Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I Have Nothing to Say About Dangal

I more than enjoyed Dangal: it was fantastically well-made, uniformly well-acted, and pulled off the difficult feat of making wrestling interesting, even deeply engrossing – that’s creditable, when you consider that most sports movies rely on the built-in appeal of sports that are already popular, with great cultural resonance.  Heck, to even make a sports film – i.e. a film in one of the most hackneyed genres – half decent, let alone excellent, is pretty darn impressive.

And yet, when I (more than once, and over a period of a few months) sat down to write a review of Dangal, I found I had nothing to say. Which might make this piece nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in my writer’s block, but I’d like to believe there’s more going on here.  The “nothing” is symptomatic of a wider issue, namely that Dangal is a very impressive film – just not a very interesting one.  Is that a high bar?  Certainly – after all, no-one asks whether Chennai Express, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge are interesting films (the likes of Karan Johar insist on treating movies like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil as examples of interesting cinema, but that sort of move testifies not only to Johar’s mediocrity, but to a rather transparent attempt to account for under-performance at the box office) – but not unreasonably so: in terms of commercial cinema, Aamir Khan has set a relatively high standard over the last fifteen years, and has reaped many rewards for his efforts.  Dangal, though, crystallizes a trend in Aamir Khan’s recent work, one that runs through 3 Idiots and PK (but not through Ghajini or Talaash): it panders to its audience, i.e. it tells us viewers what we already believe about the world, and does so in order to make us feel good about ourselves. 

It’s that last bit that should give us pause: Dangal’s pandering isn’t problematic because it gives us what we want (that is banal, in the sense that it is true of most mainstream movies), it’s problematic because the film demands that it be taken seriously, and then rewards that engagement by telling us we – the “we” who have filed in to watch this film – have nothing to worry about, we have been on the right side of history all along.  What is, after all, the “message” of Dangal?  That girls and women are just as good as men?  But who could disagree with that?  Or, more to the point, while there are millions who might disagree with that, as even a casual look at India’s socio-economic data on gender and disadvantage will show, who among Dangal’s audience would disagree with a proposition framed in that fashion?  And that is very much the fashion in which the film presents the proposition, with Aamir’s Mahavir Phogat leading his daughters Geeta and Babita (fantastically played by Zaira Wasim/Fatima Sana Shaikh (Geeta) and Suhani Bhatnagar/Saniya Malhotra (Babita)) into terrain traditionally off-limits to women: the world of wrestling, and in the Jat communities of Haryana to boot.  The father is repeatedly told (including by how own wife) that wrestling isn’t for girls, and he refuses to take received wisdom as a given, ultimately getting his way.  Nothing should be off-limits simply because one is female.

Self-evidently true, but it’s that “simply because” that trips me up: it’s where so much discrimination, so much exclusion lurks in disguise, and enables bigots and discriminators to watch this film with a clean conscience.  This matters because, in today’s day and age, sexism and other forms of discrimination do not announce themselves as such (just about everyone recognizes that a certain opprobrium, a social cost, attaches to open displays of hatred, it’s almost a marker that one is un-civilized), but as something else.  Today, the misogynist hastens to assure us he doesn’t have anything against women, “but…”; the racist insists he doesn’t hate African-Americans, but in fact it’s whites who bear the brunt of racism in America; Yogi Adityanath heaps vitriol against Muslims, but resists any implication that he is anti-Muslim, or even that he has any problem with pluralism (he wishes to offer us “true” pluralism, secularism, etc.).  That is, if the hallmark of nineteenth- and twentieth-century –isms was essentialism (e.g. the openly expressed view that biological differences between men and women meant that each had certain spheres of activity proper to them; or that different races were scientifically demonstrated to be superior/inferior to others), the truth of our own times is the lie: a hatred that dares not speak its name, and dares a great deal as long as its name is not uttered.

