Lips don’t touch when you say Gehraiyaan (“Depths”), the title of Shakun Batra’s third film. But they are always sealed in this story of cheating, subterfuge and long-kept secrets. Deepika Padukone plays Alisha, a yoga instructor living with adman-turned-aspiring-writer Karan (Dhairya Karwa). She is estranged from her father (Naseeruddin Shah), whom she holds responsible for her mother’s suicide. She meets her affluent cousin Tia (Ananya Pandey), who is in town to meet her social climbing fiancé Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), a property developer beholden to her money. The four set sail on a yacht to Tia’s swanky beach house outside the city. Tia and Karan are long-time friends, and in their shared feeling of being outsiders, Zain and Alisha fall for each other and begin an affair. Matters are complicated as Karan proposes marriage to Alisha and as Zain gets into financial issues, finding himself increasingly dependent on Tia’s wealth. The narrative proceeds like milk on a low flame.

Besides its plot-level similarities to Match Point (2005) or even Cassandra’s Dream (2007), there is possibly another reason why the film recalls Woody Allen. Gehraiyaan is written like a Greek tragedy in the way it moves ahead with a sense of inevitability. I can think of no event in the film that could been removed without bringing the whole edifice down. Like Oedipus, Alisha thinks she is breaking out of her preordained fate by making choices, but all of it only seems to lead her to the ultimate punishment of forbidden knowledge. (She believes she is unlucky in life, but it is precisely a stroke of luck that saves her from death.) It is, however, not a divine law that she transgresses by her actions. If Woody Allen’s universe is a morally neutral place where goodness is a pose, justice a matter of chance, the world of Gehraiyaan is ruled by a moral law governing the family, which revisits the characters in tautological forms and holds terrible sway over their lives. In the most touching moment of the film, Alisha’s father looks at a pair of bloody scissors that Alisha, her world shattered, has used to try and cut herself with. He grits his teeth and quietly withdraws into his room. It’s that he has seen this before.

Gehraiyaan is about the inheritance of malady, and its tight writing sets up a domino chain of personal choices that wreck other people’s lives: Alisha’s mother’s mistake estranges her husband, whose aloofness upsets Alisha, who, not wanting to end up like her mother, forces the issue with her fiancé. Differently put: Tia’s father’s mistake estranges his wife, whose inability to trust carries over to Tia, who, not wanting to end up like her mother, forces the issue with her fiancé. It is uncanny how Alisha’s self-image, her idea of where she is in life, is poised on her perception of her parents’ relationship — a self-image that could have been completely different had she read the relationship differently. In spite of the social bubble that they live in, the characters of Gehraiyaan are anchored, imprisoned in their personal past. Because of the film’s artful dodging, I was first led to believe that the writers are giving Alisha the same raw deal that they gave Ratna Pathak Shah’s character in Batra’s earlier work Kapoor & Sons (2016), a sense that she is ascribing her misery to her partner’s lack of material progress. Thankfully, this turns out to be not (entirely) true.

Gehraiyaan attests to a marked leap in Shakun Batra’s directorial capabilities, and I get the feeling that he aspires to an invisible style that can adapt itself to different kinds of material. The director’s hand that was a little too palpable in Kapoor & Sons retreats into the background in the new film. There is, to be sure, the Woody Allen-like treatment to bickering characters, with the Steadicam trailing behind actors walking in and out of room. But for the most part, the film displays the anonymous slickness that characterizes the work of several Hollywood auteurs. On the other hand, it is also clear now what kind of situations that get Batra’s juices flowing: sequences turning around withheld information set in partitioned spaces, of which there are multiple in Gehraiyaan. The night-time set-piece on the yacht with Alisha and Zain is superbly directed; despite the literal quality of its lyrics, the score is genuinely ambiguous and Padukone perfectly conveys the drowsy sickliness that hits the stomach following a revelation like that. This scene alone is a calling card to Hollywood.

Another unusual aspect of Gehraiyaan is how much of its story is actually conveyed by actors talking to each other. Where a more traditional filmmaker might have staged the episodes from the characters’ past as flashbacks, Batra has them delivered to us largely in words. So we have Tia telling Zain about Alisha’s father, Alisha telling Zain about Tia’s relation to Karan, Zain telling Alisha of his abusive father, and so on. This disregard for the golden principle of “show, don’t tell” has two effects. It brings the characters closer to one another, and not just the ones talking. But more importantly, it allows the film to remain with just these handful of characters for almost its full runtime. What struck me about Gehraiyaan is how little excursion it makes away from its central figures. We don’t see Tia’s father, her mother only appears in video calls, Alisha’s mother is unseen except in Lynne Ramsay-like flash inserts and Karan’s parents barely register. Scenes are centred, instead, on interactions between any two of the four protagonists (the film is a repository of two-shots). The result of this economy is that the world is whittled down to these figures, the movie turning into a kind of chamber drama scattered across the city.

