Sunday, July 24, 2016

Anatomy of a Scandal

Tinu Suresh Desai’s Rustom, based on the Nanavati affair, will release on the Independence Day weekend. This is fitting, because notions of patriotism, good Indian values and honour were central to the way the case unfolded. The three-minute trailer of the film has plenty of symbolic and literal flag-waving, with the protagonist, played by Akshay Kumar, clearly a heroic figure. Which was exactly how many saw Commander K.M. Nanavati—naval officer, father of three, and possible murderer—in 1959.

On 27 April that year, Nanavati dropped his wife, Sylvia, and children off at Bombay’s Metro cinema to see Tom Thumb. He then drove to the docks and procured a revolver with six rounds. That morning, Sylvia had confessed to an affair with Prem Ahuja, a friend of his. Nanavati proceeded to Ahuja’s flat near Malabar Hills. Soon after he was ushered into the room where Ahuja was, three shots were fired. The help and Ahuja’s sister, Mamie, burst in to find Nanavati standing over Ahuja’s body.

With bait like this, it’s no wonder that the tabloids jumped in. In particular, Russi Karanjia of Blitz took it upon himself to sell the trial as a sensational soap opera, with his fellow Parsi as the upright man of honour, Ahuja as the alcoholic womanizer and Sylvia as the blue-eyed wife led astray. The trial began, with the prosecution pushing for a verdict of premeditated murder, and the defence pleading not guilty. Nanavati testified in uniform, Sylvia in a white sari. Finally, on the evening of 21 October, the jury returned a verdict: not guilty.

As the verdict was announced, the courtroom burst into cheers. Only one jury member had differed from the majority opinion. It would be the last jury trial ever held in India. The presiding judge disagreed with the verdict and sent the case to the high court, which overruled the earlier decision and convicted Nanavati for murder. A verdict of life imprisonment was announced, and upheld when Nanavati appealed in the Supreme Court. But the officer had powerful friends in the Parsi community who petitioned for him (at one point, even prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru “advised” that Nanavati be remanded to naval custody). In late 1961, after some backroom legal dealings, Nanavati was pardoned by the governor of Bombay, Vijayalakshmi Pandit.

Two years later, R.K. Nayyar borrowed the broad details of the trial for his film Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke. It starred Sunil Dutt as the Nanavati figure, Anil; Leela Naidu as his wife, Neena; and Rehman as the playboy Ashok. Despite the “entirely fictitious” disclaimer at the start and Naidu’s claims in her autobiography that the film was conceived before the trial, it seems highly probable that the makers had indeed adapted the Nanavati story. Anil is a commercial pilot and not a naval officer in the film, but key details—the nature of the affair, the three bullets, Neena’s testimony in a white sari, the partisan courtroom crowd—seemed to have been lifted wholesale from the case.

From the start, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke argues for the defence. The first scene shows a distraught Neena in a white sari praying before an idol of Krishna. Soon after, in a flashback, she and Anil offer prayers separately, each asking to be married to the other. If you’re wondering how such a pious, straight-shooting film could ever get down to capturing the sordid glamour of the trial... well, it never does. Apart from a brief moment when he tries to strangle his wife, Anil is a paragon of virtue. Neena is too timid for the viewer to feel anything but pity. And Rehman, rather unfairly cast as a consummate seducer, is the archetypal black and white Hindi film sleaze, all hair gel and alcohol and bad poetry.

Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke is unable—or unwilling—to portray the public frenzy that surrounded the Nanavati trial, or the political dimensions it had begun acquiring from the start. The court audience is on Anil’s side, but we’re never shown why they care so much. The film also softens the case against its central couple. Anil claims that the gun went off inadvertently in a scuffle—something Nanavati had also said—and the film goes out of its way to justify this with a bizarre denouement that involves Ashok Kumar, the defence lawyer, being fired at and throwing a pillow in retaliation. Never is it suggested that Anil might be guilty, but is pardoned anyway by the jury. Neither does the film allow Neena to be anything but a woman wronged, thus denying her the freedom of taking responsibility for her socially unacceptable choices.

Nayyar and cinematographer K.H. Kapadia save the fanciest lighting and camerawork for the musical sequences, of which "Jaane Jaan Paas Aao"—lightly erotic and culminating in two long, unbroken takes—is particularly striking. Naidu, singularly lovely, is also visibly unsure, intoning all her lines slowly and seriously. Dutt is upright, morally superior and very boring. It’s left to Motilal and Ashok Kumar, as the sparring lawyers on either side, to inject some energy and charm into all this soggy piety.

The enduring appeal of the Nanavati case has ensured that there have always been people willing to look up Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke. Still, there’s little doubt that the case deserved a better film. Whether Rustom is a more exhaustive version of events remains to be seen; if the trailer is any indication, it at least appears to explore dimensions of the case that Nayyar’s film avoids—the tabloid frenzy, the role of the armed forces, the rumour that Nanavati might have known defence secrets. Yeh Rastey saw the whole affair through the prism of 1950s conservatism. Will the new film allow Rustom’s wife a little more agency, and Rustom himself a few shades of grey?

In Mumbai Fables, Gyan Prakash writes about how, during the Nanavati trial, Blitz had published a piece titled “L’Affaire Nanavati—Hollywood Version”, pointing out the similarities between the case and a 1959 Hollywood film. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder released in July of that year, a couple of months after the Nanavati scandal broke. The film was about an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing a man who had allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). The lieutenant’s lawyer, played by James Stewart, offers a defence of “irresistible impulse”, arguing that his client was temporarily insane.

