Monday, May 14, 2018

The year Cannes was canned

On the morning of 18 May 1968, a press conference is held at the Jean Cocteau Theater in Cannes. By then, the 21st edition of the annual film festival held in the French seaside resort town has already been underway for a week. The meeting is called by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, originators of the French New Wave. Truffaut calls for a shutdown of the festival in solidarity with the strikes and demonstrations taking place across France protesting authoritarianism and the Vietnam War, and all hell breaks loose. 

As charged press conferences go, they don't get much better. “I want the festival to close,” Truffaut says to a volley of boos. “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups,” Godard yells. “You’re idiots!” Claude Lelouch and Milos Forman announce they’re withdrawing their films. A disgruntled Roman Polanski says that shutdown or not, no one gives a hoot about Cannes. One attendee stands within swinging distance of Truffaut and shouts in his face. Finally, a man in a suit announces that since they can’t guarantee screenings will go on uninterrupted, they are shutting down the festival. 

Fifty years on, Truffaut is no more, and Godard has a film in competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival (8-19 May). It’s a little disappointing that the festival hasn’t called attention to that tumultuous month in its line-up, not even in the Cannes Classics selection, for May 1968 has reverberated through French cinema over the years, providing either setting or inspiration for a number of remarkable films. Several directors took active part in the protests: joining the strikers, making documentaries, forming film-making units that operated on socialist principles. Some, like Godard, Truffaut and Philippe Garrel, were already working then, while others like Olivier Assayas were experiencing the events as any regular teen would. All would reference May 1968 in a later work.

If you want to ease into a 1968 frame of mind, Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, which played at Cannes last year, is what you need. It’s a fictional look at Godard (played by a brilliantly pouty Louis Garrel), circa 1967, as he embarks on a relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky and turns his back on narrative film-making in favour of political cinema. The infamous press conference turns up as a radio broadcast, with Wiazemsky and her friends smiling at how militant Godard sounds. The fallout of the Cannes cancellation is shown in a hilarious scene, with  director Michel Cournot complaining to co-passengers in a packed car about not getting to show his film at the festival, until Godard erupts. Even the protest scenes are turned into comedy, with strikers asking Godard—who is trying to break away from his earlier style—when he’s going to make another Breathless

Redoubtable is a massively entertaining film: affectionate towards, but not worshipful of, its subject. Still, if you’re looking for a less joke-y take on that time, try Philippe Garrel’s lyrical Regular Lovers (2005). Garrel was a prodigy in 1968, only 20, and already the director of a feature film. He shot a short documentary—some say it was the work of a collective—on the streets of Paris (look for Actua 1 on YouTube). For all the starkness of the images of rioting students and baton-wielding cops, a few moments of New Wave playfulness survive. “What comes into the world to change nothing deserves neither respect nor patience,” the voice-over intones. “That needs repeating,” says another voice. The line is repeated. 

Regular Lovers begins with 10 minutes of nothing much happening at all (not unusual for Garrel) before exploding into action, with a hallucinatory night-time stand-off between students and the police. Having shown us the world outside, Garrel then heads inward, stoking the battle fires of emotion that raged through young people like himself that year. It’s the very model of a French art film: grainy black and white, lots of cigarettes and coffee and young people discussing philosophy and sex, art and politics (which makes it a good bridge to Jean Eustache’s lacerating 1971 black and white film, The Mother And The Whore, which Cahiers Du Cinéma once called the only true May 1968 film). 

The one film about 1968 that has been seen by a substantial number outside the cinephile community is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003)—the promise of Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel and Eva Green in a ménage à trois might be why. For an equally dazzling but more resonant account of the time, you might opt for Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air (2012) instead. The film is set in 1971, but the spirit of 1968 courses through its night-time graffiti raids and chaotic protest meets. But Assayas also questions, through the central figure of Gilles, who is fighting the system but also trying to be a painter and film-maker, whether art and true revolution are compatible. “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema use revolutionary syntax?” a film-making collective is asked. “Could it be that the revolutionary syntax you speak of is the individualistic style of the bourgeoisie?” one of them shoots back. 

