Saturday, July 15, 2017

The classroom in French cinema

In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard, then a critic, and a year away from launching one of the most significant film careers ever, wrote a polemic for the French magazine Arts. Addressing the film-makers whom he and his cohorts at Cahiers Du Cinéma had sarcastically dubbed the “tradition of quality”, he wrote: “We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are.”

Godard’s phrasing of this complaint is revealing. He isn’t disappointed in the old guard, or angry at them. He can’t forgive them for what they’ve done to his cinema. And he wasn’t the only one at Cahiers taking such matters to heart. In 1954, in an essay titled “A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema”, François Truffaut attacked “le cinéma de papa (daddy’s cinema)”. “Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men,” he wrote, “and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it” (italics mine).

That article brought Truffaut welcome notoriety a few years before his debut film, The 400 Blows, played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and alerted the world to the French New Wave. It was also notable for a phrase he uses in it: “la politique des Auteurs”—essentially, a policy of treating directors with a distinctive visual style as auteurs, or authors, and regarding them as superior to directors who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put their stamp on source material. The Auteur Theory, as it came to be known, became one of the central theses of modern cinema.

No one takes cinema quite as seriously as the French. Certainly, this is reflected in critical thinking about film, which is dominated by ideas birthed in France. Auteurism—which grew out of the critical work of André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor, in the 1940s—might be the most influential concept to emerge from the country, but consider the other French terms that have crept into the global lexicon. Film noir, that most American genre, was a term coined in France when post-war critics started noticing a predominance of downbeat, shadowy films from the US and called them noir (black). Montage, which came from the French monter (to mount or assemble), is the worldwide term for a rapid succession of images; a fundamental editing theory is the Soviet system of montage. Even mise-en-scène—basically, everything in front of the camera—occasionally escapes the confines of academic film writing to confuse lay readers.

That the French have been, and remain, central to the critical discourse surrounding cinema is not surprising. To use a highly reductive analogy: If American films are about people doing things, French films are about the discussion of ideas. If you look at their films carefully, you can see where this argumentativeness comes from. I don’t know any other cinema, especially in recent years, that’s had as many charged scenes set in classrooms as the French.

It was Laurent Cantet’s The Class which placed this idea in my head. In 2008, the year when Cantet’s film won the Palme d’Or, I had started to move my world cinema intake beyond the Bergmans and Fellinis. The Class thrilled me in ways that I wouldn’t have expected a gritty-looking film about a man teaching a group of inner-city children to do. The back-and-forth between the professor and his students was unpredictably electric—a discussion about Anne Frank, for instance, ends up as a snapshot of modern-day, multicultural France in all its complexity.

From that point on, I started noticing classroom scenes in all sorts of French films. Sometimes these were central to the narrative—as in The Class, or Nicolas Philibert’s excellent documentary, Être Et Avoir, which unfolds over a year in a rural preschool—or used ironically, or as a premonition. In Jeune & Jolie, the grave central character, who will soon start working as an escort, recites Rimbaud: “No one’s serious at seventeen”. Blue Is The Warmest Colour, about the sexual awakening of a young student, has a reading of Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie De Marianne (which is echoed in the French title of the film, La Vie d’Adèle). “I am a woman, and I tell my story,” a student says aloud. “Among the young men I attracted was one I myself noticed. My gaze fell upon him in particular. I didn’t realize the pleasure I procured.” Replace “him” with “her” and it’s almost a prediction of Adele’s first glimpse of her soon-to-be lover Emma.

It isn’t just that classrooms are featured in these films, it’s the argumentativeness of the people in them that’s indicative of a culture that thrives on debate and deconstruction. This could range from the philosophical arguments in Things To Come to the bruising scene in Divines, in which the motormouth protagonist, Dounia, demolishes her teacher’s self-control. Though classrooms may figure prominently in French films, they aren’t treated as a hallowed space. It’s worth remembering that one of the foundation texts of French cinema, Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite, was a celebration of student anarchy—as was the equally influential film it inspired, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

I happened to be in France last month. Speaking to a dentist who worked in Paris, I mentioned how fascinating it was to see ideas debated by students in film after film. He replied that it wasn’t surprising—that structuring a cogent argument and debating it, often without any urgency to arrive at a solution, was something the French placed a premium on.

