Papanasam (2015)
Jeethu Joseph


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.


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


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


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


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


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

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller


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


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.

Bombay Velvet (2015)
Anurag Kashyap


Bombay VelvetWhat struck me most about Anurag Kashyap’s unanimously derided Bombay Velvet was how thoroughly unoriginal it is. Right from the history of Bombay-that-might-have-been to the black eye that Johnny (Ranbeer Kapoor) carries, the film builds a relentlessly artificial world far from the realist trappings of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The universe of Bombay Velvet is media-saturated, drowned in cinematic codes that paint a portrait of the city as a jarring mix of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York movies. So this reimagining of Bombay as a sort of Hollywoodized America has as a welcome and perhaps unintended consequence of defamiliarizing the city, giving it a new foundational myth akin to that of America at the turn of last century – a perennially rootless territory that actively erases traces of its past, a new world for those who wish to cast off their social identities and chase a new dream and a promised land of real estate rush and hedonist abandon. The lasting effect, however, is that of a simulacrum, a Disneyland. It all finally has the air of a cinephilic wish fulfillment project that imagines how great it would have been had Scorsese made a film on Bombay. Films as cinephilic navel-gazing is not new and there is nothing wrong about them either, but this one comes across less like a cinephile infusing his material with his movie loves than him incarnating his movie loves through indifferent material. When he cites Raoul Walsh, it feels less like a tribute to his formative movie experiences than a tribute to Scorsese paying tribute to his formative movie experiences. This kind of double quotation completely erases Kashyap’s authorship, but not in any subversive way. But this was to be expected of a generation of filmmakers fed on New Hollywood. The Movie Brats, thanks partly to the French New Wave, plundered classical cinema for personal use and emptied its signifiers of any meaning outside cinephilia. And films that tend to pillage these already pillaged films are very likely to come out the way Bombay Velvet has. One gets the feeling Kashyap would perhaps have liked to belong to Scorsese’s generation. The lament is understandable: it is desirable to have grown up on cinema than cinephilia.

Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind  (2007)
John Gianvito


Profit Motive and the Whispering WindJohn Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007) is prefaced by a quote by Utah Philips (but attributed to a certain Claire Spark Loeb): “The long memory is the most radical idea in America”. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Gianvito’s film is an attempt to chart the history of the country through gravestones, individual memorials and geo-historical markers. Unlike Zinn, however, Gianvito doesn’t have the descriptive advantage of the written text. His is, notwithstanding the texts we encounter within these images, a visual project in which history ‘materializes’ itself in the signatures of the visible. For Gianvito, this history, too, is a history of class struggles. Starting from the early Native American movements, through slave insurrections and worker uprisings of the industrial era, to the Civil Rights Movement and current-day social protests, the film, like Zinn’s book, sets the framework for a historiography of America based solely on – organized but not necessarily politicized –  people’s movements. Profit Motive brings to mind essay films such as Landscape Suicide (1986), Robinson In Ruins (2010) and, more recently, differently, Molussia (2012) in the way it probes for the strains of a troubled past on a sedate visible present. Presenting indicators of modern life – highways and cars – right next to site markers detailing strikes and revolts that took place centuries ago, the film hints at a causality and reflects on how history continually affects and shapes the here and the now. The Whispering Wind of the title, which resembles a tribal Indian name, on the other hand, derives from the numerous shots of wind-ridden countryside, forests and grasslands that punctuate the film. (They remind one of D. W. Griffith’s comment about filming the wind in the trees.) These winds become something of connecting tissues between the shots of the monuments and have a mythic quality to them, as though they are immortal, invisible balladeers channeling history from one time and place to another.

The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma


The Attacks Of 26-11Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.

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