Redoubtable ends on a similar note, with Godard told to choose between cinema (in this case, tracking shots) and politics (the majority opinion of the collective he is working with). Thankfully, half a century later, the cinema that 1968 inspired gives you the chance to opt for both. 

This piece, part of the World View series, appeared in Mint Lounge.

Raazi: Review

When Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi opened aboard an Indian navy vessel, in the present day but evidently a prelude to a flashback, with officers being told about the sacrifices earlier generations had made, I groaned: this was going to be that sort of film. My fears, it quickly became clear, were unfounded—the jump to 1971 was followed by 15 blissfully efficient minutes of scene-setting. With the war brewing in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) as the backdrop, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), a Kashmiri, passes information about Indian military plans to Parvez Syed (Shishir Sharma), a Pakistani brigadier. Parvez and Hidayat are friends, and the army man warns him about Khalid Mir, a key Indian intelligence agent. In the next scene, we see Hidayat with Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat) and realise he’s actually working for India.

Even before the central character makes her appearance, these early exchanges give the impression Raazi knows what it is and where it’s going. In spite of its perpetual forward drive, the writing has a minor-key poetry to it; there’s a surge of melancholy when Hidayat—who’s been coughing in earlier scenes—tells Mir that he’s got cancer, and has little time left. “Cigarette pee nahin, zindagi ke kash shayad lambe le liye (Never smoked, but maybe I took too long a drag on life),” is how he puts it, a line the director’s father, Gulzar, would have been proud to pen.

In his place as intelligence-gatherer under the nose of the Pakistanis, Hidayat proposes his daughter, who’s studying in Delhi University. And so Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) is called home, and needs surprisingly little convincing to agree to her father’s plan for her to marry Syed’s son Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), also in the military, and become India’s “eyes and ears in Pakistan”. Mir takes over her training, teaching the 20-year-old how to bug a room, use Morse code, defend herself and use a revolver. Soon, she’s married and taken across the border—an Indian spy (from an extremely patriotic Kashmiri family, the film takes care to tell us) in a Pakistani household.

There’s another kind of infiltration happening here, of what has become a hyper-nationalistic, triumphalist genre by a more humanistic, shaded kind of filmmaking. Gulzar showed a knack for coiled narratives and vivid character sketches in Talvar (2015)—qualities Raazi shares as well—but what’s even more striking about her latest film is its even-handedness. Sehmat’s new family is painted with an empathetic brush; Iqbal, for instance, is as accommodating a groom as one could hope for. This gives Raazi that extra frisson when Sehmat begins her spying—far from being encouraged to hate the “enemy”, we actually don’t want some of them to be hurt. It’s worth noting that every major character, Indian and Pakistani, gets a country-above-all-else speech, and everyone delivers it with the same conviction.

Like she did in Talvar, Gulzar assembles and marshals an expert ensemble. A detail-oriented director like her is well-suited to an actor like Bhatt, who has a knack of making the tiniest gestures count. Bhatt handles the big emotional scenes fine—one particular reaction after having escaped detection is spectacular—but her Sehmat is built out of little glances and the sort of paranoid watchfulness that’s always ready to spring into action. Sharma and Kapur have a wonderful world-weariness, and Ahlawat (best known before this for his Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur) is a revelation, playing Mir, square of spectacles and manner, with great dryness.

Not all the narrative twists make complete sense—Sehmat’s brief career as a music teacher and a bold bit of impersonation are more wishful than plausible. Gulzar’s partner on the screenplay (she wrote the dialogue herself) is Bhavani Iyer, whose Lootera (2013) was criticised for its implausibility and, as a result, was sadly underappreciated for its emotionally complex approach to the thriller. Raazi—like Lootera, like Talvar—is a thriller about the disintegration of a family, but one that’s alive to the intricacies of language, the sensuality of an ankle bracelet, the human desires set aside in service of the nation. And the hopefulness of cords unsevered: a line from a prayer by the “spiritual father of Pakistan” and composer of "Saare Jahan Se Accha", Iqbal (“Lab pe aati hai duaa bann ke tamanna meri, zindagi shamma ki soorat ho khudaya meri”), making its way into the song "Ae Watan".

