Shuddh Desi Romance - Hunterrr

Two recent Hindi films – Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), directed by Maneesh Sharma and written by Jaideep Sahni, and Hunterrr (2015), directed and written by Harshavardhan Kulkarni – try to trace the different contours of modern Indian romance with interesting results. The first film is produced by Yash Raj Films – not just a pillar of the Bollywood establishment, but the very face of the brand of idealist romanticism generally associated with the industry – in a spirit of keeping up with changing social norms. The latter is partly produced by Phantom Films, the self-styled outsider institution that’s building an impressive repertoire primarily targeting cosmopolitan audiences. Varied though they might be in their origin and temperament, they converse well with each other and, I believe, together provide a very good window into the evolution of both culture and the Hindi film industry.

Hunterrr, the more provocative of the two and understandably so, follows Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah), a handsome, middle-class urban man in his 30s. Mandar is a ‘player’, constantly in pursuit of flings, who dreads being tied down by marriage but who acknowledges nonetheless that he isn’t getting any younger (which means not that he needs to get married, but that his chances of scoring are diminishing). In Shuddh Desi Romance, Sushant Singh plays Raghu, a street smart man-child working odd jobs, who gets cold feet every time he tries to get hitched. Raghu’s aversion to marriage could only be taken at face value – a fear of the finality of the institution and its increased stakes – because it finds its exact echo in the female protagonist Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose failed pregnancy seems to have made her skeptical of all long-term relationships. Mandar’s marriage-phobia, in contrast, stems for a multiplicity of polarizing forces he is caught amidst. For one, he juggles in vain modern and traditional belief systems, trading in libertarian values while shouldering the weight of tradition in the form of societal expectations of ‘settling down’.

In other words, Mandar leads a double life – one of a socially atomized womanizer and the other of a member of a family with specific duties towards father, mother and fiancée; one driven by testosterone and the other by conscious suppression of it. This, of course, is the Madonna-whore complex turned inside out, to show that such a dual perspective demands role-playing from the person who holds it as well. These two parallel words come crashing into each other in the airport sequence of the film, where Mandar tries to move in on a family member by mistake and gets caught. And this collapse is what the entire film is structured around, cuts as it does between Mandar’s imminent present-day crisis and his formative years. (More on this cross-cutting later.)

Furthermore, the film presents his refusal to get married as his inability to accept the responsibilities that a patriarchal setup requires of him (to earn, to drive, to support a family) while enjoying the privileges that it offers (of unproblematic mobility, of freedom from moral judgment, of unquestioned predation). It is as though he realizes his status as a gendered-being only when standing at the gates of matrimony. To be sure, Mandar’s conquests aren’t as much fodder for male ego-polishing as responses to genuine carnal urge, free of social-programming (as is evidenced by the freedom of the men surrounding him from such a perennial urge). But the ease with which he can go about these making these conquests is what I think is invoked here as privilege.

Hunterrr

This privilege, in Hunterrr, manifests in Mandar’s relationship with the space he moves in. He sexualizes the zone around him wherever he goes. The hunter, one might say, examines his space carefully and prowls before making his move. Quotidian gestures by women become triggers for him, while the same gestures retain their banality when the men do it. The film partakes in this sexualization in such a way that we always know when we are to share Mandar’s perspective (and, at times, when we are to break away from it). On the other hand, he senses his mastery of space thwarted in the closely knit residential complex he lives in during his university days in Pune. He finds himself always under scrutiny, continuously challenged to carve out a judgment-free space where he can maintain his love life. The anonymity offered by city life is undone by the closed nature of the residential complex.

Space in Shuddh Desi Romance, on the contrary, is more clearly demarcated. The two leads who refuse marriage almost literally live in an ivory tower. They occupy a penthouse on one of the tallest buildings in a mixed-use neighbourhood in Jaipur. This apartment of non-marital coupledom, cloistered from the prying eyes on the ground and free from traces of the characters’ past, stands in direct contrast to the horizontal sprawl and constant scrutiny of the wedding parties the two attend frequently. The bathroom, which figures prominently throughout the film, is a transitional zone of no-morality that links these two kinds of spaces that function according to their own value systems. But these separate spaces, in themselves, are free of gender hierarchy, unlike the masculine spaces of Hunterrr. Shuddh Desi Romance keeps emphasizing the equivalence between its characters, who physically and figuratively take each others’ positions throughout the film. Raghu, moreover, is only too glad to share responsibility with Gayatri.

But then all is not egalitarian in the film’s trajectory. Early in the movie, Raghu runs away from his wedding, leaving his fiancée Tara (Vaani Kapoor) stranded. Later, Gayatri deserts him in their wedding. Tara tells Raghu that Gayatri left him because she just wouldn’t have been able to imagine life with a man who fled his wedding. Raghu is, by this logic, guilty not just for what he did to Tara, but also for what happened to himself. Raghu buys into this twisted rationale and carries the double-guilt for the rest of the film, not knowing really how to comprehend his status as a victim-aggressor. This, in other words, is the famous blame-the-victim manoeuvre used on a man for his failure to ‘man up’. It is no wonder that Raghu is passively held hostage by both women in the end where he ends up the guilty party no matter what he does.

