Saturday, February 6, 2016

Inside selfie stardom

Wrote this for the Mint Lounge Photography Special. 

The selfie has been around in some form or the other since the invention of the daguerreotype in the first half of the 19th century. The advent of phone cameras brought it to the edges of the cultural mainstream, though it was the front-facing camera that ensured taking photographs of oneself needn’t be a furtive, inaccurate exercise. About a decade later, the selfie is all-pervasive, all-conquering. Narcissus would have approved of a society in which gazing at oneself, liking what one sees and offering up the same to public scrutiny is, far from being punishable, actually encouraged. All around the world, faces preen and pout, smirk and smoulder at their mobile phones, eager for a small dose of social validation, a couple of dozen hearts on Instagram.

India, eager adopter of global trends, has taken to selfies with duck-faced enthusiasm. With our Prime Minister’s penchant for training the camera on himself, we’ve literally become a top-down selfie society. From Hauz Khas Village in Delhi to actual villages, countless people every day are taking pictures of themselves, showing them to their friends, sharing them on social media. The ones with the largest Instagram followings are people who are already famous for something: actors, singers, models, politicians. Yet, it’s the ones on the rung below them that are India’s real selfie stars, known for nothing much more than a willingness to share pictures of themselves.

For Clince Varghese, the selfie is a calling card. A multi-hyphenate to beat most multi-hyphenates, this 24-year-old Mumbaikar is a motivational speaker/anchor/actor/voice-over artiste/vocalist in a rock band. He’s also a travel nut who takes an inordinate number of selfies—qualities that came in handy when he was selected as one of the contestants for MTV’s Great Selfie Challenge last year. Varghese went on to garner 25,623,050 votes and win the show (and the title of “selfie king”). For the “international border selfie” task, he had taken a selfie on a beach at Rameswaram. “I’m blowing a conch while lying on the beach, with the selfie stick between my legs,” he says over phone. “I timed it so the water is hitting my hair. I included the conch because it dispels negative energy.”

If you think all this suggests that Varghese takes selfies more seriously than the average Instagrammer, you are absolutely right. “It’s very difficult, bro,” he says, when asked whether he agonized over which photograph of his to put online. “It’s like asking a parent which kid they like best.” He posts on Instagram at least once a day, mostly selfies or velfies. “Most of my selfies are me trying to tell a story,” he says. “They have sociocultural elements, from culture and religion to food and biodiversity. It’s not just me opening my mouth and saying ooh-la-la.” This is true, even if Varghese’s signature expression is a comically wide-eyed, open-mouthed one.

Along with Instagram, Varghese posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; he knows his various followings all feed into one another. This idea of a rounded social media persona has also been adopted—albeit in a more professional manner—by Scherezade Shroff, a 29-year-old YouTuber, fashion blogger and former model who is also a qualified lawyer. “I don’t see my Instagram account as an independent entity,” she says, adding that a lot of her followers probably see her fashion-centric videos on YouTube and follow her on Instagram. Sometimes, the content crosses over, like when Shroff uploaded a 10-minute YouTube tutorial on “How to take the perfect selfie” (look and feel your best; never take just one; express yourself; make a collage and use filters; buy a Monopod).

With over 60,000 followers, Shroff’s Instagram feed is very popular, though she says she puts little thought into her selfies. “Honestly, I don’t feel like this is a serious platform for me,” she says. “I try and have fun with my viewers.” For someone with a professional interest in being perfectly turned out, many of her Instagram posts are gratifyingly casual, even kooky. She appears sans make-up in a number of selfies and has what one assumes is a very un-model-like propensity for the duck face. “Most times, people tell me they like my Instagram account because it’s very real,” she says. “There have been selfies on my worst days and on my best days as well.”

