Review


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.

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is no doubt full of memories. But the question is whose? Made as a tribute to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Roma unfolds solely through the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous-origin housekeeper of a middle-class white family living in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family stands for the director’s own and one of the four young children represents Cuarón himself. But we don’t know which one. Roma is not about him or any of his family members. Unlike in Spielberg or Fellini, it’s not the child’s experience that the film intends to recreate. Instead, the film presents the life of Cleo as conceived by the adult Cuarón. This results in a greatly sympathetic and reverential portrait, but the sympathy and reverence often cloud the humanity of Cleo.

One’s intellectual reaction to Roma might depend on where one stands on the issue of appropriation in art: is it right for a white, male filmmaker such as Cuarón to narrate the life of a native woman? I think Cuarón’s decision to hinge a film based on his personal life to the point of view of someone outside it is admirable and shows a humility and maturity surprisingly absent in the most intelligent of filmmakers. Roma makes it amply clear that this is not about Cuarón or his family, even though they are at the centre of it all and have their own cross to bear. It’s the story of Cleo over one tumultuous year.

At the same time, the life that Cuarón imagines for Cleo is curiously circumscribed by his own limited perspective of it. Cleo has little life outside the family and, whenever we see her away from home, it’s in service of the larger narrative thread regarding her romantic betrayal and pregnancy. Played by a non-professional, Cleo barely speaks except for the functional chitchat with the children and never expresses herself. This, of course, could be an empirical reality Cuarón has lived, but he extends this trait to her life outside work as well. Cleo has no inner life and her interaction with the other maid of the house, Adela, are almost always responses to Adela’s remarks. Political and social reality are strictly in the background and Cuarón limits the film strictly to the description of an everyday, emotional reality. We never know, quite intentionally, what relation Cleo bears to others of her community and station, or what she thinks of the protests going on in the city.

Much of Roma exhibits this disconcerting dual-perspective. Cuarón fills the film not with general cultural artefacts of the period but very specific memories – the toys sold outside movie theatres, two men taking shelter from rain under a small protrusion on the street, the tune of a wandering flute seller, stuffed heads of dogs displayed like trophies, the fanfare of the military marching through streets, a Fellini-like forest fire following an evening of revelry – so specific that they couldn’t be anyone else’s but Cuarón’s. Outside of an unsettling shot of earthquake debris fallen over a baby on a ventilator, there’s no sense of Cleo’s memories finding a place in the film. This tension between two incomplete perspectives is never resolved: Cuarón’s commendable intent to give Cleo the narrative space is undermined by the limitation of his vantage point. He can only imagine Cleo as a noble sufferer giving her all to his family – a stance that runs the risk of dehumanizing the character.

Given the “unmarketable” subject matter, the acclaim for the film on either side of the Atlantic is surprising and perhaps even welcome. Roma has the logistical muscle of Hollywood and the calculated reserve of an art film. The long-shot filmmaking with real sound, the use of non-professional actors, the stoic rhythm enabled in part by slow pan shots, measured editing patterns and muted dramatic progression is complemented by the spectacle that the film’s expert set-pieces offer (the scene at the beach is as breath-taking as the opening sequence of Gravity). Too bad that the space left behind by Cuarón’s conscious self-effacement isn’t filled by what he wishes would fill it.

BlacKkKlansman

At the beginning of BlacKkKlansman, a clip from Gone with the Wind is cut to a fake-archival harangue about miscegenation delivered by a white supremacist (played by Alec Baldwin), whom we never see again. The point is blunt; that Gone with the Wind was racist. This cut-and-dried approach is not new to director Spike Lee, whose previous work Chiraq used a range of in-your-face agitprop devices to animate a classical text and imbibe it with a welcome urgency. But here that MO falls flat, applied as it is to a material that has other ambitions. Inspired by a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a Black detective from Colorado Springs who manages to get a membership to the Ku Klux Klan.

The year is 1972 and, as his first mission, Ron has to attend a speech by Kwame Ture to sense the response of the black students who’ve invited him. At first ambiguous, Lee’s attitude towards the speech is clarified in the precious way he edits it to show its power and influence over the awakening of Ron’s own Black-consciousness. It’s an abrupt transformation for a character that we’ve just been introduced to as a man who knows what he’s doing. Lee’s film proceeds by several such fickle happenings. The supremacists of the KKK that the Ron’s stand-in, Flip (Adam Driver), meets are all intentionally cartoons. They whoop and holler at a screening of The Birth of a Nation – a film geek’s idea of redneck entertainment. There’s a lot of racist slur thrown around whose purpose is not realism but provocation.

Poised between the Black Panthers and the KKK is the Colorado Springs police department Ron is part of. While the racism internal to the department is a talking point, the police force finally comes off as a group of well-meaning, tolerant individuals marred by a few bad apples. There’s an interesting idea about race as performance in the film, but the film’s thrust is towards an emphatic reassertion of identities. Early on, Ron’s assurance that the talk about race war among the Black students is just that, empty talk, is matched with Flip’s comment that the KKK members are blowhards who won’t dare to get into action. Just as one thinks the film is setting up a false and dangerous equivalence, Lee cuts between initiation rituals at the Klan and a gathering of Black students listening to a testimony about the lynching of Jesse Washington. The idea is that the two congregations are fundamentally, qualitatively different: one is about a violent assertion of power and the other is about memory and resistance. The blossoming of Flip’s Jewish consciousness when faced with ghastly antisemitic speech reiterates the notion: that minority identity politics is a defensive reaction to the threat of majoritarian aggression.