The film’s view of marriage is decidedly reductive, compares as it does the institution to a house locked from outside. In Shuddh Desi Romance, weddings are literally simulacrums – Goyal saab’s (Rishi Kapoor) firm provides fake invitees for hire for brides or grooms whose parents have deserted them because of their choice of partners – in which, we are told, the double standards of Indian culture come to the fore. The film, it needs to be said, pats itself on the back now and then for its radical stance and there is some amount of vain posturing at work here. Nevertheless, Jaideep Sahni, who is growing from strength to strength with every movie he writes, populates the film with sharp observations about the role of ego in non-committal romance and with characters capable of casual cruelty.

Shuddh Desi Romance

Shuddh Desi Romance is, without question, the more accomplished of the two films. Its fine-grained structuring that relies on repetitions, doublings, mirroring and minor variations on major motifs – reminiscent of the work of Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo – renders the film very robust. Its use of extra-diegetic talking heads, where characters tell the viewers in direct address what’s going through their head, is never too clever, as it typically is when the device is employed. Actors are capable and personal enough to hold interest even in long takes. More importantly, the film unfolds as a string of fully fleshed-out scenes, instead of vignettes or impressions as is too common nowadays, and this greatly cuts down the possibility of narrative flab.

This, unfortunately, cannot be said of Hunterrr, whose scattershot structuring and juvenile inserts of fake scenes cry frivolity. It’s a film that wears its wide-ranged cinephilia on its sleeve and belongs alongside the movies of Anurag Kashyap (who must hold some sort of record for the amount of second-unit material he uses in his films). The early sequences portraying Mandar’s childhood are vivid and refreshing, but its shuffling of narrative timeline tries to build a dramatic causality where none exists. Few films swing so wildly between honesty and disingenuousness as Hunterrr. A spate of genuine notes lie scattered amidst false ones. The conversations, evidently, have the frankness of lived experience. So does Mandar’s conflicted view of himself as an everyman to be treated ordinarily and a pathological exception to be specially understood. On the other hand, there is a completely unwarranted death that is thrown in simply to add gravity to the flighty proceedings and which is immediately undermined by a cut back to flippancy.

That said, the film also contains what must count as one of the most graceful portrayals of romance in all of Hindi cinema, in the affair between Mandar and Jyotsna (Sai Tamhankar), the housewife next door. There is a nobility and tenderness in this segment that is very, very rare to come by in movies. The liaison is, of course, transgressive but is devoid of the cynicism and sleaze that it usually accompanies it. In their relationship, Hunterrr captures an intimacy that can be evident to no one in the world but the two involved. The scene where Jyotsna tries out the saree that Mandar buys for her radiates an image all too familiar of a personality rubbed down and dissolved by the weight of the mundane. When she confronts him for the last time and he tries to convince her, a little too forcefully, that something can be worked out, she tells him “You ran away, but where will I run?”. It’s the one point where Mandar realizes, despite looking eye-to-eye with Jyotsna, the insuperable gulf of tradition and culture that separates the two; a moment so personal that, as Baradwaj Rangan put it once, that you want to look away.

Papanasam (2015)
Jeethu Joseph
Tamil

 

PapanasamPaapanasam’s director Jeethu Joseph likes a few things. He likes the fade. He likes the Jimmy Jib. He likes filming his female actors in decreasing order of height. He likes the chimerical simple life. He likes the family. And boy, does he like the family? His film leisurely introduces us to the life of Suyambulingam (Kamal Haasan), a fifty-ish cable TV operator who spends nights at his office watching movies, away from his wife and two daughters – an effective enough shorthand for a middle-aged everyman whose love life is as unyielding as his wallet and who channels his libido onto cinema in ways more than one. So that’s what Paapanasam is – an elaborate odyssey for Suyambu to reassert masculinity, exacerbated it is as much by his perceived lack of education as by his age, and take the reins of his family. (It is one of those therapeutic films which entertain the trivial possibility that the whole narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head to serve as an antidote to a fear or a lack – a direct parallel to the filmmaking endeavour itself.) And there lies the biggest strength of this rare thriller that is unapologetic and conscious of which value system is at the wheel. The family is paramount in Paapanasam, the engine that runs the world, the institute meriting the highest priority, more than friendship, religion, law and even the individual itself. Sure, it’s a reactionary text, asserting patriarchy’s enterprise, rigour and sense of order prevailing over matriarchy’s apparent laxity, but there’s a sense of something well thought through unfolding before us instead of the unintentionally muddled politics of many a modern movie. It is a film that at least knows which god it is prostrating itself before – the phallus in this case – and I think this clarity deserves something other than outright condemnation.

