Friday, October 20, 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha: Review

About halfway through Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha comes a scene that’s as casually beautiful as anything Hindi cinema has offered this year. Fifty-five-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has come to mall to buy a swimsuit—a terrifying leap outside the safety of her normal existence. But there’s another first that must be negotiated before that: the escalator. As she stares at it with a look of dread, a series of little girls, each holding the next one’s hand, step on to the moving stairs. The last one takes Usha’s hand and she’s borne up, recovering sufficiently to allow herself a shy smile.

You could read all sorts of things into this moment, or nothing at all. This makes it a rarity in Lipstick, a film that’s sure about what it’s saying, and which says it clearly and loudly at every turn. Female desire, in all its forms, is the fulcrum around which the film’s four stories turn: college-goer Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants to wear jeans and sing Zeppelin and jam with drummer Dhruv (Shashank Arora); Leela (Aahana Kumra) is engaged to a man she barely knows and in heated love with another; Shireen (Konkona Sensharma) is trying to get her brutish husband to be a little nicer to her; and Usha is balancing being the unofficial matriarch to the apartment complex in which all these characters live with lusting after a much younger man and reading steamy paperbacks.

The downside to making a film with intersecting but nonetheless separate storylines is that it’s difficult not to compare them to each other, to re-edit one’s own film even as the one in front of you unfolds. Though each of the stories represents a markedly different situation, the Rehana and Shireen strands are restrictive in ways that the other two aren’t. In showing how these two characters must deal with the inflexibility of society, Shrivastava (who’s also the screenwriter) opts for an inflexibility of characterization that stifles the stories. In both cases the oppressors—nightmare conservative parents in Rehana’s case, a despicable husband for Shireen —are so unvaryingly unpleasant and narrow-minded that there’s a feeling of watching a game whose outcome is pre-decided.

The other two stories, however, are wonderfully constructed and executed. Leela’s moral quandary is complicated by the fact that both her options are flawed but not without merit: boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey) is tempestuous and clearly unreliable, yet has undeniable charm; fiancée Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) is thoughtful and sweet but also hopelessly square (when he shows Leela his home, there’s a lovely shot of a group of senior citizens silently watching TV, a vision of her future which sends her right back into Arshad’s arms). Leela herself is a fascinating character, prone to making potentially life-altering decisions on the spur of the moment. This results in one of the film’s most whistle-worthy scenes, when, after vacillating between passion and stability, she goes with stability and supplies the passion herself.

All the protagonists in Lipstick place themselves in varying degrees of risk, but none has quite as much to lose as Usha. A widow, a hard-nosed businesswoman and the neighbourhood bua-ji, she can’t help but read soft-core romance novels at night. When she comes across a doltish swim instructor (Jagat Singh Solanki), she buys a bathing costume and starts taking classes with him. Soon, she’s calling him anonymously at night for phone sex. It’s unlikely this particular scenario—a woman in her mid-50s lusting after a young stud—has ever been attempted in this fashion in Hindi cinema. And it might have seemed too cruel or silly here had it not been for Ratna Pathak Shah. In her quiet way, Pathak has become one of the most reliable character actors in India today. Her Usha—hesitant yet impelled by desire—is a baring of the soul that’s as fearless as it is heart-breaking. It also makes for a great contrast with the brassiness of Kumra, who supplies the film’s other standout performance.

Lipstick isn’t much for obscuring its message; the audience is kept abreast of the action at nearly every step. Purely filmic solutions—like the sound of a drill or a train to convey mental agitation—are few, and sometimes the dialogue is so direct it grates (Shireen’s boss at the department store asks her: “Do you only intend to keep having children or do you want to be a sales trainer?”). The setting, Bhopal, is shorn of local colour until it could be any middle-class neighbourhood in any first- or second-tier Indian city. Perhaps this is deliberate—using a place that isn’t Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata as a sort of representative space free of audience associations. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity. Lipstick is at its best when it’s being specific. Early in the film, it’s hinted that Leela’s mother has an unusual profession. I won’t spoil the revelation, but it’s the sort of detail that adds virtually nothing to the plot but nevertheless remains lodged in one’s mind.

This review appeared in Mint.