Which city, though? Gehraiyaan is nominally set in Mumbai, but it is starkly different from the Mumbai we usually see on screen. This was already the case with the de-Coonoored Coonoor of Kapoor & Sons, but it appears that Batra doesn’t even want to use the city for local colour here. The bulk of his new film takes place in private (or privatized) spaces: apartments, holiday homes, upscale restaurants, hotel rooms, yachts, corporate offices. Except for a carefully curated section of the Marine Drive, there are no crowded public spaces, and public transport is limited to taxis at best: no teeming locals, no quaint BEST rides as you’d see in a Mani Ratnam movie. The sight of unwashed masses is kept out of the frame just like intense tints are kept out of the sober, matte colours of the visual palette. The most jarring shot in the film is perhaps the one where we see Zain stop at a corner store carrying a flashy hoarding. Even the Indian tricolour on top of Zain’s yacht seems out of place.

So would an American flag for that matter, for these people don’t seem to belong to any particular place. Gehraiyaan produces the impression that it could have taken place anywhere in the world (and I don’t mean this as a put-down). It seems like a deliberate decision on Batra’s part to de-familiarize the city, to renew its iconography. His solution is to turn it into a kind of Los Angeles outside of Los Angeles. Its title notwithstanding, Gehraiyaan is a film of surfaces, its imagery of Mumbai closer to David Hockney’s LA than anything closer home: pools and skylines, glass and reflection. It is a work that would be at home in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003).

Despite the cloistered quality of its narrative, despite the characters’ writerly laments that they feel stuck, the feeling I got from Gehraiyaan is a sense of openness. A large part of it has to do with the film’s extremely wide aspect ratio (2.39:1), which is able to fit not only Zain’s rented yacht, but also Padukone’s long legs, which determine the composition in many shots. The skyline, the sea, the beach, the yacht all establish Gehraiyaan as a strongly horizontal film and redouble the sense that it is an LA movie superimposed on Mumbai, like Tia’s accent which, to my ears, straddles Valleyspeak and South Bombay talk.

Given Zain is a property developer, it is understandable that the film has an interest in horizontality. Gehraiyaan may be a middling movie about relationships, but it is a very good movie about real estate. Even within the privileged cocoon of the story, there are finer class stratifications: Tia the rich, Zain the arriviste, middle class Alisha and the bohemian Karan. But more crucially, their relationships are all mediated by private property. “I need some fucking space,” Karan cries out, but it is more than just mental space. He and Alisha live in a tastefully decorated (and tastefully dishevelled) 2-BHK (or 3?), but they are trying to move to a new apartment — a fact that Alisha sheepishly tells Tia when the latter comes slumming. To write his novel, Karan moves into Tia’s beach house in Alibaug, which Tia lets Zain mortgage following business trouble. Zain sets up a studio for Alisha, using it as address for a shell company. Relationships in this film sour because real estate deals sour. No money, no honey. There you have it: Gehraiyaan, Marxist movie.

Maqbool (2003)
Vishal Bhardwaj


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

 Maqbool - Meeting


Maqbool - Gifts


Maqbool - Engagement

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan 

Anand Patwardhan has been making political documentaries for nearly three decades pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Patwardhan who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court. Patwardhan received a B.A. in English Literature from Bombay University in 1970, won a scholarship to get another B.A. in Sociology from Brandeis University in 1972 and earned a Master’s degree in Communications from McGill University in 1982. Patwardhan has been an activist ever since he was a student — having participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement; being a volunteer in Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Worker’s Union; working in Kishore Bharati, a rural development and education project in central India; and participating in the Bihar anti-corruption movement in 1974-75 and in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement during and after the 1975-77 Emergency. Since then he has been active in movements for housing rights of the urban poor, for communal harmony and participated in movements against unjust, unsustainable development, miltarism and nuclear nationalism. [Image Courtesy: Icarus Films, Bio Courtesy: Official Site]

The most acclaimed Indian documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan has been called the Michael Moore of India, although the latter started his career much later than Patwardhan did. The comparison is not entirely unwarranted though. For one, Patwardhan’s political inclination is very similar to that of the Canadian-American. He even admires Moore’s works to a large extent. But of more interest is the commonality between their styles. Like in the films of Moore, the image and the sound counterpoint each other at the most critical junctures. But, unlike in Moore where it’s almost exclusively played out for laughs, this friction is also used to provide highly affecting social ironies or even serve as penetrating summations. Same is true of the dialectical imagery – arrived at though Eisensteinian cutting or, more frequently, within the same shot – in his films. This might sound too crude and simplistic, but Patwardhan’s curious, clear-sighted camera and editing never once call attention to themselves or invite us to marvel their artistry. It is almost as if the sound and the image have independent existence since each of them has its own emotional weight and rumination quotient. At times, the image and sound are linked together by folk (generally recorded directly) or pop songs (official versions), which serve as catharsis for the pent up resentment and tension. Moreover, these folk songs also help illustrate how a community uses its art forms to make a record of its problems and struggles and to develop a sense of clanship among its members to help them go on.