For Dangal, the above means that the audience never has to face any uncomfortable questions about its own sexism, or to reckon with misogyny of a more subtle kind – everyone can get on board this party program, and the happy ending means we don’t need to worry about what isn’t on the menu.  It’s the classic problem with a pop culture Raavan: if there’s a villain out there somewhere and he can be killed, you don’t need to worry about the more complicated demons within (an inversion of Javed Akhtar’s memorable lines from the Swades Ramleela song come to mind, the words “…dekh taj ke paap Raavan Ram tere mann mein hai” pointing to a more complicated, more suggestive link).  There’s nothing mean or contemptible about that truth, but it is important to remember that is the truth of the super-hero comic, and as such it is no more than a pleasant diversion.  In Dangal, the world is divided between the benighted – those who think women can’t do what women haven’t done for ages – and the enlightened, and the film leaves no doubt it thinks the audience is among the enlightened (indeed the structure of the film as a sports-film makes this explicit: by movie’s end we are all rooting for the female athletes, and hence for the virtuous cause they and their father stand for).  From this perspective Bajrangi Bhaijan was far more interesting: consider the myriad scenes in which rather everyday examples of communalism are represented, scenes (set around, for instance, dietary practices) that evoke uncomfortable recognition (displaced by some clever humor, allowing the viewer to engage with the communalized texture of his reality, but not denied) – in Dangal, the analogous scenes create a distance between viewer and character: it’s not “we” who are sexist, not like those Haryanvi rural Jats, shocking really, what goes on there.

Dangal’s filmmakers are doubtless aware that even in the film’s target audience, women’s wrestling might be a bridge too far for some, so it deploys a second lever: nationalism.  At every point, Mahavir’s and the film’s feminism is powered by nationalism, a one-two punch that makes Dangal more about the latter than the former: feminism and women’s empowerment is not an end in itself, but (this is a sports film, after all) something that will win the nation medals and glory.  As a reflexive fan of the Indian cricket team, I’ve got no problem with sports-patriotism – but I do have issues with setting that up as a goal so worthy even women’s empowerment may be used to further it.  Stated differently, Dangal’s double move is to accept as a given that most of us will be rooting for Geeta and Babita as they make their way in the world of wrestling (under, I might add, the leadership of their father; the film unsubtly makes the point: when Geeta forgets his path, she must contend with athletic failure) – but those who don’t must reckon with the politically uncomfortable truth that they are impediments to the nation’s progress. 

(As an aside, this is of course an old trope, a common defensive or nationalist response to the colonial gaze: when purdah was seen as a symbol of Eastern backwardness, “native” modernizers hastened to insist that “their” women should discard it; when the absence of a European-style national identity was presented as evidence that the colonized weren’t ready for freedom, leaders of national movements insisted on constructing histories designed to show that just such nations had been there all along; and today, when the discourse has shifted to women’s empowerment and gay rights, it isn’t surprising to see the once-colonized try and show that they are no longer backward on that front as well – blind to the problem that accepting this discourse of modernization, that is to say, accepting the logic of catching up, means one is forever behind.  Once upon a time, a culture’s greater indifference to homosexuality, or “lax” standards on men and women inter-mingling, made it backward vis-à-vis the Victorians; today the opposite makes one backward, even as the frame remains in place.)

What could be less feminist than this double move?  For Dangal, feminism isn’t even worthy of standing alone as something worth striving for – the something that is worth striving for, that is valuable in and of itself, is nationalism, and women’s empowerment can help that goal.  This is an instrumental feminism, not something one can give Dangal a medal for – indeed, what happens to those who seek or win no medals?  What happens to causes that do not have any payoff in national glory at the end of the quest, merely greater justice (and no, I am not referring to the pat we can all give ourselves on being part of a system where that greater justice is ultimately obtainable – that’s the path of the Hollywood “feel good” movie on race and civil rights, no less clear an example of pandering than Dangal)?  What happens, in short, when the quest for justice does not bring national glory?  On that, it seems, Dangal has nothing to say.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Brief Note on Visaranai (Tamil; 2016)

just saw Visaaranai, and I don't think I can write a review of the film.  Or rather, there's something obscene about (merely) reviewing this terrifying representation of four migrant laborers caught in a criminal justice system so pitiless, so oppressive, "corruption" is a banal term for it, banal and lying in its suggestion of hope that the norm might be something else; obscene, because Visaaranai does not so much indict "the system" as it does everyone who allows himself to consume uncritically a news report or a police story of gangs busted, terrorists nabbed, or policemen feted.  The most charitable thing one can say is that a great chasm of unknowing separates us, should separate us, from trust in such news stories: Visaaranai demonstrates, with almost mathematical precision, that any other response is unethical.  There are plenty of other reasons to watch this film: as a naturalistic representation of a politicized police force, it is unequalled by anything I have seen; the acting is uniformly good (perhaps none more so than Samuthirakani as Inspector Muthuvel); and the direction by Vetri Maaran superb, but these are not essential: the implicit proof that it offers of our own degraded complicity in the charade, is. I haven't seen a better film in years, and I haven't ever seen a more necessary one.