World War II, as it happened

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) doesn’t have combat scenes but it is in many ways a war film. It begins with a US soldier, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), returning home from World War II. In a veterans’ hospital, a doctor asks him about headaches and a crying spell. Freddie dismisses this at first, but then admits these might have been brought on by “nostalgia”. It’s a strange word to encounter in this context, unless you’re aware that the medical term for various PTSD symptoms was, for centuries, nostalgia.

These scenes in The Master were inspired by a 1946 documentary called Let There Be Light. It was directed by John Huston, one of five American film-makers tapped by the US government to help with the war effort at the start of the 1940s. Just how illustrious a bunch this was becomes clear when you consider that Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, was the least well-known of the five. John Ford was already considered the greatest director of Westerns ever. George Stevens was the first to pair Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, in Woman Of The Year. William Wyler had directed Dodsworth; Frank Capra had won Oscars for It Happened One Night and Mr Smith Goes To Washington.

How these five directors went about creating Allied propaganda is told in the three-part documentary Five Came Back. The series, based on a 2015 book of the same name by Mark Harris (who has also written the script for the show), is available on Netflix, as are all the films made by the five. Taken together, they offer fascinating insight into an initiative that used everything from scratchy newsreels to Hollywood spectacle to inspire the troops and reassure the public.

No doubt anticipating an audience that wouldn’t know Stagecoach from Jezebel, the show assembles five recent directors to talk about the original quintet. And so we get the dizzyingly starry line-up of Steven Spielberg on Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola on Huston, Guillermo Del Toro on Capra, Paul Greengrass on Ford and Lawrence Kasdan on Stevens (Meryl Streep does the narration). Even if you’re somewhat familiar with Allied wartime films, the details revealed are fascinating: how, for instance, Ford smuggled out his film in tobacco cans so that he could cut it the way he wanted instead of the army tampering with his vision, or how Wyler went deaf in one ear filming Thunderbolt.

Laurent Bouzereau directs the three 50-minute episodes in roughly chronological fashion, switching between the different film-makers’ stories. He does an efficient job, though it must be said that Five Came Back lacks the depth and ambition of recent extended documentaries. It’s a pity this material wasn’t developed beyond two-and-a-half-hours: we barely scratch the surface of what the Axis powers were doing in their propaganda. The only discussion of American propaganda through cartoons is Private Snafu; it would have been fascinating to learn more about the wealth of wartime—often racist—animation that came out of the US.

Watching Five Came Back, it’s difficult not to think of later films that carry their markings. In the second episode, it’s revealed that the lifelike combat scenes in The Battle Of San Pietro were faked by Huston. Was Clint Eastwood aware of this when he made Flags Of Our Fathers, a section of which is about the falsification of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph? Coppola mentions Huston’s ingenuity in getting his soldiers to look directly at the camera—something no “actor” would do; a little later, we’re shown a clip from Apocalypse Now, with Coppola playing a director and shouting, “Don’t look in the camera”. When Spielberg discusses a scene in Wyler’s Memphis Belle in which a pilot ejects out of a B-52, the image that jumps forth is that of Frank Powers trying to escape his plane in Bridge Of Spies.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is in theatres this weekend, and it should be fascinating to see what this trickiest of modern directors does with the most straightforward of genres. Ever since All Quiet On The Western Front, ambitious directors of all stripes—from Terrence Malick to Kathryn Bigelow—have looked to shape, energize and subvert the combat narrative. Five Came Back takes us back to the beginning, when a small group of directors created the DNA of the modern combat film.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jagga Jasoos: Review

There’s a moment, some 10 minutes into Jagga Jasoos, which will probably represent a way into the film for some, and a departure point for others. Anurag Basu’s film, his first after 2012’s Barfi!, begins with a botched arms drop in Purulia, West Bengal, in 1995. We see the incident first, then the reports on TV, during which something strange happens. As Pritam’s music swells in the background, newscasters and studio guests start to sing their lines instead of speaking them.

