Bollywood


Kapoor & Sons

[Spoilers ahead]

When their grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) falls ill, Rahul (Fawad Khan), successful novelist, and Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), struggling novelist, return home to parents Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah). Arjun believes that Rahul’s perfect life is built at his cost and resents that his parents like his brother more. While supportive of Arjun, Rahul believes he has his head in the clouds and is unwilling to grow up. Harsh is sitting atop a failed enterprise and is annoyed with his wife’s desire to start her own food business. Sunita complains about Harsh’s financial incapacity and dependence on his brother. Another bone of contention between the brothers is the presence of Tia (Alia Bhatt), who is romantically attracted to both of them. This interpersonal algebra is further complicated as the film unfolds, to a point that the entire family is held in tense suspension by mutual grudge.

If the Kapoor family seems out of place in this Bollywood version of Coonoor, here emptied of its local population or landmarks, it’s partly because they are exceptional. Exceptional not only because they are upper class, but because they are unhappy in their own way. Kapoor & Sons stands out in the way it puts its hand into sticky areas of familial life not generally broached by Indian cinema, where moral centres are clearly defined when the family unit is threatened. Everyone in Kapoor & Sons has their reason, and no one’s really right or wrong. (That this detail registers as revolutionary speaks of the industry’s general compulsion to infantilize its audience.) The misery of the Kapoors is spontaneous, independent of external factors. To the world, it’s a happy family, but as the shiny wrappers come off, each member confronts the image the others have of them, confirming their suspicions of not having been truly loved.

The film is centred around grandfather Kapoor’s final wish of having the whole family convened for a photograph. This conceit makes for the film’s most effective set-piece: director Batra intercuts shots of the characters finding out truths about each other with the photo-shoot taking shape under the threat of rain. It’s thrilling and low-key tragic the way this quotidian inconvenience imposes a time pressure over the intense drama: the photograph can’t be made if the characters keep talking, but it won’t be made precisely because the characters haven’t talked enough. When they do assemble for the abortive photo-shoot, we realize that the crux of the problem lies not in the existence of secrets but the in lack of time for the characters in which to explain themselves to each other. Lack of time is what the photograph is about too: the photo purports to hold memories, but constantly lies, picking out a moment in time and stripping away its history. And the lie of the photogenic happy family is what the old patriarch wants to go down with.

Kapoor & Sons is located at the twilight of Bollywood’s old vision of family (community, filial respect, hierarchy, role-playing), now being fast replaced by an occidental vision informed by disruptive liberation narratives (romantic individualism, liberalism, free enterprise, feminism). It’s curious that, despite taking place in a Westernized upper-class milieu, the film looks backwards, dealing with old familial and civilizational sentiments: the guilt parents experience over their children’s perceived faults, the obligation children feel to fix their parents’ lives, the childhood hurt siblings preserve and nurture even as grownups. While Harsh’s and Sunita’s disillusionment with the familial institution is gradual and protracted, Rahul and Arjun face a rude awakening, having to confront primal truths: finding the father at the house of a lover, learning that the mother truly loved one child more than the other.

Commendably written and directed, Kapoor & Sons is constructed out of long, fleshed-out scenes, all of them conversations of some kind – a noteworthy quality in itself. While the effort to crank up the temperature is apparent (a pipe leakage, a dog entering a clean house, a tiff at a card game always at hand to heighten tempers), there’s a clear-cut evolution to every scene. As the film proceeds and the drama reaches a fever pitch, you sense that an expiatory sacrifice in order to appease the narrative gods: it’s not the old man as you’d expect, but his son, and this sudden hole in the family fabric creates a dual perspective of the tragedy, the grandfather’s and grandchildren’s. At the same time, the film treats its material preciously and often forces the issue, spending too much time reinforcing this sibling rivalry and verbalizing that which the actors already convey without words. Rajat Kapoor stands out, but Ratna Pathak Shah’s character is somewhat hollowed out. A more austere, improvisational approach, letting the actors define the contours of their characters themselves, would have helped in a more rounded picture, and made the cruelty family members are capable of towards each other all the more personal.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero confirms Vikramaditya Motwane’s status as a reliable metteur en scène, a filmmaker capable of mounting effective entertainment in various genres without much personality. He’s made four films so far: a coming-of-age drama, a literary romance, a lone man survival saga and, now, a social-minded superhero movie. All films with specific pleasures and specific ideas, but without any connecting theme. That Motwane isn’t an auteur is a moot proposition and, in the era of instant canonization, perhaps not even worth arguing about. What is of pertinence is that Bhavesh Joshi is his weakest film by far. The failure is instructive in its own way. His films, it now appears, are only as good as their material, and when the latter is uninspired, the films aren’t either.

