Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Threshold: She's leaving home

Included in the India Story section at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival is a film that might not have grabbed your attention at first glance. The Threshold, after all, is not a title that suggests a whole lot of action. Neither does a plot précis: this is a two-character film in which a wife decides to leave her husband after decades together. Yet, when you walk out of The Threshold, you feel like you’ve seen something real and raw and honest, attributes which aren’t necessarily present in some of the more heralded Indian films of the festival.

“I don’t think we should keep such a thing from him.” The film opens with this line, spoken by Rinku (Neena Gupta) to her husband, Raj (Rajit Kapoor). The ‘him’ is their son, whom we never see: he’s got married the previous day in the couple’s Tirthan valley home, and has left along with the other guests. Sometime after that, Rinku has told her husband that she is leaving him.

You expect the film to tell you why she took this decision—to at least come up with a third-act revelation which puts you on either character’s side. Instead, director Pushan Kripalani undercuts the audience’s need for a revelation. Few explanations are given, and the most you can do is try and pick up clues from the couple’s fragmented, often inarticulate bickering. In one scene, Raj grabs at Rinku impatiently. His wildness in that instant, and her bowed, submissive body language, carry within them the possibility that he might have been somewhat more violent in the past with her. But you can’t be sure, and The Threshold isn’t telling.

Kripalani, whose first feature this is, has worked as a theatre professional (he’s one of the co-founders of the Industrial Theatre Company) and a cinematographer in the past. The Threshold began with an idea by Kausar Munir (also the film’s lyricist), after which Kripalani, writer Nihaarika Negi and the actors worked for months to create the characters from the ground up. One of the strengths of this Mike Leigh-like process is that Raj and Rinku really do seem like a couple who’ve been arguing for years. They switch from Punjabi to English to Hindi as they correct each other, tear up, snap and seethe. He calls her stupid, stubborn; she uses that quintessential north Indian epithet: nitthalla.

There are comparisons that can be made, not just to Leigh (the celebrated British director whose influence—acknowledged by Kripalani in a conversation I had with him—can be seen in the fade-to-black scene transitions) and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight but to the master of toxic relationship films, Ingmar Bergman. The Threshold might be seen as a gentler Scenes from a Marriage, though Kripalani pointed out that there’s no specific debt owed to the Swedish director besides the fact that he grew up seeing his films, as any film buff might do.

There’s also the temptation to view this as an extension of Kripalani’s earlier work in theatre. It’s true that the purely visual moments in the film are brief and few: a disoriented Raj dunking himself in the freezing spring; Rinku observing half-amused, half-concerned her husband’s inability to make a decent omelette. Yet, even in the dialogue-heavy scenes, there’s little staginess. Kripalani shoots the film himself, eschewing flash; the shots are never distractingly beautiful, though God knows he has the right scenery for it. He also varies the movement within scenes, and the various degrees of stillness and fidgeting exhibited by the characters becomes expressive in itself.

“I was interested in the transmission of experience, not of information,” Kripalani told me when we spoke. This would certainly not have been possible without actors as fine as Kapoor and Gupta, who convey all the affection, exasperation and weary sync that can only come from decades of living together. Though the film is mostly them disagreeing, their concern for each other provides some of the most touching moments, such as when Raj helps his wife pack her suitcase for what might be the last time. When The Threshold ended, I felt a little pang that I hadn’t gotten to see these characters, both of whom I now felt attached to, in happier times.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The serious business of sleep

 “Have you ever wondered why people sleep on dividers during summers?”

Shaunak Sen’s Cities of Sleep opens with this conversation-stopper. The answer—that gusts of wind from passing vehicles keep the mosquitos at bay—is both reasonable and mind-bogglingly surreal, a combination which recurs time and again in Sen’s film about the unofficial sleep shelters of Delhi. The 75-minute documentary, which will premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival starting next week, is the Delhi-based video artiste and PhD student’s first feature-length effort.

Sen became increasingly interested in the social and political ramifications of sleep while doing his PhD in cinema studies from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. His starting point was French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s Nights Of Labor: The Workers’ Dream In Nineteenth-Century France, which re-examines the 1830 Revolution through close readings of worker diaries, newspapers and poetry. “When I first read it, I was very interested in just thinking about the night, and the kind of pressure sleep exerts within urban spaces,” Sen says over the phone from Delhi. “That was the initial hunch. On the basis of this, I started going to night shelters, trying to figure out the landscape of sleeping structures in Delhi.”