The impression of candidness, whether genuine or carefully curated, is integral to a certain kind of selfie stardom. Most of the selfie-takers we spoke to insisted that perfect photos weren’t the goal; what they’re normally after are photographs which convey their “personality”. Oftentimes, a good hook backed up by consistent posting is all that’s required for an Instagram account to take off. Last year, Jet Airways pilot Simran Kaur started posting pictures in uniform on Instagram. She had some 150-200 followers at the time. Today, she has over 27,000. “I still get maximum ‘likes’ for uniform selfies—always a thousand-plus,” the 26-year-old says. Her sister, Amrit, is also a pilot: She has 12,500 followers, and a higher selfie-to-regular-photograph ratio than anyone I’ve ever seen.

The selfie is a perfect photographic embodiment of the look-at-me digital era; by making yourself the subject, you’re inviting people to pass judgement not only on your photograph but also on you. It stands to reason, then, that even those with large followings pay close attention to the responses their posts are evoking. Shroff, Simran Kaur and Varghese all say they adopted their signature expressions (duck face, V-sign, open mouth) after people started pointing them out in post after post. They took notice if a particular post didn’t do as well as others. “I do pre-analysis, post-analysis,” Varghese says, admitting that he had spent the half-hour before our conversation just deciding whom to tag in a particular post.

Even as India hits peak selfie, the world seems to be stumbling towards a post-selfie era. Already, there are signs that suggest the selfie is being questioned, dissected. In Los Angeles in 2014, an artist named Amalia Ulman revealed that the seemingly banal posts—many of them skimpily clad selfies—she had been putting on Instagram for months were actually part of an art project called “Excellences and Perfections”. The Cannes Film Festival instituted a no-selfie rule on the red carpet last year. Hopefully, by the time India’s hipster crowd decides they’re so over selfies, Varghese, Shroff, Kaur and their fellow kings and queens would have garnered enough Likes to last them a lifetime.

Sanam Teri Kasam: Review

I’ve never seen anyone cry as much in a single film as Mawra Hocane does in Sanam Teri Kasam. Not that her character, Saraswati, doesn’t have reason enough to shed tears—the film is essentially built around her being picked on, berated, slapped, made over, toyed with and sacrificed. It would also be churlish not to admit that Hocane has a certain flair for onscreen crying. As Saraswati’s love, Inder (Telugu actor Harshvardhan Rane), bluntly puts it: “When I see crying girls, I run away. But when you cry, I want to kiss you.”

At certain points in Sanam Teri Kasam, I felt like shedding tears myself. After being discovered in Inder’s flat, treating his wounds, Saraswati—who can’t get a man to agree to marry her and is a terrible disappointment to her family because of this—is thrown out by her caricature of a Tamil dad. Inder, who’s so bad-ass he rarely wears a shirt and drinks milk straight from the Tetra Pak, feels responsible; he finds her a flat, then sets about finding her a husband. I felt the sniffles coming on when Saraswati, post-makeover, tells him: “This pretty face you’ve given me, I won’t waste it.” Of course, no one bothers to tell Saraswati that the pretty face is hers, and that Inder has just found her a good barber. And a sob might have escaped me when Inder looks at Saraswati and says, by way of warning her not to fall for him: “I’m a beast.”

Eventually, the beast and the librarian (with a name like Saraswati, what do you expect?) fall in love, but there’s more bad luck in store for the two, because this is “a love story sealed with a curse”. If you’re the viewer, this curse lifts after 154 minutes, by which time we’ve been introduced to Mumbai’s most forgiving cop, the worst fiancĂ©e in the world and the most literal interpretation of the phrase “You’re dead to me”. The directors, Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru, obviously believe in their film; little details from early on pop up in later scenes, and the last 20 minutes are dragged out like they’re Sundance material. But it’s very difficult to take the film as seriously as they do—especially after it becomes clear that they’re unwilling to grant their female lead the slightest bit of agency. But Hocane, a Pakistani VJ-turned-actor, does just enough to suggest that she’d be effective in more capable hands.

This review appeared in Mint.