A huge thanks to Chandrakumar for writing this, and for affording us the privilege of hearing his voice at film's end, and really to everyone associated with this film (including Dhanush, who gets a producer credit) for making this film possible.  Thanks also to Netflix for making this film available in the US (I can only hope it's available at Netflix India as well).

Saturday, March 12, 2016

X Qs for Prof. Eric Beverley

A Note on BANGALORE DAYS (Malayalam; 2014)

Everything about the way Bangalore Days begins, it turns out, is a bit misleading: the opening frames introduce us to the narrator, a dorky, newly-minted software engineer called Krishnan P. P. (Nivin Pauly) with dreams of the big city, and then to his cousin Divya (Nazriya Nazim), who puts her dreams of a MBA on hold after meeting the man her parents have set her up with, the aloof America-returned executive Das (Fahadh Faasil); and finally to a third cousin, the free-spirited biker Arjun (Dulquer Salman).  The cloying "nativist" sentiments of those opening scenes, or what felt like par-for-the-course sexism, weren't promising, and it seemed the most one could expect was a breezy film, insubstantial coming-of-age fluff of the sort Bollywood has made us gag on for some years now, rendered bearable by the likable Dulquer Salman.  By the time she was done, though, writer and director Anjali Menon had made me swallow every single one of those presumptions, with this measured, charming, emotionally resonant film, one that is quite a bit cleverer than the plot -- the love stories of these characters, present and (in one case) past -- would have one believe.

The film's length is crucial to its impact: certainly most Hindi films these days barely clock in at a couple of hours, and on this sort of terrain that isn't (at least not in the absence of very good writing) enough time to develop characters, for the viewer to invest in them.  Bangalore Days is a few minutes shy of three hours, and that old-fashioned length is put to good use: Menon is able to accord each of the four major characters a lot of time, patiently developing their arcs, tying up loose ends, and in almost all cases upsetting the expectations of the cynical viewer.  (In the process, Menon also does justice to the strong album, even if Gopi Sunder's music sounds like it would be most at home in a Tamil film.)  By film's end, we see the same characters, but refracted differently from the outset. Krishnan's fixation on all things traditionally Kerala ultimately seems nostalgic rather than blinkered, especially given all that has happened, not least the abandonment of that tradition by the one Krishna had assumed would be most invested in it.  Here, as elsewhere, Menon is more thoughtful than her genre typically allows, sensitive to the reality that the son's beloved tradition of home and hearth might be the mother's drudgery of endless toil and limited vistas.  For her part, Divya shows herself to be made of sterner stuff than her early amenability suggests, in a turn that includes a (very gentle) rebuke of Malayalee bourgeois ideals of domesticity.  The biggest change is in how we view Das: the film's early cues -- about his authoritarianism, his domination of his young wife, even his fondness for dogs -- acquire a completely different valence as we learn more about him, and he ultimately emerges as the film's most interesting character, strikingly rendered by Fahadh Faasil (the son, incidentally, of prominent Malayalam film director Fazil) in a fine, restrained performance.  None of these arcs, ironically, redounds to the credit of either Arjun or Dulquer, both of whom leave the film as charming as they entered it, but no more layered.  That isn't a crime, especially if one is as likable as Dulquer is (although I certainly found myself missing the father's rough edges, that trace of nastiness that always spiced up a Mammootty performance), but it does mean that the standout performances in this ensemble cast belong to Faasil and then to Nivin Pauly.