When he began in mid-2013, Sen visited the official shelters run by non-governmental organizations. However, he soon became aware of the informal structures—the “cities of sleep” of the title— which cater to the many who cannot be accommodated by the government-sanctioned rain baseras. “The city is almost partitioned into different types of sleep units in the night, especially in the central and Old Delhi areas, where there’s a huge population of daily-wage migrant labour,” says Sen. “Because these people obviously need to sleep, different kinds of industries spring up every night. Some of them have existed for many years and have become like well-oiled machinery.”

The first shelter we see is one of the well-oiled ones—Jamal bhai’s, in Meena Bazaar, Old Delhi. Thousands sleep here every night on cots rented from him. Jamal comes across as a hard-nosed businessman, insisting on payment—or, in a disquieting scene, a musical performance—before allowing someone to sleep in his area. One man asks him for a cot, says he’s poor and will die. “No, you can’t die here,” Jamal deadpans immediately. “That’ll cost me 1,250 bucks.”

At the other end of the sleep spectrum is the video house run by Ranjeet near Loha Pul (the local term for the old two-tiered Yamuna Railway Bridge). Here, people can watch up to three films—or, alternatively, tune out the noise and sleep for 6 hours—for just Rs 10. This unusual set-up is made even more fascinating by the steady stream of philosophy that keeps issuing from Ranjeet, a former rickshaw-puller: pronouncements that range from Sun Tzu-like aphorisms (“If you want to seize control over someone, never let him sleep”) to lines that are some sort of rough poetry (“We ingest the night”). Sen describes Ranjeet’s operation as almost a “commune”; and there is a hippie-ish quality to his shelter, especially when compared to the pragmatic capitalism of Jamal’s area.

Cities Of Sleep could easily have been built around Ranjeet, but Sen had already found himself an even more striking central subject—a shifty wanderer called Shakeel. Sen and his collaborators—associate director Aman Mann, assistant director Sunderram Arjun and co-cinematographer Salim Khan (Sen was the other director of photography)—came across him at Jamal’s camp. Shakeel kept approaching them, insisting that only he could give them the low-down on the night-shelter scene. Eventually, Sen interviewed him and noticed something unusual: Shakeel kept changing the details in his stories. Only one thing remained constant: his obsession with where he would sleep. “His life seemed to be so dependent on different sleep decisions,” Sen says. “It was such a central, dominating narrative over his life that he was the perfect navigating agent for a film about the pressures that sleep exerts.”

Shakeel’s shape-shifting ways become apparent as the film goes on; there’s a revelation about his name that lands like a ton of bricks. He’s an unreliable narrator, and an unlikeable one: The scene where he talks about beating his wife is disturbing not just because of the violence being described but also because he’s seemingly unconcerned about the camera recording what he’s saying. He wanders in and out of the film, an irritable, wheedling malcontent in perpetual search of a good night’s rest, the physical opposite of Ranjeet’s intermittent Zen-like voice-over.

Sen said he can’t stand the sort of documentary film-making that uses close shots of subjects to invoke “empathetic suffering”. “As a political decision, we decided we wouldn’t shoot a single close-up,” he says. That decision was suspended for the scene when Shakeel breaks down in front of his father—the one moment Sen felt his subject was being genuine. The film ends with him convincing the proprietor of a children’s shelter to allow him to spend the night. Seeing him slumped in a chair, lost to the world, I was reminded of something Ranjeet had said earlier in the film: “Poverty means that you can’t choose what wears you down. All that’s left up to you is how many hours you will sleep.” A singular statement, and a singular film about the people who live out its implications.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Rock The Kasbah: Review

I haven’t felt a stronger urge to walk out of a screening all year than I did during Rock The Kasbah. It wasn’t just the laziness of the writing or the gimmickiness of the set-up. It’s the astonishing condescension on display—the idea that Afghans need Americans to show them how to treat their women right. Rock The Kasbah wants to win hearts and minds, which makes it a lot more offensive than some blockheaded action movie in which wild-looking 'Arabs' chop off heads and say “infidel” a lot. It even climaxes with a teary performance of "Peace Train", perhaps forgetting that the author of the song had once demanded the very un-peaceful end of Salman Rushdie.

