(Wrote this for Money Control)
An early scene in the new series Escapye Live follows a template familiar from the classic superhero movie – namely, the rousing moment where regular-feller Clark Kent zips into the phone booth for the first time and emerges as the Man of Steel. The Escaype Live scene involves another form of role-play and empowerment, though. It has a young woman named Hina (Plabita Borthakur), who works as a server in a fancy restaurant, taking matters into her own hands after being pawed once too often by male customers. Hina’s circumstances don’t allow her to take direct revenge, but she finds another way to assert her agency in a world that treats her as an object: out comes a mask, a dominatrix’s costume, a whip and other accessories, and here is a new persona, the sexy “Fetish Girl” whose teasing videos keep men in thrall. She soon becomes a star on a new, Tiktok-like App called Escaype Live.
What adds frisson to this transformation is that we have met the “constructed” Fetish Girl before we meet the “real” Hina. The show’s first episode introduces Fetish Girl as a skimpily dressed character, purring “Hello boys” in provocative poses, and getting hearts and diamonds as rewards from her salivating audience; our feelings about her at this point may be similar to those of the puritanical Krishna (Siddharth), a new employee at Escaype Live who is starting to get repulsed by his company’s activities. But after we encounter Hina in episode two, the character becomes sympathetic and relatable (this is partly a function of Borthakur’s fine performance).
To varying degrees this is also true for the show’s other protagonists, underprivileged people who get a shot at the big time via the new App. The participants hoping to win its Rs 3-crore competition include a 10-year-old Rajasthani girl named Rani (encouraged by an ambitious uncle who gets the girl injected with hormone-altering drugs to make her look more “grown up” while performing very adult dances) and a young slum-dweller named Nilesh who uses his parkour skills to impress viewers and rise up the rankings… but who must first overcome his own fandom of one of Escaype Live’s biggest stars, a sneering prankster named Darkie.
Along the way, these people must also deal with parents who dissuade them. Stop dreaming of penthouses and hot showers, Nilesh’s father tells him: “Naali ne hee paala hai tumhein.” (This slum’s sewers have raised you.”) In an intriguing touch, Rani’s father – a “simple” man who has barely ever seen a smartphone – wants his little girl to study instead of wasting her time on dance competitions. There is a sense of an older generation who never had such opportunities and can’t understand the youngsters’ hunger; but there are also a few people like Rani’s mother (played by the always-engaging Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) who are curious enough about the possibilities of this new medium that they allow it to override their fears and misgivings.
This App is an inevitable culmination of the affordable-smartphone era, a democratising medium that can either make or destroy the lives of millions of users (many of whom have no real idea what they are getting themselves into or how dangerous this addiction can become). Explaining the awkward “Y” in “Escaype”, the company’s founder Ravi Gupta (Javed Jaffrey) says: “People become successful when they start asking themselves the Y/Why questions: Why am I not rich? Why am I not successful? Why should the world not accept me?”
What the show is trying to do with this theme is clear, but I had conflicted feelings about its depiction of class struggle and aspiration. Some scenes are simplistic and on the nose; as viewers increasingly used to grit and realism in the OTT world, the tendency is to draw back from – or feel embarrassed by – anything that seems heavy-handed. But it’s also worth asking the question: when such conflicts take place in a society as complex and multi-tiered as India, isn’t reality itself often melodramatic?
In one scene set in a shop’s trial room where Fetish Girl is rehearsing her moves, an aggressive male employee goes from snarling at her to obsequiously mumbling “Ok ma’am, yes ma’am” when she says she’ll buy all the expensive clothes she tried. In another scene Nilesh, working in a departmental store, is on the receiving end of classist abuse from a hoity-toity customer who is outraged that he touched her cheese with ungloved hands. Both these scenes, and others like them, are far from subtle – they are calculated to wring an emotional response from the most naïve viewer. And yet, one reflects: don’t many privileged people behave exactly like this? Why demand subtlety and nuance from every situation when those things don’t necessarily exist in real-world interactions of this kind?
It should also be kept in mind that a show like this, by the very nature of its story and its character types, can be potentially annoying to the eyes and ears of “sophisticated” viewers. (Many such viewers will respond to it in exactly the same condescending way that they have responded over the years to the TikTok universe, made up of all those “uneducated” types trying to be “cool”.) Almost from the opening scene, our senses are assailed by loud, disruptive sights and sounds: flashing images of smart-phone videos featuring garishly dressed or made-up aspirants, along with glimpses of ungrammatical viewer comments and emojis that come and go so fast one can’t process all of them. Or songs with lyrics like “Oh my little Bulbul, I’m Banjovi / Dance my little bulbul, you’ll get money”, which might seem lowbrow to many viewers, but which serve a definite function within this narrative – an invigorating soundtrack for someone trying to pull themselves into a better world.
This is not to gloss over or excuse Escaype Live’s own flaws of execution. Some of the acting, especially by the supporting players, is mediocre, the writing is often dull exactly when it needs to be intense and focused, and at a technical level there are scenes that look impressive on the surface but collapse on further examination. Consider the one where Nilesh – having set a video challenge for himself – jumps and swings and vaults across a jumble of houses and slopes in his slum, to get home with a bag of eggs unbroken. We privileged viewers get to watch most of this scene through a camera that is purely for our convenience: it shows us the whole topography in detail, records Nilesh’s movements up close and from many different angles, for the most thrilling effect. But the video that is being taken for the challenge – the one that is supposedly impressing Nilesh’s audience – is being recorded on a phone camera by his friend Aslam; and as the scene unfolds, it becomes obvious that Aslam is lagging well behind Nilesh and certainly not replicating his gravity-defying feats – so how is a good video even possible?