If viewers laugh at this spot of invention, and not with it, the film could be in trouble. In this moment Basu is signalling two things to his audience: that Jagga Jasoos will be fairy-tale whimsical, and that it’s a wall-to-wall musical. The first isn’t too much of an issue: when you have 34-year-old Ranbir Kapoor playing a schoolkid and Katrina Kaif as a successful investigative journalist, what’s a little more suspension of disbelief? The second barrier could prove trickier. Dialogue and music intruding on each other’s space is the Hollywood conception of a musical. We’re used to song and dance in our films, but only as self-contained packages. We may move like some combination of James Brown and Fred Astaire, but we don’t sing dialogue.

In Basu’s film, almost everything is sung. Jagga (Kapoor), an orphan who lives in a hospital in Ukhrul, Manipur, has a debilitating stutter. At the suggestion of a kindly gent (the terrific Saswata Chatterjee)—whom we saw in the opening arms drop—he attempts to sing his thoughts, and finds he can do so without faltering. This is an idea that’s been explored in films from Rocket Science to The King’s Speech, though I haven’t seen it used as all-consumingly as it is here. Nearly all of Jagga’s spoken lines from this point on are rapped or sung; more often than not, those replying to him end up singing too.

Though the musical conceit is new, the palette is familiar. The surfeit of charm, the piling up of eccentric detail, the manicured beauty of every frame—all of this seems like a continuation of the Barfi! aesthetic developed by Basu, cinematographer Ravi Varman, editors Akiv Ali and Ajay Sharma, and designers Rajat and Parijat Poddar. Not that outside influences aren’t easy to spot. “Wes Anderson-like” as shorthand for studied whimsy has long passed the point of overuse, but the parallels between Jagga—a gifted schoolboy who’s serious like a grownup—and Rushmore’s Max are impossible to ignore. There’s the obvious reference to Tintin in Jagga’s talent for detection, and in the tuft of hair sticking out the side of his head. There’s also a dash of Indiana Jones in the film’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along plot, which is ostensibly about Jagga and his journalist friend, Shruti (Kaif), investigating an international arms cartel.

Most Hindi films feed us our dramatic vegetables with the tacit understanding that dessert is soon to follow. Jagga Jasoos, though, has no use for a balanced diet: it’s all dessert, all the time. Like a less frenetic Michel Gondry film, the screen is constantly coming alive with little bits of invention. Many of these details serve no dramatic purpose—you can almost picture Basu saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Russian dance troupe swaying to "Kalinka" on a train moving through the African countryside?” and his producers mopping their foreheads. This is a film with giraffes, leopards, elephants and ostriches; a clock-tower scene out of Vertigo; a biplane (because biplanes are cool); a fictional region in Africa called Shundi, which is likely a reference to the magical kingdom in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne.

Is everything weaved together successful? Not quite. The political references are largely toothless and perfunctory, except for one song about farmer suicides and people dying in riots, which is so extreme a mismatch with the material that it took my breath away. The singing stratagem occasionally gets in its own way, with dramatic scenes rendered silly by characters breaking into song. There’s also the baffling decision to cast, opposite Bollywood’s nimblest male star, the slow-reacting, risk-averse Kaif. Still, when it’s firing, Jagga Jasoos taps into the sort of rhythm that propels scenes from within—whether it’s a simple gag, like a police officer trying to figure out which of his six phones is ringing, or a setpiece, as when Jagga and Shruti, running from a gunman, find themselves on stage and improvise a little dance. Kishore Kumar did something similar in the Woh Ek Nigah Kya Mili sequence in 1962’s Half Ticket. It’s nice to know that, these many years later, Hindi cinema hasn’t lost the ability to be sublimely ridiculous when it wants.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mom: Review

In its response to the issue of women’s safety, Indian cinema lately has been a bit of superego and a whole bunch of id. Pink was a critical breakdown of the problem, and was rare for holding out the promise of justice actually being served. Few other films have been that optimistic. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen no less than three features—the latest being Ravi Udyawar’s Mom—in which a lone woman is forced into a car by a group of men. None of these films present any response to injustice except for nihilism and revenge. Playing on the public’s deep-rooted mistrust of the law and order and justice system in this country, particularly when it comes to women’s safety, and a media climate that’s more strident by the day, our films are placing a pretend gun in our hands and saying, if you had the chance, would you?