This review appeared in Mint.

Omerta: Review

There’s a scene some way into Omerta which serves as a reminder that this isn’t the first Hansal Mehta film to feature terrorist Omar Sheikh. In Shahid (2012), would-be-lawyer Shahid Azmi (Rajkummar Rao) is serving time in Delhi’s Tihar jail. There, he’s reprimanded, along with other Muslim inmates, by a bearded man in spectacles for eating during Ramzan. The man later introduces himself as Omar Sheikh, and tries to recruit Azmi to the jihadi cause.

In Omerta, Mehta recreates the same scene, down to some lines being reproduced word for word. It’s Rao as Sheikh this time, and though Azmi doesn’t appear in the scene, it’s mildly surreal to see the same actor who played the prey six years ago now playing the hunter. There’s a fair amount in Omerta that’ll remind viewers of Shahid: the unadorned visual style, the unsettlingly quick editing, the passages which show the making of a terrorist—though in Shahid, which only spends 10 minutes on Azmi’s flirtation with the cause, radicalization comes about because of personal experience, while in Omerta, it’s the suffering of distant others that gives birth to violent ideology.

Omerta begins in 1994, with Sheikh befriending, and then abducting, Czech, American and British citizens in Delhi and making ransom demands, scenes that’ll inform his later kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Later, in a series of flashbacks, we’re shown how he went from a student at the London School of Economics to a dreaded terrorist with links to Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Qaeda. When we’re introduced to the younger Sheikh, he’s already on the cusp of radicalization, a well-off, serious man troubled by the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in 1992. Despite his alarmed father’s pleas to finish his studies first, it only takes a few nudges from the local maulana to indoctrinate Omar.

We see Sheikh in Pakistan, in jihadi boot camps in Afghanistan, in training with the ISI. Through it all, he maintains the same unnerving seriousness and cold drive. Had the film started from a little earlier in his life, when he was possibly less certain in his convictions, might this have been a richer study in deepening religious fanaticism? In Omerta, there’s no hardening of ideology, just the accumulation of skills and execution of plans. Mehta details the set-up at various levels of a terrorist organization carefully, and there are some tense sequences, but not much engagement at a psychological level. The real-life Sheikh might have been charismatic, but Rao’s portrayal stops at scarily intense—even when he’s trying to ingratiate himself, he comes on a little too strong.

Then there’s the accent. Rao gamely adopts a British twang whenever Sheikh—a Londoner for much of his early life—is speaking in English, but he just doesn’t sound comfortable. You can sense the actor’s relief whenever he slips in Hindi or his regular spoken English, which he turns on when he’s talking to Pearl—a strange case of an ostensibly put-on accent sounding more “correct” than the character’s natural one.

Mehta’s frequent juggling of timeline and location means the jag and jump of the filmic technique matches the fragmented nature of the narrative. The chaos is needed, for though there’s some shock in Omerta, there’s little surprise. By concentrating on how terror agents operate on a daily basis (some of the better scenes show Sheikh baiting his quarry with chess and a guided tour of Red Fort or by helping them bargain in a curio store), Mehta offers a ground-level view of terrorism that’s less jingoistic than what Indian cinema usually has to offer. What you don’t get is the immersion into a character’s psyche that marked the previous Mehta biopics, Shahid and Aligarh (2015). In the end, we’re not much closer to understanding the man holding up a decapitated head than we were at the start.

This review appeared in Mint.

Avengers: Infinity War: Review

For a while now, Marvel has been issuing trigger warnings about impending demises in Avengers: Infinity War —with good reason, it turns out. Not only are several prominent players bid farewell, the film is consumed with the prospect of mortality. More than one character tasks a loved one with killing them if things go bad. Another admits to having little to live for besides revenge. And while they go about their task with respect, directors Anthony and Joe Russo aren’t paralysed by the prospect of dispatching fan favourites—many of the deaths are sudden, few are lingered upon.