However, the single most tedious thing about Escaype Live may be its one-dimensional use of the Siddharth character Krishna as the sole voice of conscience. Here is a software engineer who presumably knows a thing or two about the workings of social media, and about the company he has joined – and yet, after a single day on the job and one encounter with Fetish Girl, he is suddenly awakened to how sordid this whole set-up is. While everyone else applauds what the CEO is saying, Krishna is the one person standing in the hall with a morose expression. The cutaways to him looking solemn every time something complicated happens, the righteous pain on his face as he watches the world go sour, his relentless, soul-numbing goodness… all of this is so annoying, I wanted to throw bags of marijuana at him, along with a cartload of Vat 69 bottles and maybe a few naked belly dancers.
Later in the show, a character named Sunaina (Shweta Tripathi, who makes her first appearance in episode 3) has to similarly bear the cross of being a mouthpiece for progressiveness; in her case, by helping and encouraging a young man who identifies as a woman. Tripathi’s piquant directness and likability, combined with the fact that her scenes are more intimate (her character doesn’t have the onus of taking on a Big Evil Corporate), makes Sunaina easier to tolerate than the humourless Krishna – but the principle is much the same. While Krishna tells Fetish Girl “Behind your mask, your soul is pure”, Sunaina speaks anodyne inspirational lines like “Accept yourself first, then the world will accept you sooner or later.”
These good-guy/bad-guy stereotypes can make Escaype Live tiresome going, especially over the multi-episode format – but if you stick with it you’ll find a few gems within the dross, along with a sense of how affirmation and danger can run together. In the look on a little girl’s face when, scrolling through her feed late at night, she comes across a complimentary message from a young man who seems interesting. Or in Darkie’s constant warnings that he doesn’t want anything to do with “poor people”, which one guesses is a form of defensive self-loathing as much as anything else.
Note: So far, seven of the show’s nine episodes are available on Hotstar. This piece was written after viewing the first five episodes.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
(Wrote this for Money Control)
Saturday, May 14, 2022
(Reviewed the new Mammootty-Parvathy film for Money Control. Note: Sony Liv appears to have a default setting that takes you to the Hindi-dubbed version of Puzhu. I watched the original Malayalam version)
“Takshakan moved around in disguises for six days to kill the king, but couldn’t get into his palace. Then a tiny worm came hiding in an apple…”
The new Malayalam film Puzhu opens with a reference to a mythological story – the last days of King Parikshit, grandson of the Pandava hero Arjuna. Following an act of anger, or foolish pride, Parikshit is cursed to die of snakebite within seven days. Efforts are made to protect the king during this period, but eventually the powerful serpent Takshaka slips into the palace disguised as a worm-like creature in a fruit, and does what has been foretold.
When I first read the Parikshit story as a child (it provides part of the framing device for the larger Mahabharata narrative) I was struck by how similar and yet how different this king’s tragic ending is to that of his legendary father Abhimanyu, killed during the Kurukshetra war. Both men are beleaguered, trapped in different sorts of Chakravyuhas (in one case the danger lies within the breached circle; in the other, the danger is outside, trying to get in). But while Abhimanyu gets one of the most heroic and stirring deaths in ancient literature, Parikshit’s is pathetic, cautionary, unromantic.
The title of Ratheena PT’s directorial debut means “worm”. If one goes for a direct mapping with the Parikshit tale, the arrogant king here is Kuttan (Mammootty), a former police officer who seems trapped in a chakravyuha of his own making. Kuttan has reason to believe that someone is trying to kill him. But who? And which of his misdemeanours, past or present, is the trigger?
This plot summary might make it seem like Puzhu is a regular narrative film, perhaps even a fast-paced cop thriller, but that is far from the case.
One of the many things that contemporary Malayalam cinema does well is the slow-burn mystery – which includes the film that doesn’t initially play as a thriller but unobtrusively glides into edgy or dangerous terrain (and does this without sacrificing its subtle, grounded tone). Notable recent examples have included Aarkkariyam (which starts off as a family-oriented drama about a young couple visiting the woman’s father… then the old man casually makes a shocking disclosure) and Kaanekkaane, in which a bereaved father starts to get suspicious about his former son-in-law.
Puzhu is comparable in tone and texture to those films, but it has a looser, more detour-laden narrative, one that’s made up of vignettes. First we meet Bharati (Parvathy) and her theatre-actor husband KP (Appunni Sasi) – a recently married couple who are looked on with suspicion by the many caste-conscious people around them (she is relatively fair-complexioned and a Brahmin; he is clearly “below” her in status). It is only later that the narrative introduces Kuttan – Bharati’s estranged brother – and his young son Kichu. Gradually we learn, or conjecture, little things about Kuttan, his dealings and his relationships. Much about this unlikable man, his personal and professional history, his attitudes to various “others” and to his own motherless boy, is left open-ended, but Mammootty’s magnetic presence helps keep us invested, eager to know more.
For instance, looking at Kuttan’s offhand casteism, one can speculate that when he was a policeman, he was an important cog in the machinery of caste oppression. In a few scenes, there are traces of a mellowing, of genuine fondness for his son, and of physical vulnerability: he has sleep apnea and uses a CPAP machine at night. (At a non-diegetic level, there is also the viewer’s knowledge that Mammootty is seventy now – incredibly fit though the actor looks.) But the aura of danger and cruel authority around Kuttan is never quite lost, partly because we so often see him through the eyes of Kichu who has much to fear from an obsessive, controlling father.