 

The New Cinephilia
Girish Shambu
Caboose, 2015

 

In a letter I wrote to Girish Shambu about my qualms with 21st century cinephilia last year, I had said: “Part of the reason I am so ardently looking forward to your book is to understand how to give a form to an activity as variegated, vehemently personal and solitary as cinephilia.” Here it is now. Girish’s erudite new book seeks to etch a picture of cinephilia as it exists in the internet age. Bookended by references to Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay on ‘the decay of cinema’, it is a forward-looking, optimistic work that responds to Sontag’s lamentation about the death of cinema and of cine-love. Girish starts off by defining what he means by cinephilia:

“Cinephilia, as we know, is not simply an interest in cinema or the propensity to watch a great number of movies. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for cinephilia. Not only watching, but thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional: these activities are important to the cinephile. In other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films.”

The New CinephiliaThe definition above is interesting – and crucial for the remainder of the book – both in terms of the individuals whom it characterizes as “internet cinephiles” and those it excludes through such a specific formulation. For one, it ascribes the cinephile label to those who are involved in the production, dissemination or consumption of ‘texts’ about films online – a cross-section that, whether we like to think of it that way or not, wields the privilege of language. On the other hand, the coinage leaves out not only the vast demographic obsessive film-watchers not involved in film-critical discourse (including film tribes and sub-cultures such as anime fandom), but also those who might be labeled the “cinephilic working class” – people and groups involved in alternate forms of distribution of films: hosts and seeders of torrent trackers, unorganized bootleggers, uploaders of rare VHS and TV rips and voluntary subtitlers, who are, in fact, the players responsible for the reincarnation of New Cinephilia as a global phenomenon. This underclass, as it were, is almost single-handedly responsible for the geographic and intellectual expansion of cinephilia in not only multiplying the breadth of material available to movie-lovers but also providing access to such material to cultures and regions without alternate distributors, arthouses, film societies, festivals or film discourse. Personal experience convinces me that the torrent is the most prominent birthmark of the internet cinephile.

With this definition in place, Girish goes on to touch lucidly on various aspects of this cinephilic upper class, especially those involved in production of film discourse: the internet’s transformation of the subjective after-experience of a film, the shift in style of film reviewing from generally descriptive to particularly analytical, the continuing centrality of conversation in cinephilic practice, the everyday experience of a cinephile on social networking websites and the importance of writing to cinephilia through the ages. Despite numerous commentators bemoaning a number of these changes, detailing the narcissism, knee-jerk reactions and philistinism they foster, Girish sees them in a positive light, viewing them as being organically liked to the continuous, necessary mutation of cinephilia. From his view of New Cinephilia changing foundational ideas about cinema to his affirmative response to the question of whether social change can be brought about by a cinephile qua cinephile, Girish’s indefatigable optimism is, in fact, daunting to a full-time cynic like me who, although he understands how cinephilia performs a useful social function by giving young folk something to construct their identities around, can only see the underbelly of cinephilic explosion in the new millennium. I quote here from my letter to Girish two reasons for my disillusionment with internet cinephilia:

One, that cinephilia in the 21st century, I think, has become a glorified form of consumerism. Not just in the way it facilitates the circulation of material commodities like DVDs, but in its very ratification of the desire to watch as many films as possible, in its insistence on the investment, in terms of time, energy or money, in practicing cinephilia. There was a time that I used to naively think that my cinephilia set me apart from more direct materialist pursuits around me because (a) I don’t collect films as objects and that they are an ‘experience’ (b) it is art appreciation and not consumerism. But it dawned on me, as it dawns sooner or later on anyone willing to think critically, that investing in experiences is the most rampant form of consumerism today. (I am thinking particularly of the valorization of tourism, extreme sports and social networking). I realized that I approached cinema more or less the way people around me were approaching electronic gadgets. I hear people talking about the history of a particular mobile phone, comparing it with its predecessors, appreciating its ergonomics and locating it within a historical trend and I see in it a equivalent to the commodified form of auteurism that the internet cinephiles have bought into en masse. Auteurs are brand names and wanting to consume their films seems to me to be little different from wanting to try out the next hot gadget. Commodity fetish, that was once a domain of material objects, is now displaced on to experiences, art experience in particular. Given that any film now is just minutes away from access, having missed out on a good film, new or classic, is considered an embarrassment and a reason for not being able to get into discussion circles. Obsessive shopping is denigrated while binge-watching is considered a reflection of one’s passion.

