Thursday, October 9, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True

Midway through  Curfewed Night, his non-fiction book about growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s, Basharat Peer describes an incident that took place in the aftermath of the infamous Gowkadal massacre. On 21 January 1990, a group of Kashmiri protestors on the Gowkadal Bridge in Srinagar was fired upon by CRPF jawans. In the book, Peer draws upon the memories of one Farooq Wani, an eyewitness who survived by pretending to be dead and being carted off with the dead bodies. At the hospital, Wani remembers a teenager leaping from the pile of bodies, soaked in blood, shouting "I got no bullets. I got no bullets. I am alive." It's a moment worthy of a movie. What remains to be seen is whether Vishal Bhardwaj's Hamlet adaptation, Haider, which Peer has written the screenplay for, is a movie worthy of these moments.

Bollywood, so partial to pre-conflict-era Kashmir, has never been comfortable with addressing the militancy years in the valley. Only a handful of films — Roja, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan — have tried to tackle the issues that have plagued this region: terrorism, local unrest, army occupation. Few have been successful; of the Kashmir-set Hindi films I've seen, only the Srinagar segment of Onir's I Am manages to convey what it must be like to live in a militarised state. Haider, therefore, has a lot riding on it. In the first place, it will be compared to Bhardwaj's earlier Shakespeare films, Maqbool and Omkara, landmarks of modern Hindi cinema. It may also have to shoulder the burden of being a one-size-fits-all representation of the Kashmir issue — not least because its screenwriter is a journalist who's written passionately about the valley and its problems.

When I met Peer at a café in Nizamuddin East, he brushed off concerns about the added scrutiny the film might have to undergo. "You can't get the entire story of Kashmir in one film," he said. "It's not reportage, but it's informed by reality. We're trying to be true to Shakespeare, and we're trying to be true to Kashmir." His involvement with the project happened by chance, when Bhardwaj read a copy of Curfewed Night and decided to set his third Shakespeare film in Kashmir. He called Peer up and asked him if Hamlet or King Lear made more sense as a Kashmir story. Peer immediately suggested Hamlet; as he told me later, "Kashmir is a place where ghosts speak." Bhardwaj asked him to try his hand at a treatment, and upon hearing the results, hired him as screenwriter. Peer flew to Bombay, and in just 10 days, they'd worked out a broad structure for the film.

Peer had written as a journalist for publications ranging from Granta to the New Yorker, but he'd never attempted a screenplay before. In the beginning, the dialogue he wrote was long, descriptive. But as he progressed, he realised that "the visuals convey so much that you have to be very precise in your choice of words". He worked closely with Bhardwaj on the screenplay, writing drafts which the director would then revise. Sometimes, Peer would have to rein in Bhardwaj, whose Urdu writing style (Maqbool,  Dedh Ishqiya) tends towards the ornate. "I'd have to tell him 'He's a Kashmiri lawyer, he can't sound like Vishal Bhardwaj. You're a poetic man, you're friends with Gulzar...'"

Part of the fun of Bhardwaj's Shakespeare films is spotting the references to the original texts; in Maqbool, for instance, the witches of Macbeth turn up as sycophantic policemen. There are several ingenious parallels to Hamlet in Haider, some too pivotal to reveal, others already in the public eye — like the musical number "Bismil", a Bollywood version of "Mousetrap", the play-within-within-a-play that Hamlet stages. In the film, Haider is a student at Aligarh Muslim University (Peer studied there as well) who returns to his home in Kashmir to find his father dead and his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), married to his uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), a lawyer who's also involved with a brutal counter-insurgency militia. Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshia, a combination of Ophelia and Horatio — which will hopefully play out better onscreen than it does on paper — while Irrfan Khan is the Ghost, or, at least, a ghost.