Motivated by the nationwide anti-corruption movement of 2011-12, two young men from Mumbai, Bhavesh Joshi (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Sikandar Khanna (Harshvardhan Kapoor), launch an activist YouTube channel. Wearing black jackets, paper bags over their heads and carrying a smiley-faced LED panel, they confront various misdoings around them with a camera, uploading the videos online and garnering public support. The project is only half-serious, and, for Sikandar, a means to impress girls. Bhavesh is revolted when Sikandar bribes to get his passport issued and so punches him in rage. In revenge, Sikandar outs Bhavesh’s identity on the channel, just when he’s exposing the water mafia headed by the local MLA and enabled by the police.

Motwane treats the pair’s activism with irony, but when they move from policing individuals to confronting institutions, the film shifts to a serious tone and eventually into full-blown melodrama replete with a strawman villain spouting parables from Greek mythology. Casting relatively unknown actors allows for a surprising protagonist swap midway. For a film that intends to be topical – several reproachful references to the current government, the true-blue Gujarati name of the vigilante protagonist being an insurance against backlash – the characters are oddly unrooted, their familial and social situation not even getting a passing mention. This tendency for topicality is complemented by a desire for legend-building. When Bhavesh Joshi Superhero completes his first foray, we only see him as a silhouette against a burning background.

The compulsion to create a legend clashes with the work’s realist moorings to create a totalitarian vigilante story that pits one man against the entire universe. The film’s distrust of all state and public institutions results in one implausible plot point after another: because everyone is corrupt, the bad guys can get away with anything, anywhere. The opposition party has no voice, the police is rotten to the core, the media is manipulated by the powerful, and the public is swayed by the media. It’s Bhavesh Joshi (and YouTube) vs the World. Yet, it’s the media and the judiciary the script eventually looks to for resolving its plot and bringing the villains to account. For a film that started with the acknowledgement that justice is not a question of setting the crooked straight, but a long-drawn, institutionalized process of negotiation and influence, Bhavesh Joshi takes a quick U-turn.

Motwane and team imagine Mumbai like Gotham City, made and unmade over and over. The film’s best passage is a chase sequence in which the superhero on bike snakes in and out of not just the city’s roads, but impossible locations such as its local railway as well – a parody of a regular day for many residents of Mumbai. The film accentuates the home-made quality of its super-hero, he might as well be called Jugaad-man: we see him buy electronic parts from the black market, stitch together his own attire, customize his bike with makeshift power boosters. The action sequences, likewise, are shot with an improvisational, low-budget aesthetic to look like local variations on Soderbergh. The film tempers its seriousness with touches of humour: after a botch-up, the hero makes for the exit limping, his undercover identity consists of thick-rimmed glasses and an absurd, off-the-shelf bald patch he puts on with the help of a Chinese instructional manual. The final fight sequence takes place on a pipeline and Motwane shoots it like a video game – scattered grace notes in an otherwise ordinary venture.

Gully Boy

My issues with what I’d seen of Zoya Akhtar’s work so far were related to the question of perspective. The outlook of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Bombay Talkies revealed an overprivileged life out of touch with the rest of the country, a personality entirely shaped by Western liberal notions having little empirical grounding. The works came across to me as unwieldy transpositions of popular ideas – McPhilosophy – onto Indian narratives. So, when I heard that her latest film, Gully Boy, was about a youth from Dharavi rising to stardom as a hip-hop idol, I had my prejudices: another Bollywood-Hollywood crossbreed, an underdog rap movie embodying a bourgeois ideology of making your own life, middle-class attitudes to poverty and shop-worn wisdom about following one’s passion, tailored to Western tastes with suitable amount of local colour added. While these tendencies are still discernible in Gully Boy, Akhtar and her co-writer Reema Kagti mount a powerful rebuttal to these prejudices. With great intelligence and feeling, they pre-empt the objection that wanting to transplant a musical phenomenon rooted in the African-American experience onto the slums of Mumbai is false consciousness. Their magnificent film demonstrates to us that, at this particular juncture in Indian history, it’s this very objection that’s reactionary, a product of false beliefs about what our society is and isn’t, that the image of a boy recording his voice on an iPad through a tea strainer is not the figment of an uprooted imagination.

Gully Boy is a portrait of “young India”, the dreamers as a recent book put it, a pan-social generation that is still embedded in old traditions, but takes its behavioural and aspirational cues from a wider international community. All they need is food, clothing, shelter and internet. When Murad (Ranveer Singh) writes his first rap lines in Hindi/Urdu, it’s in the roman script, a hybrid form just like the film’s bilingual titles. He sleeps, works and rolls cigarettes in the attic of his matchbox house in Dharavi. Murad goes to the mosque on Fridays and is answerable to the strict codes of the family hierarchy. He dreams of becoming not a movie icon or a ghazal singer – enticements that his immediate surroundings offer – but a hip-hop star, a notion foreign to his milieu. Words surround him all the time; he lives in a noisy environment and wakes up to the creeping sound of his parents quarrelling. He desires peace and privacy, also concepts foreign to his milieu, but the attic can only offer so much. As his father (Vijay Raaz) brings home a second wife less than his age, Murad plugs in the earphones to drown out the Shehnai and the sorrow. Akhtar cuts to his perspective. We hear a rap track as we see the newly-wed being welcome by the first wife. This escape from reality through music from another world, later amended by a return to reality through the same music, is dissonant and incongruent. Incongruence, however, is the point.

