Saturday, February 25, 2023

Nastiness, nihilism, humanity: thoughts on In Bruges (and Mukundan Unni Associates)

(My latest Economic Times column)

In a shiny new instance of cultural Woke-ism gone mad, passages from Roald Dahl’s work have been rewritten to protect the quivering sensibilities of those who live mainly for the joy of being triggered or offended. Thus words like “flabby” and “crazy” are dropped, gender-neutral terms are senselessly added. All in the name of keeping young readers in a mythical safe-space bubble where they are never exposed to the nastier realities of the world, or of human nature.

This got me thinking again about films that lie along the continuum between mild political incorrectness and outright nihilism – refusing to offer a comforting moral or to tell viewers those old untruths: that everything always turns out for the best, that the wicked are always punished, that people don’t do or say terrible things to each other.

Take the new Malayalam film Mukundan Unni Associates. It has its heart firmly in the wrong place (I mean that as a compliment), being a celebration of an amoral man who cares only about getting ahead – and who is not, within the narrative at least, made to account for his sins. (The closest thing to a “message” here is that everyone, at every level of society, is potentially corruptible or already deeper in the abyss than one realises.) I wasn’t thrilled by the film – I thought it relied too much on voiceovers, could have gone further in its final stretch, and Vineeth Srinivasan’s lead performance felt a little one-dimensional – but it came as a relief, at a time when people are always looking for positive “takeaways”, to experience something so cynical.

I have also been thinking – with all the attention garnered by playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin – about McDonagh’s screen debut, the 2008 In Bruges: a magnificent example of how savage humour, when done well, can shine a light on the darkest corners of our minds and hearts, and still allow glimpses of the moral edifices we have built for ourselves.

At times the In Bruges screenplay feels like a compendium of insults directed at every group you can think of. A short list of things said by the protagonist Ray (a character we are meant to care about) includes “Youse are a bunch of f***ing elephants” (said to three fat – or as the Dahl bowdlerisers would have it, “enormous” – American tourists whom he tries to dissuade from going up a winding staircase) and “Would you ever think about killing yourself because you’re a midget?” (to a short-statured actor who would rather be called “dwarf” anyway… in addition to not being asked such questions). Ray also gratuitously uses the phrase “like a big fat retarded black girl on a seesaw” and the derogatory “poof” (slang for homosexual). Alongside the running theme of his disdain for the town of Bruges (and for Belgium more generally), he offends a local girl by telling a Belgian joke about the country being best known for child molesters and chocolate.

Elsewhere, a character, in a fit of rage, screams “YOU’RE an inanimate f***ing object!” at his wife, before apologising and then heading off to kill someone. (That clicking sound you hear? It’s a hundred virtuous reviewers using the well-worn phrase “toxic masculinity”.)

The black humour of In Bruges naturally won’t be to all tastes, but for those who do appreciate it (and the film has a big cult following), how does any of this work? Well, apart from the fact that it is very funny (and the parts of our reptilian brains that process humour don’t necessarily cooperate with the parts that handle morality), there is the context that Ray is a melancholy, suicidal man tormented by the memory of a botched job – he is as vulnerable as the Michelle Williams character Cindy was in Blue Valentine when she told a droning, deadpan joke about a child-killer. However nasty Ray gets, it’s hard to see him as gloating or being in a position of power over his targets.

But equally, there is the sense – for anyone who really gets into this film and doesn’t let outrage interfere with the characters’ inner truths – that this is honest behaviour, and even the most tasteless lines reflect something perceptive about people, how they talk and behave and view others. And how even strong generalisations – the stereotype of the overenthusiastic but boorish American tourist, for instance – can be based on kernels of truth.

This is also, if you look at it in a certain way, a story with a solid ethical compass: nearly everything that happens is the consequence of a clear moral rule followed by a generally awful man named Harry who has decreed that if someone should kill a child, even if it is a horrible accident, then that person mustn’t go on living. The cliché about everyone containing multitudes has rarely been as well realised as in this story about people who do ghastly things but who are also relatably human, with many of their finer senses intact. If the expurgators were to turn their attention to a screenplay like In Bruges, they would destroy a narrative that tells us more about humanity (and redemption) than a number of sterile, inoffensive, life-affirming stories could.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Love, loss, perseverence, and the class divide - in the Uphaar-tragedy show Trial by Fire

(Wrote this short review for Reader’s Digest India)

It is a truism, and a cliché, that many time periods live alongside each other in India. But for those of us who have a clear memory of 1997, it feels like that was a particularly strange, transitional time. Most city-dwellers were encountering the internet for the first time, via noisy dial-up connections. Quaint pagers were making way for bulky “mobile phones”. Just a few years into economic liberalisation, there was much promise of glitzy consumerist things to come (such as First World-level malls by big builders like the Ansals), but the execution was slow. The country’s first multiplex did open in south Delhi’s Saket that year, promising to glamorise the big-screen experience; and yet, just a few kilometres away, a much older single-screen hall – poorly maintained, lacking basic safety procedures – was about to see a grisly tragedy unfold.

The new series Trial by Fire is about the Uphaar fire which claimed 59 lives in June 1997, mostly told through the tribulations of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (deeply felt performances by Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol) who lost both their children that day and have spent the last 25 years trying to hold powerful people accountable for the many lapses. This is a narrative that constantly expands its canvas. First it gives us a glimpse of a single family doing everyday things, a few hours before being torn apart; then the numb grief of two people in a house that feels empty; then it moves on to show the wider world, as Neelam and Shekhar become pro-active and form a group for healing and for justice.

All of which makes for a hard-hitting series that understands how time seems to stand still, or coil back on itself, for people whose lives have suddenly been petrified. The urgency of the first couple of episodes, where the Krishnamoorthys still hope for quick results, yields to a shift in pace as they realise this will be a long-haul fight. The show focuses on little details, such as Shekhar and Neelam each trying to hide painful reminders of their loss from the other: a birthday cake, extra toothbrushes in the bathroom. Or a crematorium scene where Neelam, as if drawn by a magnetic force, goes to another mother who she thinks has also lost her child; only to recoil and to feel almost betrayed when she realises the boy is alive.

It is about middle-class concerns too (“Kharcha kitna hua?” Neelam is asked when she brings photo-copies of dozens of important files home; even the horribly bereaved have to think about such things), and about systemic rot (“Kaise badlegaa sab?” Shekhar says despairingly after a bad experience in a queue). And as the show progresses, these themes are explored through the stories of other key people who were in different ways consumed – or scarred – by the Uphaar fire. This makes Trial by Fire structurally challenging in its later episodes, which move back and forth in time: between the Krishnamoorthys as their fight continues deep into the new millennium and others who in a sense are still frozen in 1997. For instance, episode 5 introduces us to an embittered former soldier and his wife (Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah). Then there is the marvellously directed episode 6, in which an electrical engineer, Veer Singh (played by Rajesh Tailang), is implicated as the search for easily prosecuted people gets underway.

