Friday, April 17, 2015

Made in India, courted abroad

When Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September, few could have predicted the kind of dream run this quietly devastating Indian art film and its director would have. Yet, over the past six months, the film has won a series of awards at international festivals, including two FIPRESCI (International Federation of Critics) awards and two trophies at Venice. Recently, it won the National Film Awards for Best Feature, the highest cinematic honour in India.

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when it seemed like Court might go the way of most regional films in India: a couple of festival screenings, maybe a small theatrical release, a DVD, and oblivion. Yet, at crucial moments, the film has found influential supporters willing to gamble on it—angels, as Tamhane calls them. That the majority of these angels were from outside India has lent a decidedly international flavour to Court’s success. The film may be intensely, specifically Indian, but it was recognized, encouraged and promoted abroad.

Court, which releases on 17 April across Maharashtra and in select metros, is a rigorous, formally inventive film. It chronicles, with exemplary patience and attention to detail, the court trial of a singer-activist accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker. Much has been written about the film’s making: how Tamhane spent close to two years on scripting, casting and pre-production; how he auditioned around 1,800 people; how his friend, actor Vivek Gomber (he plays the defence lawyer), put his own money into the film when they couldn’t find any financiers. They had approached the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) for funding in late 2012 but were rejected. “We also went to the (NFDC) Film Bazaar (November 2012), but no producers came on board, seeing our young faces and no other film to show,” said Tamhane, over Skype from New York. “So it was all Vivek—there was no other funding.”

One bit of financial assistance Court did receive was through the Hubert Bals Fund, given out by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Tamhane found out about the fund when he took his short film, Six Strands, to the festival in 2011. He applied in 2012 and was selected, receiving €10,000 (around Rs.6.7 lakh now) for script and project development. “It helped us, because even though it’s not a lot of money, it’s a prestigious fund,” Gomber says (Court’s budget was Rs.3.5 crore). But the film’s global journey started in earnest when Paolo Bertolin, a programmer at the Venice International Film Festival, heard about it at the 2012 Film Bazaar. As he later told the NFDC, “Right from the start, I thought this is a very interesting project, I should follow up on it.” Luckily for Tamhane and Gomber, follow up is what he did. Bertolin became an early, enthusiastic champion of the film, pushing for its selection at Venice.

Venice’s Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, in existence since 1932, is the oldest film festival in the world and, along with Cannes, Berlin and Toronto, one of the most prestigious. Tamhane and Gomber had been applying to festivals since March 2014. They were rejected by seven of them—including Cannes, Locarno and San Sebastian—before being accepted by Venice. Getting a debut film screened there would have been achievement enough, but on 6 September, in Tamhane’s words, “the whole equation changed”. Court beat films by arthouse favourites like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Hong Sang-soo and won the Orizzonti award, given to the best film in the “Horizons” section. It also won the Luigi De Laurentiis award for best first feature.

It was as if some celestial scorekeeper had decided that the uncertainty of the past few years needed to be redressed. In October, Court played at the 16th Mumbai Film Festival. It ended up winning Best Film and Best Director, plus a special jury mention for the cast. At the Viennale the following month, it was awarded a FIPRESCI award. The same month, it picked up awards at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the 21st Minsk Film Festival “Listapad”. In December, it won the Grand Prix and a second Fipresci prize at the Auteur Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia, and Best Film and Best Director at the Singapore International Film Festival. It was also selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival in New York. The day before Tamhane and Gomber left for the US, the announcement came that they had won Best Feature Film at India’s National Film Awards, making it the third time in four years that a debut full-length feature had won the top prize.

Another crucial piece fell into place around the time of the Venice film festival. Right up to the time of the festival, Court had no sales agent. Gomber recalled writing to all the big names, and getting rejection after rejection. “They all had automated replies,” he chuckled, “saying, ‘Oh, we’re in Europe, we’re on holiday’.” But then they had another slice of luck. Deepti Da Cunha, who does the programming for the Rome International Film Festival, introduced Tamhane to Alexa Rivero, a producer and production manager. Rivero saw Court, was impressed, and recommended it to her former employers, the French agency Memento Films International, which in the past has acquired films by directors such as Olivier Assayas and Jia Zhangke. At Memento’s Artscope label, it was seen by Sata Cissokho, who had recently joined as festivals manager. “To me what’s really special about it is the rhythm that grows in the course of the trials and stays with you like you were actually witnessing it,” Cissokho wrote over email. “I was still thinking about it days after having seen it.” Court became her first acquisition at Artscope.