All through the film, Akhtar and Kagti emphasize the outsider perspective to the story and foreground their own foreignness. They populate their film with outsider figures: slum tourists whom Murad surprises with his knowledge of hip-hop, a European traveller who decides to stay back with Murad’s friend and guide MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi), the rich family that Murad chauffeurs and, most notably, a Berklee student Sky (Kalki Koechlin) who produces music with Murad and Sher as part of her project. An alter ego of Akhtar’s, Sky brings to Murad’s universe an undiscriminating perspective, new social codes and modes of thought. She takes Murad on a night crawl to spray paint at construction sites, bus stops and shopping malls – artistic interventions which, in Murad’s world, are acts of vandalism. The kitchen of her quiet, spacious apartment is bigger than Murad’s house.  “I can’t believe I’m doing a music video” says Murad to her, to which she responds, “I can’t believe you were going to take up a job.” Gully Boy recognizes that change can come neither from within nor from outside but from a dialectical interaction of the two. Thanks to her material, Akhtar is able to refuse looking at Dharavi as a self-contained ecosystem isolated from the rest of the globe. The residents of her Dharavi are not poor-but-happy fatalists content with their everyday victories and limited social mobility. They dream big, they form their self-image from the outsider’s gaze. Murad derives his worth from the feedback he gets online. In a climactic showdown with his father, he points to the number of likes and comments on his videos and claims that he won’t let someone else tell him what he should aspire for. In doing so, the film throws a loaded challenge: a viewer tempted to judge Murad’s internationalist consciousness and ambition as shallow and false falls in line with the father’s point of view.

If it’s hip-hop that promises a ticket out of poverty for Murad, it’s the safer route of education for his long-time girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt). Higher up on the economic ladder, Safeena is determined to become a surgeon and lead a life with Murad – in that order – whatever that takes. When she learns that a friend of hers is flirting with her boyfriend, she goes to the girl’s workplace and beats her up. This scene of two women fighting over a man seems overreactive and questionably comical, but it soon is revealed to be part of Safeena’s pathological jealousy: when she breaks a bottle over Sky’s head for courting Murad, it isn’t funny anymore. Safeena articulates her reason: she has one life and she will not let anyone run roughshod over it, even her boyfriend. Safeena is the counterpoint to Murad’s mother, who must resign herself to a life she didn’t choose. (In a nice bit of mirroring, Murad finds his temperament and muted masculinity echoed in Safeena’s father.) If Murad runs up against tradition in direct, confrontational ways, the headscarf-sporting Safeena fights it from within. She constantly lies and uses her perceived vulnerability to get what she wants. She will even weaponize the system of arranged marriage to suit her ends. In an astute bit of writing, the threat that she faces as a woman – of being withdrawn from the economic ladder and getting married off – is opposed to the threat that Murad faces as a man: the thread of being chained to the workforce. The freedom she desires she had? To be able to put on lipstick, go to parties with friends and stay out late – another loaded challenge to the audience to judge these as petty and shallow.

Every time we think a characterization, an event or a turn of phrase seems out of place in the film’s milieu, the film turns the suspicion back on to us, asking us why not. Why shouldn’t, in a film full of failed father figures, Murad’s masculinity be untouched by his circumstances? Why shouldn’t the words (“mazboot” to mean solid, “awaaz karo” to mean make some noise) sound translated from English? There’s a monologue towards the end questioning the 9-to-5 life, which sounds like the product of middle-class professional anxiety. But, the film repeatedly asks, why shouldn’t Murad question it, why shouldn’t he rap to a different beat? Why should this heightened consciousness about life necessarily be the prerogative of those higher up the social ladder? If the film characterizes this YOLO wisdom as being typical of a generation, it doesn’t skirt questions of class. Murad is forced to briefly take over his father’s job as a chauffeur to an upper-class, strawberries-for-breakfast family. In a heavy-handed scene saved by Ranveer’s lack of reaction, the man of the family urges his daughter to do her post-graduation, pointing to Murad’s status as a graduate. A while later, in the film’s best sequence, the girl storms out of a party back to the car. Murad observes her crying on the rear-view mirror. He doesn’t say a word and, as they drive home together, yellow lights from Mumbai’s street lamps washing down their faces, a voice-over begins: Murad has converted his inability to console her into a verse. Akhtar throws into relief their physical proximity and social distance with a shot of the car from the side. The voice-over provides Murad a liberty he doesn’t have in the diegesis.