Some of the most sinister early scenes have Kuttan interrogating Kichu about school, or telling him with conviction that a tomato, contrary to what he has been taught, is a vegetable, or showing him an old home video which is always paused at the point where baby Kichu has fallen down and is encouraged to get up unassisted. Their regimented daily routine includes brushing their teeth together, so Kuttan can emphasise “four times horizontally, then four times vertically”. He moves between mature-sounding advice (“don’t take your anger out on your food”) and strange infantilising, speaking as if he and Kichu are toddlers learning to negotiate the world. This is both an alpha-male patriarch and a man who is himself still a child, possibly haunted by his memories of his own physically violent father.
The puzhu of the title can be seen as having two meanings: Kuttan himself being a worm because of his callous behaviour; or his perception of the people around him, including “low-castes”, as insects (who might kill him after contaminating his fruit, or his airway machine). It is obvious from early in the film – with the first slurs directed at Bharati and KP – that caste is an important part of this story. But the narrative, as it proceeds, also makes it clear that there are different ways of being oppressed or underprivileged. You might be the Dalit who has been bullied or tormented by a police officer (or by your future brother-in-law who thinks you are only fit to clean toilets) – but you might also be the young boy living in apparent comfort but undergoing parental hegemony. (It isn’t such a surprise that the paranoid Kuttan at one point even appears to suspect his son of being the worm in his apple, out to kill him!)
If Puzhu is an engrossing (for patient viewers) existential thriller, it is sometimes also loose-structured to the point of becoming unfocused. There are many narrative strands, some of which don’t come together. One startling scene midway through the film is very similar to a visceral moment in Michael Haneke’s Cache, but its occurrence in Puzhu feels a bit random, even derivative, since there hasn’t been enough context built toward it.
Ultimately, despite being diffused in its storytelling, this film works as a jigsaw puzzle that tries to put together a picture of a man who may be a dutiful son and a well-intentioned father but who is also the sum of many other unsavoury things. “The cruel king tramples the soul of our forest, and pulls the tusks off elephants,” goes a lament in the theatre performance that opens the film. By the end, as the line between Kuttan the king and Kuttan the worm has been blurred, one may recall Hamlet’s caution about emperors and worms both finishing in a beggar’s gut, thoroughly equalised.
(Did this piece for Reader’s Digest India)
The opening scene of the 2012 epic Gangs of Wasseypur subverted the viewer’s expectations with a cheeky juxtaposition: this gritty saga about hinterland crime begins by showing us a scene from the TV soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, complete with the cutesy title song – then the camera pulls back to reveal Wasseypur residents watching the show on a small TV. (Shortly afterwards, the first of many bloody gun battles begins.)
The new series Mai employs a similar contrast, in a more central way, and gets much of its novelty value and effectiveness from it. The protagonist Sheel, a sari-wearing Lucknow resident, is played by Saakshi Tanwar, who is best known as the lead on another major TV soap of the 2000s, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. Though there are small complications in Sheel’s domestic life, she and her husband Yash and their mute daughter Supriya – studying to be a doctor – seem to be a comfortable, content family unit. Until Supriya is killed in a “hit-and-run accident” that is soon revealed to be something more nefarious. This leads Sheel to investigate what happened: along the way she gathers information about a medical scam in the old-age home where she has been working, and encounters many unsavoury types, as well as two young men who try to help her but whose motives are unclear.
And so, we have the susheel bahu from Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki interacting with hardened criminals who use cuss words in her presence – or at her – while she replies to them in a composed meter, and calls them “bhaiya” or “beta” (perhaps in an effort to keep herself safe, or perhaps because it just comes naturally to her). At the same time, Sheel stays one step ahead of her adversaries and does what needs to be done – calmly pouring boiling water on a man who says something vulgar about her daughter, driving a sharp nail through her own foot to distract an SPF officer.
There is something very kinetic about watching this character, in this setting, trying to figure things out. The big “award-clip” moment in Tanwar’s performance – the full outpouring of Sheel’s grief – comes late in the first episode, and it is a fine example of expository writing too (pretending that she has come to a posh school to enquire about admission for her daughter, Sheel gradually breaks down as she explains that her child wants to become a doctor because she herself couldn’t). But Mai, having got this emotional high tide out of the way, then returns to the business of showing Sheel as someone who doesn’t have the time or luxury to fall apart.
Purely as a crime show, Mai is hit and miss. The plot is sometimes convoluted, credibility is stretched, and it isn’t always easy to figure out the relationships between the bad guys and their associates: who is double-crossing whom; what is the deal with the “crypto-key” that everyone is looking for; and hold on, where did this twin brother come from? But the series is mostly on solid ground when it sticks with Sheel and her mission. There are moments in her emotional journey that combine dismay and indignation (on learning that her daughter hadn’t told her about a boyfriend, she mutters “Haan toh theek hai, humme jaanna bhi nahin” as if still communicating with the dead girl). The flashbacks to the mute Supriya, once so alive and passionate, raise the stakes. And there are some inspired little touches, such as a nightmare sequence – hilarious, depressing and unexpected at the same time – where Sheel imagines her husband in a family set-up with a woman who can speak to him in German. In moments like these – Teutonic syllables assailing Sheel as she sleeps – Mai moves beyond the trappings of the crime genre and becomes a portrait of the aspirations and fears of people who are struggling to balance their capabilities with their circumstances.
P.S. here are two screenshots from two recent series. Top: Scam 1992 (Sony Liv). Bottom: Mai (Netflix). What’s the connecting thread between these two images? (Just a three-letter word. Very familiar to anyone who was watching Hindi films of a certain vintage.)
