Thursday, December 27, 2012

Not coming to a theatre near you

I’m all for watching movies in the hall; it’s the natural order of things, and you can’t underestimate the pleasure of hurling abuse (or a shoe) at someone who won’t turn off their cellphone. Yet, sometimes you just know certain films aren’t going to make it to your friendly neighbourhood multiplex. Here are four cases from last year: movies that are unlikely, for one reason or another, to get a theatrical release in India, but are still worth looking out for on DVD in 2013.  

Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh, it may be assumed, makes his ‘entertainers’ (the Ocean’s trilogy, Haywire) in order to finance his more ‘serious’ films (Traffic, Che). If this is true, it’s also worth mentioning that Soderbergh doesn’t condescend to, or have contempt for, the multiplex audience. His popcorn films are made with precision and humour, and filled with top-range actors who want a shot at an Oscar in one of his prestige projects. Magic Mike – his film about male strippers that’s based on the pre-fame experiences of its star Channing Tatum – is, on the surface, a lively musical comedy. As he waits for bank loans to materialise and finance his furniture designing ambitions, Mike Lane (Tatum) makes his living working as a stripper at a club in Tampa, Florida. In between all the bumping, grinding and general hell-raising, there are a series of off-the-cuff conversations, mostly between Mike and Brooke (Cody Horn), the level-headed sister of a new recruit he brings in. As they argue about stereotypes and self-delusion, the movie becomes a cracked portrait of its times, especially when Mike insists that he isn’t defined by his profession or his lifestyle, a post-millennial sentiment if ever there were one.

Take This Waltz

After sharing a cab ride home from the airport, Toronto-dweller Margot (Michelle Williams) realises that Daniel (Luke Kirby), an obnoxious stranger she met on the flight, is her neighbour from across the street. As time goes by, her distaste gives way to friendship and flirtation. Only problem is, she’s already married. This is the strange story of Take This Waltz, the close-but-no-cigar film of the year. Director-screenwriter Sarah Polley tries hard to replicate the rhythms of everyday speech, and the conversations end up sounding rather silly at times (never more so than when Daniel verbally seduces Margot in a coffee shop). Daniel’s profession too is offensively cute: he’s a rickshaw-puller by choice. Yet, if you ignore the blind spots, there’s a lot to admire in Take This Waltz. There are fantastic performances by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen), and a touching turn by comedian Sarah Silverman. The production design – tactile, almost breathing – is a thing of wonder. And there are two unforgettable sequences, both set to the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, that should go some way in ensuring that Williams is nominated for yet another Oscar.

Killer Joe

The nastiest film of 2012 was made by a 77-year-old director. William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) worked with Tracy Letts to adapt the latter’s 1993 play about a killer-for-hire and his brush with an unbelievably screwed-up Texan family. When a drug dealer desperate for money hires ‘Killer Joe’ Cooper to bump off his mother for insurance money, he sets into motion a series of events that’ll violently alter the lives of his dim-witted father, foul-mouthed stepmother and dreamy sister, whom Joe keeps as a ‘retainer’. It’s sickeningly violent and very disturbing, even if you’re familiar with Letts’ perversely funny style (he wrote the Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County). Watch out for Matthew McConaughey, who, as Killer Joe, drops his easy-going shtick and creates a character with all the hypnotic menace and unpredictability of a rattlesnake.

Ruby Sparks

This sophomore effort by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) would have released in theatres here had it starred Katherine Heigl and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and not Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano. Ruby Sparks is a smart riff on the Greek legend of Pygmalion, in which an artist falls in love with his own creation. The hysteria surrounding his Salinger-like debut is yet to fade, but novelist Calvin Weir-Fields spends his days battling writer’s block and a host of neuroses. One day, he writes about a girl who’s been appearing in his dreams, and the words start to flow. He’s surprised, but not as surprised as when he wakes up one morning to find Ruby Sparks, his creation, alive and in love with him. He soon discovers that he can dictate what Ruby feels by writing about her, which leads to an unsettling second half that alternates between dark comedy and psychological drama. Though Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t push the point, Ruby could be anyone who’s being controlled, physically, artistically or emotionally.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Man's World.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Khiladi 786: Review

Khiladi 786 is number eight in the Khiladi series, a loose franchise that began in 1991 and introduced a new kind of action hero in the husky-voiced Akshay Kumar. All subsequent Khiladi films have starred Kumar, though it’s been 12 years since the last, Khiladi 420. Ashish R Mohan, making his directorial debut here after assisting Rohit Shetty on the Golmaal series, pops the Dabangg/Singham/Son of Sardar template into the microwave, lets it heat for a bit and serves it up to a public that seemingly can’t get enough of silly action comedies.

Apart from Khiladi Kumar, the biggest name attached to the film is Himesh Reshammiya, who’s written the story, composed the music and lent his nasal twang to most of the songs. He also plays an inept matchmaker who, in an attempt to get back into the good books of his father, vows to bring Bahattar Singh (Kumar) and Indu Tendulkar (Asin Thottumkal) together in holy matrimony. Given that Bahattar is a criminal – albeit one who beats up other criminals to help out the Punjab police – and Indu the daughter of a Mumbai don (Mithun Chakraborty), it would seem a pretty straightforward match. But that’s too easy for Reshammiya and Mohan, who contrive to bring the entire Singh clan to Mumbai, and have both sides pretend to be policemen. With Rahul Singh filling in as Asin’s jealous boyfriend and token villain, the stage is set for a lot of over-the-top muscle flexing, pronouncements of Punjabi pride and songs that go “lonely lonely tere bin”.

It’s not like there’s no fun to be had. Kumar, a less tightly wound star than Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn, tosses off all his lines with a wink, while Raj Babbar (as Bahattar’s father Sattar), Chakraborty and the perpetually on-edge Rahul Singh are effectively hammy. Some of the gags – Kumar walking on top of a row of afros, for example – are so outrageous they work, and character names like Margaret Mandela Kaur are weird even for Bollywood. But Mohan seems terrified of boring the audience – he’s constantly speeding the action up and slowing it down, a trick which was already stale in 2010. For all the progress made by just-outside-the-mainstream Hindi films this year, no one seems to be giving the slightest thought to changing the staple Bollywood action comedy formula. Considering the brisk business these films do, no one’s likely to attempt it in a hurry either.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

