Saturday, December 20, 2014

PK: Review

It begins as all good movies do, with a spaceship hovering over a desert and a naked man clutching a transistor radio. The man, or rather, the alien, will go on to assume the name PK; he's played by Aamir Khan, whose protruding, otherworldly ears must regard this as destiny fulfilled. By the time TV news reporter Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) comes across him, he's acquired clothing and a Bhojpuri accent. He tells her his story, and she shelves her skepticism about his interplanetary origins quicker than one might have thought possible. From then on, it's a search for the locket that'll allow him to contact his home planet. Oh, and along the way, Rajkumar Hirani solves religion.

In his last film, 3 Idiots, Hirani used Aamir Khan's character Rancho to point out the soullessness of our education system. PK is more of the same: Rancho has been replaced by another outsider, and education by organised faith. Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi would have you know that religion, especially in its enterprise form, is based on fear, that it's exploitative and drives a wedge between regular people (presumably the film's audience). Few sane minds will argue with this, and that's the problem: the film's main thrust really isn't news. But it's breaking news in the movie, which just makes its makers look naïve.

Unfortunately (for me, not for Hirani), this seemed to be a minority view. The audience I saw the film with chuckled when PK attached stickers of gods to his cheeks to avoid getting slapped. They roared when he told godman Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) that his messages weren't getting through to God because he has a "wrong number". And they looked visibly moved when he staggered around an idol shop, praying to be sent home. After a while, I began to feel like I, not PK, was the alien — removed from the populace, observing them, taking notes.

Hirani is one of the smartest filmmakers in the country, and it's killing his films. No director has a better grip on the viewer's jugular, or a better sense of when to go for the kill. A flagrant example is the scene where he stages one of the most unnecessary bomb blasts in recent Hindi film. Nine out of 10 directors would have milked the shock by adding voices on the soundtrack. Hirani, instead, opts for a Mukesh number, and it's mesmeric. In its programmatic brilliance, the scene reminded me of the suicide in 3 Idiots — so manipulative, yet so well-executed.

Hirani's eye for colour and eccentricity is intact. There are sequences that work precisely because they're so strange, like the one where PK accosts a terrified blue-skinned Shiva in a public toilet. But Hirani's tendency to explain things that really don't require explication is a drag; only his first film, the blithe Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, was free from this. It's a high-wire act — his films, with all their debunking, make the audience feel smart, but he's really treating them like children, telling them how they ought to feel. The soundtrack does much the same, pouring syrup over anything faintly emotional.

It's staggering how well this film fits into the ongoing reality show that is Aamir Khan. When he's on Jaggu's show, tears streaming down his face, he might as well be hosting his own Satyamev Jayate. He's beyond acting now, he's into righting wrongs (as, quite sadly, is Hirani). His performance here is something for sure — but is it something worth commending? With his shuffling walk, flailing limbs and perpetual bug-eyed expression, he offers up a tour de force of mugging for the camera. There was an audible sigh from my friend when Khan said "Sarat manjur hai"; he'd uttered the same words all those years ago in Lagaan. The Aamir of today may as well be an alien for all the resemblance he bears to the Aamir of Lagaan.

Manipulation of an audience's emotions is an integral part of cinema. The trick is to somehow keep them from seeing the wheels turn. If you can figure out how the magician achieved the illusion, it isn't magic at all. PK professes to expose manipulators, but its own visible efforts at manipulation undercut its authority.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

2014: Year of the Woman

Did this year-end wrap-up column for GQ's December issue. 

“Don’t worry, tum mere saath safe hai.” This is a line from Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom, spoken when a bike carrying a guy and a girl breaks down on a deserted road at night. The speaker, surprisingly, is the girl. Only, by the time the film released, in early September, it wasn’t so surprising. 2014 was an anomaly of a year, one in which Bollywood offered up film after film that questioned prevalent gender attitudes and placed the heroine front and centre, rather than off to the side and in a frilly dress. The titles should have tipped everyone off: Gulaab Gang, Queen, Revolver Rani, Mary Kom, Finding Fanny

It began with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. The balance in that sly film shifted on the word ‘lihaf’, a nod to a controversial 1942 short story by Ismat Chughtai. This hint towards possible Sapphic longings in the Madhuri Dixit-Huma Qureshi relationship is underlined by an ingenious bit of shadow play; yet even before this revelation lands with a thud, Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah must have felt the film slipping away from them. Faced with the prospect that the heroine might not require a hero at the end, all the boys can do is play with their guns, while the girls make off with the money and each other.