Rock The Kasbah takes a while to become truly offensive; initially, it looks set to be another fish-out-of-water Bill Murray comedy. Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up rock tour manager in California. In desperation, he books his client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), on a United Service Organizations tour to entertain the troops in Afghanistan. There is some comedy in the way Deschanel’s panic bounces off Murray’s fake cheer, but when she runs out on him—and out of the movie—things begin to spin out of control. The spiral intensifies when Richie is floored by a Pashtun girl’s singing and decides to book her on the American Idol-like TV show Afghan Star.

This film is dedicated to Setara Hussainzada, who angered traditionalists when she danced without a hijab on Afghan Star in 2007. Rock The Kasbah takes her story and turns it into a mess of stereotypes. Salima (Palestinian actor Leem Lubany) can’t just be any regular oppressed girl, she has to be the daughter of a warlord. And it has to be the American agent who emancipates her, who has the great wisdom to write off the studio audience’s cool reaction to her with: “They want to go with her. They just can’t go with her because they’re in a group.”

You just know that there’s a certain level of uncaring—and an assumption of audience ignorance—when an Afghanistan-set film is called Rock The Kasbah. Richie’s daughter actually points out that kasbahs are mainly associated with African countries, but that’s the film’s title anyway, not just because it’s a Clash number but because director Barry Levinson probably feels the viewer won’t know, or won’t care. The only thing more depressing than the horse-and-warlord clichés and the moralizing is Murray’s commitment to this rubbish, whether it’s warbling "Can’t Find My Way Home" in the shower or deadpanning, “Well, that’s wartime”, when an army man finds him tied to a bed wearing lipstick and a blond wig.

This review appeared in Mint.

Shaandaar: Review

There are so many regrettable decisions taken by the makers of Shaandaar that I’ll begin with what may seem like a minor one. Director Vikas Bahl and writer Anvita Dutt may think that it’s fine to fat-shame a character through an entire film as long as she’s given an emancipatory speech at the end. It obviously isn’t, but even the speech in question is problematic. Isha (Sanah Kapoor) explains that she likes herself the way she is, and then ends with, “I’m not even that fat”. But how fat is “that fat”? By drawing a line, Bahl and Dutt suggest that you shouldn’t be judged for your body type—up to a point.

Ineptly handled though they may be, weight issues at least offer a rare sour note in an unceasingly blithe production. This is a film of such consistent, determined frivolity that the high spirits soon become wearying. For me, the fun started dimming when Sushma Seth’s grandma casually addresses Alia (Alia Bhatt) as 'anaath' in front of the whole family. This exhibition of cartoon villainy is an early indication that Shaandaar is unlikely to be anything like Bahl’s last film, Queen, which had a pretty surface but emotions that felt like they were based in reality.

The stakes in Shaandaar are so low that the film keeps tripping over them. Alia, adopted daughter of businessman Vipin Arora (Pankaj Kapur), is detested by her stepmother and grandmother, both of whom are obsessed with the family name. So far, so Cinderella, except Alia is a perfectly happy child whose biggest irritant in life is her insomnia. Enter another insomniac, Jagjinder Joginder (Shahid Kapoor), who’s planning the wedding of Alia’s sister Isha—or the merger, as the grandmother keeps calling it—to Robin (Vikas Verma), the eight-and-a-half-pack-sporting scion of a Sindhi business family. Will Alia and Joginder pass sleepless nights in each other’s company? Will this bother her doting father? The suspense will kill you.

Queen may have had Bollywood gloss but it behaved like a scrappy outsider. Shaandaar, with its Karan Johar cameo and its in-jokes about Shahid and his father acting in the same film, feels depressingly establishment. Out with the feminism; in with fathers giving daughters away to unsuitable suitors and young women waiting for their princes. In, too, with excessively manicured settings—the wedding takes place in a massive English country house, complete with butlers and dancing waiters—suggesting an excess of money and a paucity of taste.