Lee is nothing if not topical and BlacKkKlansman is wrapped in a presentist perspective whose target is the current American government. Ron is warned about David Duke’s attempts to become mainstream through politics, the Klan members rail against PC culture, and slogans about making America great abound. After the film wraps up its excuse for a plot, scenes from the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville are played: the tiki torch march, Duke hailing the renewal of the right, the car attack and, finally, Trump claiming that both sides are equally condemnable, clarifying Lee’s primary reason for making this film. As the final shot, an upside-down American flag becomes black and white, in case you just woke up.

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[Spoilers ahead, but I’d rather that the reader didn’t see this film]

Appearing nine years after his first film, Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is made of four parallel stories. In the first, a married couple (Fahadh Faasil and Samantha Akkineni) must dispose of the dead body of the woman’s illicit lover. The second story revolves around a group of adolescents who, owing to events triggered by the acquisition of a pornographic CD, find themselves in a deeper and deeper hole. In the third story, a transgender woman (Vijay Sethupathi) returns home from Bombay to connect with her estranged family. The fourth is centred on a fanatic (Mysskin) who starts a cult of his own, distancing himself from his wife (Ramya Krishnan) and son. Written by four people, all directors themselves, the film begins and ends with references to the sexual act and has vague ideas about masculinity and honour running through its episodes. But don’t let that distract you. Super Deluxe is an abject mess that can’t bother to reflect for a moment on why it’s doing what it’s doing; an object of collective cultural shame, one that we will look back at in ten years with great embarrassment and guilt.

The film’s first episode involving the couple begins with a ham-handed set piece: The man and the woman are trying to get rid of the body in the fridge while they have guests in the living room. There’s a passing remark about an alibi, but there is no reason for either the guests to be there in the scene or for the pair to carry out their activity in the presence of the guests. No reason, that is, except the filmmaker wanting to generate some frisson. There’s no emotional profile to the scene; the temperature starts at boiling point: the couple start arguing, of all things, about the shame of infidelity right away. It’s embarrassingly contrived and reeks of a screenwriting student convincing himself that what he has learnt in his workshops has validity. And you know right away that there were no women involved in the writing of this film, when you hear a leading lady using the words “matter” and “item” when talking about herself. The couple hits the road with the dead body and continue their bickering along the way. The man holds forth about social issues, uses his acting lessons as therapy and keeps slamming the woman using the term “uttami”. She acts guilty. They come out with the problems they have with each other, becoming closer in the process. At one point, the woman asks the man ruefully why can’t things work out between them if the man could get used to the dead body. Despite such monstrosities, the film wants us to care about this rapprochement. Fahadh Faasil and Samantha slip in and out of sincerity on cue, and the viewer is expected to follow suit.

Rife with shots of boys going about the town, the second episode presents itself as a comedy. Three horny teenagers need money to replace a broken television and do what middle-class teenagers typically do to get money: get involved in a murder plan with a local don. There’s a shred of tragicomedy in a story of young boys driven to hell in search of a porn movie, but that needs a distance so lacking in this film. Without any justification, it assumes that the audience shares its juvenile perspective; we are supposed to be tickled every time the boys talk about “matter”. And yet, this callowness is what we are expected to rise above at the end of the episode, where one of the boys gets a lecture about the morality of porn actors. The film’s tin ear for dialogue is most apparent in this segment; its idea of a joke is a boy riling up his friend by telling him he loves his sister. This sub-Chinni Jayant level of humour aside, this segment lacks a sense of situational comedy (the don decides to punish the boys by whacking them with a slipper) and seems to be making itself up as it goes along. The screenwriters know the end point they have to get to and mangle the plot to somehow get to the punchline. This episode merges with the fourth segment of the film about a middle-aged zealot convinced that he alone was saved by God from the tsunami. Along with a sidekick, he prays for the well-being of others who come to him in times of distress, but constantly wrestles with doubt. An interminable melodrama full of voice-overs, flashbacks and stroboscopic light, this episode asks us to consider the man’s trysts with doubt seriously, even when his awakening moment comes when his wife asks what if it were a teddy bear that he’d held on to in place of a Christ statue during the tsunami.

The third segment of the film, and its worst by far, follows a transgender woman named Shilpa who returns home to her son and extended family. Let’s charitably pass over the fact that the filmmakers felt necessary to use a cisgender actor to portray a transgender woman. Referencing transgender characters is a fixation for several modern Tamil filmmakers including the ones involved here. Noble their intentions maybe, these filmmakers have proven themselves again and again to be incapable of acknowledging the basic humanity of these transgender women without debasing them first. In Super Deluxe, Shilpa is subjected to a series of verbal and physical abuses from her relatives, from passers-by on the street, from the children and the staff at her son’s school and from an abominable cop – all presented to the audience with an elaborately cruel sound mix. In an unfathomably vile scene that counts among the worst in Tamil film history, the cop harasses Shilpa and forces her into oral sex. The entire sordid passage is presented in wide shots in excruciating detail, the camera not even possessing the shame to hide behind foreground objects as it does in the second episode. (The camera similarly gawks squarely at a hapless Samantha in a pre-rape scene in the first episode, just as it lingers long on her face when her husband hurls curses at her. Over and over, the filmmaker forces us to share the point of view of the aggressor.)