Answer: Ilu. (Or Ilu Ilu, if you prefer.) The interrogation scene refers to “Yeh Ilu Ilu kya hai?” as the most pressing question of the day. And that’s Vivek Mushran, who sang “Ilu Ilu” in Saudagar in another lifetime, as Sheel’s husband in Mai.
Monday, May 09, 2022
(Wrote this review for Money Control. Home Shanti is on Hotstar)
Among the more intriguing things about the OTT series boom is the phenomenon of the creative or the analogous subtitle – where dialogues featuring Indian cultural references or idioms are translated in such a way that they might be more relatable for a (presumed) westernised viewership. One may feel ambivalent about this sort of thing (some people are annoyed by it just on principle), but when done well it can have inventive results.
Consider some examples from the new series Home Shanti, about a pleasant middle-class Dehradun family (the wonderful Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa play a middle-aged couple with two teenage children) getting a new house, a long-cherished dream, built for themselves. In one scene, a contractor boasts that the cement mixer they have hired is as much in demand as the actor Akshay Kumar. The subtitle replaces Kumar’s name with that of Ryan Reynolds. (One wonders if Reynolds being Canadian has anything to do with it.)
In another scene, the 17-year-old Naman goes on a rant about his older sister being out of step with the times. “Jigyasa is so 90s,” he says, “Ussko lagta hai ‘Udaas’ koi mood nahin, ghazal singer hai.” The reference, as anyone who knows the period, is to the singer Pankaj Udhas, but the subtitle opts for a clever alternate: it reads “Jigyasa is so 90s she doesn’t think Freedom is a feeling but a George Michael song.”
That second scene in particular shows what can be done with good, imaginative subtitling, and there are other examples too (such as the replacement of Mahabharata characters with figures from Greek mythology in a scene where the Pathak character Sarla complains that her husband would probably have chosen obscure names for the children). At the same time, one has to wonder if such subtitling makes sense in this case, for this show. Because it’s hard to picture a series like Home Shanti drawing a non-Indian viewership that would be so clueless about Akshay Kumar or Pankaj Udhas or the Mahabharata that they would need to be spoon-fed foreign reference points such as Sophocles and Aphrodite!
This is very much the sort of homegrown show that gets described (sometimes patronisingly) as “sweet”, “simple” or “innocent” – descriptors that were, in an earlier time, used for the Middle Cinema films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, and for Doordarshan-era serials like Yeh jo Hai Zindagi, Wagle ki Duniya and Nukkad. In marked contrast to the dark, edgy, profanity-and-violence-filled shows that appeal to many young OTT addicts today, this one is goofy, often slapsticky. Almost everyone in it is basically likable, even the characters whose function is to set up conflicts. The humour is safe and reassuring, though there are traces of irreverence here and there.
The minimalist opening credits with cute drawings of the Joshi family (alongside each episode title) reminded me of the original Wagle ki Duniya with RK Laxman’s illustrations. As does the show’s format: each of the six episodes deals with a very specific aspect of house-building, from doing bhoomi puja to working with architects and interior designers, from curing the walls (deewaaron ki tarai) to bribing an official for a permit. Within the first few scenes, we also get easily digestible information about each of the four main characters, almost as if little labels are stuck on them. Thus, Sarla, a school-teacher, is a disciplinarian, while her laidback husband Umesh (Pahwa) spends most of his time writing poetry or listening to cricket. Jigyaasa (Chakori Dwivedi), often impatient and on edge, hopes for more privacy when the new house is done. Naman (Poojan Chhabra), a Tiger Shroff wannabe, behaves like a cool dude and wants a gym, but he is a softie inside. Needless to say, beneath the surface squabbling, they all love each other.
It might take even a patient viewer – even someone with an affinity for “sweet and simple” – some time to warm up to Home Shanti. Some of the jokes are laboured (pun intended), with facile humour built around the twisting of words or names (“Chhup kar, Sigmund Fraud”), and the antics of young Naman can be annoying (even if the character is meant to be your average unbearable teen). Some scenes move between being genuinely funny and laying it on too thick: encounters with a young architect whose love for surrealism leads to a very complicated building layout; a new-age pandit who conducts online pujas if required and gets a pumpkin broken at the “feet” of the big mixing machine. (“Mixer dev ke charanon mein kaddu ka balidaan karo.”) There are some inspired touches, too, such as a running joke about the three-and-a-half-hour film Lagaan playing on loop in the waiting room of a Kafkaesque government office.
But where Home Shanti’s foundations are most secure are in the scenes centering on the older characters. Pathak and Pahwa (this should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed their recent work) are consistently marvellous; even within the broad frameworks of situation comedy, they do the little things so expertly that it’s hard not to grow fond of this family and to feel invested in their dream. Whether Sarla is offering to smack her son with a spade, or exploding at the contractor with “Kya sahi baat?! Aadmi ho ya pendulum?” (when he says “sahi baat” to everything she and Umesh say during an argument), Pathak does exasperation very well – you can even see her as a stand-in for the viewer who may be getting impatient with some of the tomfoolery.
Alarm bells can go off when a show that is positioned as a comedy starts to get serious or sentimental or message-oriented. But again thanks mainly to the two senior actors, Home Shanti caries off such moments reasonably well. There are a few lovely little scenes, such as one between Sarla and a former student in the SDM office where the beleaguered family has reluctantly gone to give a bribe. Or a slice-of-life conversation which begins with the teasing of a friend who is stuck with eating guavas when he really prefers mangoes, and then segues into a reflection on how parents set rigid paths for their children to follow. In the final two episodes, the show, while still sticking broadly to the “different stages and challenges of house-building” theme, also makes small narrative detours to tell us more about the characters, including the reticence that has prevented Umesh from going up on stage at poetry-recital gathering.