Akhtar is responsive to the class-coded nature of the various spaces in the film. Murad’s presence in the recording studio, at upscale pubs or at Sky’s gated community have a friction matched by Sky’s decision to shoot her video in Dharavi. The austere warehouse where the rappers meet, on the other hand, promises a utopian space free of class distinctions. Several scenes take place at a playground in Dharavi, a zone of horizontal male bonding outside of community strictures, and Murad’s success story is one of being accepted into and assimilated by traditionally exclusionary spaces. In one scene on a New Year’s Eve, Murad is turned away by a bouncer from the vicinity of a rap concert. He shuts himself in the car in rage and shame and raps a verse. This response to being excluded from a public space by turning the private space of someone else’s car into a personal space for creation is part of Murad’s innate adeptness with space, his constant slipping from his attic to the terrace, to the bridge, to the round or to Safeena’s house. There’s an endearing romantic scene between the two, a spin-off of Romeo and Juliet, where Murad calls Safeena on the phone from outside her house. They speak to each other over phone but looking at each other: she’s on the balcony, he’s down below. This culturally-defined but entirely-comfortable distance is to be contrasted with the scene in the car with Murad and the rich girl.

Akhtar’s keen sense of space is coupled to an equally-sharp attention to behavioural detail. She observes the (predominantly male) hip-hop subculture with an ethnographer’s eyes, touching upon the various rituals, rites of initiation and social codes involved: the head-banging and arm waving, the animalistic circling around before a faceoff, the “bohot hard, bohot hard” (“hardcore, hardcore”) chants of encouragement, the spontaneous recruitment of groupies, the putdowns hinged on perceived lack of masculinity, and the class anger sublimated in performance. The attire, accessories and hairstyles of the participants, their body language, and even their choice to play the Dozens are derived from Black hip-hop culture and Akhtar makes no effort to disguise or attenuate this. She recognizes that this whole space is an opportunity for youth, marginalized and privileged, to leave behind their given identities and play out ones they have chosen for themselves from a sea of internationally available sub-cultural identities. These gestures and behaviours don’t exist outside the space of the warehouse and the concert hall: their being unrelated to the real world is their reason to exist. Hip-hop here is an external agent of change – like Sky, like Akhtar – offering an alternate mode of life, a parallel community outside of family, work, mosque, free of judgment and hierarchies. Notice the scene when Murad walks into the warehouse for the first time. He starts rocking to the music as soon as he hears it. It’s an instant recognition of one’s lot, a spontaneous initiation into a brotherhood forged on a beat.

The terrific rap is written by a battalion of hip-hop artists and music producers on whom the film is partially based: Divine, Naezy, Kaam Bhari, Spitfire, Ace, Dub Sharma, MC Altaf, MC TodFod, Desi Ma, the list is long. The verses are top rate and so are the roasts. But as pleasant is how Akhtar and her dialogue writer Vijay Maurya, who plays Murad’s uncle, show a great sense of prosody. The words they pick and the way the actors deliver them have a cadence and vitality rivalling the rap tracks. When Murad is christened ‘Gully Boy’, his friends repeat the name like an incantation. A moment earlier, the word ‘export’ was brilliantly rhymed with ‘visfot’ (explosion). One of the quarrels between Murad’s parents yields this bit of verse: “Baccha hai?/Haan/Baccha hai yeh?/Haan/Saala saand ki tarah chhati pe baitha hai baccha hai yeh?” (“A kid?/Yes/He’s a kid?/Yes/He’s sitting on my chest like a goddamn bull and he’s a kid?”). An exchange in Marathi between MC Sher and his father sounds straight out of a rap battle. Akhtar’s knack for picking up rhythms from Murad’s environment – the sound of door knocking, a passing train, the footsteps of Murad coming down the attic, the ubiquitous “bhai” (“brother”), the vowel-dominated Mumbai Hindi slang that ends imperative sentences with ‘ka’ (“pyaz katne ka, cooker mein dalne ka, teen seeti ke baad nikalne ka”) – hints at the source of his gravitation towards hip-hop, just as the factory noise of industrial Britain is said to be responsible for the blossoming of heavy metal music in the country.