In the Veer Singh narrative, long takes are artfully employed to span different events: he goes to jail, comes out again, goes back again, while his family lives in a state of suspension, waiting and hoping and despairing. Here is a view of what the fight for justice can do to the truly little people who are scapegoats, and even the episode title – “Villains” – is telling: from the perspective of this poor family, the Krishnamoorthys are the ones who have indirectly caused their misery. One beautiful shot gives us Veer Singh and his wife reflected like pale ghosts in a TV set after they have watched Neelam and Shekhar give an interview in a posh newsroom. It’s a suggestion that in a country where class privilege is so pronounced, the lines between victims and villains can become blurred.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Two views of fighting – in two terrific new Malayalam films

(From my Economic Times column)

I’m not much into year-end “best-of” rankings, but two Malayalam films I recently watched – Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala and Vipin Das’s Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey – would make my informal list of favourite Indian films of 2022. Though very different in terms of form and plot, both can broadly be described as action movies.

This is much more pronounced in the case of Thallumaala (English translation “Ballad of Brawls”), a story about young men who get into fights, and then fight some more, and then again, on their way to developing strong bonds with each other – and possibly (but don’t count on it) acquiring some self-awareness along the way. In Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, on the other hand, the action sequences are restricted to a couple of pivotal moments (with WWE-style commentary!) where a young woman retaliates, with unexpected swag, to a husband who randomly smacks her whenever he is in a bad mood.

Both films, again in very different ways, grapple with what Woke critics and viewers routinely describe as “toxic masculinity”. And yet both are light-hearted in tone and execution. This is more notable in the case of JJJJH because it is more explicitly an issue film. I thought it dealt with domestic abuse – and the insidious ways in which a benevolent-seeming patriarchy can reveal its full colours – more interestingly than another, much-praised Malayalam film from last year, The Great Indian Kitchen. And this owes in part to JJJJH’s sense of humour. I have watched dozens of well-subtitled movies, but while watching this one – especially during the chatty family scenes where danger lurks below the surface of droll comedy, and every mumbled aside seems relevant – I really wished I knew the language.

The narrative manages the tricky balancing act of being funny without diluting its depth of feeling for Jaya (Darshana Rajendran). She is sharp and has a mind of her own, but she is also vulnerable, and has been ever since her childhood when her parents’ apparent love for her went alongside preferential treatment given to her brother. Meanwhile her husband Rajesh (played by the genial-looking Basil Joseph, who also directed last year’s popular Minnal Murali) is far from the stereotype of the aggressive alpha-male, and is presented as a whiny mama’s boy at times – but this doesn’t take away from the very real damage he causes.

Where JJJJH is fairly straightforward in narrative terms, Thallumaala is an exuberantly showy, stylish work. Its opening words, by the protagonist Wazim (Tovino Thomas), almost suggest a form of brain damage, or at least a brain fog, brought on by too much fighting (“Honestly I can’t remember where it all started. Let me try”) – and indeed a non-linear narrative, packed with nervous energy, follows. The frenetic pace – including scene transitions from animation to live action and back, rapid-fire editing, crazy costumes and costume changes – suggests how important nonstop movement is to these young people’s lives. Such is the circular narrative, at the end you might not be sure of what happened when, and who took revenge on whom after which fight. But that may be part of the point.

There is a simple boy-girl love story at the centre of it all, but the film is equally about male friendships that can be as intense, and as violent, as a romantic relationship. (“I found my friends while fighting,” Wazim tells us.) Watching it, I was reminded (and not just because of the shared word “ballad”, which brings a sense of poetry to violence and even bad behaviour) of passages from Eminem’s great, restless song “Drug Ballad”. (“What's a little spinal fluid between you and a friend?
Screw it! And what's a little bit of alcohol poisoning?
And what's a little fight? Tomorrow, you'll be boys again
It's your life, live it however you wanna…

Among other things Thallumaala is a celebration of the human body’s possibilities, whether in battle or in dance. It is full of masala moments done with great conviction: Tovino, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Shine Tom Chacko and the other performers throw themselves whole-heartedly into the pulpy mode, from the glitzy musical scenes to brutally choreographed action. Does this film have a “message”? It’s hard to say. One could point out that everything pivots around the lovers’ need to be united irrespective of the chaos surrounding them. On the other hand, maybe this is simply a paean to fisticuffs, like Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking was a celebration of (or a yearning for) something that destroys one’s health. Some viewers will always judge a film according to whether its politics are “correct”, but what if it simply chooses to be a matter-of-fact depiction of the less savoury but important impulses in human nature?

Of course, it’s hard to say what would happen if the universe inhabited by Wazim and his friends were to collide with the one that Jaya lives in. It’s fun to imagine that she’d kick their collective asses and send them wailing to their mamas, but it’s as likely that she’d get addicted to brawling herself, and become part of the gang.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Rat psychology, Kundan Shah, glue traps, playful octopuses: how far can empathy stretch?

I wrote the essay below for today’s Possibilities-themed issue of Mint Lounge. It was a very tough piece to write, mainly because I wanted to ramble on and on for thousands of words rather than stick to the (generous enough) space I was given. But maybe it will be the start of something larger, let’s see.

“I know the psychology of rats.”
Here is the writer-director Kundan Shah – a solemn-looking man with an unexpected sense of humour – rummaging about a store room, large broom in hand, trying to ferret out an unwelcome rodent. It’s a scene, and a deadpan one-liner, that might have worked its way into Kundan’s most celebrated film Jaane bhi do Yaaro. The words he apparently uttered during this Tom and Jerry escapade – I know the psychology of rats – are also the title of a new book by his long-time friend, the director Saeed Mirza: a tribute to their forty-five-year relationship as it played out in the personal, artistic and political arenas, through decades of studying cinema and life, arguing about ideologies, feeling deeply for underdogs.

Human underdogs, that is.

“She was just playing with the fish.”
A scene from the beautiful 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher. The narrator-protagonist Craig Foster, having developed an unusual kinship with an octopus during his diving expeditions, observes his new friend jumping out at a school of fish as they swim past and soon realises that the octopus isn’t doing this for utilitarian reasons such as hunting: it is purely recreation, its own version of fun – something you might expect in more social animals (or the ones that we humans have labelled “social”). You wouldn’t expect it from a creature that exists mechanically, without emotions or an inner life.


Back to rodent psychology, though, and the possibility of rats as sensitive beings. Kundan Shah wasn’t expressing empathy with them when he made the above claim. But having come to know Kundan well over a series of meetings in 2009, having stayed in touch with him until his untimely passing, and trusted in the ever-expanding capacity of his mind, I have little doubt that this man – who felt for the powerless and expressed it through humour – could have stepped outside the limits of an anthropocentric worldview if the opportunity arose. Besides, he showed a knack for making crazy connections between unrelated things. So I think he might be okay with the fact that when I heard the rat-in-storeroom story, I recalled a guilt-inducing incident from last year: a reminder of how casually we humans use our ingenuity, our opposable thumbs and our dominance over resources to inflict cruelty on others.

It involved something called a glue trap, which I’m now glad to learn has been banned in various places (including, recently, Tamil Nadu). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought it as an alternative to the regular rat traps we had been using – I had probably been lulled by the cutesy promotional image which showed nothing more unpleasant than a mouse perched on the pad, one paw trailing a few threads of Fevicol, waiting for a kind human to painlessly free it and send it on its way with a pat on its little head and a return-gift of cheese, all this of course set to a jaunty Disney score from the 1930s.

Real life was grislier; the next morning I found two small mice – adolescents, perhaps – stuck fast on the pad, one almost dead already with its desperate exertions to free itself, probably damaging its underbelly and inner organs. Without getting into all the details, here’s what most struck me about the aftermath in our garbage lot. When I had (messily) freed the second mouse with vegetable oil, instead of limping away to safety it hung about to examine the plight of its just-deceased companion: sniffing, circling, making squeaking noises that to my ears at least sounded like distress calls, almost getting trapped again as it tried to get closer – and bolting only when I banged the pad down hard to scare it off.