While the broad cases are similar, the films diverge in their treatment. Nayyar tends towards moral absolutism, while for Preminger, everything is worth questioning. Gazzara’s violent, unlikeable army man is quite likely using the insanity plea as a means to extricate himself. And Remick’s character is the film’s complex, elusive centre: seemingly guileless, compulsively flirtatious, terrified of her husband but also in love with him. Even when the film ends, it’s difficult to say for certain whether the assault actually happened, or whether the accused was temporarily insane when he shot the victim.

Anatomy of a Murder doesn’t insist that we like our lead characters or regard them as morally sound, only that we find them compelling. The film caused a stir when it released; the language used was too harsh for the time. It’s no longer shocking today, but time has not dimmed the pleasure of the performances by Stewart, Remick and George C. Scott, the jazz score by Duke Ellington and the twisted genius of Preminger. There’s also a lovely turn from Joseph N. Welch, not an actor but someone audiences would have recognized, given that he was the army counsel who famously asked US Senator Joseph McCarthy, during the 1954 Army–McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Gulzar’s 1973 film Achanak borrows several elements from the Nanavati affair, but is structured as a non-linear thriller, not a courtroom drama. It is definitely superior to Yeh Rastey Hain Pyaar Ke, but, at least until Rustom releases next month, I would recommend Anatomy of a Murder as the film that best captures the moral slipperiness of one of the most sensational trials ever to take place in this country.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sultan: Review

Some 90 minutes into Sultan comes a short and rather remarkable scene. Sultan (Salman Khan), a former wrestling champion, stands in front of the mirror and stares at his bare top half, once a mass of rippling muscle, now flabby and undefined. Face twisted in disgust, he glares at his reflection until, suddenly, he snaps, grabbing his shirt and trying unsuccessfully to cover up the evidence of his decline. Then, he breaks down. The camera stays with him, just long enough to move past “strong man in agony” and access something a little more uncomfortable.

From an actor who isn’t known for putting himself out there emotionally, this is unexpected stuff. One might assume, both from the roles he takes up and his public persona, that Khan considers vulnerability to be beneath him. Yet, in this moment, he’s as open as he’s ever been on screen. Whether playing a plain-spoken fighter who’s at a low point in his life and in need of redemption triggered something within him is impossible to say and too irresistible not to speculate on.

The film begins with MMA promoter Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) tracking down Sultan and asking him to fight in his faltering tournament. He’s rebuffed by the wrestler, who quit wrestling years ago, at the height of his fame. In an extended flashback, Sultan’s friend Govind (Anant Sharma) recounts for Aakash Sultan’s rise from expert kite-chaser—which, even in the small Haryana town of Rewari, marks him out as supremely unambitious—to Olympic medallist and world wrestling champion. We also track his relationship with wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) from infatuation to marriage and find out how a rift between them became the reason for his decline.

By the time we’ve arrived at Sultan’s moment with the mirror, Aakash has persuaded him to return to the ring, despite him being 40, unfit and unaccustomed to MMA fighting. Though it was clear even in the trailer that this would be a hard-won redemption story, writer and director Ali Abbas Zafar doesn’t take any chances, getting Sultan to literally say “underdog”. The film throws a kitchen sink filled with sports movie tropes at the viewer: initial training montage, final-stretch training montage, tough-as-leather coach. Sadly, the fights themselves aren’t memorable; most of them involve Khan taking a lot of punishment before disposing of opponents, quickly and unconvincingly, with a signature slam.

Even though this is a film painted largely in broad strokes, there are certain small decisions that are unusual and encouraging. Take, for instance, the film’s treatment of Aarfa. At one point, she seems like she’s going to be just another good Bollywood wife, sacrificing her career for her husband’s. Yet, though she does quit wrestling when she becomes pregnant (the film implies it may be accidental), Aarfa is allowed the space to be resentful about this. Sharma plays these scenes beautifully, her bitterness and regret frustrated by Khan’s stolid responses.

It’s also worth noting how, in a film about the ultimate desi jock, machismo is curiously absent. It’s not just the presence of female wrestlers throughout the film—even Sultan’s motivation to join the akhara isn’t to prove his manliness to Aarfa but to gain respect in her eyes. In other words, he wants to be like her. To put such thoughts in the mind of a Salman Khan character—which isn’t where one usually looks for female empowerment—strikes me as a very enlightened attitude on the part of the film.

Everyone does their job with a degree of professionalism befitting a Yash Raj Films production. There’s too much slo-mo as usual, but Artur Zurawski’s camerawork is nimble. Vishal-Shekhar’s title track is played something like a dozen times in the film and is catchy enough to withstand this overuse (credit, also, to Irshad Kamil’s lyrics). Zafar’s writing is simplistic but rousing; one could say the same of his direction too. There’s no Nawazuddin Siddiqui to partner Khan this time, but Anant Sharma is very funny as Govind. Anushka Sharma’s anger was, for me, the best thing in the film. And Khan, for once, seems to grapple with the material, occasionally finding in the older Sultan the world-weariness of an ageing gunfighter.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fireflies in the Abyss

Barbara Kopple’s pulsating 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, begins with a cry of “Fire in the hole!” Then, to the accompaniment of Merle Travis’ "Dark As A Dungeon", it descends to where “the rain never falls and the sun never shines”. Miners crawl through narrow tunnels, hack at the walls with hammers and pickaxes, operate machinery, grab a bite to eat. It’s a rare up-close look at one of the least glamorous, most dangerous jobs in existence.

Chandrasekhar Reddy’s Fireflies In The Abyss, which looks at the hardscrabble lives of a group of Nepalese miners in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, has a similar scene, only more terrifying. For one, these are narrow, unstable, unmonitored “rat hole mines”, which the Meghalaya government banned in 2014, after the film was shot. There’s no music, so you hear every scrape, every intake of dust-filled air. The miner in question is alone. He has no helmet. Most alarmingly, unlike the grown men of Kopple’s film, he’s a young boy.