In hidebound Bollywood, you can break new ground simply by allowing your female protagonist the choice to be single at the end. In Vikas Bahl’s Queen, Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut, makes choices that wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be made by past Hindi film heroines: to go on her European honeymoon alone after her fiancé dumps her; to room with three boys in an Amsterdam hostel; to develop a crush on (but not an attachment to) an Italian chef. Her final act of self-validation occurs at the end, when she returns her now-contrite fiancé’s ring. What was doubly touching about Queen was the way Ranaut too seemed to be rediscovering herself. In a remarkably candid TV interview around the time of the film’s release, the actress recalled without bitterness how her accent used to made fun of, and how she could never get critics to take her seriously. When host Anupama Chopra asked her what spurred her on, she replied, “Strong criticism. About everything.”

Ranaut wasn’t the only star who chose to address her own public image with humour and self-awareness. Alia Bhatt turned the ridicule her faux pas on Koffee with Karan (‘Prithviraj Chauhan’, in reply to ‘Who’s the president of India?’) had generated on its head by appearing in a YouTube video with the AIB comedy collective. The short showed Bhatt attending a general knowledge boot camp after the fallout of the Karan Johar episode. A few weeks after that, Deepika Padukone fired off an exasperated salvo in response to an ogling Times of India photograph of her, tweeting “Supposedly India’s ‘LEADING’ newspaper and this is ‘NEWS’!!??”

Most of the year’s better films turned and twisted on the choices made by female characters. Hasee Toh Phasee takes a hairpin turn every time Parineeti Chopra is struck by a new bad idea. Highway begins with man metaphorically on top as Randeep Hooda kidnaps Alia Bhatt, but as soon as she decides to make the best of a bad situation – much like Rani in Queen – she becomes the film’s motive force. Like Rani, Bhatt’s Veera refuses to agree to an unexciting arranged marriage, and ends the film on her own, and happy. Deepika Padukone instigates both the road trip and the first, second and third move on Arjun Kapoor in Finding Fanny. And Tabu’s Ghazala is the wilful, bruised heart of Haider.

There were also several films that tweaked gender roles in fascinating ways. Normally, heroines in films like Mardaani or Bobby Jasoos would have to spend half the running time explaining why they’re encroaching upon male territory. But Rani Mukerji’s police inspector and Vidya Balan’s private eye seem so at ease in their own skin that no one bothers to point out that they’re doing a ‘man’s job’. (Contrast this with No One Killed Jessica three years ago, in which Mukerji’s character was a walking, cussing lesson in gender equality.) Female characters fought and won big battles this year – for instance, Mary Kom arguing that career ambitions should never end with motherhood – but maybe the smaller victories will prove just as significant in years to come. I’d be perfectly happy if 2014 was remembered as the year when female characters worked out onscreen while the men pottered around and made tea, something that happens in both Mary Kom and Mardaani.

Of course, it takes just one ridiculous action movie or a shocker like Raanjhanaa to remind us that this is Bollywood (and India). It’s also worth noting that for all the progressiveness displayed by female characters in 2014, only a small handful of the films were by women directors. It was, however, a productive year for women documentary filmmakers: Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her and Deepti Kakkar’s Katiyabaaz (co-directed with Fahad Mustafa) all managed theatrical releases. Geetu Mohandas, meanwhile, made it to Sundance with Liar’s Dice; her film was also selected as India’s entry for the Oscars. It might all come crashing down next year, but if some of the gains of 2014 are built on, we might have taken a couple of significant steps towards a more equal cinema.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ida: A Jewish nun and a Stalinist judge walk into a bar…

The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, organised by the Polish Institute at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, will feature such heavy-hitters as Andrzej Jakimowski's Imagine and the first four episodes of Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue. Still, the attention of the city's cinephiles will most likely be focussed on Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida. The film, shot in wintry black-and-white, tells the story of Ida, a nun who learns she's actually Jewish from her aunt, Wanda, a former hanging judge fallen on bad days. The two women set off on a road trip to recover fragments of their family's past. The film made a substantial splash on the arthouse circuit this year, landing a spot on Sight & Sound's "Best Films of 2014" list and becoming Poland's official entry to the Oscars [Note: It went on to win].

This is the first time you've made a film in Poland. Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
The time was right to go back to Poland — to make a film there. It's something to do with where you are in life; right now, I'm looking back in time, and looking at essential things — life and death and roots and faith. I don't think I was ready to make that film earlier. When you look at films I've made, they tend to be about whatever's on my mind at that time, so it's not that I have a career plan that I'm going to shoot a film in Poland or go shoot a film in Hollywood, God forbid.