Nothing in the film until this scene at the police station has allowed the viewer to identify with Shilpa’s point of view. She is a cipher, a canvas on which to deposit all abuse. The only thing we get to know about her personal life is that she begs for money and smuggles children – popular opinions the film needn’t have bothered reiterating. There are more shots dedicated to the point of view of the dead body in the first episode than for Shilpa. So, in the scene at the police station, the only point of view the audience is allowed to recognize is the sleazy cop’s. The cop, of course, is a caricature and the audience is made to feel morally superior to him, while not having to anything to do with Shilpa beyond dispensing sympathy for her subhuman status. By making Shilpa the passive object of contempt, the film forestalls even the possibility of the audience’s identification with Shilpa that the casting of Vijay Sethupathi might have offered. There’s a special violence in the fact that the transference of identity that the film demands from its trans viewers for its other characters is not matched with a demand from its cis viewers towards Shilpa.

More evidence that the film takes the side of the cop and actively participates in Shilpa’s debasement: all through the film, Shilpa is presented to the audience in a form she doesn’t choose to be presented in. Except for the first shot of her getting out of the car, she is always showcased as someone incomplete and fake. In an award-baiting scene that follows, we see her patiently wearing her saree and putting on a wig to cover her baldness. Cut to a hideously-worded film song, this private moment that the film unwarrantedly gives us seeks to show her as what she is and not what she chooses to be. At the police station, when asked for her name, she gives her old name. The moment is intended to show her fear of mentioning her assumed name, but it’s also one more of the film’s many moves to strip her of any dignity or agency. Shilpa’s undiscriminating son is offered as the moral centre of the episode, and it’s a shame that the film won’t extend the possibility of an empathetic viewpoint to its adult viewers.

All four episodes are periodically intercut and it’s evident very early on that they will all come together at the end. (That the film connects them with an old children’s joke is an embarrassment among countless others). The choice of when to shuttle between the episodes seems quite arbitrary. The editing deflates the tension so far setup in an episode and, since the viewer is never really invested in the characters, it matters little as to when the film comes back to that particular episode. Compare this with the intensified editing of Managaram, where the cutaways are thrilling because there’s so much at stake left unresolved. Many scenes in Super Deluxe are constructed with a handful of camera setups and the long-shot filmmaking and composition in deep space shows off the (literal) blocking of actors. Several shots frame the actors through doorways and windows, a capricious distance the film doesn’t employ for its voyeuristic scenes. Likewise, in the first episode, the woman asks her husband how many girlfriends he’s had. He says three and returns the question. In a long shot, she whispers the number into his ear. The number is withheld from the audience not for any concerns of privacy, but for the joke (a man having many girlfriends – drama, a woman having many boyfriends – comedy). The reserve that it shows in this shot and the lack of reserve in the shots of the same woman wailing are two emanations of the same attitude.

The film’s mannered, gonzo production design, consisting of exaggerated primary colours, and expressionistically-painted walls, is conceived to drown out the lack of a sense of place or time that marks the film. We are never sure where or which year we are in, or what the social situation of the characters is. The edgy aesthetic of backlit silhouettes and pop-music-suffused soundscape conceals a commitment-phobia, a fear of looking earnest and uncool. Shots are filled out with old film music lest some emotion creep in. The search for money in the second episode ends with an alien intervention. The film uses this deus ex machina because it thinks of itself as transgressive and too cool for realism. But it will allow itself the spectacle of women being degraded because, you know, that’s what the world is like, Realism. There are several points, especially in episodes three and four, where we are asked to invest in the characters emotionally – false emotional beats out of rhythm with the film’s ironic posturing. In the final scene, a doctor in a porn film goes on about the connectedness of all things and the historical nature of morality. This misplaced pomposity, preciously edited and scored and obviously intended to be taken at face value, is designed to spell out the film’s ideas and conceptually tie the episodes together, but afraid of sounding pretentious (which it nevertheless is), the film undercuts the message by making it a part of an on-screen porn movie. Super Deluxe appeals to the viewer’s benevolence, but is unwilling to return that faith. Why should it be taken seriously?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I’m one of those who think Lanthimos has something to say as an artist, even though The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes that opinion somewhat hard to defend. The film goes back to the universe of Dogtooth, with its isolated family governed by arbitrary internal regulations. Steven (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children are the prototypical, white middle-class family with a posh suburban house and successful careers as doctors – unremarkable traits in all respects. When crisis strikes in the form of supernatural happenings controlled by Martin (Barry Keoghan), son of one of Steven’s unsuccessful patients, the family devolves into a primitive formation, with every member sucking up to the patriarch to stay alive. There are certainly echoes of Pasolini’s Teorema here and I do think Sacred Deer takes forward The Lobster’s reflection on the demands modern life makes of individuals as members in a social contract.

As is standard in Lanthimos’s cinema, the dialogue is wooden and delivered by the poker-faced actors as though reading out of a page. The subject matter is either meaningless everyday talk, whose painful banality and falsity are brought out more strongly by the toneless diction, or quaint remarks reminiscent of Wes Anderson. Even when the characters breakdown in rage or grief, there is a studied quality to the expression: the voice changes pitch, but still remains colourless and removed from the vacillations of real human speech. This, at times, produces hysterical exchanges such as the one about a lemon cake. The anxiogenic score, made of high-pitched oscillations, doubles the threat implied by the fluorescent-lit, antiseptic halls of the hospital or the yellow-tinted interiors of the house.