Suraj is the heartbreaking centre of Reddy’s film. Only 11 years old, he supports his alcoholic father, having quit school to work in the mines. He has one bad eye and more good cheer than one might think possible, but when he goes underground, it’s difficult to breathe out of concern for him. Not that his life above ground is any cheerier. Early on in the film, he walks barefoot through a muddy swamp, reaching down into receptacles every once in a while. After a few attempts, he finds what he’s been looking for and returns to firmer ground, grinning. He’s just caught a very small fish.

Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to others in the camp. There’s Suraj, formerly a woodcutter, bar singer and part-time actor, and more recently—as he bitterly confesses—a cuckold (his wife ran off with a labourer; he doesn’t know whether he can face her again without killing her or himself). There are Suraj’s sister and brother-in-law, who run the small kitchen that provides the immigrant miners a vital sense of community. There’s the old man who counts the carts of coal; the mine manager who tells the workers they won’t make more money anywhere else. Most fascinating of all is Nishant, a soft-spoken, hip-looking young man. He’s an enthusiastic photographer—his stills, many of them strikingly composed, are scattered through the film.

Reddy shot the film over six months in 2012. He returns to check on the characters a year later, which allows certain story arcs—such as Suraj’s attempts to return to school, or his brother-in-law’s desire to leave and return to Nepal—to play themselves out. The overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. Besides the local lottery, there’s little these people have to look forward to. Most of them work in the mines all day, drink and then sleep. The dreariness of their life is echoed by the unadorned cinematography (by Reddy, working without a crew). The only glimpse of beauty is the old Hindi film songs that play on the radio, a more ironically apt soundtrack than the jaunty one with sax, flute and guitar, composed for the film.

Fireflies In The Abyss concerns itself with its subjects’ lives, leaving the viewer to ponder larger issues such as child labour and the curious absence of miner unions (the fact that they’re Nepalese might make them political pariahs even if there were worker organizations). It’s a sympathetic but sobering work, made without flash or sentiment. It struck me, long after I had finished watching it, that the fireflies of the title could refer to the faint glimmer of hope most of these miners have of making enough money to be able to quit the trade. Yet, for the most part, the film gazes into the abyss.

This review appeared in Mint.

All that Lahori Jazz

The year 1959 was a signal one in the history of jazz. In a heady period of five months, one artiste after another emerged with the record they would be remembered by: Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. John Coltrane recorded his Giant Steps in the same year. The best-selling jazz album that year, though, was the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, which reached No.2 on the billboard pop charts and sold a million units. The third track, "Take Five", is the one that everyone recognizes, beginning as it does with that irresistible piano vamp in 5/4 time.

In 1956, the US government had begun sending “jazz ambassadors” to various countries. One such envoy was Brubeck, who visited Poland, India, Pakistan and West Asia in 1958. When he played at a concert in Lahore, a young boy named Izzat Majeed was in the audience. Years later, Majeed, a businessman and philanthropist, established the Sachal Studio (named after the late Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast) to promote the talented but underemployed session musicians of Lahore. “We were just losing our instruments, we were losing our musicians, we were losing our culture,” he says in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s documentary, Song Of Lahore. “Something had to be done about it.”

The Sachal Ensemble’s first few folk and classical releases weren’t successful, but things took a turn when Majeed hit upon the idea of doing variations on jazz standards. “Jazz and our classical music—they have the same structure,” he tells the musicians in the film. “This is something you can pick up.” The ensemble broke through in April 2011 with their recording of "Take Five", the 5/4 rhythm settling very naturally on to the tabla and the sitar filling in for the saxophone. Suddenly, they were being featured on BBC and earning praise from Brubeck himself.

Through a series of deft individual portraits, Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken indicate how difficult life must have been for these musicians before Sachal happened. After General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq imposed sharia law in Pakistan in the late 1970s, the local film industry—a source of steady employment for classical musicians—began to disintegrate. When it re-emerged in the 1990s, the demand for traditional session musicians had dried up. The first 30 minutes of Song Of Lahore border on melancholic, with musician after musician recalling a time when their talents were more widely appreciated. “Kitni raunakein hoti thi (it used to be so lively),” remarks guitarist Asad Ali. “Jitna accha kaam tha, utna mar gaya yeh kaam (this profession used to be great, but it’s dead now),” says tabla player Rafiq Ahmed.

The film follows the ensemble to New York City, where they were invited in 2013 to play at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts with trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis and a jazz orchestra. Majeed’s assertion of common musical roots is put to the test by the directors, who show the Sachal players overawed and struggling to keep in time with their seasoned collaborators. The rehearsal scenes are some of the most fascinating in the film, with Marsalis’ instructions in English going from Majeed to arranger Nijat Ali and, translated, to the rest of the band. Though the possibility of collapse is very much in the air when Sachal’s sitar player is replaced on the eve of the concert, there’s a sense that these people have come too far for things not to work out. “Back home the clerics don’t let us breathe in peace,” Asad Ali says. “Here, we’re enjoying ourselves.” (This statement becomes all the more poignant in the aftermath of the recent killing of Sufi qawwal Amjad Sabri by extremists.)

Obaid-Chinoy is one of Pakistan’s best-known film-makers, having won Oscars for two of her short documentaries, Saving Face (2012) and A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness (2015). Song Of Lahore might be less obviously political than some of her other work, but it doesn’t lack for intimacy. When Saleem Khan breaks down in the middle of teaching his son the violin, or when Nijat visits his father’s grave, we’re reminded that the film is as much about family as it is about music. Nearly everyone speaks of carrying on the work of their fathers or passing on the knowledge to their sons. And this idea is brought full circle when Marsalis meets the ensemble after the concert and simply says, “Brothers, great”.