And two, that 21st century cinephilia is a direct descendent of the rise of nerd culture. I have been in programming circles, quizzing circles and cinephile circles – the major planets in the geek galaxy – and they are all united by their near-total absence of women. The new cinephilia (the only one I have experienced), not just the mainstream version of it, in its rapacious movie-watching, choleric debates and obsession of canonizing and classification feels to me to be characterized by a typically straight, young, male aggressiveness. This cinephilia, unlike the other honest, self-styled nerd groups, has the advantage of seeming to transcend geek culture under the garb of being a higher, more mature pursuit. The stereotype of the New Cinephile being an unkempt omega male in his early twenties, intelligent, atheist, left-leaning, piracy-supporting, career-agnostic, philosophy-loving social misfit derives from a general taxonomy of geeks, but is not without a modicum of truth. Reading many perceptive commentaries about what is now called the “millennial generation”, of which I am most certainly a part, I realize that cinephilia is the direct offspring of this tectonic geek-oriented generational/cultural shift.

But the most thought-provoking part – by which I mean the part I most vehemently reacted to – is the book’s centerpiece titled “Building a large conversation” in which Girish examines the reasons for the large gap between film studies and film criticism and reflects on the possibility of bridging it. To illustrate the reluctance of film critics to keep themselves abreast of the developments in film scholarship, he cites an Artforum roundtable where Annette Michelson puts down late-period Pauline Kael:

To have continued to write into the ’90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that [Kael] ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale.

Now, I have neither read the roundtable in its entirety, nor Kael extensively. But the excerpt above seems to suggest that film criticism has an intellectual obligation to learn from film studies. At the risk of antagonizing readers from academic background, I venture to suggest that film criticism has as much obligation to learn from film academia as experimental filmmaking has to learn from genre cinema. To be clear, I am not saying that film criticism has nothing to gather from film studies. Achievements of film theory can clear much rudimentary ground for film criticism by avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. But the finest film criticism works in a territory that academia has not yet explored. In my mind, film criticism is the avant-garde to the arrière-garde of film studies, the punctum to the studium of scholarship. It must work on aspects of film that have not yet been theorized and institutionalized, that are untheorizable even. While most scholarship treats films as fodder for validating and perpetuating sacred theoretical frameworks, much like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, film criticism takes each film primarily as an autonomous art object and derives from the object the analytical tools necessary for discussing it, which may or may not be found in film theory toolkit. I cannot imagine any consistent ‘method’ or ‘system’ of film criticism that will not undermine its essential openness to being surprised and rendered speechless by the art object. Every act of film criticism is like a surgery – always haunted by the risk of failure, always at the risk of discovering something ineffable. No matter how well you institutionalize it, there is always a good possibility that the best critical work comes from outside the establishment. What’s most exciting about film criticism in the internet age is that it is truly democratic: the best criticism can come from the most unexpected quarters, from personalities without any history or credentials in film criticism or studies. It is in this quality of perennially being a level playing field for film criticism that 21st century cinephilia is most promising, rejects as it does both the intellectual priesthood of the academia and the oligarchic taste-making of print criticism.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the dominant, non-formalist form of film studies, with its systemic handicap of abstaining from value judgment and not being able to treat the film as an independent aesthetic object capable of producing an infinite variety of affects, can be terribly instructive for the enterprise of film criticism, which necessarily calls for a hierarchy of values on the part of the practitioner and his/her acknowledgement being a sentient, unique subject capable of being transformed by the film. (Presumably to show that this is indeed possible, Girish, taking the example of Tom Gunning’s study of Fritz Lang’s films. tells us how theoretical research and film scholarship has demystified the romantic conception of the artist as an endowed being and challenged auteur theory’s far-flung claims. But then, it speaks only of an awkward state of film criticism if it requires film studies to disabuse it of artistic mythmaking.) These disagreements, rather than being drawbacks, are precisely what make the book so interesting to read because, to me, the book is a logical extension of Girish’s work at his blog, where such disagreements and conversations take place all the time. I can imagine making the same comments at his blog had the material of the book unfolded as a series of blog posts. And true to the spirit of his style of posting, the book is an ideal déclencheur, a trigger to get conversation going. That’s more than a good reason to get to it.

 

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) (You Don’t Get Life A Second Time)
Zoya Akhtar
Hindi

 

Zindagi Na Milegi DobaraThe deal with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is not bad; for the price of one ticket you get a 150-minute Tourist’s Guide to Spain, a parade of supernaturally-beautiful bodies and a good amount of dime-store philosophy. It’s a bit like window-shopping in malls – you know you can’t afford these things, you know they are not good for you, but you just can’t take your eyes off them. Zoya Akhtar’s second feature film revolves around three well-off bachelors each of whom is battling some sort of repression and who would liberate themselves over a three-week European road trip. It would be crude to attack this film – or any other – on the basis that it talks about the problems of the rich, isolated from the existence of the overwhelming majority. Sorrow, after all, knows no class. As long as such a work doesn’t become blind to values beyond its immediate context, I think there is little reason to object to its existence. Akhtar makes it amply clear at the outset that this is a film of, by and, most importantly, for the privileged and that all the wisdom it offers applies to those who have the luxury to indulge in them. So, at least, this is not an entirely dishonest or misguided project. Yes, it’s woven around the stereotype that men have trouble articulating their emotions and that it takes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl no less attractive than Katrina Kaif to snap them out of their hang-ups. And a trip to Spain. Nonetheless, the director takes pains to point out that the adventure sports that the three men play to overcome their inhibition is not an expression of masculine reassertion, accompanied nearly always as they are by at least one woman, but a contact with their vulnerable side. Like her brother’s debut film, Akhtar’s is a “guys’ movie”, but it regularly teases out values that are generally absent in this kind of cinema. Awkward moments that are typically dissolved by man-child humour are allowed to play out freely. On the other hand, despite the impressive sport sequences and the instantly beautifying quality of continental light, ZNMD has an impoverished visual vocabulary consisting of an endless series of close-ups, two-shots and three-shots that is ultimately rather exhausting. Oh, and what Thom Andersen said about personal filmmaking.

Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)
Shimit Amin
Hindi

 

Rocket SInghDirector Shimit Amin’s instinctive love for the underdog and screenwriter Jaideep Sahni’s seeming distaste for Big Business come together in Rocket Singh – a movie that is as perceptive and entertaining as it is naïve and predictable. It’s Rocky for the Generation Sell that pits corporate rapacity against homespun entrepreneurship. Ranbir Kapoor plays Hapreet – a barely-adequate everyman who tries to make his way through modern professional landscape – with great intelligence, internalizing the character’s religious repression, his lack of parental identification and the subsequent absence of retributive masculinity. Amin’s cheesecake aesthetic, on the other hand, recalls Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright in equal measure, with its geometric mise en scène, affinity for strong horizontals, the easy-on-the-eye symmetric composition, shrewd visual detailing and, especially, the sprightly editing, which telescopes actions with split second shots while letting conversations take their own pace. The office and its peripheral spaces are moral zones in Rocket Singh that define and delimit character behaviour. The workplace here is a veritable battle field – a characteristically male playground – fraught with surveillance and territorial dispute. (The cubicles’ layout itself reminds us of trench warfare.) The film succeeds in conveying to a good extent the crushing power of concentrated capital. And Amin is capable of fine subtlety, as is clear from the honesty and pronounced everyday quality of some of the sequences. But he is equally prone to repetition and overemphasis. Rocket Singh is a film that wants to put a human face on commercial enterprise, and it’s unable to understand corporate ruthlessness without putting grimacing human faces on to it. It appears to be unaware that modern offices are exactly what it laments they aren’t – employee-friendly, customer-oriented and rewarding of new ideas. Perhaps it makes for better drama this way. But it also immunizes its object of critique by characterizing its fallibility as product of human misconduct – big businesses are corrupt because the people running them are. Hapreet advices his boss towards the end: “Business is not numbers, business is people.” Guess what, that’s what every CEO says too.

PS: I admit I had fun throughout trying to guess what colour turban Ranbir Kapoor will come wearing next.

Aamir (2008)
Raj Kumar Gupta
Hindi

 

AamirRaj Kumar Gupta’s breakout debut, an adaptation of the Filipino-American indie Cavite (2005), starts off like a post-9/11, Hitchcockian wrong man thriller about an expatriate physician, Aamir (Rajeev Khandelwal), who returns to Mumbai only to be swept into a terrorist enterprise. Like Ghanchakkar (2013), the film presents to us the pathetic spectacle of a self-identity progressively disappearing. Aamir is a liberal, middle-class, rather unmarked Muslim who believes that a man makes his own life through hard work, until he is shoved into a tour of underprivileged Mumbai and an acknowledgement of his privileged upbringing. Through a grim series of manipulated tasks, he is forced to see the society from the fringe, to acknowledge the existence of people who invisibly shape his existence and to be an outsider in his own country. Gupta constructs his sequences tautly, without injecting adrenaline too artificially and without any major blunder except Amit Trivedi’s score. His film’s aesthetic of surveillance resembles that of Kathryn Bigelow, with a number of POV shots of Aamir from the viewpoint of the city’s buildings and inhabitants, and broadcasts the precise feeling of being monitored. The slow-motion, too, is used very effectively, in providing the audience not only with a breather to absorb the moral gravity of a scene but also the protagonist’s experience of being in the interminable now. Gupta’s Mumbai – an infernal, indifferent piece of alienating machinery – is the abyss in which Aamir discovers faith and the film’s got one of the most uplifting images of faith in my memory: Aamir embracing a suitcase during a moment of beatitude, itself couched inside unspeakable despair. Aamir treads a very fine line between sickening moral parable and cynical portraiture and does a remarkable stunt of balancing social determinism with spiritual individualism. Its philosophical virtue almost solely lies in its ending – in the mere existence of an ending – that calls out the intellectual fraud of films like The Terrorist (1998) and Paradise Now (2005).