Ranveer Singh is extraordinary as Murad and it’s one of the great Hindi cinema performances. Several scenes in the film would’ve simply collapsed had he interpreted his role differently. When you see him first as the unwilling participant in a carjacking, he is in the background of the shot, out of focus. Even when he is in focus, he’s barely conspicuous. Donning sweat shirts and jackets over a kurta or a loose shirt left untucked, a backpack, a talisman on his neck, mascara under the eyes, he cuts an awkward figure. There’s a constant softness to his voice, even when he becomes increasingly comfortable with the rap scene, that is in contrast with the coarser textures of his peers’. In his first open mic session, Murad is pushed by MC Sher to rap out his own writing. Ranveer reads the text out from his notebook to an “old-school” beat in metre, without any deviation or improvisation, like a primary-schooler forced to recite a poem for a competition. He misses the beat once: a calculated amateurishness worthy of Gary Cooper. This apparent innocence gives his tracks a moral power and rounds off the rough edges of the roasts. Notice the pitch drop in the final battle when he goes from “Tere kaale noton ki raid lag gayi” (“your black notes have been raided”) to “ab yeh sikka mera bolega” (“let my coin do the talking now”). The shifts in his tone when he speaks to Safeena, to his friends or to characters outside of Dharavi go hand in hand with his changing body language in different spaces. Just looking at him you could figure out the kind of location he’s in.

There’s a distinct lack of a feeling of bruised masculinity in Ranveer’s Murad – no rage or resentment – contrary to Vijay Raaz’s rather flat characterization. Unlike Safeena, Murad is not irreverent or calculating. His verses aren’t controversial or especially provocative, nor is his rhetorical style. They’re inward-looking, less about societal evils than about self-realization. With an unassuming Mumbai accent, Ranveer minimizes Murad’s own experience in front of others. He thanks MC Sher for the warm reception on the first day. When Sher tells him not to pay heed to rich kids dissing his provenance, he gently replies “no, brother, they’ve seen the world.” The first meeting with Sky at a pub is a lesson in modest cordiality. He will later thank Sky for not insisting on sleeping with him, innocent of the power dynamic at hand and of the etiquette of class relations. Look at Ranveer’s reaction to the recording of his first appearance: a toothy grin with his thumb on his lower lip, followed by a half-suppressed Charlie Chaplin laughter when a peer compliments him on a line. Or his first gig at a studio, where he measures his distance from the microphone with a trembling hand.

Ranveer’s self-subtraction is made more striking by being pitted against three remarkable performances. We first see Alia Bhatt’s Safeena, ironically, in a wordless scene with Murad, where the two, showing obvious signs of familiarity and comfort with each other, share a pair of headphones at the back of a bus. Safeena is diminutive and, her hair wrapped up under a colourful scarf, has the air of a soft-spoken schoolgirl. But her pluck and self-determination, bordering on hysteria when she gets violent, are in stark contrast with Murad’s timidity and constant doubt. She shouts and wails if necessary and segues from her standard-accent Urdu to Mumbai slang when needed. In her breakup call with Murad, a scene that is the conceptual reverse of their first romantic call, she sits on the bathroom floor with her hair untied, grilling her boyfriend at the top of her voice, her nose all red. Murad and Safeena’s complementing temperaments and command of space is also reflected in Murad’s relation with Siddhant Chaturvedi’s MC Sher and Vijay Varma’s Moeen. Chaturvedi’s is a patently star-making turn. In the scene at MC Sher’s tenement house with his alcoholic father, the simmering resentment and violence in Chaturvedi’s eyes is evident as glances at his father or when he says his mother ran away. The thrill and success of Murad’s first open mic session hangs entirely on approving reaction shots of Chaturvedi. Varma’s Moeen is a street fighter, residing in moral twilight, more rooted in the reality of Dharavi. He’s always in Murad’s orbit, supportive, but won’t share any of his lofty moralizing. Varma is always doing something interesting with his hair, hands and mouth, and his funny, moving performance, like Chaturvedi’s, seals a claim for a long haul in Bollywood.

Gully Boy is kinetically shot with a shoulder cam, as is par for many action movies, and it puts the audience on stage with the rappers. The rough yellow light of Mumbai outdoors is complemented by soft, bounced light of the interiors and the subdued colour palette. While the big dinner scene with the family is disorienting in its vague spatial relations, two particular scenes are lucidly edited with fine economy: the sequence at the hospital where Murad’s father promises his employer that his son will take over his job conveys the rigid chain of command through a fluid series of glances, and the scene at the party where Safeena assaults Sky superbly triangulates between Safeena, Murad and Sky’s points of view conveying their mutual jealousy and grudge. There are moments where the screenwriters pull the strings a little too hard and, I think, there are a handful of directorial missteps too. Sky’s video starring Murad and Sher is shot in Dharavi and features a questionable montage of workers posing for the camera. It’s an employment of the poor as wallpaper that Akhtar avoids elsewhere in the film. But Gully Boy is almost a unique phenomenon in that it manages to scoop out a piece of reality that brings into perfect harmony a social-historical analysis, the needs of the genre, and Zoya Akhtar’s position as a privileged artist. I doubt she can surpass this work. I also hope I’m wrong.