There was one more serendipitous surprise in store. On the jury for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice was Ron Mann, a Canadian documentary film-maker. After seeing the film through to the award (“The deliberation took 6 seconds for a unanimous decision,” he told me), his label FilmsWeLike acquired the Canadian distribution rights for Court. He also made a crucial recommendation. Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of New York-based distribution company Zeitgeist Films, told me how they first learnt about Court through Mann, who kept telling them about this wonderful little Indian film he had seen at Venice.

Zeitgeist—where Cissokho used to work before Memento—is one of the most highly regarded film distribution labels in the world. Started in 1988 by Gerstman and Emily Russo, it’s known for its focus on auteur-driven cinema, distributing films by directors as varied as Abbas Kiarostami and Jan Švankmajer. More than just displaying the kind of taste that earned them a MoMA retrospective of their own, they are tastemakers themselves, consistently backing emerging talent and fresh voices in world cinema. Court wasn’t on their radar, though, until Mann and Memento alerted them to it. “It took a little while for us to get around to seeing it, and seeing the wonderfulness of it,” Gerstman said over Skype.

Court’s American premiere was at New Directors/New Films on 26 March, part of a line-up that included The Tribe and White God. Zeitgeist plans to release the film theatrically at New York’s Film Forum on 15 July (it releases in Canada on the same day). Memento has already sold the film in West Asia, Hong Kong and Greece; when I spoke to Tamhane and Gomber, they said that a distribution deal for France was close to being signed.

Over the last five years or so, there have been an increasing number of Indian films finding their way into the line-up of major international festivals. Some have even managed to find sales and distribution partners outside India. Film sales company Fortissimo Films acquired the world sales rights to Anand Gandhi’s Ship Of Theseus in 2011—the company has also acquired other Indian films: Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie (2009), Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael (2011) and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012). Last year, Zeitgeist picked up Richie Mehta’s Siddharth for distribution. Sony Pictures Classics put its muscle behind Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which paid off handsomely: At one point, the film was the highest-grossing foreign film of the year in the US, collecting over $4 million (around Rs.24.8 crore) at the box office. More recently, arthouse sales agent Match Factory partnered with Anup Singh’s Qissa, while French sales firm Wide Management acquired the rights to Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw.

This may look like a gathering storm, but Tamhane and Gomber’s experience suggests that you need to be both lucky and dogged to nab international representation. I asked Bose whether the financial success of The Lunchbox had altered the way global distributors viewed Indian independent films. “I don’t know,” she wrote back. “But I do know that it certainly hasn’t strengthened US distributors! After our world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, we were very surprised not to get picked up by one of the majors for a theatrical in North America” (the film will be released in the US by an arthouse distributor).

It stands to reason that a challenging, complex film like Tamhane’s will take whatever angels it can find, wherever it can find them. But independent cinema in the country would be much better served if we could discover and nurture the next Court ourselves.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: Review

 A young man on his bike adopts a James Dean pose. A woman undulates to music, applies make-up, puts on a hijab. A balloon seller does a complicated dance with her wares. A junkie tries going cold turkey alone in his room. A skeleton and her friend buy ecstasy from Dracula at a party. A vampire skateboards down a deserted road at night.

Such is the strange, seductive world of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. The film attracted a lot of attention when it played at Sundance last year. It was billed as the “first Iranian vampire Western”, which it both is, and isn’t. Though the film does concern a vampire (identified only as “The Girl”), played by Sheila Vand, who falls for a young man named Arash, it is Iranian only in that the characters seem like they’re from there; they wear hijabs, speak Farsi, mix tea with sugar stirrers. Yet, the setting is very obviously not Iran: the town looks like some dump in the American Midwest. Amirpour herself is Iranian-American; she grew up in Florida and California, making short films and finally this, her first full-length feature.

I’m sure there will be critics who’ll see this as a parable for women’s rights in Iran or some other social criticism. It’s not like this could not have been Amirpour’s intention—The Girl is like an avenging Santa, biting the necks of the naughty, sparing the nice—just that there are ways to enjoy this most beautiful and bizarre of films that don’t involve “reality” or even “Iran”. For a first-time director, Amirpour has exceptional control; there’s something Jim Jarmusch-like in the fever dream quality of her visuals and the eerie poetry she brings to the simplest of scenes. She’s helped immeasurably in this by Lyle Vincent’s black and white cinematography, the eclectic soundtrack that ranges from Farsi pop to imitation Ennio Morricone, and the performances of Arash Marandi as Arash and Vand as The Girl.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is as exciting a debut as any in the past few years. Amirpour’s next feature has been announced: a post-apocalyptic cannibal romance with Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey. Keep an eye out for this one.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hunterrr: Review

Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah) is a hunter. He’s a ladies’ man, a player, tharki, vasu and some other words, the censors don’t want your baby ears to hear (they're there in the trailer). He’s isn’t very smart and he definitely isn’t smooth. He isn’t rich; it’s not clear if he works at all. What makes him such a successful Lothario? For one, he’s always available. And he isn’t picky. All comers are welcome: young and middle-aged, dark and fair, naïve and experienced.