Can rats feel concern, or grief? Can an octopus chill in its off-hours, wave its limbs at a passer-by for enjoyment? The answers to these and countless other related questions, scientific research has been indicating, are yes. The last few decades have seen the overturning of much earlier “wisdom” that held entire swathes of other species to be unfeeling, robotic creatures that scuttled, swam, trotted, ate, reproduced without ever showing emotion in a way comparable to us.

But the bigger question may be: can humans ever fully deal with the idea of sentience in animals whom we mainly encounter as pests or aliens (or food)? Is that a realistic possibility, given the many exigencies of our everyday lives – and if it is, would it lead to meaningful outcomes? Or would we go insane if we had to look long and hard into the unimaginable amounts of suffering we cause?

In one of my favourite scenes from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus (a story where mice and cats are used as metaphors for human victims and their human oppressors), Art interviews his dad Vladek, a concentration-camp survivor. Having just described the worst atrocities of the gas chambers – the fat from the burning bodies being scooped up “so that everyone could burn better” – Vladek sprays a flying bug that is pestering him, treating it as dispensable. Much like he and his friends once were.

If that analogy offends you, trivialising humans by comparing them to mosquitoes, here is something you may find more disturbing: Maus, which could have made the easy choice to depict saintly victimhood, instead makes it clear that despite everything he went through, Vladek himself is far from tolerant when it comes to other groups of people; he shows contempt for a black hitchhiker, and engages in “othering” in ways that are at least comparable to how the Nazis thought of the Jews.

When such discord exists between human groups, and given the divisive and self-centred aspects of our nature, what hope for entering the mind-space of an insect, a rat, or an octopus? Or even creatures with whom we have had a much longer social relationship and whom it has been easier to bond with, like dogs. As recently as a few hundred years ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes regarded their cries of pain while being tortured as nothing more than the rattling sounds of a machine malfunctioning: it didn’t mean anything, they couldn’t suffer like we can. And Descartes’s spiritual descendants still live among us.

“Can I have a little more human welfare, please.”
At a Resident Welfare Association meeting in my south Delhi colony, efforts are made to bridge the gap between those who dislike or fear street dogs and those who have been feeding, sterilising and vaccinating them. The meeting’s amicus curiae spells out the salient issues facing congested neighbourhoods like ours; useful, constructive things are being said. But at the first mention of the sinister term “animal welfare”, a Respected Elderly Man, a former association president, clears his throat loudly, looks around to make sure all eyes are on him, and says, in the grand manner of one who thinks he is delivering a never-before-voiced insight: “We are hearing this term ‘animal welfare’ a lot.” [Solemn pause] “May I ask, is there also such a thing as…  human welfare?”

In my head, I am replying: This planet that your great-grandchildren will inherit, you pompous old fool, is almost dead because of thousands of years of determined “human welfare”.

I don’t say this out loud, partly because I know any such retort will be drowned out by the shrill sounds from the other side; but partly also because each time I switch into animal-activist mode, I feel the heavy weight of my own hypocrisy. Despite years of trying, I haven’t yet been able to shift away from non-vegetarianism; I have eaten chicken despite seeing frail-looking hens packed together in a small box atop a cycle cart, a torture chamber of our devising, on their way to death; enjoyed pork despite having read about the hideousness of slaughterhouses and of the many ways in which pigs are social, expressive, even intelligent animals. I might respond with high-handed indignation during such meetings, or when another member of our association, a schoolteacher no less, says unironically, “Humans are the most important, we need to put ourselves first.” But can I believe in my own convictions?


Yet one can, in theory at least, keep trying to expand the many circles of awareness, consciousness and empathy. And for anyone who’s inclined to do this, books like Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals and Ed Yong’s recently published An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us are great starting points.

Wohlleben, who has spent much of his life in forests, observing the natural world in ways that most of us never do, discusses a breath-taking array of emotions that have been documented in animals: a highly developed sense of fairness (and a version of embarrassment) in horses; a form of altruism in vampire bats who regurgitate part of their meal of blood – at a physical cost to themselves – for cave mates who weren’t lucky during a night’s hunt; forward planning and logical thinking in a crow that has to choose which of two available food options to store for the future. And in his thoughtful closing arguments, while raising pointed questions about why there is so much resistance – in the corporate world, for instance – to the idea that other creatures can experience joy and suffering, he also acknowledges that nothing close to a utopian solution exists; that the choices we make have to be personal… and, hopefully, well-informed.

Meanwhile Yong's book centres on the concept of the Umwelt, a term used to describe the sensory world of a particular organism, which might be entirely different from how we humans experience our environment – and a proper study of which can show us the many possibilities that lie outside our incredibly limited perspectives. Chock-full of fascinating, poignant passages, the book chronicles the ways in which we mess up the Umwelt of other species even when we don’t set out to exploit them. (“We harm animals by filling the world with stimuli that overwhelm or befuddle their senses […] coastal lights that lure newly hatched turtles away from the oceans, underwater noises that drown out the calls of whales, glass panes that seem like bodies of water to bat sonar. We misinterpret the needs of animals closest to us, stopping smell-oriented dogs from sniffing their environment and imposing the visual world of humans upon them.”)

For the stirrings of similar awareness – perhaps as preparation for such books – one can even watch an accessible popular film like the recent Bhediya. Here is a narrative that employs goofy comedy, and opens with a jump-scare scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera – and yet it is remarkable how compassionate Bhediya turns out to be in its view of the natural world, taking time to point out that even a possibly venomous jungle snake should be respected, we are the trespassers in its home. The film’s protagonist goes from saying “Mujhe kutta pasand nahi” (I don’t like dogs) to finding his own inner wolf (which is something I wish would happen to at least a few residents in our gated urban colonies!).

One scene, in the early stages of this transformation, shows him flinching at the distant sound of an electric saw felling trees. The symbolism of this moment is clear enough, but equally notable is the depiction of an animal with a heightened sense of hearing being tormented by the human-created sounds that now echo around the world. It made me think again of the torment caused to our street animals by loud Diwali crackers, and how some people – intelligent and sensitive in most contexts – proudly endorse such celebrations. Such responses can take the form of that familiar alarmist majoritarianism about Hindu festivals being undermined, but it can also be something more personal, a parent being convinced that deafening noises are the only things that will bring happiness to his beloved child on the day, and how dare anyone serve as an impediment to this happiness?

Can we, like the protagonist of Bhediya, push back against this self-centredness, get back in touch with our beastly selves, feel part of the natural world – just one cog in it, not the most important? It is very difficult, even for those who think of themselves as animal-friendly, but if there is to be any future worth the wait, one must explore the possibility. As Saeed Mirza reports it, another thing Kundan said during the rat chase was: “If he thinks he’s smart, I’m smarter.”

Are we big-brained mammals smart enough to save ourselves?