2012: The year in close-up

As 2012 draws to a close and critics across the country start slotting the year’s releases into hits and flops, good films and awful ones, here’s a year-end list with considerably smaller ambitions. Instead of looking at the year in long shot, as it were, I’m going to do an extreme close-up. Here are a handful of moments which, for me, best represent what Bollywood’s been up to these past 12 months. Some are stand-out scenes in bad films, others disappointing interludes in good ones. For one reason or the other, these are likely to be the little details that come to mind when I look back on Hindi cinema in 2012. (Unlike the makers of Barfi!, I’d also like to acknowledge upfront my debt to Richard T Jameson and Kathleen Murphy’s yearly column ‘Moments Out of Time’, whose structure I’ve borrowed for this piece.)
Irrfan Khan training his would-be dacoits in Paan Singh Tomar, reminiscent of similar scenes in Bandit Queen. Tomar’s director Tigmanshu Dhulia was in charge of casting on Shekhar Kapur’s film.
The touching concern shown by Parambrata Chatterjee’s young cop towards the very pregnant Vidya Balan in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani. The ordinariness of Bob Biswas, insurance agent and serial killer. The use of the city of Calcutta as a character in itself. If this was the year of the Bengali director in Bollywood, Kahaani was the first blow delivered.
The camera gazing voyeuristically at Manoj Bajpayee taking a bath in Gangs of Wasseypur I; a neat reversal of the traditional ‘bathing beauty’ gender roles in Hindi cinema.
A mother pointing out to her daughter the man she once loved but gave up – the precise moment when one realised that Barfi! wasn’t a tribute but a rip-off. Stealing silent movie gags is all very well (The Artist got five Oscars for it), but who steals from The Notebook? 
The ‘Raabta’ sequence from Agent Vinod. This flawlessly executed, intricate, unbroken shot – clocking in at 3 minutes and 22 seconds – was the set-piece of the year. Saif and Kareena dodge a motel-full of assassins as the camera weaves its way around arguing couples, blind piano players and baby strollers with machine guns in them.
The year of the chameleon: Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a cop in Kahaani, a mafia boss in Gangs of Wasseypur and a freedom fighter in Chittagong. (He was also in Miss Lovely and Patang, both of which did the festival circuit rounds, and will play a pivotal role in the much-anticipated Talaash.)    
Annu Kapoor in Vicky Donor, delivering the weirdest history lesson in ages, one that relates Alexander the Great and Partition to sperm count. Plus, a new high: Mummyji and Dadiji sitting in the dark and drinking whiskey.
Run, run, run: Joginder Parmar sprinting for his life, CPU clutched to his chest, in Shanghai; Perpendicular skidding through the narrow lanes in Gangs of Wasseypur II; Paan Singh Tomar running for a country that wants his medals, not his problems. 
The two most anti-feminist, say-it-ain’t-so decisions of the year: Parineeti Chopra forgiving Arjun Kapoor for taking advantage of her in Ishaqzaade; a betrayal by the film of its only appealing character, and of Chopra’s thrilling defiance up to that point. A close second: Deepika Padukone deciding that she needs to become a Bharatiya nari to win her love back in Cocktail.
Films with exactly one successful joke: Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, with a bemused Imran Khan sitting through a job interview in Japanese; Fatso, where heaven is a red tape-riddled, error-prone government office; Rowdy Rathore, in which Akshay Kumar ‘rewinds’ Sonakshi Sinha walking by; Kya Super Kool Hain Hum, just for its title (will they add a ‘duper’ for the sequel?).
Abhay Deol in Shanghai, praying as his laptop plays ‘Vishnu Sahasranamam’. Also, from the same film, Farooque Sheikh’s reading of the line “Haathi ho tum. Insult nahin bhoolte”. 
Roshan Seth, a bulldog and a haggard-looking Salman Khan in a bags-under-the-eyes conversation for the ages in Ek Tha Tiger. If Khan was losing sleep over the opening, he shouldn’t have. Ek Tha Tiger’s earnings (250 crores and counting) will probably see him end this year as he’s done the last three – the star of the highest-grossing film. (The fact that Ek Tha Tiger, Bol Bachchan, Rowdy Rathore and Housefull 2 – all panned to various degrees by reviewers – were some of the top money-earners this year tells its own little story about the gap between critical opinion and public taste.)
Best use of soundtrack in 2012: The unexpected change from ominous strings to the gentle rain of Sneha Khanwalkar’s ‘Moora’ in Gangs of Wasseypur II. It’s an indication that even though he has a bullet in his leg and gunmen desperately looking for him, Faisal Khan’s hard day’s night will soon be over.

This piece appeared in GQ's year-end issue. It was written a while back, but nothing especially compelling has happened since then, with the exception of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. If I sat down to write it today, the list would mostly be the same. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stardust Memories and Zelig

By 1980, Woody Allen had already made Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death and Annie Hall, and through them established a comic persona that was identifiably and uniquely his. In 1979, he made Manhattan, his love poem to New York. Then, a year later, he pulled the rug out from under everyone’s feet with Stardust Memories, a vitriolic comedy about the utter difficulty of being a celebrity that riffed on Fellini’s . Allen played a seeming self-portrait called Sandy Bates. Sandy is a neurotic director of comedies whose every joke is analysed, and who keeps getting asked why he doesn’t make them like his early, funny ones anymore (Allen had directed the Bergamanesque Interiors in 1978). He ping-pongs from girlfriend to crush to meaningless fling, the memory of his troubled former lover haunting him all the while.

Stardust Memories is funny, but it isn’t much fun. The jokes keep coming, each more sour and sarcastic than the next. No one is spared – the greedy, grabbing public, the supercilious critics, even Sandy/Woody himself. Everyone assumed Allen was drawing from his own experiences, though the director denied this in later interviews. In either case, explorations into the nature of celebrity have been a recurring theme of Allen’s films since then. This includes his most recent release, To Rome with Love, which has a lot in common with Stardust Memories. The phrase “Ozymandias melancholia” is spoken in both, and Ellen Page’s Monica is a close cousin of Jessica Harper’s Daisy. Both are sharply satirical of fame and its attendant vulgarities, though To Rome with Love does with a wry smile what Stardust Memories does with a sneer.

After Stardust Memories, Allen began work on a film called Zelig. Once again, the subject was the slippery nature of celebrity and public expectations. This time, however, instead of using a framework that could be interpreted as autobiographical, Allen structured his film as a mockumentary. He played Leonard Zelig, a Jazz-era human chameleon who assumes the personality of whoever he’s with. This makes him a huge sensation, but what price fame, Allen asks, if you’re not really your own person? Allen inserted shots of himself into footage from the 1920s; we see Zelig on the field with Babe Ruth, and sitting behind Hitler during a rally. It’s a witty, elusive film, unlike anything else directed by Allen. It was very well-received upon its release in 1983, and Allen liked the idea of disappearing into the 1920s so much, he returned to the theme in 2011’s Midnight in Paris.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Jab Tak Hai Jaan: Review

Meet Samar. Like most penniless Indians in London, he sells fish, waits tables and sings Punjabi folk songs to survive. Meet Meera. She’s a rich girl, prone to making deals with Jesus in empty churches. They meet, and because they’re Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif, they fall in love; never mind that she’s engaged, or that he comes on like Clark Gable (“If I kiss you, will you slap me? I don’t think so”). Then, just when she’s about to leave her fiancé for a penniless singing waiter, he’s hit by a car. As he fights for his life, Meera makes one of her divine bargains, something along the lines of “Save him, and I promise I’ll never see him again.” (Don’t ask.) At any rate, the god of flawed screenplays intervenes, and next thing you know, Samar is a Hurt Locker-style bomb disposal expert in Ladakh. (Please don’t ask.)