There’s a less flattering term than player, and that’s sex addict. This is what Mandar really is. Over the course of the film, he has affairs with at least two married women, hits on a guest of the family, and has sex with an old flame even after he’s gotten engaged. His friends have moved on, started families, have children. He has continued to hunt, offering drinks to young girls in bars and getting beaten up for his trouble. For a while, it’s not clear why we’re watching a film about such an uninspiring character.

Luckily (and unusually for a Hindi film), Hunterrr finds some footing in the second half. First off, there’s a lot more screen time for Radhika Apte, who can lift the spirits of just about anything she’s in. Here, she plays Trupti,one of the girls Mandar’s meeting for a possible arranged marriage. Mandar, who had tried to tell some of the women he met earlier about his womanizing ways, decides to keep silent this time. She, however, has a past of her own, and (again, unusually for a Hindi film) isn’t shy about discussing it. A couple of tears, drinks and lying flashbacks later, we’re left with a strange question: Would you knowingly marry a sex addict?

Hunterrr does try something that hasn’t been attempted before in Hindi movies: Charting the development of the Indian male child as a journey of perpetual horniness. The film skips back and forth between three main time frames. We see Mandar as a child, at a time when he’s discovering masturbation and learning how to talk to girls; then as a callow college kid on the make; and in the present day, being forced by his family to consider marriage. All this unfolds very leisurely; Hunterrr has the right comic material but lacks the timing that would make the movie sing.

Hunterrr is the directorial debut of Harshavardhan Kulkarni, who had previously written the screenplay for Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), another mainstream comedy partly subverted by the oddness of its outlier lead character. It is fitfully interesting: The flashback with the children has shades of Amarcord, and the discussions Mandar and Trupti have in the latter stages are funny and provocative. That said, there are also a lot of moments that will make women—and some men—in the audience wince: the line the schoolboys form outside the girls’ school, forcing them to exit via a narrow, leering passage; the hoary old idea that an exposed bra strap is titillating.

For a very male-focused film, there’s a measure of equality in the fact that many of the women in Mandar’s life know exactly what they want, even if it’s just no-strings-attached fun. Mandar, on the other hand, is clueless at the start, and just a little wiser at the end (the usually arresting Devaiah embraces his character’s confusion and mumbly sleaziness, but still ends up bland). He may be a slave to his impulses, but any hunter will tell you that it gets lonely out there in the jungle. It’s the same old cliché you get in every movie about a womanizer, from Shame (2011) to Don Jon (2013)—deep down, even sex addicts need love.

The Gunman: Review

A few pages into The Prone Gunman, Jean-Patrick Manchette, French author of several popular série noires in the 1970s and early 1980s, describes an assassination. “At the discreet sound of these shots, the redhead turned. Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound.” Fiction doesn’t come much pulpier than that.

The Prone Gunman is a movie now, minus the ‘prone’ and much of the pulp. Pierre Morel’s The Gunman takes Manchette’s story of an assassin who wants to retire and tries to graft it onto a real-world template. Gone is the Hammett-like cool of the book; Morel’s film is overwrought, reaching for gravitas even as its plot never moves beyond the generic. Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) has a night job as a hitman for a conglomerate with interests in Congo. He’s ordered to assassinate a mining minister there, and though he appears to be having second thoughts about his choice of career, he carries out the murder. He then disappears as per orders and retires from the killing business. Eight years later, he finds that he’s become a target, a fly in the ointment for former partners who are now businessmen and want their dirty pasts erased.

A politically minded director such as Paul Greengrass might have been able to balance the real-world politics of corruption in the African mining industry and the constraints of the hunter-becomes-the-hunted genre movie. But Morel has never shown signs of being anything more than a capable action director. Before directing Liam Neeson in Taken (2009) and John Travolta in From Paris With Love (2010), he made a splash in his native France with District 13 (2004), a film that used parkour—the art of free running—to great effect in its supercharged action sequences. He has an eye for intricate setups, for textures and movement; his partnership with cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano is the best thing about The Gunman.

