Sunday, June 20, 2021

Talking movies (and other things) on Amit Varma's podcast

Did a long, free-flowing chat – mainly about movie love – with Amit Varma for his excellent podcast The Seen and the Unseen; the link is here.
 
Amit is a super curator, and the conversation was very stimulating as it happened (we recorded between roughly 9 pm and 1 AM a few days ago), but as is usually the case with any such talk I wasn’t too happy with myself – felt like I ended up articulating only a fraction of what I would have liked to say. Later I looked through the rough notes I had made on a word-file and wanted to smack myself on the head with a blunt instrument for all the stuff I had left out and the things I had just blanked out on. Given that Amit had encouraged me to make this as personal as possible, there was much else I might have said about the early years of my journey as a film buff (things that I am currently also trying to write about in my personal essays about the late 80s and early 90s, a couple of which have been published on this blog in the past 2-3 months).

Still, we’ll do a follow-up conversation at some point. And there should be some things of interest in this one too, for those of you who have the time/patience to listen to a long chat between two people who first met during the heady, pre-social-media days when blogs were the most exciting things on the internet.
 
P.S. the recording itself was done as a video chat so that we would have visual cues, allowing the conversation to proceed smoothly. Early on, as Amit and I were filling our coffee cups, we realised the cups had a weirdly similar colour scheme - so Amit took this screenshot for posterity.

(On the other hand, our tastes in cinema sometimes differ drastically, as you can tell from parts of the conversation. Poor Amit must be traumatised by how many of his recent guests have turned out to be Sanjay Leela Bhansali defenders!) 

Monday, June 07, 2021

In memory of a sports-loving dog

These aren't flattering photos, but never mind. This is one of our colony dogs, Noorie, who was taken to the Animals First clinic (in Chhatarpur) a few days ago with a serious kidney condition. She passed away early yesterday. She was old, the blood reports had been very bad, and she had been vomiting constantly, not retaining food over the past few days. A few of us, including the woman who used to feed her, had decided — in consultation with a vet — that it was time to put her out of her suffering, but she went on her own. We cremated her at Sai Ashram in the afternoon.
 
I didn’t know Noorie well — in fact I didn’t even know she was called Noorie by those who interacted with her regularly. I thought of her as "Kaajal" because that was the name given to her by someone I knew — it was a natural fit because she had very distinctive black eyes in her prime, with the colour appearing to spill over like thickly applied kohl.
 
She was a solitary creature, seemingly not fond of other dogs, making sure no one encroached on the small park where she lived, outside our local BSES office. But I did briefly see a more social side when she took a liking to my Lara a few years ago. If she saw us from a distance, she would hesitantly trot across to our park to say a very quick hello, lick Lara a couple of times, and then scoot back just as nervously — as if sheepish about having over-stayed her welcome.
 
She seemed to be quite tolerant of humans though. I have taken many photos of colony dogs doing amusing things, expressing various shades of personality, but there are just as many memorable images that I never managed to capture. Among these: Noorie/Kaajal sitting right in the middle of the BSES park while youngsters noisily played cricket or football around her. When it was a cricket match, I used to think of her as the umpire, because that’s always where she seemed to be sitting, near the end of the bowler’s run-up. It was a remarkable sight, and she always looked very poised and content in this role. (I never actually saw her get hit by a ball, but I'm told that when this happened once in a while, her response was never more than a short and stoical yelp; she didn’t get up or run away. Unfailingly professional, a Dickie Bird of her species.)
 

Saturday, June 05, 2021

The 1991 case-files: two real-life murders (and a few movies)

[Continuing the nostalgia/memory project that I referred to in this recent post about Ajooba]

Another despatch from the summer of 1991. As I have written earlier, that summer was a pivotal one for my film education – this being when I first developed an obsession with old American and British cinema that also led me to serious film literature for the first time. (Since I am still very much a young film student in my own head, it’s strange to think that a full 30 years have passed since the months when I lugged my heavy Leonard Maltin movie guide around with me to neighbourhood video shops, or to Palika Bazaar once in a while, and looked at movie entries in the book before deciding what to rent or buy.)

Some memories of the April to July period in particular are very vivid, and are supplemented by – or in some cases, contradicted by – my diary entries of the time. These include two other signposts: two killings that took place a little over three weeks apart. The first of them – the Rajiv Gandhi assassination on May 21 – everyone knows about. The second was much less public but created lasting shockwaves for my mother’s family: the murder of my great-grandmother – my nani’s mother who, for whatever reason, was known to all of us as “bhabhiji” – in her Nizamuddin house on June 14.

Looking back, both these incidents are inseparable in my mind from the ferocious movie-watching I was doing at the time – and the many ways in which I was processing or making sense of real life through films (while also being aware of the differences between the two things).

On the night of May 21, my nani was staying with us in Saket. (She divided her time between Saket and Green Park, where she had lived for years with an old friend, a reserved, silver-haired gentleman whom I knew as Badhwar uncle – and in whose house my mother and I had also lived for a year in 1986-87 when we moved out of my father’s place – but more on that another time.) Though my summer holidays had begun, we must have all gone to bed by 10-10.30 pm; this would be the last year of the Doordarshan era, and we weren’t in the habit of watching TV till late. And so, it was only at around 5.30 the next morning that we were woken by a call from Badhwar uncle, telling us about the assassination.

As my nani told it, his voice was shaking on the phone, and this wasn’t just because of the magnitude of what had happened. Badhwar uncle, who practised astrology (very seriously but non-professionally, only counselling acquaintances who came to him for advice), had once predicted that not only would Rajiv Gandhi not live to see 1992, but that his death would be so terrible that his face wouldn’t be left intact enough for identification.

I grew up to be an astrology-sceptic myself (and didn’t find it too interesting even as a child, having eye-rolled my way through parts of a Linda Goodman book my mother had lying around), but I had heard uncle make that prediction years earlier – possibly during the time when my mother and I lived in his Green Park house. And when I met him for the first time after the Rajiv Gandhi killing, he looked strained by the way in which it had come to pass; there was no gloating, no “didn't I tell you”, just tiredness.

This was my most first and most immediate association with the death of the young, pleasant-looking prime minister, but others came soon. Starting with the photographs in India Today and Frontline (it is still hard to believe today that they were printed in such widely read magazines that must have been lying around lakhs of houses for anyone, including children, to pick up). Those images of blood and gore and dismemberment and numbed survivors wading through slush (followed a week or two later by a particularly macabre picture of the reconstructed limbs of the suicide bomber) were my first direct acquaintance with what a bomb could do to a human body; this was the real thing, so removed from the glamorous explosions and sanitised aftermaths one got to see in action sequences in films. As someone who turned often to cinematic reference points even back then, I remember looking at these gruesome pictures and reflecting that the little girl in Mr India who was blown up by a stuffed toy – after she picked the thing up – would definitely not have been left in a state that allowed Anil Kapoor to lift her whole and rush her to a hospital in desperate hope of saving her.