A cinema that’s about ideas, and a country that takes seriously the idea of cinema (and not just movie-going)—the evidence is everywhere. In Paris, I visited the Cinémathèque, home to 40,000 films, 500,000 photographs and 30,000 film-related documents, and the Librairie du Cinéma du Panthéon, a film-themed book store whose owner casually informed me that there were 15-20 repertory theatres in the vicinity (there isn’t a single dedicated repertory in Mumbai).

On Deauville beach in Normandy, I came across signs commemorating the legendary Jean-Pierre Melville and Anna Karina, both of whom had shot films there. Walking past the mk2 theatre in Paris, I noticed their dream line-up of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and I Am Not Your Negro. My favourite sighting, though, was in Châtelet, Paris. From high up on a wall, Richie Tenenbaum gazed down upon college-goers blowing off steam on a Friday night. Even the film graffiti there has good taste.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge as part of a series on world cinema.

The gang that couldn’t shoot straight

Though he’s been making short films since 1993, Ashim Ahluwalia’s first feature was the documentary John And Jane, in 2005. It was his first fiction feature, Miss Lovely (2012), though, which put him on the world cinema map. A dark, fractured narrative set in Mumbai’s soft-core horror film industry in the 1980s, the film was a rare Competition section entry for India at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ahluwalia’s candid, cine-literate interviews and experimental shorts (his last was the imaginative 2016 film Events In A Cloud Chamber) have suggested a film-maker whose sensibilities were headed in an opposite direction from the mainstream. This is why the announcement that he’d be taking on a popular genre (the gangster movie) and a star (Arjun Rampal) with a biopic of Mumbai mob boss-turned-politician Arun Gawli came as a surprise.

Daddy releases in September. Ahluwalia spoke to us—appropriately, given the genre under discussion, in the back room of a restaurant—about making a “mass” film on his own terms and getting a Bollywood A-lister to watch Japanese New Wave films. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Daddy’ appears to be your most straightforward, story-driven film.
The funny thing about that is, for people who know my work, it’s my most straight film, but the people from within the industry who’ve seen it, think it’s very edgy. Without revealing too much, it’s a Gawli biopic where Gawli’s point of view is missing. It has the framework of an investigation which takes place in 2011, when he’s coming to power. An old cop who’s almost retired is told to investigate him. He speaks to various characters from Gawli’s life, so you have multiple points of view.

For me, this is kind of an experiment: not because of the form, but to see if I can work in a mass genre. In my mind, it’s not a festival film. The dream is to make a film that a cinephile can watch, and a guy from Dagdi chawl can watch; that they can both take different things from and are still satisfied.

It was Arjun Rampal who approached you with the idea of a Gawli biopic.
He was not a producer then, but he had the rights. I didn’t know Arjun at all before we met on a commercial. I hadn’t seen any of his films, but we hit it off. He started telling me (about the Gawli biopic), saying, “Some of the producers are not getting it, it’s really unfortunate—I have the rights of the real guy but they’re making it into Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai.”

Arjun had started writing a draft based on the stories he had heard from Gawli and the gang. I think the fact that his draft wasn’t heroic was the reason I said yes. Had it been a superman movie in the guise of a gangster movie, I would’ve said no.

I told him, if we’re going to do this together, how about we chop this up, put in different points of view. I pulled out a lot of dialogue, put more voice-over in. It became closer to the kind of gangster movie I would want to make.

How did Rampal become the co-producer?
Arjun and I were clear on the kind of film we wanted to make, but the producers weren’t. I’d get recommendations from them to cast an A-list actor, or to have Sunny Leone do an item number. It didn’t feel right for this film. It had gotten to the point where I said, I can’t do the movie like this. So to fix this, Arjun became a co-producer. The company (Kundalini Entertainment) didn’t exist before this. He had to make a company to make the movie.

Were you wary of working in a relatively mainstream space for the first time?
Totally. My contract is so paranoid Arjun would just call and laugh at it.

Did you get final cut?
I have final cut, and I get involved in everything. That’s just how I tend to work. I’m even involved in the font design of the poster. In the beginning I was told in the industry the director just makes the movie, someone makes the poster, someone else cuts the trailer. I was like, no, but it’s my trailer!

