Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Labour Of Love: Review

It’s been an unprecedentedly good year as far as theatrical screenings of non-mainstream Indian films are concerned. Court and Kaaka Muttai have already had brief, intense runs. Next month, audiences will get a first look at Masaan, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard category at last month’s Cannes film festival. And this week, there’s the rare opportunity to do an arthouse double bill, with the twin releases of Killa and Labour Of Love.

If Killa resists the art film label, Labour Of Love (Bengali title: Asha Jaoar Majhe) embraces it. This is an experimental film—so far off the beaten path that, despite Aditya Vikram Sengupta winning the best debut director prize at Venice Days (an independent event on the fringes of the Venice International Film Festival) last year, distributors fought shy of picking it up. One can imagine their reluctance to release a wordless drama about a Bengali couple in which the most dramatic thing that happens is the cooking of a fish curry. Eventually, Sengupta decided to release the film, in select metros, through his company, For Films. The film also won the best first film and best audiography at the National Film Awards this March.

Labour Of Love is a sensuous, detailed tribute to the daily rhythms of life in Kolkata. We start out knowing nothing about the couple—whether they are, indeed, a couple at all. Sengupta drops little hints—a bindi on a mirror, a common snack—that the woman (Basabdatta Chatterjee), who’s going about her factory job, and the man (Ritwick Chakraborty), who’s pottering around the house, are in some way connected. We find out they’re living together halfway through the film, but little else is revealed besides the fact that she works during the day, he at night, and the only time they get together is a brief interlude in the morning. The focus shifts from one to the other as they complete the mundane tasks that get them through their day.

Sengupta has said that the film is influenced by Bengali masters like Satyajit Ray and Tarun Majumdar, but Labour Of Love is also reminiscent of detail-obsessed European films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Sengupta knows how to blend image and sound in a way that makes the most commonplace objects arresting. In the absence of dialogue and plot and and other familiar comforts, we’re forced to concentrate on the minutiae of life: a fish on a slab, ready to be cut open, eyes still blinking; water sizzling on the surface of a pan; grains being poured into a container; the sun slowly disappearing below the horizon. We’re made to notice textures, colours, hear sounds that we would normally ignore. At times, the bustle of life is replaced by musical selections—shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan’s rendering of raga Tilak Khamod, Geeta Dutt singing "Tumi Je Amar"—and then the image slows down, stretches out and unwinds like something out of a Wong Kar-wai film (the brilliantly tactile cinematography is by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty (Udaan; Lootera); the equally impressive sound design is by Anish John).

Labour Of Love is one of the most visually and aurally striking films in recent years, but you have to wonder whether there’s enough going on within scenes to justify all that it chooses to leave out. The film makes it clear that there’s a recession going on, but we don’t know how this is affecting our couple—whether they’re both working because they have to pay the bills, or if that’s the way they prefer it. Apart from a beautiful, surreal 5 minutes at the end, the film seems content to expertly record everyday life that tells anything approaching a story. Still, I'd highly recommend you watch it and see if you can find a way in.

Killa: Review

It’s not surprising that the opening shots of Killa are a slow glide down a forest road, a diminutive figure sitting on the beach after sunset, and a young boy coming in from the rain. Nature registers with astonishing force in Avinash Arun’s film. It never just rains, it barrels down. Winds howl. Waves crash. And when the sun shines, the light is clear and touched by something other-worldly. It’s visually impressive, yet it also serves a higher purpose. In a film that’s so focused on childhood and memory, the fierceness of the elements prevents the narrative from slipping into sepia-tinted nostalgia.

Eleven-year-old Chinmay (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) have just moved to a tiny seaside town in the Konkan region. His father died recently, and that’s obviously on his mind, but his biggest problem at the moment is adjusting to life in a small town (his mother requested a transfer from her government job in Pune because she thought the change would do them good). His school life gets off to a rough start: introducing him to the class, the teacher announces that he’s a scholarship-winner, an announcement that does nothing for his street cred. Still, he eventually falls in with charismatic, authoritative Yuvraj (Gaurish Gawade), class clown Bandya (Parth Bhalerao) and their gang.