Later there was the televised funeral, with the glimpses of Amitabh Bachchan in white kurta-pyjama standing near the pyre – it was strange to see AB on screen in this context, so different from the last two times I had seen him, in Hum and Ajooba earlier in the year. At a time when I was slowly moving away from the grand idiom of the Hindi cinema I had loved for years, this moment was another reminder that a superstar may be an all-avenging Tiger or a swashbuckling Arabian prince on screen (or a Supremo in a comic strip) but a bowed and helpless mourner, looking much smaller than life, at the funeral of a friend who couldn’t be saved even though he was the most powerful man in the country.

Though this messy real-life killing, and the way it played out on our TV screens and in the pages of news magazines, dominated our thoughts for several days, a more personal tragedy soon followed.

On the afternoon of June 14, while my nani played cards with a couple of her friends at our dining table, I was in the video room watching the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. The film held no surprises for me as a mystery, since I had read the Agatha Christie book much earlier, but I was very interested in it for its large ensemble cast. This was in the first couple of months of my obsession with old Hollywood stars, which included leafing for hours each day through the Maltin guide and making my own filmography lists – and “multi-starrers” (to use the Hindi-movie term) held a special attraction since they allowed me to deepen my acquaintance with many different actors at the same time. Ensemble films or epics like Judgement at Nuremberg, Spartacus, The Longest Day and How the West Was Won had served this function over the previous few weeks. Though Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t an “old” film by my standards, it was useful for bringing together such disparate giants as Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller and Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark (as well as the “younger” stars like Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and one of my biggest crushes, Anthony “Norman Bates” Perkins).

Shortly after I began watching the film, I became vaguely aware that my nani was feeling uneasy in the room outside, and her friends were asking her if everything was okay and asking my mother to bring her a glass of water; but things settled down and I figured it was a bit of drame-baazi as distraction because she was losing her card game.

Less than an hour later, the phone call came. My mother answered it, spoke monosyllabically for a few seconds (with my nani yelling “Kaun hai? Kaun hai?” from a distance as she tended to). Then mum put down the phone and said, in a deadpan voice, getting straight to the point, no softening of the blow: “Bhabhiji ka murder ho gaya hai.”

On my TV screen, Hercule Poirot was interrogating the Russian princess. I registered what my mother had said, along with the wheezing gasps and groans that had started to come from nani (the contrast between the tone of the announcement and the tone of the response was like the difference between a studiously understated Nordic noir and a Sivaji Ganesan mythological), and realised I’d have to stop the film and go to play my own part in this real-world theatre.

Over the days that followed – going for the funeral, visiting the Nizamuddin house a couple of times, hearing much grisly speculation about what had happened – I found myself playing the part of Albert Finney’s Poirot in my head. I can’t provide too many details here, but suspicion danced around a couple of members of the deceased woman’s enormous family (which was made up of a dozen children, of whom my nani was the oldest, and many more grandchildren). As little details about fingerprints and unusual sightings and unidentified strangers and contradictory claims and property issues emerged, I imagined my Poirot self in a large room, interrogating members of my big fat Punjabi extended family (in what would have been a very incongruous Belgian accent given the circumstances) with several “a-ha!” moments as I noted an incongruous statement here, an overlooked clue there, and generally had a roomful of grand-uncles and grand-aunts gaping at my intellectual brilliance.

But of course, in real life, there were to be no epiphanies or denouements of that sort. The case petered out after a while, things were brushed under the carpet or rationalised away, life moved on. There was much bad blood among some members of the family for a while – some resentments and suspicions lasted in one form or the other for decades – but nothing like a full-fledged severing of ties or a full-fledged reconciliation. Those sorts of resolutions I continued to find in the thrillers I read and the suspense films I watched. (In the weeks between the two murders, I had watched a few Hitchcock films for the first time – among them Notorious, The Trouble With Harry, and The Birds. There was also a short and uncharacteristic dalliance with a few of the Roger Moore James Bond films.)

The uncertainty of those times – at the personal and political level – is reflected in two “by the way” postscripts in one of my diary entries near the end of June:

By the way: **** uncle dropped by in the afternoon, dropped some more dark hints about **** uncle, and then left. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone though, and soon we were talking about other things.”


By the way 2: Narsimha Rao is the prime minister now. Wonder who it will be tomorrow evening.”

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P.S. the last time I met my great-grandmother – or “bhabhiji” – was a couple of weeks after RG’s death, and 10 days before her own, when she came to our Saket flat with one of nani’s sisters who was visiting Delhi. My diary tells me the date was June 4, but there aren’t any other details given; what I do clearly remember is my nani showing her mother those grisly assassination-scene photos in Frontline and India Today, discussing them using not-very-refined Punjabi phrases (and with a very Punjabi relish).

[Earlier posts about 1991: awaiting Ajooba; and my Leonard Maltin movie guide. And on Facebook, here is a public post about my learning of Satyajit Ray’s adolescent journal-writing, which I could identify with]

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Sword and razor: thoughts on Karnan and Mandela

(Did this piece about two fine new Tamil films for Mint)

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The first time we meet the protagonists of Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela, they are fast asleep. Both Karnan (Dhanush) and Mandela (known mainly as “Jackass” at this point, and played by the affable Yogi Babu) are about to be rudely woken for banal reasons. But more urgent awakenings are soon to follow.

Here are two films about lower-caste men faced with oppression and hegemony, attaining a form of political consciousness and emerging as village heroes. Their arcs are very different, though, as is the tone and emphasis of the narratives they inhabit. Karnan, inspired by a real-life police attack on a Dalit village in 1995, is a more overtly “serious” film, certainly edgier and angrier, about a whole community under threat. Mandela is a laidback, good-natured parable, with traces of dark satire, about an individual: a village barber who becomes important during a local election.

Depending on how you look at the films, there are as many similarities as differences. For instance, both have moments where papers are destroyed, or threatened with destruction, emphasising what these documents mean to people for whom this is a sole stamp of identity, a validation of existence. And in each story, there is an inspirational figure whose life serves as a palimpsest for the hero’s (though neither film underlines the connection too much, and a one-to-one mapping isn’t useful beyond a point).

In Karnan, this spiritual forebearer is from mythology – the Mahabharata’s Karna, denigrated as a low-caste man even after being gifted an elevated status. In Mandela, the connection is with a contemporary figure, Nelson Mandela, and is first presented in comical terms. When “Jackass” (also called “Smile” or “Bushy Hair” or “Dung Picker” – he never finds out his real name, he only knows his caste, which is the essential marker) applies for an Aadhaar card, a friendly postal officer gives him a few famous names to choose from. One of these is Mandela, who, she points out, fought for the identity of black people “just like you are fighting for your identity”.

Our man doesn’t care about that, he finds the South African leader appealing because “he has curly hair and dark skin like me”. Liberating his people, or himself, isn’t on his mind – his ambitions are small, he would be content if he were occasionally paid for the menial jobs he is ordered to do. But the voter’s ID card sets wheels in motion; as an election campaign reaches fever pitch, Mandela becomes a deadlock-breaker between warring factions, and now suddenly everyone is trying to pamper him. The people who once made him clean toilets and were incensed at the thought of him sitting in their car now use the vehicle to help him get down from a tree, and even clutch at his feet as he descends. All this adds up to a quietly humorous tale about upward mobility and politics of convenience.