Another singular aspect of Patwardhan’s cinema is his attention to dialects, language and speech patterns. Although there must have been considerable amount of luck in making many of these observations, the amazing consistency with which these nuggets steal the speeches they appear in makes this an ostensible trademark of the director.  A chief nuclear scientist believes, albeit with a modicum of humour, that the numerous berserk cows did not spoil the nuclear test because they are sacred. A well-off, educated urban businessman, who has, along with his wife, resorted to religious methods for having a child, tells us (among other atrocities) that Hinduism is extremely liberal and broad minded in comparison to Islam and that “women cannot be divorced very easily”. An atheist (or secular) speaker of the Left uses the term “Lakshman Rekha” to denote the poverty line. This scrupulous attention to representation extends also to the visual language. Mass media, especially mainstream cinema and popular television (shows and news – rather interchangeable really), make regular appearances in Patwardhan’s films and are used to highlight their regressive influence. Although the working methods that he has developed over time bear an unmistakable authorial stamp (save for two rather ordinary short films), Patwardhan claims that he does not believe in deliberate stylization and that there is no conscious aesthetic in his films. In fact, the only cinematic influence that he mentions in interviews is that of Imperfect Cinema (Patwardhan’s films are certainly works of Third Cinema and his essay on The Battle of Chile (1977) is an illuminating read). So it should of little doubt that his politics is what informs his aesthetics.

In a way, Anand Patwardhan could be called the child of Karl Marx and Karamchand Gandhi. If there is one vein that runs throughout Patwardhan’s filmography, it is the attempt to suitably wed class consciousness with nonviolent methods of problem solving. In that respect, all his films could be seen as efforts to demonstrate that this marriage is not just chimerical utopianism, but a practical possibility. He has been criticized for taking sides, for not presenting facts with objectivity and, plainly, for not giving the ‘other’ side a fair hearing. Surely, there can be few qualities more repulsive than non-committedness, neutrality and pseudo-objectivity in a political documentary for you can’t be neutral on a moving train. But then that doesn’t mean films such as Patwardhan’s are propagandistic or, worse, merely personal preferences, worldviews and opinions. His filmmaking is defined by curiosity and compassion rather than didacticism and judgment. Patwardhan’s allegiance is not to any geography, religion, ideology, language or class, but only to humanitarianism (for the lack of a better term), although, ironically, that stance dictates much of his politics. Through the films, it becomes evident that it is not an hatred towards the ruling class, but a genuine concern for the underprivileged that characterizes his cinema.  Witness to this attitude is the fact his central interest remains – and this has given birth to the best sections he’s ever done – in the struggles of the oppressed than the acts of the powerful. All his films, in one way or the other, are celebrations of (or pleas for) nonviolent forms of resistance. (He places Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, B. R. Ambedkar and Salvador Allende on the same pedestal.) It is as if, for him, the struggle itself is more important than the end result. These films testify to the filmmaker’s belief that a struggle for human rights need not necessarily entail dehumanization of oneself, that, to borrow Gandhi’s oft-used quote, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

(NOTE: As usual, there are gaping holes here which will be filled once I see those missing films)

Zameer Ke Bandi (Prisoners Of Conscience, 1978)


Prisoners of ConscienceShot on grainy 16mm stock that embodies the spirit and theory of Imperfect Cinema that Patwardhan so cherishes, Prisoners of Conscience (1978) captures a particular facet of the tumultuous years following the declaration of emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June, 1975: political imprisonment. Through first hand accounts, the director presents details of the appalling brutality of prison procedures and the classism that permeates them. Patwardhan’s major lament is not against Indira’s policies per se, but the very act of holding political prisoners without trial (That the film clearly points out that the situation did not improve much even after Janata Dal came to power testifies to its “nonpartisan” quality). What was unique about the widespread resistance to this political ploy of Indira Gandhi was that it was highly democratic in nature, with participation by both the secular Left and the Hindu-based RSS (a marriage quite unimaginable now), both workers and students, both citizens and immigrants and both radical Maoists and nonviolent Gandhians. Using the various interviews of people from each of these groups, Patwardhan attempts to examine and evaluate his own political leaning by trying to uncover socialist strains in Gandhian philosophy and the possibility of having a nonviolent base for Marxist thought. In additional to his ideology, it is also Patwardhan’s directorial style that seems to have (more or less) found its bearings in Prisoners as is evident in the therapeutic use of folk songs, the ironic cross cutting between Republic Day celebrations and prison proceedings and the general hesitation to be overly acerbic or coldly academic.