Friday, December 30, 2022

A few of my favourite films from the last few months

Not a year-end list or a “best of 2022” or anything such (I haven’t been watching much contemporary cinema anyway; my to-watch list is much longer than my have-watched list) – these are short notes on some films I have particularly enjoyed in recent months.
My favourite Hindi film of the ones I watched this year. For a narrative that uses goofy, even scatological humour as one of its chief operating modes (and also opens with a jump-scare horror scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera), it is remarkable how caring and thoughtful Bhediya ultimately is in its view of the natural world. But lest you should think I liked it so much only because of the ecological “message” (or the dog-love), I should clarify that my least favourite part of the film was its final 30-45 minutes when it became a little pedantic on that front. That said, it was a courageous decision for a massy film like this to almost completely sidestep its human actors – including a big star – in its closing segment and to focus on the wild (or CGI-generated wild). I enjoyed most of its varying tones, from the slapstick to the impressive transformation scene mid-film. 
Ponniyin Selvan 1
I have watched PS-1 in both Tamil and Hindi. (Shamefaced confession: the big-screen viewing was in Hindi – the result of being very keen to see it in the hall and not having many options available during a busy fortnight). Going into it, knowing that Mani Ratnam was unlikely to spoon-feed viewers who didn’t know the source material, I read a bit about Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel and also did a quick refresher course on the Chola dynasty; this turned out to be imperative, otherwise I would – like many other viewers who just drifted into the hall like sheep – have been left confused by the film’s tangle of characters and episodes.
Particularly liked Karthi’s performance as Vandhiyadevan – an author-backed role, of course (it reminds me of the gloriously mischievous Amar Ayyar in the Hamzanama, another “supporting” figure who is essentially the lead), but one that must have been daunting to play given how iconic the character is in modern Tamil literature.
Probably the clearest case this year of a lead performance defining a film for me: Sai Pallavi is wonderful as the young teacher who tries to defend her father (and family) after a rape charge. So much hinges on Pallavi’s presence, her body language… and the texture of her expressive, despairing voice. (Sympathies to anyone who watched this film in a Hindi-dubbed version and still think they really watched it.)
Though I wasn’t blown away by the narrative arc, I liked the decision not to show the face of the assaulted little girl even though she is a central presence in many scenes. On paper, that seems like the sort of showy virtuousness I don’t much care for in “issue” films, but here it worked on two levels – the non-diegetic one being that it shielded a child actress from having to express the trauma generated by such a brutal attack. 
I enjoy cracking jokes about the ongoing obsession with Fahadh Faasil’s “eye-acting” (especially when it comes from people who have only just discovered Malayalam cinema, turned FF into a poster boy and not paid enough attention to the equally good actors elsewhere) – but I thought he was very good in this film as an embittered, bad-tempered loner who becomes trapped under his house after a landslide. The sound design after the main action begins is excellent too, and made me wish I had watched the film in a theatre. 
Monica O My Darling
A film that is first and foremost for cinephilia-enthusiasts (and not so much for viewers who fixate on “original content” and dislike “self-indulgent” movies that are full of meta-references) – but that said, Monica O My Darling worked for me as a stand-alone too, and I didn’t spent much time counting the Easter eggs in it: an engaging enough plot, wonderful use of music, some decent twists and detours, and fine performances, especially by Sikander Kher, Huma Qureshi, and Sukant Goel (who reminds me a bit of Deepak Dobriyal).
Terrific, unapologetically stylish action film. I don’t think any of its three great stars (Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh) was utilised in the best possible way, which is perhaps inevitable when screen time has to be divided. (I loved the swag, and the use of music, in Sethupathi’s first appearance, though.) But it all came together very well, with some solid setpieces – notwithstanding some slackness in the last stretch.
The Banshees of Inisherin
In Bruges is still my favourite Martin McDonagh film (and definitely the funniest – in a nasty, bleak, “hey, here’s a joke about pedophilia, and another about dwarfism” way), but his latest – the story of a friendship coming to an end on an Irish isle in 1923 – is wonderful too. The Banshees of Inisherin becomes more and more engrossing, its stakes rising continuously, even as it becomes clear that McDonagh isn’t aiming for a clear-cut plot resolution. 
The Wonder
Another atmospheric period film set in Ireland (in 1862) – and like The Banshees of Inisherin, this one also has a climactic sequence where a solitary house is set on fire against a beautifully desolate landscape. Thematically, though, the narrative – adapted from an Emma Donoghue novel about a young girl, from a very religious family, who has stopped eating altogether – is closer to Satyajit Ray’s Devi and perhaps even Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.
(To be continued. I have also written elsewhere about some of my other favourites from this year, such as X, Pearl, Rk/RKay, Sharmaji Namkeen and others)

Thursday, December 15, 2022

A few thoughts on RRR and the international awards

(I don’t like writing “topical” pieces – such as editorial comments in immediate response to something that has just happened – but I did this oped for the Economic Times)

If ever asked “Does this film deserve to win at the Golden Globes/Oscars/New York Film Critics Circle?”, I intone the boring, non-committal reply I have to any such question about competitive awards in the arts: “Well, I liked it. (Or, Well, I didn’t much like it.) But it depends on the mood the jury is in, or the type of film they feel like showcasing this year.”

So that’s the wet-blanket response. But there have been much more impassioned, strongly articulated views about the recent international plaudits for SS Rajamouli’s quasi-historical fantasy RRR (the latest being two Golden Globe nominations, which have raised expectations for some recognition at the Oscars, even if the film isn’t India’s official submission there). Broadly, there are two polarised reactions. One is unabashed celebration, bordering on jingoistic fervour. This often comes from the sort of people who hail Rishi Sunak as “mitti da puttar” and who knew nothing about south Indian cinema prior to watching Rajamouli’s grand epics, but now see RRR’s success as something that should collectively! make India! proud! There is also the excitement that such recognition should come for a muscular masala movie with action and musical setpieces and overt patriotism, rather than one of those understated, meaningful-silence-ridden festival films that critics get excited about.

In the opposite corner there has been teeth-gnashing about the supposed stereotyping of Indian cinema in the West, with all this attention given to a showy, larger-than-life aesthetic that some feel we should have “outgrown” long ago. Those who never cared for big-budget masala cinema, or at least didn’t think it worthy of international prizes, have rallied against RRR’s success, aghast at the idea that this might be the first Indian film to win an award that even Satyajit Ray didn’t. (A pointless gripe. Three years ago Parasite won a best picture Oscar that giants like Renoir or Kurosawa or Bergman never came close to winning. That’s just the nature of the award circus, and how it changes over time.) They also sulk that all those Americans must have got over-excited because the film was culturally exotic; that they would never have celebrated a Hollywood Marvel film in this way. (This conveniently ignores the fact that everything we think we know about the products we consume from other cultures comes through similar distorting prisms; and given the diversity in this country, this would be equally true for a Bengali watching a Malayali film, or a Bihari watching a Tamil film.)

Each of these views is extreme and one-dimensional in its own way, but each – assuming it is truthful – deserves consideration too. I have no patience with the sniffy notion that only realistic, grounded cinema deserves prestigious awards, but if someone honestly believes that RRR is a shallow or uneven film it’s silly to expect them to get behind it only because this is a “matter of pride for the country” or some such saphead reason. Why should, say, a Malayali director of low-key, personal cinema, always struggling for funds and marketing, be excited about a ₹550 crore blockbuster getting international acclaim and even more mileage?