Difficult as it may be to imagine, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, directed by the late Yash Chopra and written by Aditya Chopra and Devika Bhagat, becomes even more implausible in its second half. Suffice to say there’s another accident, a diagnosis of retrograde amnesia and a complex game of pretend suggested by a doctor whose license may need examining. Is this the same Aditya Chopra who wrote Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge? It must be, because there’s a scene in a European church, another in a green field with yellow flowers, and a character who gets to say “Jaa, jee le…” But these Yash Raj staples are all the more depressing because they no longer seem genuinely felt. It may sound cynical, but a Hindi film with a climactic speech in English surely has at least one eye on the NRI market.

As Akira, a journalist who finds out about Samar’s love story by accident and tags along with his unit for a TV documentary, Anushka Sharma pumps some young blood into a picture that’s badly in need of a transfusion. But despite a few attempts to make the film seem hip (sex jokes, a dance sequence straight out of Step Up), by the end, Khan is reduced to making self-deprecating statements about being an old-fashioned lover. Truth is, it’s not just the 47-year-old Khan (who, it must be said, remains 100 per cent committed throughout) who’s aging. The whole roses-and-eternal-love formula may be past its expiry date.

We’d rather not point out more flaws in Yash Chopra’s swansong. Instead, let’s celebrate what has been a singularly important career. When we reached Delite theatre, a huge crowd had gathered in time for the first show. Banners were up, and the famous Jea Band performed hits from Chopra’s films. It was a good old-fashioned first-day first-show – a small but fitting send-off for a man who’s helped shape Bollywood’s trajectory over so many decades.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chakravyuh: Review

Welcome to the cinema of the painfully obvious. Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh is a dramatisation (one might say melodramatisation) of assorted tussles between Naxal forces and the State. Names and locations may have been changed, but it would be surprising if audiences are unable to figure out that Mahanta’s a stand-in for Vedanta, Nandighat for Nandigram. Some may even realise that the character Om Puri is playing is based on real-life activist Kobad Ghandy, or that Jha is doffing his hat to the left-leaning Jana Natya Manch by calling a group of singers Jana Natya Mandali.

All these details are supposed to make Chakravyuh look like it’s an accurate portrayal of real events. Yet this is a film whose grip on reality is consistently tenuous. Kabir (Abhay Deol) is a police academy dropout with a short fuse – just the kind of person you’d trust to infiltrate a gang of Naxals and act as an informant. He’s given the task anyway, by Nandighat’s chief of police Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal), an old friend. It stands to reason that the Naxals will trust him, never frisk him for a cell phone, and provide him with ample opportunities to sneak off and chat with his pal. It also makes perfect sense that Kabir will eventually have a change of heart and decide to become an actual Naxal fighter.

This is the kind of film where people find it necessary to yell “Police aa rahi hai, bhaago” when there’s a helicopter in the background and a man standing on the edge with a gun. The kind of film where a dozen armed policemen are ordered to stand back and let their commander take on a deadly militant in hand-to-hand combat. To make matters worse, the script, by Jha, Anjum Rajabali and Sagar Pandya, is riddled with clichés. Rampal brings this into sharp relief by intoning all his lines as he usually does – slowly and seriously. Deol, an actor whose comfort zone is moral ambiguity, seems confused by the conscientious character he’s playing. Only Manoj Bajpayee, as the leader of the Naxal outfit, and Anjali Patil, his second-in command, escape with their dignity unscraped.

Prakash Jha is a rare Bollywood filmmaker who’s consistently drawn to unfashionable, socially-conscious subjects. This film, however well-meaning, must count as one of his lesser efforts. As the audience snickered its way through an increasingly ludicrous last hour, it seemed clear that somewhere between intent and execution, Jha had gotten caught in a chakravyuh of his own.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Rush: Review

Even if you’ve never read John Grisham’s The Firm or seen the 1993 Tom Cruise-starrer based on it, you’ll spot the twists in Rush long before they arrive. Within the first ten minutes of the film, it’s established that Samar Grover (Emraan Hashmi) is a TV crime reporter, out of a job and with bills to pay. Enter Roger Khanna (Aditya Pancholi), head of an implausible TV channel called Crime 24, who offers Samar a senior position, a new BMW and the illicit attentions of slinky Wharton graduate Lisa Kapoor (Neha Dhupia). Samar joins the channel and ratings soar. But there’s something murky about the way this 24-hour crime channel is always first on the scene..

Rush was directed by Shamin Desai, who died last year (his wife Priyanka completed the film). It’s mildly entertaining in parts, and Gary Shaw’s cinematography is impressive, but the plot’s too predictable and the media-baiting too paranoid for it to develop into anything significant. As the morally malleable Samar, Hashmi is smooth without being arresting. He fares better than Pancholi, who seems to be playing a parody of a playboy villain. Dhupia and Sagarika Ghatge are the token vamp and girlfriend (there’s an unintentionally hilarious stay-away-from-my-man scene). There are a few scattered laughs – the channel’s head of security is called Cujo – and the second half has split screens and a screeching Skrillex-like background score to try and get some adrenalin flowing. But even when it does, it’s never a real rush.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana: Review

Even if Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana was a total washout, it would still have rendered an important public service by highlighting how closely a clean-shaven Kunal Kapoor resembles Anil Kumble. As it happened, Sameer Sharma’s directorial debut was diverting enough to banish thoughts of Jumbo, even if we did find ourselves scanning the horizon from time to time for a Nayan Mongia lookalike.

Omi Khurana (Kapoor), a layabout in London, owes a Punjabi gangster by the name of Shanty a large sum of money. (“Pounds”, the bald, revolver-flashing gentleman insists, “not paise.”) Threatened with an involuntary kidney donation, Omi offers to get it sent down from his home in Punjab. Shanty insists that Omi bring back the money himself – not the most intelligent move, even for a cartoon gangster. But Sharma, who wrote Swades and assisted Aditya Chopra on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, obviously knows that the emotional impact of a good return trumps logic.

So Omi, now minus beard, reappears in the small town of Lalton. We soon find out why he was so reluctant to return, even with a gangster pointing a gun at him. It transpires that Omi, who was raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents died, had chloroformed his grandfather, stolen money and run away from the house years ago. Luckily, his folks are big on forgiveness. There’s only one problem – the family’s restaurant business, which he’d hoped would fund his debt to Shanty, has closed down. The solution, as the movie starts hinting early on, might lie in his now-infirm granddad’s secret recipe for “Chicken Khurana”.

