Monday, December 25, 2017

Moments from the movies: 2017

In Avinash Das’ Anaarkali Of Aarah, Hiraman (Ishtiyak Khan) recognizes stage singer Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) in a dhaba and shows her the first real kindness she’s seen in a long time. He shoos off a few insistent fans, introduces himself, insists that she eat something. I’m not hungry, she lies. His reply is weird and beautiful: “Hamaare liye na sahi, desh ke liye kha lijiye (if not for my sake, have something for the sake of the country).”

Saurabh Shukla, the judge in Jolly LLB 2, telling the lawyers in his court: "I know you all call me teddy bear."

Dance as apology (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), as vengeance (Anaarkali of Aarah), as false hope (Meri Pyaari Bindu).

A bomb-maker goes about his work, tying stone with string, his arms around the trunk of a tree. His explanation: “If this explodes right now, only my hands would be damaged. Or else my face and everything else will be wrecked.” Violence refracted through the prism of the comic and the everyday: a typical scene from Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries.

In Jagga Jasoos, the simple pleasures of the which-phone-is-ringing gag.

The most infuriating scene of the year, in Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania. After Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt) runs out on Badri (Varun Dhawan) on their wedding day, he tracks her down in Singapore. As she’s walking alone one night, he comes up from behind, puts a hand over her mouth, picks her up with the help of a friend, throws her in the trunk of his car and drives off. It’s hard to imagine Vaidehi not thinking that she’s going to be raped or killed. Turns out Badri is just another male protagonist acting out, and it’s Vaidehi who has to say sorry and apparently be grateful that Badri isn’t planning to murder her, as his father sent him there to do. Badri may be a product of his toxic environment but to minimize the seriousness of his actions—he’s soon forgiven, and moves into her apartment—is to endorse the film’s view that a little abduction here, a little death threat there, is understandable.

A moment of grace orchestrated by the angriest character of the year. When the titular hothead of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy finds out his grandmother has died, he comes home, coaxes his father out of grief-induced inaction and plays her favourite record, Louis Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World". In the same film, the story about the mattress on the floor—a happy memory recounted with great sadness.

Cake stolen off a grave. A dead father. A séance. A moth pressed between the pages of a book. The possible off-screen murder of a frog. “Eulogy.” A bug burnt under a magnifying glass. Om Puri, who didn’t live to see the release of the film, saying, “Nothing gets better at this age.” Blood dripping off a tree trunk. Mortality in Konkona Sensharma’s A Death In the Gunj.

Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana—responsible for about half the worthwhile Hindi cinema in 2017 between them—share a scene in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi. Rao gets the best line. “Aao, tuning kar dete hain (come, let me tune you up),” he tells the neck-brace-wearing Tripathi. Hindi film has grown scarily adept at this sort of tossed-off scene—defiantly middle class, ensemble cast, one-liners tossed between family members like sped-up Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

A portrait, an argument, a well-placed sign: three clues to Newton's Dalit protagonist.

In Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s documentary An Insignificant Man, Arvind Kejriwal watches with great seriousness as a fictionalized version of his activist life—Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha—unfolds on screen.

Tired of the needling of wedding photographer Arshad (Vikrant Massey)—who’s also her uncaring lover—Leela (Aahana Kumra) plants a kiss on her shy fiancé’s mouth. A rare outright win before the collective fall in Alankrita Shrivastva’s Lipstick Under My Burkha.

“Show me one husband in Lucknow who makes a drink for his wife with his own hands”—Akshay Kumar setting low standards in Subhash Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. On the other hand, Saurabh Shukla, sashaying down the hall, earplugs in place, sets almost impossible standards for dancing judges.

Some of the funniest, most progressive gender politics of 2017 came in the unassuming form of a sexual dysfunction comedy, R.S. Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. After she has a meltdown in front of her parents, Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar) is given a birds-and-bees talk by her mother (Seema Pahwa), who begins with some light erotic poetry and goes on to describe her own wedding night (“Your father was very gentle. Perhaps a little too gentle”). But when she compares a woman’s body to a treasure cave which opens only for Ali Baba (and not the 40 thieves), Sugandha has had enough. “Ali Baba needs this education, not the cave,” she snaps.