You've written about how you tend to prefer an outline to a detailed screenplay.
Yes, but also, I just don’t think screenplays are any good. I read screenplays, I write them, and I always have the feeling that this isn’t cinema, that this is just a rough roadmap, and a lot of scenes are just there to explain stuff and get me from A to B. I’m the opposite of Hitchcock in that way. It’s not that some magic happens on set. You have to prepare the film really, really well, and for years. And you have to write some kind of screenplay. The more you write, the deeper you get into things, the more you eliminate weak things – literary things – the better.

I find the groundwork is key, not just the screenplay but immersing yourself in that world. Researching, spending time gives you a sense of depth and roots in your subject — living with the thing for years, that's important. So when the filming starts, you're armed, with some stuff that's on the page, and some stuff that's in your subconscious. Everything should feel organic, and the only way you can get that is when you don't feel the manipulation, no matter how manipulated the whole thing is. And the only way to achieve that is if you have the freedom and talent for shaping things: not panicking and not shooting something just because it's in the script — just having the attitude of a sculptor who keeps sculpting away till the thing is finished.

Was it an aesthetic decision to shoot in black-and-white? 
The decision now seems straightforward but at the time there were many reasons for it. It just felt right to do a film that was set in the early '60s in black-and-white and in the 4:3 format, because that's how I remember films from that time — and how I remember the world even, because I only remember the world from films. But also, our family albums of that time were also black-and-white, so my idea of that time was certainly black-and-white, and framed strangely. But when I was doing it, I realised that it was also something to do with the desire to make that world a little more removed from reality, make it a little more abstract. I wanted the viewer to experience the film as a kind of meditation, and the less stimuli you have — colour, movement — the more it becomes a meditation.

The film touches on the persecution of the Polish Jews during the Second World War, but there are no explicit history lessons. Do you prefer to suggest rather than underline themes?
That's absolutely crucial. For me, all good art is about creating characters and landscapes rich in themes, but which don't just stand for any one theme. And I like dialogues from life — people don't always say what they mean, they don't always explain stuff, just for the sake of some dumb audience; they talk the way they talk, full of ambiguity and paradoxes and incoherence. And if you can find poetry in that, great, because it will resonate much more, whereas films where the very shape of the story tells you what to think, where people's dialogues are explaining what they feel, where the music tells you what they feel — that's the majority of cinema, let's face it, but for me, that's not interesting. I watch it, and it washes over me. I watch it with pleasure sometimes, but I won't remember it half an hour later. The film that gets under my skin has to be a little bit more indirect and make me imagine things and experience the world in all its complication and reality.

You employed the 4:3 "Academy ratio". As a result, there's an unusual amount of space above the characters' heads...
It started quite innocently. I realised in rehearsals that this square format is really good for faces and portraits, but it's not great for landscapes. So then, for argument's sake, I just tilted the camera up to see what would happen if we didn't frame it a normal way. And it works, it felt intuitively right. Later, I realised it felt right because there's a vertical dimension to this film — and since then, a lot of critics have written about the presence of God or the absence of God or the absence of millions of people who disappeared in the war. Critics do what they do, but it started with: "How can we make this shot more interesting?"

You worked with a new cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, on this instead of your regular DoP, Ryszard Lynzewski.
[Lynzewski] didn't agree with where this film was going. He dropped out very early on, so I had to shoot with a camera operator who'd never shot a film in his life. Lukasz started as the operator, and after practically the first day, he became the DoP. Of course, the framing and everything is very much my conception, but he got it, and he liked the risk involved — he had no reputation to lose, and he went as far as we wanted, so it was a pleasure working with him.

It's remarkable, especially in the context of today's cinema, to note the stillness of so many of the scenes in Ida. And yet, there's a tension within this stillness...
There's a lot of tension anyway in the film, so you can afford to be understated and still. I hope that there was tension and mystery and some kind of beauty — that it wasn't like watching paint dry. In a way, the film was kind of dictating what was right. If the framing is wrong, if the lighting is over-elaborate, if the sound is too much, the film will reject it. All you have to do is listen to your own film.

It is also, given the subject matter, a strangely funny film.
Poland is a strangely funny country. People are quite acerbic and witty in Poland. Also, the very situation is kind of bonkers, a nun and a Stalinist judge going on the road together is really quite funny. So yes, there's a sense of the absurd. And Wanda has a sharp tongue — her sense of humour is inherited from my father. Some of the lines I gave her are directly from my father.

Jazz was crucial to several Polish "youth films" in the '60s. Did that guide your use of it here?
All the music in the film is music I love, so it wasn't an intellectual choice, really. There's a mixture of lively music — some of it was the pop music of the early '60s, hillbilly rock and Italian-style kitsch music, which Poland was full of then. That was the music you'd hear on the radio then.