Karnan is, structurally and tonally, more complex. It shifts between a mythical mode – riven with symbolism, rousing music, a few stylish setpieces – and a grounded narrative located in the here and now. The opening sequences have the texture of deep myth: a bird’s eye view of a girl dying on a road, passing vehicles ignoring her, until she is depicted as a supine figure with a goddess’s mask – followed by a vivid opening-credits song with a montage of people calling out to Karnan the saviour. All this might lead you to expect a larger-than-life story about a superhero’s journey, but this is a slow-burn film about a few incidents (mostly centred around the absence of a bus stop for a small village) that lead to a small revolt – which then becomes bigger when the local police respond with cruelty. And though Karnan himself performs a dramatically impressive “fish-cutting” feat with a sword early on, he isn’t a grand or distant figure: he is just one of the villagers – a boy of the soil, son, kid brother (often scolded by his big sister), friend, lover. Dhanush’s down-to-earth persona emphasises this, even after circumstances force Karnan into a proactive role.

This film is very aware of two contrasting approaches to societal change: the slow, incremental one (like Karnan painstakingly using a jagged rock to fray the rope binding a donkey’s feet in a key scene) and a decisive call to revolution, where sticks and swords may be brandished and bus windows and bones broken. Ultimately, it seems to cast its lot with the latter approach, and this results in a climactic sequence that could have come from a more conventional action film. But the recurring motif of the long-dead girl with the mask, stirring the villagers in their revolt, is reminiscent of the powerful ending of Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, in which the appearance of many Kaalas (or Kaala masks) suggest a hero being alive in the spirit of those whom he inspired. Both sequences also evoke the underlying premise of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta: that it doesn’t matter which face lies behind the revolutionary’s mask; individuals may be killed but the idea is imperishable.

In the Mahabharata, when Karna is offered a chance to broker peace by revealing his true identity, he rejects the offer partly because he knows that hostilities have already gone too far; that a cleansing war is needed, which requires that he remain a foot-servant to the larger cause. Karnan’s situation is different in the specifics, but there is a poetic similarity in his decisions: after passing a military test, he has the opportunity to join the establishment – perhaps positively representing his community in the process, and helping to improve their lot over time – but he opts for swifter, more decisive action.

Given its more modest canvas and very specific story (about an individual who has to figure out his own journey rather than be a leader or totem), Mandela doesn’t have to deal with such epic conflicts. It has some faith in the idea that slow change can work, that the system can be benevolent and supportive. There is a very droll moment where we see Mandela and his friend staring blankly at a wall for a few seconds; the payoff is that this is the back of the post-office building and they are wondering how to get in because there is no rear entrance for low-castes. You can come in from the front, says the smiling officer, a woman who is fighting her own small battles for a more egalitarian world. Given that this is an official space, there is an implication here that the authorities are trying to move past old discriminations. And the film’s final scene is an unapologetically idealistic, optimistic one that might discomfit those who believe there is no room for sugar-coating in depictions of the caste struggle.

This is eventually a key difference between the films: Mandela gets legitimacy and a bit of power through a government-issued document (which he doesn’t have to struggle too hard to obtain) while Karnan turns his back on a state offer. One man will continue to work patiently with his shaving razor, even in a final dramatic sequence where almost the entire village is gathered around him and the election results are trickling in; the other will take up a sword because a jagged stone isn’t enough when you have to hew right through a big fish – or a societal structure.

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P.S. amusingly – and perhaps inevitably – one other thing these two films have in common is a Rajinikanth homage. The first time we are about to meet “Jackass”, the camera panning over the tools of his trade, there is an image of the superstar on the board that says Barber Shop; meanwhile Karnan wears a T-shirt with an image of the Rajinikanth of Thalapathi – another film about a contemporary Karna figure. (A post about it is here.)

Related posts: on Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal; on Nagraj Manjule's Sairat; on Anubhav Sinha's Article 15

Thursday, May 20, 2021

On the lovely documentary My Octopus Teacher (and why it personally resonated with me)

Last year, while writing a piece for an anthology, I had occasion to think about the part-time dogs in my life. “Part-time” defined as the four or five street dogs whom I feed, vaccinate and look out for in case there’s a medical emergency, but whom I can’t monitor around the clock – they are not house dogs, they treasure their independence, and have long been acclimatised to an outdoor life and routine. There are gradations here, of course: a few of these dogs have never come inside the house; one of them used to be mainly on the streets but now, in her old age, spends most of her time indoors. And then there’s Chameli, who spends a chunk of the day inside (and stays the whole night in winters) but has other friends to meet and peacocks to chase and obligations to keep; she might go missing for a full day or two at times, and when that happens I have to deal with the idea that something bad might happen to her – while crossing the main road, for instance – and that I might not be able to deal with it immediately.

If you’re a responsibility-junkie and have a strong bond of this sort with a wild creature (or part-time-wild creature), it is a source of much worry. So I felt an immediate connect with a sequence of events midway through the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher. Filmmaker Craig Foster, free-diving in an underwater forest off the South African coast, has developed an unexpected and mysterious bond with an octopus who has gradually come to trust him and accept his presence in her world. Enchanted, he goes to meet her every day. After witnessing an attack from a pajama shark that leaves one of her arms severed, and realizing how precarious her state is, he worries about being unable to meaningfully help. Back on land, in his house, a universe away from her sub-aquatic kingdom, he thinks constantly about her, wonders what she is up to, whether she is safe. “You just want to visit her every day and see what’s going on,” he tells us reticently. What that really means: he wishes he could keep an eye on her all the time, keep a protective cocoon around her.

I know what that feels like. But if I could be so worried about Chameli and other dogs – despite knowing that we occupy the same physical environment, and that they were unlikely to be any further than, say, a 100-metre radius or a five-minute walk from my building – how much more nerve-wracking it must have been for Foster to feel this concern for a creature that inhabits another world altogether: a world that he himself can visit for only short durations, and never quite grasp the full workings
of. (There were times, he says in the film, when he thought about trying to chase the sharks away – but of course he knew he couldn’t really do that; even if there were a way of keeping all the octopus’s predators away, it would mean interfering with an ecosystem, interfering with the strange and savage ways of Nature. And who knows what consequences there might be? Including some that could in the long run be hazardous for his eight-limbed friend.)

Given its setting, it goes without saying that My Octopus Teacher is visually extraordinary. The multiple camera angles and high-resolution images of the submarine world in which Foster immerses himself (initially as a form of self-therapy) are reminders of how much more is technically possible today compared to when Jean Painleve made the first of his famous octopus films nearly a century ago. (Anyone interested in those wonderful short films, check Mubi India.) But My Octopus Teacher is also a reminder, as Foster says, that we humans know so little about the workings of underwater life – that incredible new discoveries are still being made every week, established wisdom overturned, and there is potential for so much more exploration. This really is an alien world, and connecting with it – and occasionally communicating with it – is one of the most moving and humbling things that our self-absorbed species can do.