Living in India over the last five years I'd heard a number of jokes about the special place Bangalore holds in the hearts of Keralites, but I was nevertheless un-prepared for the scope of this film's claim to that effect: Bangalore Days never tires of reminding us that Bangalore is no mere city or land of economic opportunity for Keralites, but a state of mind, a horizon, the place where one can be fully oneself.  I cannot pretend to know enough about the culture to evaluate this claim, but I was moved by the earnestness with which it was made: whether or not it bears the same name, we should all have such a place.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


There are really two films in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani: the first is a rather crude period film, recycling the nationalist tropes familiar to us since the beginnings of colonized nationalism in the nineteenth century, and indifferent to advances in historiography over the last half-century.  And understandably so, given the different aims of the two: the rewards of academic historiography -- the greater understanding afforded by appreciation of nuance, context, and complication -- are more ambiguous, and less accessible to those who merely seek the affirmation of identities (new and old) offered by fables about virtuous/manly/vigorous Hindus/Muslims/us/them waging righteous war against their polar opposites, savage/effete/treacherous/feeble/dastardly Muslims/Hindus/them/us.  Bajirao Mastani's approach to the historical material is squarely a product of the latter. The issue here is not that mythical beast, "historical accuracy" -- the tedious debate around that phrase simply enables filmmakers and audiences to deflect the real question, namely, the sort of cramped, exclusionary vision that is almost reflexively enshrined in this film.  One would never know from this film that the Maratha state under Baji Rao Ballad once allied with the Nizam against the Mughal court in Delhi (for instance, the film prefers to use the one sequence of Maratha-Nizam sarkar diplomacy to paint the absurd spectacle of Bajirao swaggering into Chin Qilich Khan's tent, threatening and insulting him, in a scene of staggering imbecility and anachronistic macho); or that the first Nizam was at times intimately involved in the politics of succession to the Maratha throne or that, far in the future, an uneasy Mughal-Maratha alliance in the closing decades of the eighteenth century would represent the last time native polities would hold sway in Delhi.

I don't have any cause to complain that these particular events aren't depicted in Bajirao Mastani -- indeed there's no great reason why such events should form a large part of this love-story (although there was just as little narrative reason for the inclusion of other sequences, such as the final battle with the Nizam's son Nasir Jung).  The problem is that these omissions and inclusions underscore a deeper falsity, namely that the world evoked in the film is utterly inconsistent with the fluid, shifting political and social alliances (equally irreducible, it must be said, to our more liberal, anachronistic notions of secularism or pluralism) that form part and parcel of any serious engagement with eighteenth century-India.  History, simply put, is deeply embarrassing, especially if we seek to use it as mere grist for our own ideological mills (of the Right or the Left).  Bajirao Mastani prefers the  politics of the familiar, that is to say, the familiarly modern: Hindus line up with Hindus (with the desire to help out a fellow Hindu monarch presented as sufficient justification for diverting an entire army from its original aim), and Muslims are pretty much interchangeable, with the Nizam's heirs and Rohilla Pathans looking like each other, and in turn very similar to the bearded, mustache-less chaps familiar to us from news footage of the Taliban (the reflex that gives us these representations disturbs me more than deliberate malice would). Bajirao Ballad is a Hindu hero, and the aim of the Maratha state is simple: a Hindu swaraj and polity stretching across all Hindustan.  That is, the Peshwai of this film makes sense to those of us brought up to regard the identity politics and communal fault-lines of the 20th and 21st centuries as innate -- but seems foreign to India's complicated 18th century, where any of Maratha, Rajput, Mughal, or Rohilla Pathan might be allied with, or square off against, any of the others at any particular time (indeed terms like "Maratha" and "Mughal" themselves obscure more than they reveal, given the independent factions, sub-states and other "sovereignties" operating under each of those signs -- the Nizam, for instance, was nothing if not Mughal, as reflected in the very title the rulers meticulously held on to, a Mughal title for the realm's principal minister); or where no bond based on "Hinduness" would prevent Maratha forces from pillaging the likes of Jodhpur or Jaipur, or Bengal, no "Muslim" tie would prevent the Rohillas from, in time, blinding the emperor Shah Alam (then the figurehead of a Mughal-Maratha alliance).