Hamara Shahar (Bombay, Our City, 1985)

Bombay, Our CityBombay, Our City (1985) is a devastating account of the slum clearance operations of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1984, in which encroachments by rural immigrants were systematically removed to make way for skyscrapers and to prettify the city. Patwardhan interviews residents of the slums, industrialists in the city, officials at the municipality office and middle class citizens of the city, all of whose words provide a unique insight into the issue. Occasionally, the film falls prey to an unrefined Marxist impulse wherein the director includes images of bourgeois tea parties and yacht races for no reason other than to provide contrast. But then, this sudden shift of gears also seems justified when we witness a group of upper-class folks – the city’s police commissioner included – discussing how to fight this “evil” of encroachments through martial training of youths. What is really extraordinary about the segments involving the slum residents is how remarkably aware these people are of their surroundings and of the numerous forces that bind them. A terrific song compiled by the local theatre group, which forms the spiritual backbone of the film, details the government’s injustices with great humour and pathos. Equally piercing are the testaments of the evicted (One of them says “Instead of removing poverty, they’re removing the poor”, alluding to Indira (and Rajiv) Gandhi’s populist slogan for eradicating poverty). Finally, Bombay, Our City also presents Patwardhan finding his own place as a filmmaker and an activist. One of the slum dwellers accuses Patwardhan of exploiting their misery for artistic gains while the Right accuses him of romanticizing the working class. The director, however, remains the humble inquisitor.

Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari (In Memory Of Friends, 1990)

In Memory of FriendsIn Memory of Friends (1990) finds Patwardhan in Punjab covering communal clashes between Sikh and Hindu fundamentalists during the Khalistan Movement and the subsequent endeavours of secular parties with Marxist associations in reinstating peace in the state. The subject of In Memory is both philosophically and politically complex (primarily due to different parties holding power at the state and central levels), for the demand for a separate state based on religion is, as Patwardhan remarks, both purely democratic and against democracy. At the focal point of the film is the figure of Bhagat Singh, freedom fighter and revolutionary whose image has been appropriated and manipulated by each political group to suit to its own ideological agenda. The Sikh separatists claim Bhagat Singh was a religious man whereas the right wing extols his nationalism. Even those who remain neutral about him seem to consider him as some sort of an antithesis to the nonviolent Gandhi. This starling rupture between the past and the present – the reality and its image – informs the central structuring device of In Memory. Interleaved with footage of interviews with the secularists, the separatists and the relatives of Bhagat Singh are passages in which Bhagat Singh’s posthumously published jail writings are recited by a narrator (Naseeruddin Shah) which clearly indicate that he was not only a staunch socialist and an atheist who believed that widespread class consciousness was the only way out of communal wars, but also that he deeply admired non-violence. Like all the secular teachings of Sikhism, Bhagat Singh’s beliefs, too, seem to have vanished into the past.

Ram Ke Naam (In The Name Of God, 1992)

In The Name Of GodIn the Name of God (1992) chronicles the immediate and historical events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on 6 December 1992, when thousands of Hindu fundamentalists barged into the mosque premises and started bringing down the structure. Characteristically witty with a very keen eye for tragicomic ironies (The camera casually photographs an eatery named “Shriram Fast Food” as we hear public speakers, mounted on hired trucks, advertising the divinity of Lord Ram), Patwardhan examines the classism that exists within these communal forces (in the form of castes) and charts both the strategies of the then-oppositional Hindu groups, one of whose leaders had undertaken a nationwide propagandist tour, and the efforts of the secular Left in mitigating the communal agitation that seemed to have gripped the country like a plague. Unlike most rationalists, he chooses to view religion not as an entity fascist in its very conception, but as one which is molded by the ideology that propagates it. This is reinforced by the numerous segments featuring with Pujari Laldas, the official priest at the temple inside the mosque premise and a Hindu liberation theologian, the honesty and conviction of whose words suffuse the film with an earnestness and compassion so crucial to sociological filmmaking. But perhaps more than anything, In the Name of God is an elegy for the city of Ayodhya – a city caught unawares by external polarizing forces, its identity erased and reconstituted and its people made to live in perpetual fear.

Pitra, Putra Aur Dharmayuddha (Father, Son And Holy War, 1994)

Father, Son And Holy WarA twin to In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy War (1994) is less topical and more contemplative a film than its predecessor in that it attempts to study primeval and deep-rooted social issues with the bloody aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition as only the backdrop. The central thesis of the film contends that religion and mythology – whatever be their flavour – construct and propagate a skewed sense of masculinity and bravery that is predicated on violence and hatred, which deems non-violence as an impotent principle and which is only exacerbated by most of modern consumerist advertising and certain sections of the mass media. Furthermore, Patwardhan suggests, it is the same texts and practices that define femininity as whatever masculinity isn’t, with passive acceptance, chastity and servility being its prime virtues. The film argues, presenting archaeological evidence, that this was not always the case and that, at the danger of sounding too simplistic, this worship of violence and destruction – in place of fertility and proliferation – started when man learned to domesticate and own animals and settle down. Equally sweeping are its other assertions that attempt to cover of number of social phenomena (including the popularity of WWF and on-screen violence, in general), which runs the risk of decontextualizing the key argument of the film. True, that all these facets are only deeply intertwined, but the film is so ambitious and loosely structured that it almost ends up proving otherwise. These observations would find greater strength and coherence in the director’s decidedly superior work, War and Peace.