Though it's been adapted on film more often than any other Shakespeare play,  Hamlet has rarely been given political overtones on the big screen. (The windswept 1964 version by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev is, to some extent, an exception.) Haider should correct, possibly even overcorrect, this. While writing the screenplay, Peer, a film buff, re-watched certain films with a sharp political core, like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo  and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The latter in particular reminded him of growing up in a militarised state. "The first 10 minutes of Battle of Algiers, the surrounding of the Casbah, similar things used to happen in Kashmir," he said. He was clear from the start that Haider, even with mainstream trappings, would remain a political film. "I'm a political writer. I can't think about Kashmir in any other way. I think Vishal knew that. Bollywood is not the most liberal forum for politics, but what we tried to do was push the limits."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Deliver Us From Evil: Review

In 2005, Scott Derrickson directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This genuinely scary film with a surprisingly strong cast seemed to mark the director out as someone who could inject fresh energy into a genre in perpetual need of revitalisation — the horror film. But Derrickson's subsequent career hasn't been as promising. He directed the unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the grisly Ethan Hawke horror flick Sinister. Now, with Deliver Us from Evil, he returns to exorcisms, with diminishing returns.

The film opens in Iraq, where we see a group of U.S. soldiers in a gun battle, and follow two of them into a cave. Five minutes later, after it's been vaguely established that there was something horrible hiding in the darkness, we've yanked over to a rainy, dismal NYC straight out of David Fincher's Se7en. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a cop with an intuition, or "radar", for criminal activity, answers a domestic violence call with his partner and ends up chasing a deranged ex-armyman. Soon after, they're called over to investigate an incident at the zoo where a woman, after throwing her boy into the pit surrounding the lion enclosure, behaves like she's possessed. In the enclosure is a man with a scarred face. Is this person linked in some way to the wife-beater? Could they be the soldiers from the opening scene? It's almost too easy...

As Sarchie tries to make sense of the increasingly otherworldy events that keep occurring around him, we're introduced to the other film's other lead. We first see him in a leather jacket, jogging, then ducking into a bar, having a drink and being hit on. When it turns out that he's a Jesuit priest, the movie's evangelical agenda becomes clear. When you have Edgar Ramírez, an actor striking enough to be transfixed by his own naked body in Carlos, playing a man of the cloth, what chance does Satan really have?

Anyway, Sarchie and Mendoza team up, like big city cops and exorcists often do. By this time, the detective has begun to lose the plot — much like the film itself. Bizarre narrative red herrings are thrown at the audience, the most prominent being the references to the music of The Doors. Their lyrics appear at crime scenes and Sarchie keeps hearing snatches of their songs, but we're never told why. I kept hoping the film would find a way to blame the Satanism on Jim Morrison, but Derrickson takes his exorcisms and possessions very seriously.

Deliver Us from Evil is, for a while, and in the most unsubtle way possible, quite scary. Imagine someone jumping out of the dark at you every five minutes for two hours, and you have some idea of Derrickson's idea of suspense-building. Time after time in the film, the lights flickered, the violins on the soundtrack started screeching and I steeled myself for the sudden appearance of a blood-streaked face or a contorted body (or, on one memorable occasion, a gutted cut arranged like Christ on the cross). As one can imagine, this became more wearying than scary after a while.

Incompetence envelops this film like a fog. The writing is TV drama cliché: how's anyone allowed to say "There's a darkness growing inside of me"? The action scenes are poorly lit and chaotic; the soundtrack — when it isn't The Doors — is jaw-clenchingly obvious. McHale overdoes the comic sidekick shtick, Bana is scarcely believable as a New York City cop, and Ramírez just about manages not to look silly shouting Latin phrases in a Spanish accent.

Derrickson ends his film by inviting a foolhardy comparison ­— he references The Godfather's baptism scene. I'd advise a rewatch of that film over Deliver Us from Evil — there's more authentic horror in Michael's false assurance to Kay than in the entirety of Derrickson's film. Then again, I'd recommend Dude, Where's My Car? over Deliver Us from Evil.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Puns, trains and automobiles

In September 2013, Bombay Bassment's drummer Levin Mendes and ex-Aftertaste vocalist Keegan Pereira teamed up to work on a couple of tracks. They ended up forming Laxmi Bomb along with bassist Ruell Barretto and keyboardist Joaquim Fernandes. The band released its first EP, H, in March this year. That five-song collection — a tribute of sorts to the city of Mumbai — had nods to modern electronic music, disco and '90s Bollywood pop (mercifully, it was sample-free). Now, with the release of their second EP Mah'Bharat, Laxmi Bomb is gently expanding its horizons.

The band started live-testing the tracks that comprise this EP around five months ago. Their modus operandi, according to Mendes, is to work out a track's kinks during their performances and only then record it. "The way we work is, we compose a track, play it live so we can get an idea of how it's perceived," he said. "After about three or four months, when we're completely set with the track, we go to the studio and cut it."