Behind the culling is a franchise decision years in the making. Infinity Wars is the penultimate offering in “phase three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a slate-cleaning exercise before a new band of superheroes is brought together over another set of films. You’d expect the old roots to be pulled out first—fans have been debating the likelihood of either Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) dying at the end—though if Thanos (Josh Brolin) has his way, there will be destruction without discrimination, a purge free of bias.

Thanos, a giant purple being from Titan, has set out to destroy half of all life in the universe because there are too many mouths to feed at present—a most unlikely manifestation of what 18th century economist Thomas Robert Malthus called positive checks on population growth. To do this, Thanos must gather the Infinity Stones, all-powerful gems that Marvel has scattered across its various story arcs. These six stones are the ballgame: Thanos must have them all to wreak the sort of havoc he wants to; the Avengers, Guardians and other superheroes like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) must prevent him from getting to them.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel’s last mashup, the Russos displayed a knack for juggling universes and personality types. Here, tasked with stirring an even bigger melting pot, they emerge with more coherence than one might expect, pairing Stark and Strange (the best sparring partner Downey’s had in ages), Thor and the Guardians, Cap’s team and T’Challa. This opens up possibilities for visual and aural flexibility that are only cursorily explored—the trippy effects in some of scenes with Doctor Strange are reminiscent of Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film, a hooky radio hit signals the presence of the Guardians, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) seems to have retained some of the humour of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

Infinity War occasionally rises above all the information it must convey and offers memorable individual scenes: Rocket acting as reluctant shrink to Thor; the extra second the camera lingers on Tom Holland’s face when Tony Stark mock-knights Spidey and tells him he’s an Avenger; the pained interactions between Thanos and his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). But there’s too much business to take care of, and little time to pause and let the viewer take it all in. The narrative is affecting (assuming you’re already invested in the series) but the treatment is unimaginative: good for instant tears or cheers, but not, I think, the stuff you’d remember 20 years later.

The denouement left the audience, which had been whooping in all the appropriate places, quiet on their way out. Maybe some of them were wondering if what they’d seen was going to be reversed, at least in part, in the sequel. As a piece of filmmaking, Infinity War is efficient, professional—the sort of qualities prized by studio heads and fans who resent authorial personality superseding source material. Its boldness lies in the decisions taken at the “universe” level. The cutting of multiple threads shows how much confidence Marvel has in its ability to forge a new set of relationships. Thanos, immortal, achieved through thanatos, death.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Beyond the Clouds: Review

Not many in the Mumbai film industry today speak of Salaam Bombay!, which is unfortunate. Mira Nair’s film, made in 1988 and winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has aged better than some of the other parallel and indie cinema being made at the time. Today, its street-level view of Mumbai feels like a vital bridge from Dharavi and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro in the 1980s to Satya and Slumdog Millionaire in the ‘90s and 2000s.

On the evidence of Beyond the Clouds, I’d hazard a guess that Majid Majidi has seen Nair’s film. The Iranian director’s first feature in Hindi feels like an updated version of Salaam Bombay!, with its gritty visual aesthetic and its focus on children living on (or just off) Mumbai’s streets. Its protagonist Amir (Ishaan Khatter) could be an older version of Chaipau, the young protagonist of Nair’s film, his shyness eroded and replaced by street-smarts and cynicism. A brothel is a prominent setting in both films, and the sale of a young girl to a pimp occurs in both. But there’s one big difference: Salaam Bombay! is empathetic but resolutely clear-eyed, whereas Majidi – as with his previous work in Iran – doesn’t shy away from sentiment.