Killa’s central scene—the clearest example of Arun pitting human drama against the backdrop of nature—takes place when the boys cycle down to an old fort. Chinmay has just beaten the highly competitive Yuvraj and the others in a race. While they’re fooling around, he wanders off to explore the fort. There’s a sudden storm, and he’s forced to take shelter. When he emerges, he realizes that the others have left him and gone. We see him screaming their names, but the wind is so strong we can’t hear the sound.

Was the abandonment intentional? Did Yuvraj have a hand in it? Or was it just bad luck that Chinmay disappeared from view? We’re never fully certain. At any rate, Chinmay reaches home, physically unharmed but emotionally dented. The betrayal seems to unlock the sadness and rage in this hitherto placid boy—he acts out, accuses his mother, who’s dealing with work troubles of her own. For a while, things are stormy. Then the seasons change. The sea becomes calmer. There’s a healing incident involving a drunkard and a boat trip. There are apologies all round. And there’s another upheaval, met with grace and acceptance.

Arun based this, his first film as a director, on childhood memories of living on the Konkan coast. His previous work has been as a cinematographer, and he took the decision—rare for directors—to shoot Killa himself. He has an eye for little details: a crab scuttling across the sand; the spiral of a staircase; a pencil box with compartments that pop out. Killa takes its cue from recent Marathi films about children (Shala, Vihir, Fandry) by resisting sentimentality and instead looking at childhood as a time of great uncertainty and flux. Yet, for all the turmoil, the film has charm to spare. The young cast is wonderful, especially Deodhar and the scene-stealing Bhalerao, and Tushar Paranjape and Upendra Sidhaye’s writing has a relaxed humour to it.

Even as a first-time director, Arun has the good sense not to push scenes into revealing their meaning. Early on, Chinmay and his mother visit a lighthouse, and a guide explains how its light guides ships home. Much later, Chinmay reads aloud a poem about a sailor surviving a storm and finds courage in the image of his mother. The film could have spelt things out at this point but Chinmay just smiles and says to his mom, “Deep, isn’t it?” It’s moments like these, which leaven emotion with humour, that make Killa such a pleasure to watch.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

ABCD 2: Review

Anybody can dance. But not everyone can direct. Or, to be more specific, not everyone can direct an actual movie. It is possible to direct a series of music videos, glue them together with dead mothers and missing fathers, and call it a movie, as Remo D’Souza does with this loose sequel to his 2013 film ABCD: Any Body Can Dance. It’s the curse of the modern dance movie—the Step Up formula of stock characters and sweet moves. We may have entered that dark age when sensible storytelling and krumping can no longer exist in the same frame.

ABCD 2 is based on the real-life exploits of Mumbai’s Fictitious Dance Group, which became the first Indian troupe to qualify for the World Hip Hop Championship in Las Vegas. In the movie, the group, renamed Mumbai Stunners, is led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan), who is driven by the memory of his deceased mother (“She died with her ghungroos on,” someone reminds him—a line that, for better or worse, is the most memorable one in the film). With the help of ace choreographer Vishnu (Prabhudeva)—the central character in ABCD—he starts putting together a team to help them achieve their shared dream of competing in Vegas.

This is dance porn at its most basic: there are audition dances and rehearsal dances, qualification dances and competition dances. In between all this, some approximation of an underdog tale unfolds, but in a most distracted manner. Plot strands are planted and then forgotten: for example, we’re never sure if the Stunners’ disqualification from a local competition for stealing another group’s steps—something that happened to the Fictitious troupe as well—is an actual case of cheating or just bad luck. There’s virtually no effort made to come up with inventive story solutions: when around Rs.20 lakh are needed, someone just turns up with the money at the last moment; when the film is three-quarters through, its female lead, Shraddha Kapoor, who hasn’t had anything to do yet besides dancing, suddenly finds herself in love with Dhawan’s character.

When people aren’t in motion on screen, ABCD 2 is a snooze. Luckily, that’s only 20% of the time. D’Souza, who worked for years as one of Bollywood’s most successful choreographers, packs the screen with writhing, seizing, arching, flying bodies. It’s thrilling stuff, all those flashy moves, rendered even flashier in 3D by Vijay Arora’s roving camera, accompanied by Sachin-Jigar’s EDM-heavy score. It is also choreographed to a T, and after a while I found myself wishing for something more free-flowing, with less precision and more personality. “We dance to express, not to impress,” says Suresh at one point. Their act struck me as the exact opposite.