Lanthimos’ is an art first and foremost of framing. He thinks like a graphic novelist, taking as his challenge to find a point of view that is arresting in its obliqueness. He takes the least intuitive angle possible for a shot. A woman knocks at the door of a house with someone inside. While another filmmaker would put the camera behind the woman who is knocking the door or behind the closed door, Lanthimos plants it at right angles to her, showing no interest in the opening of the door. Shots are constantly saying something other than what the scene is about. A shot at the hospital with a bare-chested doctor and patient is scandalous without there being a scandal. The discerning viewer is always invited to study the framing of every shot, to reflect on why something is being presented this way. This, on the other hand, is also an invitation to be put off by the affectedness of it all.

Even when there are camera movements – and there are many – the primary interest is in the angle along which the camera glides. In wide-angle tracking shots at the hospital, the camera hovers just above the head of actors, who walk onward like characters in a first-person shooter. Other camera movements involve starting with close-ups of actors or objects and craning back to a wider view. This amplifies even banal gestures and words, such as when the camera tracks back from Kidman flossing her teeth talking about how wonderful their dinner guest was. But Lanthimos is not solely behind optical bait. There are several shots in Sacred Deer that are tender and beautiful too: like the close-up of Steven’s daughter on a bike with city lights reflected in her pupils, the Oliveira-like shot of feet in a three-character conversation scene, or the soaring rehearsal of a Christmas carol.

The Favourite

Based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite, presents a character study of three historical figures: Anne (Olivia Colman), the queen of England, her confidante and second-in-command, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin and maid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Anne is a broken woman, buried in grief over her dead children and cottoning on to whatever love she can get. The iron-willed Sarah is in love with the queen, but the political interest of the country is primordial to her. Abigail is a social climber, trying to rise up the strict hierarchy of feudal England and navigate its coded spaces by whatever means necessary. Abigail and Sarah’s vying for the queen’s attention and love have a direct influence on the country’s efforts in the ongoing war against France.

Handling such an elaborately-detailed material brings a new dimension to Lanthimos’ work, which has so far been built on strings of events pinned on an extraordinary, sparely-sketched premise  On the other hand, the filmmaker’s peculiar choices impart a rough texture, a modernist edge to the costume drama: fish eye lenses that suggest a cavernous, collapsing world, a workshop-like two-note musical score complementing the classical repertoire, the emphasis on the bawdier aspects of the script, the tongue-in-cheek division of the film into chapters, the caricatural, slow-motion inserts of palatial amusements resembling advertisements.

The Favourite is, however, atypical of Lanthimos’ style in several respects. Firstly, he’s working off a script not written by himself for the first time since his debut. Davis’ and McNamara’s writing is suffused with sharp lines that are a world away from Lanthimos’ dry sense of humour. Characters have clearly-defined ambitions and traits with hardly any gratuitous behaviour. The movement of the camera is more motivated than ever by that of the actors. Lanthimos and his regular editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis use dissolves, superpositions and sound bridges – not common sights in the director’s work. The edits are also less jarring and more conventionally meaningful, as when a shot of the queen lying laughing on the floor is followed by a shot of Sarah looking at her and then at Abigail, then by a shot of Abigail smiling at Sarah and finally by a shot of a bird being gunned down.

The most obvious deviation is, of course, in the manner of acting. In contrast to the poker-faced monoliths in Lanthimos’ earlier films, Coleman, Stone and Weisz portray their characters like open books, laying their complexes out in the open and giving them a tangible presence. A look at Sarah’s surprise when she finds Abigail in bed with the queen or the queen’s compassion as she sees Abigail melt down for her or Abigail’s piercing gaze after she’s gotten rid of Sarah is all one needs to understand their entire being. Leaning on these three stellar performances, Lanthimos brings to surface the tenderness latent but only sporadically visible in his previous films. In The Favourite, he creates a film with genuine affect that doesn’t undercut the love, jealously and heartbreak the characters feel towards each other. A Barry Lyndon comparison is valid in more ways than one.

Kuttrame Thandanai

Kuttrame Thandanai (“crime is punishment”), Manikandan’s explosive follow-up to Kaaka Muttai (2015), is a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller that takes a unique medical condition and draws out its narrative, cinematic, metaphorical and philosophical possibilities. Ravi (Vidharth) suffers from tunnel vision: his visual field is restricted to a small iris. He lives in a sparsely-furnished studio opening to the courtyard of his run-down apartment complex. He spends his mornings on the balcony observing his neighbours, especially a young girl downstairs. He learns that he is losing vision fast and needs to be operated – a fact that he can reveal to few people without fallout. After a day of disappointments, Ravi returns home to witness unusual happenings at the complex. He decides to get directly involved.

Ravi’s character is fleshed out with a compassion free of sympathy or pathos and neither is the world around him populated with disagreeable specimen. Vidharth portrays the character without any distinguishing tic or voice modulation. His Ravi is a man without a history, completely in the present, seeking to find his ethical code through the events that present themselves to him. There’s an inner life to him that is fittingly not offered to the audience. (For better or worse, the film leaves a whole range of situations unexploited. Mysskin, for instance, would’ve had an entire action set-piece revolving around the protagonist’s limitation. Or a tense cat-and-mouse game between Ravi and the lawyers he’s bargaining with.) There’s an endearing character, played by Nasser, who sees a son figure in Ravi but interacts with him with a calculated caution so as to not have another heartbreak. In a lesser film, this moral centre of the film would double as commentary and judgment. Here he simply is another cog in the alienation-inducing machine that is the city.