In that sense Bhansali's film is a huge disappointment -- its Hindu-Muslim love story is shorn of any political implications (beyond the soft target of Brahmin caste orthodoxy, always easy to skewer now that it is safely "past"; even here there is a missed opportunity, with the film oblivious to the ebbing promise of Shivaji's populist swarajya, subsumed in a generation or two by the Peshwas' Brahmin dominance), and firmly grounded in the personal.  Bhansali's Baji Rao is simply a headstrong lover, his passion for Mastani not seen as having any political implication for the state (it is seen as having religious implications for the state's claim to uphold a Brahminical order). It is certainly the director's prerogative to make that film, but it does make the tale less interesting to me, and more akin to a "straight" love story, dressed up in the past's borrowed finery.  In this, Bajirao Mastani is not the equal of Jodha-Akbar, which, although more at home in the world of saas-bahu serials and Amar Chitra Katha than the blood and sweat of genuine historical epic, knew enough to represent the Jodha-Akbar alliance as bearing profound political implications.  The "love story" was Bollywood, but the meaning of the wider symbolism, of Akbar's re-casting of the Mughal state from a Turkic monarchy to an Indian sultanate with the Rajputs firmly ensconced as one of its pillars, was sophisticated, and to my mind profoundly correct.  

Luckily for the viewer, there's a second film here, easily Bhansali's most dynamic and engaging.  And that film -- markedly more cinematic and enjoyable than the likes of Jodha-Akbar -- is worth going to the cinema for; it's driven by an excellent performance by Ranveer Singh, a worthy supporting cast (ranging from Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao's first wife Kashi; Tanvi Azmi as the matriarch Radhabai; Yatin Karyekar's upholder of Brahmin orthodoxy, Krishna Bhatt (in the context of an aborted meal he hisses "ye Peshwai hai to Mughlai kya buree thee?!", a clever reference not just to the enemy Empire but to the cuisine as well); to a dignified Milind Soman as Ambani Pant; a delightfully dissipated Mahesh Manjrekar as the Maratha king Shahu, and the woefully under-used villainy of Aditya Pancholi's Panth Prathinidi), and some darn enjoyable dialoguebaazi by Prakash Kapadia, the sort that crackles across the screen all too infrequently these days. It's this second film that meant I was engaged throughout the nearly two hour-and-forty-minute-run-time (at least until Bhansali dredged up his inner Devdas one more time in the film's interminable closing portions) -- no mean feat these days, when even masala movies often rush past anything that might discomfit multiplex viewers, striving to present hits-and-giggles cinema in under two-and-a-half hours; the more self-consciously Hollywoody films barely squeak past two.

Against such a backdrop, it’s hard not to respect the uncompromising nature of Bhansali's vision, which simply demands more (time, attention) from his audience in a film like Bajirao Mastani.  And if in the past this uncompromising vision has often resulted in fantastic, inert spectacles devoid of any life, Bhansali's involvement with masala like Rowdy Rathore seems to have energized him: while his last directorial effort, Ras-Leela, was wretched, it wasn't so for the same reason that Devdas and (most extreme of all) Saawariya were terrible; Ras-Leela was energetic (perhaps a first for this director), but little else.  In Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali seems to have found the right balance: the visuals are less showy, the dialogs possessed of velocity and zing (perhaps a deliberate nod to the Hindi film historicals of decades ago, with Mughal-e-Azam the grand-daddy of them all), and all this anchored in the right hero, giving what has to be the best performance of his young career.

As Bollywood's Bajirao Ballad, Ranveer Singh was a pleasant surprise, essaying the role with a near-permanent twinkle and impish charm, his insouciance easily bettering the earnestness of Shah Rukh Khan in Asoka or Hrithik in Jodha-Akbar (the latter a performance I had quite liked at the time).  Unlike those colleagues, Ranveer isn't weighed down by the role, and acquits himself creditably.  Even his toned body doesn't seem like as much of a distraction here, and I didn't find it an irritating intrusion of the 21st century gym into the world of this film.  I can cite no principled basis for my view that Ranveer avoids this Hrithik-effect, and will simply note that he was persuasive, and made me believe that he could be the warrior of Maratha legend.  [Bajirao's famed intelligence was less convincing in its Bollywood avatar: with the exception of the battle in Bundelkhand early on in the film, Ranveer's Bajirao prefers to bellow into battle, often by his lonesome, than to actually, um, plan anything; this is a pity, because a more subtle director would have harnessed the actor's innate slyness to greater effect.  Stated differently, Ranveer Singh might well be the right actor to play the precocious Chanakya of the Maratha court, although, ironically, the role as written is that of a "mere" warrior. Bhansali would have been better off siding with Odysseus rather than Achilles.] To be sure, the performance isn't flawless -- Ranveer seemed uneven to me in the drunk scenes (an inconsistency mirrored in the writing), and was upstaged more than once by the polish of Milind Soman and Tanvi Azmi, or the sheer fun Mahesh Manjrekar brought to the table -- but nevertheless, Ranveer's has to be one of the most enjoyable lead male performances of 2015, and a cut above what his peers seem to be capable of.