The Finest Hours: Review

In 1952, off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, US, the SS Pendleton was split in half by a terrible storm. The ship’s bow sunk and eight people, including the captain, drowned. Miraculously, the stern stayed afloat and was steered to a sandbar, where the crew waited for help. Even more miraculously, considering the severity of the storm, help was on its way, in the form a four-member coastguard crew headed by one Bernard Webber. They saved the lives of 32 crewmen, and the event is regarded as one of the finest small-boat rescues in coastguard history.

This rescue is now on screen in the form of The Finest Hours, an exercise in stoic, square-jawed film-making. Time and again, someone points out how bad the storm is, how suicidal the mission seems, only to get a stubbornly heroic response from Webber (Chris Pine, stoic like Gary Cooper), quoting the unofficial motto of the coastguard: “They say you gotta go out.” Almost as tight-lipped and duty-bound is Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, stoic like Steve McQueen), who takes charge of the Pendleton after it splits, navigating it to a sandbar with the help of a largely sceptical crew.

Most directors would have begun this film with the Pendleton splitting in two, but Craig Gillespie chooses to linger over the sweet but seemingly insignificant episode of Webber out on a blind date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger), his future wife. It’s an atypical start, but a canny one: It tells us how duty-bound Webber can be (before they get the distress call, he’s fretting over asking his superior officer for leave for his own wedding day), as well as how uncomfortable he is on land, interacting with people. It makes it easy for us to understand his ease on his boat, navigating mountainous waves without a compass.

This is meat-and-potatoes film-making, but if you aren’t averse to a lot of scenes with tough guys gritting their teeth, The Finest Hours is a reasonably engaging 120-odd minutes. The towering, roiling waves look pretty much like the VFX that they are, but the snowstorm that hits the land is unbelievably beautiful. While Pine and Affleck are reticent to the point of being almost closed off to the audience, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro are very good as Webber’s crew. Carter Burwell’s music is as sweeping and warm as you would expect from a Disney film on a maritime rescue mission.

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Saala Khadoos: Review

In Saala Khadoos, you’ll hear it said more than once that if you remove corruption from sports, you’ll find a hundred champions on every street. Silly as that statement is, it’s one of the few original thoughts this film has. It’s difficult to get through a scene without running into something that’s been lifted from another sports film or is such a clichĂ© that it belongs to the genre at large. There’s the former athlete looking for redemption (shades of Chak De India!). There’s the wilful underdog female boxer (shades of Million Dollar Baby). There’s the comic-relief assistant (Rocky), sports authority villain (Chak De again), warring siblings (Brothers), untimely injury and eventual fight-back. Saala Khadoos borrows from everyone and ends up a pale imitation of its sources.

Adi (R. Madhavan) is a former boxer with Hulk-level anger issues. After his career was curtailed by a motivated injury, he became a coach, but his behaviour is like that of a righteous Mike Tyson. After he grabs the boxing federation head’s testicles, he’s transferred from Hisar to Chennai. There, he comes across Madhi (Ritika Singh), a fish-seller with no formal training but uncommon spirit. Soon, hothead is coaching hothead, and the result is as screechy and over-the-top as you would imagine.

Though this is a film in Hindi, it doesn’t feel like a Hindi film. The director is Sudha Kongara Prasad, a former assistant of Mani Ratnam; her first two films, were in Telugu and Tamil, respectively. In addition to Hindi, Saala Khadoos has also been shot in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru, and one can tell that this is the language the makers are thinking in. Though the second lead is a fish-seller in Chennai, she speaks like a Mumbai tapori. The dialogue sounds like it’s been translated from Tamil. Even the filmic grammar—the tenor of the drunken scenes, the style of dancing—has a recognizably southern feel to it.

That’s not the end of Saala Khadoos’ problems. We never know why Madhi goes from hating Adi in one scene to falling for him in the next, but more than being hurried, it just feels wrong—a reiteration of that hoary belief that sportspersons of the opposite gender who spend time in close quarters will eventually be attracted to each other. Singh, a former boxer, is convincing as an onscreen athlete, but the film tries to give her a force-of-nature cuteness that is very trying. Madhavan, sporting a newly buff look and shaggy mane, is all gruff barks and bluster. It’s tough to take his character—or a film with lines like “I clean shit but you stink”—seriously.