A couple of the film's most powerful scenes involve physical contact between Foster and the octopus: her reaching out for his fingers for the first time; then, more trustingly, “riding” his hand all the way to the water’s surface. These encounters, and his description of them, were a throwback for me to one of the most magical moments I have experienced, during a 20-minute sea-bed walk in the Andamans nearly a decade ago. There were many wonders: dazzling corals, bright orange clownfish flitting in and out of their sea anemones, a motionless but vicious-looking creature that seemed entirely made up of sharp teeth, an outtake from one of HP Lovecraft’s storyboards. But the transcendental moment came when the guides gave us mashed bread to feed a big school of black-and-yellow fish that had been swimming nearby. I must have been a little late in letting go of some of the food, because as the creatures swarmed around us I felt dozens of little mouths nibbling and sucking at my fingers. For just a second or two. But nothing prepares you for the frisson that comes with an experience like this.

*****

Ultimately, though the octopus is the film’s main subject (and a fascinating one), she is also a window into a new world. The specific life lessons she “teaches” Foster can seem a little trite when looked at in isolation – I don’t think this film works best as a straight motivational treatise – but what’s important is that by the end she becomes a catalyst for his growing sense of the interconnectedness of all life.

I felt that sense during my Andamans sea-bed walk too – and I would feel it more deeply later. The trip – great fun though it was as it happened – acquired a cathartic dimension in hindsight, because just two months later I lost my Foxie. I had thought, hazily and sentimentally, about her during the walk when those fish nibbled at my fingers, and when tiny crabs shuttled past my feet into their burrows: I had thought about how, if the creatures of the deep were distant cousins to us, dogs were closer cousins still, and that my four-legged baby and I shared a common ancestor in the far reaches of time. Even now, that memory of a brief connection with a larger living world – and with an ancient biological past – brings some solace.

But back to My Octopus Teacher – it’s a stunning film, and chances are you’ll find your own epiphanies and “lessons” in it. If you watch it, try to watch it on a biggish screen.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

How pop music delivers a gut-punch in Promising Young Woman

(In my Well Begun column for First Post, a shout-out for a new film I enjoyed hugely – and no, you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying it)
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Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, one of this year’s best-picture Oscar nominees, has shiny happy music. A lot of shiny happy music. More than you’d expect in a story about an angry young woman, tormented by the rape of a friend in med-school a decade earlier, and out to get some form of revenge.

And yet, not only is the music fun and hummable, it also somehow manages to be central to the sinuous quality of this dark, hard-to-read film.

The very first scene sets the tone. The song is Charli XCX’s catchy “Boys”, with lyrics that go “I was busy dreaming 'bout boys / Head is spinning thinking 'bout boys” – an upbeat tune that you’d associate with a party where everyone is having (innocent?) fun. The opening visuals show us some of this playing out in a nightclub, and in the first 10 or 12 shots all we see are dancing men – or, rather, fragments of dancing men. They are mostly dressed in semi-formal clothes (an after-office get-together?), swaying, drinking beer, high-fiving, slapping their own butts.

With no woman in these initial frames, for a few seconds you might think it’s a stag party or a gay bar. Whatever the case, in Covid-19 lockdown time, a scene like this carries an extra wistful charge – and I say that as someone who isn’t into big noisy parties (and definitely not into dancing at parties).

But as the main narrative begins, danger signs appear. The first words of regular dialogue we hear are “F*** her. Yeah, f*** her.”

It’s from a conversation between three men, discussing a woman colleague who has presumably complained about unequal workplace treatment. One of the guys (he seems the decent, sensitive one of the three) points out that their colleague has missed out on some client meetings since women aren’t allowed to play at the golf club. But the other two shush him up.

Then their attention is drawn to a woman sprawled out on a couch, seemingly sloshed out of her mind. New jibes follow.

“Why don’t you get some dignity, sweetheart?”

“They put themselves in danger, girls like that.”


As it happens, it is the “decent” guy – the one reluctant to badmouth his colleague, or to leer at this woman – who goes up to check on her. You might be lulled into thinking he is acting out of gallant concern and nothing else, but that illusion soon evaporates; this isn’t a film that trusts in the ability of men to be nice when they think no one’s keeping an eye on them.

It’s hard to properly discuss Promising Young Woman without providing spoilers, but I’ll keep it general. What it’s okay for you to know is that the woman in that opening scene is Cassie (Carey Mulligan) and that her mission is to seek out predators (including, or especially, men who don’t think of themselves as predatory) and give them a nasty shock.

If you return to the opening scene after having watched the whole film, you’ll find much prefiguring in it, even in the very sparse dialogue: in the “f*** her” and the bullying insistence on a woman being “dignified” (often coming from people who are far from dignified themselves). By the time the sequence plays out, the memory of that cheerful opening tune, “Boys”, will have faded – to be replaced by another happy song, “It’s Raining Men”, which provides the background score for the next scene where Cassie is again on the receiving end of unwelcome male attention.

Such motifs will run through the film: familiar old tunes, a few new ones. Most notably, perhaps, in the sweet scene where Cassie and a new boyfriend, unselfconsciously happy, goof around at a store where Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind” is playing in the background, and he starts mouthing the words to her amusement. It is the stuff of schmaltzy romantic comedy, complete with two likable people who are falling in love. But it is also preparation for a gut punch.

There are other superb musical choices, which manage to be plaintive and creepy at once – or change their effect depending on how you read or revisit a scene. One of my favourites involves the use of a lullaby sung by a little girl in Charles Laughton’s magnificent 1955 gothic thriller The Night of the Hunter (a film about two innocents up against a big bad wolf – much like Cassie feels like she has her friend Nina’s spirit accompanying her in her wanderings through the dark woods of male entitlement). But there is also another song from the 1950s, “Something Wonderful” from the musical The King and I, with lyrics that are meant to be stirring but become scary when one places them in the context of sexual assault by guys who are allowed to get away with it (because they are “achievers” in other fields, or because “we were all so young and drunk”, or “these things happen”).

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Promising Young Woman is among my favourites of the Oscar-nominated films (I wish it had won best actress for Mulligan, who is fabulous in a very tricky role), and that’s partly because of how it mashes tones and sub-genres, keeping a viewer thoroughly off-balance. Our experience of the film is comparable in some ways to that of the “good guy” who tries to force himself on Cassie in the opening sequence. He thinks she is barely conscious (and will presumably be unable later to remember exactly what happened) – but then she turns out to be not just sober and alert but razor-sharp, sitting up and looking him in the eye with a “What are you DOING?” In the same way that this moment represents a complete shift in gear for the man – from feeling hornily, confidently in control to stunned and scared (and perhaps even a teeny bit ashamed?) – Promising Young Woman puts its viewers through a roller-coaster of emotions. One minute you’re chuckling at what seems to be jokey banter, then a few seconds later you have been implicated in something much darker; one minute (I’m trying not to give away anything specific) you’re enjoying Cassie’s vengeance on a guy who deserves it, the next you’re afraid for her and thinking “Hey, this wasn’t supposed to play out this way.”