A Narmada Diary (1995)

A Narmada DiaryA very pertinent film about the social conditions in the third world – especially after the advent of globalization – A Narmada Diary (1995) sits well alongside works such as West of the Tracks (2003) and Up the Yangtze (2007) in the sense that it chooses to document on film – for us and for posterity – what would otherwise be relegated to the footnotes of most mass media. Co-directed with activist Simantini Dhuru, the film tracks the struggle of an indigenous population (Narmada Bachao Andolan/Save Narmada Movement) living on the banks of river Narmada against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which would result in their displacement and massive land submergence. There is a sense of watching history in the making as the group congregates for planning, organizes non-violent protests, confronts key officials responsible for the construction of the dam and exhibits a singular integrity of purpose, further evidencing Patwardhan’s heartfelt admiration for Patricio Guzmán’s masterpiece. Although the Save Narmada Movement is generally known to be led by Medha Patkar, Patwardhan and Dhuru avoid the pitfall of making a hero out of her and building a film around an exceptional individual’s actions. Instead, true to the spirit of this struggle, the directors present her as a key player in a movement organized and executed by the local populace en masse. Additionally, A Narmada Diary is also a personal struggle for Patwardhan as a filmmaker. Like the rebellion, his work stands as the direct antithesis to the pro-dam government propaganda films that make their appearance throughout the picture.

Jang Aur Aman (War And Peace, 2001)

War and PeaceWar and Peace (2001) could well have been titled War and Peace: Or How I Learned to Forget Gandhi and Worship the Bomb, for the major theme that runs through the film is the disjunction that exists between the past and the present and a nation’s collective (and selective) cultural amnesia with respect to its own past. Shot in four countries – India, Pakistan, Japan and the USA – and over a period of four years following the 5 nuclear tests done by India in 1998, Patwardhan’s film was slammed by Pakistan for being anti-Pakistani and by India for being anti-Indian, while the film’s barrel was always pointed elsewhere. Tracing out the country’s appalling shift from Gandhianism to Nuclear Nationalism and Pakistan’s follow-up to India’s nuclear tests, Patwardhan examines the role of the two countries as both perpetrators and victims of a major mishap that is now imminent, taking the Hiroshima-Nagasaki incident as a potent example to illustrate why nuclear armament is not merely a potentially hazardous move, but a wholly unethical one. War and Peace is a film that should exist, even if amounts to only the ticking of a radiometer amidst atomic explosions, for it calls for a realization that there can be neither a victor nor a finish point in this internecine race. It is, without doubt, Anand Patwardhan’s masterpiece. [Read full review]

[To The Children Of Swat, From The Children Of Mandala (2009)]

So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”

Right after I posted my epic fail review of Ishqiya, bits and pieces of the film started to sink in. Many of the film’s odd choices seemed to gain a significance of their own and, before I knew it, like those clichéd second act endings, they all fell in place, presenting a whole new perspective to the film. Out of the dozen reviews I’ve read of the film, only my friend Satish Naidu’s review seemed to hit the right notes. I strongly recommend reading his review if you’ve seen the film. And yes, spoilers here too (Well, there isn’t really much in the movie that you can’t guess beforehand).

There is a post script, in Ishqiya, to the kidnap set piece where Krishna, amidst a serious argument between Babban and Khalujaan, drives the car away leaving them gaping. She might well be driving away the film there, for Ishqiya, more than anything, is about the resistance to a male view of a world by a female perspective. Ishqiya is a Western alright, with its war-torn landscape leaving no other philosophy to exist other than “might is right”. But that really doesn’t give anyone a license to call it a man’s world. The story unfolds, primarily, in the point of view of the two men, but, rather than being protagonists with clear cut objectives, they are frames of reference – a telescope – using which we view and, unfortunately, try to ‘solve’ Krishna, that obscure object of desire. Yes, they are characters of considerable depth, but they are also, ultimately, peripheral. A quick note, to begin with, about the casting of the film which seems to me like a stroke of brilliance. We have here Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, men who have rarely been the flawless heroes, who have made a career out of bumbling and imperfect protagonists. They automatically bring into the movie with them flawed male visions that belong to two different generations. Krishna is played by Vidya Balan, who has had a popular image that could well pass off as an icon of the chaste Indian female. This incongruity between what appears and what is, which defines the whole of Ishqiya, is only furthered by this distance between Balan’s image and Krishna.