Mah'Bharat's opening track, Love Day Loot, opens with a plinky synth figure that'll warm the hearts of anyone who loves Gupt-era Viju Shah. Apart from this, however, the Bollywood influence is more muted on this EP as compared to the first. Instead, the group manages to show off an impressive amount of stylistic variation while remaining within the ambit of their gently rocking electro pop sound. Keralight alternates between a sarangi and wash of keyboards and an ominous section that recalls the group's first single Major Major. Andaman Eve, a video of which has recently been released, has close harmonies and a sepia tone somewhat reminiscent of Beirut's Scenic World. 

As can be inferred from the song titles, the EP is informed by the band's visits to various parts of the country: Kerala, Shillong, the Andamans. "We started travelling to different places for gigs and personal vacations, and that ended up inspiring some of these tracks," Mendes said. Another difference between the two EPs is that while H was primarily conceived by Keegan and Mendes — the two other members arrived when the album was "70-80% sorted", Mendes said — Mah'Bharat has contributions from all four members. Most tracks come together with Pereira taking responsibility for the words and Mendes working out a basic melody before throwing it over to the band. "Because we're a four-piece act, I restrict myself from completing tracks," Mendes said. 

You can hear the fruits of this approach in Mah'Bharat. The songs sound more like there's a band playing, rather than something electronically pieced together. Barretto's bass now features more prominently; it combines especially well with Mendes' drumming on "Shillong Train Running" (the reference is to the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running"). The only drawback — a minor one — is the triteness of some of the lyrics: "Born steel with the thoughts of a man's appeal/ born steel with a hunky-dory back deal" walks the thin line between nonsense verse and plain nonsense.

Having debuted Mah'Bharat at Blue Frog in Mumbai last week, the band will continue to work on new tracks, which will probably turn up on another EP. (Mendes and Barretto will be especially busy in the coming months – their other band, hip-hop/rock/reggae outfit Bombay Bassment, is set to release its long-awaited debut album.) They also plan to record the debut Laxmi Bomb album and release it by the end of 2015. It should be worth the wait. Like its album art, which shows a modern-day cheerharan, Mah'Bharat approaches the past with humour and a refreshing lack of reverence.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Five films that share DNA with Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho got the inspiration for Snowpiercer from a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige. This three-part series by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette is set on a train with a perpetual motion engine in a post-apocalyptic world. Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson took the basic idea of an ice age caused by an experiment gone wrong and a train housing the remnants of humanity, and expanded on it, adding layers of satire and philosophical ruminations over the nature of class struggle. In the film, the elite occupy the luxury carriages at the front of the Snowpiercer train, while the underclass suffers in the 'tail section'. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the oppressed storm the prison section and free Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), the man who designed the train's security system. But that's only the start of their troubles...

Though Snowpiercer is mostly in English and has an American actor in the lead, it released first in South Korea, Bong's native country, in August last year. Despite its strong showing at the Asian box-office and the critical hosannas it received at various festival screenings, an Indian theatrical release does not appear to be on the horizon. This is a pity: Snowpiercer is a singular, striking film which deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Like Bong's other experiments with genre (Memories of Murder, The Host), it is both unique and indebted to other, similar films. Here are five close and distant cousins of Snowpiercer. 

Metropolis (1927)

Every sci-fi film made after 1927 owes at least something to Fritz Lang's silent classic. But Snowpiercer is especially reminiscent of Metropolis; both films ground their sci-fi stylings in tales of class conflict, crudely outlining the disparity between the vulgar rich and desperate poor (bizarrely, both films also feature the sacrifice of a hand). Hoo's film is also shot through with a very Langian pessimism; in Metropolis, the workers are relegated to "their proper place, the depths", while the evil bureaucrat Mason (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) in Snowpiercer tells an angry throng, "We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail." 

Children of Men (2006) 

In its first half, Snowpiercer recalls the grungy, gritty vision of the future that Alfonso Cuaron put forward so convincingly in Children of Men. The colour palate — all greys and dirty browns — is the same, as is the idea of the government as a violent Big Brother and society as a police state. The threat of extinction provides the motive force in both films — a permanent ice age in Snowpiercer, world-wide infertility in Children of Men. They're also linked by the kinetic energy of their action sequences, even though Bong prefers stylised fights with a lot of cuts, while Cuaron opts for long-take, documentary-style realism (it's one of few films I've seen that allows blood to spatter on the camera lens — and stay there).