Maqbool (2003)
Vishal Bhardwaj
Hindi

 

MaqboolVishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool is set in a strangely sparse and ruralized side of Mumbai and tells the story of the rise and fall of Maqbool (Irrfan Khan), the right hand man of underworld lynchpin Jahangir (Pankaj Kapoor, doing a Marlon Brando) and the secret lover of his wife Nimmi (Tabu). Tabu and Irrfan are at the top of their game in this sparkling adaptation of Macbeth, which spins Shakespeare’s portrait of the toxicity of power into a searing study of masculine insecurity. Unlike the will to power of his classical counterpart, Maqbool’s actions are brought about by a kind of necessity born out of amorous desire and sexual jealousy. He is moreover possessed by the idea of legacy and bloodline. To know whether the child from Nimmi is his or Jahangir’s is literally a question of life or death for him because, you know, parricide runs in the family. While Lady Macbeth’s sudden descent into guilt and madness seems quite at odds with the cold and calculated nature of her act, Nimmi’s gradual disintegration is grounded in her perceived failure as a mother, in a doubt that her carnal desire has possibly deprived her child of a father. Her character is a screenwriting coup, for what could easily have devolved into a Grand Scheming Woman archetype is instead made as fully human and conflicted as Maqbool. Bhardwaj builds his world at a leisurely but steady pace and elaborates on The Bard’s lean tale, providing backstories to the originally secondary characters, especially Jahangir whose ignominious prise de pouvoir is but one turn in an unceasing cycle of power struggle. The only witnesses to this eternal recurrence are the two greasy cops (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) who, unlike Macbeth’s Greek chorus of neutral witches, are active participants in the fulfillment of their prophecies by dint of deliberate inaction. Maqbool’s characters live in a limbo between the sacred and the profane – a universe where the pious turn debauchers, loyalists turn traitors and lovers turn murderers. It’s a film of great directorial rigour. The microscopically-tuned cinematography, cutting and performances hit the precise values each scene demands. I’ve put up three of the many extraordinary sequences below. Check out how seamlessly it constructs complete spaces and with what economy and accuracy each gesture, edit and change in framing conveys key details.

 Maqbool - Meeting

 

Maqbool - Gifts

 

Maqbool - Engagement

Pain and Gain

After gods, after revolutions, after financial markets, the body is becoming our truth system. It alone endures, it alone remains. In it we place all our hopes, from it we expect a reality which elsewhere is leaking away. It has become the centre of all powers, the object of all expectations, even those of salvation. We are those strange, hitherto unknown humans: the people of the body.

–The Coming of the Body (Hervé Juvin)

 

When we first see Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain (2013), he is pumping away outside a gym facility in Miami. Dwarfed by an image of physical perfection better than him, he heaves out short phrases of self-motivation with every crunch: “I’m big… I’m strong… I’m hot”. It’s the summer of 1995, we are told, six months after Lugo’s fate-sealing detour from ordinary life, and it’s time he paid for his transgression. Cut to the past. “My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness”, go the first words of the voiceover, channeling the opening lines of The Godfather (1972), where a man declares that he believes in America. The two sentiments are not too far off for, according to Lugo, to be fit is to be American. To not groom your body is then to be unpatriotic: “If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the US of A great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet.” The body in Pain & Gain is not simply a metaphor for America, its promises and its cult of the self; it’s the very incarnation of these things, of the Great American Dream.

Lugo believes in this dream more sincerely than anyone else. He takes pride in being self-made. He reads biographies – embodiments of the myth of self-sufficiency – of men whose “reach exceeds their grasp”. He borrows his world view from the movies and takes at face value the successes of Rocky Balboa, Tony Montana and Michael Corleone – various manifestations of the American way to the top. Lugo’s eventual failure is not because he hasn’t imbibed well the value of individual enterprise; it is because he has imbibed it too well. Like all his well-meaning compatriots with social ambitions, he believes that you can get whatever you want in life if you worked hard enough. No pain, no gain. But then he also assimilates the dark corollary of that ideology: if you don’t have what you wanted, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. He attends self-improvement classes and convinces himself that he just needs to be a “doer” to transcend his rickety financial situation. ‘Do’ becomes an intransitive verb for Lugo. He does things to get what he wants. It doesn’t matter whether or not he does the right things.  He thinks he can improve himself and also make America a better place by simply acting out of free will. He becomes blind to any effect the external world can have on him, to any invisible boundaries that might thwart his endeavours. The more hopeless his circumstance, the more he seems oblivious to it. And every time a situation gets out of hand, he regresses back to the one thing he has control over: his body.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