This review appeared in Mint.

Room: Review

One of the things we go to the movies for are sights unseen. These could be as elaborate as a meteor shower in space or a dinosaur towering over a child. But they can also be on a minute scale, like the gradual ageing of the protagonist in Boyhood or the sugar-cube absorbing coffee in Three Colours: Blue. Or the first 45 minutes of Room, which show us what it might be like to build a life—a world, really—in miniature.

In these 45 minutes, we see Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), negotiate the intimate contours of their very small universe. Piece by piece, we’re given fragments of their story: Joy was abducted when she was 17 by someone they know only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has been held in captivity in his basement—which has a skylight, a bed, a bathtub, an oven, a TV and little else—for seven years, during which she has been raped repeatedly by Nick. Two years in, Joy became pregnant with Jack, and she has raised him in the room.

Room has been directed by Lenny Abrahamson and is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name. Donoghue, who also did the screenplay, gives this grim material a blackly comic twist by having Joy raise Jack to believe that there’s no outside world, only Room and TV Land. But there’s only so long that she can continue with this fabrication, and soon after the film gets underway, Joy starts devising a plan to get them out of prison.

The break, when it comes, is the most exhilarating sequence in the film. To see Jack’s eyes shoot open and try to take in the outdoors, all at once, for the first time, is a weirdly magical moment. To top this would have been near impossible, and Abrahamson doesn’t try to. The rest of the nearly 2-hour film is Jack and Joy adjusting to life outside Room, and though it’s sensitively done, it feels like any other well-directed recovery drama—depressed parent, anxious grandparents, precocious child. Yet, even then there are beautiful moments, such as when Jack is introduced to a pet dog for the first time, or agrees to have his long hair cut in the hope that it’ll cheer up his mother.

Abrahamson and Donoghue have adapted the source material faithfully; you’re in the best position to enjoy Room if you haven’t read the novel or seen the over-explicit trailer. It would have been interesting to see what a more visually inventive approach might have achieved—Abrahamson seems a touch cautious in this respect. But it’s difficult to imagine better performances than the ones Larson and nine-year-old Tremblay give. With the exception of the escape, I doubt specific scenes from Room will be stuck in my mind after a few years. But I’m confident I’ll remember Larson’s desperation and Tremblay’s terrified, awestruck expression when he sees the real world.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mastizaade: Review

Early on in Mastizaade, Aditya (Vir Das) and Sunny (Tusshar Kapoor) say something along the lines of, “Superman has X-ray, we have chicks-ray.” Why not just say “sex-ray”? It’s not particularly clever, but it rhymes and is a sight better than “chicks-ray”. Now, it’s possible that the censor board decided that “sex-ray” was too outrageous and made them change it. But this is an undertaking (I hesitate to call it a film) so lazy and infantile, I feel no obligation to give the benefit of doubt to its makers.

Mastizaade doesn’t have a story worth detailing. It’s a bunch of loosely connected skits built around Aditya and Sunny’s attempts to get with, respectively, Laila Lele (Sunny Leone) and her sister Lily (also Leone, wearing spectacles). The onslaught of failed gags is relentless; there’s no attempt to build anything like a narrative in between jokes about round and pointy objects. After an excruciating first half, our heroes land up in Pattaya, Thailand, where Lily is supposed to marry a hothead in a wheelchair called Deshpremee Singh (Shaad Randhawa). Then begins the excruciating second half…

All this has sprung, seemingly unfiltered and unchecked, from the head of Milap Zaveri, writer of the adult comedies Masti and Grand Masti and last week’s Kyaa Kool Hai Hum 3. Zaveri is both co-writer (with Mushtaq Sheikh) and director on Mastizaade, and his signature wit is in full bloom. Take, for instance, the scene in which a man appears to tell time by touching a donkey’s testicles (he’s moving them aside to see a clock tower). Or the naming of Aditya and Sunny’s superior at work as Dil Wala, just so they can call him “Boss D. Wala”. Or the idea that being gay is akin to being effeminate or of indistinct gender.