The irreverent or flippant tone of parts of the film, its evoking of the slasher aesthetic in places, the bright bubble-gum set design… these are things that might seem off-putting or inappropriate to a swathe of viewers: ranging from defensive men (the sort who promptly yank out #notallmen# during conversations about sexual harassment) to feminists who might wonder if the film is having a little too much fun (and encouraging viewers to have too much fun) in its telling of a very sad story. If a male writer-director had made exactly the same film – with the lilting soundtrack and the echoes of B-movies about vigilante justice – there would have been more indignant allegations about the use of a seemingly woman-sympathetic narrative as a mask to cater to the male gaze, and to construct an “entertaining” film that doesn’t even end on a properly affirmative note.

I loved it. For one, I had no trouble with the premise that anyone can, at some point or the other, have participated – even if only on the fringes, and perhaps under peer pressure – in an act that can have devastating lifelong consequences for another person. We have a few too many virtuous and self-consciously optimistic narratives emerging from “liberal” filmmakers and writers these days (especially in India), and it’s a relief to see something that doesn’t give people the benefit of doubt at all – and uses jet-black humour to emphasise this. It warmed the cockles of my misanthropic soul.

I also think this is a film you should watch a couple of times, for two very different experiences. The first time, you might feel that Cassie, in some of her interactions with various people (a former classmate, the school dean, Nina’s mother), is being used as a loudspeaker to feed viewers with the right perspectives on sexual assault and victim-blaming. (In response to the old whine ”It’s a guy’s worst nightmare being accused”, she pleasantly says “What do you think a woman’s worst nightmare is?”) But a second viewing – with full knowledge of the back-story and the degree to which her life was torpedoed by what was done to her friend – makes it possible to fully appreciate her need to confront and stare down people who never admitted the enormity of what happened. “Do you ever think about that night?” she asks a former (female) classmate in one scene, the woman replies, “No. Why would I?” and Cassie echoes the words “Right. Why would you?” with a pseudo-casual grin, a strained expression that carries a decade of pain behind it. There is an immediate sense here of how easily people can look the other way, or simply “get on with it”, while one person who cares enough has her life petrified for years because of what someone else did.

In moments like this, Mulligan’s performance and Fennell’s writing make the film incredibly powerful at a visceral level, even as its narrative arc continues to resemble that of a genre-bending action-comedy. As it turns out, you can engage with all these things at the same time: the pain that Cassie (and Nina) have gone through, the importance of retribution and accountability; but also how the fast pace and pulp thrills are used as vehicles to deliver that emotional punch. And, of course, that bouncy soundtrack doesn’t hurt at all. 

[Earlier First Post columns here]

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

First shot

Went for my first Covaxin shot this morning, at the Co-Ed School in Jangpura. Important as it was to get this done, the crowd-management was nerve-wrackingly shoddy -- and, as always, some people were behaving very entitled. (The image below is from the Twitter account of someone else who was at the same venue today.) This was easily the largest group of humans I had been in close proximity to since Feb last year, and N95 mask and gloves and sanitiser notwithstanding, it felt like there was about as much chance of catching an infection as of being guarded against it.

Don’t want to complain too much, since these are extraordinary times with all sorts of challenges for the new centres (the Jangpura school authorities apparently didn’t know till the night before the first day of vaccinations – May 3 – that they had been designated as a centre; on the first two days, despite 9 AM slots being offered, the vaccines only arrived at the centre well past 10 AM, by which point there was a long line in the narrow lane outside the school). But it does feel like some hitches can be comfortably avoided when you have a number of organisers, policemen and crowd-managers ready before the public starts coming in. 
 
For instance: there were five vaccination rooms/sites and five lines of people in the courtyard, waiting to be called to the sites. So far, so good. Unfortunately the initial crowd-controllers confidently told the queuing hordes that the lines didn’t correspond to site numbers; that anyone could stand wherever, as long as they stood in clearly defined rows. Of course, the school premises then began filling up alarmingly (perhaps the idea was to relieve some of the pressure on the lane outside) – and around an hour later, as a new group of peremptory officials showed up, it was decreed that the lines *were* meant to represent the site numbers after all. Which then caused a superb shuffle as people rushed past each other to grab chairs and standing spots in other lines. Naturally: no distancing, much arguing, and even a couple of half-hearted threats of physical violence (followed by laughter and cheeky retorts: “Aaja, gale lag jaa. Vaccination aaj milay ya nahin, tu mujhse Covid toh le sakta hai”).
 
Also, a last-minute server issue combined with the late arrival of one of the nurses meant that one of the five sites (mine) was left orphaned for a long time while other people from the next time slot, who had only just arrived, swished past us to all the other rooms. 
 
All that said, I spent only a little over three hours at the venue, which was acceptable (had steeled myself for a longer wait). Now I’m sitting with fingers crossed, with this big covered bowl of steaming water in front of me, hoping the N95 did what it was supposed to and that my next writing project won’t be the posthumously published “If the virus don’t get you, the vaccine will”...

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Home and the world: a short review of Nomadland

(Have been doing some very short, snippet-ish reviews lately for India Today, Reader’s Digest and a couple of other publications. Don’t usually feel motivated enough to share those, but here is a little piece about Nomadland, which won a few top Oscars last month – and which, as it happens, was the first film I watched in a hall after more than a year of abstinence. Now, of course, it looks like it will be the last such experience for several months.
Also: with all the Satyajit Ray talk of the past week, I couldn't resist a "Ghare Baire" reference in the title of this post
)
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Some of the most stimulating moments in film history have occurred at points where documentary and constructed narrative intersect, or even blur into each other. Nearly a hundred years ago, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North – about the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic – introduced movie viewers to the daily rigours of a world they knew little about; but doing this entailed a certain degree of artifice and the use of scripted scenes, such as the one where a hunter is made to use a harpoon rather than a gun. A century on, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which won the best picture and director Oscars this year, also melds unflinching reality with a fictional narrative, and similarly does this while chronicling lives outside the mainstream: in this case, the van-dwelling “nomads” of modern-day America, who live on the road and form communities and camps to help each other. 

There are scenes in this film that could easily have come out of a straight documentary, including the appearances by real people – such as Bob Wells, president of the Homes on Wheels Alliance – speaking as if being interviewed for the camera. Yet, in adapting its script from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland organises itself around an invented character. After losing her job during the Great Recession, the recently widowed Fern (played by Frances McDormand, her face a study in both desolation and hope, much like the landscape she moves through) hits the outdoors with her van and gradually finds a support system, or a series of support systems. In the process, through her eyes, we learn about this vital culture and way of life.

So here is a professional actress playing a scripted character and interacting with real-life nomads who are playing themselves – or rather, versions of themselves. (One person, Swankie, is shown as dying of cancer in the film though she is still alive in reality.) Nomadland has verisimilitude but also a cinematic sweep and a sense of the innately dramatic moment. On the whole I admired it – from a distance – more than I felt emotionally touched by it, but in a few scenes, when an immediate connect took place, the effect was devastating: take the moment when a friend of Fern, trying too hard to be helpful, accidentally breaks her plates, and we see how shattered she is – with nothing underlined, one senses how much these physical belongings (which probably carry memories of her time with her husband) meant to her, even though she is now leading a life that involves letting go of possessions.