But what do I know? Anybody with two left feet can write a review.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Spy: Review

Say what you want about Hollywood, it had the eventual sense to pluck Melissa McCarthy from the small screen and put her in movies, not as a best friend or comic relief, but as a lead actor. One should especially credit Paul Feig and Judd Apatow for realizing that McCarthy’s personality was too outsized and outré for TV. They cast her in Bridesmaids, where she shone as part of a very bright ensemble. Feig then directed her in The Heat, where she was the trash-talking yang to Sandra Bullock’s yin. And now comes Feig’s Spy, which confirms—if, indeed, confirmation was needed—that McCarthy is a bona-fide movie star.

When Spy is cooking, it’s terrific. And when the jokes don’t land—which is fairly often—McCarthy is there to keep us interested. This is her most satisfying role till date because she’s been allowed to expand on her roughhouse comic persona. Audiences used to the foul-mouthed characters McCarthy’s played in the past will get a kick out of Susan Cooper, the straight-laced CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) analyst wallflower who’s “in the ear” of the James Bond-like agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed on a mission to retrieve a suitcase bomb, Susan—with the sort of reverse logic that’s fuelled comedy since the days of Chaplin—is sent to complete the task because she’s the least likely person for the job.

The joke within the joke is that Susan is a terrific agent, just under-confident and cowed by the ebullience of Fine, whom she had a debilitating crush on. But once she finds herself in the field—first in Paris, then Rome, and Budapest—she starts knocking off bad guys like a diminutive Jason Bourne. There are three terrific comic foils—Susan’s fellow-analyst friend Nancy (British actor Miranda Hart), Jason Statham as an agent prone to outlandish boasts, and Rose Byrne (McCarthy’s co-star from Bridesmaids) as a supremely bored villain. But this is indisputably McCarthy’s film: it’s not only tailored to her personality, but also plays on the audience’s relationship with her (part of the pleasure of Spy is waiting for her to flip out, something which Feig cannily withholds for a long time).

Feig, who created the cult TV classic Freaks And Geeks back in 1999, has a knack for locating moments of sweetness in the midst of exceptionally crude humour. He’s also a rare Hollywood director who puts female friendships front and centre in his films. Spy is another triumph for him and McCarthy, though I have to say that nothing in the film made me laugh as hard as Statham. May their golden run extend to 2016 and the all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This review appeared in Mint.

The boy in the well

It was November 2013, and Avinash Arun was in Goa with a rough cut of Killa. The film, his first as director, had been selected for the National Film Development Corporation’s Work-in-Progress Labs, in which directors are advised on how to see their films through to fruition. One of the advisers was British film critic and long-time supporter of Indian cinema, Derek Malcolm. “People said different things; it’s a little long, it’s beautifully shot, there’s nothing in the film,” Arun recalled. “Derek, on the other hand, just said: ‘It will be very cold in Berlin in February’”.

It was very hot in Mumbai in mid-May when Arun told me this story. We were sitting in the Andheri office of Jar Pictures, the film’s producers. As Arun was to find out, it was indeed cold when he travelled to Germany to attend the Berlinale, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The film had entered in the Generation Kplus category, which is dedicated to children’s films. It won the top prize, the Crystal Bear, awarded by a jury of 11-14-year-olds. Earlier this year, a considerably older panel declared Killa the Best Marathi Film at the National Film Awards.

A young boy (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) arrive in this small seaside town. Still coming to terms with the death of his father, he has had to leave friends and family behind in Pune. Not unnaturally, he blames his mother for getting transferred. Yet, as the narrative quietly unwinds, we see him embrace his new surroundings and find a group of friends. There’s a sub-plot involving the mother that gives us a clue to why she keeps getting transferred, but Killa mostly sticks close to young Chinmay as he explores, fights, makes up, acts out; in short, behaves like any normal child.

Like many first-time film-makers before him, Arun mined his childhood for memories. His father had a government job, which meant that the family would relocate whenever he got a new posting. One particular stint early on in Arun’s life had a profound influence. When he was 3, his family moved to Murud, on the Konkan coast, for three years. “The film is about this introvert child who’s out of his comfort zone. It rains all the time, he has no friends. This was my experience.”

The film started to form in Arun’s head while he was studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. “Images from the time I was in Konkan would keep coming to me. After some time, I had to ask myself, why are all these things, I saw when I was very young, still following me? It was in trying to answer this question that Killa started taking shape.”