And, importantly, Home Shanti knows not to over-stay its welcome, restricting itself to half a dozen 30-minute episodes that move at a decent pace, and ending on an expected but satisfying note. The last-minute arrival of a grandmother who makes most of the family nervous does point to a second season that might turn out to be a more conventional or prolonged dramedy, but we’ll cross that bridge – or cure that wall – when it comes.
[A piece about Wagle ki Duniya - the old one and the new one - is here]
Wednesday, May 04, 2022
(This is an outtake of sorts – something I had wanted to include in my personal essay for Devapriya Roy’s anthology Cat People; I eventually left it out since it didn’t quite fit in that piece, which had grown too long anyway.
Also treat this as a recommendation not just for the main films mentioned here but for all of Val Lewton’s work. I enjoyed the two-week online session I did around Lewton’s cinema in 2020, and hope to do a follow-up at some point. Can also share some of the films with anyone who’s interested.)
In my early teens I became obsessed with old Hollywood films, hunted down and watched hundreds of them – at a time when this wasn’t easily done as a Delhi kid – and at some point I probably deluded myself that I had seen almost everything worth seeing. Especially in my favourite genres, which included noir, horror, and musicals. And so, in my forties I feel a thrill when I come across a treasure that I had altogether missed (or disregarded) back then.
Among the most invigorating of these recent discoveries is the 1944 film The Curse of the Cat People, co-directed by Robert Wise – who is much better known to casual movie buffs for helming The Sound of Music 20 years later (and to more knowledgeable viewers for being one of the editors of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). Though as it happens, The Curse of the Cat People is one of those films where the producer – Val Lewton – is regarded as the principal creative force. It is one in a series of marvellous low-budget Lewton films that were characterised by psychological horror – by the hinted-at rather than the explicitly seen – and a hard-to-define sense of unease.
The Curse of the Cat People is also the sequel to the 1942 Cat People, which I had seen much earlier. I remembered being gripped by the quietly sinister way in which that film told the story of a young woman who is convinced she has a dark, uncontrollable cat-self. Though this woman, Irena (played by Simone Simon), is an essentially sympathetic character tormented by demons she barely knows, the basic premise paves the way for Cat People’s presentation of shadowy feline as movie monster. The film’s most famous scene – a classic example of Lewton’s moody, abstract approach to horror – has Irena’s romantic rival Alice being terrified by an unseen presence during a late-night swim (and we think we see something leopard-like amidst the shadows on the wall around the pool area). Another celebrated scene – one which created a horror template and led to the coining of the term “Lewton Bus” – has Alice being stalked during a walk; just as we expect a fierce cat to pounce, the sudden, startling noise on the soundtrack turns out to be a night bus that has stopped in front of her.
That bus does make a very distinctive hiss.
So here was the idea of cat-ness as something mysterious and scary, something that can tear apart both the person afflicted by it and the people who come in touch with this cat-person. (If the initial viewers of Cat People were anything like Indians who abandon their pets at the slightest excuse – or impulsively buy the “cute” breed of dog they’ve seen in a new ad – there would have been many disoriented house-cats roaming the streets of America in the weeks following its release.)
It was with this memory, and with very little prior knowledge, that I watched The Curse of the Cat People a couple of years ago – expecting a straight sequel, in the style of later horror-movie franchises. I was taken aback. This is a sequel only in the sense that it features the characters who survive the first film, and finds a way to bring Irena (or her ghost) back into the frame. Otherwise it is a switch in genre, quite different from Lewton’s other works.
The Curse of the Cat People is mainly a sensitive look at the inner world of a little girl named Amy, a child who seems to live more in private fantasy and less in the actual world around her – which is starting to vex her father Oliver (Irena’s husband in the first film, now married to Alice), who worries about what “too much imagination” can do to a child’s mind. Feeling lost and friendless, Amy wanders into an old house and makes the acquaintance of an eccentric old woman (as well as *her* dejected daughter; this mother-child relationship in some ways suggests what Amy’s relationship with her father might become). With the help of what may or may not be a wishing ring, Amy also conjures an imaginary(?) friend for herself – and later, after seeing a photograph of the deceased Irena in her house, she starts to picture Irena as this friend.
And that is almost the extent of this film’s connection with its predecessor. Lewton himself had wanted this one to be titled Amy and Her Friend, which would have been much more fitting – though it wasn’t bone-chilling enough for the studio. (The posters of the time, including the one attached here – “The Beast Woman Strikes!” “Sensational Return of the Killer Cat-Woman!” – are sensationalist misrepresentations of this film.)
This is a story about parents and children, and the gulfs – including those created by personality clashes – between them. (I was unsurprised to learn that this was a very early instance of a film being used in child-psychology classes in the US. It’s pleasing to think that a Val Lewton B-movie – with all those exploitative posters! – would be used in that way, given that this was a period when there were some very simplistic ideas about what “respectable” or “educative” films should look like.) It is also about the nature of parenting itself, and how the best intentions can have dire results. During one nuanced exchange, a kindly teacher suggests to Oliver that maybe he is *too anxious* and watchful about Amy, and that she is sensitive enough to pick up on that anxiousness – which makes her more nervous in turn. This may well be the case, but it’s also worth noting that Oliver doesn’t always pay full attention when Amy is trying to tell him something important: in one scene, when she mentions the spooky house she went to, he is quick to brush it off as another fanciful tale; a short while later, Amy’s mother Alice, speaking more patiently with her, easily learns which house she is talking about and who lives there.
Back to cats, though, and an important difference between Cat People and its sequel: in the first film, Irena, though melancholy and sympathetic (and easy to see as a victim by the end), is also for much of the duration of the story an enigmatic protagonist who might be a big threat to the other characters. But in Curse of the Cat People, she is a warm, comforting presence – an invisible friend who sees a lonely child through hard times.