Lalton is not too different a landscape from the one Gurvinder Singh mapped out with unnerving seriousness in Anhey Ghorey Da Daan last year. While Luv Shuv is markedly different from that film – it’s an entertainer, with artistic flourishes kept to the minimum – it does respect, in its own way, the reality of its small-town Punjab setting. Portable radios double up as boomboxes. When there’s a chase sequence, it’s a jeep followed by a scooter followed by an auto. And when Omi wants to meet his childhood friend Harman (Huma Qureshi), he does so in secret, so that people don’t start pointing out that she’s engaged to his younger brother (their impending union, clearly untenable for a bunch of reasons, is the film’s one unnecessary subplot).

Since Luv Shuv is set in the Punjab, not Punjab-via-Delhi, it’s possible that some of the accents will be dismissed as insufficiently authentic. That aside, the cast is winsome and cleverly assembled. Rajesh Sharma is great as the crass uncle, Vinod Nagpal from Hum Log is the grandfather, and Dolly Ahluwalia has a nice cameo as a religious leader who likes to get high. Kapoor downplays Omi’s charm and focuses on his shiftiness, while Qureshi continues, post Gangs of Wasseypur, to work wonders with minimal change of expression. Capping an experimental year for Bollywood music, Amit Trivedi unfurls a mish-mash of guitar riffs, bass-heavy EDM and Punjabi folk. The film’s resolution of its characters’ dilemmas is a bit disingenuous, but Sharma has a knack – again, befitting someone who worked on DDLJ – for the sweetly engineered plot twist.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Innocent Sorcerers: Review

The Polish public was left with mixed feelings in the aftermath of World War II. They were free from the Nazi regime, but found themselves a part of the Soviet Union, whose socialist agenda would not allow them to enjoy the same freedoms their European allies were now able to. For the generation that grew up in the ’50s in particular, these restrictions were particularly galling. They wanted to listen to jazz, be materialistic, discover themselves as individuals; the State wanted them to share and to conform. This tug-of-war is the unspoken subtext of Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda’s “youth film” from 1960.

Wajda burst onto the scene in the 1950s with his “War Trilogy” – A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds. These were sombre, moving films that captured not only the ravages of the war years but also the uncertain peacetime that followed; they made Wajda’s name in Poland and overseas. His next film Lotna was also connected to the war, but the one that followed that was a significant departure. The characters in Innocent Sorcerers are – at least on the surface – comfortable in their own skins and on the lookout for fun. At the film’s centre is Andrzej, a “sports doctor”, jazz drummer and compulsive womaniser (played with sublime cool by Tadeusz Łomnicki), who meets his match in a young woman who calls herself Pegalia. 

It’s fascinating how easily Innocent Sorcerers could be mistaken for a French New Wave film. There’s the self-referentiality: the film’s poster is revealed to be a billboard after the opening credits, a radio gives a song’s source as “the film Innocent Sorcerers”. There’s a strange moment when Łomnicki looks at the camera and addresses the “author”, a move that was probably a jab at the censors, but nevertheless one which would have fit right in with the auteur-worshipping New Wave crowd. There’s also a striking similarity between the long seduction scene that takes in Andrzej’s apartment and the one in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Yet, all of this is happy coincidence – there’s almost no way Wajda could have seen the films coming out of France by the time he made Innocent Sorcerers.
Keen followers of Polish cinema should find a lot to get excited about in this, one of Wajda’s lesser-seen features. Two future greats of Polish and global cinema, Roman Polański and Jerzy Skolimowski (also the film’s co-writer), make cameo appearances. Krzysztof Komeda, who started one of the first jazz groups in Poland, contributes a terrific score. (Many Polish films of this period have a strong jazz element.) Best of all, there’s a brief but entertaining appearance by Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean”, with his ever-present shades and leather jacket. Wajda had earlier cast Cybulski to great effect as the lead in Ashes and Diamonds. His role here is miniscule, but there’s an eerie moment when Łomnicki tells him “You’ll get killed one of these days if you’re not careful”. Cybulski died in 1967 while jumping from a moving train. His unique, nervy charm is on display this fortnight in three films – Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train, Janusz Morgenstern’s Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, and Wajda’s – which, along with Andrzej Munk’s Eroica, are being screened by the Polish Institute. 

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dark city: L.A. neo-noir

Though film noir will forever be associated with American movies of the ‘40s, the term actually originated in France. It was coined in 1946 by a French critic called Nino Frank (noir means ‘black’ in French), and in 1955, with A Panorama of American Film Noir, his countrymen Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton conducted the first in-depth study of the genre. It was an apt label: these films were undeniably black, both in their visual style (mostly dark interiors lit with a single light source) and their pessimistic outlook. Many of the golden age noirs – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep – were set in Los Angeles; something in that city’s mixture of seediness and high glamour called out to directors working in this genre. Decades on, L.A. is still a favoured setting for filmmakers looking to push the boundaries of noir, as can be seen in these four titles.

Blade Runner (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

In 1982, Ridley Scott released a sci-fi film that was, strangely but unmistakably, also a noir. Blade Runner plays out in a Los Angeles of the future, with flying cars and android-like creatures called replicants. Yet it’s also possible to draw a line connecting Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard to the loner private eyes played by Humphrey Bogart and Ralph Meeker over half a century ago. The film has other noir characteristics as well – voice-over narration, wet, dark streets, a femme fatale and a general air of fatalism. Blade Runner is based on Phillip K Dick’s cult novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in the years since its release, it’s become somewhat of a cult item itself. Twenty years after its dystopian visions first surfaced, the film remains one of the most persuasive arguments for taking noir out of its comfort zone and allowing it to spread its dark sheen over other genres.  

The Usual Suspects (Sony Pictures, Rs 599)

For certain film geeks who grew up in the ‘90s, Bryan Singer’s film was the height of cool. It looked like a noir, sounded like a gangster movie, and behaved like the smartest kid in the class. It had one of the juiciest set-ups in film history: a group of criminals meeting in a line-up at a police station. The characters all had names to die for – Kobayashi, Fenster, Verbal Kint, Keyser Soze. The action is spread over two great noir cities – New York and Los Angeles. Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay was pure pulp, a late entry in the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, though with one significant difference – Chandler’s universe is usually governed by some kind of moral code, while The Usual Suspects is exhilaratingly amoral. Its rug-pulling denouement is justly famous, but the real fun is in getting the surprises out of the way and coming back to admire the sleight of hand filmmaking that sets everyone up for a fall.