Material like this is beyond saving, though Das’ stand-up instincts allow him to salvage a line or two. Kapoor is difficult to watch as he flounces around, making faces and trying to do what Riteish Deshmukh does with somewhat better results in similar films. Suresh Menon hams unconscionably as the token gay character. And it’s particularly sad to see the veteran comic Asrani turn up as Laila and Lily’s father; it seems unfair that someone who worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee should one day find himself working with Milap Zaveri.

This leaves the star of the film, the sole reason it’s being talked about and reviewed widely. It’s difficult to convey personality in a film that’s constantly trying to strip you of it (or just strip you: She’s fully nude in her introductory scene, with household items covering up the Parts That Must Not Be Seen), but Leone manages to infuse a few scenes with a saucy comic touch. It’s no more advanced a performance than one might find in one of the bigger-budget porn parodies they make in the US, but it gets the job (cue 15 vintage Zaveri puns) done (it’s also as effective as anything Katrina Kaif has ever done in any of her movies). Leone may not be better than this film, but she’s the best thing in it.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The incomplete guide to Bollywood in 2015

Had written this year-end wrap-up piece for Mint Lounge. 

Instead of adding another best-of or worst-of list to the hundreds already out there, we decided to come up with our own categories. The idea was to identify, along with some larger trends, the smaller moments—a song, a line—that remained stuck in our heads long after we left the theatre.

Best casting against type
While Deepti Naval is too gifted an actor to be limited to a type, it’s safe to say no one associates her with “cold-blooded villain”. Which is why the moment in NH10 when it dawns on everyone that her character supports her son’s honour killing tendencies is the unkindest cut—both for Anushka Sharma’s character and the audience, who might have seen Naval and expected some respite.

Bizarre but effective lyric of the year
This one’s a tie. The first is "Banno tera swagger laage sexy", from Tanu Weds Manu Returns—a brilliantly kooky variation on the traditional "Banno Re Banno" wedding standard. The other is the play on words from Tamasha’s "Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai", rendered almost unintelligible by Mika’s enthusiastic delivery: "Pyaar ki lau mein itni jal gayi/ ki loo mein jaana mushkil hai".

Best put-down
Even by his standards, this was a great year for Salman Khan. First, he shocked everyone by appearing in a film that was halfway decent, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which grossed over Rs 600 crore worldwide, a figure that made his other release of the year, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, look like a middling success (it made Rs 200 crore in India). There was also the small matter of his being acquitted in the hit-and-run case that had dogged him for 13 years. Given his godfather-like image in Bollywood and the almost fanatical support he commands across the nation, it felt just a little subversive (and immensely satisfying) when, at one point in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui shut a burqa-clad Khan up with a casual “Tu phir boli, begum?”

Most memorable minor character
You could take Sadhyaji, played by Pankaj Tripathy, out of Masaan without altering the story in any significant way. But it isn’t always the characters vital to the plot that stick in one’s mind. Some of my favourite scenes involve this musical voiced, talkative railway teller, whose fondness for Richa Chadha’s character is touchingly transparent. He also has two of the film’s best lines: the one about the number of trains coming and going from Banaras, and his response to Chadha asking if he lives alone: “I live with my father. He lives alone.” A confusing second passes before he clarifies that his father is alone during the day.

Best shakha-baiting
In a year of bitter religious divide, faith turned up surprisingly often onscreen. Dum Laga Ke Haisha was one such instance, providing a few rare moments of sweetness and wit. The film’s conception of a Haridwar shakha as a club for self-improvement-obsessed, archaic-phrase-spouting, shorts-wearing misfits is incisive but not mean-spirited. So straight-faced was the skewering that there were, for once, no protests from any of the usual suspects.