Article 15

[Spoilers ahead, maybe]

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 takes as its subject the rape and murder of Dalit girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Rookie IPS officer Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted to the wintry village of Lalgaon as punishment for an inappropriate exchange with his superior. He’s foreign-educated and comes with certain ideas about the country, only to be faced with sordid details about the murder. Encouraged by his estranged activist wife (Isha Talwar) and against the exhortations of his cynical, casteist subordinate Brahmadatt (Manoj Pahwa), Ayan decides to pursue the case, refusing to shut it as an instance of honour killing. He finds out that it’s not just the village outside, but his own police station that has a deep caste hierarchy defining relations between the men. Simmering in the background are an election, where an upper-caste politician forms an alliance with the local Dalit leader, and the threat of the case being handed over to a puppet CBI team headed by Panikar (Nasser).

Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan like a Western hero riding into an unknown town, with a combination of caution and authority. Continuing his established metro-masculine image, he portrays the character with a studied calm punctuated by bursts of rage. His hands are passive and generally kept close to his body. Outdoors or at the window of his car, he’s often seen in three-quarters profile, looking beyond the left edge of the screen. He maintains this skewed, cautious posture even as he walks and the off-centre framing of the actor accentuates the sense of instability. Despite being a police officer on a hunt, he never runs in the film. There’s a shot of him tiptoeing on bricks to avoid stepping into the water – an unusual sight in a crime thriller. Khurrana’s self-effacing presence is thrown into relief by being pitted against the expressivity of the rotund Manoj Pahwa, whose mind the viewer can read even before his lips move. When Pahwa’s Brahmadatt smugly asks Ayan if he can close a case now that the minister’s vetoed it, the latter just walks out the room without outburst or repartee. Later, Ayan’s phone buzzes as he grills a suspect. It’s the minister on line to pressurize him. Instead of smashing the phone, he simply picks it up and leaves.

Ayan’s primary challenge is to understand whom to trust in this extremely-codified ecosystem where every man introduces himself with his second name. The cordial-but-distant façade Khurrana puts up as a bulwark also distances the audience from his thoughts. The film takes a convenient way out to address this, using the conversations between Ayan and his wife to let us know what’s in his mind as well as to convey us the film’s intentions. Clearly, the film wants the (urban) audience to identify with the out-of-sync Ayan, to discover the country as he discovers it, but there’s hardly anything in the film that anyone who’s lived in this country for long enough isn’t aware of. The script foists an unfair naivete onto Ayan, an IPS officer, just in order to make his observations sound like revelations. So much so that the audience frequently has an advance on Ayan on the turn of events. This naïve streak undercuts the intelligent aura Khurrana cultivates for Ayan and makes it hard for the audience to trust his authority when he finally gets his grand showdown with the CBI officer, who is also given a short shrift in order to make Ayan look righteous.

To be sure, Ayan is given his naivete because Article 15 also wants to problematize Ayan’s (and the audience’s) deracinated, urban perspective. The character’s status as an outsider, a pseudo-firang, is repeatedly underscored from beginning to end. In the second scene of the film, Ayan drives to the village he’s supposed to take charge of. Next to him is a copy of Nehru’s The Discovery of India, not the Indian constitution. On the soundtrack is Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, not an old Hindi song. The driver of the car tells him a blunt parable about a village whose lights were out when Rama returned from his long exile. Ayan looks at a construction site in the countryside and wonders if it’s a mall. On phone a while later, he tells his wife that the place looks like the wild west, and his wife replies that he’s in “page 7 India” (meaning the India that doesn’t show up in the front page). In contrast to the unkempt faces and conveniently-worn mufflers of his peers, throughout the film, Ayan is clean-shaven, impeccably groomed and sports a blazer and a tie even though he has to run around in the muck. He’s advised not to “upset the balance” of the village with his meddling and to stay in line. Even the Malayalee CBI officer prompts him to speak in Hindi in place of English.

Article 15 traces the dissolution of Ayan’s faith in law and order and his disillusionment with the constitution. Ayan is a Brahmin whose privilege makes him unaware of his own caste. His wife points out the stranglehold of caste in “page 7 India” even as she turns down a boy selling trinkets at a signal. An admonishing remark about keeping Dalits in check in order to ensure water services is neatly cut to a shot of Ayan opening a tap. However, this criticism of Ayan’s outlook doesn’t have any force because it takes the final form of a general, post-emergency mistrust of politics so pervasive in Indian cinema: justice cannot be served because politicians on top are corrupt. This easy explanation of continued caste discrimination lets both Ayan and the audience off the hook. Compare this with Newton, another film where a protagonist representing the ideals of democracy comes up against a cynical feudal establishment. By the time the film ends, Newton’s unwavering belief in suffrage as a noble value in itself, so reflective of the audience’s, is upended and the unexamined beliefs underlying empty voting advocacy questioned.