The jazz was more ambitious music — it started in the mid-to-late '50s. Poland became the capital of jazz in Europe. Jazz was banned in other countries, but in Poland it was allowed. Komeda, Namyslowski, Przybielski, Stańko — a lot of really, really great musicians came through. Coltrane was a huge influence, and "Naima" is one of my favourites, and in the scene [with Ida and a saxophone player who fancies her] it's a way of making her fall in love with him, not as an individual but as a cloud of associations.

What led to you to cast Agata Trzebuchowska, who'd never shot a film before, as Ida?
I am usually very open-minded about casting anyway. In My Summer of Love, I cast two young girls, Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, and Emily went on to be a well-known actress. [Agata] was just a girl, you know, she just felt right for the part. It wasn't like a big design, it's just that I couldn't find a good Ida for a long time among professional actors, so I ended up using a girl who we found at a café, who didn't want to act and still doesn't want to act, and whose refusal to act was just perfect. She doesn't believe in God at all, but in her atheism she's so coherent and calm and principled that it just felt like she's much closer to somebody who's deeply religious than girls who were telling me, "Ah, we always wanted to play nuns all our life."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Sulemani Keeda: Review

Amit Masurkar's Sulemani Keeda, a film about two fledgling screenwriters schlepping their script across Mumbai, was good enough to get me thinking about what it was not. It's a decade and a half too late to be Hyderabad Blues. It isn't insightful enough about Bollywood to be Luck By Chance. It's got the dirty mouth of Delhi Belly, but lacks its relentless forward momentum. What we're left with, then, is something that's part buddy movie, part romantic comedy, part indie satire. It doesn't exactly add up, but it's smart — and small — enough to make its audience feel superior to the objects of its derision.

Dulal (Naveen Kasturia) and Mainak (Mayank Tewari) are trying to get their screenplay, tentatively titled "Sulemani Keeda", to the upper echelons of Bollywood. We watch them pitch to Mahesh Bhatt ("It's a mix of LSD and Hukumat, with shades of Dev. D And the costumes will be like Gadar") and Anil Sharma, and try and land meetings with Farah Khan and Karan Johar. No details about the film they're writing are divulged, but we instinctively know that it's unlikely to be very good — neither sad-sack Dulal nor his unchained id of a writing partner seem especially bright. They look down on their TV serial-writing brethren, but the one line they quote from their script — "Gaanja maangoge Coke denge, rishwat maangoge thok denge" — suggests that there's a reason they're strugglers. They may think they're Salim-Javed, but they're actually Farhad-Sajid.

The in-joke at the heart of Sulemani Keeda is that the producer, Tulsea Pictures, is a firm which hooks young writers up with film projects. One wishes, though, that the satire had a little more bite — that it hewed closer to the struggles of Tulsea's actual clientele. Instead, we get a series of pro-forma jabs at Bollywood, and a couple at the pretensions of indie cinema. Most of these are supplied by Gonzo (Karan Mirchandani), the delusional coke-snorting son of a famous producer, who hires the duo to write his "launch film". Mainak the hustler goes along with his ridiculous demands ("I want lustless orgies"), while Dulal just keeps getting more and more depressed. It's not that the scenes with Gonzo aren't funny, just that this sort of loony indie director character seems somewhat old hat. And his turnaround is one the film's more predictable jokes: the same Gonzo who starts off wanting to make a film with no story and no hero has given up his dreams of Tarkovsky and is starring in a Shetty-esque (now that's an unfortunate adjective) action comedy.

The film finds its rhythm — and its heart — in the scenes with Ruma, a girl Dulal meets at a party. Ruma is played by Aditi Vasudev, Rishi Kapoor's willful daughter in Do Dooni Chaar. She's just as self-possessed here, cutting through Mainak's constant stream of bullshit and recognising something like potential in mopey Dulal. The scenes where they're getting to know each other are beautifully written and played; the Sewri sequence, especially, is as effortless an example of young people walking the line between talking and flirting as any in recent Hindi cinema. You can see why Dulal is attracted to Ruma — she's everything he and his cartoonish, skirt-chasing partner are not: witty, driven and in total control. "I never thought you could speak so much," she tells Dulal, just when he begins to open up to her at the party. Followed by: "I like men who are not that good-looking." In boxing, it's called a one-two punch.

Sulemani Keeda is visibly indie, both in terms of its spartan style (shot on digital, using actual locations) and its ethos (building scenes around long, rambling conversations). The film is generating a reasonable amount of advance buzz, and hopefully it'll attract a large enough audience to encourage others to take up small, specific projects instead of large, predictable ones. This is a very likeable film: the writing (by Masurkar) is unstrained, the performances by and large amusing. If I expected a little more from it, the fault might lie more in me than in the film.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.