Film has always been an outlet for viewers to be more potent than they are in real life, where they’re bound by laws and systems. Mom devotes almost half its running time to show how ineffective it believes these systems are, before it allows its titular character to start bypassing them (the ease with which she does so is another indictment of their ineffectiveness). Unlike Pink, which showed the failure of the system but ultimately voted for its relevance, Mom goes the way of Maatr, a revenge thriller with a shared theme from earlier this year.

The mom in Udyawar’s film is actually “ma’am”—at least that’s what Arya insists on calling her step-mother, and her teacher at school, Devki (Sridevi). In the opening scene, Arya is sent a lewd message by a classmate. Devki takes the phone from the offending student, Mohit, and calmly drops it from the window. Though Arya is as embarrassed as Mohit, this incident is one of the triggers for the film’s horrific central event. In a series of distressingly well-choreographed scenes, Arya is abducted by Mohit, his cousin and two others from a party, and bundled into a car. She’s raped, beaten and left in a ditch.

It’s only when Arya’s assailants are identified, arrested and, after a fast-tracked trial, declared innocent that Mom reveals its true face. What was till now a wrenching family drama morphs into a revenge thriller, with Devki tracking down the four men and finding creative ways to make them suffer. She’s helped in this by a private detective named Dayashankar, played by a semi-unrecognizable Nawazuddin Siddiqui, sporting a high hairline and prominent front teeth. The pivot to genre film is signalled via an exchange between the two just before intermission. “God isn’t everywhere,” Devki tells the Bholenath-invoking private eye. “That’s why he made mothers,” Dayashankar replies.

Like Kahaani’s Vidya, a modern-day Durga, Devki is both mother and avenging god. This is made clear not only through choice of character name—Devaki is the mother of Krishna, and therefore not far from a god herself—but also when Dayashankar and her meet in a gallery in front of an abstract painting of a particularly grisly episode from the Mahabharata. Though Dayashankar can’t see it, Devki knows exactly what it is: Draupadi bathing her hair in the blood of Dushasana, her violator. Mythology doesn’t get much pulpier, or provide a better basis for the revenge narrative.

If you believe that rapists should be castrated or given the death penalty—not necessarily by the state—you’re the choir Mom is preaching to. If you aren’t, you’ll have a lot to wrestle with, not least the law’s approval of Devki’s actions. Either way, this is a taut thriller, with Udyawar showing a flair with for economical unbroken shots (the hard-edged cinematography is by Anay Goswamy). Sridevi delivers an appropriately strained performance, and Sajal Ali is harrowing as Arya. Akshaye Khanna is memorably (though probably not intentionally) weird as a police inspector with a faraway look on his face, while Siddiqui starts off as comic relief before creating, as only he can, a startlingly vivid character in just a handful of scenes.

Mom is a strange brew: audience-appeasing thriller, relationship drama and social commentary all rolled into one. To Udyawar’s credit, he manages to make it look cohesive, even as he struggles to contend with the moral quagmire of revenge and opts instead for the escape of pulp.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The classroom in French cinema

In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard, then a critic, and a year away from launching one of the most significant film careers ever, wrote a polemic for the French magazine Arts. Addressing the film-makers whom he and his cohorts at Cahiers Du Cinéma had sarcastically dubbed the “tradition of quality”, he wrote: “We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are.”

Godard’s phrasing of this complaint is revealing. He isn’t disappointed in the old guard, or angry at them. He can’t forgive them for what they’ve done to his cinema. And he wasn’t the only one at Cahiers taking such matters to heart. In 1954, in an essay titled “A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema”, François Truffaut attacked “le cinéma de papa (daddy’s cinema)”. “Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men,” he wrote, “and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it” (italics mine).

That article brought Truffaut welcome notoriety a few years before his debut film, The 400 Blows, played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and alerted the world to the French New Wave. It was also notable for a phrase he uses in it: “la politique des Auteurs”—essentially, a policy of treating directors with a distinctive visual style as auteurs, or authors, and regarding them as superior to directors who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put their stamp on source material. The Auteur Theory, as it came to be known, became one of the central theses of modern cinema.