Babban and Khalujaan are closer to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) than any other film character I can think of. These men are (con-) artists too, like Doinel, as exemplified in their introduction scene, where Babban tricks Mushtaq with his story and flees with the money. Like Truffaut’s character, who spent a lifetime wondering if women were magic, these men can understand the opposite sex only in terms of art or, in this case, popular cinema (where Krishna is aptly photographed like being frozen in a film frame). It is only through popular film songs that these characters are able to even express their emotions. Khalujaan may make numerous mistakes in his real life, but never does he get the composer of a song wrong. Babban believes dressing up as a movie star will help him woo the girl. As noted earlier, these are men of flesh and blood. They are deeply flawed and they realize their limitations. Babban drags back Khalujaan from his macho, decidedly Western romanticism of taking Mushtaq head-on, as if reminding him that this genre movie is no place for them. In Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Frank (Henry Fonda), upon being asked if he is a businessman, says: “Just a man”. Like Frank, these two crooks understand every shade of men and their behavioral patterns, no matter what age group they belong to. However, for these men, like Frank, women just can’t fall in any category other than in the binary setup of the mother and the whore (Khalujaan tells Krishna that he can’t tell whether she is an angel or a courtesan) that popular cinema has given them.

But Chaubey doesn’t give a comic tinge to his characters as much Truffaut does. Yes, they do deliver those funny lines, but they are serious men. They have their own issues. Babban, also true to Bollywood morality, does not want Khalujaan to sully his mother’s name. Khalujaan, on the other hand, takes his past seriously too, through his possibly deceased (possibly non-extant) sweetheart. He really does believe that he can settle down in life. But these are not their mistakes. They are, after all, real men with real emotions and problems. These are not caricatures that we can disregard easily. In any other film, they could have been the backbone of fine drama. Their real mistake, however, is in believing that they are the only ones with problems, that they are the film. The sin of these flawed men is in believing that the woman they fall for would be unflawed. Krishna driving away the car should have given them a clue. But, products of a patriarchal society and cinema that they are, they never realize that. In fact, the whole film is built upon such male perspectives that see nothing more than what they want to see. Krishna’s husband chooses a male-dominated caste war over his wife’s love. Mushtaq prefers to keep his wife as a mere voice heard over a telephone like a horoscope (announced by a Bollywood ring tone, of course). For KK, the fidelity of the male is nothing more than a small joke. Even we, the children fed on the stereotypes of Bollywood, attempt only to classify Krishna into rigid adjectives – femme fatale, all-powerful, resilient, gutsy, seductive – whereas she may be as vulnerable as the men around her.

The key is the scene where Krishna meets her husband once again. She breaks down, for the first time in the movie, revealing her vulnerability. She stands there, with her motives exposed, being emotionally hit. All this while she had been toying along with the two conmen, for she was far assured of her modus operandi. She offers tea for the man who gives her a better kidnap plan, only to deliberately fire the other one up. Krishna, in the scene in which she sleeps with Babban, clearly reveals that she is only exploiting this lucky situation that has come her way for her own good and with the assurance that and that the plan is on track. Not now. The petty goons are all down now. It’s now man on man, so to speak. It’s the only showdown this revisionist Western will have (My genre-addicted mind would have liked a couple more extreme close-ups). Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, perceptive as always, notes that Krishna is essentially an updated version of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in Once Upon a Time in the West. That, I guess, is the only kind of classification that Krishna can be subjected to. The strongest point of the movie is that it does not try to define her or push her into a single zone of existence in which she may be only be moral, immoral or amoral. She, like many of us, could well be straddling all three. What we may be having here, far from being a character study, is personal cinema in which the writer and director are sharing our own inability to understand Krishna, and by the fact that she is the only woman in the film (not considering the old woman, who might well be an aged Krishna), women in general.

We, the audience, on the other hand, are frustrated like Khalujaan because of this inability to break her down into stereotypes. When she sucks the blood out of Babban’s thumb, one is tempted to jump the gun and label her a vamp. But she might just be using another lucky opportunity there, to strengthen her chances of pulling off the kidnap. Or may be not. Krishna defies identification, which we have all been accustomed to, through standard templates reserved for women in Bollywood which, in turn, are derived from popular mythological figures. She might be sharing herself with many men, taking turns, but she is far from the ultra-faithful Draupadi that her name means. She might appear to be pining for her beloved, a la Meera, as she sings, but that pining is for something else altogether. She is like Savitri too, but she prefers dragging back her husband to death (Death and Krishna being the two people he tricked) rather than the usual way. In the final scene, she merely attempts to restore back a reality that wasn’t. When she faces her husband again, she might well have paraphrased  that legendary Bresson line: “I’d rather prefer you leaving me for the love of another woman than for what you call your intellectual life“. And when Babban watches her undress, there is not only the distance of voyeuristic cinema between them, but also this literal wound of Krishna’s past, which only breaks out during the final confrontation, that adds one more layer of enigma for Babban, and consequently us.