Rajkummar Rao saying "Bhaiyya, rangbaaz log dekhte hi nahi hain (colourful characters don't turn around)" in Bareilly Ki Barfi. Transformation complete.

In an abandoned trench, the sexiest scene of the year. Silent-film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), slightly tipsy, runs rings around officer Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), who has no idea how to fight off this sort of attack. “Why are you blushing? You saw me naked,” she purrs, as the camera swoons and sways. They end up rolling in the mud, the debris of World War II around them. A moment from Rangoon that’s pure Vishal Bhardwaj.

Early on in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) makes a rushed, distracted exit from his flat—putting on his shoes as he talks on the phone, saying a quick prayer, pulling the door behind him. Nothing out of the ordinary and yet, this is a clever bit of foreshadowing, and an indication of how minutely planned the film is. These same actions, repeated with the same level of distraction a little later in the film, almost prove fatal.

Sohum Shah, very much in love and over his head, telling Kangana Ranaut in Simran: "Tumhe saans lete dekhna bhi ek tarah ki kamyabi hai (it's some kind of achievement to watch you breathe)."

Pankaj Tripathi’s great hangdog performance in Amit Masurkar’s Newton reaches its apogee in the scene where the titular election officer (Rajkummar Rao) pulls a gun on him and his men. Shaken out of his customary calm at first, Aatma Singh’s instincts kick in. He makes an exaggerated show of how relaxed he is, folding his arms, leaning against a tree, telling the agitated Newton to take his time. We see, for the first and only time in the film, why Singh is in charge of a platoon in an area this volatile.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tiger Zinda Hai: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review appeared in Mint.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Review

When the Star Wars franchise returned to cinema screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, there was work to be done—or undone, the prequel trilogy being one of the more spectacular prolonged acts of self-sabotage in popular art. Old fans had to be placated without alienating the younger viewers who’d ultimately determine whether the film was a success or not. Disney reached out to the man who’d done exactly this with the 2009 Star Trek reboot: JJ Abrams. And, without a doubt, The Force Awakens was an expert bit of fan service, happily indulging the nostalgia of the earlier films even as it introduced a 21st century springiness to the franchise.

Over the years, it’s become a marker of good taste to declare a preference for The Empire Strikes Back over the first Star Wars film. I’m about equally fond of both, but it’s fair to say that Irvin Kershner’s 1980 sequel is more persuasively directed and richer—mostly due to its surprising darkness—than George Lucas’s 1977 film. The same is true of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which has fewer winks and nudges and, it must be said, fewer soaring moments than JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, but more emotional heft.

At the end of the last film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) had tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a deserted island, leaving a comatose Finn (John Boyega) with the rag-tag Resistance, headed by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and reliant to an unhealthy degree on the flying skills of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance ship under attack from the First Order, where things are pretty much as they always are: Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still Supreme Leader, Kylo Ren is still mopey (he’s earned the right, having killed his father and let Rey best him in a lightsaber duel), and Hux is still either a brilliant parody of an evil villain type or a brave continuation of baffling choices that Domnhall Gleeson made in the first film.

Having finally found Luke, Rey wants to extract every bit of Jedi knowledge she can from him. Only, he isn’t interested; there’s a reason, he reminds Rey testily, that he moved to an undiscoverable island. But Rey’s as persistent as Luke himself was as a young man, and when he finally agrees to teach her a little something, there’s a brief, pleasing echo of Yoda’s training of young Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. As she grows into her Jedi powers, Rey also discovers that she’s developed—possibly after their battle at the end of the last film—a disturbing connection with Kylo Ren, a sort of video conversation of the mind where they can be light-years apart and still see each other and converse.