L.A. Confidential (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

L.A. Confidential would make a nice double bill with Chinatown, another noirish look at systemic corruption. Polanksi’s film was a key influence, and Confidential’s director Curtis Hanson acknowledged this by giving one of his characters a bandaged nose like the one Jack Nicholson sported in the 1974 film. Set in the 1950s, L.A. Confidential’s Los Angeles is a city going to seed. The editor of a sleazy gossip mag provides tip-offs to a detective. A prostitution racket supplies call girls who resemble movie stars. Policemen spend Christmas Eve administering a beating to a group of jailbirds. Amidst all this, two straight-shooting cops see their parallel investigations dovetail. While it didn’t quite break new ground for the genre, L.A. Confidential is nevertheless a stylish, highly entertaining period thriller. Watch it just for its cast – the pre-fame duo of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, and Kim Bassinger made up as Veronica Lake (two femme fatales for the price of one).

Drive (Reliance Home Video, Rs 599)

When Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last year for Drive, he earned comparisons with Michael Mann. While its slick action scenes and night-time explorations of L.A. place it in Mann territory, Drive is also reminiscent of the more romantic noir films by Hollywood émigrés like Robert Siodmak and Jacques Tourneur. (Like Tourneur’s lushly poetic Out of the Past, Drive too has a protagonist who lives on the edge of society and returns for one final job.) Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a stuntman and getaway driver-for-hire who falls for his married neighbour, only to find himself inheriting her husband’s problems with the local mafia. Juxtaposing moments of great tenderness with shocking bouts of violence, the film ends up somewhere between a fairy tale and a very gory gangster film. Still, if you like your movies sleek, swift and sentimental, Drive is your vehicle.

This piece was published in the October issue of Man's World.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nosferatu: DVD Review

The first thing to keep in mind is that Nosferatu released in 1922. This means the German public had just been given a mighty scare off-screen, and would receive a series of shocks for the next two decades. Onscreen scares had not been invented yet, but FW Murnau would change all that. Though some might cite The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or The Golem, both released in 1920, or even 1913's The Student of Prague, it is actually Noseferatu which should qualify as the first horror film ever made. (It beat the Swedish faux-documentary Haxan, a scarier affair, by a few months.) It was also the first vampire movie, which makes Murnau the earliest – and unlikeliest – cinematic ancestor of the Twi-hards.

Murnau was one of cinema’s great early poets. He would go on to direct The Last Laugh, Faust, and the most lyrical of all silent films, Sunrise. Nosferatu was his first classic; an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Apart from a few minor changes – the count was called Orlok, Harker was changed to Hutter – the film was to a large extent faithful to its source. Hutter is a real estate agent who visits Orlok’s castle in the Carpathian mountains. After some broad hints, it dawns on him (here begins the horror film tradition of the slow-witted pretty boy protagonist) that his host is a nosferatu, or a vampire. The rest of the movie is a mish-mash of fangs, ghost ships, rat plagues and women in ecstasy (the vampire as seducer: another genre staple born).

Is Nosferatu still scary? Ninety years of films that bump in the dark later, the answer is no. There are a few creepy moments – you just know Tim Burton loves that shot of Orlok’s shadow menacingly advancing towards a wall face – but the greater shock today is the openness with which Murnau pushes the psychosexual aspects of the story (unlike the 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu does not shy away from showing Orlok suck the blood from Hutter’s thumb). This was the only element that Hollywood did not – or could not – borrow wholesale from the Germans for their own horror films of the 1930s. In every other way, German expressionism formed the basis for what we now regard as the golden era of horror.

A minor gripe about this particular edition of Nosferatu. Viewers might be surprised to find that the film isn’t in black and white at all; instead, scenes have strong yellow, pink and blue tints, an early cinema trick to alert audiences to changes in time and mood. Noseferatu was released in this form, but then the original print went missing. In 1984, the “colour” print was discovered and restored, followed by two other versions in 1995 and 2005 (the latter is on view here). Film buffs might have welcomed nuggets like this, but the bare-bones DVD pack, like the film, is silent on these matters.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Auteurs Anderson

Wrote this for Man's World. Couldn't find a link online, but here's the piece as it was carried. 

They both made directorial debuts in 1996. Since then, both have been called ‘America’s best filmmaker’ at one time or another. And as fate would have it, they’re both named Anderson. The first, Paul Thomas Anderson, struggled with studio interference on his first film Hard Eight, but bounced back with an incredible sequence: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Wes Anderson, by contrast, emerged fully formed with Bottle Rocket, and was anointed ‘the next Scorsese’ by Scorsese himself. He’s followed that with one intricate, idiosyncratic gem after another.

Scorsese is actually one of the few things these two have in common. His stylistic influence can be seen in PT’s bravura long-takes (the opening of Boogie Nights recalls the Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas), as well as Wes’s scored montages. Apart from this, and their shared habit of casting a certain set of actors in several of their movies, the two inhabit different cinematic worlds. PT is like Robert Altman, Wes is more Hal Ashby. PT’s characters are usually in the process of discovering themselves, while Wes’s are preoccupied with mending, escaping or replacing their dysfunctional families. Wes’s movies are set in an off-kilter universe all of his own; PT’s are located within the cracks of a recognisable world.

Both directors have a film out this year. Wes’s Moonrise Kingdom premiered at Cannes, while PT’s The Master will release abroad in October. While both films should make their way to our shores eventually, you can use the time before that to catch up with – or revisit – their earlier work on DVD. Here’s my pick of the Andersons.

Wes Anderson: The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox

Though some argue that the 1998 film Rushmore is Anderson’s best till date, a strong case can also be made for The Royal Tenenbaums (Disney, Rs 399). Released in 2001, it tells the story of the Tenenbaum clan – distracted patriarch Royal, his ex-wife and their three children, child prodigies once but now adrift in life. While Salinger’s Glass family is a probable inspiration, the film is bursting with little details that are pure Anderson: Dalmatian mice, a falcon called Mordecai, matching red tracksuits worn by Ben Stiller and his two sons. Gene Hackman heads a superb cast that includes Luke and Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the soundtrack is both eclectic and apt.

Fantastic Mr Fox (Excel Movies, Rs 399), made eight years later, achieves something even rarer – the transfer of directorial handprint from live action to animation. For though the story is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Fantastic Mr Fox looks, feels and sounds like a Wes Anderson film. It’s all there: the atypical family dynamic, a son looking for his father’s approval, the little cinematic nods (Citizen Kane, Day for Night). Even the choice of animation technique – the fastidious, elegant process of stop motion – seems appropriate.

PT Anderson: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood

Boogie Nights (Eagle Home Entertainment, Rs 99) released in 1997 and immediately marked Anderson out as an ambitious, fluid filmmaker. The film was set in the Los Angeles porn industry of the ‘70s. Burt Reynolds’ director chances upon the prodigiously endowed Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and offers him the lead role in his film, as well as a glimpse of the high life. At first, the film bounces along like a cork on the water, buoyant and sunny. Then, as the decade draws to a close, it changes face and becomes darker (the actual porn industry also suffered a downturn in the ‘80s, with the advent of video and the threat of AIDS). Boogie Nights is dotted with sensational set-pieces: the long opening shot introducing the principal players; the swimming pool sequence that echoes Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba; the stand-off at the mansion, with a dead-eyed Wahlberg as scary as the raving Alfred Molina.