There’s another reason to seek out Song Of Lahore: It feels like home. Change a few details, and this story could be unfolding in Delhi or Lucknow or Amritsar. The characters speak about having to choose between riyaz and cricket. They play songs by Shankar-Jaikishan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. They pronounce “Vin-tun” the same way a Punjabi here would. Over email, Obaid-Chinoy says the film hasn’t been screened in Pakistan yet, but they are looking for ways to make that happen. Hopefully, someone here is trying to do the same.

Me Tarzan, you censor

Before the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) imposed the moral strictures of the Hays Code, American films often included material that was risqué for the time. Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is one of a handful of films that epitomize ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood. The second film in the Tarzan series, it was directed by Cedric Gibbons and starred, like the first film and 10 others after it, former swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. Playing opposite him as Jane was Maureen O’Sullivan, who spends most of the film in a thigh-baring loincloth. This garment might have incited a minor controversy had there not been another, larger issue for everyone to get riled up about.

The provocation was in the form of a skinny-dipping scene. For two-and-a-half-minutes minutes, Tarzan (in a loincloth) and Jane (in nothing at all) perform graceful underwater manoeuvres. O’Sullivan didn’t perform the scene—she was replaced by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. Weissmuller and McKim, both former Olympic gold medallists, display a balletic fluidity. With dappled sunlight filtering through the lake, the scene is anything but prurient. Nonetheless, it proved a step too far for the 1930s, and the Hays office, which had just begun to apply the Code rigidly, swooped down.

This wasn’t the first nude swim in a Hollywood movie. There was a brief scene with Clara Bow in Hula (1927), and Dolores del Río swum nude in Bird of Paradise (1932). But O’Sullivan and Weissmuller were stars, the first Tarzan movie had been a hit, and the MPPDA wasn’t going to let an extended nude scene play in theatres. Joseph Breen, director of public relations of the MPPDA, reported in a memo to the organisation’s president, Will Hays: “The man in the shot wore a loin cloth, but a critical examination of the shot indicated that the woman was stark naked. There were four or five shots of the woman, which the jury referred to repeatedly as ‘frontal’ shots, which showed the front of the woman’s body.”

Though the scene was ordered to be removed from all prints of Tarzan and His Mate, some US territories that had no censor boards included the nude swim. According to film historian Rudy Behlmer, MGM released three different versions of the scene: one in which Jane is fully clothed, one topless and one completely naked. When this was discovered, the scene was ordered to be removed from the film’s negative. It survived in the master positive print, though, and was reinserted when the film was released on home video.

After Tarzan and His Mate, the MPPDA tightened its grip, and Hollywood would no longer be this freely erotic for many years. But the scene survived, as did the legend of Weissmuller, lord of the loincloth. As broadcaster and critic Alistair Cooke wrote at the time: “I don’t suppose many of you have ever been lying around an ocean bed when Johnny Weissmuller was swimming up above. If only for this unique pleasure, anyone who isn’t afraid to enjoy his senses should make a point of doing it now.”

This appeared in Mint.

Brahman Naman: Review

Q. Which 1898 novella by Henry James could serve as an alternate title for a 2016 film by Q?

A. The Turn of the Screw

Both the question-answer device and the deliberately juvenile joke are inspired by Brahman Naman, a comedy about three college-going boys in Bangalore whose lives revolve around sex. Or, more accurately, their lives revolve around not having sex, and very wanting much to. They’re waiting for their turn, and it isn’t pretty. The opening scene of the film is a written title, which describes the male teen as a disastrous “genetic experiment”. It’s a canny stratagem by Q and screenwriter Naman Ramachandran: get the disclaimer out of the way, then go ahead and be as puerile as you like.

This may be a comedy about young men desperate to lose their virginity, but it’s no American Pie. Instead of giving the audience a token good-looking protagonist or a goofily adorable one, Brahman Naman has three intentionally unappealing leads. Naman (Shashank Arora), Ajay (Tanmay Dhanania) and Ramu (Chaitanya Varad) are gawky, superior, insular and casteist. They’re on the quiz team, and their accumulated arcane knowledge spills over in their daily conversation: trivia as a defence mechanism, a shield. One might have felt for them, if they weren’t so damn unpleasant.

Brahman Naman paints the psyche of the average Indian teenager—only the male, sadly—as a minefield of perpetual horniness. Our heroes spend their days in a lust-covered haze: discussing potential sexual conquests, ogling at women, stalking them, masturbating. Harshavardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr (2015) covered similar territory, sometimes with unexpected resonance, but that was a film made to release in theatres. It could hardly go as far as Q has here, giving us, among other visions previously unimagined, fish in an aquarium nibbling on a male appendage and bringing the semi-aquatic onanist to climax.

Q is nothing if not an envelope-pusher. Here, he adds the following rather dubious achievements to his résumé: a character vomiting up close to the camera, then laying his head in it; masturbation by fridge door, fan and fish; and a remarkably distasteful scene that, had it progressed, would have bordered on rape. The point behind these shenanigans seems to be to show up the ugliness of the Indian male. The few actual female characters—as opposed to the ones that are pure male fantasy—come across as appealing, intelligent and frank about their desires. Which, of course, is too much for our stunted trio to handle.

The film did crack me up intermittently. The writing, when it isn’t going for the easy laugh, is acidulously clever. Though most scenes are shot at a weird tilted angle, Q and Siddhartha Nuni (they share a cinematography credit) and art director Tabasheer Zutshi do manage to give us the impression we’re watching something set in the 1980s (it reminded me of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, another English-language Indian film about college students, set in the 1970s but made in the ‘80s). What drove me to distraction, however, was the constant, aggressive stupidity—the feeling that no gag was too ridiculous, no double entendre too tawdry, to merit inclusion. In a way, Brahman Naman is just a much smarter Grand Masti, wearing its crudity and its limited world-view like a badge.