Most imaginatively choreographed number
Even as the traditional stop-everything-and-marvel number seems to be in decline (the exception being Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films), directors are finding new ways to frame, choreograph and integrate their musical sequences. In "Dhadaam Dhadaam", Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma convey all the pathos that’s missing from the rest of Bombay Velvet. "Gallan Goodiyan" from Dil Dhadakne Do is a one-take that’s all the more impressive for looking so riotous. "Lip to Lip", from Katti Batti, is a live action/stop motion dream. But the most audacious is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’s "Jaanam", in which director Dibakar Banerjee keeps his protagonist in the foreground while moving an immaculate recreation of 1940s Calcutta around behind him.

Best procedural scene
The direction, by Meghna Gulzar, is taut, and the cast, down to the most minor player, is superb, but it’s the writing that marks Talvar out as special. Vishal Bhardwaj’s script is as incisive, cynical and darkly funny as an episode of The Wire. All these qualities are evident in the long scene at the end when the two investigating teams are presenting their competing theories about the murder of Shruti Tandon. The atmosphere should be charged and serious, but instead, the cops seem as concerned with cracking wise about each other’s work as they are about the case they’re building. It ends, as do most things Bhardwaj, with poetry, as the officer hearing both versions invokes a line from a song in Gumrah: “Woh afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin/ Usse ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achchha” (That story that cannot be brought to a logical end may as well be ended on a good note), a quotation that can only be seen as savagely ironic.

Overripe dialogue of the year
Though the villain in Gabbar is Back yelling “I am a brand!” was pretty special, this line from Hamari Adhuri Kahani has it beat. When Emraan Hashmi’s hotelier first comes across Vidya Balan’s florist in the film, instead of saying “Hello” or “Nice weather” or even “Do you like my shoes?”, he comes up with “Beautiful. Inke liye toh main mar bhi sakta hoon.” He’s talking about the flowers she’s arranging, but the film takes him at his word, and he meets his end in a suspiciously CGI-looking field.

Character you hate yourself for caring about
Though it was one of the year’s best, Titli was unremittingly bleak. The film wouldn’t have had quite the same impact without Ranvir Shorey’s searing turn as Titli’s elder brother. Vikram is full of impulses—most of them violent—which keep bubbling to the surface in ways that seem to cause him some pain and others around him a great deal of it. Whether he’s yelling at a delivery guy while also trying to have a conversation with his estranged wife and young daughter, or bursting into tears in the middle of beating Titli up, Vikram is completely unpredictable, reprehensible and fascinating.

Soundtrack most likely to endure
AR Rahman came up with two great tracks and a bunch of decent ones for TamashaDetective Byomkesh Bakshy suggested a bold new direction—of the compiled, rather than composed, soundtrack. Masaan had the terrific, folksy "Tu Kisi Rail Si" and "Mann Kasturi Re"—strong contenders for song of the year. But the album of 2015 was undoubtedly Bombay Velvet. Amit Trivedi compositions fused the jazz background of its female lead with the 1960s Bombay high society setting. With intelligent nods to the music of OP Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan, and with typically witty lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, these are numbers that are likely to sound fresh and exciting decades later.

Best instances of Censor Board looking out for our moral health
Under Pahlaj Nihalani, the new Censor Board (actually the Central Board of Film Certification) took it upon themselves from preventing our collective modesties from being outraged. An internal memo with 27 prohibited swear words— ‘bastard’ etc. —was leaked. (They have since claimed to have put this on hold.) NH10 was released with nine cuts out of an initially suggested 30. Fifty Shades of Grey was banned altogether; Spectre’s kisses were deemed too inflammatory for an Indian audience and were removed. ‘Lunch’ was censored in Angry Indian Goddesses. But the unkindest cut was muting the word ‘lesbian’ in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, an indication, if ever there was one, of the blinkered, medieval mindset of those in charge of our film certification.

Addendum: My top 11 Indian films released in theatres in 2015
Kakka Muttai
Bajirao Mastani
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy
Dum Laga Ke Haisha