The opening minutes of the film announce that Majidi’s a tourist here, as Amir drives past Mumbai landmarks: Marine Drive, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Gateway of India. When we first meet him, Amir is a bouncy optimist, convinced that the hard drugs he’s selling and the deals he’s making with a scary pimp (Shashank Shende) will be his ticket out of the chawl. It’s difficult not to be reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in the first 30 minutes, not just because the score is by A.R. Rahman, but also because of the propulsion and hustle of the filmmaking. When the police bust in on Amir and his friends, Majidi and cinematographer Anil Mehta construct a breathless chase through gullies and markets, ending in the giant clothes-wash where Tara (Malavika Mohanan), Amir’s sister, works.

All this rude energy is quite thrilling—and a little surprising, if your only exposure to Majidi has been lyrical films like Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise. Unfortunately, little that follows in Beyond the Clouds can match up to this passage. Tara is assaulted by Akshi (Gautam Ghose), a co-worker who’s besotted with her, and strikes him in self-defence—all shown as shadow-play behind a flapping sheet in a sea of drying clothes. She’s carted off to jail, where she’ll remain for life if Akshi dies. Amir—whose parents are dead and whose relationship with his sister is complicated—resolves to find a way to get her out of jail, but worse is to come for both.

Even as the misery piles up and the siblings become increasingly frantic, screenwriter Mehran Kashani introduces a key Majidi motif: the innocence of children. Tara takes over the care of her sickly cellmate’s young boy, while Amir, in a strange narrative twist, finds himself looking after the bedridden Akshi’s aged mother (G.V. Sharada) and two daughters (he also buys medicines to keep Akshi alive, so that he can testify to his sister’s innocence). The slow build to the four of them forming a makeshift family might strike you as moving, or you might feel – as I did – that it’s a little too rose-tinted. The preciousness is exacerbated by Rahman’s score, poured over the emotional moments like syrup.

In his first lead role, Ishaan Khatter (half-brother to actor Shahid Kapoor) is compellingly fraught; the only time it’s clear he doesn’t belong to the world his character is from is when Amir speaks to Akshi’s daughter in broken English which isn’t quite broken enough. Mohanan, sidelined in the film’s second half, has to make do with scenes in which her character is hysterical or where the focus is on her young cellmate. Tannishtha Chatterjee, the best-known member of the cast, plays a bad cough. Vishal Bhardwaj wrote the Hindi dialogue, but you wouldn’t have guessed it.

In the final moments of the film, there are extended scenes of Holi celebrations. You can feel Majidi’s delight at being able to capture all that colour and uninhibited movement. His is a cinema of ripeness, and India is a logical place for him to have made a film. Yet, had it not been Majidi making this, it’s debatable whether Beyond the Clouds, which feels like an artily rendered patchwork of stock Mumbai film moments, would have been on anyone’s radar.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baaghi 2: Review

Of all the ways Baaghi 2 could have declared its chest-beating love for India, it chose one of the most distasteful. After the opening sequence, in which Neha (Disha Patani) is badly beaten and left by the side of the road by carjackers, the action shifts to Kashmir and army officer Ranveer Pratap Singh (Tiger Shroff) thrashing militants—or is it stone-pelters?—in the snow. The next scene shows him using one of these men as a human shield, tied to the hood of his jeep to protect him from an angry crowd. Irrespective of where you stand on the moral implications of such an action (which mirrors an actual incident that took place last year in Kashmir), it takes a certain amped-up, dumbed-down outlook to appropriate it with so much glee.

Ahmed Khan’s film isn’t a sequel to Baaghi (2016), just an expansion of its eternal themes of women finding themselves in trouble and Shroff levelling buildings and demolishing private armies to save them. Neha and Ranveer, or Ronnie, fall in love in college. Though they break up, it takes one letter from her four years later to bring him to Goa. It turns out Neha’s daughter, Rhea, was also in the car that day, and was kidnapped. The problem is, everyone else, including her husband (Darshan Kumar), insists she never had a daughter at all, that her head injuries have turned her delusional.