With the release of Gandu in 2010, Q seemed to emerge as that rare figure in Indian cinema: someone whose provocations were genuine. With Brahman Naman, his desire to shock is evidently intact, but as far as Q films about sexual mores go, I much preferred his documentary Love in India, which was less schematic in its boldness and more insightful about our hang-ups. Brahman Naman should have no difficulty finding an audience when it releases on Netflix next week. Yet, there’s some irony in the fact that its likely champions—young males in their teens and 20s sent into splits by the sight of a penis—will be the same demographic the film’s critical of.

Independence Day: Resurgence: Review

Independence Day: Resurgence is so contrived and slow-witted a sequel that it’s making me reassess my fondness for the 1996 film. I was in my early teens when I watched Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, so the cinematic bar couldn’t have been set too high. Still, I remember it being funny and exciting and Jeff Goldblum being memorably weird. Over the years, I put some ironic distance between myself and the film, but not so much that I couldn’t sit through a couple of scenes when it turned up on TV. Now, 20 years later, Emmerich has essentially made the same film again, and I could barely sit through it.

It isn’t so much that Resurgence lacks originality and verve and feels like it’s been put together by a committee of studio robots. Hollywood has started making a different kind of summer blockbuster now, not necessarily better, but more self-aware and cynical. The kind of square-jawed heroism that Independence Day could get away with in 1996 just looks square now. It’s possible I’m romanticizing the trashy fun of my youth, but even the cheesy scene-stealing lines coming out of Hollywood today aren’t what they used to be. It’s tough to imagine Will Smith in the 1996 film shouting, “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch,” as Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher) does in this one.

It’s been 20 years since aliens attacked and were defeated. Since then, the world has had an unprecedented two decades of peace, because there’s nothing like Americans waging a war to bring people across the globe together. Now the space invaders are back and—surprise!—they’re smarter and deadlier than they were the last time around. Incredibly, almost all the old gang, with the exception of Smith’s Steven Hiller, is at hand: scientists David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner); and former US president Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman). There are also some new recruits: fighter pilots Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Steven’s son), Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) and, rather unexpectedly, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Catherine Marceaux, a scientist and former associate of Levinson’s. Two hours and many explosions later, half the world has seemingly been laid to waste, but everyone is happy because the aliens are toast.

It’s incredible that two near-identical Hollywood films made 20 years apart have roughly the same amount of ethnic diversity. Though Smith was the biggest thing to emerge from the first film, there’s still only room for one black character in Resurgence (two, if you count the African warlord played by Deobia Oparei, a character that comes with its own racist overtones). The film can’t even find room for a token Indian scientist; Asia is represented by Chinese pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy) and Europe by Gainsbourg’s Marceaux. Apart from that, everything’s Caucasian and all-American. Yet when they finally emerge victorious, people across the world are shown cheering. The first film ended this way too. It’s a very different world, but some delusions aren’t shaken off easily.

This review appeared in Mint.

Raman Raghav 2.0: Review

As movie-watchers, we’ve grown accustomed to being provided with someone we can root for. Once in a while, this person is the antagonist, someone whose deeds are terrible, but not terrible enough to override our fascination for them. Characterizations of this nature are carefully calibrated: One pictures screenwriter and director mixing six parts brutality with one part tenderness and two parts redemption. Whether it’s Taxi Driver or Ardh Satya, most films, no matter how hard-hitting, will give us a spoonful of sugar with our medicine.

But what if a film serves us our medicine neat? Anurag Kashyap tried this first in Ugly, where each new character was revealed to be more craven and grasping than the last. Now, with Raman Raghav 2.0, he gives viewers a choice between mesmeric, unmotivated evil and banal, calculated evil. He knows most will side with the former—and that’s when he has you exactly where he wants.

Each time serial killer Raman (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) adds another victim to his list, the film forces us to examine our fascination with him. What is it that allows us to feel something else besides revulsion for someone who bludgeons his sister, or kills a young boy? Is it all right to flinch at his brutality in one scene and then enjoy the mind games he plays with the police in the next? When he complains during an interrogation about a police officer not understanding the ras (intricacies) of conversation, I couldn’t help laughing. But it was uneasy laughter, and died as soon as it left my throat.

Raman is no Hannibal Lecter; he has no sophistication, only survival skills. His weapon of choice is a metal pipe, which he drags along the ground, much like Meera dragged her rod at the end of NH10. Unlike Meera, though, Raman doesn’t have any motivation to kill—it’s just something he starts doing, discovers it comes easy and continues with. He’s a terribly unreliable narrator—something the quicksilver Siddiqui has fun with—but the one thing that rings true is when he tells the police that he developed a habit years ago of walking on the black portions whenever the road before him was chequered. It’s easy to imagine all those years of sticking to black and avoiding light warping his mind.

Instead of doing what most film-makers would and giving us something to balance out Raman, Kashyap gives us even more darkness in the form of Raghav (Vicky Kaushal), the inspector in charge of Raman’s case. Though it takes some doing in a film built around a brutal murderer, Raghav actually turns out to be the most distasteful character here—snorting cocaine on the job, making his girlfriend undergo three abortions, and doing some killing of his own. The film sets police and criminal up as mirror images of each other: not a novel idea (it’s been around at least as long as Fritz Lang’s M), but one that’s taken to a surprising, pitch-black conclusion by co-writers Kashyap and Vasan Bala.

Along with That Girl In Yellow Boots and Ugly, Raman Raghav 2.0 forms a loose trilogy of Kashyap films set in modern-day Mumbai. Both visually and spiritually, these are films largely devoid of beauty, hope and humanity. The stories mainly concern outliers, people on the margins of society trying to hustle their way to a better life and, more often than not, failing. The city glimpsed in these films is dirty and desperate, the characters we encounter even more so. Working with Jay Oza instead of his regular cinematographer, Rajeev Ravi, Kashyap edges as far away from the flamboyance of Bombay Velvet as possible; the most ostentatious moment in Raman Raghav 2.0 is the trippy opening credits.