The French actress Simone Simon, who played Irena, was a striking, unusual presence for the Hollywood films of the time, much more of an “exotic” European import than, say, Ingrid Bergman from the same period. Simon’s most recent Hollywood role before Cat People had been as the Devil’s impish assistant in the period film The Devil and Daniel Webster (“You French?” someone asks her character in that film. “I’m not anything,” she replies with a knowing smile) and it’s easy to see why an American audience of the time would find her otherworldly, hard to pin down, and sexually threatening too. (One subtext of Cat People – which also makes the film useful in feminist studies – is that the beast inside Irena is unleashed when she is sexually aroused.) But Simon’s distinctive screen presence is used to very different effect when she plays “my friend” in the sequel: to Amy, who is our object of identification in this film, the suburban world inhabited by her “normal” parents and “normal” schoolmates is distancing and often upsetting; for her, the spectral, cat-like Irena is a protector, and there is a reassuring glow to their scenes together – the camerawork becomes soft-focused and dreamy, it’s obvious that we are in a magic space.
Put simply, the first film is built around fear of a feline attacker; while the second is a children’s film where the guardian angel is a cat-person – a companion to a reserved and bullied child. (Would it be gratuitous to recall the Prahlada-Narasimha story? Maybe, but as we are constantly being told now, Hindu mythology did everything first.)
As I wrote in the Cat People essay, I was an Amy-like child myself in some ways, and it’s possible that this is why I was a “cat person” at a certain age. Such theories are of course built around broad stereotypes/generalisations about reserved cats vs extroverted dogs, but I find it hard to separate my childhood closeness with cats from the fact that I spent a great deal of my time in a very interior world: the world of books, films (including, from age 13, films that none of my friends or classmates were interested in), later watching long hours of Test cricket alone, filling notebooks with scores and star ratings and little observations about things I had watched or read. Kittu and Sandy, the cats whom I wrote about in the essay, were in different ways my Irenas during that period. Though as I would come to realise in later years, dogs can play a similar role in their slobbering, undignified ways.
(For related thoughts on cats + dogs + cat people who are also dog people, read my piece in the Cat People anthology. The book is available online, here for instance, and of course in physical bookstores.)
Monday, May 02, 2022
“I felt ten feet tall.”
1. Bigger Than Life (1956), with James Mason as a middle-aged teacher who gets addicted to the “miracle drug” cortisone and turns into an alpha-male much to the alarm of his wife and young son. Not a success when it came out, but subsequently hailed as one of the most hard-hitting American films of its decade – and a key work in the assessment of director Nicholas Ray as an auteur. (A famous Sight and Sound article “Ray or Ray?” was intended as a rap on the knuckles of those enthusiastic French critics who took Nicholas Ray as seriously as Satyajit Ray!)
2. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – this was quite a discovery for me, though I had read Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man a few years ago. Wonderfully compact and focused (and strangely moving) sci-fi film about a man who starts shrinking at a steady rate after being exposed to a strange mist, and soon finds hidden dangers in every corner of the house that was once his castle. It must have been some experience to watch this on the big screen when it first came out – super production design, especially after the protagonist shrinks to insect size.
(Here is a column I wrote, touching on the Shrinking Man novel and its subtexts.)
And as a lighter counterpoint to the above, a film in a very different genre – the screwball comedy – but also about a mysterious stimulant that causes physical/psychological changes. Howard Hawks's Monkey Business (1952), in which Cary Grant finds the elixir of youth and paints the town red with Marilyn Monroe.
Note: Hawks is one of the great filmmakers, but his work (and his very particular strengths) can be an acquired taste for many contemporary viewers (the ones who didn’t get immersed in old Hollywood at a young age like I did). For instance, the banter between the sexes in his films can often seem too talky, not “cinematic” enough if you haven’t developed a special interest in great star-actors like Grant and Hepburn, or Bogart and Bacall. But give it some time and you’ll find a lot to treasure in his work. Monkey Business starts slowly, but there are some fun scenes between Grant and the young Monroe, who work well together, as well as a Ginger Rogers performance that I appreciated a lot more as a middle-aged viewer than I did as an adolescent.
I’ll schedule the conversation after a week. We can talk about related things: 1950s melodramas about fractured families, social hypocrisies, the generational divide or general unrest among the young and the old (these include films by directors like Douglas Sirk, such as All That Heaven Allows, which I watched again recently). Or science fiction. If anyone wants prints of these films email me (email@example.com) and I’ll share them through G Drive.
Sunday, May 01, 2022
(My latest Economic Times column)
If you’ve watched the new film Sharmaji Namkeen, you know that the central character shape-shifts from one scene to the next. For instance, you might see Sharmaji, played by Rishi Kapoor, preparing to do something or go somewhere… then he steps out of the house with bag in hand and he is now played by Paresh Rawal. Or the other way round.
This isn’t because the film had set out to be formally playful along the lines of, say, Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (where two actresses alternated playing the role of the woman described in the title) or Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (in which six actors – including a woman, Cate Blanchett – portray different sides of Bob Dylan). In Sharmaji Namkeen, the dual casting came from a marriage of sentiment and practicality: after Rishi Kapoor passed away mid-shoot, Rawal filled in for him.
The decision turned out to be a good one; this is a warm-hearted film about the need to feel alive and relevant even after the world has given you a sell-by date. I know of viewers who became so absorbed with the story that after a point they barely noticed – or thought about – the constant switching between the two actors (and this despite a considerable girth difference between Kapoor and Rawal, apart from the dissimilarity of features). On one level I wish I had such immersive faculties; but on the whole I’m glad I experienced the film as I did – the storytelling anomaly brought a namkeeniyat to a sweet middle-class Delhi narrative, making the experience pleasantly off-kilter.