As Ronnie tries to wrap his easily steamed head around the case, we’re introduced to Neha’s cokehead brother-in-law (Prateik Babbar), a hippie ACP (Randeep Hooda, in on the joke) and his boss (Manoj Bajpayee), and a garage owner (Deepak Dobriyal) with a bum leg, clearly inspired by the Bryan Cranston character in Drive. It’s obvious who the guilty parties are, but it doesn’t matter—even fans aren’t going in expecting Chinatown; they’ll settle for Shroff busting heads and a few moves. “Not all wars are decided by strength,” one of the antagonists tells Ronnie. “Some are won with intelligence.” Faced with that horrifying thought, Shroff grabs the speaker by the throat and slams him against the wall.

A multitude of eye-rolls would be too few for the moment when our hero, in the process of beating up an entire police station, finds time to catch a miniature India flag mid-air and place it safely on a table. The ridiculousness of such scenes almost distracts from the noxious nature of this film, which dilutes its near-constant violence with cheaply bought nationalism. Towards the end of the film, a sobbing Ronnie—who’s just laid waste to a jungle base crawling with armed militia—is told that the war is over. What war?

This review appeared in Mint.

Hichki: Review

After Hindi Medium, Sidharth P Malhotra’s Hichki is the second film in 10 months whose narrative hinges on the Right to Education Act. This isn’t surprising—after all, our films have always felt they have the right to educate. Hichki’s opening minutes are a quick lesson in Tourette’s, a condition Naina (Rani Mukerji) has had since childhood. “Do you know anything about Tourette syndrome?” she asks the panel interviewing her for a teaching job (they haven’t). Not the most elegant screenwriting solution, and there are more lessons to come. We’re whisked into a flashback; young Naina is called on stage by her school principal after her vocal tics disrupt a play. Instead of reprimanding her as we assume he will, he says, “You come to school to learn, but today we have learnt something from you.”

After several rejections, Naina is hired as a teacher at St Notker’s, an elite Mumbai high school. This is only partly due to her qualifications, the principal admits. They’re in urgent need of a teacher to take charge of class 9F, a class with 14 “difficult” students from the nearby slum. Disadvantaged students, idealistic teacher: if you’ve seen To Sir, With Love or Dangerous Minds or Short Term 12, you’ll have a fair idea where this is headed. Thirty minutes or so of teacher trying to win class over, confrontation, tipping point, then a final sprint towards discovering of potential.

This might sound like a harsh assessment of an earnest film, but Hichki often comes across as parachute filmmaking—dropping in on a problem just long enough to prick the viewer’s conscience and make them feel like they’re watching something meaningful, but avoiding any sort of meaningful engagement. When no one turns up for a parent-teacher meeting, Naina goes to her students’ houses. The sequence that follows is a smooth assuaging of liberal guilt—not one parent voices the uncomfortable but believable opinion that they’d rather have their child out of school and earning.

As a contrast to 9F, screenwriters Malhotra, Anckur Chaudhry, Ambar Hadap and Ganesh Pandit populate section 9A with posh, fresh-faced students who look down on their economically disadvantaged peers (whether 9B, C, D and E are on a decreasing scale of nastiness is never addressed). The writers also give Naina an opposite number, the supercilious Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), who pops up every few scenes to mock her unconventional teaching techniques (boiled eggs to explain parabolas, basketballs for potential energy) and employ a series of classist euphemisms for her charges (he drops all pretence at the end, calling them “municipal trash”).

Cartoonish though he is, more than a few readers who’ve attended private school will remember teachers like Wadia—instinctively, unthinkingly class-conscious. If they’re being honest, some will also see glimpses of themselves in the students of 9A. Just because Hichki is guileless and corny doesn’t mean it isn’t knocking on the right door. But Hindi message films aren’t as simplistic as they used to be; just compare the detailed environments and relatively complex characters of Nil Battey Sannata or Secret Superstar with the generic slum and archetypes in this film.

The actors playing the students are wonderful, turning even the rank sentimentality of the later scenes into something watchable. Had the film been less interested in the un-illuminating struggle between Naina and her critical father, we might have been able to get to know the 14 better. But this is ultimately a film about Naina—her students, her solutions, her journey, her hichkis.

This review appeared in Mint.