It feels strange, at a time when we are all being asked to stay indoors, to watch the unsheltered Outside being presented as a character in itself – and as a way of life that is nourishing even as it is risky. But this is a story about being adrift and tethered at once. For some, its opening and closing scenes may evoke John Ford’s classic The Searchers (which is also about new and fluid definitions of “home”), but Nomadland, even as it continues the legacy of the revisionist Western, is essentially a one-of-its-kind film about a new time and place, heartfelt in its contrasting of Fern’s chosen life with the more structured possibilities that might be available to her.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Fathers and sons: remembering Lalit Behl in two fine films

The actor Lalit Behl died of Covid-related complications on the 23rd. I wrote this short piece for First Post about his wonderful performances in Mukti Bhawan and Titli (the first of which -- centred on the idea that dying can be a leisurely, contemplative affair -- makes for surreal viewing in the current situation).
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In one of many hard-hitting scenes in the 2014 film Titli – about a law-breaking, lower-middle-class Delhi family and a young man who wants to escape it like a butterfly fleeing a chrysalis – there is an explosion of violence from the eldest son Vikram. It is unsettling, claustrophobic, rage-filled, and much of the viewer’s attention will understandably focus on Ranvir Shorey’s visceral performance as Vikram – yet one’s eyes are drawn also to the family patriarch, in white kurta-pyjama, shuffling in and out of the cluttered frame, watching this ferocious battle between his sons. He mutters under his breath, nonchalantly dips biscuits in his cup of tea even as people scream around him; his eyes manage somehow to be droopy and shifty at the same time.


Lalit Behl plays this small but indelible role (in a film directed by his son Kanu) and he is pitch perfect. For much of the narrative, the father is in the background – but in his unobtrusive way he is keeping an eye on the power equations within the dysfunctional family, and moments like this suggest there’s more to him than meets the eye. Later, in a telling little exchange with his daughter-in-law, he proposes that the family go together to Vaishno Devi, where he had gone years ago with his wife: “Usske baad maine haath nahin uthaaya kisi pe.” (“After that I never raised my hand on anyone.”)

Without clearly spelling anything out, that line – and the insouciant way in which it is delivered – hints at a history of violence in a family ridden with masculine energies: the effect that his upbringing probably had on his sons, the fount of the anger and despair that runs through the narrative. It gives heft to the film, and helps us understand the protagonist and his rebellion.

Behl, who died on April 23 aged 71, had a long career in theatre and television as actor, director and producer, but his most notable film performances over the past decade were as two different sorts of fathers in two fine, low-key productions. Titli was the first of these, but the longer role was in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (English title Salvation Hotel) where Behl plays Daya, a man who believes his time has come and decides to go to Benares to await death. In the process he greatly inconveniences his busy son Rajiv, who feels obliged to go along for what could be an interminable stay. “Tez chalao,” Rajiv tells the cab-driver when they are on their way to Benaras; “Dheere chalo,” the father says – I don’t want to die before we get there. The two men, with their contrasting attitudes and priorities, will soon find themselves together in a place where time stands still.

Mukti Bhawan is a comedy-drama that effortlessly weaves droll little moments into the fabric of a bleak larger picture – the essential sadness imbuing the story is only felt with hindsight. And in the same way that Behl’s performance in Titli manages to be both placid and faintly menacing, his performance here seamlessly covers two modes. On the one hand, there is the poignant seriousness of Daya’s desire to prepare for his end; on the other hand, there is the surreal effect this proclamation has on his family, especially his son. In a scene midway through the film where Daya thinks he is dying at last, he expresses remorse to Rajiv for having poured cold water on his childhood dreams: “You used to write such innocent poetry, but I never let you bloom. I have been such a bad father.” Behl’s work here accommodates both the tenderness of this “deathbed” moment as well as the sheepishness of the morning after when Daya – still very much alive and feeling better – replies with a nod of his head and a “Fit” when his son asks how he is.

The heavy-lidded eyes with just the hint of a twinkle in them, the shuffling walk, the quiet gesture, the knowing humour, the gaze that manages to be piercing and laidback at once. These are essential facets of this performance as a man who is supposedly freeing himself of worldly matters but still complains about the tastelessness of the food given to him – a man who finds companionship and banter, things to live for in the city of salvation. As a parent, Daya is a pest but also a teacher and a spiritual guide, showing his son the slower, more contemplative side of life – and eventually encouraging Rajiv to be a better parent to his own young daughter. In this sense, Behl’s performance feels like a complement to his Titli role where the father’s lack of empathy or sensitivity seems to have permanently infected his family.

“Mrityu ek prakriya hai,” Daya is told at one point. “Death is a process – are you ready to begin that process?” It feels painful to re-watch Mukti Bhawan just now, when the gruesome second wave of Covid-19 has – temporarily, one hopes – made nonsense of the idea that dying can be a leisurely, carefully planned-out endeavour. There is such a stark difference between a story about waiting for weeks in a Benares “salvation hotel” and a real-world situation where death comes swiftly and Covid protocols must be coldly followed with no elaborate or personal farewells – the world that Lalit Behl himself departed from. Looked at in this new context, both the plaintiveness and the dark comedy of Mukti Bhawan become sharper, more pronounced and immediate. And Behl’s performance – as a man who is wise and stubborn, parental and childlike, composed and annoying, all at the same time – anchors the film, giving it humanity and allowing us to buy into its biggest conceit: that death can be dignified even when the road leading to it is full of missteps and potholes. It is a useful thought in the current time.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Satyajit Ray's 100th - a discussion

My online film club will be chatting about Satyajit Ray on the evening of May 2, his birth centenary. Starting 8 pm IST. Anyone who’d like to join (it will be very informal and free-flowing, no pressure to participate in the discussion), mail me at jaiarjun@gmail.com - or leave your mail ID in the comments here. And pass on the word to others who might be interested.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

On villainy - in Trial of the Chicago 7 and Masters of the Universe

(Things being the way they currently are, there is much reason to want to escape into the distant past. So here's a piece about why Trial of the Chicago 7 – a political film about a real-life 1969 trial – led me into some He-Man nostalgia. Did this for First Post)

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Among the pleasures of watching Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, with its marvelous ensemble cast and careful structuring of a complex, multi-character story, one pleasure I wasn’t anticipating was a nostalgic one. It was induced by the performance of the 82-year-old Frank Langella, who I hadn’t initially realised was in the film.

The character Langella plays is the real-life judge Julius Hoffman, who presided over the 1969 trial of anti-Vietnam War protestors charged with inciting a riot in Chicago. Hoffman often let his own political conservatism show over the course of the proceedings – scuttling the defence’s efforts whenever possible, going easy on the prosecution, barely disguising his disapproval of the defendants – and he sits comfortably in the role of antagonist in this film. (That’s assuming the viewer to be someone who doesn’t think protesting government policies automatically makes one unpatriotic; or, as we like to say in India, “anti-national”.)

