Thursday, December 06, 2012

New directions, new treatments (notes on some 2012 movies)

[Did this round-up piece for Democratic World magazine – a look at how some of the better Hindi films of the past year dealt with complexities of life in India]

There is a brief moment in one of the best Hindi films of 2012, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, that almost cries out for subtextual analysis. The title character – once an upbeat army man and athlete proudly serving his country, but now a baaghi driven to a life outside the law – is nearing the end of his personal race. This section of the story is set in 1980, and on a transistor belonging to the policemen pursuing Paan Singh we hear a news item about the death of the actress Nargis. Given the film’s larger themes, it is reasonable to wonder if this scene is an allusion to Nargis’s most famous role: does it reflect the end of the Mother India ideal for the film’s embittered protagonist?

If so, it would be in keeping with this film’s subtle, plaintive tone. Though Paan Singh Tomar is based on a real-life tale that has the resonance of a Shakespearean tragedy, it doesn’t strain self-consciously to be one. It consistently stays in the moment, and even scenes such as the one where our hero remarks that apart from the Army everyone in the country is a thief, or the one where he says “Desh ke liye faltu bhaage hum?” when a policeman tosses his medals away, are handled with understatement – not least thanks to Irfan Khan’s brilliantly measured performance.

Our storytelling registers have been changing in small ways. Though mainstream Hindi cinema has always had narratives about the disaffection of the wronged individual with the System, they tended to be presented in highly dramatic terms, accompanied by flashes of lightning and over-expository declaiming. In contrast, some of the better, more provocative Hindi films of 2012 have treated such subjects as patriotism, national integration and the Idea of India with restraint as well as imagination.
If Dhulia’s film tells the story of an individual and his times, the claustrophobic gloom of Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai gives expression to a number of different stories – adding up to a tightly knit comment on the aspirations and power struggles that brush against each other in a many-tiered society. (The film’s protagonists include a lower-class man who fantasises about a job where he might one day get to wear a tie as well as a privileged man in a high-profile job who loosens his own tie every opportunity he gets; there are other such polarities and contrasts in the story too.) In some ways, Shanghai is a very “non-Bollywood” film. It has the self-consciously stygian look of a contemporary noir movie – it even makes Mumbai’s busy nightlife seem sinister in a way that has rarely been achieved in our cinema before. And it is adapted from a Greek novel, Z, which was about a very specific political context. But Banerjee and his co-writer Urmi Juvekar did a thoughtful job of fitting it to the contemporary Indian situation, depicting a world where where underprivileged people unwittingly participate in their own exploitation, and the rich indulge the hubris of yanking the country into the First World without looking at its ground realities.

Trying to keep your equilibrium, turning your face away from injustice until your conscience no longer lets you, and then realising that none of it may matter anyway...these are repeated motifs here. At the film's end the bureaucrat Krishnan (played by Abhay Deol) does something that in a more simple-minded story might have resulted in the summary cleaning up of the political order, but here we see that nothing has really changed. So, is Shanghai a cynical film? There is no easy answer. Banerjee himself sees it as an ode to individual conscience in a harsh world, while Juvekar told me during a recent conversation that they didn’t want to tie up loose ends and give the audience any false comfort. No wonder the film, even as it was widely acclaimed, left so many viewers with an uncomfortable, unresolved feeling.

Some other major films don’t deal explicitly with “national issues”, but they do reflect an increasing willingness by Bollywood to visit places that are not often charted by Hindi cinema. The authenticity of the hinterland depiction in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur has been called into question, but there is no doubting the film’s ability to establish the mood of a particular setting, and to reexamine stereotypes; while the bulk of the action is in Dhanbad, there are also two scenes set in Varanasi, revealing – with typical Kashyapian humour – an incongruously sinister side to one of our holiest towns.
Meanwhile, Sujoy Ghosh’s fine thriller Kahaani – in which a pregnant woman comes up against a calculating Intelligence Bureau as she tries to find her missing husband – made excellent, atypical use of Kolkata as a setting, and even provided solid roles to the popular Bengali actors Parambrata Chatterjee and Saswata Chatterjee (as well as a supporting part for the veteran Dhritaman Chatterjee, who was such an arresting presence 40 years ago in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi). This is not something that would have happened in a mainstream Hindi movie a few years ago.

Bengali characters also featured in cute takes on inter-community relationships in two of the year’s warmest “little” films. In a charming scene in Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor, a Bengali girl hums a few notes of Rabindrasangeet to her Punjabi boyfriend; they are in a car somewhere between Lajpat Nagar and Chittaranjan Park (two south Delhi colonies located near each other in physical space, but traditionally the bastions of very different communities), and the scene is an important bonding moment in a romance between two people who hail from different universes. There is an interestingly similar moment near the end of Sameer Sharma’s Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, where a young Punjabi man serenades his lover with a Bangla song in the presence of his startled family, who can’t even make sense of what they are hearing. The scene feels a bit like cultural stereotyping at first (“Punjabis masculine, Bengalis effeminate”) but the film is clearly on the side of the young lovers, so it works well.

In any case, both Vicky Donor and Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana simultaneously indulge and overturn conventional tropes of “Punjabiyat”, encouraging us to see their people as individuals - capable of personal growth - rather than as representations of groups, permanently fixed in a way of life and thought. And ultimately perhaps that is the best way to make a film about the many colliding realities of a complex country. It's a lesson Bollywood has shown itself willing to learn in the past 12 months.

[Some longer posts about these films: Paan Singh Tomar, Gangs of Wasseypur, Kahaani, Vicky Donor]


  1. movies like JTHJ, SOS, Bol Bachchan.. give everybody something.. starting from jobs to people involved in their making, to distributors to workers in a cineplex to parking attendants..a nd even the audience is happy. Yet you don't like and write about them. Do you think that you are on a pedastal?

  2. I'd answer your question at length, but I'm trying to keep my balance on this thing - the floor is rickety and it's a long way down from here.

  3. Now if only mainstream Hindi films also comment on Tamilians, Kannadigas, Mallus and Gults appropriately and then they'd have arrived.

    Ok kidding, I got carried away by the mood of the first comment.

    It's been a remarkable year. It's great that so many mainstream Hindi films lend themselves to subtextual analysis. This wasn't really true even a couple of years ago. But every one of them mentioned here will qualify.

    Did you watch Talaash? I felt cheated with the whole premise so I couldn't give it a second glance but I did come across some good thoughtful pieces on it.

  4. It is interesting to read that most reviews of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana sound very defensive, along the lines of "I-usually-do-not-like-such-stuff-but-somehow-this-did-make-an-impression".

    I still need to watch the movie though and see if it evokes a similar reaction.

  5. Gradwolf: no, haven't seen Talaash yet, and not sure I'll be able to in the next couple of weeks. Did hear about the ending though.