With its hyper-dramatic tone and a fictionalised narrative built around two real-life revolutionaries who had opposed the British Raj, RRR is a grandly ambitious exercise in escapist wish-fulfilment, a function that cinema has served since its very beginnings, since the first fantasies constructed by Georges Melies 125 years ago, or the 1901 film where a man approaches an intrusive camera and swallows it. Personally I liked Rajamouli’s epic a great deal, with a couple of reservations – including mixed reactions to the big setpieces (though I was stirred and thrilled by the dance-as-revolutionary-uprising “Naatu Naatu” sequence, I wasn’t blown away by the celebrated scene where CGI animals are let loose on a dinner party). But of course, this is a very individual, variable response that was dependent, as any viewing experience is, on many tangible and intangible factors working independently of how “good” or “bad” a film is. Such as: watching in a hall with equally responsive company; being prepared for a brassy, larger-than-life experience (as opposed to settling down to watch a quiet, understated film alone at home).

Competitive awards are equally chimerical beasts, changing colour and shape according to a number of intersecting conditions: there is no telling what might work from one year to the next; for every learned-sounding proclamation that someone might make about what type of film wins Oscars, it’s easy to pull out the history sheets and offer a counterpoint. Ultimately the least useful way to think about a film’s award prospects is to theorise and bloviate about the larger picture. If RRR does collect a big one in the coming months, I won’t be thinking about what this might mean for “Indian cinema” (as if any such monolithic entity exists), or whether it signals global endorsement of the Hindutva nationalism supposedly endorsed by the film. I’ll be thinking, as a movie-nerd, of the ways in which certain films can fuel our fantasies. And how, watching NT Rama Rao Jr leap lithely about on screen, was to be pleasingly reminded of his legendary grandfather’s swag in 1950s films like Paatal Bhairavi. From that perspective, it felt like this film was a homage to an Indian movie of an earlier age that few Western critics or award shows would have even known about, much less deemed worthy of taking a second look at.

[Also see this piece about the Parasite win at the Oscars in 2020]

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

My contribution to Sight and Sound’s greatest films poll

One of the more exciting things to happen recently is that I got to contribute to the latest Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. (The poll has been conducted every decade since 1952 – more information about it here. And here are the latest results.) Even for someone who is list-agnostic, this was a fun exercise – and the first step in the enjoyment is to accept that list-making of this sort is a child’s game. Even a “500 favourite films” list couldn’t possibly be final or representative, but selecting only 10 films is a cosmic joke, especially when there are so many varied cinematic forms and cultures, from mainstream and “art” Hindi cinema to “world cinema” to old Hollywood to the Malayalam new wave etc etc. As I wrote in my note accompanying the poll (see below), the list would be very different if I made it an hour later, or in a slightly different mood, or…

Anyway, here are my submissions along with the brief note I sent about each film, and a more general summary where I cheekily listed an additional 40-odd films that I would have loved to include (even that extended list is very basic, and uses the one-director-one-film rule). Do go through it if you feel like, and get back with shouts of indignation, or even approval.


Sherlock Jr
Year: 1924
Director(s): Buster Keaton
Comment: For its prescient understanding of our relationship with the movies we watch; for the breath-taking gags and stunts; and for Buster the actor, so beautiful and expressive even at his most deadpan.

A Matter of Life and Death
Year: 1946
Director(s): Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Comment: For how skilfully the entire cosmos, and everything that is important or worth arguing about, is brought down to the dimensions of a small makeshift operating theatre where life and love are at stake. For Powell-Pressburger doing beautiful things with colour AND black-and-white (which is one reason why I included this instead of one of their other 1940s masterpieces). For the set design and Allan Gray’s haunting score and the young Richard Attenborough saying “It’s Heaven… isn’t it.”

Year: 1960
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Comment: The film that set me on the path to reading about cinema, thinking about it in ways I had never done before, understanding what “pure film” might mean. Part nasty comedy, part profound tragedy – and yes, of course it was ground-breaking for the horror genre too. The first half, anchored by Janet Leigh's superb performance and culminating in the parlour conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane, is magic. 

Year: 1957
Director(s): Kadiri Venkata Reddy
Comment: As a north Indian, I came to this classic quite late – but it has long had legendary status in south India, and for good reason. It takes a regional side-story from the great Indian epic Mahabharata and weaves from it a joyous musical-fantasy-drawing room comedy about the mischievous god Krishna teaming up with a demon prince to help ill-fated lovers. The mythological and the quotidian effortlessly come together here. 

Year: 1975
Director(s): Ramesh Sippy
Comment: This immortal “curry western” – much more sophisticated in execution than most other mainstream Hindi films of its time – borrows many elements from international films but harnesses them superbly. A pop-cultural touchstone for generations of Indian viewers. Impossible to convey how much this film meant to Hindi-movie-buffs of my age. 

Year: 1967
Director(s): Jacques Tati
Comment: For a long time, I admired PlayTime – as one of the most ambitious and meticulously constructed films ever made – but had also formed a memory of it as a deliberately cool, calculating work that was hard to take to one’s heart. Watching it again recently, I found a much warmer film than I’d remembered, and was moved by the not-quite-romance between the awkward Hulot and the sweet American tourist, passing each other like ships on a chaotic night. 

Year: 2018
Director(s): Lijo Jose Pellissery
Comment: Death as comedy and tragedy in this marvelously structured and performed film by a leading director of the Malayalam film industry – arguably India’s most exciting movie-making centre at the present time. I haven’t seen many other films that manage to be so funny, dignified and mournful at the same time, often achieving all these things within the same scene (depending on which part of the crowded frame you are looking at).

Early Summer
Year: 1951
Director(s): Yasujiro Ozu
Comment: Perhaps the least seen of the three films in Ozu's "Noriko trilogy", but my personal favourite. This depiction of a large family hoping to get the daughter, Noriko, married (she is 28, past the right age!) reminds me in some ways of similar equations in the typical Indian joint family – but this is very much a work rooted in Japanese culture, and very much an Ozu film that employs his spare aesthetic and his gentle, knowing gaze. With the great Setsuko Hara in one of her finest roles.

Monsoon Wedding
Year: 2001
Director(s): Mira Nair
Comment: Like Early Summer, this is about a large joint family and wedding preparations - but the tone here is often as rambunctious as the loudest Punjabi ceremonies and celebrations; at other times it is deathly still in its chronicling of buried tensions and its awareness of the class divide. One of my most cherished ensemble movies. 

Hi, Mom!
Year: 1970
Director(s): Brian De Palma
Comment: A funny, savagely political work by my favourite of the 1970s American filmmakers. With the young De Niro in a role that in some ways points the way to Travis Bickle, but ALSO gives him a chance to play a nebbish Woody Allen type preparing for anarchist violence. Then there is "Be Black, Baby", the grainy, black-and-white film within this film, a kick in the solar plexus to wannabe liberals who want to support the underprivileged, but with minimum discomfort to themselves.

My further remarks
The usual caveats apply: there is no way a 10-film list could even pretend to be representative; I could list a different set of films an hour later, and then again the hour after that, and so on. Also, that I could find no place in this submission for some of my very favourite movies, directors or performers, and will experience deep regret about this or that exclusion the very second after I press “Submit”.

At a culture-specific level, I’d like to add this: as an Indian who grew up experiencing Hollywood and “world cinema” while also being surrounded by the many Indian cinemas (representing our cultures, storytelling forms and approaches, many of which I am still discovering), I could easily fill a list of 100 favourite films with just Indian titles and have plenty left over. That’s just to explain how hard this task is.

So, having got that out of the way: what is common to these 10 selections is that they all mean a great deal to me – a few of them I first watched as a child or adolescent, others I came to much more recently; but each of them has, in some way or the other, haunted my dreams and my waking life, while broadening my understanding of the medium and its many uses.