If 2007's No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton were portraits of modern-day America’s spiritual crisis, There Will Be Blood (Disney, Rs 299), released the same year, was a key to the miasma. It’s the story of an early 20th century oil prospector, played with menacing authority by Daniel-Day Lewis, and his battle with a young priest for the soul of a small town. The movie is gritty and stark; you can almost taste the dust and the oil through Robert Elswitt’s visuals, and hear the madness in Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score. Anderson said that he watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre repeatedly while making There Will Be Blood, and it’s clear how much John Huston’s movie about frontier lives ruined by greed has influenced this one. One also gets the sense of a naturally flashy filmmaker cutting away the fat and getting down to the basics. No Country may have nabbed the Oscar with its more abstract apocalyptic visions, but There Will Be Blood was the real deal. 

English Vinglish: Review

Sridevi always seemed like a great candidate for a second innings. India’s biggest female star in the ’80s and early ’90s, she was also – script- and director-willing – a terrific actor, with standout performances in films like Sadma and Lamhe. On hiatus for the past 15 years, she’s back as the lead in Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut English Vinglish. Happily, she still has that unforced charm that made her one of the least narcissistic Bollywood stars of her generation. Pity, then, that this diverting but uneven comeback film spends its latter half struggling to keep it real.

Sridevi plays Shashi Godbole, a Pune homemaker with a tenuous grasp on the English language. Her bratty daughter and supercilious husband (Adil Hussain) keep pointing out her mistakes – something she’s embarrassed about, but has come to accept and live with. But when she has to travel by herself to New York for her niece’s wedding, the problem is compounded. Enter an impossibly diverse English tutorial class (pro-gay, even) and English Vinglish becomes an American version of the British TV series Mind Your Language. Shashi and her classmates (including the fine French actor Mehdi Nebbou) stumble towards fluency, even as Shinde throws in a bunch of touristy montages that tell us little about the city they’re flattering. Still, the classroom scenes are funny, with everyone gamely playing up their racial stereotypes. (Rajeev Ravindranathan’s broad Tamilian accent must have tickled Sridevi, who belongs to that state.)

As Shashi began to find herself, we started to find ourselves dreading a melodramatic backlash. It arrived on cue. Her family joins her early, and turns out to be as insufferable on holiday as they were back home. Her final examination is scheduled for the same day as the wedding (of course it is). Most disappointingly, instead of taking her emancipation to its logical end, Shashi goes ahead and does what Hindi film mothers have been doing for the past century – sacrifice her dreams for her family. “I don’t need love, I just need a little respect,” Shashi tells her niece at one point. For that to happen, she’ll probably have to start respecting herself a little.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Barfi! - Review

One of the happy triumphs of Barfi! is the way it manages to avoid becoming a “message film”, even though one of its protagonists is deaf-mute and another autistic. Our films – even sensitively handled ones like Black and Taare Zameen Par – tend to use disabled characters as a sort of censorious mirror reflecting society’s biases and indifference. Barfi!, on the other hand, sticks close to its characters, treating them like real people, not issues to be resolved.

Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor) is a young man-about-Darjeeling. He cannot hear or speak, but is otherwise well-adjusted: cycling around, flirting and troubling the local cops. He falls for Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), and despite her protestations (she’s engaged), woos her like a regular Charles Chaplin. At the same time, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), the autistic daughter of a local businessman, re-enters his life. As the story unfolds in an intricate series of flashbacks, we watch these three characters chase each other from Darjeeling to Calcutta and back, with Saurabh Shukla’s harried police officer a constant step behind. There’s kidnapping and attempted robbery and even a murder, yet the film never loses its whimsical tone.

Maybe it was the mountain air, or the fact that he’s a Bengali director finally getting to shoot in Bengal, but Barfi! seems to have released something joyful and buoyant in Anurag Basu. Unlike the pessimistic narratives of his previous two films, Life in a... Metro and Kites, this one glides along like classic silent comedy. Kapoor adds to this impression, with a performance so light on its feet it makes everyone else seem like they’re trying too hard.

One might fault the director for introducing a plot coincidence too many. One could criticise the theft of certain silent movie standards, like the handsy marionette, or the piece of paper that won’t get unstuck. After a while though, it might be easier to just sit back, relax and surrender to Barfi!’s varied charms. There’s Pritam’s music, appropriately sunny and eccentric. There are the committed performances, not just by Kapoor, but also Chopra, Shukla and Akash Khurana as Barfi’s dad. There’s the cinematography by Ravi Varman, who performs small miracles, shooting through trees and off reflected surfaces. And there’s Darjeeling in the ’70s, a picture postcard simulation of an age when people actually sent postcards.

This review is on the Time Out website.

Postscript: Was disappointed to hear that one of Barfi!'s scenes is a straight lift from The Notebook, and another one from the Japanese film Departures. It's easier to explain away the silent film borrowings, not so much these

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Catch a fire

I've been a fan of Fire in Babylon since I saw it a year or so ago. It's a tremendously entertaining documentary, and those of you who haven't seen it have a chance next week, thanks to a limited theatrical release courtesy PVR. I spoke to the director Stevan Riley for this piece for Time Out. 

The English, as we all know, introduced its colonies – notably India and the West Indies – to cricket. Not surprising then, that defeating their former rulers at their own game would prove a huge boost to the self-esteem of these two cricketing nations. After India recorded their first series win in England in 1971, Wisden reported that people in Bombay were dancing in the streets and garlanding wireless sets. And the 3-0 drubbing the West Indies gave England in 1976 marked the beginning of nothing less than a new era in world cricket.

Fire in Babylon, an affectionate look back at the West Indian team of the late ’70s, uses this series win as a dramatic turning point in its story. In 1975, the Windies were humiliated by the Australian fast bowlers, a defeat that galvanised their captain Clive Lloyd into finding his own pace battery. A year later, he had Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Vanburn Holder (Colin Croft and Joel Garner would soon join that line-up). The real spark, however, was English skipper Tony Greig’s promise to make the West Indian visiting team “grovel”. As Gordon Greenidge points out in the film, this was not a very clever thing to say. The West Indian pacemen, bowling fast and short of a length (in a pre-helmet age), subjected the English to a torrid time. The visitors won 3-0. Jamaican band Ezeike had a hit with “Who’s Grovelling Now?”.