Despite a running time of 140 minutes, there are only a handful of subplots. Finn, who shakes off his coma early, remains this trilogy’s most engaging character, and his search for a master coder with new pal Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a badly planned adventure in the best Star Wars tradition. For the most part, though, Johnson keeps the narrative focused on two fronts: the increasingly desperate situation of the Resistance ship, and Rey’s discovery of self. There’s a lot of build-up, but to a purpose: when the two storylines collide, they do so with a satisfying crunch.

In the past Johnson has made faux-noir (Brick), screwball comedy (The Brothers Bloom) and head-spinning sci-fi (Looper), in addition to directing some of the finer episodes of Breaking Bad. Though he’s clearly unfazed by the expanded canvas of a franchise film, his imprint isn’t always visible. His off-kilter humour, for instance, is tempered down to staple Hollywood gag-writing (the hold-on-bad-connection shtick that Poe does to Hux would have fit snugly in any recent Marvel movie). My favourite moments in the film are when Johnson throws his weight behind the visual: the final battle, with the red clay under white salt exposed like giant gashes in the desert; the classic samurai framing of Hamill’s silhouette; Snoke’s command room, done up in deep reds and blacks like a set from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

It’s disconcerting, when all is done, to look around and see that we’re pretty much where we started. The Resistance is now an even smaller group on the run, Rey still doesn’t know the names of her parents, Kylo continues to experience Internal Conflict. This stasis isn’t limited to the narrative. The post-Lucas trilogy now has two above-average films, but remains incapable of providing the shock of the new (beyond the vital introduction of commanding female characters). In one of his more animated moments, Kylo tells Rey that she must “kill the past”. She doesn’t, and neither does the film.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Fukrey Returns: Review

In Mrighdeep Singh Lamba’s Fukrey, the absurd dreams of school-goer Choocha (Varun Sharma) are mined for clues to the winning number in a Delhi lottery by his friends Hunny (Pulkit Samrat), Zafar (Ali Fazal) and Lali (Manjot Singh). In their effort to hack the lottery, the quartet gets entangled with fiery tracksuit-wearing gangster Bholi Punjaban (Richa Chadha). After watching Fukrey Returns, Lamba’s sequel, I went home and revisited the 2013 film, to remind myself why I liked these characters in the first place, and to wash off two hours and 20 minutes of high-energy, low-impact comedy.

It’s been a year since the events of the previous film. The boys have been cleaning up at the lottery, but once Bholi gets out of jail by indebting herself to politician Babulal Bhatia (Rajiv Gupta), they’re once again scrambling to keep life and limb intact. To pay off her debt of Rs10 crore, they start a company that capitalizes on Choocha’s unique gift by placing lottery bets for the public (why anyone would give their money—lakhs!—to a firm founded on interpreting dreams isn’t explained). It all goes south, of course, which leads to a second half of unrelenting silliness.

It’s hard to see a film that seemed as casually tossed off as Fukrey gain a follow-up that’s so labored. It isn’t just that the events in Fukrey Returns defy logic – that was true of the original, and in itself is hardly a disqualification of any film. It’s also the deathly pacing, the writing that leans too hard on easy gags, the timid approach to character development. Choocha, endearingly stupid in the first film, is unbearably stupid here. Chadha was a genuine delight as Bholi the first time around; her reprisal feels like agitated leftovers. Not a single character is deepened—we know them about as well at the end of this film as we did in the last one.

Fukrey was rooted in the everyday: the comedy seemed to arise naturally from the slackers’ surroundings. The sequel, though, has the desperation and unfocussed energy of a work that’s not sure why it exists. Any film that begins with someone sucking snake venom out of someone else’s behind is clearly lacking for ideas.

Providing some relief is Pankaj Tripathi as Pandit, timid-voiced supporter of the fukreys. He’s had a stellar year: Anaarkali of Arah, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Gurgaon, Newton. Over the course of this film, he wrings laughs from a fixed stare, a costume change, words like “arrogance” and “slippery”. In a graceless film like Fukrey Returns, he’s a welcome grace note.

This review appeared in Mint.