The Truman Show (1998)

Like the artificial reality-show universe in The Truman Show, Snowpiercer uses its enclosed setting as a microcosm — and satire — of the world at large. Bong deploys Alison Pill's batty schoolteacher in much the same way as Peter Weir did Laura Linney in The Truman Show: a parody of all-American wholesomeness that twists unexpectedly in another direction. The two films are also linked by the presence of Ed Harris, whose turn as a soft-spoken but ruthless visionary in Snowpiercer is a variation on Christof, the character he played in The Truman Show.

Soylent Green (1973)

In the sci-fi film pantheon, Soylent Green occupies a comfortable middle rung. Solid but hardly dazzling, it owes its fame to a remarkably disturbing ending in which Charlton Heston's detective discovers the dark secret behind the food substitute called Soylent Green. Whether intentional or not, there's a moment in Snowpiercer involving a substance called Protein Block that could easily qualify as a tribute to that scene. There's an even darker moment of revelation towards the end of the film, one that brings into sharp relief a phrase that's repeated several times during the film — "Know your place".

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

The only real connection between Gareth Evans' supremely violent martial arts cop flick and Snowpiercer is their shared membership of an unlikely action movie genre — the "people travelling the length of an enclosed space and killing everything along the way" film. While The Raid and Pete Travis' 2012 Dredd had the good guys slaughtering their way up high-rises, Snowpiercer takes Curtis and his cohorts from the back of the train to the engine room (the film's tagline is "Fight your way to the front"). On the way, they encounter sharpshooters, armed militia and masked men with axes and night-vision goggles, an opportunity for Bong to unleash several scenes of stylised hyperviolence.

This piece appeared in Sunday Guardian.  Snowpiercer is out on DVD in India.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mary Kom: Review

Somewhere around the one-hour mark in Mary Kom, the boxer's first world championship win is re-enacted. The film crosscuts between the fight and Kom's friends and family cheering her on back home; all except her father, who doesn't approve of his daughter's choice of career. Yet, when he does start watching, Kom, till then on the receiving end, suddenly accesses the strength to fight back and win. Not content with one ode to the transformative powers of telepathy, director Omung Kumar repeats the same thing an hour later, this time with a dying baby and a battered Kom in her fourth world championship. By then, it's the audience that's down for the count.
MC Mary Kom's journey from poverty in strife-ridden Manipur to five world championship titles and an Olympic bronze is one of the great soul-stirring narratives of Indian sport. All Kumar had to do was tell her story straight. Instead, he falls into the same trap that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag did — second guessing first-rate material, embellishing and editorialising, adding drama where drama already exists. Kom's battles with callous officials, her championing of her home state, her post-pregnancy comeback are transformed into awkward Bollywood showdowns. The result is an incomplete, often incoherent, portrait of an impossibly eventful life.
Mary Kom has pretty much every sports movie cliché you'd care to name: the hot-headed young student, the grizzled coach, the obligatory training montage, the equally obligatory stamina-building-in-rough-terrain montage. Yet, unlike recent Bollywood productions that have gotten their sporting mechanics right (Chak De India!, Paan Singh Tomar), Mary Kom is never convincing as a boxing film. We're told next to nothing about Kom's fighting style or the kind of tactics she employed; her devastating left hook is mentioned just once in the whole movie. Even Kom's coach rarely says anything more insightful than "Keep your guard up" or "Don't lose focus". I learnt more about ice hockey from watching The Mighty Ducks than I did about boxing from Mary Kom.
Almost every aspect of the film reveals a singular lack of imagination. In the scene where the coach asks Kom why she wants to box, the film's three writers can only offer a weak "I love boxing. I love boxing..." The visual scheme is repetitive and uninspired: the stadia all look the same, and each new destination is introduced the same way — a shot of the city at night and some time-lapse traffic. The camerawork is shaky to a fault, especially in the beginning; the editing is deliberately fractured (it's the only way to make Chopra look convincing as a boxer). The one visual flourish that sticks out is borrowed — the reverse swan dive from Million Dollar Baby.
Priyanka Chopra tries so hard to do justice to her role that after the while, all one can see is the effort. Everything she does looks rehearsed: tears, smiles, flashes of anger all arrive on cue, exactly when you expect them to. Chopra is so hell-bent on delivering a performance for the ages that she forgets to relax; she's so keyed up, even her coughs sound fake. Darshan Kumar is pleasantly low-key as Kom's husband Onler, though Kenny Basumatary, who plays his friend, might have brought some comic energy to the role. Sunil Thapa is a growling, glowering caricature of a tough coach.
Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom was always going to be a compromise, but seeing her on screen, speaking in artfully broken Hindi, looking nothing like the real-life Kom or the actors playing her mother and friends, her presence in the film felt more than unnatural — it was close to offensive. How many actors with at least a passing resemblance to Kom were considered for the role? In one scene, Kom accuses a selection panel of racism. It's a charge that might be levelled against the film itself. Mary Kom is blackface without the makeup.
This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Lego Movie