There’s something else that erodes the dramatic quality of the film. By design or accident, Article 15 is not constructed like traditional thriller, which is what it’s marketed as. All the key information about the story is given to us early on in the film. In the very first scene, we know that two girls have been abducted, raped in a bus and murdered. In a couple of scenes later, Ayan notices both their bodies hanging next to each other off a tree. It’s obviously not a suicide – there’s not even an effort to make it appear as one – and the audience doesn’t mind since it already knows it’s a murder. A more conventional approach would have Ayan learn of missing girls and the plot would be the quest to retrieve them. Barely half an hour into the film, Brahmadatt is revealed to be a reprehensible character. So, a plot twist later in the film has no impact outside of a two-second shock. The dramatic progression of the film is flat because we learn things before Ayan does, and because Ayan doesn’t have any real obstacles in his investigation. Several story threads turn out to be stubs and characters are conveniently disposed of to wrap things up. The search for a third missing girl, which is the concluding passage of the film, has no emotional weight not because it succeeds the resolution of the plot but because there are no moral stakes in the discovery.

What does carry the film through despite these shortcomings is its ominous atmosphere. Director Anubhav Sinha and cinematographer Ewan Mulligan work out specific visual ideas for the film. Most of Article 15 is lit dramatically with angular light sources that produce strong shadows on actors’ faces. One of the scenes takes place under the flashing red-blue lights of police sirens. All the outdoor scenes are shot either at dawn or at golden hour to a point of self-parody. The crimson sky, the mist and the open fields of the countryside form a vast horizontal triptych against which actors are filmed in American shots. Many times, the camera glides down roads or marshlands and the actors walk towards it looking off-screen. The slow-burning sound design, with its low-frequency drones and intermittent percussion, constantly portends revelations that never come. This transposition of horror movie tropes on a social-realist film – and not the edgy name-dropping of castes and political parties – is what in the end gives the film its visceral quality.

Super 30

In a face-off marking the film’s intermission, the local IIT coaching business head Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes to warn a renegade star professor Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) of dire consequences if he continues running his free coaching centre for the poor. Pockets of sunlight trickling through the makeshift roof creates dramatic zones of shadow and light on the character’s faces. As Lallan cranks up his challenge using colourful metaphors of a horse derby, music swells and a wind from nowhere sweeps across the room, making the asbestos walls rumble. Lest we miss the cues, Anand asks Lallan to brace for a storm.

Multiplying signifiers is part of all melodramatic expression, but Vikas Bahl, the director of Super 30, uses it exclusively as a crutch to prop up an uninspired material bordering on formula. The strings are pulled even before the first shot, violins and choruses preparing us for a soundscape that will be set to 11 through the remainder of the film. The film opens in London in 2017 at a gathering to felicitate a successful student of Anand’s. After a brief rollcall of Indian-headed corporations, he pays tribute to his professor, who, even before the flashback, is presented as a genius educator to be lionized. The second scene is a gathering too, this time in Patna twenty years ago, and sets up a lazy opposition between education and politics that characterizes the film: a slimy education minister (Pankaj Tripathi) makes false promises to Anand, who has just won a top medal.

He goes to show the medal to his romantic interest Ritu (Mrunal Thakur). In the first scene of a gratuitous romantic track, shoehorned as in all biopics of men to show that these men have Feelings, Ritu sits wearing the medal looking sideways at Anand, who crouches on the floor, talking about PhD while playing pittu. The scene, like all others in the film, plays out exactly as you imagine; a romantic interlude between a math geek and a plain Jane: she expects him to declare his love while he, in a parody of 60s Hindi cinema bholas, holds forth on phi, the golden ratio. A first meeting with the girl’s father, Anand’s appointment with the minister seeking financial help, all the exchanges with Lallan, the minister’s rude dismissals of Lallan, a scene at the police station seeking protection, Anand’s pep talk as he shuttles between students standing around him in the room, they all proceed with the predictability of the Fibonacci series. The villains recognize themselves as villains, the amir log address themselves as amir log. A story’s dramatic value is already diminished when its antagonists themselves are convinced of the hero’s moral superiority.

This bloodless quality of the script might have been made up for with a dynamic style, but Super 30 is so formally inert and conservative that the sole visceral impact that Anand’s victories provide comes from its booming soundtrack. Outside of a few ominous close-ups of a cycle chain (whose delicious ambiguity is soon dispelled by the turn of events) and three meal scenes, none of which the film seems to be really invested in, there’s hardly an organizational principle at sight. The visual culture of IIT coaching institutes, with its fatigue-inducing self-promotional ads and banners, is dispensed in a single second-unit montage. The better part of the film is given a burnished DI look to evoke some vague sense of the rustic while once florescent-lit scene at a hospital, with stroboscopic effects on cue, sticks out like Hrithik’s grey eyes in the hinterlands of Bihar.