A few of them can be described as “canonical” (Sherlock Jr, Psycho and PlayTime in particular) – but that is a matter of secondary importance where I’m concerned. (Of course, what is canonical is also subjective. For Indians, Sholay – still arguably the most successful and popular mainstream Hindi film ever made – is a groaningly obvious choice for a list like this, and I toyed with the possibility of replacing it with a more recent epic such as Anurag Kashyap’s superb two-part Gangs of Wasseypur; but eventually I went with the film that had the bigger impact on me as a movie buff.)

Similarly, the fact that there are only two 21st century titles in the list (both Indian films set in very different milieus, but each in its way about family and community, masks and social rituals) doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens of films made in the 2000s that I love just as much; all it means is that there wasn’t enough space.

With deep apologies to hundreds of other films - but the ones I am most cut up about leaving out as I type this include: Pushpaka Vimana (1987), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mr India (1987), Mr Sampat (1952), Yojimbo (1961), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Eyes Without a Face (1960), The Seventh Victim (1943), Le Mepris (1963), Children of the Paradise (1945), Gun Crazy (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Trip to the Moon (1903), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Winter Light (1963), Bringing up Baby (1938), Touch of Evil (1958), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Party (1984), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Harakiri (1962), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), A Canterbury Tale (1944), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1967), The Gold Rush (1925), Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Pulp Fiction (1994), Onibaba (1964), Biwi aur Makaan (1966), Haxan (1922), Maqbool (2003), Die Nibelungen (1924), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Man With a Movie Camera (1929), My Darling Clementine (1946), Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Spartacus (1960), Charandas Chor (1975), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and There Will Be Blood (2007).

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Why did my Friend Cry? On vulnerable child actors and ‘humanist’ directors

(my latest Economic Times column)

One of my personal rewards teaching film history over the past few weeks has been a reacquaintance with Charles Chaplin. Like many contemporary fans of silent comedy, I usually think of myself as a Buster Keaton fan first – centred on the breath-taking stunts, the inventive use of visual space, and the deadpan, unsentimental persona that makes Keaton seem so much more “modern” than Chaplin. But this comparison can be unfair to both great clowns. To watch films like The Circus or The Gold Rush again, in excellent prints and on a large-sized screen, is to be reminded of what a giant Chaplin was as actor and filmmaker. The distinctive mixing of emotion and slapstick in works like City Lights also shows why he had such a deep influence on Indian cinema, from Raj Kapoor to Kamal Haasan to Sridevi and others channelling the Tramp; or Kundan Shah in his 1976 diploma film Bonga using the music from the gibberish-song scene in Modern Times.

After a recent class screening of the 1921 The Kid for 18-year-old students – all accustomed to a very different cinematic idiom, but responsive to this film – we had a writing and discussion exercise where words like “humanity” and “compassion” repeatedly came up. The scene where the Tramp is forcibly separated from the orphaned boy he has raised drew many such reactions, with students noting the powerful depiction of the father-child bond in maternal terms, and the respect given to non-biological parenthood.

And yet, watching that very scene, I felt uneasy about the sight of the six-year-old Jackie Coogan bawling his heart out.

In Chaplin’s memoir, he tells the story of how Coogan’s real-life father made him cry for the scene by telling the child he would be taken away from the studio. Chaplin adds a coda to make it seem like Coogan knew all along what his dad was up to, but one wonders. Superb little actor as the “kid” was, was he so good as to fake that crying? At any rate, how easy it must have been to manipulate someone that age.

It put me in mind of another scene and back-story – from another deeply moving film made six decades later, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? In the final sequence a little boy, looking scared, weeps quietly in class because he thinks the teacher will find him without his notebook. The story ends happily – it is what the whole film has built towards. But the director’s method for getting the child actor Ahmed Ahmadpour to really cry was to place a photo in his book and tell him the teacher would be very angry if he found it.

I mention these examples because these are moving, life-affirming films, and their directors are often described as “humanist”. There is good reason for such labels to be applied to filmmakers like Kiarostami or Chaplin, but one sees how even a sensitive, kindly director might be put into the position of making a child cry for his art.

Of course, there are degrees and degrees when it comes to such things. It’s hard to argue that the cases above are comparable with the sustained, vitality-sapping exploitation that many vulnerable young performers – think Judy Garland – faced at the hands of studios and producers. In India, which prides itself on family values, there are film-industry horror stories – including from an era that many people naively label more genteel and civilised – about adolescent girls made to “grow up” too soon so they can be money-minters. Remember how shocked everyone was when Daisy Irani disclosed that she was raped by a guardian when she was a child actor in the 1950s, and that her mother “padded her up with a sponge” at 15 and left her alone with a producer.

Perhaps, in a world where stories are constructed for others to be immersed in, and where little people have to pretend for the camera, “humanist” can only be a relative term. I used to be annoyed by those formulaic Hindi-film scenes where a child actor wept unconvincingly (enunciating “waain waain waain” the same way they might say “woof” if asked to play dog), but on reflection that artificiality feels kinder. Even if it was merely the case that those directors – unlike Chaplin and Kiarostami – didn’t take the child seriously enough to try and wrench a Method-level performance out of him.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

'Morality' in horror: how I learnt to stop worrying and love the sanskaari, chainsaw-wielding monster

Uday Bhatia wolfishly asked me to write a horror-related essay as an adjunct to this week’s Mint Lounge cover by Rituparna Sengupta. It was a tight deadline (plus I watched Bhediya in between, liked it a lot, and got confused about whether I should include one of the many talking points around that film) – but eventually I wrote something about one of horror’s pet themes, the often passive-aggressive dance between tradition and modernity. (Also touched on this in my Intro for Shamya Dasgupta’s Ramsay Brothers book.) And how the genre messes with the moral impulse. Here is the piece.

Mini-horror films – or terrifying moments worthy of a good horror film – can reside within movies that are not, strictly speaking, from the genre. Consider a chilling sequence from the 2019 Malayalam thriller Ishq, about young lovebirds who run afoul of two men posing as policemen. The scene begins with Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) and Sachi (Shane Nigam) in an intensely romantic moment at the back of a car. Both are shy, uncertain, but also eager; he takes the initiative and asks her to kiss him on the cheek – it is the first time they are getting even this physical.

After some hesitation she complies, then asks that they sit together for a while before driving back. The air is thick with unarticulated desire, their lips draw close… and the blinding, invasive light bursts in on them (and on us, since the camera is right behind the lovers). A private space becomes a public one; what follows is creepy and claustrophobic, though there isn’t an actual physical assault.

The scene reminded me of a comparable situation in a very different type of movie – the raunchy Hollywood teen-slashers of the 1970s and 80s, which for many urban Indian kids of my age were introductions to the horror genre at its most base and accessible. This horror – as experienced on creaking video-cassettes – was inextricably linked with sex; it was often our best hope of seeing onscreen nudity without being closely monitored by parents. Here is Halloween with its artful opening sequence through the POV of a child wearing a pumpkin mask, culminating in the murder of a big sister who has been “naughty” with her boyfriend. Here are the Evil Dead and the Friday the 13th franchises, wherein horny teens make out in the woods before being dissected by knife or chainsaw.