The initial portion of Kuttrame Thandanai is constructed around Ravi’s everyday routine – his difficult commute on bike to work, his time at the office where a co-worker has a crush on him, his client visits and his sessions at the hospital – and emphasizes the fundamental inhumanity of our urban spaces without putting too fine a point on it. The residents at the complex keep to themselves, not wanting to get mixed up in events outside home, even if at the cost of someone’s life. Manikandan finds an apt visual rhyme between Ravi’s vision and the peephole of apartment doors, the partial knowledge that results paralleling the film’s development. Ravi’s medical condition – of being able to see only what he wants – therefore becomes a particular manifestation of a general social and epistemological condition.

Manikandan builds the film with direct sounds and a plethora of over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups, creating an intimate portrait. At times, the film’s austere images cannot support Ilayaraja’s lush score, which announces itself every time it appears. Scenes at the apartment and Ravi’s office have a tangible presence that’s absent from most Tamil movies. And, yet, the script gives in to the temptation of a coup de theatre with a gratuitous and pat-sounding ending. It’s a decision that turns the film’s greatest strength to its shortcoming. Throughout the film, the audience is made to identify with Ravi’s perspective. At dozens of points in the film we have the shot combination “Ravi looking at things + reverse shot of what he sees through an iris + shot of Ravi looking again”. This couples the viewer tightly to Ravi’s experience of events, and there are very few scenes where Ravi is not a participant. Given this exclusivity the viewer enjoys, the film’s eliding of a crucial bit of information only to use it for a grand revelation is maddening. The ending catapults the film to a moral plane higher than Ravi’s, falsifying its own approach so far.

Aandavan Kattalai

When, in Aandavan Kattalai (“god’s decree”), the usual set of disclaimers and warnings are followed a message about avoiding middlemen, one expects a film that’s too clever by half. But no, Manikandan’s third feature actually takes that message seriously and gives form to it in various social-minded scenarios that are strung together to form the film’s plot. Hassled by debtors in their village, Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi) and Pandi (Yogi Babu) decide to go to England with fake documents, masquerade as refugees from Sri Lanka and benefit from government welfare. Gandhi gets his visa application rejected and finds work with a theatre group in the city to avoid going back to his village. Thriving under the mentorship of the theatre director (Nasser), he decides to sort out his papers and get back to straight ways. There’s one problem: his fudged passport mentions a one-in-a-million name as his wife.

What strikes right away is how light-footed the writing is. Right after a set of idyllic establishment shots (the paradise lost to the rest of the film), Gandhi gets the directive from a friend to go west. No voice-overs, no songs, no setting up of the protagonist as the village hero; just an opportunity to kick off the picaresque adventure. The screenplay proceeds linearly – no flashbacks or parallel threads – and rarely where one expects it to go. There are no villains, no scores settled, even though there are insults and betrayals. The tone is consistently comical, but it doesn’t collapse into farce and caricature as much as Kaaka Muttai did. The characters are written around actor’s limitations – Vijay Sethupathi, Yogi Babu essentially reprise their stock roles – and even the secondary characters are given idiosyncrasies that smoothen the scenes they are in.

The film is structured as a romantic comedy couched within a comedy of migration and held together a series of satirical takes on what the writers perceive to be social ills of our time:  discrimination in housing, illegal emigration, increasing divorce rates, lack of security for women, the plague of middlemen in bureaucratic processes. The spirit of the opening warning against middlemen pervades the entire film: wherever Gandhi seeks out go-betweens to sort things out – the fake emigration agent, the passport office broker, the real estate agent, the marriage counsellors, even his friend who mediates between him and the heroine – things take a turn for the worse. Far from the tight drama and carefully-delineated world of Kuttrame Thandanai, Aandavan Kattalai is visually flat and full of contrivances, as isn’t unusual for a comedy. But the contrivances are so intricately mounted, full of symmetries and rhymes that it’s hard to imagine the film otherwise: the ingenious rom-com idea of divorce as the beginning of a romance, the dual figures of Pandi and Nesan, the apartment search that bookends the film in different ways, the opposed moral orientations of the protagonist in the two sections of the film with a heart-warming, theme-encapsulating inflection point where the theatre director hires Gandhi on faith at a single glance.

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield’s latest work, Generation Wealth, finds her taking a plunge into a world of excesses, a culture obsessed with wealth, youth, beauty, sex, and power – permanent fixtures in her work as a photographer. Re-purposing material from her projects of the past thirty years, she reflects on the West’s continued fascination with having more, while also trying to understand her own fascination with this ideal. Generation Wealth is therefore a self-curated retrospective of sorts, a self-psychoanalysis, that brings into conversation topics as varied as high lifestyle of celebrity kids, eating disorders, plastic surgeries, new billionaires of the Communist world, pornography and the economic recession. While some of the connections seem strained and forced into a narrative, Greenfield’s conviction that these phenomena cannot be seen in isolation is admirable. Assembled using photographs from her previous projects and new interviews with the same subjects today, Generation Wealth weaves a Christian narrative of temptation, sin and redemption, complete with a pat message at the end.