After graduating from FTII, Arun started working as a cameraperson on Hindi and Marathi films. His plan was “to work for a few years as a cinematographer, and if someone likes my idea and I find a producer, I can make my film.” While assisting Anil Mehta on Cocktail, Arun sought out a screenwriter named Tushar Paranjape, whom he knew from his FTII days. He narrated the idea that would become Killa, and asked him if he’d write the screenplay. When Paranjape agreed, Arun asked him to write a 40-page treatment and—sans producer or financier—wrote him a cheque for Rs.10,000.

The next piece fell into place on the shoot for Kai Po Che!, which Arun was again assisting on. The executive producer on that film was Ajay G. Rai of Jar Pictures, who happened to see Arun’s work on a short film by Gul Dharmani called Friday Night. The two of them got talking, and Rai mentioned that he was looking to produce a regional language film. He asked Arun if he knew of anyone with a promising idea. “Mere kaan khade ho gaye,” Arun said. He told Rai that he had this idea that kept haunting him, and began narrating an outline of Killa. Rai stopped him after 10 minutes, called his partner, Alan McAlex, and asked Arun to start again. Two days later, he got a call. He was going to be a director.

Arun decided to shoot the film himself (in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts), despite nearly everyone advising him against it. He wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to get the images in his head on to film. He was also convinced of the necessity of a protracted shooting schedule. Though the film took only 28 days to shoot, the production was stretched out over five months. “I wanted to wait for the right light, the right weather,” he says. “I wanted to have that difference. I wanted to have that feeling that time has passed.” The result is one of those rare films where changes in wind, light and scenery register with the force of emotions.

A curious and rewarding trend in modern Marathi cinema is the number of films about (though not always geared towards) children. Killa follows in the tradition of Shala, Balak-Palak and Fandry: its vision of childhood is clear-eyed and unsentimental, and there’s a darkness that offsets the charm of its young players (in particular, the irrepressible Parth Bhalerao as Chinmay’s friend Bandya). Arun didn’t include one of his darkest memories from the time, of being pushed into a well by another child. He was unhurt, but it triggered a fear of water in him, as well as a sense of betrayal that took a while to get over. This incident is transformed into the tremendous sequence at the fort (the titular killa), where Chinmay is left alone in a dark space, looking up at the light, the same way Arun must have been.

If you’re the kind who pays attention to film credits, you’ll see Arun’s name on screen a lot in the coming months. Killa will release in theatres on 26 June. The following month will see the release of two films he shot: Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, which recently picked up two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and his biggest project till date, the Tabu and Ajay Devgn-starrer Drishyam. “I didn’t plan all this,” he said. “If I’d thought about it, I don’t think I’d have been able to do it.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World: Review

There’s a legendary argument that took place between Steven Spielberg and Paul Schrader during the writing of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Spielberg wanted the hero of his film to be a regular guy. Schrader, the original screenwriter had imagined the protagonist as an air force officer and told Spielberg that he wasn’t interested in sending, as Earth’s representative to another world, someone who would go and open a McDonald’s franchise there. “That’s exactly the kind of guy I want to send,” Spielberg replied.

Spielberg is only the executive producer on Jurassic World, but the film, directed by Colin Trevorrow, is the logical extension of the position he’d taken all those years ago. If his Jurassic Park represented an exciting new world, this film shows how that world has been commoditized, packaged and served up as a McDino. Nothing says this more than the first big reveal. Two children run into a room as John Williams’ heart-stirring score from the original movie begins to swell. One of them pulls the curtains aside to reveal…a dinosaur? No, we’re gazing out at something that looks like a very green Disneyland. The sight is so unappetizing that the child turns away from the window before the soundtrack settles down.

Jurassic World takes place 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park, which is the actual amount of time that’s elapsed since the movie released. The park, which has passed into the hands of one Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), has become a lot more interactive—a sort of prehistoric petting zoo. The film’s conceit is that dinos have become commonplace in the intervening years, and that newer, scarier hybrids are now being genetically engineered to boost sales. There’s a scene early on when Masrani sees the new hybrid T-Rex for the first time, along with his second-in-command, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Will it scare the children, she wonders? It will give the parents nightmares, he replies.