Penn, as he often does nowadays, clenches his facial muscles into a mask and grinds his words out. This might pass muster as pro forma tough guy action movie acting, but anyone who’s known the levels of surprise the Penn of old could bring to almost any role will probably heave a sigh watching him here. The entire cast is better on paper than on screen, really: Javier Bardem has an indulgent cameo as Terrier’s former partner, Ray Winstone is wasted and Idris Elba has very little reason for being in the film. Only Jasmine Trinca, as Terrier’s former flame, shows some fire, though her character exists mainly to be rescued and to make Terrier out to be something less than a cold-blooded killer.

The Gunman isn’t a bad film per se, but it can’t decide whether it’s a generic thriller and a story about people with real emotions living in the real world. It isn’t even the best movie about an assassin by a director named Pierre. That honour goes to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), a film that isn’t given to excessive wringing of the hands, a quality most unseemly in professional hitmen.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Run All Night: Review

In his latest film, Liam Neeson, gruffest of the gruff action heroes, plays a gang enforcer called Jimmy ‘The Gravedigger’ Conlon. For the first 20 minutes or so, it seems like the only grave-digging Conlon need attend to is his own. He’s on the skids, a drunk who’s getting by on his past reputation and his friendship with the boss. Of course, part of the fun of movies like these is guessing how much time will elapse before someone does something stupid and the protagonist is forced to don the garb of righteous killer.

The transformation in Run All Night happens when Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses a double murder by Danny Maguire, the hothead son of Jimmy’s boss Shawn (Ed Harris). Danny tries to kill Mike, which means that Jimmy, who hasn’t spoken to his son in years, must step in and kill Danny. And then father and son run all night, from the mob, from the cops and from a very weird assassin played by the rapper Common.

Run All Night bears some resemblance to John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s action thriller from last year. Both films have mob boss fathers trying to protect their hothead sons, failing to do so, and then attempting to extract revenge by killing their former enforcers. But John Wick had style and strangeness and a quite magnificent Keanu Reeves. Run All Night is a drag, full of the flashy emptiness one has come to expect from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop).
For all their jumpiness, his action sequences have little dynamism or invention. A reasonably strong supporting cast can’t rescue the film: Vincent D’Onofrio dispenses tough cop talk about caffeine and grieving widows; Nick Nolte turns up looking like the Ghost of Noltes Past; and Ed Harris mostly just looks tired. As for Neeson, 62 might seem a good age to retire one’s career as action hero. But you know how it is in Hollywood: just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in for a sequel.

This review appeared in Mint.

Furious 7: Review

Paul Walker died during the filming of Furious 7. Along with Vin Diesel, he was the face of the franchise, appearing in six of the seven films. Walker was an unusual action star, not a bulldozer like Dwayne Johnson or grumpily lethal like Liam Neeson. Even in a series as turbo-charged as this, his screen persona was likeable and modest. His passing has a visible effect on this movie, which alternates outlandish action set-pieces with surprisingly emotional scenes that’ll likely confuse viewers who haven’t watched the previous films and felt a kinship to Walker’s character Brian O'Conner.

Just in case this sounds a little depressing, let me try and describe the protracted silliness that happens some 40 minutes into the film. For reasons that are entirely unimportant, the old gang – Brian (Paul Walker), Dominic (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (the rapper Ludacris) – have been tasked with retrieving cutting-edge surveillance technology from a terrorist. What they do next is so impossibly stupid that it might end up being hailed as a witty deconstruction of the action genre a couple of decades down the line. To put it plainly: they drive their cars off a plane, parachute down and land on a mountain road. The sequence that follows – in which they’re joined by Jason Statham, new to the franchise as bad guy Deckard Shaw – lasts about 20 minutes and serves as a vigorous riposte to outdated concepts like gravity and common sense. It’s all terribly stupid and terribly fun.

Does it really matter that Shaw wants revenge for his brother Owen, the villain of the last movie, and therefore kills Fast and Furious alumnus Han, puts DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in hospital, and hunts the gang from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi? Any fan of the series will tell you it doesn't. What’s important is Vin Diesel being able to growl “I’m a Corona man” when Kurt Russell’s government agent offers him a Belgian beer. It’s important that we get to see what a fistfight between Johnson and Statham looks like. It’s important that our imaginations are allowed to expand to the point that when an ambulance takes out a drone (a collision of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, if you’re reading into things) it makes perfect sense.