Kapoor Jr and Bhatt are lightly likeable, especially Bhatt, who uses her mobile face to suggest half-emotions, impulses, unspoken jokes—the stuff of real life. Her scenes with the beautifully underplaying Pankaj Kapur are the only ones in the film that come close to being moving. The rest of the cast ranges from passable to egregiously bad, but why single out the actors when everyone from director down to composer seems off their game? The writing, especially, is the stuff of sub-par Bollywood comedy: from the two airheads who coo acronyms like “FTB (father of the bride)” and “BTB (bride-to-be)” in unison, to Punjabi and Sindhi stereotypes so broad that Bahl could have fat-shamed them.

For two hours, Shaandaar strains to entertain, throwing everything from animation to skydiving at the audience. Then, with around 20 minutes to go, Bahl seems to let go of the reins and everything careens out of control. The film ends on such a vague and uninspiring note, it feels like the director himself gave up on it.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bridge of Spies: Review

There were moments in the first hour when Bridge of Spies reminded me of a Stanley Kramer film, with Tom Hanks as the Spencer Tracy figure, trying to save his country from its worst impulses. James Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer in 1950s Brooklyn, is tasked by his firm to represent a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan takes to the job with more conscientiousness than everyone around him would have liked, and there are more than a couple of scenes with Hanks going on about the nature of freedom and democracy. He eventually loses the case, and his British-accented Russian client is sentenced to 30 years in prison. But when a US pilot is shot down over East Germany, an exchange of spies is proposed, with Donovan as the negotiator.

As soon as Donovan arrives in Berlin, Bridge of Spies, which is based on real-life events, becomes a smarter, more urgent film. Along with the pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), the East Germans are also holding an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). The CIA knows about this, but they’d rather just have their pilot back before he divulges state secrets. But Donovan wants both prisoners, and finds himself negotiating with the KGB for Powers and with the East Germans for Pryor. The scenes in which he’s just trying to figure out who everyone is and where their allegiances lie are the best in the film, and a continuation of the messy, intricate and at times comedic political manoeuvring in Steven Spielberg’s last film, Lincoln.

Though the Coen brothers are screenwriters here, along with Matt Charman, this is an extremely Spielbergian film. He’s still the most fluent of directors—you could teach a class on scene transitions with the dozen or so examples this film provides. Nor has he lost his touch for the extended set-piece: the opening sequence, with the FBI stalking Abel, is marvellous, as is the scene which imagines the foundation of the Berlin Wall. There’s no John Williams on score duty this time (Thomas Newman replaces him) but Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is on hand, making the light look cold or forgiving or heavenly.

Bridge of Spies is also Spielbergian in other, less thrilling ways. Though US Cold War propaganda is subjected to a fair amount of scrutiny, the director remains, as he’s always been, an un-ironic believer in the American way of life. Notions of fair play and justice are sentimentalized, and linked with the US constitution and justice system. After a while, I found myself tuning out whenever the conversation turned to the greatness of American democracy and concentrating instead on Spielberg’s little filmic tricks and the satisfying, measured performances of Hanks (in full Jimmy Stewart mode) and Rylance, a British theatre veteran and occasional film and TV actor.

It will be interesting to see how audiences take to Bridge of Spies and its vision of a brief thaw in the Cold War. Recent TV shows that have explored this terrain (The Americans; Deutschland 83) have tended to be cynical about the existence of decency and honour in either side’s political dealings. Would this have been a better film if it wasn’t so damn hopeful? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t have been Spielberg then, and one wouldn’t want that either.

This review appeared in Mint.

Crimson Peak: Review

Crimson Peak is a strange mix of gothic romance, horror film and, in its frenetic last moments, giallo. It’s yet another advertisement for Guillermo Del Toro’s supreme visual imagination, something that’s informed all his films, whether big-budget Hollywood (Hellboy and its sequel; Pacific Rim) or more personal projects like Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet, too often, one gets the feeling of being haunted not by ghosts but by tropes. Everywhere you look, there’s an old standard waiting to be identified: the haunted house on the moors, the dour landowner with a shady past, the supremely creepy, piano-playing sister who keeps forcing people to have tea (okay, that one’s new).