Deepika Padukone is frustrating.  On paper, she has everything going her way in this title role of the Muslim Mastani bewitched by Bajirao: she looks gorgeous in Indian dress, and this film gives her ample opportunity to dazzle viewers, her beauty married to her trademark inability to seem vulgar (yes, even in stuff like the Billoo Barber song); plus, her role is substantial enough (even if it is afflicted by the usual problem Hindi films seem to have with kick-ass female roles: once these women have demonstrated their mettle, they are domesticated by love).  But she isn't a good enough actress to pull it off, leading to a discombobulated effect: she looks the part, and delivers her lines well, but doesn't seem convincing as the lone woman who suddenly shows up in Pune to stake her claim to Bajirao's attention.  Perhaps one needed old-school Bollywood heft to render plausible a setting this absurd, and Padukone is a product of a different idiom, not just in her affecting naturalness (the sort of thing that stands her in good stead in a role like Piku) but in the urbane ease with which everything seems to come to her -- but comfort isn't always a good thing, and where the role requires her to essay the strange and unfamiliar, Padukone falls back on facility and naturalness.  She isn't bad as Mastani, but isn't memorable, and her co-stars out-perform her.  [A word about the early action sequences though: as in Chandni Chowk to China, Padukone is very good as the warrior, and her introduction scene, with blade at Bajirao's neck, was worthy of the masala seeti.  A pity that Mastani isn't really seen after the first twenty minutes.]

Oddly enough, although Priyanka Chopra's Kashi (Bajirao's first wife) doesn't have the title role, she has just as much screen-time as Padukone, and does justice to her role.  For Bhansali, Kashi's role is a step forward: all too often his fixation on the way women look and dress, rather than what they say and do, borders on the fetishistic, but Chopra's Kashi is not in that vein: her normalcy is refreshing (indeed she might be the only character cut from ordinary dimensions in the film), and her expressive face and comfort with desi gesturality means that while Mastani talks a whole lot about her love for Bajirao, it's Kashi's sentiments that are more keenly felt.  Neither heroine is as impressive as the severe Radhabai: Tanvi Azmi admittedly only has one note to play here, but she does so with great authority and charisma (who would've thought the most impressive look in this film would rely on a shaven head and widow's white sari)?

Ah, the music: perhaps never before in the history of Hindi cinema has a director been so smugly satisfied with his sense of music, with such little reason, as Bhansali appears to be, with one flabby album following another with boring predictability over the course of his career.  The music here (credited to Bhansali himself) is no different: I could barely remember a strain even a minute after a song had ended, with the breezy charm of "Pinga" perhaps the only exception.  A pity: the lyrics of Siddharth-Garima deserved better music.

The director does much better on the visuals: in Bajirao Mastani the sets and props do not serve as distractions (as in Devdas), nor are they suffocating (as in Black or Saawariya).  In both Ras Leela and Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali seems to have belatedly realized that the cinematic is a different animal than the merely visual, and his latest film is his best yet on that front, with the sets and sumptuous dresses at the service of the film, and not the other way around: only after the film did I realize that Bhansali's Aaina Mahal set was not only his best yet, but might be my favorite Hindi film palace-set of all time. The rest of Shaniwar Wada, the understated court of Chatrapati Shahu, and the battlements of Chhatrasal are also notable (Bhansali's eye is less sure in battle-scenes, and amidst Indo-Islamic aesthetics -- that milieu (e.g. the Nizam’s tent) is rendered hastily, and without imagination ("hey let's use green!")).  But perhaps most memorable of all is Bhansali's representation of Maratha court dress: it isn't easy to make those caps and court dresses seem glamorous to an audience brought up to regard Western lines as normative, and the director doubtless "Europeanizes" a number of male garments (the warriors in particular seem like refugee-knights from the Crusades), but the result is nevertheless deeply impressive, and sets a high bar for other period films.  That alone is reason enough to give this film a chance on the big screen: sure, Bhansali's intellect is not the equal of his eye, but his eye is precious rare indeed.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

BAAHUBALI (Telugu/Tamil; Hindi (dubbed); 2015)

By now, writing about Baahubali risks getting mired in banalities, about the film's gargantuan scale, its grandeur, the sheer spectacle it offers the viewer, the whole often tinged with (Bollywood?) condescension ("The biggest movie in town is a southern film!") or, conversely, (Southern?) pride ("Hey we've shown them how movies are made").  And it's all completely true: Baahubali is a big big movie, with a compelling story, great velocity, and more fun in each half than most filmmakers can manage in an oeuvre.  (And a specific kind of fun too: this is a film that revels in its bigness, the way Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments did.)