In 1991, Sriram Raghavan directed an hour-long film on the real-life Raman Raghav, a serial killer responsible for a spate of killings in Mumbai in the 1960s. In his version, which never released, Raghubir Yadav played the killer with a chilling, deadpan matter-of-factness. Siddiqui takes a different route: His Raman is all too present in the moment; decisive, self-aware, alert and funnier than he has a right to be. Kaushal commits to a kind of stoic disintegration, which isn’t very exciting. But Siddiqui, a scar across his forehead and a mad gleam in his eyes, is indelible. He’s the first, second and third reason one ought to see Raman Raghav 2.0, which is as unpleasant as it is gleefully amoral and perversely enjoyable.

This review appeared in Mint.

Udta Punjab: Review

Udta Punjab glamorizes drugs about as much as Saving Private Ryan glamorizes war. Every conceivable negative outcome of drug addiction is laid out in the plainest possible terms: penury, familial divide, self-abasement, violence, apathy. Here’s another thing: those obligatory shots of smoke being luxuriously exhaled, or a junkie’s face subsumed with ecstasy as the needle enters their arm? I can hardly remember any.

Even in an anti-drug film, it’s easy for a director to justify a couple of flashy scenes like these—he can simply say he’s attempting to show how seductive drugs can be. But Abhishek Chaubey, director of Udta Punjab, isn’t interested in making things easy or pretty. In scene after scene, the film shows how the state of Punjab has been crippled by heroin, smack, cocktail drugs and chitta—Punjabi for “white”—shorthand for cocaine. As the opening song, "Chitta Ve", plays, we move from the stage it’s being performed on to fancy nightclubs where lines of coke are being snorted to addicts in run-down huts. Five minutes in, the whole of Punjab is flying high, and falling fast.

Much like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic did all those years ago, Udta Punjab uses overlapping individual narratives to illuminate various facets of the drug problem. There’s Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a popular singer and junkie whose image is built around macho posturing, drugs and partying, like a lot of the hard-edged Punjabi pop out there. There’s the unnamed labourer from Haryana—poetically linked to the lost girl in the Shiv Kumar Batalvi poem Ik Kudi Jida Naam Mohabbat—played by Alia Bhatt, who finds 3kg of heroin in a field, tries to sell it and is soon in over her head. Through some stunning associative editing, Chaubey indicates that these two are somehow linked much before their stories actually intertwine.

The other major characters are brought together in more straightforward fashion. Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) is a mid-level police officer, who, like all his colleagues, is happy to allow drugs to circulate in his area (his cut is Rs.10,000 a month). But when his younger brother overdoses, Sartaj’s path crosses that of Preet (Kareena Kapoor Khan), a doctor who runs a rehab facility. After Preet chides the policeman for turning a blind eye to the problem, the two of them team up and try to find the link between local politicians, suppliers and dealers. From a logic standpoint, their fact-finding expedition is a little wishful, but it supplies one of the film’s few moments of beauty, as the shy Sartaj, emboldened by a drug he has been stabbed with, asks Preet out on a date.

Chaubey and co-screenwriter Sudip Sharma move these four characters and a host of minor ones around like chess pieces, some of them running defence, others making sudden attacks. That the writing is profane is common knowledge after the censor troubles of the past few weeks, but the harshness of speech makes perfect sense, for this is a harsh film. In prison, Tommy comes across two fans of his. They rap a few lines from his first hit track, tell Tommy they idolize him, then reveal that they’re in jail for killing their mother. After a scene like this, it’s difficult not to curse, even if you’re an audience member.

It’s fascinating to see how the diverse acting styles of the leads meld or clash with each other throughout the film. Kapoor Khan lends her own air of professionalism to her character, which works because Preet is the only person who exhibits some kind of control. In contrast, Kapoor and Bhatt throw caution to the wind, howl, shriek, grimace and allow themselves to be extremely vulnerable. Dosanjh underplays beautifully. And there’s another performance going on in the background. It’s Punjab, going the method route, doing a great impression of an addict. It might be the most devastating act of all.

Dhanak: Review

At a time when the hipper strand of our cinema has all but discarded the idea of the lip-syncing actor, it’s nice to be reminded that Indian films have always been about extending oneself through song. In Dhanak, runaway siblings Chotu and Pari are by a roadside somewhere in Rajasthan, looking for a ride. A tractor passes them by, singing emanating from somewhere within the carrier section. Suddenly, Chotu lets out a piercing, beautiful cry, completing a line of the song. The tractor stops. One of the passengers stands up and sings the next line. Chotu responds. And they’re invited on board. Conventional though it may seem to us, you’re unlikely to find such a scene in any other cinematic culture today.

Speaking of cinematic culture, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak is a reminder—if one were needed—that this is a hopelessly, incurably movie-mad nation. Ten-year-old Pari, visiting a tent cinema with her younger brother and uncle, sees a poster with her favourite actor, Shah Rukh Khan, asking people to donate their eyes. She writes to Khan asking if he can help her get Chotu’s eyesight back before his ninth birthday. When she learns that Khan is in Jaisalmer, shooting for a film, she sets off from her village to petition him in person, Chotu in tow (he isn’t thrilled; he would rather meet Salman Khan). The idea that our cinematic idols can be accessed in person, that they would be happy to help us with our problems…let’s just say there’s more in common between Dhanak and Fan than one might expect.