Do you have memories of Gawli from when you were growing up?
This film is coming off the back of Miss Lovely in a strange way, because it’s also Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1980s. I grew up with pictures of dead bodies in the papers and the whole mythology of the gangster. I’m a south Bombay kid, so I’ve seen the mill lands before they were gentrified.

What was most interesting about Gawli is that I never found out who he was. Every gangster projects a certain kind of image. Dawood was very flamboyant, stylish—the classic don. Gawli is an enigma, impenetrable. My image of him was the politician with the topi, white kurta, clean—and I could never figure how this guy was the mobster. He breaks all stereotypes, Hollywood and otherwise, of the gangster. He’s very good with image-making, and he understands public perception. That to me is the basis of cinema as well.

Did you meet him for the film?
I spent time with him. One thing that struck me is how working-class he is. He comes from Dagdi chawl and he has an underdog complex. He’s often been treated very unfairly. I wrote this into the script—the guy who doesn’t want to be a gangster but just to prove that he can do it, he does something impulsive, and then he’s stuck. Then, to get out, he does something even more impulsive, and he’s stuck further.

This to me is the story of Gawli’s life. I think it is unlike any other gang movie—instead of a gangster with a proactive approach, you have one who’s on the back foot all the time. It’s a very reactive way of dealing with the world, very different from the plotting gangster you imagine.

Did you get the impression that he genuinely believes he’s a social worker?
I talked to people who live in Dagdi chawl and Agripada and they’re huge admirers of him. He is seen almost as a saviour. Obviously, that’s one side of the story: Some say it’s all a PR stunt. Of course, people have different views of him. If you ask me what I know about him, it’s as much as you do after watching the film, which is six different points of view, none of which match up.

The question for me isn’t, “Is Gawli good or bad?” but rather, who is the criminal? Is it the guy who cleared the mill lands? Is it the owner who wanted the workers out with low compensation? Or is it the person who bought a flat in a building that came up in place of the mills? It’s easy to say, this guy did the dirty job, but who paid him to pull the trigger, and where did the funds come from? Was that my security deposit that went into paying for somebody’s hit?

Are multiple points of view used as a formal disruptive device?
Absolutely. The classic film that does this is Rashomon. There’s also a film that was very influential when I was making this, which was Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine.

There’s an interview with Rampal in which he describes you showing him something that sounds like Imamura’s film.
Arjun and I have a funny relationship. He tries to get me to meet a Bollywood action director, and he watches me squirm, and I put him through Japanese New Wave films and watch him squirm. But Vengeance Is Mine was very interesting because it’s a film about a serial killer that doesn’t want to blame the killer, it wants to blame Japan for creating him. I think there’s a parallel here with the city of Mumbai.

Were there other cinematic influences on ‘Daddy’?
Imamura is someone who is deeply influential for me. That moment in Japanese history (when he began making films)—the late 1950s and early 1960s—is similar to the moment we’re going through now in India: a transitional phase where we’re getting all this global capitalism but there’s also this feudal structure, and both are exploding into each other. I find Imamura very relevant—socially, and in terms of dealing with sexual mores.

One of the things I really wanted to do was avoid the traditional gangster movie references—Goodfellas, the Godfather trilogy. That’s all been flogged to death, and that’s not the only mythology of gangsters.

They’re not my cup of tea, but I think that within Bollywood, gangster films have been the most interesting in some ways. A film like Satya—I think what Ram Gopal (Verma) and Anurag (Kashyap) were able to do with it was to break the fantasy, take the film on to the streets, make the film with real dialogue, with faces that feel like they’re from that space. What it’s done for the industry and for all of us to be able to make movies like that, is immense.

Have we been able to put our own spin on the gangster film in the manner that French or Hong Kong cinema did?
Not as much as I would have liked. If you look at a Hong Kong gangster film, or you watch a Yakuza film or an Italian gangster film, they’re all very distinctive. I think it’ll happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. I find the south Indian gangster films very interesting, though: I think that’s actually where you’re seeing a local cinema aesthetic developing.