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directing team behind 21 Jump Street and its recent sequel, are at their best when coaxing their films into an amiable frenzy. The Lego Movie marks their return to animation after 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and what a return it is. When Miller and Lord are really cooking, the sight gags and one-liners come at you so fast it’s like a 1930s screwball comedy crossed with a Michel Gondry music video.The Lego Movie could have been an easy shill for a company that’s had a well-deserved corner on the toy market for decades. Instead, it’s one of the quickest-witted animated movies in recent years.
Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary worker in a consumerist-bordering-on-collectivist society, finds himself in over his head when he’s chosen as the leader of the rebellion against the evil President Business. His journey from everyguy to savior is an excuse to send us careening through a series of outlandish landscapes, all designed to look like they’re created out of Lego. (Lord and Miller also gave the film the feel of stop-motion animation to further the building block effect.) The film barely pauses for breath, and by the end, there are a dozen or so characters fighting to get a punchline in.
The one concession the movie makes towards its market comes close to ruining everything. I doubt my six-year-old self would have felt the need for an “explanation” of the inspired madness that had come before, let alone one as treacly as this. But apart from that, everything’s pure gold: the constant changes in scenery and structure (animation by Australian visual effects studio Animal Logic), the very droll voice work of Morgan Freeman, Alison Brie, Will Arnett and Liam Neeson (as Bad Cop/ Good Cop), the pop culture nods to everything from Hello Kitty to the gravel voice Christian Bale adopted in his Batman movies. The bonus features on the DVD are paltry, but if you don’t mind shelling out, the Blu-Ray version is bursting with extras. 
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


The bread isn’t the only thing that’s flat in Akshay Akkineni’s debut film, a remake of Karthik Subbaraj’s Tamil hit from 2012. Like the films of its co-producer Bejoy Nambiar, Pizza is big on visual trickery and distressingly casual as far as things like plot and credulity are concerned. This is supposed to be a new-age horror film, but in the end, the scares are all dressed-up Ramsay rehashes. Time and again, the lights go out and we’re drawn into a close-up that practically screams “There’s something just beyond the frame”. Then, right on cue, the soundtrack explodes and the camera does a whip pan to a blood-speckled zombie figure. And we move on to the next obvious ghost.

Pizza has a reasonably strong first half hour. Kunal, played by the light-eyed, blank-faced Akshay Oberoi, is a pizza delivery boy who’s having some trouble with nightmares. He’s in a live-in relationship with Nikita (Parvathy Omanakuttan), a horror enthusiast. There’s an attempt to psychologically ground the film in male fears of pregnancy – when Nikita announces she’s having a baby, Kunal suddenly starts seeing scary pregnant women everywhere. But once he finds himself stuck inside a haunted house and chased around by a series of ghosts from central casting, Pizza becomes just another screechy tantriks-and-daayans affair.

Our biggest problem with Pizza – and this is a huge spoiler – is the way the entire film is revealed to be one big lie. It turns out Kunal and Nikita made up the story about the ghosts in order to pull off a diamond heist (don’t ask). It’s a sign of the supreme contempt the film has for its audience that the haunting isn’t even presented as a flashback. Kunal doesn’t narrate the incidents to anyone (thus allowing for the possibility of his being an unreliable narrator), he just experiences them. It’s an awful trick – unconvincing and cheap. “It has to be something believable,” Nikita tells her partner when he asks her to concoct the story. One can only hope she’s kidding.

This review appeared in Time Out.