The two-actors-as-one-character thing has often been done in non-avant-garde contexts, of course, most obviously when two performers play the same person at different ages – within the same film or in two closely connected films. As the lean young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, Robert De Niro had to pull off a tricky balancing act, making it plausible that this Vito could fill out and grow into the senior don played by Marlon Brando in the first film, but without turning the performance into a facile mimicry of Brando’s mannerisms. Or, from a cinematic galaxy far, far away, consider Master Mayur – he of the droopy, horse-like face – as the child version of Amitabh Bachchan (also equine) in films like Laawaris. By that point, playing the young Bachchan had been Mayur’s main job profile for years, and you can see it in the dhaba scene where he dances to “Mere Angne Mein” (playing on the radio), using all his knowledge of Bachchan’s one-step moves, gestures and expressions.
In cases like Sharmaji Namkeen or Obscure Object (or Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be reorganised after Heath Ledger’s death), you know a certain suspension of disbelief is required; that artifice is involved, and there’s a reason for it. (Sharmaji Namkeen is a narrative film, but it opens with a Fourth Wall-breaking introduction by Ranbir Kapoor, explaining how much it had meant to his father, and how he tried playing the role himself with prosthetics before Rawal agreed to come in.) But what when a story aims for verisimilitude and rootedness in dealing with a real-life tragedy? I’m thinking about the recent web series Grahan – a poignant if overlong narrative that moves between the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and a contemporary investigation – in which a key character, Rishi Ranjan, is played in the present by Pawan Malhotra, and in the past, as a strapping youngster, by Anshumaan Pushkar.
Both performances are solid, and there is a passable facial resemblance between the actors in close-up sequences. But in the long-shot scenes I found it hard to see them as the same person because while Malhotra is slim and short-built (as I realised firsthand when I met him for an interview once), Pushkar is broad-shouldered and definitely taller. The physical differences between the two actors become obvious after watching scenes where the Ranjan of 1984 and the Ranjan of 2016 are each shown standing next to the same character.
As a critic this is where you’re allowed to over-think. One explanation, I mused, could be that Ranjan’s 1984 experiences – including feelings of guilt and shame – have diminished him; that he has shrunk into himself, and the casting is meant to reflect this. This interpretation becomes much less persuasive if you watch the show till the end, but subtextual analysis is subtextual analysis. Besides, there’s something about the human brain, something in the way our eyes and senses respond in these situations, that once a basic idea is in place (and is being executed with integrity), we go along with the ride; our brain finds ways to connect the dots. Most fans of the series The Crown – which changes its cast every two seasons – would agree that there is no resemblance at all between, say, Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies (and you could argue that neither of them looks much like the real-life Prince Philip anyway) – but after a point that doesn’t matter.
Anyway, I would take my minor discomfort about Grahan over the time when I neatly spoiled a thriller for myself by seeing a strong resemblance between two actors (the octogenarian Diana Rigg and the young Anya Taylor-Joy) – when the effect of the film’s twisty denouement depended on a viewer not seeing the resemblance. The film in question was Last Night in Soho, and if you haven’t watched it, there, I’ve spoiled it for you now. Blame the casting department.
Sunday, April 17, 2022
Outlook magazine has a new, horror-themed issue (The Ghosts are Us). I wrote this essay for it
If you like your horror cinema to be easily classified – the common categories include “psychological” vs “supernatural”, or “quietly creepy” vs “full of jump scares” – you might be intrigued by the Malayalam film Bhoothakaalam, about a middle-aged woman and her son battling personal demons. In tone, setting and characterisation, this is a subdued work rather than one of explicit terrors. Asha (Revathi) and Vinu (Shane Nigam) seem afflicted by a sadness the causes of which aren’t spelt out, though we grasp things about their past and present: a husband/father who died leaving behind unhappiness and debt; a boy who misses him and sees his mother as clinging; a woman who can’t conceive of life without her son.
But while Bhoothakaalam maintains its grounded tone, it also has things that go bump in the night… and there is a haunted house too (albeit in a bright residential area, far from the archetype of the isolated mansion). Without giving away too much, midway through the narrative there is a slight shift in our perceptions about what is going on, and a sense that subtle and supernatural can go together.
“Isn’t it just a house?” someone says when the possibility of demoniac spirits comes up, “Made of stones, cement, mud, wood.” But what if a brick-and-mortar entity can respond to the conflicts of the people living in it? In one tense dinner-table scene, as mother and son start to argue and voices are raised, the camera pointedly focuses on the window curtains in the background – they might be moving a little more than expected, or is it just the wind? Here and elsewhere, one gets the impression that the house is somehow feeding on their negative energies. Asha and Vinu have become distanced from each other, and they need to rebuild their trust for the monster to be defeated.
Which means that like so many horror films, Bhoothakaalam is essentially about loneliness and alienation. “If he leaves, who will I have? Won’t I be alone here?” Asha asks in an early scene when it is suggested that Vinu travels elsewhere for a good job. There is an echo in her despairing words of the most famous horror film about an intense mother-son bond, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a young man is seemingly tied forever by an umbilical cord, unable to move away from his mother’s presence.