The first major exchange involving Hoffman is played as wry comedy: apparently very concerned that the jury might confuse him with a defendant who shares the same last name – the Youth International Party founder Abbie Hoffman – the old judge repeatedly interrupts an opening speech to clarify that they are not related. This gives the cheeky Abbie (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, an Oscar nominee for best supporting actor this year) an opening to retort with a deadpan “Dad! No!”

It’s a fun little scene, sharply played by Langella and Baron Cohen, but in a way it is also a set-up for the viewer. Lulled into complacency by this banter, you might think “Ah. Grouchy old man, probably a bit of a pest, but basically harmless.” If so, the carpet will soon be pulled out from under your feet. Because as the film continues, the judge’s biases, combined with his stature, build towards darker moments – culminating in a depiction of the infamous real-life incident when Judge Hoffman ordered Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale to be gagged and shackled in the courtroom.

Here is a denizen of the old order, a guardian of status quos, someone capable of using his power to do real harm – and this is of course something that we still see around the world. You don’t have to look much further than some of the extraordinary statements made by judges and chief justices in India in recent times, such as the one where an alleged rapist was politely asked if he was willing to marry his victim (in which case he would be let off lightly). Or the gratuitous persecution of student activists and farmer protestors in courts of law that are meant to be impartial.

But to return to my moment of nostalgia: the sight of Frank Langella, shot from low camera angles, framed as a magisterial figure in a black robe, dispensing injustice, struck a chord for a much younger version of me. It reminded me of another antagonist that Langella had played in a very different sort of film that I cherished for a while in my childhood. The film was the 1987 Masters of the Universe, based on the He-Man comics, with the Swedish beefcake Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, a pre-Friends Courtney Cox in a supporting role… and Langella, unrecognisable beneath makeup, as the skull-faced fiend Skeletor.

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Like many Indian kids in the mid-1980s, I had developed an interest in the Masters of the Universe franchise through the cartoon series that played on TV (with Prince Adam’s roared “By the power of Greyskull…”) as well as the little plastic “He-Man toys” available in the market (I called them action figures, but my mother never missed a chance to point out that they were dolls for boys). Only around six or seven such toys were available in India, but during a two-month vacation in London I discovered dozens of Masters of the Universe characters I’d never even heard of before. On every trip to the Selfridges store, I bought a few of these, along with the accompanying comic books that usually explained a character’s provenance; at the end of our stay, my mother and grandmother had quite a time packing the “dolls” into our suitcases, but eventually we managed to bring them all back home, to the astonishment of my Delhi friends.

Having also heard that a live-action Masters of the Universe film was coming out that summer, I picked up a promotional book that had a plot synopsis, movie stills, and a page featuring information on all the main characters, with blanks where the mug-shots of the characters were supposed to be. You had to fill those blanks by collecting stickers from candy stores – they came with purchases of specific chocolates – and I made multiple trips to Tescos to get as many as possible.

Shortly after returning to India, I acquired a videocassette of the film and watched and re-watched it, showing it to friends. I could tell that it was a less sophisticated cousin to other fantasy franchises like Star Wars or the Christopher Reeve Superman series. But I had a fascination for Langella’s Skeletor – for the commanding walk and the stentorian voice emanating from behind the cheesy makeup. Here was a super-villain to relish, in a similar league as Darth Vader and Mr India’s Mogambo and a few others.

In Trial of the Chicago 7, the Bobby Seale scene includes a moment where Langella’s judge comes close to sounding like a larger-than-life villain from a fantasy film. “Marshals, take that defendant into a room and deal with him as he should be dealt with,” he says imperiously; this is followed by shots of Seale being “dealt with” – pushed and punched around some, bound and gagged – before being brought back into the courtroom. Seen in isolation, this plays almost like a depiction of a super-villain’s sadistic henchmen toying with a victim. And it reminds me oddly of the Masters of the Universe scene where Skeletor, incensed by his minions’ failure to capture He-Man, dispatches one of them with a colourful death ray (or something such).

Scary as Langella’s Skeletor once was for me, it should be obvious why, as a politically aware adult, I find his Hoffman portrayal a little scarier. But if you’re a nerdy enough movie buff, the world of realistic films and the world of mythical-fantasy ones keep colliding in surprising ways. An important scene in Trial of the Chicago 7 involves the testimony of a former Attorney General who takes the stand and says things that discomfit Judge Hoffman, the prosecuting attorneys and anyone else who has pegged the Chicago 7 as incendiary riot-mongers. Though this witness’s testimony is not admitted in the trial, it causes a shift in the proceedings. Watching the film, I was amused that this short dramatic part, of the saviour who shows up the bigots, was played by… Michael Keaton! Back in the late 1980s, we kids mainly knew Keaton as Bruce Wayne of Gotham City. For my child-self, this scene – in a serious, grounded and “respectable” film – felt like a momentary melding of superhero universes. Batman 1, Skeletor zero. 

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BONUS: in light of the latest Address to the Nation by an Indian leader last night, here is an early scene from Masters of the Universe: Skeletor singlehandedly vanquishing a Coronavirus and then boasting about it to the people of Eternia through special telecast. No viruses or prime ministers were harmed in the making of this screen-grab.

[My earlier First Post pieces are here]


Thursday, April 15, 2021

People, places, nostalgia and imagination in Bombay Rose and Ottaal

(My latest Well Begun column for First Post is about two lovely films, Gitanjali Rao’s animated Bombay Rose and Jayaraj’s Ottaal)
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It starts with abstract dabs of paint, mainly shades of brown. They spread slowly across the screen – a brush-stroke here, another there. At first there is no telling what they will add up to, but soon there are enough of them to form a larger picture: the skyline of a city, or a ramshackle section of a city. More specific images now crowd the frame: a busy road, people walking, vehicles zipping by, movie hoardings. A setting has been established, a narrative begun.

Gitanjali Rao’s animated film Bombay Rose opens with this movement from haziness to clarity; with nebulous blocks used to construct something sharp and defined. A little later, similar blurry boxes of colour will resolve themselves into a small marketplace where we are introduced to two of the film’s protagonists – a flower-seller named Kamala and her school-going sister Tara.

These opening scenes depict one version – or one specific experience – of Bombay, and others will soon follow: this is a set of interlinking stories about people from different backgrounds and religions, facing various demons and various types of loneliness. For each of them, “Bombay” is as much a state of mind as a place – the city is of course a bustling physical entity, but it is also a fluid one, constantly shaped and reshaped in the characters’ imaginations. Kamala fantasises about being a princess in a genteel bygone era (and is brought back to rude reality by a dalaal who wants to send her to Dubai). Her boyfriend Salim is nourished by the escapist dreams of Bombay’s cinema – and its heroes who can make the impossible possible – but also haunted by memories of the Kashmir he was forced to flee when his parents were gunned down. And, in some of the film’s most elegiac passages, when Shirley D’Souza – an old actress who worked in the 1950s – walks through her nook of the city, colour yields to black and white and the landscape she passes transforms into what it once was – what it still is in her mind’s eye.