The refugees of ‘Casablanca’

On 26 November 1942—just over 75 years ago—Warner Bros released a film based on Everybody Comes To Rick’s, an unproduced script for the stage that novelist James Agee judged “one of the world’s worst plays”. In the lead were Humphrey Bogart, then just escaping the gangster straitjacket he had been in for half a decade, and Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman. The production was chaotic, with four writers frantically churning out pages to be shot the next day, and everybody from the actors to producer Hal Wallis pitching lines. No great hopes were pinned on it, but three-quarters of a century later we’re still talking about Casablanca.

The film, an allegory for the US’ initial detachment from, and eventual involvement in, World War II, is set in December 1941 (the time of Pearl Harbor), in Casablanca, Morocco, then under Vichy French rule. Most of the action takes place in a bar run by American Rick Blaine (Bogart), a gathering point for revolutionaries looking for a glorious fight and expats desperately seeking the first plane out. There’s a famous scene in which the room, led by Resistance fighter Victor László (Paul Henreid), drowns out the officers singing in German with a thundering rendition of "La Marseillaise", the French national anthem. Actor Dan Seymour, who played the doorman, saw several actors crying during the scene: “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.”

Casablanca is full of people who escaped actual Nazi persecution. Headliner Paul Henreid, an Austrian Jew, was labelled an enemy of the Nazi party and left England for fear of being deported. S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), also Jewish, left Hungary. Conrad Veidt—cast, ironically, as dastardly SS officer Strasser—was a staunch anti-Nazi who once wrote “jude” on a race identity card even though he wasn’t Jewish (his wife was). Madeleine Lebeau (Yvonne), whose eyes well up with tears during the song, fled Paris with her husband Marcel Dalio (Emil the croupier) ahead of the German occupation in 1940. The man playing the German officer she shares a scene with earlier in the film, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, was homosexual, and escaped Germany in 1933.

Almost everyone associated with the production, with the exception of Bogart, was an immigrant. Bergman (Ilsa) was from Sweden, Peter Lorre (Ugarte) from Germany via Austria-Hungary. Claude Rains (Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (Ferrari) were English. Michael Curtiz, one of the most versatile directors ever to work in Hollywood, was Hungarian; his thick accent resulted in the memorable substitution of a poodle for a puddle. Composer Max Steiner was Austrian. Writers Philip and Julius Epstein, sons of a Russian immigrant, were asked to work in specific vignettes about refugees into the screenplay. The legend goes that while shooting the Paris flashback, an extra burst into tears; it turned out she'd lived there and had seen the Germans march in.

“Superimposed over this map are scenes of refugees fleeing from all sections of Europe by foot, wagon, auto, and boat.” Casablanca’s screenplay begins with this potent image, though it goes on to detail the refugee life only in passing—most memorably in a scene where an elderly couple bound for the US try out their shaky English on Carl. But the uncertainty that hangs in the air is emblematic of the immigration experience at the time. So is the desperation. They may sing hard-luck songs with Dooley Wilson (Who’s got nothing?/We got nothing/How much nothing?/Too much nothing) but everyone, from Rick down to the last uncredited extra, takes those letters of transit seriously.

In those days, Hollywood had both the wherewithal and the moral authority to make a film about refugees. As David Denby, writing about Casablanca in 2012, put it: “In real life, the place that everybody came to was Hollywood in the thirties and forties.” Los Angeles was a haven both for artists fleeing fascism and a wide variety of general émigrés. The roster of foreign talent in that town was breathtaking: Greta Garbo, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Max Ophuls, Fred Zinnemann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Otto Preminger. Directors like Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fritz Lang melded German expression with American hard-boiled literature and created film noir. Ernst Lubitsch brought a knowing sophistication to comedy, Douglas Sirk to melodrama. Steiner, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa between them invented the classic Hollywood score.

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by. Casablanca’s 75th is happening at a time when refugee crises are as much a part of the news and political discourse as they were in 1942 (the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees places the total at 65 million worldwide today). Unsurprisingly, these upheavals are finding their way into films, as they did in films like Casablanca, Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) and Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back The Dawn (1941).