Fire in Babylon’s director, British documentary filmmaker Steven Riley, is a long-time fan of the West Indian team, especially their fast bowlers. “I remember watching matches as a teenager, waiting for someone to get hurt,” he said, over the phone from London. “That was part of the excitement.” He said that in those days, he “partly supported the West Indies, even when they were playing against England”. (Many Indians who grew up in the’70s and ’80s have made similar admissions about this particular team.) In 2009, when two cricket-crazy producers, Ben Elliott and Ben Goldsmith, floated the idea of making a film on the subject, he jumped at the chance to direct it.

Riley may have been a fan, but he wasn’t an expert. To remedy this, he dove into research, reading everything from CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to player biographies. His immersion in the period helped him convince several greats from the team to appear in his film. “The real turning point was when we got Viv on board,” Riley said. Vivian Richards, regarded by many as the greatest batsman of his era, lends his deep-voiced authority to the film, as do Croft, Greenidge, Lloyd, Holding and Roberts. Holding even does the narration in his distinctive patois. There’s also a diverse sample of talking heads: dreadlocked author Frank I, professor Hilary Beckles and the legendary Bunny Wailer.

Wailer isn’t the only musician to feature in the film. Fire in Babylon is the closest thing imaginable to a cricket-themed calypso-and-reggae musical. Though the narrative focuses on the years between 1975 and ’85, the soundtrack goes further back, featuring singers like Lord Short Shirt, and a performance of Lord Beginner’s 1950 number “Cricket Lovely Cricket”, with its immortal couplet “With those little pals of mine/ Ramadhin and Valentine”. Riley said it was difficult to imagine making the film any other way. “Music is so much part of the culture in the West Indies,” he said. “You can’t walk 20 yards in Jamaica without someone coming at you with a ghetto blaster.” He pointed out how singing eulogies to the cricket team was a local tradition. “The overlaps between music and cricket and politics there are fascinating.”

Audiences here should find it easy to identify with one of Fire in Babylon’s recurring themes: that cricket, at its best, is more than just a game. “These islands only come together under the banner of the West Indian cricket team. It’s the only thing we do together,” says Holding at one point. The film examines how this team became a unifying force for the islands, and how its success went some way in erasing the lingering colonial hangover. The team was also, in its own way, a political force, standing up for blacks in South Africa during apartheid, and for their own rights as athletes and entertainers (frustrated with their low salaries, they briefly ditched the national team for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket).

The biggest stumbling block with discussing the Windies’ glorious past is that the discussion invariably turns to its unhappy present. After remaining unbeaten between 1980 and 1995 – an unrivalled run in modern sport – the supply of lightning quicks dried up and the slump began. Riley hoped that his film might serve as “an education” for young West Indians unaware of their cricketing past. It’s already done the trick once. On 12th June this year, in the third Test against England, Tino Best scored 95, a world record for a number 11 batsman. Later, he credited Fire in Babylon as the inspiration for his knock.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance began writing Blue Valentine in 1998, when he was 24 years and one film old. He ended up completing it 12 years later. In the meantime, he got married, had a kid, made documentaries for a living. Though spending that much time on one hard-sell project might have led someone else to quit the business altogether, Blue Valentine is arguably stronger for it. For Cianfrance’s film examines, unflinchingly, the effect of the passage of time on a relationship.

When we're first introduced to Dean and Cindy (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling), the husband-wife pair are so irritable with each other, one wonders whether there was any love to begin with. A little later, that question is answered. A parallel strand of the story shows the couple younger by a decade or so, happy, hopeful. As he begins to court her, the film starts to bite into the viewer’s skin. We know how this ends. It’s like watching a ballet turn into a train wreck. It doesn’t help that Gosling and Williams reach within themselves and pull out performances worthy of a Cassevettes film.

It seems pretty unlikely that anyone would allow children to watch a DVD whose cover has “The most provocative film of the year” emblazoned across it. Nevertheless, a couple of sex scenes pertinent to the story have been snipped off. But Blue Valentine remains damaging and dangerous, in ways that simple-minded censors will never get around to understanding. The film gives it to us straight. Love will fade. Familiarity will breed contempt. Ryan Gosling will lose his hair and start looking like a creepy spud. It even punctures that great movie lie, that the memory of love may be enough to save things. This DVD has no special features, though interested viewers should seek out Cianfrance’s interview with critic Elvis Mitchell on the KCRW website. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Delhi in a Day: Review

When Jasper (Lee Williams) arrives in Delhi bursting with enthusiasm and going on about discovering the real India, one gets the sinking feeling that this will turn out to be that kind of film. But Delhi in a Day is hardly enamoured of the country or the city it’s set in. Jasper’s wanderings are interrupted when he finds out that all his money has been stolen. (What sort of traveller keeps his entire life savings in his suitcase?) As his classist, crass hosts, the Bhatias, accuse their domestic help of the crime, Delhi’s upper class gets the full blast of debutant director Prashant Nair’s disapproval.

It would be foolish to deny the problematic attitudes of many in this city (and country) towards their domestic help. Yet Nair, who lives but has visited Delhi several times in the past, is so eager to show the injustice done that he reduces the Bhatia family to caricatures and the help to virtuous victims. Kalpana (Lillete Dubey) and Mukund (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) are the mismatched couple at the film’s centre; they have two bratty kids, one of whom should come with the label “only furthers plot”. The only decent member is the grandfather played by Victor Banerjee (placing a Bengali aesthete among so many uncultured Punjabis adds its own little wrinkle of criticism to proceedings). The help are shown as loyal, helpless and scared – especially when their employers threaten to involve the police. Despite some nice location shooting (it was just a matter of time before a feature film crew wandered in Kathputli colony) and an assured debut by Anjali Patil as the housemaid who Jasper falls for, this film reminded us of being called up in front of a classroom. You know you’ve done something wrong, but it’s not a pleasant experience.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan: Review

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan acknowledges its debt upfront, with the dedication “For Mani, in remembrance” preceding the opening frame. The film’s director Gurvinder Singh had asked the late Mani Kaul to act as “creative director” on his film. Kaul agreed, but his death last year meant that Singh could only show him the opening ten minutes of his feature debut. The film was completed last year and ended up winning Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Punjabi Film at the National Awards.

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan opens during an eclipse, and, 117 minutes later, the viewer is still in the dark. This is not intended as a criticism, though viewers are advised to go in knowing that that they’ll be offered very little in terms of explanation, expository dialogue or (God forbid) voice-over. What you get instead is rigorous, highly-controlled filmmaking, and a small handful of facts. An old man’s house, constructed on land that’s been sold off to local industrialists, has been demolished. The whole village is on tenterhooks. The rickshaw-pullers union in the nearby town is on strike. And one Melu Singh, who may or may not have stolen money from his wife, refuses to go home.