‘Miss Lovely’ was largely improvised. In this film, you have a dialogue writer.
A lot of the dialogue was improvised or written on set. I didn’t have a bound screenplay. My Hindi writing isn’t great, so I wanted someone with whom we could do lines. So we got Ritesh Shah, who kind of knows my sensibility. When it became hard to improvise, or when we had an idea of a line but didn’t know how to phrase it, we’d call Ritesh. He’d call back, and say, how about this, and we’d shoot it.

You’ve used two cinematographers, Pankaj Kumar and Jessica Lee Gagné.
Jessica comes from an art house space—this is probably the most commercial film she’s done. It was quite difficult to convince everyone about her early on: 27 years old, French-Canadian, shooting a Bombay gangster movie, especially in this industry, which can be quite male-centric.

This is my first film that’s been shot digital. We did a lot of work—we shot anamorphic, we shot with old lenses that were used on Sholay. I wanted large frames but I didn’t want it to be glossy. She couldn’t do the entire thing because of scheduling. She shot 70% of the film. Pankaj and I always wanted to work together, so he took over for the remaining part.

The film spans four decades. Did you have visual cues for different eras?
Jessica and I developed a palette. I wanted to have each era lit with a different colour temperature. For me the 1970s was sodium-vapour yellow. In the 1980s you start getting tungsten and white tube light. The 1990s becomes cleaner, and 2012 is just glass and cold. So when you’re going back and forth in time, you don’t have to use colour grading techniques, you’re doing it actually in the environment. We used this as a basis for the art direction as well.

Has the indie scene changed compared to, say, five years ago?
I think the indie scene is really infiltrating Bollywood. Five years ago I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a producer. Now I get calls from old-school Bollywood producers saying “Ashim ji, aake miliye (come and meet us)”, which is hilarious. So I think there’s something major happening, like a tectonic shift.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baby Driver: Review

Poetry before prose. Baby Driver is a concerto in sixth gear and an adrenaline shot to the heart. Better films may release this year, but it’s difficult to imagine any supplying cinematic joy in such generous doses. If Fury Road was Wagner on wheels, this chrome wheeled, fuel injected musical is Beethoven’s Ninth.

That Edgar Wright is responsible for it is hardly surprising. Few directors since Steven Spielberg have been able to marshal this convincingly the various tricks of cinema for the purposes of pure entertainment. Each whip pan, every tracking shot is deployed for maximum impact. In an age of bewilderingly quick editing, Wright seems to cut at exactly the right moment—and to elicit a reaction. A breathless one-take might be followed by a chopped-up chase: whatever makes the scene work, the material sing.

All this trickery is grounded in the familiarity of genre. Baby Driver is, essentially, a “one last job and I’m out” movie, a scenario that’s as central to the heist narrative as the exercise montage is to the sports film. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a prodigiously talented young man with a quirk: he must have music—his music, spread over multiple iPods—playing in his ears constantly, to drown out the tinnitus that’s dogged him ever since an accident when he was little. He’s in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss whose car he mistakenly stole and who’s extracting payment for that one heist at a time.

In 1973, George Lucas introduced the idea of the mixtape soundtrack with American Graffiti, and Martin Scorsese timed Harvey Kietel’s head hitting the pillow in Mean Streets to the pistol-shot opening of "Be My Baby". The backbeat of rock has been a fixture in American film-making ever since, yet, even within this tradition, Wright does something unique, using Baby’s tinnitus to create a wholly convincing rock musical. Movement is inextricably linked to sound, only, instead of just having bodies in motion, Wright makes the entire screen move to the beat. Screeching tires blend with guitar solos, fingers drum in time to the percussion. Elgort dances, the camera dances, the film seems to dance too.

As in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the sordidness of the criminal world in Baby Driver is contrasted with a shy romance. Our hero’s attention is snagged by a server in the local diner named Dobora (Lily James), who walks singing “B-A-B-Y baby”, a Carla Thomas number. The ensuing romance is prototypically American—diner, Laundromat, pop music—and, in its dreamy optimism, indicative of an earlier era (Debora’s dream is to head out on the open road with no fixed plan, a sentiment that’s more Beat Generation than millennial). Wright is playing with multiple genres here: along with the wholesome teen romance, you get the unpredictability of the heist film, the smoothness of the musical and the pounding muscularity of the action film, all weaving in and out like radio channels being switched.

Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal and Eiza González have a grand time playing assorted lowlifes, and Spacey is his usual sardonic self, but it’s Elgort—impassive except for when he lets his guard down and belts out old soul numbers—who’s the most compelling presence. The wall-to-wall soundtrack, switching from radio staples to deep cuts ("New Orleans Instrumental No. 1", anyone?), is a character in itself. This is a film for people who take pop music seriously, who believe in the sanctity of the right track for the right situation. When one particular heist hits a roadbump, Baby rewinds the track he’s playing ("Neat, Neat, Neat" by The Damned) until it’s where it needs to be for maximum inspiration, and only then zooms off. High Fidelity’s Rob would have loved this scene.

In his spare time, Baby takes conversations he’s recorded, chops them up and makes recordings—real life reduced to a mix tape. Baby Driver is full of cool details like this, but Wright takes care to link them to emotion; one of the tapes—probably the oldest one—is of Baby’s dead mother singing. No matter how outlandish the premise, there’s always been a sweetness to Wright’s films.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tubelight: Review

“So there’s this idea I had for a film. You have Salman. Plays a simple guy, good heart, not very bright. There’s this criminally cute kid. Om Puri’s in there somewhere. And there’s some border conflict they’re all wrapped up in. Kabir to direct.”

“Sounds great. What’s it called?”

Bajrangi Bhaijaan. And if it’s a hit we’ll make another just like it and call it Tubelight.”

For legal reasons, I should state this fanciful imagining of mine probably bears no resemblance to the actual greenlighting process at Salman Khan Films or Kabir Khan Films, producers of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Tubelight. But even if it does, this is how a studio is supposed to behave: when your film earns Rs 600 crore, you immediately get the team behind it to do the same thing over again, only slightly different. Replace India-Pakistan tensions with the Sino-Indian war of 1962, a lost girl with a misunderstood boy, and a heroic journey with a heroic wait, and you have Tubelight—like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, only worse in every way.

Though he’s long since given up on quick-witted types, the characters Salman’s played in his last few films can be situated on a scale from Forrest Gump to Boo Radley. Here, the protagonist’s density gives the film its title; ever since he was a kid, Laxman has always been a little late to the comprehension party, like a tubelight that flickers several times before working. His parents are no more, but his younger brother, Bharat (Sohail Khan, Salman’s real-life brother), keeps him out of harm’s way. However, when war breaks out, Bharat enlists, and Laxman is left behind in the care of the kindly Banne Chacha (Om Puri).

Bajrangi Bhaijaan didn’t exactly shy away from extolling the homespun virtues of its protagonist, but it’s got nothing on Tubelight, which is so intent on stuffing Laxman full of innocent goodness that there’s no room left for personality. This is a shameless creation: not just childlike and endearing but a follower of Gandhi, a patriot, a doting brother. He befriends a young boy, Guo (Matin Rey Tangu), and his mother, Liling; they’re Indian by birth but have Chinese ancestors, which leaves them vulnerable in this Kumaon hill town which has sent its sons to fight the enemy. As with Bajrangi, we’re offered lessons in togetherness by Salman and an elfin child—this, apparently, is the “politics” that the director promised in interviews leading up to the film’s release.

At times, Kabir Khan seems caught between his own liberal leanings and the demands of making a mass-market film in a jingoistic age. One scene, in particular, was supremely disappointing. Mistaking Guo for a Chinese boy, Laxman insists that he says “Bharat mata ki jai”. “If you’re Indian you’ll say it, otherwise you’re Chinese,” he tells the child, who immediately yells the phrase. This is the sort of reductive thinking that one would have assumed Kabir Khan is opposed to. If there’s a substantive difference between this and ridiculous measures of patriotism like “If you don’t stand for the national anthem, you aren’t a patriot” or “If you praise the Pakistani cricket team, you’re a traitor”, then I can’t see it.

It’s nearly always excruciating when an actor with limited talent plays a character with limited intelligence. Normally, the charge against Salman is that he doesn’t do anything; here, he does so much that you’ll be begging for him to go back to his minimalist ways. Liling is played by Chinese actor Zhu Zhu; even when she and Salman are in a scene together, they’re worlds apart. Tangu is, in theory at least, adorable.