At the Mumbai Film Festival in October, three films offered differing takes on the immigrant experience. The Other Side Of Hope had the unmistakable deadpan stamp of Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki, but there was an unexpected sweetness to the story of a crusty Helsinki restaurateur who helps out a Syrian refugee that was both inspiring and heartbreaking. The Turkish film Daha, directed by Onur Saylak, was more straightforwardly devastating. A shy teenager helps his brutish father transport, house (in a badly ventilated basement) and smuggle into Europe escapees from war-torn Middle East—a nightmare mirror image of the unfortunate “others” in Casablanca who “wait...and wait...and wait”. And there was Nicole van Kilsdonk’s children’s film The Day My Father Became A Bush, in which the refugee is a 10-year-old girl escaping an unspecified war zone.

The dull gold sparkle of cellophane-like material worn by shivering figures on a boat is an image that links last year’s Fire At Sea—a non-fiction account of the life of a young boy on an Italian island and the immigrants who routinely wash up there—and Human Flow, a new documentary on the refugee crisis. The film, by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, was shot over a year in 23 countries, and had a limited release in the US in October; it will hopefully be available to stream in India at some point in the near future. There is one film, though, that did release here in 2017, and which alluded to the plight of refugees while cleaning up the box office (to the tune of Rs76 crore). I speak, of course, of Thor: Ragnarok.

Perhaps because the rest of it is so determinedly irreverent, Thor’s ending has an added poignancy. Throughout the film, we’re shown characters stuck in the wrong place, longing to return home, but the idea isn’t driven home until the final moments, when the citizens of Asgard watch from a spaceship as their home is destroyed in a three-way fight between Thor, Hela and Surtur. The point isn’t laboured, but showing a once-legendary city reduced to a bedraggled group on a ship is an unexpected acknowledgement of the countless actual people who, finding themselves without a home, cram into rickety vessels and set off towards an uncertain future, because that’s all that’s left to do.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Behind the insignificant man

The team behind An Insignificant Man made, to my mind, two tremendous calculations. The first was a glorious stab in the dark: the decision to follow Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign for the 2013 Delhi assembly election from when it was barely an idea, hoping that it might turn into something. The second was to identify—perhaps during the edit—that while Kejriwal would be the motive force of the narrative, the audience might need someone more conciliatory to take them along. That counterbalance is Yogendra Yadav.

Directors Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla filmed An Insignificant Man over two years, tracing Kejriwal’s journey from the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its grass-roots campaign in Delhi and its unprecedented success in the 2013 state elections, where they finished second after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ended up forming the government. The access the directors wrangled is unprecedented and thrilling—the camera is a fly on the wall at party meetings, campaign stops, even finding the optimum bird’s eye position to capture party member Kumar Vishwas shout election results down from a window to an ecstatic crowd.

Kejriwal remains a fascinating figure, but a film with just him would have been exhausting. There’s a telling scene where he watches Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha, loosely based on his own journey; his party members are laughing and enjoying themselves, but Kejriwal is dead serious, perhaps already thinking about what he’ll tell the press later. As the film progresses Kejriwal seems to harden, and simultaneously, it feels like Yadav, with his lightly impassioned voice and earnest manner, is brought forward more prominently. Ranka and Shukla subtly convey the tensions between the two: Yadav running his hands over his face, usually after his leader has done something ill-advised, becomes a motif of sorts. He’s Eduardo Saverin to Kejriwal’s ruthless Mark Zuckerberg: a key supporting character in a revolution and, ultimately, a tragic figure (he was expelled from the party in 2015; he later called Kejriwal’s methods “dictatorial”).

Viewers will have their own grouses with the film, depending on where they sit on the political spectrum: not enough BJP, too much Sheila Dikshit (then in her third term as Delhi chief minister), AAP co-founder Prashant Bhushan reduced to a bit player. I wish the editing (Abhinav Tyagi and Manan Bhatt), which reaches a beautiful crescendo as the voting begins, was accompanied by more than a generic droning score. It’s nevertheless quite an achievement to have, running in theatres with Justice League and Qarib Qarib Singlle, a documentary which details how a party goes about trying to get elected in India. The past few weeks have provided more than a few reasons as to why there’s little explicitly political film-making in India. That’s good enough reason to catch the ones that break through.