For many of us – young boys, at least – the homicidal monster in these movies was bad only because he ended this glorious vision of heaving nude bodies. Other viewers, from an older generation, might agree. One of my favourite writers, Danny Peary, described the traumatic experience of being an adolescent in 1960, watching the shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho with no clue about what was to come: it felt like the naked woman was being punished for allowing all these male viewers to look at her, Peary said; the killer’s knife was aimed as much at the lascivious audience. (“I believe one reason we were so terrorised is that we related it to our own mother bursting through an unlocked door and ripping apart a dirty magazine she caught us with.”)

In the Indian 1980s, there were the cheaply made B and C films such as the work of the Ramsay Brothers: skimpily dressed youngsters –unmarried! Of both sexes! – went off together in an imported red convertible but arrived at a very Indian haveli, only to be nastily surprised while showering in swimsuits or wriggling beneath bedsheets. Much later the Pakistani film Zibahkhana (2007) would offer a self-aware look at how such tropes play out in a milieu where teenagers merely doing drugs together could invite hellfire. (“Jahunnum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” yells an old man as the young reprobates prance off together. Soon enough, a burqa-clad psychopath arrives.)

Ishq is a more refined and sensitive film, more about critiquing the male gaze than indulging it (this remains true in the second half, when the nominal good guy sets out to take revenge and becomes a monster himself). But the effect of its predatory scenes – as in all the above films – hinges on the fear of being watched, or burst in upon, during a very vulnerable moment. And from a strictly conservative point of view, the predator in all these cases is simply being moral – or “moral” in quote marks, if you prefer.

Throughout horror-movie history, there have been many manifestations of this “moral” monster. The surgeon in the French classic Eyes Without a Face is a loving father who wants the best new face for his disfigured girl. The busboy in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood yearns to be an acclaimed artist (and perhaps this means making clay statues with real people underneath). Leatherface and his family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are social outcastes who need to eat (and they sit together at the table like a good sanskaari clan). Mrs Bates doesn’t want her boy despoiled by city women. Looked at in the proper way, these are all reasonable justifications for murder.

Closely related to this is one of horror’s most enduring themes: the uneasy dance between tradition and progress, past and present, old and young; how an archaic or fading world threatens a modernizing one, or vice versa; how family or community values come up against individuality. The treatment of this theme varies, though, and different films pick different sides, or leave things open to interpretation. On one hand, there are plenty of stories where youngsters are gratuitously slaughtered for defying social strictures. On the other hand, there are films about strong, outspoken or desirous women who are presented in sympathetic terms – from Irena in Cat People (1942), the disturbed heroine trying to shrug off an ancestral shadow and lead a happy life (but the beast inside her is unleashed when she is sexually aroused) to, in a more explicitly Woke age, the protagonists of recent Hindi films: such as Phobia (2016) in which a once-free-living artist is confined to an apartment, made dependent, because of a psychological trauma; Aatma (2013), in which a man exercises supernatural power over his glamorous ex-wife because he can’t control her in the usual ways; or Ek thi Daayan (2013), in which another man struggles with a romantic relationship, because who can say when a woman might turn into a witch?

So the monsters can be conservative moral policers who would take away the agency of young people or keep status quos in place. But equally, the monsters can be youngsters whose self-centred hedonism comes at the expense of others. (When those philandering kids in the Ramsays’ Purana Mandir condescend on “junglee” tribals, you almost sympathise with the pre-modern demon Samri who arrives to show them what’s what.) And in this light it’s worth noting what happens when the parameters shift from the terrible things that humans do to each other (across the lines of gender, class, caste, ethnicity, religion or what have you) to the even more ghastly things that our species has collectively done to other animals and to the environment.

When that becomes the focus, all of us are in some way implicated, and this unpleasant truth is captured in ecological horror/creature films like the recent Aavasavyuham: The Arbit Documentation of An Amphibian Hunt, which uses a mockumentary-like format to tell the story of a strange man who enters and exits the lives of various groups of people in the Kerala backwaters. It is also a subtext in Tumbbad (2018) – one of our most elegant supernatural films – which uses as an epigraph the Gandhi quote about the earth having enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.

In the fine new horror-comedy Bhediya – a werewolf story that is mindful of the unfairly bad press given to wolves in folklore and fables – a young man goes into the Arunachal jungles for a profit-minded corporation, unconcerned about the natural world and our responsibilities to it. (“The only hariyali I know is hara patta – cash.”) When older people firmly resist a road being built through their forest, these mercenaries turn to youth leaders, seducing them with the promise of malls and multiplexes. (“The jungle has made you frogs in a well. Conservation ke naam pe kab tak junglee bane rahoge?”)

But then the protagonist gets in touch with his inner wolf, gets a guided tour through the wild, and starts to appreciate its importance. The lines between good/bad tradition and good/bad modernity are blurred, as is the very meaning of “progress”. And the bhediya becomes the best kind of moral monster, chomping on a few people now and again, but always with an eye on the greater good.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A classroom tryst with nepotism: on the obscure origins of Princess Leia

Whatever your views on nepotism in cinema, it can make things a lot easier for a film teacher trying to provide points of identification to young students. During a panel discussion on Satyajit Ray at Jindal University a few weeks ago, we oldies were chattering familiarly about Sharmila Tagore, with full confidence that everyone in the audience would know who she was – then I noticed the students looking blank or confused, and briefly considered interrupting my fellow panellist and yelling out “We are talking about Sara Ali Khan’s grandmother!” (Something similar could have been done with Jaya Bhaduri – whose name also came up – as Navya Nanda’s nani.)


And then there are serendipitous moments like the one I experienced while showing a short clip from Singin in the Rain in class a few weeks ago. The scene in question was mainly to illustrate a point about the difficult transition from silent films to “talkies”, but as I ended the clip it happened to pause at the exact moment where Debbie Reynolds makes an appearance, jumping out of a cake at a party. 


Hit by sudden inspiration, I asked if any of the students knew the Star Wars films. Yes, came the response from many of them. You know Princess Leia? I asked (briefly nervous that they would only know Star Wars through recent fan fiction, and nothing at all about the original films). Yes of course, they said. “Well,” I said, feeling like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or a Jabba out of a Hutt (or a Debbie out of a cake), “Princess Leia was played by an actress named Carrie Fisher, and this young woman you see here was her mother – in real life, I mean.”


Interested murmurs filled the classroom, but in this moment of triumph I went and overreached. Remembering who had played Leia’s mother in the Star Wars prequels, I said “Does she look anything like Natalie Portman to you?” Blank stares. They had probably watched the original Star Wars because their parents had made them, but they were too young to know who Natalie Portman was…

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The boy stood on a sinking island: about Anees Salim's The Bellboy

I loved Anees Salim’s latest novel The Bellboy, and rank it with earlier favourites such as Vanity Bagh, Tales from a Vending Machine and The Small-Town Sea. Here is another demonstration of how Salim can bring so much life and vigour – and, yes, joy – to a story that, in a broader sense, is arcing towards tragedy and decay. (This was also particularly true of The Blind Lady’s Descendants, a book-length suicide letter that somehow managed to be uplifting and even affirmative.)
Wrote this short review of The Bellboy for India Today…


At one point in Anees Salim’s deeply moving new novel, the protagonist Latif – a young island boy working at a lodge on the mainland – mulls a newspaper headline he had read earlier. “Saffron Sweeps Nation” was the headline, but since Latif, with his very limited English, can’t be sure, he rearranges the words in his head as he tries to fall asleep. Was it “Nation Saffron Sweeps”? “Nation Sweeps Saffron”? Much later, when the words reappear at a crucial moment in his life, he will still be unable to understand their import.