The acute observations that Pain & Gain makes helps foreground the body-centrism that marks postmodern ethos. It recognizes that the body is today both the most-prized capital for the individual as well as the most-productive domain of his investment, that, instead of being a means to a transcendental end (religious mortification, ideological sacrifice), it is the end in itself. While it might be true that, in a post-historical cultural climate, the body becomes the site of resistance to all homogenizing, subjectivizng ideologies, only the most fiercely individualistic and socially-isolated among us can succeed in rejecting the corporeal norms that the images around impose on us. What doesn’t overtly instruct us in the name of beauty instructs us under the guise of health. But then, within a fractured food system, even health becomes a luxury of the affluent. A few centuries ago, the body presented a sort of contradiction to the seeming omnipotence of wealth. Not just in its eventual mortality but also in its essential intolerance of alimentary richness. Now, the wealthy buy their way to better food while the rest sustain themselves on industrially-manufactured junk. (One of Lugo’s clients expresses his distaste for salads, pointing out that it was invented by the poor. He’s right, but it is today the preeminent rich man’s food.) If good health, longevity and comfort be the prerogatives of the well-off, it also gives rise to a curious desire for physical exertion. Millionaires tending their own garden in order to dirty their hands, artists taking up projects that make them feel closer to the working class, enthusiasm for expensive extreme sports, increasing population of premium gymnasiums – the examples of  this sublimated death drive are numerous. I am reminded of the protagonist of Cosmopolis (2012), whose alienation from all tangible reality provokes a search for physically destructive experience.

Lugo identifies with the idea of body as the locus of economic activity instinctively. He thinks that physique is an initial capital given to everyone of us whose full potential needs to be realized through constant self-improvement, and that to squander these “gifts” is un-American. (Even the arm candy he hires, an east-European stripper, is convinced that her body is a passport to the American Dream.) He puts to use this theory of body-as-capital without reflection or qualification. He promises his boss, the gym owner, that he will triple the institution’s membership in a short span of time. He tells him that his facility has no chance of surviving if it continues to concentrate on its elderly members, the reasons being (a) that the old are more at risk of injury and hence are bad publicity and (b) that the aged have lesser motivation and time left to invest on their bodies compared to the young. The gym, Lugo says, needs new blood: “you cannot build a muscle Mecca without muscle”. He entices younger customers with free body waxing service. He gives free membership to strippers to attract newer clients. His Sun Gym is a veritable meat market where muscle needs to be invested to get more muscle.

Pain and Gain

Lugo’s rise on the social ladder is predicated on a similar maximization of his body potential. He ropes his fellow gym instructors Adrian and Paul (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) into his kidnapping scheme on the conviction that the trio, with their superior athletic ability, can do the job better than even Delta Force. Adrian needs money for the expensive injections that he must take for his sexual dysfunction and for his dinners with chubby dates. Even the pious but dimwitted Paul, whose religiosity and its demands of material transcendence must counterpoint the bodily preoccupations of his comrades, believes that God has given him the power to knock people out if needed. The trio’s morbid crimes continuously run against the intractability of the corporeal. Pain & Gain is one of the few films that I can recall which underlines how difficult it is to kill someone, while acknowledging how easily modern culture enables it. The gang tries to knock off their captive; they torture him, crash him, burn him and run him over twice, in vain. At a later point, they struggle to get rid of two corpses by chopping them up. (The breast implants of one of the two victims go on to become incriminating evidence.) Their whole rigmarole of detention, torture and extortion takes place in a gonzo warehouse for sex toys – a cross between industrialized commerce and body idealism; corporal capitalism, so to speak.

There is no ostensible moral compass within the film and all the characters fall under the critical hammer. There are neither uncompromised heroes nor unblemished victims here. Even the respectable private investigator (Ed Harris) who finally nails Lugo’s racket seems to get a gentle rap on the knuckles. As he comes back to his chic villa by the shore after wrapping up the case, his wife remarks, lamenting the murders: “Some people just don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.” The seeming sincerity of her words is undermined as it’s immediately juxtaposed with Lugo’s desire to be like everyone else. It’s a stark reminder that this law enforcer, who can’t simply sit in his posh home and enjoy his retired life, is not exactly cut from a different existential fabric compared to Lugo. None of this is to say that the film is blithely cynical, for as much as we recognize the depravity of all its characters, we also impart our sympathy to each of them in turns. Like in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the film’s moral position is sufficiently evidenced by its aesthetic choices and doesn’t need to be elucidated through a literary mouthpiece. Both Daniel Lugo and Jordan Belfort are self-appointed Nietzscheans who put to full use their physical and mental prowess to cheat and beat the system. Their success is the grotesque form of the aspirations of those around them, but unimpeded by dubious moral compunctions.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

Pain & Gain is directed with a verve and nerviness comparable to Scorsese, whose influence is palpable in the film’s relayed voiceovers, sound bridges, gliding camerawork, rapid shifts in timeline, economy of exposition and high-key performances. While the on-screen texts seem too clever by half, director Michael Bay’s other stylistic excesses – his flamboyant, market-friendly colour palette, his sporadic submission to vulgarity and echoing of adolescent attitudes – are all fruitfully absorbed by the polemic edge of the material. The best sequences of the film, in fact, display an elegant classicism rare in the post-continuity cinema of Hollywood. (Note how laconic and sharp the sequence composition is when the trio meets at the gym for the first time: trust, suspicion and solidarity transmitted in a few shots of tightly controlled actor gestures and cuts.) It’s a small wonder that a much-derided director and largely-undistinguished pair of screenwriters could come together to produce a work of tremendous cultural insight and expressiveness. It may be that Pain & Gain is a fluke masterpiece, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller
English