What does hold the attention and ground the film is, however, the figure of Hrithik Roshan himself. Successively outfitted in old sneakers, half-sweaters (= innocent man, per Bollywood), pilled T-shirts, checked shirts, oversized kurtas, his top button always open making his neck crane out even further in the frame, a pen in the shirt pocket, a large-dial wristwatch on the right hand and sometimes a red towel on the shoulder to signify his modest means, Hrithik is always interesting to watch here, despite the raw deal the script offers him. Like Gary Cooper, he effaces himself in the early part of the film, blending into the crowd and sticking to the edge of the frame. He squats twice in the film to indicate overwhelming joy – one when he gets an admit at Cambridge and again when his students clear IIT – he pulls up his belt that wraps around a too-tucked-in shirt when he meets the girl’s father (borrowing from his man-child repertoire from Koi Mil Gaya), he uses his middle finger to point at objects and stands in the classroom against the table leaning on his right elbow or with his right foot on a chair, looking like a pretty hieroglyphic. And, of course, he swallows his saliva to show that he is overcome with emotion. His Adam’s apple is a compositional element of its own.

Does Super 30 take on feudal forces as it repeatedly claims in its punchline? I believe not. The film inscribes itself into a Hollywood tradition of individual triumph in which the nominal social problem (the exclusion of the poor from the social ladder) becomes a wallpaper to the protagonist’s journey of self-realization (the success of Anand’s academy). Think Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Amistad. Like the heroes of these films, Hrithik’s Anand is a paternal figure who not only must do his professional duty as a teacher, but also prepare his children to face life’s challenges. In an extended set piece – perhaps the film’s most inspired moment, pulling off with a straight face what is otherwise unintentionally funny – he orders his students to put up a play entirely in English in order to help them find self-respect and overcome their complexes of not being able to speak in English. The play, set at the town square on Holi day with coaching institute posters all around, starts out as a funny skit around Sholay, but soon becomes a resistance song against the hegemony of English. While Anand’s prowess as a life coach are amply demonstrated, the cognitive challenges in teaching and learning advanced mathematical concepts, themselves, are side stepped. Turning abstract physical problems into real world questions or pretty animations doesn’t, despite what the film thinks, make them any more pertinent, leave alone solvable.

The event the entire film prepares us for – the IIT entrance exam – is placed right after a shootout worthy of Anu Club, in which the students employ various scientific concepts to ward off gun-toting henchmen sent by the minister. The exam itself is not depicted and the day of the exam results becomes an excuse for the camera to linger long on Hrithik’s expression of relief and vindication. The film’s end credits present a list of international laurels for Anand’s programme, not what it did to its participants or what IIT means to its aspirants today. It reads no differently than the promotional banners of other coaching institutes.

Part of the problem stems from the film’s wholesale purchase of the bourgeois myth of Education as a ticket out of poverty. Not only will education help you get a job, but you can build slide projectors with rubber bands and fend off a criminal outfit with solenoids and lenses. Pervading the film is the idea that were the children allowed a shot at the IIT, all the systemic problems facing them for generations would vanish. No matter the lack of institutional support once you get into top-tier colleges as an underprivileged student or the continuation of inequalities in performance through accrued academic capital. The notion of education as panacea and an ultimate goal to be pursued reverberates throughout Super 30, with its thundering Sanskrit chorus about education, its unironic reverence of the IITs and its belief that education lies somewhere beyond the corrupting realms of business and politics. These are talking points that you will invariably find echoed in middle-class living rooms and corporate offices.

“A king’s son will no longer become the king. Only he who deserves it will become the king,” a line that’s uttered a handful of times in the film. This seeming rebuttal to zamindari era is actually a cover for the belief in pure meritocracy the film embodies. Super 30’s dodging of the question of reservation is not simply a curiosity, but essential to its functioning. It has to pit rich kids who have all the means at their disposal to prepare for the exam and poor but gifted kids who have to fight for everything. In a sequence depicting competition between the two camps, the former group turns out to be winners by a couple of marks, and the film plays it out as a defeat for Anand. It would not sit well within the moral fabric of the film for an underprivileged student with lower marks passing the exam over a rich student with higher marks. In an early scene at a university library, Anand Kumar is thrown out for not giving out his full name. What first appears to be a rebellious gesture to withhold caste name is extended to every character in the film, who are all to be read only as tropes such as evil politician, corrupt businessman, doting father, helpful reporter etc. I hope this objection to the film for trying to remap caste-class inequalities solely along class lines doesn’t seem like an unfair or irrelevant criticism. What I intend to point out is that, in doing so, the film falls in line with the same outlook it rebukes. Super 30, however, is not special offender. This narrative of the triumph of merit over mediocrity, talent over entitlement is part of the enduring myth that culture industries such as Hollywood and Bollywood – without a hint of irony – tell us, if not themselves.

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.

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

Bombay Velvet (2015)
Anurag Kashyap
Hindi

 

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.

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