No one takes cinema quite as seriously as the French. Certainly, this is reflected in critical thinking about film, which is dominated by ideas birthed in France. Auteurism—which grew out of the critical work of André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor, in the 1940s—might be the most influential concept to emerge from the country, but consider the other French terms that have crept into the global lexicon. Film noir, that most American genre, was a term coined in France when post-war critics started noticing a predominance of downbeat, shadowy films from the US and called them noir (black). Montage, which came from the French monter (to mount or assemble), is the worldwide term for a rapid succession of images; a fundamental editing theory is the Soviet system of montage. Even mise-en-scène—basically, everything in front of the camera—occasionally escapes the confines of academic film writing to confuse lay readers.

That the French have been, and remain, central to the critical discourse surrounding cinema is not surprising. To use a highly reductive analogy: If American films are about people doing things, French films are about the discussion of ideas. If you look at their films carefully, you can see where this argumentativeness comes from. I don’t know any other cinema, especially in recent years, that’s had as many charged scenes set in classrooms as the French.

It was Laurent Cantet’s The Class which placed this idea in my head. In 2008, the year when Cantet’s film won the Palme d’Or, I had started to move my world cinema intake beyond the Bergmans and Fellinis. The Class thrilled me in ways that I wouldn’t have expected a gritty-looking film about a man teaching a group of inner-city children to do. The back-and-forth between the professor and his students was unpredictably electric—a discussion about Anne Frank, for instance, ends up as a snapshot of modern-day, multicultural France in all its complexity.

From that point on, I started noticing classroom scenes in all sorts of French films. Sometimes these were central to the narrative—as in The Class, or Nicolas Philibert’s excellent documentary, Être Et Avoir, which unfolds over a year in a rural preschool—or used ironically, or as a premonition. In Jeune & Jolie, the grave central character, who will soon start working as an escort, recites Rimbaud: “No one’s serious at seventeen”. Blue Is The Warmest Colour, about the sexual awakening of a young student, has a reading of Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie De Marianne (which is echoed in the French title of the film, La Vie d’Adèle). “I am a woman, and I tell my story,” a student says aloud. “Among the young men I attracted was one I myself noticed. My gaze fell upon him in particular. I didn’t realize the pleasure I procured.” Replace “him” with “her” and it’s almost a prediction of Adele’s first glimpse of her soon-to-be lover Emma.

It isn’t just that classrooms are featured in these films, it’s the argumentativeness of the people in them that’s indicative of a culture that thrives on debate and deconstruction. This could range from the philosophical arguments in Things To Come to the bruising scene in Divines, in which the motormouth protagonist, Dounia, demolishes her teacher’s self-control. Though classrooms may figure prominently in French films, they aren’t treated as a hallowed space. It’s worth remembering that one of the foundation texts of French cinema, Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite, was a celebration of student anarchy—as was the equally influential film it inspired, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

I happened to be in France last month. Speaking to a dentist who worked in Paris, I mentioned how fascinating it was to see ideas debated by students in film after film. He replied that it wasn’t surprising—that structuring a cogent argument and debating it, often without any urgency to arrive at a solution, was something the French placed a premium on.

A cinema that’s about ideas, and a country that takes seriously the idea of cinema (and not just movie-going)—the evidence is everywhere. In Paris, I visited the Cinémathèque, home to 40,000 films, 500,000 photographs and 30,000 film-related documents, and the Librairie du Cinéma du Panthéon, a film-themed book store whose owner casually informed me that there were 15-20 repertory theatres in the vicinity (there isn’t a single dedicated repertory in Mumbai).

On Deauville beach in Normandy, I came across signs commemorating the legendary Jean-Pierre Melville and Anna Karina, both of whom had shot films there. Walking past the mk2 theatre in Paris, I noticed their dream line-up of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and I Am Not Your Negro. My favourite sighting, though, was in Châtelet, Paris. From high up on a wall, Richie Tenenbaum gazed down upon college-goers blowing off steam on a Friday night. Even the film graffiti there has good taste.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge as part of a series on world cinema.