That focus on nightmares, perhaps, is what limits Jurassic World. The original film was appropriately frightening—I remember having raptor-filled nightmares afterwards—but it was also suffused with a sense of wonder. This time around, there are plenty of shocks, but the awe is missing. What do you expect, really, when the dinos are so accessible they’re practically tame? One amphibious dino is made to leap for his supper, like a whale in SeaWorld. And though Gray (Ty Simpkins) watches this trick with delight, his elder brother Zach (Nick Robinson) couldn’t care less—he’s busy checking his phone.

Zach and Gray are supposed to be with their aunt Claire, but she’s fobbed them off on to an assistant. Just as you’re wondering whether the soulless career woman cliché might be a big broad, along comes a rugged alpha male. Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) dresses like Indiana Jones, struts around like John Wayne, and communicates with raptors: a hybrid hero to match the film’s giant hybrid villain, which inevitably gets free of its compound and goes on a killing spree. There’s a human villain too, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, the park’s head of security as well as some kind of weapon’s manufacturer. He talks about sending trained dinosaurs to the Middle-East, which is both the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and the best movie pitch ever.

Trevorrow does well enough with the action scenes, which are brutal, fast and satisfying. But everything between these scenes is marred by stock characters, woeful writing and sentimentality of the worst kind (Spielberg, I’m willing to bet, would never go so far as to include an extended scene with Owen comforting a dying Brontosaurus). At one point, the boys stumble upon a room from the original Jurassic Park, long abandoned and covered in weeds. They shine a light on the wall, which has a crude drawing of a dinosaur on it. It’s like a cave painting. In a film that’s sorely missing a little magic, that’s the one image I’d like to retain.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hamari Adhuri Kahani: Review

After watching Hamari Adhuri Kahani I went home and wrote a long letter to an old flame. Then I tore it up. I opened Freud’s The Ego And The Id and read a page at random. I stalked an ex on Facebook. I punched the wall thrice. Only then did I find myself in the right frame of mind to review a Mohit Suri film.

Suri is Bollywood’s top purveyor of twisted, pathological romances. He directed the violent and ludicrous Ek Villain last year, and before that Aashiqui 2, Woh Lamhe and other gloomy tales of passion. Love’s labour is, more often than not, lost in Suri’s films, either through bad fortune or bad choices or some combination of the two. Hamari Adhuri Kahani doesn’t mess with the formula: the three central characters are emotionally damaged, have the worst of luck, and do their best to make things even harder for themselves.

The first 15 minutes are pure Suri: a death, a visit to the psychiatrist, and a man making off with his dead wife’s ashes in the middle of the night. The rest of the film unfolds via one of the least thought-through flashbacks I’ve ever seen: we kind of see things from the husband’s perspective, even though he couldn’t possibly have knowledge of the events being described. We learn that Vasudha (Vidya Balan) was married to Hari (Rajkummar Rao) against her will. He disappears after a year, leaving her to fend for herself and their infant son. Five years later, she’s working as a florist when Aarav (Emraan Hashmi), a rich hotelier, falls for her. They become lovers; soon, he’s asking her to divorce her husband, who may or may not have become a terrorist. And then Hari comes back.

If that doesn’t sound so bad, know that I’ve omitted about a dozen flashbacks, pointless trips to Shimla and Dubai, and enough self-pity and self-destructive behaviour to fuel a Devdas remake. However, even if I wrote out the entire plot, I doubt it would give you an accurate picture of how laughably bad Hamari Adhuri Kahani is. The film is staggeringly literal-minded: when a song talks of sookhi zameen, we’re actually shown a desert; when the lyrics mention lips, there’s a helpful close-up of the same. The writing, by Suri’s uncle Mahesh Bhatt, is florid beyond belief, and inadvertently funny. Aarav’s first words to Vasudha, as she’s arranging flowers, are “Beautiful. Main inke liye jaan de sakta hoon (I could die for them).”

The film delays Hari’s return far too long: Aarav and Vasudha’s love story isn’t remotely interesting, and Hari’s crazy-lover routine, though distasteful, does bring some much-needed tension. The actors are left out to dry, though Rao manages to escape with some of his dignity intact. The same cannot be said of Hashmi (who gets the worst lines) or Balan (who looks like she’s trying too hard). At one point, overcome by gratitude, Vasudha touches Aarav’s feet. I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a movie that wanted me to be crying along with it.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.