 

Fury RoadMad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller, has been hailed as some sort of Halley’s Comet of Hollywood filmmaking. Early reviews have waxed poetic about its action filmmaking chops, its scene-by-scene inventiveness and its supposed verbal terseness and have somewhat misguidedly fetishized its use of real stunts in place of CGI – something that flummoxes me given how much of CGI is, in fact, utilized in the film. Though I found its limited inventiveness adolescent, its dialogue superfluous and banal and its direction exhausting, with its corny, rapid zooms, split second edits, its pointless disruption of spatial integrity, the eye-sore inducing orange-teal colour scheme and the lack of emotional weight that marks the best of action cinema (there is a reason why the chariot race in Ben Hur works), I did not find myself provoked enough to write a putdown of the film. Action films, after all, have the capacity to accommodate and neutralize a wide range of shrill notes and who’s to argue that critics shouldn’t derive aesthetic pleasure out of this sub-Boetticher material. However, recent think pieces have started exalting its writing, especially the film’s politics, which is what has finally pushed me to type this note out. Let’s see what Fury Road is about. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where a tyrannical patriarch, Immortan Joe, controls the city’s water supply and raises men to become war machines and women to become baby-dispensers. Joe and his boys regularly go to war with neighbouring districts for oil; they gather oil so that they can ride out to war. It makes no sense and may be that’s the point. One day, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the only woman in Joe’s army, renegades and drives away with a massive rig containing not just oil, but also Joe’s five wives whose reproductive rights he has colonized with medieval chastity belts. In the women’s ride to neverland, they are joined by nomad Max (Tom Hardy), who is undergoing a crisis of masculinity after having failed to save his family from destruction, and Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has liberated himself from Joe’s paternal authority. Together, they bring down Joe’s reign and establish a more just society under Furiosa. I suppose the film thinks this is all intelligent and subversive. We are expected to buy into the film’s declarative “This is America today” posturing. Like all mainstream moviemaking, Fury Road has the privilege of attracting academic and critical interest with a half-committed ideology while hiding behind an excuse of simple entertainment when examined deeper. (It celebrates the same automobile fetish it seeks to criticize.) Miller and co-writers mount on screen the most basic feminist meta-narrative, without any sort of personal inflection or rough edges. (There is, as addition, awfully problematic bits like a conspicuously scarved woman and those deluded war boys dreaming of a better hereafter and yelling “witness me” while leaping to death.) The resulting work has the subtlety of a jackhammer and pays lip service to a set of stillborn theoretical ideas that place nothing at stake. At its worst, it panders to a set of politico-cultural beliefs in a way that is not different from the market segmentation of studio machinery. This is the mainstream counterpart to Michael Haneke’s “I’ve got it all figured out” brand of smug filmmaking. It’s allegorical cinema for those who hate allegorical cinema.

Nirbaak  (2015) (Speechless)
Srijit Mukherji
Bengali

 

NirbaakSrijit Mukherji’s Nirbaak (“Speechless”) tells four stories of doomed, extraordinary love. There is, first of all, a man in love with himself (a delightful Anjan Dutta), one so self-absorbed that the only time he reaches out to another person outside himself is when he imparts pithy advice to a heartbroken girl: “Love yourself”. There is, secondly, an unrequited love of a tree for a woman (Sushmita Sen) featuring arboreal onanism and animist BDSM – a pressing subject that, I daresay, has never been attempted on film till now. The third segment is about the jealous love of a dog for his master (Jisshu Sengupta), while the last speaks of a love beyond the grave. A professed tribute to Salvador Dali (a monument of self-love and self-pleasure, if there was one), Mukherji’s rather well behaved exquisite corpse nevertheless contains ideas outré enough to make Kim Ki-duk envious. For a good part of the movie, the filmmaker weaves his scenes nimbly, cycling through a few precise camera setups, experimenting with some zany angles and having fun with an anti-realist sound palette. It is in the third section, where psychological realism supplants absurdist comedy and bland shallow fields replace the interesting wide-angle interior cinematography so far, that the mildly amusing tips over into the annoying. What should have been a weird but strangely dignified image of a dog’s possessive love instead becomes kitsch, suffused with absolutely redundant POV shots through the animal’s eyes rendered in monochrome. That, and not the intent to portray the toxic love between man and animal, is anthropomorphism. The ultimate impression of Nirbaak is that of an earnest student film: too focused on its conceptual framework to allow for accidents, too transparent in its technique to sustain mystery and too disciplined to befit the personality it is dedicated to.

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