The gang that couldn’t shoot straight

Though he’s been making short films since 1993, Ashim Ahluwalia’s first feature was the documentary John And Jane, in 2005. It was his first fiction feature, Miss Lovely (2012), though, which put him on the world cinema map. A dark, fractured narrative set in Mumbai’s soft-core horror film industry in the 1980s, the film was a rare Competition section entry for India at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ahluwalia’s candid, cine-literate interviews and experimental shorts (his last was the imaginative 2016 film Events In A Cloud Chamber) have suggested a film-maker whose sensibilities were headed in an opposite direction from the mainstream. This is why the announcement that he’d be taking on a popular genre (the gangster movie) and a star (Arjun Rampal) with a biopic of Mumbai mob boss-turned-politician Arun Gawli came as a surprise.

Daddy releases in September. Ahluwalia spoke to us—appropriately, given the genre under discussion, in the back room of a restaurant—about making a “mass” film on his own terms and getting a Bollywood A-lister to watch Japanese New Wave films. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Daddy’ appears to be your most straightforward, story-driven film.
The funny thing about that is, for people who know my work, it’s my most straight film, but the people from within the industry who’ve seen it, think it’s very edgy. Without revealing too much, it’s a Gawli biopic where Gawli’s point of view is missing. It has the framework of an investigation which takes place in 2011, when he’s coming to power. An old cop who’s almost retired is told to investigate him. He speaks to various characters from Gawli’s life, so you have multiple points of view.

For me, this is kind of an experiment: not because of the form, but to see if I can work in a mass genre. In my mind, it’s not a festival film. The dream is to make a film that a cinephile can watch, and a guy from Dagdi chawl can watch; that they can both take different things from and are still satisfied.

It was Arjun Rampal who approached you with the idea of a Gawli biopic.
He was not a producer then, but he had the rights. I didn’t know Arjun at all before we met on a commercial. I hadn’t seen any of his films, but we hit it off. He started telling me (about the Gawli biopic), saying, “Some of the producers are not getting it, it’s really unfortunate—I have the rights of the real guy but they’re making it into Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai.”

Arjun had started writing a draft based on the stories he had heard from Gawli and the gang. I think the fact that his draft wasn’t heroic was the reason I said yes. Had it been a superman movie in the guise of a gangster movie, I would’ve said no.

I told him, if we’re going to do this together, how about we chop this up, put in different points of view. I pulled out a lot of dialogue, put more voice-over in. It became closer to the kind of gangster movie I would want to make.

How did Rampal become the co-producer?
Arjun and I were clear on the kind of film we wanted to make, but the producers weren’t. I’d get recommendations from them to cast an A-list actor, or to have Sunny Leone do an item number. It didn’t feel right for this film. It had gotten to the point where I said, I can’t do the movie like this. So to fix this, Arjun became a co-producer. The company (Kundalini Entertainment) didn’t exist before this. He had to make a company to make the movie.

Were you wary of working in a relatively mainstream space for the first time?
Totally. My contract is so paranoid Arjun would just call and laugh at it.

Did you get final cut?
I have final cut, and I get involved in everything. That’s just how I tend to work. I’m even involved in the font design of the poster. In the beginning I was told in the industry the director just makes the movie, someone makes the poster, someone else cuts the trailer. I was like, no, but it’s my trailer!

Do you have memories of Gawli from when you were growing up?
This film is coming off the back of Miss Lovely in a strange way, because it’s also Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1980s. I grew up with pictures of dead bodies in the papers and the whole mythology of the gangster. I’m a south Bombay kid, so I’ve seen the mill lands before they were gentrified.

What was most interesting about Gawli is that I never found out who he was. Every gangster projects a certain kind of image. Dawood was very flamboyant, stylish—the classic don. Gawli is an enigma, impenetrable. My image of him was the politician with the topi, white kurta, clean—and I could never figure how this guy was the mobster. He breaks all stereotypes, Hollywood and otherwise, of the gangster. He’s very good with image-making, and he understands public perception. That to me is the basis of cinema as well.

Did you meet him for the film?
I spent time with him. One thing that struck me is how working-class he is. He comes from Dagdi chawl and he has an underdog complex. He’s often been treated very unfairly. I wrote this into the script—the guy who doesn’t want to be a gangster but just to prove that he can do it, he does something impulsive, and then he’s stuck. Then, to get out, he does something even more impulsive, and he’s stuck further.