In the hands of many writers, this political headline – and its appearance in Latif’s story – might be used in a straightforward way to underline the plight of the lower-class Indian Muslim: in danger of being hounded, distrusted, made a scapegoat, or disproportionately punished. But Salim is such a fine storyteller, so good at immersing us in his characters’ worlds, he seems incapable of being pedantic in that way. The beauty of the final, shattering passages of The Bellboy (including a menacing conversation between Latif and a policeman) lies in the fact that while this *can* be read as a story about the vulnerability of minorities, stranded on a fast-sinking island, it doesn’t have to be read that way; either way, it retains its power as a specific tale about a specific person.

Anyone who has experienced Salim’s work over the past decade will know this quality. As a long-time fan, I felt his last novel The Odd Book of Baby Names was a little less effective than his best work, mainly because it moved between the stories of a dozen characters, so we never got much time with a single one of them. With The Bellboy, Salim returns to the form that made earlier novels like Vanity Bagh and Tales from a Vending Machine so brilliant and empathetic. He gives us a single unforgettable protagonist, makes us care for Latif even as we see his little missteps and foibles – or rather, the qualities that make him as human as any of us. Even when Latif is a victim – of poverty, of circumstance, possibly of bigotry – he is so many other things. He is the boy who, in one marvelous tragic-comic passage, finds himself in the blasphemous position of reading surahs from the Quran for a just-deceased uncle while aware that he is still wearing a condom under his trousers. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, yet it doesn’t take away from the solemnity of the occasion – and there are countless passages like this across Salim’s body of work. (I think about Hasina reflexively shouting “Allahu Akbar” right back at a “terrorist” during an airport drill in Tales From a Vending Machine.)

In keeping us rooted to Latif’s consciousness, Salim gives us – as he so often has in the past, particularly with characters like Hasina, Imran and Amar – the many shades and layers of a life. When people commit suicide in their rooms in Paradise Lodge, where Latif works, he watches as the hotel manager tucks away their valuables before calling the police. Witnessing an awkward moment involving a woman, her lover and the doleful husband who has been cuckolded – and surprised by how quickly matters are hushed up, even with the police involved – he wonders if the two men had shaken hands at the end, or exchanged shirts the way footballers did.

We follow his little triumphs, along with his fear that trouble will come for him precisely at a moment of glory, his attempt to be a saviour when a boat carrying a group of convent girls stalls, his crippling sadness about the death of his father, his concern for his mother and sisters, and for the island that has been declared doomed by visiting ecologists, his creation of an alter-ego named Ibru, when he tells stories to a sympathetic co-worker. There is no idealising – instead there is a portrait so truthful and multi-layered that it no longer seems useful to think of a person in such limiting terms as “good” or “bad”, “happy” or “unhappy”, “ours” or “theirs”. This makes Salim’s work more capacious than many novels with grander canvases can be, and The Bellboy is a worthy addition to his oeuvre. 

(Earlier posts about Anees Salim's work: The Small-Town Sea, A tree named Franklin, The Odd Book of Baby Names)

Saturday, November 05, 2022

‘Gory’ tera gaon bada pyaara: slasher queen on the Yellow Brick Road

In my Economic Times column, I wrote about two great new films by Ti West -- X and its prequel Pearl. (Pleased that the print layout for the column, which you can see here, uses an image of Pearl and the scarecrow – Pearl is most unlike Dorothy in this scene, and we definitely aren’t in Kansas any more)

Among the many ways of being an incurable movie nerd, here are two. You might love bright Technicolor movies from the 30s and 40s, in genres like the coming-of-age musical or the family weepie (or something like Meet Me in St Louis, which combines both). Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you can be a fan of the dimly lit slasher films of the 70s, seedy in content and appearance, with much chopping and chainsaw-ing of limbs as well as some gratuitous pre-carnage sex.

Or, maybe, you like meta-commentary on cinema and how it became a channel for dreams and nightmares, aspirations and destroyed hopes.

I enjoy all of the above, and if someone had told me that a contemporary filmmaker, on a modest budget, had simultaneously shot two movies (set in the same dramatic universe) that covered these genres while also mashing them up, I would have found this hard to believe. But here is writer-director Ti West and his team, notably the wonderful actress Mia Goth. West’s slasher film X (on Prime Video) is about young pornographers running afoul of an ancient couple (and an equally wrinkled reptile) on a Texas farm in the late 1970s. The prequel Pearl, set 60 years earlier during the first World War (and another global pandemic), is about the youth of the wizened antagonist Pearl whom we met in the first film. Both are horror-gore movies, broadly speaking, but they are also about the need to get “a ticket out” to a better life; about what the passage of time can do to us; and the empowering thrill of performing for a camera and an audience.

And their aesthetics are breathtakingly different, so much so that it’s hard to believe they were conceptualised and made around the same time, by the same crew. But the visual differences between the films are essential to their depiction of the characters’ frames of mind, the gap between dreams and disappointment to come, as well as a commentary on how the cinematic landscape changed over those six decades.

X is shot in the gritty, de-saturated style of 1970s B-horror (such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has now become a canonised work of the genre), complete with explicit sex scenes that will remind you of the heyday of the unselfconsciously raunchy teen-horror film right up to the Friday the 13th and Evil Dead franchises. Pearl, on the other hand, deliberately employs the dazzling look of the Hollywood musical just as it had started to employ colour stock, most notably with The Wizard of Oz. (Though this narrative is set two decades before the iconic 1939 film was made, there are thematic links or contrasts between the stories of Pearl – who, in one memorable scene, molests a scarecrow – and Dorothy.) It is, first, a film about cine-love and about the desire to become one of those stars you see on the big screen; only after that is it also a horror movie about the birth of insanity in a young woman who realises she will never get a ticket to that distant constellation.

For me, experiencing Pearl a few weeks after X brought urgency and added poignancy to the earlier film. When I watched X, I was already moved by the tender scenes between the old Pearl and her husband Howard, their envy and resentment of the young people traipsing around their property (there is also a lovemaking scene between these octogenarians, which may repulse some viewers but is central to the film’s purposes). But watching Pearl’s backstory in the prequel gave everything a new layer: here is someone who, if the chips had fallen a bit differently, might have left for stardom in Europe, become a marquee name in this exciting new medium – like Vicki Lester in A Star is Born – and had the world at her feet. Instead she must live her life out in the boondocks, memories becoming dimmer with the years, old photos mocking her dreams. And now she has to see these brash, condescending young people (one of whom reminds her of her younger self) showing off their bodies for a new type of movie camera, gaining temporary, underground celebrity through a smutty film.

So what is the real horror of X and Pearl? The overtly gory scenes, the eyeballs being yanked out with pliers, the rotting pig with maggots crawling all over it? The savage killing of people with pitchforks, the cutting of their limbs in loving slow-motion, before throwing them to an alligator named Theda (after Theda Bara, the legendary silent-movie vamp)? All of that counts, of course; you can’t deny those genre thrills. But there is also the horror of wasted lives – a reminder that loneliness and discontentment have always been among the major subjects of horror and noir. “I was young once, too,” says old Pearl to a young woman named Maxine in X (both are played by Goth). “One day, we’re gonna be too old to fuck,” says another character in the same film, making a case for enjoying their porno-movie-shoot as much as they can. Between these two lines is an ocean of desolation and yearning, and that gives these films so much of their power.