When I first watched Psycho as a shy adolescent living with a recently divorced mother, the film touched me in ways that I couldn’t articulate. There was something so powerful about the sense of decay and stasis, about the vulnerable awkwardness on Norman Bates’s face as he tried to express his feelings to a stranger. Or his indignant response to the accusation that he might be trying to leave the Bates Motel and start a new life elsewhere. (“This place happens to be my only world. I grew up in that house up there.”) Today I still spend much of my working day in the flat that my mother and I moved to in 1987, and Psycho is never far from my mind when I wander its empty rooms – including the room she died in a few years ago. I think about how our living spaces can inhabit us as much as we inhabit them.
The horror genre offers plenty of room for reflections of this sort. Perhaps this is also why it is a surprise to learn, late in Bhoothakaalam, that Asha and Vinu had been living in their house for a short time, and on rent: I had assumed it was an old family house where their entire personal histories had unfolded.
Horror literature and cinema has long mined the idea of a haunted house as a mirror to the states of mind of the people in it – from Shirley Jackson’s iconic novel The Haunting of Hill House (about experiments in fear conducted by a doctor with a small group of people) to Stephen King’s The Shining (a writer takes up a position as the off-season caretaker of a large, snowbound hotel and finds the place exerting a spell on him) to Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (a family that was once well-off continues to stay in their crumbling estate). The filmed adaptations of these works make visual or aural links between the ominous setting and the dark crannies in the inhabitants’ minds. In the 1963 film The Haunting – adapted from Jackson’s novel – a distorting lens suggests the oddness of the house’s spaces; Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining uses long Steadicam takes that emphasise the agoraphobia-inducing vastness of the hotel.
Many modern horror filmmakers make a fetish out of being restrained and realistic, as if there were something inherently distasteful about making viewers jump out of their seats in the old way (or maybe it’s just that the popcorn is now so expensive that nobody wants to risk spilling it!). But once in a while we still find films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), which successfully operate in multiple modes. This is at one level a “creature feature” – the half-glimpsed bogeyman is as otherworldly as they come – but the story’s heart is the relationship between a protective single mother and her little boy whom others see as disturbed. Other acclaimed recent films – from Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Hereditary to Jordan Peele’s Us to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place – also get their bleakness, and in some cases their redemptive power, from strained filial relationships: a young woman tries to cope with the sudden suicide-murder of her family, another family has to perfectly plan and synchronise its every action if it wants to stay alive in a dystopian scenario.
While the alienation theme can derive from complex parent-child relationships of this sort, there are other ways of being cut off from the “normal” world. “I must have gotten off the main road,” says Marion Crane, a young woman who finds herself at the Bates Motel after having escaped her home-town with stolen money. “Nobody ever stops here anymore unless they've done that,” replies Norman. Marion’s theft has led her, literally, into the “galat raasta” and a subterranean world.
The trope of the lonely or isolated woman has also fuelled many classics over the decades, going back at least to Val Lewton’s 1942 Cat People (and extending forward through the 1970s and 80s to films targeted at male viewers, which centred on the voyeuristic thrills that came from seeing a woman in peril). In these stories, the protagonist might be alienated by circumstances or personality, and dealing with some combination of mental illness or societal repression. There are obvious subtexts, especially when the story is set in conservative frameworks where it is seen as undesirable for women to be untethered (or “too independent”). Thus the pregnant Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) needs to be controlled by smiling neighbours who are really a satanic cult; they can’t allow her autonomy, she must be cut off from close friends who might form a support circle. In the poignant French film Eyes Without a Face (1960), a disfigured young woman wanders sadly around her large mansion while her surgeon father – another concerned but controlling parent – tries to restore her face. In the Japanese classic Onibaba (1964), an old woman becomes unhinged as she realises that she might be abandoned by her daughter-in-law (they live alone in the grasslands, stealing from wounded Samurai). And in one of my favourite B-movies, the cheaply made but very effective Carnival of Souls (1962), a woman named Mary emerges from a lake after an accident and, disoriented, tries to negotiate her surroundings. Is she literally dead, a zombie, or is her confusion an allegory for trying to make a fresh start and repeatedly coming up against dead ends?
It’s easy to imagine some of these lonely-people films in conversation across space and time. For instance, think of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Pavan Kirpalani’s Phobia (2016), and Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun? (1999). In each, a woman is in a confined space, trying to make sense of her predicament. The specifics are different – one character may be sexually repressed, another might be the caged victim of a domineering man, the third may be dealing with a menacing threat outside the house – but each of them is trying to keep monsters, real or imagined, at bay.
But to my mind, the best horror film about loneliness and despair is one that doesn’t yet exist – it is the never-made film version of one of the scariest, saddest books I have read, Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly. The story centres on this indelible idea: a melancholy young woman named Faustina is faced with the possibility that she has a ghostly doppelganger, a shadow self that is impersonating her and getting her into trouble, and will eventually come to claim her soul. “In early childhood,” she muses, “You stare at your face in the mirror and look at your hands and feet and say to yourself: I am me. I am not anyone else. Yet, something inside you goes on feeling that it’s not quite true.” The book’s climax involves both this spectral double and a reflecting surface in a house: a perfect depiction of inner and outer spaces – glass and cement and a tormented mind – coming together to devastating effect. If there is ever a film of this novel, make sure to hold that expensive popcorn tub as tightly as you can.
Friday, April 15, 2022
It was John Gielgud’s birth anniversary yesterday, and I was revisiting some passages about the Gielgud-Laurence Olivier rivalry from two books: one is Donald Spoto’s Laurence Olivier: A Biography (which my grandfather gifted me almost 30 years ago – see the 1992 dedication here); and the other is Gielgud’s memoir Early Stages (written when the actor was only in his thirties), which I acquired a few years ago. An excerpt from the latter: reflecting on his 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he invited the young, not-yet-famous Olivier to alternate the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with him, Gielgud writes,