This to me is the story of Gawli’s life. I think it is unlike any other gang movie—instead of a gangster with a proactive approach, you have one who’s on the back foot all the time. It’s a very reactive way of dealing with the world, very different from the plotting gangster you imagine.

Did you get the impression that he genuinely believes he’s a social worker?
I talked to people who live in Dagdi chawl and Agripada and they’re huge admirers of him. He is seen almost as a saviour. Obviously, that’s one side of the story: Some say it’s all a PR stunt. Of course, people have different views of him. If you ask me what I know about him, it’s as much as you do after watching the film, which is six different points of view, none of which match up.

The question for me isn’t, “Is Gawli good or bad?” but rather, who is the criminal? Is it the guy who cleared the mill lands? Is it the owner who wanted the workers out with low compensation? Or is it the person who bought a flat in a building that came up in place of the mills? It’s easy to say, this guy did the dirty job, but who paid him to pull the trigger, and where did the funds come from? Was that my security deposit that went into paying for somebody’s hit?

Are multiple points of view used as a formal disruptive device?
Absolutely. The classic film that does this is Rashomon. There’s also a film that was very influential when I was making this, which was Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine.

There’s an interview with Rampal in which he describes you showing him something that sounds like Imamura’s film.
Arjun and I have a funny relationship. He tries to get me to meet a Bollywood action director, and he watches me squirm, and I put him through Japanese New Wave films and watch him squirm. But Vengeance Is Mine was very interesting because it’s a film about a serial killer that doesn’t want to blame the killer, it wants to blame Japan for creating him. I think there’s a parallel here with the city of Mumbai.

Were there other cinematic influences on ‘Daddy’?
Imamura is someone who is deeply influential for me. That moment in Japanese history (when he began making films)—the late 1950s and early 1960s—is similar to the moment we’re going through now in India: a transitional phase where we’re getting all this global capitalism but there’s also this feudal structure, and both are exploding into each other. I find Imamura very relevant—socially, and in terms of dealing with sexual mores.

One of the things I really wanted to do was avoid the traditional gangster movie references—Goodfellas, the Godfather trilogy. That’s all been flogged to death, and that’s not the only mythology of gangsters.

They’re not my cup of tea, but I think that within Bollywood, gangster films have been the most interesting in some ways. A film like Satya—I think what Ram Gopal (Verma) and Anurag (Kashyap) were able to do with it was to break the fantasy, take the film on to the streets, make the film with real dialogue, with faces that feel like they’re from that space. What it’s done for the industry and for all of us to be able to make movies like that, is immense.

Have we been able to put our own spin on the gangster film in the manner that French or Hong Kong cinema did?
Not as much as I would have liked. If you look at a Hong Kong gangster film, or you watch a Yakuza film or an Italian gangster film, they’re all very distinctive. I think it’ll happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. I find the south Indian gangster films very interesting, though: I think that’s actually where you’re seeing a local cinema aesthetic developing.

‘Miss Lovely’ was largely improvised. In this film, you have a dialogue writer.
A lot of the dialogue was improvised or written on set. I didn’t have a bound screenplay. My Hindi writing isn’t great, so I wanted someone with whom we could do lines. So we got Ritesh Shah, who kind of knows my sensibility. When it became hard to improvise, or when we had an idea of a line but didn’t know how to phrase it, we’d call Ritesh. He’d call back, and say, how about this, and we’d shoot it.

You’ve used two cinematographers, Pankaj Kumar and Jessica Lee Gagné.
Jessica comes from an art house space—this is probably the most commercial film she’s done. It was quite difficult to convince everyone about her early on: 27 years old, French-Canadian, shooting a Bombay gangster movie, especially in this industry, which can be quite male-centric.

This is my first film that’s been shot digital. We did a lot of work—we shot anamorphic, we shot with old lenses that were used on Sholay. I wanted large frames but I didn’t want it to be glossy. She couldn’t do the entire thing because of scheduling. She shot 70% of the film. Pankaj and I always wanted to work together, so he took over for the remaining part.