A visual anthropologist by training, Greenfield admits that her method consists of documenting extreme examples in order to understand the mainstream. Through her VIP access to celebrity life (she comes in a line of Harvard graduates and went to the same elite schools as some of her subjects), she assembles a veritable freak parade of lost souls: a bus driver who went beyond her means for her plastic surgeries, a vulgar trader who was pursued by the FBI for fraud, a star-kid from LA who took to drugs, a toddler from the hinterlands who was catapulted to national fame, a stock broker who’s trying to conceive through IVF, a porn star who’s been through the unimaginable. Greenfield unveils their testimonies in bits and pieces and we are not sure until the end about what their current situation in life is. This withholding of information creates an unsavoury suspense that cheapens the investigation.

Greenfield has the unenviable knack of picking up the corniest lines from her interviews. She uses the most unflattering camera and editing choices, constantly undercutting her interviewees to make them look sorry or stupid. Subjects and authorities are clearly differentiated and grand-sounding theories about fame and money abound. We hardly get to hear from “the other side” without a judgment tacked on and this un-dialectical approach is aggravated by Greenfield’s simplistic association of words and images (capitalism + flashy disco lights). Having shown her interviewees’ failings, Greenfield proceeds to redeem them all by crosscutting their present-day situation – all of them having grateful meals with their children, choreographed for the camera – enshrining parenthood as the primordial purpose of life.

Of course, all this exploration brings Greenfield back to herself. In a criticism that’s actually complimentary, she equates her own workaholism with her subject’s fixation with more and more. In extended interviews with her parents and children, she meditates on the burden of legacy and the history of parental neglect as a source of success-obsession. There’s a shade of tragedy in that Greenfield is able to relate to her children only through her work and here she appears to be coming to terms with her anxieties about her own history as a mother. In a final scene reminiscent of JR’s Women are Heroes, her interviewees come to her new photo-exhibition (of which this film is an offshoot). They look back condescendingly on their younger selves, thankful for Greenfield for reminding them where they are from. The line between personal art and narcissism is thin and Generation Wealth often mistakes the latter for the former.

Everybody Knows

With Everybody Knows, Asghar Farhadi returns to Europe, this time to Spain whose harvest-season sun illuminates this story of open secrets and family intrigues. The setting also enables Farhadi to linger on some curious social rituals and gestures. Penelope Cruz’s Laura returns from Argentina with her teenage daughter for the wedding of her younger sister in Spain. Her birthplace is a medieval town with cobbled streets where her once land-owning family has been living for generations. Living in the same town is her old flame Paco (Javier Bardem) who manages the vineyards he once bought from Laura at a difficult time. While tensions in the family are visible even before the lovingly-shot wedding set-piece, the whole fabric unravels when Laura’s daughter goes missing on the night of the wedding. The audience constructs the characters’ history and their relationships piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle, and the final image becomes clear only when the plot resolves itself.

Farhadi’s films are thrillers that are also character-studies, and Everybody Knows is no exception. Like its predecessors, it builds leisurely towards the crucial event that causes the characters to reassess their relationships with each other. Laura’s family resents her coming to the wedding without her husband and when her daughter vanishes it releases their long-suppressed resentments towards each other: Laura’s father brawls with neighbours who took his land in a game of poker thirty years ago, her sister confronts Paco for having short-changed Laura on the purchase of the vineyards, Paco’s wife objects to his taking so much concern for his old love, Paco detests Laura’s husband for his fake religiosity, Laura’s brother-in-law suspects her husband who hasn’t helped him despite being well-off. All the suppositions the characters make as to who might be involved in the kidnapping appear valid at first glance but are contradicted by subsequent developments. It’s to the plot’s credit that it doesn’t cheat the audience when it finally does reveal the details. And Farhadi’s anti-tourist approach to locales keeps outdoor scenes to a minimum.

On the other hand, Everybody Knows doesn’t have the same tragic weight as Farhadi’s other films. As it acknowledges right away, the secret at the heart of the film is really no secret and there’s no sense that the events would’ve turned out differently had the characters chosen to treat this piece of information differently. The real prime mover of the plot is the financial strain on the family and that dilutes the force of this melodrama given its focus is elsewhere. Moreover, the characters are related to each other through details of individual history and, except for Paco’s whose class pedigree is brought up, there’s no social friction palpable either despite the fact that part of the film involves the vineyards and the workers. There’s a feeling that, notwithstanding the revelations and outbursts, there is still so much to be discovered about the characters. That nobody really knows. As is usual for Farhadi, the actors carry the bulk of the film’s signifying burden and Barden and Cruz are always interesting presences. Mention must be made of the perversity of picking up the most beautiful people in the world and running them through less-than-beautiful situations: a dishevelled, frazzled Bardem in shorts sitting on his bed watching videos with earphones, a sleep-deprived Cruz lying face-down for an injection to the derriere.

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.

Shoplifters

[Spoilers ahead]

Imagine this scenario: a news item appears on TV about a group of squatters who have been caught sheltering a pair of long-lost children. The group has also been earlier implicated in other crimes petty and grave such as shoplifting, car-breaking, extortion and murder. The viewer is disgusted at the insidious outfit for having kidnapped and groomed kids to sustain their racket. He turns off the TV, more hardened, more cynical about the state of the society. This view of things is what Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters attempts to turn upside down, considers as it does these events from the inside. It takes as its mission to exemplify one of art’s important social functions: to cultivate understanding of and empathy towards lives other than one’s own.

Middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live illegally with old lady Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) in the latter’s tiny independent house nestled amidst apartment complexes in a residential Tokyo district. They also have with them young Shota (Kairi Jō), a preteen who accompanies Osamu on his shoplifting excursions, and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Hatsue’s step-granddaughter moonlighting as a sex worker. On their way back from a raid one day, Osamu and Shota find toddler Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone at a house. They bring her home to feed her and discover that she is being abused by her parents. They decide to retain her at their home, showing great concern and affection towards her. Yuri warms up to the bunch as well and tags along with Shota on his outings. Like the group of children in Nobody Knows, the characters in Shoplifters are tied together in tenuous bonds and the exact relationships between these individuals is never defined until late into the film. The group, however, behaves as though they were family, assuming traditional roles of children, parents and grandparents and exhibiting genuine warmth towards one another.

As in Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters mulls over the question of what makes a family and, while love is certainly a big part of it, writer-director Kore-eda’s answer is more materialist than you’d expect: a family is one that behaves like one. Much of the interpersonal relations in Shoplifters is embodied in particular gestures of the actors: Hatsue blowing a piece of hot gluten cake before feeding it to Yuri, Nobuyo claiming Aki’s attention by tapping her arm with a pair of chopsticks, a seated Osamu accommodating Shota between his legs, Nobuyo breaking a cob of boiled corn to feed a distracted Osamu, Aki overlapping her own hair over Yuki’s newly-cut hair to match their colours, Nobuyo scrubbing soap off Osamu’s back in the shower immediately after a death in the family. Several shots show the group lined up on one side looking at things off-screen: television, fireworks, waves at the beach. As is common in the director’s work, food, rather the act of consuming food, plays a crucial communal function: eating is what the “family” does when they are together. There’s also a touch of Kafka’s Metamorphosis here, with the family’s unity being contingent on the material value each individual brings to it.

Kore-eda pays equal attention to the group’s material living conditions. Contrary to popular depictions of poor households in cinema, the residence in Shoplifters is crammed with objects. Hatsue and company are clearly hoarders; their precarity doesn’t afford them to be otherwise. This space crunch makes for a spate of double-framed shots. Except for little Yuri, no one seems to fully fit the frame, their heads or limbs constantly cut off by the borders. Kore-eda makes interesting use of glass in moments conveying the emotional distance between characters. To emphasize how their relationship is regulated by material reality, he and cinematographer Kondo Ryuto constantly picture them with some object or the other intruding the image. When Aki questions Osamu about the lack of physical intimacy between him and Nobuyo in the house, they are each filmed with a piece of furniture in the foreground: Osamu need not spell out the impossibility of privacy in this house. The composition answers for him.

The actors, too, are mostly filmed in pairs or smaller groups. They make their way around the limited space of the house like pieces in a sliding puzzle, taking the place of others as they vacate their spots. Shota carves out a space of his own, living in a wardrobe like corner of the house with a partition. Divisions between living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom are all fuzzy. The only time the characters move freely is when they are at the riverfront, an empty parking lot or at the beach, their working environments and the shops they visit being similarly overridden with objects. In contrast, when the actors are filmed in separate shots with space around them, it is mostly during moments of crisis: when Nobuyo has to negotiate with a colleague over who gets to keep their job or when the group is interrogated by the police after they are discovered. The frontal way the actors are filmed in these scenes with free space around them amplifies our impression of their vulnerability.

How do these characters endear themselves to us despite being in moral twilight zone? Much of it owes to Kore-eda’s bag of writer’s tricks. For one, Hatsue, Osamu and Nobuyo save Yuri early on in the film, much before we get to know anything about them. The toddler’s helplessness without them makes the liberal viewer want the family to hold together. The group’s manifest love for Yuri therefore trumps every revelation and turn of events to follow. By withholding compromising information until they are of no import, the plot makes sure the viewer is invested in the family. Moreover, the flaws that Kore-eda ascribes the characters – shoplifting, stealing, blackmailing – are all socially-defined misdemeanours without universal validity, with ample extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, in their interaction with and behaviour towards others, the characters remain faultless.

That’s why the film starts falling apart when the group is caught. As each person is cross-examined by the police, signalling the dissolution of the group, the film’s muted sentimentalism comes to the fore. Kore-eda has always been a melodramatist, but there’s a certain degree of disingenuousness in the way Shoplifters uses social ills as buttons to turn the viewer on and off: mistreated child, abused wife, self-harming youth, negligent parents. The moments where film reaches outside of its stated premises (namely the scenes not involving the family), wanting to be portrait of an entire country in the grips of social alienation and economic hardship, don’t sit well considering the understated manner in which the rest of the film explores amorphous communal formations.

The House That Jack Built

People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.”

– On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts (Thomas de Quincey)

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence. It is a criminal abstraction, masculine in its deranged egotism and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

– Sexual Personae (Camille Paglia)

 

[Spoilers ahead]

Lars von Trier’s new film, The House that Jack Built, opens on a black screen with an exchange between a husky-voiced man (Matt Dillon) and an elderly guide (Bruno Ganz) who seems to be walking him through a water body. Despite the guide’s declared indifference, the man recounts the story of his life in five key incidents, which also form the chapters of von Trier’s film. The man, who calls himself Jack, is a serial-killer and the bulk of this film is an overly elaborate visual description of his exploits. We will also learn that the guide is, in fact, the epic poet Virgil (rhyming with Churchill as Ganz would have it) as he appears in Dante’s Inferno, and that he’s descending into hell with Jack to show him his new place.