The film’s opening is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth: a brief glimpse of the mortally injured protagonist before we’re shown the rest of the film in flashback. “Ghosts are real. This much I know,” Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) tells us straight off the bat. And she means it: The very next scene is Edith being visited as a young girl by her dead mother’s spirit, who isn’t very comforting. The film then jumps forward a few years. Edith, in the process of writing her own ghost novel, is an American Elizabeth Bennet of sorts: quick-witted and outspoken. It’s only right that a Darcy show up, and soon enough we get Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who’s trying to get Edith’s father to fund his clay-extracting machine.

Thomas isn’t charming in the conventional sense but Edith finds his vampirish gloom and his obvious interest in her attractive. In due course—and with every possible warning thrown at the viewer—they marry and she travels with him to his crumbling residence on the Cumberland moors. The house itself is a creepy marvel, with dimly lit corridors, creaky doors, a hole in the roof, red clay oozing from the floors. Yet, the ghosts that Edith begins to encounter are—by Del Toro’s standards, at least—disappointingly one-note: shrieking, personality-less collections of blood and viscera. So are the horror-movie effects—the ball bounced back by an unknown presence in another room; silence followed by orchestral shrieking.

As Edith begins to understand the connection between the mysterious Thomas, his over-close sibling Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the apparitions, the film whips itself up into a frenzy, until it passes out of the range of gothic horror and enters the domain of giallo. It’s a bold move—I quite enjoyed the Grand Guignol of the last 15 minutes—but viewers may be a little perplexed at the sudden shift of genre. They may also grow tired of seeing so many borrowed ideas, taken from films like Notorious, The Innocents and The Cement Garden, and from an assortment of gothic novels. Still, even if it doesn’t cohere or surprise much, there’s enough pure style in Crimson Peak to keep you hanging on.

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jazbaa: Review

Jazbaa has the mother—or, more accurately, the mother-daughter—of pre-intermission scenes. Anuradha (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is a prominent defence lawyer whose school-going daughter has been kidnapped. She’s informed that the girl is having trouble breathing. When she arrives at a specified point with the medicines, the kidnapper tells her to place them in a pouch that’s on a very irate dog. The dog bounds over to a car. As the car pulls away, the daughter pops her head out of the window. “Sanaaayaaaa,” Anuradha shrieks, eyes bulging, running in super slo-mo towards her. “Mamaaaaa,” responds Sanaya. Anuradha falls to her knees. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaa,” she gurgles.

This isn’t the first time in the film that Rai Bachchan hits wince-inducing high notes, and it isn’t the last. We get it, really. She loves her daughter. She loves her so much that she will defend a possible rapist-murderer, Miyaaz (Chandan Roy Sanyal), on the condition that the kidnapper will let Sanaya go once she has won the case. Do we really need multiple “ek maa par kya guzarti hai” speeches? Does Rai Bachchan need to be red-eyed in every scene? Is director Sanjay Gupta so worried we won’t swallow emotional bait that he has to oversell it?

Helping her in her endeavours is Yohaan, an inspector known for his stellar policework and his terrible one-liners. As their investigation into the Miyaaz case progresses, we’re introduced to the victim’s mother (Shabana Azmi), a crooked politician (Jackie Shroff) and his drug addict son (Siddhanth Kapoor), and re-introduced to a mid-level thug (Abhimanyu Singh), whom Anuradha had defended in court at the start of the film. Yet, the more complicated this case becomes, the more slack the film feels, partly because Gupta forgets to keep the phone calls from the kidnapper to Anuradha going after a while (which allows the audience to forget that there’s a real threat there), and partly because the plot twists are so ridiculous that you stop taking them seriously after a while.

Visually, Jazbaa is all Dutch angles and green filters and slo-mo, an excess of stylization that calls attention to the absence of any real style. The dialogue (by Kamlesh Pandey) is almost a parody of the hard-boiled Gupta style: “Aise khoobsoorat thopde case nahi jeet-te”; “Yeh case gutter banta jaa raha hai”. In her comeback vehicle, Rai Bachchan tries hard—so hard, in fact, that you can see the glycerine and the effort. (Khan, appearing as a cop onscreen for the second time in two weeks, is entertainingly hammy.)

The worst thing about Jazbaa, though, is when it ends with statistics about sexual assault convictions in India. This is a film in which the rape and murder of a young woman is re-enacted in lurid detail, thrice. It’s pulp material of the basest sort, but Gupta seems to think he’s making a social film.