It is the opening and closing scenes, or even shots, that really tie the movie together. The film opens with a male perspective, fading out of black, with Krishna on the bed in a reclining, arguably sexist pose. She appears nothing short of a magical being, which is an opinion only the male could have here (Let’s stick to straight orientations for now). And it is a pose that typifies the attractive woman in Bollywood cinema. From this point on, the film’s male perspective, our own “male” perspective and the Bollywood perspective get tied together. And the film closes, literally, with another male point-of-view. Here, Mushtaq watches the three walk away through the lens of his sniper gun. Khalujaan and Babban walk happily, perhaps with the idea that they’ve understood Krishna and one of them will “get the girl”. What they don’t understand is that the real trouble begins after this (This real-drama-begins-after-the-end-credits-roll facet of Ishqiya is one of the reasons why I was reminded of that Almodóvar film whose title I borrowed for the review). Their belief that they will return to a more conventional cinema zone, in which women are easily deconstructed, may well be shattered the next minute by Krishna. As the film presents a POV shot of Mushtaq watching them through the lens, the black circle closes in on the three, thereby ending the film simultaneously through our perspective, Mushtaq’s and in a manner unique to classical feel-good cinema. Chaubey’s film is cynical in a way. It breaks into a new world from within a undoubtedly male world of Bollywood and, at the end, restores that new world back to its obscured state. It unveils the groundbreaking Krishna through a male vision and, then, locks her back using the same, as if suggesting that popular cinema, itself included, will never understand “the woman“. Well, that acknowledgment is a start.


Once Upon A Time In The North 
(Image courtesy: NDTV)

Thanks to debutant filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey (who shares the writing credits of Kaminey (2009)), I’ve been able to watch a film that is absolutely unprovocative, after a long time. As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema hall trying to recollect what felt like a distant memory, like the story of a film that a friend had recited when you were half asleep. Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) is a film that exists in some kind of a cinematic void, with only barebones of a relationship with its predecessors. Chances are that you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you thought the film would stink and disappointed if you expected too much from it. I fear that even if I toss a coin to find my stance regarding the film, it would land on its edge. What can you really say about a film that’s got a set of aesthetics tangible enough to arouse interest and uneven enough to restore your smugness, characters quirky enough to hold your attention and set pieces inefficient enough to allow you to not give a damn about them and a knowledge of cinema that’s impressive enough to tease us with the film’s choices and unambitious enough to not go all the way? Ishqiya is a film that seems to have landed, with considerable luck, smack dab in the eye of a cyclone whereby the film neither attracts nor repels, but just sits, like Bill Murray, in a vacuum. OK, this is getting too abstract.

Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew, Babban (Arshad Warsi), are two small time crooks who hit the road after getting their hands on a hefty sum of money. With nowhere to run for cover, they, somehow, land up in a village near the city of Gorakhpur where they find refuge at the residence of an old acquaintance, hoping to cross the national border into Nepal. After putting up with some dodging by their hostess, Krishna (Vidya Balan), they come to know that the man they have come here seeking has been long dead. By a tragic turn of events and the inevitable need to proceed to the second act, the money they’ve been carrying around gets pinched just as the duo get tracked down by the true owner of the money. With one last chance given, the pair, working on a plan charted out by Krishna, decide to kidnap a big shot in the city and make enough money to pay back the stolen sum and to settle down for life. But then, both of them eat the forbidden fruit as they fall for Eve – Krishna – who, in turn, does not give a clear indication to either one of them.  To get a clearer sense of the film’s script, take Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (1993, co-written by Ram Gopal Varma, whose film Rann, incidentally, opens this week and ) and strip down all its grand set pieces, action genre elements and ensemble cast. Bland? Yes.

The central conceit of Ishqiya seems to be that of a Western. The literally explosive opening sets the tone for the tale that’s going to unfold in this outwardly serene yet war-torn land. Speaking of war-torn lands, there are far too few shots of the landscape of the village which is really sad, for what’s a Western without the Wild West?! Apart from this basic glitch, you have broad syntax of the Western more or less intact. There are the typical outsiders – two of them, in this case – who enter a completely alien townscape and find themselves trapped in the local gang wars. These are perfect “road people” that we are talking about. Then there’s Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ennio Morricone-esque score that does a whole lot of good to the film. There’s even an ending where the triumphant “lone rangers” ride off into the sunset. But the fatal blow to this attempt at a wonderful transposition of a foreign genre into an indigenous landscape is dealt by the largely inept development of the protagonists. Let’s make no mistake about this. The Western genre has always been, primarily, about morality, about the need to hold a moral ground in an amoral and hostile environment and about the validity of one’s own moral standing (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – it’s all taken apart, right in the title!), thanks to which they retain a timeless, philosophical quality. Ishqiya, unfortunately, turns a blind eye to this requirement.