The film spans four decades. Did you have visual cues for different eras?
Jessica and I developed a palette. I wanted to have each era lit with a different colour temperature. For me the 1970s was sodium-vapour yellow. In the 1980s you start getting tungsten and white tube light. The 1990s becomes cleaner, and 2012 is just glass and cold. So when you’re going back and forth in time, you don’t have to use colour grading techniques, you’re doing it actually in the environment. We used this as a basis for the art direction as well.

Has the indie scene changed compared to, say, five years ago?
I think the indie scene is really infiltrating Bollywood. Five years ago I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a producer. Now I get calls from old-school Bollywood producers saying “Ashim ji, aake miliye (come and meet us)”, which is hilarious. So I think there’s something major happening, like a tectonic shift.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baby Driver: Review

Poetry before prose. Baby Driver is a concerto in sixth gear and an adrenaline shot to the heart. Better films may release this year, but it’s difficult to imagine any supplying cinematic joy in such generous doses. If Fury Road was Wagner on wheels, this chrome wheeled, fuel injected musical is Beethoven’s Ninth.

That Edgar Wright is responsible for it is hardly surprising. Few directors since Steven Spielberg have been able to marshal this convincingly the various tricks of cinema for the purposes of pure entertainment. Each whip pan, every tracking shot is deployed for maximum impact. In an age of bewilderingly quick editing, Wright seems to cut at exactly the right moment—and to elicit a reaction. A breathless one-take might be followed by a chopped-up chase: whatever makes the scene work, the material sing.

All this trickery is grounded in the familiarity of genre. Baby Driver is, essentially, a “one last job and I’m out” movie, a scenario that’s as central to the heist narrative as the exercise montage is to the sports film. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a prodigiously talented young man with a quirk: he must have music—his music, spread over multiple iPods—playing in his ears constantly, to drown out the tinnitus that’s dogged him ever since an accident when he was little. He’s in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss whose car he mistakenly stole and who’s extracting payment for that one heist at a time.

In 1973, George Lucas introduced the idea of the mixtape soundtrack with American Graffiti, and Martin Scorsese timed Harvey Kietel’s head hitting the pillow in Mean Streets to the pistol-shot opening of "Be My Baby". The backbeat of rock has been a fixture in American film-making ever since, yet, even within this tradition, Wright does something unique, using Baby’s tinnitus to create a wholly convincing rock musical. Movement is inextricably linked to sound, only, instead of just having bodies in motion, Wright makes the entire screen move to the beat. Screeching tires blend with guitar solos, fingers drum in time to the percussion. Elgort dances, the camera dances, the film seems to dance too.

As in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the sordidness of the criminal world in Baby Driver is contrasted with a shy romance. Our hero’s attention is snagged by a server in the local diner named Dobora (Lily James), who walks singing “B-A-B-Y baby”, a Carla Thomas number. The ensuing romance is prototypically American—diner, Laundromat, pop music—and, in its dreamy optimism, indicative of an earlier era (Debora’s dream is to head out on the open road with no fixed plan, a sentiment that’s more Beat Generation than millennial). Wright is playing with multiple genres here: along with the wholesome teen romance, you get the unpredictability of the heist film, the smoothness of the musical and the pounding muscularity of the action film, all weaving in and out like radio channels being switched.

Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal and Eiza González have a grand time playing assorted lowlifes, and Spacey is his usual sardonic self, but it’s Elgort—impassive except for when he lets his guard down and belts out old soul numbers—who’s the most compelling presence. The wall-to-wall soundtrack, switching from radio staples to deep cuts ("New Orleans Instrumental No. 1", anyone?), is a character in itself. This is a film for people who take pop music seriously, who believe in the sanctity of the right track for the right situation. When one particular heist hits a roadbump, Baby rewinds the track he’s playing ("Neat, Neat, Neat" by The Damned) until it’s where it needs to be for maximum inspiration, and only then zooms off. High Fidelity’s Rob would have loved this scene.

In his spare time, Baby takes conversations he’s recorded, chops them up and makes recordings—real life reduced to a mix tape. Baby Driver is full of cool details like this, but Wright takes care to link them to emotion; one of the tapes—probably the oldest one—is of Baby’s dead mother singing. No matter how outlandish the premise, there’s always been a sweetness to Wright’s films.

This review appeared in Mint.