At its most basic, a Fast and Furious movie is as weird and contagious as – and more large-hearted than – a Top Gear episode. It’s about driving fast and wrecking beautiful cars, but it’s also about comfort and familiarity. It’s nice to know that Vin Diesel can drive off a cliff, or jump from one skyscraper to another, without sustaining any lasting physical damage. And it’s nice to see that after giving Walker a moving send-off, the last scene teases the idea of a sequel. Walker made his name with this franchise, and it’s likely that he’d have wanted his fast-driving family to go on living their lives the way they’re used to.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!: Review

One of the neater tricks Dibakar Banerjee pulls off in his new film is in getting characters to repeatedly say his protagonist’s name out loud. It‘s true that both “Byomkesh” and “Bakshy” roll off the tongue easily and can be easily attached to “babu”, the natural Bengali appellation. But there’s more to it than that. I think the film tries to make us aware that Byomkesh Bakshy is someone to be reckoned with—a name that will mean something in future.

The idea that fame, while predestined, is still some way off is key, for Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! isn't concerned with the finished article. The film belongs to that most 21st century of genres: the origin story. When we first meet Byomkesh, he’s an embryo version of the sleuth we know from Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s books and the TV series with Rajit Kapur. Cannily played by Sushant Singh Rajput, he’s gifted but visibly overconfident, almost bubbling over with eagerness to demonstrate his skills, and suffering as a result. He makes mistakes, throws up when he sees a dead body, gets slapped, rejected, seduced, stumped. Yet he has this unerring instinct for the revealing lie, the promising yarn.

Banerjee might be said to possess the same instinct. No other Indian director of late has moved with such restlessness between genres and themes. Khosla Ka Ghosla! was a middle-of-the-road comedy; Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, an acid dissection of social climbing in class-conscious Delhi; Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, a defiantly un-pretty film about a society that is increasingly under surveillance; Shanghai, a political thriller in the vein of Z. It’s pointless to say that something looks or sounds like a Banerjee film because he’s constantly altering our perceptions of what this might be. There are scenes in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! that could only have come from him. Others may as well have been directed by Takeshi Kitano.

Banerjee and his regular co-writer Urmi Juvekar have primarily adapted Bandyopadhyay’s Satyanweshi, the story in which Byomkesh meets his sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari) and solves his first case. Ajit’s father has disappeared, and Byomkesh believes something is up. And so he tugs at strings, watching some hold fast and others unravel. Soon, he’s sorting through the secrets and lies of a politician, his son, daughter and mistress, deciphering the cryptic pronouncements of his landlord (played entertainingly by Neeraj Kabi) and dodging the British chief of police and one spectral Yang Guang.

One of the delights of Banerjee’s films is his ability to conjure up settings that explain characters and their motivations without anyone saying a word. Here, working with production designer Vandana Kataria, he offers a detailed recreation of Calcutta circa 1943. Unlike the genteel depictions of the city one usually sees in period films, this Calcutta has a rude energy: Junkies and cabaret singers rub shoulders with pukka sahibs in the crowded streets, and air-raid sirens sound every night. Even the film posters hint at barely suppressed desires: Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, about a niece’s infatuation with her killer uncle, and Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notable mainly for its preoccupation with Jane Russell’s bosom.

The production design isn’t the only reason why Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! feels like a very modern period film. There’s the unexpectedly flashy noir cinematography, a deviation from the more realistic work Banerjee and director of photography Nikos Andritsakis have done in the past; the selective use of freeze-frame flashbacks (a device borrowed from the TV series Sherlock); the curated (as opposed to composed) soundtrack that mixes rap, metal, gypsy ballads and thumping swing. Banerjee and Juvekar keep the Hindi dialogue largely devoid of frills; the flourishes are reserved for the multiple, often outlandish, plot twists. This is the first time these two have worked on an out-and-out genre film. You can see their glee reflected in Rajput’s face, which lights up every time he’s about to explain one of his deductions.

There are aspects that don’t work as well as one might have hoped. Other than Byomkesh and Ajit, the characters are sketched rather than fleshed out (I’d have loved a few more scenes establishing Mark Bennington’s disdainful police chief). With due respect to Swastika Mukherjee, who plays the singer Anguri Devi, and Divya Menon, as the politician’s daughter Satyawati, the noir convention of female characters being the smartest people in the room doesn’t hold good here. And the final unmasking and its fallout raises as many questions as it answers. But these are small blips in what is an immensely pleasurable viewing experience. “Why don’t we middle-class people do anything for our country?” Byomkesh asks Ajit at one point. “We’re busy watching movies,” comes the reply. That’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! in a nutshell: suspended between duty and desire, reality and intuition, ultimately choosing movies over real life.

Addendum: In the two days since its release, Byomkesh seems to gotten largely tepid reviews, with many critics pointing out the thinness of the plot. Instead of trying to defend the film on this count, I'd like to point to a long tradition (admittedly, one that exists outside India) of detective films whose plots are borderline ridiculous and in which mood is everything. It includes, among others, films like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice. I think Byomkesh is a better fit with films like these than ones that are better plotted but are less evocative.