Early on in Tubelight, Laxman is told, “Har insaan ke andar jaadugar hai (There’s a magician inside each one of us).” He spends the rest of the film trying to move mountains with his mind. A Salman Khan film in which anything is displaced by the power of thought is almost too much irony to bear.

This review appeared in Mint.

Daughters of the Dust: Film as folk art

One happy by-product of Beyoncé’s Lemonade becoming a big enough cultural talking point is that film critics ended up reviewing the “visual album” accompanying the record. A couple of them saw the images of black women in flowing white dresses on a beach and recalled an acclaimed but little-seen film from 1991. Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust was the first feature by an African-American woman to be theatrically released in the US, but over the years it had become little more than a bucket-list item for historically minded cinephiles. Then came Queen Bey’s nod, which spurred plans for restoration and re-release. Earlier this month, it appeared on Netflix.

If you’re a film fan, this unexpected access to Dash’s film should be cause for celebration. Daughters Of The Dust is more than a fiercely unique blend of indigenous tradition and film technique. Released at the same time as Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and a year before Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it seems today to point to a path that American indie cinema never took: film as folk art.

By setting Daughters in 1902, among the Gullah people of St Simons Island, off the South Carolina-Georgia coast, Dash (whose father was Gullah) offers that rarity—an American film that’s entirely about black lives and culture. The film shows the Pazant family (and, by extension, the Gullah) at a symbolic crossroads: Many of them are leaving home and heading north, which leads to arguments over whether they’ll be able to preserve their way of life away from the island. This was a community cut off from the mainland, which meant that they had retained, at the turn of the 20th century, some of the African traditions they brought over when they came to the US as slaves. The film begins with Islamic prayer, there’s a Cherokee character, several different Creole accents, but not a single white face (and few male characters). This would be radical in 2017, so you can imagine why many found the film “difficult” in 1991.

To be fair, there are other reasons why this isn’t the easiest film to grasp. The viewer must contend not only with the thick accents (turn subtitles on if you’re at sea) but with Dash’s elliptical, startlingly lyrical style. Like the Brazilian Glauber Rocha with Entranced Earth, or early Marathi directors like Fattelal-Damle or Dadasaheb Phalke, she uses the tricks of cinema—superimposition, speeding up and slowing down scenes—to suggest more ancient forms of magic. One could read in the flat voice-over and the unhurried beauty the influence of Terrence Malick; then again, it’s difficult not to see shades of Daughters in mystical, nature-worshipping Malick films like The Thin Red Line and The New World.

It’s tempting to assume that had this film released today, it would be recognized as the masterpiece it is. But this is hardly a given: It took a nudge from one of the most recognizable women in the world for people to seek it out. Nevertheless, it’s out now, and ready for its close-up.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

G Kutta Se: Review

When Rahul Dahiya’s film played at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival, it was called G – A Wanton Heart. For its theatrical release, the makers have swapped that title for G Kutta Se. Though it’s weird to say out loud—I mumbled it at the ticket counter—I like the terse honesty of this better than the Shakespearean flourish of “wanton”. A film about crude, violent characters deserves a crude, violent title.

The film, set in interior Haryana, deals in tremendous violence, most of it directed towards, or undertaken on behalf of, women. This may sound similar to 2015’s NH10, in which Anushka Sharma was pursued by murderous Haryanvi thugs, but there are a couple of significant differences. NH10 was a genre film, albeit one grounded in reality: it had a setup, conflict, crisis, catharsis. G Kutta Se is no thriller; it’s a nightmare that won’t let up, at times unfolding like a dramatization of the harrowing accounts in Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary on khap panchayats, Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyan.

It takes a while for the film to play its most intriguing card. In the first of three intersecting stories, a young woman, Preeti, elopes with her husband’s driver, only to find herself kidnapped by three men on the highway. She’s nearly raped in the back seat by one of them before their leader, Virender, intervenes. He sits next to Preeti, calms her down, talks to her, and, before you know it, she’s smiling. A couple of scenes later, they hug, and he gets her phone number.