This depiction of the past moving alongside the present is one of the most striking things about Bombay Rose. Old songs like “Aaiye Meherbaan” fleetingly grace the soundtrack. A reflection of Shirley in a mirror shows a younger version of her. Ghosts dance in a graveyard. The sleeve of a shirt – draped across a chair as a stand-in for a long-dead lover – appears to move as if in response to a remark (before one realises that a cat had brushed against it). A weary clock-maker – seemingly a relic of a bygone world, no longer “relevant” – comes alive when presented with a task that only someone like him can do; he asks for his tools – “mota chashma! chaabi!” – like a surgeon focused on his work.

While this is a Bombay film, and is about the many possibilities of that city, one can also argue that it isn’t about any one place: it is about people and the things they carry inside them, from memories of the past to projections of an imagined future. Watching it, I was strangely reminded of the 2015 Malayalam film Ottaal, even though there isn’t much surface similarity between these two works or their settings.

Ottaal, intelligently adapted from a Chekhov short story, begins with ethereal images of the Kuttanad backwaters where a child – soon to be sent away from the only home he knows – spends much of his time minding ducks with his grandfather, their boat rowing across a breath-taking network of canals. To a viewer who is more interested in the quick movement of plot than in the establishing of mood, these scenes might feel self-indulgent or pretentious or slow – but as the film progresses, their importance will become clear. These images are essential markers of a childhood that is about to end: they show how much this boy is part of his setting, and what he is going to be separated from. They are also sights that he desperately needs to preserve in his mind – how fitting it is, then, that the film does everything it can to make these images unforgettable.

A decade and a half ago, when it seemed likely for a while that I would have to shift out of the south Delhi neighbourhood I had lived in since age ten, a sudden burst of nostalgia crept up on me and I wandered the length of the colony for an afternoon, camera in hand – taking photos of the many little sights and landmarks, however unremarkable and non-photogenic, that I thought I was going to lose. A few moments in Ottaal reminded me of that rush to collect images.

Similarly, watching Shirley D’Souza and Tara on their walks in Bombay Rose, I thought about the ways in which my neighbourhood has changed over the decades, through a gradual accumulation of events: how a leafy park where we used to play cricket as children turned into an overcrowded parking space where residents scowl at each other while manoeuvring their cars; how a large mall complex sprang up in what was once vast barren land occupied only by a dying old tree; how a video-cassette parlour morphed into a DVD store and then disappeared altogether, and a single-screen hall became a shining multiplex. And about how one’s sense of self also changes along with these things, so that you might find yourself – during a walk through the colony – alternating between being a child and an adult with just a small shift in perspective, or with a change in the play of light as you glance at something.

What these two films have in common is how they create a sense of a setting as something inseparable from the inner lives of the protagonists. They are plaintive depictions of how places define us and are defined by us. For both the old actress in Bombay Rose and the little boy in Ottaal, there will be no going back to their secure spaces – except in the world of the imagination.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A conversation about caregiving and illness in cinema

Some information about an upcoming event by Caregiver Saathi: on Sunday, April 18, I will be in conversation with my cinephile friend Tipu Purkayastha (whose presence has enlivened so many of my online film-club discussions and courses in the last few months). We will talk about various representations of caregiving and illness in cinema -- from Anand to Amour, from Khamoshi to The Father -- and I will also draw a bit on my grisly experiences in this field in the past few years.

Anyone interested, please show up and spread the word. To register for the session, go here. (You will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.)

You can watch it on Facebook and Youtube too. (FB link here; YouTube link here.) And mark your calendars here.

Please mail me (jaiarjun@gmail.com) for any clarifications.

False faces and Covid masks (quick thoughts on the “Macbeth-inspired” Joji)

When I heard Dileesh Pothan’s new film Joji being described as a “Macbeth adaptation”, I mailed the information to my film-club group (with whom I had discussed cinematic treatments of Macbeth just last month). I hadn’t watched Joji at the time, but had heard good things about it, which wasn’t surprising: it stars Fahadh Faasil, who has been one of the most admired Indian actor-producers of the past few years; Pothan himself had helmed two slice-of-life films I enjoyed greatly – Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh's Revenge) and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Mainour and the Witness) – in addition to being associated with Kumbalangi Nights, Ee.Ma.Yau., and other films that have helped create the huge recent buzz around Malayalam cinema; and Syam Pushkaran, who co-wrote Pothan's earlier films as well as Kumbalangi Nights, also wrote Joji.

When I did get around to watching Joji, there were little moments that struck me immediately as Macbeth homages, e.g. the witty scene where Joji’s sister-in-law Bincy tells him to “put on a mask and come” (outside his room, to participate in a ceremony for his dead father). With the story playing out in a Covid-19 world, “put on a mask”  is a practical instruction — but it is also a nod to the many mask references in the play. (“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” “…make our faces vizards to our hearts/ Disguising what they are.” And of course: “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters ... look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under it.”)

And then there’s a wry take on Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn spot”. Bincy at the washing machine in a pivotal scene – and later issuing another instruction about washing clothes.

Fun as it is to play this connect-the-dots game between Pothan’s film and Shakespeare’s play, and much as I enjoyed Joji on its own terms, I ended up puzzled by how many people were rushing to label this a "Macbeth adaptation" – even if Pothan was inspired by the play and wanted to pay tribute to it. This film doesn’t really play like a spiritual descendant of Macbeth, and I wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms if it hadn’t been for all the publicity (including the pre-credits acknowledgement). Too many little points to mention [with the big differences in plot being the least important], but here’s a relevant one made by one of my film-club members Meet Modi: the Joji character isn't internally conflicted — remorseful or guilt-ridden — in the way that Macbeth is [I think of him as being closer in some ways to the pure psycho Faasil played in Kumbalangi Nights]. And once that conflict, and what it leads to, is taken away, how much of the soul of the play remains?

(Comparisons have also been made, story-wise, to King Lear; and someone on my Facebook post about the film suggested that Joji is more like Richard III in some ways – presumably because Richard is the Shakespearean character who is closest to the coldly amoral protagonist of this film. But this also implies that the film can quickly turn into a Rorschach inkblot where anyone can see any source text.)

All this, of course, brings us back to the old questions of what an adaptation is, and where the "essence" of Shakespeare lies – questions that have been raised even in discussions of films that follow the plot of a particular play much more closely than Joji does. Most of us can agree that the essence doesn’t lie in the plots, which were heavily borrowed from older sources. So is it in the actual language/poetry used in the plays (in which case a question mark hangs over even the canonised non-English adaptations by Kurosawa or Vishal Bhardwaj or Grigori Kozintsev), or in how character arcs and inner conflicts are brought alive through that poetry? Or in the juxtaposing of different tones, with scatalogical/slaptick comedy sharing a throne with deep tragedy?

Also: do we sometimes err by using "Shakespearean" in the most over-generalised sense to describe just about any story that is about a character grappling with strong negative emotions and moral conflicts? I’m not sure what the point of that would be.

All that said, Joji is a fine film with much to recommend it (though I’m not sure I liked it as much as Maheshinte Prathikaaram) – and if it encourages you to enter the particular world of Dileesh Pothan, or the broader world of Malayalam cinema, all the better. It is on Prime Video.