you’d expect from an expansive crew like this. There are more ideas per scene than is strictly necessary, more targets than can possibly be hit. The narrative is messy, chaotic; it has that off-the-cuff feel that Kashyap last nailed in Gangs of Wasseypur. There’s an unflagging energy to the whole enterprise, a cinematic fidgetiness that extends to the camerawork and the cutting and the topics of discussion picked up and discarded almost too fast to register. It isn’t difficult to imagine Kashyap on set grabbing whoever was nearby, asking them what they thought of a scene, and running with their suggestions.

The film begins with two men being beaten by vigilante gau-rakshaks, who record the lynching on their cellphones. In the next scene, as he’s walking to his coach’s house, Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) recognizes a couple of the assailants from the video by the roadside and casually asks them what they were up to the previous night. This one-two punch is a measure of how well Kashyap knows his terrain. Most directors would have stopped at the first scene, few would have included the sardonic follow-up about the everyday unremarkableness of violence in Uttar Pradesh. Violence erupts at regular intervals in this film—mostly over caste, class, religion—but it’s the occasional acts of kindness that are more surprising.

Shravan doles out, and bears the brunt of, a large part of this violence. He’s a boxer, a mukkebaaz, with the hotheadedness of a mukkabaaz (brawler), chafing under the rule of his coach, Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Sheirgill), a corrupt strongman who runs UP boxing like a fiefdom. Frustrated with his lack of opportunity, Shravan gets into an argument which ends with him clocking Bhagwan in the face. This leaves him with two problems (apart from being beaten to a pulp by his former coach’s trainees)—his dreams of boxing glory are now in jeopardy, and he’s only just fallen for Bhagwan’s niece, Sunaina (Zoya Hussain).

After some soul-searching, sole-stitching and brick-breaking, Shravan finds himself in Varanasi, training under the unorthodox Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan). The plan is to enter the state championships from there—Bhagwan has a stranglehold over Bareilly—which allows for a pulsating variation on the obligatory sports movie training montage, shot on the ghats and scored to Nucleya and Divine’s thundering “Paintra”. By this time, Shravan and Sunaina are a couple. Theirs is a surprisingly sweet love story—she’s mute, he can’t hold his tongue, but they’re committed to making their relationship work (“You’re fixed in my heart. Only you can tell whether I am fixed in yours,” his first letter to her reads).

Though the film is primarily concerned with the dismal state of sporting infrastructure in India, Kashyap clearly has current events on his mind. By making Sanjay a Dalit and Bhagwan a bigoted Brahmin, caste discrimination is brought forward with a directness not often seen in Hindi cinema. Late in the film, there’s another lynching by a “cow protection” group. Mukkabaaz might have been unremittingly dark, but there’s a lot of humour and eccentricity to liven things up, and the general mood is one of hope (as opposed to Ugly or Raman Raghav 2.0, where you just know things won’t work out).

Vineet Singh is both physically convincing and touching as the embattled boxer—had a more successful actor been cast, Shravan’s hunger is unlikely to have come through so clearly. Kishan, with those great hurt eyes of his, is wonderful as well; why he’s cast so seldom in good Hindi films is a mystery. Sheirgill, through no fault of his own, is less memorable: the one-note antagonist he’s playing has nothing to do except escalate his villainy. There’s a brief period in the second half when the film seems to run out of ideas, yet even here Kashyap finds a detail, a scene, something to tide the audience by – like when Shravan decides to get unreasonably mad at his friend for using “doubtless” in a sentence.

Mukkabaaz is a bracing start to the movie year—overstuffed, enjoyable and urgent. It doesn’t have big stars, but feels like a commercial movie in a way that Bombay Velvet didn’t. Not that there’s anything typical about its crowd-pleasing moments: the item number—if you can call it that—is by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Viewers will be reminded of Nawaz dancing to “Emosanal Attyachar” in Kashyap’s Dev.D. It’s heartening to know that at least one of the Presleys of Patna is still singing at weddings, and is evidently very popular.

Tiger Zinda Hai: Review

Screenwriting can’t be easy, but surely it isn’t as difficult as Tiger Zinda Hai makes it out to be. Here’s a sparkling exchange from late in the film. The CIA director calls RAW officer Shenoy (Girish Karnad) and tells him: “You have 30 minutes.” “I need more time,” Shenoy protests. “I can only give you 30 minutes.” A stop-clock is set up in the RAW office, counting down from 30. Shenoy calls his men in Ikrit, Iraq. “You have 30 minutes.” “Only 30 minutes?” they ask. “Yes, only 30 minutes.”

Ali Abbas Zafar’s film is five times 30 minutes long, and you aren’t getting any of that back. This is a sequel to Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012), which starred Salman Khan as a RAW agent who goes by Tiger (he got the name, he explains in this film, because wounded tigers are dangerous) and Katrina Kaif as Pakistani ISI operative Zoya. When a group of Indian and Pakistani nurses are taken hostage by ISC (a stand-in for ISIS) in Ikrit, there’s only one man for the job. That man is hiding out in the Austrian Alps, living the retired-superspy life with Zoya and a cub. By way of reintroduction, Tiger fights off a pack of wolves with a stick because his son asks him not to kill them. Touching scene, given Khan’s historical fondness for wildlife.

With only seven days to evacuate the nurses before the Americans bomb the city, Tiger puts a team together: sniper (Paresh Pahuja), bomb disposal expert (Angad Bedi), tech wiz (Kumud Mishra). They’re joined – this really shouldn’t come as a surprise – by Zoya and two ISI agents. Tiger has to get India and Pakistan to work together: a story strand with some potential, wasted on a film only interested in the broad and the bland. Soon, we’re hurtling from one long, unpersuasive action sequence to another, all of it slathered with throbbing techno and sprinkled with more incisive writing (“Do you have a backup plan? A plan B?” Shenoy is asked, as if they’re different things).

Tiger Zinda Hai plays like a cut-rate version of Airlift. Though it lacks the relative realism and superior craftsmanship of the 2016 Akshay Kumar-starrer (also about the evacuation of Indians in the Middle East), Zafar’s film has the same hyper-patriotic bent. Tiger refuses to eat anything other than Indian food in Austria; he reads Bhagat Singh bedtime stories to his son; he’s sent off to serve by Zoya, who says, “Everyone thinks you love me most in this world, but I know you love your country more.” Later in the film, when there’s a suggestion that the Pakistani nurses aren’t Tiger’s responsibility, we get a lecture about the values this nation is founded on. There’s also the running story of the sniper and the India flag he’s determined to fly once the mission is complete.

In Sultan, Zafar’s last film, Salman Khan cut an intriguingly weak figure. Tiger Zinda Hai has no room for imperfections: Khan’s chiselled torso, displayed in an action sequence, might be one of the better uses of CGI in the film. After the image-softening of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Tubelight, he’s back in two-fisted hero mode – and his fans were there, even at 8 in the morning, to show their appreciation. One viewer, a couple of seats behind me, was especially appreciative. “Woohoo,” he went when Khan mowed down a few dozen ISC soldiers with a machine gun. The unfurling of the Indian flag got a woohoo as well. But I could sense his hesitation when, seconds later, the Pakistani flag was raised.

In that split second, one could only imagine the questions that ran through his mind. Can one cheer for a Pakistani flag? Is it a test? Would Bhai approve? The tension was palpable. Then, “Woohoo!” And so ended 2017.