This piece appeared in Mint. 

Ajji: Review

I’m curious to know why Ajji, Devashish Makhija’s take on the rape-revenge drama, begins with the disclaimer: “We neither encourage nor condone taking the law into your hands.” If it was foisted on him by the censors or some government body, it would at least explain why a film which clearly has no problems with the right people taking the law into their hands is claiming to be averse to it. But if the line came from Ajji’s makers, it would seem to point to wilful self-deception about what the film stands for, or an attempt to have one’s liberal-minded cake and eat it too.

Ajji is the fifth Hindi film centered on rape and revenge to release in theatres this year, and the third—after Mom and Maatr—with a female protagonist. The film is grimly artistic where Mom and Maatr have a more mainstream aesthetic; it’s set in a chawl, while the other two are upper-middle-class narratives. In terms of world-view, though, there’s little that separates these films. It’s the same convenient argument we’ve been hearing for years—if the system can’t bring rapists to justice, it’s understandable if they’re hunted down and castrated or killed by the victims.

A young girl is raped, her body discovered in a garbage heap by her grandmother (Sushama Deshpande), whom everyone calls Ajji, and Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui), a sex worker. She’s badly bruised and traumatized, and won’t talk at first when a brusque police officer (Vikas Kumar) comes to their home. Finally, she reveals that her attacker wore dark glasses—an indication that it’s a man named Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), the son of a local politician. The cop, in the pay of Dhavle and his father, intimidates the family into not filing charges, and everyone agrees to move on. Everyone, that is, except Ajji.

Having an arthritis-ridden granny as a righteous avenger is a gimmick—it’s hard not to see it as one—but a promising one nevertheless. Ajji sets about her task systematically, confirming the identity of the attacker, spying on him, taking meat-chopping lessons from her butcher friend. If the crime was less heinous, these preparations might have been fun to watch, but the film is deliberately harsh and discomfiting. We’re constantly updated on the little girl’s condition—one recurring detail is Ajji’s search for a medicine that’ll stop her bleeding—lest we forget how brutal the crime was (and, by extension, why it deserves a brutal response). Cinematographer Jishnu Bhattacharjee trains a hard lens on the dirty, dangerous neighbourhood: everything is decay and collapse, from a faltering light bulb to the flies buzzing around the butcher’s meat.

The film pushes the case for vigilantism even further with its characterization of Dhavle as a psychotic mess of sexual hysteria so reprehensible that—in theory at least—it would seem strange to insist on due process in his case. There’s a scene in which he’s presented with a mannequin by one of his friends. The sight of an available, mute female figure that won’t fight back seems to drive him mad with lust—but before throwing it on the ground and humping it, he tears it from limb to limb. All the hatred he bears women comes through in this action. It’s a horrifying scene. And the implicit point it makes is: if anyone deserves to be killed, it’s this guy.

Makhija has spoken in interviews of his desire to subvert the rape-revenge narrative. To my mind, true subversion would be getting the audience to feel some empathy for a child rapist. Making the villain more villainous and the avenger more unlikely isn’t subversion, it’s just pushing the formula to its extremes. This year, two other rape-revenge films besides Ajji have had unlikely avengers—the victim’s mother, a schoolteacher, in Mom, and in Kaabil, a blind man.

What are we left with? Anger, mostly, and a desire to jolt the viewer out of supposed complacency. This is a film that’s frequently well-directed (the long scene where the officer interrogates the family, the false flashback, Ajji’s visits to the butcher shop) but has trouble reigning itself in (the distractingly weird choreography of the meeting between Dhavle and the cop, the excessiveness of Banerjee’s performance). Ajji is one of the most unsettling experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. Whether it adds up to much more than exploitation-art is another question.

This review appeared in Mint.