The lead characters here, on the other hand, are presented with no formidable moral choices at all. If I remember correct, there are exactly two points in the film where Khalujaan has to make a moral decision (the same goes for Babban, who isn’t much different, although we are led to believe otherwise, early in the film). The first is when he is asked to take part in a kidnapping and the second, when he is asked by Babban to kill Krishna. In both cases, Chaubey cuts away too quickly, sacrificing quality drama to carry forward the plot. This moral imbalance is only furthered by the presence of the most important and well rounded character in the film, Krishna, who, thank heavens, for once, does not advertise her moral universe using monologues or outbursts. She constructs her own moral fabric wherein she does not make a fuss about kidnapping a man to get what she wants. Here’s a married woman who does not mind seducing two men simultaneously as long as it helps her purpose (It’s not for nothing that her name is Krishna). She doesn’t flinch one bit to knock off her beloved husband just because he had ditched her earlier. So we have the all-powerful Krishna, who can go any length to get what she wants, on one side of the see-saw and the pair of charlatans, who are ready to even lick boots for survival, on the other. Right there, the moral tension is lost and film turns away from being character-driven, which is how it starts out as, to, sadly, being plot-driven.

[Ishqiya Trailer]

There’s really no problem with that except when you don’t provide any emotional anchor to root for a character (I’m going old school just because the mode of discourse Ishqiya adopts is generic). What happens here, as a result, is that we are only indifferent to the very many actions and gestures unfolding on screen. Consider the sequence where Krishna holds the duo hostages for one last time. This moment is followed by the duo tricking Krishna and getting the pistol back from her. Genre grammar tells us that dramatic tension should be cranked up when at least one of the parties is in power. No. We just don’t give a damn and wait for the next plot point. We don’t feel anything when Babban slaps Krishnaa following this. Why? May be because we never really sided with any of these characters. Only Naseeruddin Shah, with his characteristic quirks and improvisation, adds some flavor to Khalujaan. But even his character is presented with no real challenge in the script and, instead, is made to move along with the plot. Neither are our sentiments with the pivotal Krishna, who is but another instance of the militant brand of feminists “New Bollywood” cinema has been endorsing for some time now. In an attempt to break away from the stereotype of the divine, chaste female who sacrifices herself for her man, these films have resorted to the opposite end of the spectrum where the woman is the ultimate destroyer, which, I think, is equally questionable.

There is something very strange and intriguing, not necessarily bad, about all these characters in Ishqiya. Take the two crooks, Khalujaan and Babban, who, although played by stars, aren’t really heroes or even brave men. All they desire is to survive and, if possible, get the girl (Heck, they start their journey from the grave they have dug for themselves!). They do not wish to outwit the owner of the money they’ve stolen from. They don’t attempt to exploit the gang war for their benefit or for anyone’s (These are not Yojimbos!). They don’t carry out the kidnapping successfully. Why, they even require the help of a bumbling police force and an old woman to pull off the final stunt. These are truly flawed characters. All this takes these characters away from genre cinema, which Ishqiya seems to gleefully build upon, towards realism. In fact, call it the irony of Bollywood cinema, these characters seem so multi-dimensional when they are supposed to play cardboards. Even Krishna’s husband, who is allotted not more than ten screen minutes, feels true to life (and is, sadly, played ‘realistically’!). It is as if these real-life characters have been nudged into a genre movie after being given a brief and asked to improvise their way out of it (opposite of what Tarantino generally does). This does sound really interesting, but it never really amounts to anything. The actual triumph, in fact, comes in the form of a minor character – the owner of the stolen money – who is, probably, the only character who knows where he is and, thankfully, gets to close the film.

The first half hour is perhaps when the film is at its finest, with the relationship between characters being established using well choreographed compositions, and where the feminist stance of the film is at its most commendable. Early on, when both the audience and the two men are struggling to understand what kind of a person Krishna is, she is, fittingly, photographed almost exclusively behind bars, through doorways and within closed structures, as if she’s dodging analysis. We are even led to believe that she is like Meera, but it turns out that she’s far from a woman who pines for her man who’s gone away (This Meera doesn’t mind two more men meanwhile!). And at the end of the film, she’s seen out in the vast open walking peacefully with these two men, with nothing to hide. However, this attention to composition isn’t always consistent and the film, for most of its runtime, loses track of its own aesthetics. This kind of tapering off of intensity is visible within separate set pieces of the film too. What start out as a gritty genre pieces end up nowhere. The kidnap set piece, to cite one example, begins with standard thriller procedures but, eventually, moves towards deadpan comedy wherein it’s the common public that carries out the kidnap. This kind of attempt to work from within and, then, out of genre templates may have been intentional on part of Chaubey, but it doesn’t exactly give a whack. It doesn’t really hurt the film either. The film, somehow, seems to neutralize itself. Go stare at it if you want.

Rating: Whatever