It’s not just the children. Nearly everyone Pari and Chotu meet on their journey to Jaisalmer is a movie nut. A friend of theirs claims to have hosted Khan in his house. “It’s been my dream to meet Shah Rukh, but I have to get these tomatoes to Ajmer,” a truck driver tells them. The singer on the tractor says he would really like to meet him, except that he has to attend a wedding. Even the forbidding-looking holy woman they encounter confides that she used to act with Khan in Delhi. “Tell him Vibha says hello,” she urges them.

Though it’s superficially reminiscent of The Night Of The Hunter, another film about an orphaned brother-sister pair on a fairy-tale quest, Dhanak doesn’t have the heart to expose its protagonists to anything as scary as Robert Mitchum’s preacher. The Rajasthani landscape that Pari and Chotu walk through is unfailingly benign. Nearly every stranger they meet is happy to offer them a ride, or food and shelter, or advice. The one stretch when they’re in some kind of danger ends abruptly and unconvincingly; it’s as if Kukunoor got all the child-in-peril scenarios out of his system with Lakshmi two years ago.

In its two-hour running time, Dhanak throws more charm at the screen than one might feel equipped to handle. Krrish Chhabria, who plays Chotu, is unabashedly, precociously winning, though I preferred the more understated warmth of Hetal Gada as Pari. As the children come across one outlandish character after another—a peace-and-love-espousing hippie, a blind fortune-teller, a disturbed man clutching a steering wheel—the whimsy and the good vibes can get a little wearying. Yet, it’ll be a brave soul who can remain entirely immune to a film as transparently audience-pleasing as this.

This review appeared in Mint.

Te3n: Review

The stellar run of Hindi cinema in 2012 was kicked off by two March releases: the highly anticipated Paan Singh Tomar and a less-heralded film, Kahaani. The latter was a thriller set in Kolkata, directed by Sujoy Ghosh and starring Vidya Balan and a largely unknown actor named Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The film turned out to be twisty, beautifully paced and in perfect sync with its Kolkata setting. It became a deserved sleeper hit.

Four years later, Balan and Siddiqui return for the awkwardly titled Te3n. Ghosh is a producer this time, having handed over the directorial duties to Ribhu Dasgupta (Michael). There’s a lot in the film that’s reminiscent of Kahaani. The setting is still Kolkata, with Tushar Kanti Ray’s camera finding visual rhymes in the gnarled branches of a banyan tree and a thicket of electrical wires. The narrative still revolves around themes of family, memory and revenge. And the almost pathological need to stay one step ahead of the audience persists, to the extent that Te3n—like Kahaani—has scenes that deliberately mislead the viewer.

Angela, the school-going granddaughter of John (Amitabh Bachchan), was kidnapped eight years ago. What happened to her is revealed over the course of the film, in instalments, but what we do know is this: She died on a rainy night when a ransom meeting was taking place, and both John—who handled the negotiations without informing the girl’s father—and the detective on the case, Martin (Siddiqui), blame themselves for this. Martin quits the force and becomes a priest, while John haunts the police station and obsessively goes over the details of Angela’s abduction in the hope of discovering who did it.

Then, eight years later, it all starts to happen again. A little boy is kidnapped, in exactly the same manner as Angela. Detective Sarita (Balan) asks Father Martin—who, it must be said, needs very little persuading—to help out. As they work with the abductee’s grandfather, Manohar (Sabyasachi Chakraborty), John carries on with his lonely plod towards the truth. It’s an unusually inward performance by Bachchan, lacking both the assertiveness and the flair one associates with the actor. Instead, his drained, unmoored manner seems to suggest that after Angela disappeared, John too became something of a ghost.

To its credit, Te3n, an official remake of the 2013 Korean film Montage, has surprises at regular enough intervals, not all of which are easy to predict. Whether all these twists make sense, or are entirely fair, is another matter. Without giving anything away, I would say that at least a couple of the revelations skirt the boundaries of directorial “cheating”. For instance, for one extended sequence, scenes occurring in two different locations are cut together. What we aren’t told is that they also belong to different timelines. Because the viewer thinks these are happening at roughly the same time, the sequence is suspenseful. How do Dasgupta and the writers (Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah, Bijesh Jayarajan) think the audience will feel when it realizes this isn’t the case?

Kahaani had its own tryst with misdirection, but there’s one important difference between the two films, and it isn’t even that Ghosh’s film hummed like a well-oiled machine while Te3n occasionally has problems bringing scenes to a crisp end. In Kahaani, Kolkata was more than a setting—it was believable as the world the characters inhabited. Te3n, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like it needed to be set in Kolkata at all. Besides the token presence of Durga idols and football, the action could really be unfolding in any crowded metro. None of the actors apart from Chakraborty are Bengali, and the number of sentences in Bangla or in local accents can be counted on fewer than 10 fingers.

It’s no great sin to use a city as an exotic backdrop instead of as a fully realized setting. Still, this points to a certain lack of ambition in Te3n, as does the wholesale transfer of details, large and small, from Montage. It is, however, heartening to see young directors continue to look for ways to tweak the Bachchan persona, even if the results in this case are less than satisfactory.

Do Lafzon Ki Kahani: Review

There’s a scene some 30 minutes into Do Lafzon Ki Kahani that might illustrate what a confounding and avoidable experience it is. Jenny (Kajal Agarwal), a blind Indian teacher in Kuala Lumpur, arrives at her doorstep late at night to find her creepy boss there, drunk out of his mind and making advances. After he forces his way in, she pours him juice instead of, say, locking herself into a room or looking for the nearest knife. At this point, he slurs what is both the most memorable line in the movie and a contender for the worst piece of writing of the year so far: “I have my own juice.”

Luckily for Jenny—and anyone who would rather not know what he meant by that—our hero, Sooraj (Randeep Hooda), turns up to do the requisite saving. But the scene isn’t done with us. Instead of being grateful, Jenny berates Sooraj for breaking her boss’ fingers. What if they fire her from her job? Sooraj, confused, asks if she really wants to work in a place like that. Which workplace, she yells, doesn’t have men like that?