While I have a problem with the speed of Preeti’s recovery and the idea that she’d be friendly with her kidnapper a couple of minutes after being assaulted, there’s a theme that this scene triggers. Desire, the film seems to argue, will spring up, unbidden, even in the most women-unfriendly environments imaginable. We see this repeated in the other stories as well. A young girl, Diksha, spies on a group of boys bathing in a pond, and when one leads her away to make a lewd video, she’s too curious to protest. Her older cousin, Kiran, is in a secret relationship with a local lad, and is shown as eager to initiate a physical relationship with him, going to the extent of risking her reputation and well-being.

These small grasps at desire aside, women in G Kutta Se are denied agency so consistently that even relatively minor transgressions begin to assume significance, like an unwilling Diksha being forced to sing by her father, or Kiran’s boyfriend cussing at her for refusing to have sex. The film is shot, documentary-style, by Sachin Kabir and Alok Shrivastav: the roving camera and the starkness of the surroundings match the sordidness of speech and subject matter. The few visual flourishes included – a woman’s hair blown a passing train, a spectacular burning Raavan – are well judged, but there’s little beauty here, or mercy.

Dahiya, who also wrote the film, occasionally reaches for metaphors that don’t quite make sense, like the crosscutting of a deliberate murder with the inadvertent killing of a dog. Yet, for the most part, this is a sharp, pitiless look at a society governed by feudal minds overly concerned with women’s honour while utterly dismissive of their rights. G Kutta Se might seem violent and unsubtle. Then again, so might India.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

At home and in the world

A panel for the Lounge Lounge series, conducted by Sankhayan Ghosh and myself, with:

Baradwaj Rangan, critic with the online film content platform, Film Companion

Amit Masurkar, director of Newton, which was selected for the Forum section at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival

Meenakshi Shedde, critic, festival curator and South Asia consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals

Smriti Kiran, creative director, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

Vikramaditya Motwane, director and co-founder, Phantom Films. His first film, Udaan, was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival

Radhika Apte, actor in Madly and Parched, which played at the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals, respectively

What does it mean to be a “hot” film-making country? This vague honour is bestowed—invariably by tastemakers in the West—on countries as disparate as Iran and South Korea, Hungary and Mexico. For one reason or another, India never seems to be part of this conversation.

It’s been years since an Indian film made the competition section at a major international festival, even though there has been a steady trickle of titles to parallel sections in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The 2017 Cannes Film Festival concluded on 28 May, and no Indian film—save Payal Kapadia’s short Afternoon Clouds—was shown there.

Over brunch at It Happened in New York, the bar and bistro, in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, we asked our panellists, all of whom are intimately familiar with the festival scene, about India’s standing in world cinema. Edited excerpts:

Do you think India’s stock on the world scene has fallen, risen or stayed the same over the last decade?
Shedde: It has risen a lot. Indian cinema, mainstream and indie, is growing in different directions and has more diversity than before. But I do suspect sheer industrial economics plays a part. A lot of festivals are paying attention to the fact that India and China are big markets.

Kiran: It is unfortunate that in the last four-five years there hasn’t been a single Indian film that has been programmed in the competition sections at Berlin or Cannes or Venice. That is something we should look at. I know some people at the Cannes press conference asked why there weren’t films from India, but it isn’t incumbent on any festival (to select Indian films). We just have to make better films that get selected on merit.

Rangan: I disagree a little with that, because I think festival line-ups also have a lot do with big names. I watched almost all the competition films in Cannes this time, and I was frankly surprised at some of the movies that were there. The Arnaud Desplechin movie (Ismael’s Ghosts) is hard to justify as a choice, but it has Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, so it brings a certain glamour to the red carpet.
I don’t mean to be conspiratorial about it, but there is a club and certain countries haven’t made it there yet.

There’s this idea in world cinema of a “country of interest”—once it was Iran, then South Korea, now perhaps Hungary. Can India grow in that direction?
Motwane: The problem is that even though we make three-four movies a year which can potentially get selected at festivals, we rarely get to the stage of distribution beyond festivals: in movie theatres and on DVD. I’ve had my own films taken by the studio to festivals—people there say “great film” and nothing happens.
When you talk about countries in focus, it’s about a group. Whether it’s Chinese cinema in the late 1980s or Mexican cinema later—with Cuarón and Iñárritu and Del Toro (Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu)—there were always three-four film-makers who came together. Here, it is not happening. His studio is different, my studio is different…

Do you think we’re making better films than we were a decade earlier?
Masurkar: I don’t really know, because everything works together. We aren’t making better music or choosing better politicians. So how do you expect cinema to be any different? I really don’t think we are making world-class films which should be in competition.