In place of a story, Gurvinder Singh offers a collection of moments frozen in time (in this, Kaul’s influence is clear). One indelible image follows another: a baby owl in a tree, a group of women silently standing on a street corner, an old man protectively placing his hand on his grandson’s head. Satya Rai Nagpaul’s camera alternates between static, formally beautiful compositions and slow, raking shots that recalled Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. This is coupled with a sound mix that foregrounds the clatter of everyday life. Tight-lipped though it may be, this is a rare art film that’s free of artifice.

Despite all of Anhey Ghorey Da Daan’s achievements, even patient viewers might eventually start clamouring for clarity. One need only compare it to Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme d’Or-winner The White Ribbon to see how a film with similar beauty and reticence could be used to make a definite point. Both films create an atmosphere of great foreboding out of little details, but Haneke goes a step further, indicating the kind of collective mindset that led to the rise of fascism in Germany. Anhey Ghorey Da Daan refuses to be drawn out, though if you let it draw you in, you might see a side of Punjab that rarely makes it to the big screen.

This review was published in Time Out Delhi.


One successful gag does not a good film make. This is the sad lesson of Fatso!, though the gag in question is so beautifully thought out and executed, it almost makes the rest of the movie’s misfires bearable. Almost.

After he dies in a car crash, Navin (Purab Kohli) finds himself in an elevator, moving up to heaven. When the doors open, death turns out to be a government office. There are queues for “natural death” and “suicide”, mountains of files gathering dust, babus and clerks drinking cups of tea. What’s worse, Navin finds out that due to a bureaucratic screw-up, he was actually retired before his innings was up. His friend Sudeep (Ranvir Shorey), who survived the crash, was the one scheduled to die. Navin complains all the way to the top and is finally offered a compromise: rejoin the living, but in the overweight body of Sudeep.

Once Fatso! returns to earth, it begins to falter. Navin starts pursuing his heartbroken fiancée Nandini (Gul Panag), only now everyone thinks he’s Sudeep. It feels wrong – not just because of the mushy a-person’s-soul-never-dies bits, but because Sudeep being overweight doesn’t seem to have any particular bearing on the story. It’s an excuse, a way to draft in a couple of fat jokes and to feel superior when the reed-thin Panag starts developing feelings for her corpulent friend and spirit vessel. Weighing proceedings down further is the frequently banal writing (“Your problem is you’re a man and you have no idea how a woman feels”) and a grating subplot involving Neil Bhoopalam and Gunjan Bakshi.

Rajat Kapoor, whose last film was the dark, strangely moving Mithya, had planned to release Fatso! in 2009. Instead, it landed in theatres a month ago, after a frustrating three-year wait, and departed soon after. After all these tribulations, it would have been nice to be able to say that Fatso! is a comic gem that deserved better. The truth, however, is that it’s one inspired sequence in search of a few others. Still, the red tape scenes are heavenly. 

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

This is Not a Film

This is Not a Film is not a film. Yet it might be the greatest example of self-expression in the history of cinema.

This isn't movie-making as commerce or art. It has nothing to do with ambition, competitiveness, prestige. This is cinema as freedom.

Was the garbage-collector given a script? Was that a trained iguana? Who knows? Does it matter?

This - after decades of theory rammed down willing and unwilling throats - is the truest manifestation of director as author.

If we could tell a film, then why make a film? And if you can't stop saying 'cut', is there any point in pretending that this is not...but it can't be, so it isn't.  

Loaded on a pen drive, smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake. In its safe passage, something larger than the film itself was saved. This is why cinema has existed all this while, to see this single effort through to an audience.

And it isn't even a film.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sarris tributes

When Andrew Sarris died this June, many heartfelt tributes were written, read and forwarded. Fandor ("Essential films. Instantly.") has done an admirable job of getting the best of the lot together in one place. My favourite is the David Bordwell piece, but don't miss Richard Corliss either.

Cinefan apart

A piece I did for Time Out about the upcoming Cinefan film festival, which begins on Friday July 29th.

Also, an interview with the director of the Oscar-winning Pakistani documentary Saving Face.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Coke Studio India S2: 70/0 in 10

Also known as a good start. Pleased to report that after an embarrassing, underwhelming first season, Coke Studio India has come charging out of the blocks in Season 2. Here are three songs from the first two episodes that show what's possible when you get your songwriters and musical backing right and ban Leslie Lewis from the studio.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cocktail: Review

Dir: Homi Adajania. Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Diana Penty, Boman Irani, Dimple Kapadia.

Cocktail dangles before its audience the prospect of seeing three leads in a living arrangement that’s best described by a phrase that begins with “ménage” and ends with “trois”. It’s never happened before, but if it had to, it would probably be in the year with the film about the sperm donor, and the other one with the catchphrase “keh ke loonga”. One might reasonably expect, in this bold new age of Hindi cinema, a man and two women to live under the same roof, and share and share alike.

Cocktail certainly starts mixing it up quickly. Gautam (Saif Ali Khan) hits on Meera (Diana Penty) at the London airport, unaware that she’s married. A few minutes later, she isn’t – her new husband Kunal (Randeep Hooda) leaves her to fend for herself, citing plot exigencies. She goes to the restroom for a good cry, where she meets Veronica (Deepika Padukone), who invites her to stay in her flat. This is accomplished in roughly ten minutes. It takes another ten for the two women to spot Gautam, play a prank on him, bump into him again at a party (apparently Indians in London keep crossing paths), and for Veronica and Gautam to hook up. Gautam ends up moving in with them, and though Meera hates his guts, one can’t help feeling that a home-grown Jules and Jim might be on the cards.

A predictable surprise visit  by Gautam’s mother (Dimple Kapadia) has him lying about his plans to marry Meera. Surprisingly, Meera goes along with this charade; Veronica, amused by their predicament, has no problems either. The quartet, plus Gautam’s sympathetic uncle (Boman Irani), repair to Cape Town, where things get nicely out of hand when Gautam and Meera fall for each other. This is the point at which the film needed to decide whether it would take the road hinted at, or the road well-travelled. Disappointingly, it opts for the latter. Veronica is informed that she’s the third wheel now – she’s fine with that, but only until she breaks down in a club in the next scene. Meera, upset for having come between them, leaves Gautam, Veronica and the flat, and disappears. The rest is contrivance, tears, a diluted version of the mesmeric Coke Studio Pakistan track “Jugni”, and a trip back home.

Those who remember Adajania’s first film, 2006’s Being Cyrus, will be struck by how different Cocktail is. Cyrus was dank, claustrophobic, cynical; Cocktail, for a while at least, is sunny and sensuous. Khan plays yet another wisecracking, shallow, essentially harmless flirt, but no one can sell a bad joke like he can. Padukone looks supremely relaxed in the first half as the straight-shooting, pants-shunning Veronica, while debutante Penty manages to keep Meera from becoming a sacrificing bore. Adajania and veteran editor Sreekar Prasad, working from a screenplay by Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali, keep things zipping along, even though after a point they don’t go anywhere we haven’t been before.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.