Jenny eventually apologizes to Sooraj. I would rather Deepak Tijori did the same. This is the erstwhile actor’s sixth film as director. For the most part, it’s a slushy mess, enlivened only by the inadvertent comedy of Girish Dhamija’s writing and sudden spikes of melodrama that would have been rejected as excessive by TV soap producers. It’s based on the 2011 Korean film Always—the second such remake this week along with Te3n. What will Bollywood turn to once it’s remade all the Korean films worth remaking? I hear Romanian cinema comes highly recommended.

When we’re first introduced to Sooraj, he’s running from his past as an MMA fighter and part-time thug. But if you’ve ever watched a Bhatt camp film (which this one resembles in spirit), you’ll know that you can’t run from your past, just as you can’t hide your true face from the one who loves you, even if she can’t see. Sooraj and Jenny fall in love, slowly and painfully (for the viewer, not them). Even as he struggles to tell her about a particularly dark period in his life, they find out that her sight can be restored through a cornea transplant. For dramatic purposes, the operation has to be within the next 15 days, which requires a large sum of money to be arranged almost immediately.

Thus Sooraj returns to the fighting pits and a life of crime while Jenny…well, Jenny just talks a lot. If their love story only has do lafz, she’s definitely uttered both of them while he’s stood by and gritted his teeth. This is exactly the sort of no-hope venture that Randeep Hooda seems to land up in again and again, frustrating those who believe that he ought to be a much bigger star and above dross of this sort by now.

This review appeared in Mint.

Banned in Punjab

It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario for Udta Punjab than the one it finds itself in. Last month, the Examining Committee (EC) of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) viewed the film and referred it to the Revising Committee (RC). On Monday, the RC has recommended— allegedly, since no written proof of this has been given to the filmmaker or producers—a whopping 89 cuts to be made in the film. Even more bizarrely, they’ve apparently asked the makers of the film to excise the word ‘Punjab’ wherever it occurs and to remove all references to the state, its cities and its politics.

Since the RC has not issued its recommendations in writing, the makers cannot approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, an independent body headed by a retired judge. (“They’ve been delaying giving us that letter for 4 weeks now,” one of the producers told us.) The only options left before the team seem to be to reach an understanding with the CBFC—which seems almost impossible now—or take their case to court (though, as Anurag Kashyap, one of the film’s producers, said on the India Today channel on Tuesday, they need a letter from the CBFC for that as well). In either case, the planned release of 17 June seems highly unlikely.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the film deals with the growing drug culture in Punjab. Addiction and trafficking have been huge problems for the state in recent years, and should be a key issue in next year’s assembly elections. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has campaigned hard on this, with Kumar Vishwas appearing in a music video called "Ek Nasha: Nashe ke Khilaf". The Congress has also vowed to eradicate drugs if they win. A film—especially a big Bollywood film with stars and a risk-taking director and writer—about the problem was always headed for choppy waters.

The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)—which has been in power since 2007 in the state, in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—seems to have had its eye on Udta Punjab from the start. When the trailer hit, SAD MLA Virsa Singh Valtoha remarked that “this film is an outcome of a trend to defame Punjab and its youth”. The party distanced itself somewhat from his comments, with spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema saying, “It will be wrong to comment hypothetically till we do not watch the exact contents.”

When reports of the film being “banned” (which it technically isn’t) started emerging, Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh said, “The movie has been banned clearly with a guilty conscience.” AAP leader Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi put it in plainer terms, saying: “Since SAD is an alliance partner of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre, the Akalis must have exercised their influence over banning the movie.”

The SAD, for now, is keeping its distance. A senior leader of SAD which heads the government in Punjab said, “The issue is between the censor board and the film-maker, the state government is not even involved in this issue. The censor board has raised questions; it is the competent authority to answer.”

We might never know if any pressure has been exerted, or whether the CBFC is just being its usual overzealous self. What we do know is that the SAD keeps a close watch on films set in Punjab or featuring Punjabis. A number of films have been banned from releasing in the state in recent years. In 2011, it imposed a state-wide ban on Aarakshan, though it revoked this decision a couple of days later. Sadda Haq, a 2013 film on the Khalistan movement, was banned as well. It was eventually released when the Supreme Court overturned the ban.

In 2015, MSG: The Messenger of God, about the controversial cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was banned; its sequel that same year, MSG-2 The Messenger, wasn’t explicitly banned, though exhibitors refused to show it in theatres, citing possible law and order problems. In April this year, the screening of Nanak Shah Fakir was suspended for two months, on the grounds that the film on Guru Nanak was inspiring “widespread resentment”. Also in April, the Bollywood film Santa Banta Pvt Ltd was banned for allegedly hurting Sikh sentiments.

It’s not just the ruling party—Punjabi films have raised alarm bells across the political spectrum. In 2003, Hawayein, on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, was banned by the Congress government in Punjab and Delhi. In 2006, it was the turn of The Da Vinci Code, following protests by Punjabi Roman Catholics. Kaum De Heere, a 2014 film on the assassins on Indira Gandhi, was barred from releasing by the Centre after Punjab BJP and Youth Congress leaders wrote to the prime minister objecting to the film’s alleged glorification of its subjects. In addition, groups ranging from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to the radical Dal Fakir have also, in the past, raised objections or organised agitations against certain films.

With several political parties circling the issue, there’s a danger of Udta Punjab getting even more deeply mired than it already is. Kashyap tweeted yesterday to this effect, asking “Congress, AAP and other political parties to stay out of my battle” and to not “colour my fight with any political affiliation”. This request fell on deaf years, as right-wing trolls attacked him on Twitter for allegedly being a political pawn. At the end of the day, the fate of the film remained very much in limbo.