Apte: I agree—very few films here match the kind of world cinema we’re now able to watch. I can speak as an actor when I say that there are some really good scripts that come along, but they never get made. There is so much compromise.

Kiran: I read a scary article in which Pahlaj Nihalani said that Indian film-makers are sneaking films outside to festivals and they should be censored. I am just saying that in this toxic environment, how do you encourage anyone to go and break form?

Is there a home-grown audience for a more challenging kind of cinema?
Apte: The kind of films we want to make, we don’t have the audience for them.

Shedde: People who dream of making films for their own people—that’s something that attracts me. As programmers, we can smell a film that’s made with a festival in mind a mile away, and we will never touch it.

Rangan: India is a very complex country, unlike, say, South Korea, where tastes are more uniform. Telugu cinema is very different from Tamil cinema. Some of the best mainstream cinema today is in Malayalam, but nobody knows about it because they’re happy releasing in their own state. It’s very difficult to make a pan-India film. This is only possible when you are working in a Baahubali grammar, where you have a mythological base level.

Masurkar: I’ve never understood how one can assume what an audience wants. We’ve been showing people posters of Newton recently. They all say, I like it, but mass won’t like it. We all like to think we’re class, not mass.

Is the absence of a year-round cinephile culture a concern?
Masurkar: With the Internet, you can sit anywhere and watch any film. My assistant for Newton is from Raipur—he knows all about Korean cinema. But there’s no offline community, no physical group. At the end of the day, people thrive on each other’s energies.

Kiran: We started the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) year-round programme because of this. Right now we just have screenings, but we want to have curatorial programmes, film-maker forums.

Shedde: I think developing audience tastes year round—through critics, curators, programmes—is key. But it’s also about doing things like 15-minute Q&As after screenings at the Berlin (International) Film Festival—it’s within the time slot, requires zero investment, and the audience is happy that the stars have answered their question.

The selection of Netflix films in competition at Cannes this time was a major signal to the film community. Does this excite you or make you wary?
Rangan: Scorsese is a big name among cinephiles, but studios won’t touch him unless he works with a DiCaprio. So when Netflix is putting up $100 million, it’s his opportunity to have a cut with minimum interference. The cost he is paying is that he will not get an international release.

Motwane: I am just thrilled that sitting here in India, I get to watch Okja or Scorsese’s next film on the same day as the rest of the world. Why would I complain?
Spielberg had said some years ago that in the future, we are going to have only tent-pole movies in theatres. The theatre experience will become the big-screen spectacle, and that’s totally fine.

So is the big-screen experience for indie or art-house cinema on its way out?
Motwane: People romanticize the dark hall, and I love to see my movies played there, but if I look at where I have discovered most films, it’s at home on DVD or the computer. Trapped can’t compete with an Alia-Varun film in its second week. I don’t mind if my film releases on Netflix, so people can watch it when and how they want. But I also think going to the movies isn’t a fun experience anymore.

Apte: Yes! Whenever I go to Europe I make sure I watch as many films as I can in theatres, because there’s no interval, no talking.

(Sankhayan) In terms of India raising its profile in world cinema, what do you think needs to happen?
Apte: We need to have a festival here with its own identity.

Kiran: I think we need to reach a point where our film-makers would prefer to premiere a film here rather than at a festival abroad. We don’t have a world-class film festival identity yet which is what we are trying to do with MAMI.

Rangan: The Dubai (International) Film Festival has become a good hub for Egyptian films, for Arab cinema. Similarly, we can become a good hub for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan cinema. We could then say, if you want the best of South Asian cinema, come here.
Berlin, Cannes, Venice—80% of their programming is what one might call “white films”. There’ll be a bit of Asian representation, maybe a couple of films from the Middle East, but mostly it’s all the known auteurs. Hubs like these can redress the imbalance.

Shedde: That Asian connect is missing. When I am looking at Indian films for pre-selection at Berlin or Dubai, I pitch them in comparison to other Asian films.
We haven’t been able to develop a Busan. All the programmers who can’t visit Mumbai or Bangkok come to Busan as a one-stop shop for Asian films.