Taking Inferno as a narrative conceit serves two main purposes. Firstly, it allows for a perspective of the events different from Jack’s, which is otherwise the viewer’s only optic into the film. Interspersed between the “incidents” are illustrated conversations between Jack and Virgil in which the latter, standing in for the audience, acts as the sardonic voice of reason, countering, interrogating and ridiculing Jack’s justification of his murders. Jack, in turn, pre-empts Virgil’s objections, urging him to look beyond moral binaries. The self-aware dialogue between Virgil’s defence of higher impulses of the soul and Jack’s pseudo-Nietzschean materialism is intended to create a distance and produce a dialectical line of thought in the viewer, who is always a vital component in von Trier’s cinema.

Jack places the viewer constantly at the vanishing point of its polemics. Jack’s actions, as they are presented to us are progressively depraved. The first murder, that of a persistent woman with a broken-down car (an unrecognizable Uma Thurman), unfolds like a horror story, moving with an uncomfortable inexorability towards its gruesome climax. While this killing is set up as though the woman were “asking for it”, the victims in the subsequent passages, also mostly women, come across as increasingly helpless and foolish and the murders, increasingly arbitrary. However, as Jack’s discourse moves from belittling women to turning dead children into mannequins and justifying the Holocaust, the film’s pattern becomes clear: von Trier is trying to turn us (and Virgil) off by desecrating what he takes to be bourgeois sacred cows one by one. It’s supposed to be a challenge to the audience’s conception of art, but one that the film itself cannot sustain and must resolve conservatively.

It’s necessary, by the film’s logic, that Jack’s actions be arbitrary and impossible to explain without morally absolute concepts like “evil”. But the film itself strives to give Jack a history, an explanation for his actions. We see Jack as a child in the countryside, isolated from the adult world around him. Even an invitation for punishment, such as snipping off a duckling’s feet, is ignored, apparently instilling a lifelong desire in Jack to invite attention by way of violence. As all serial killer movies must, his incapacity for empathy is summoned. Jack’s audiovisual arguments with Virgil, which in the beginning have an internal consistency however repulsive, culminate in a montage of disparate dictators from around the world – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin – as the subject of discussion moves to Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. It is at this point that the film drops all semblance of presenting Jack’s point of view without compromise or judgment: it’s impossible to speak of these historical figures collectively except in the negative.

Appropriating Dante, secondly, helps Jack foreground its autobiographical aspirations. Throughout, the film hammers in a parallel between the serial-killer and the artist. Beginning the exchange that follows the first murder is an archival clip of Glenn Gould at his piano. “He represents art”, says Jack bluntly, as if to forestall the film’s critics. The smashed face of the first victim is dissolved into a cubist painting, before Jack goes into an illustrated lecture on Gothic architecture. He speaks of the Gothic architects’ capacity to listen to the “will of the material”. Jack is an engineer, but considers himself an architect and his killings, works of art; but how he makes a living, we don’t know (just as we never know which country he is in). He photographs his victims with a film camera, strings them up and arranges them in expressive tableaux. As he commits more crimes, his OCD – the compulsion to forge order and beauty out of chaotic material – disappears and he learns to improvise.

It’s a parallel taken too far of course. Clearly, von Trier sees his own work as one involving physical and mental exploitation of human beings. In the dialogue about crimes against humanity, Jack talks about art and murder belonging to the same rarefied realm, and von Trier cuts to a montage of violent scenes from his films. Just as his own craft is about working with actors and improvising, the scenes of Jack’s murders have no meaning, they are all about process: we see in painstaking (and pain-inducing) detail the way Jack fumblingly goes about negotiating, manipulating and blackmailing his victims. And just as Jack’s primary interest is in the final photos his killings yield, von Trier, it appears, is appealing to look at his films rather than what it has taken him (and others) to finish them. Björk, singer and lead actress of his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, recently came out about her traumatic working experience with von Trier. A couple of years earlier, the director was declared a persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival for his backfiring joke about Nazism. So, Jack is perhaps von Trier explaining himself to the world, an apology by way of self-flagellation. It’s also a non-apology, placing his personal mistakes on par with Jack’s crimes and in effect diminishing them.

To be sure, The House that Jack built, is a formally potent film that derives its power not from its lurid descriptions of murder but from the associations it weaves in and around them. The protracted scenes of strangulation and dismemberment are followed by sober, dignified discussions about art and morality, accompanied by images and sounds that embody the highest achievements of humanity (or dead white males, if you please). In a parody of Renaissance still life paintings of game, von Trier continuously associates violence and death with bounty and health. Jack stores the corpses in a cold storage with deep-frozen pizzas, he compares his stocking up of dead bodies to wine-making, a reverse shot of him sniping a child is nauseatingly cut to close-ups of picnic food. This alternation of higher and lower spiritual impulses – the Apollonian-Dionysian duality that Jack and Virgil incarnate – lends the film a provocative dynamism hard to be indifferent to. But it’s a self-defeating project, over-determined as a metaphor, incomplete as psychological portrait. In an overlong, jokey coda, Jack and Virgil take a visual tour of hell up till the inner circle. It’s a redundant passage on any level, narrative, conceptual or emotional. All that you sense here is Lars von Trier nailing himself to a cross and offering it to us as an art installation.

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.

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