But none of that is sufficient to make the film epic, that is to say, not only pitched at a scale that is itself impressive, but with enough attention to spare for the day-to-day to make the world represented plausible.  Homer is epic in a way the horrid Hollywood Troy isn't: the latter has all the ships and battles, but the former includes the taste of tears, the smell of rotting corpses, and pleasure in the way things work in that world (things that are, of course, being destroyed on the battlefield).  That is to say, Troy is merely a spectacle (certainly not the worst or least entertaining one, not in a world that includes 300, a film that seemed so wretched from the trailer I never could bring myself to watch it), whereas The Iliad makes its world so real you actually care about what happens in it.
What makes Baahubali striking is precisely this "world-making", director S.S. Rajamouli's ability to imagine the particulars of every scene to such a degree that this make-believe world becomes real for the audience, even plausible.  Plenty of other filmmakers can focus on the battle scenes and grand sets, but absent this eye for the little, it can all seem a bit lifeless (think Gladiator, with its emphasis on grand sets and action, as opposed to the HBO TV series Rome, which isn't short of action or amazing sets, but also helps you get a whiff of the streets, the religious ceremonies, the markets and ports; the former is airbrushed, the latter feels alive).  In Baahubali, this eye is seen everywhere: think of the bales of straw the castle's defenders use to try and prevent Sivudu from riding out of Mahishmati's capital on a chariot; or of the hollow (wooden?) tube the hero uses to hold the green snake he's going to release on Avantika while she's taking aim atop a tree (utterly bereft of any vulgarity, a delightfully perverse scene in the way it highlights the tense warrior ready to unleash her arrow at the unknown man who's painted her hand, even as the same man hovers behind her with the snake slithering over her arm: poised to attack, Avantika is rendered immobile); or the way in which Mahishmati's rulers discuss the battle plan in the film's second half.  At every step, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad seem to have thought long and hard about how such a world might work if it existed -- and because they have done so, that world comes alive for us.  Compared to Baahubali, even the best of Bollywood's grand fables --think Lagaan -- seem airbrushed, most historicals -- Jodha-Akbar comes to mind, or Asoka -- superficial in the face of its thoroughness, and the less said about wannabe fantasies (like Krrish) the better.  In this it is inspired by the best of contemporary American TV (and, much like Game of Thrones, ends with a sensational cliffhanger). Walking out of the cinema after the film I had a stupid grin on my face, the sort that meant: This too is possible.   A derivative mush of all sorts of mythological tropes and archetypes, not to mention other movies and TV serials, a film with huge sets and not-always-seamless CGI (what Rajamouli would do with a Hollywood budget one can only dream of), a recognizably Telugu film yet like nothing else from the industry (not even the director's own Magadheera), that is to say, completely, utterly itself, Baahubali is a landmark.  And if it isn’t as quirky or the action as imaginative as Shankar’s Enthiran is, it’s grander and more impressive: there has been no more spellbinding, more immersive cinematic experience in recent times.

A tale like this has to begin with a foundling.  Baahubali opens with a landscape of striking waterfalls, and pretty soon we see the Rajmata (Ramya) trying to get a baby to safety.  She manages to save the child from drowning, long enough to ensure he is found by the local village chief and his wife.  The baby grows up to be Sivudu (Prabhas), a hulk of a man obsessed with the idea of climbing the height of the waterfalls to see what awaits him.  When he finally makes it there, he lands smack in the middle of a love story (his own for Avantika (Tamannah Bhatia)) and an ongoing guerrilla rebellion, by the army Avantika serves in, against the royal court and kingdom of Mahishmati, usurped by Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggupati) and his father from... ah, but I can't say more without giving away a mild surprise.  But if you can't guess by now that Sivudu is the messiah, the Baahubali the oppressed masses have been waiting for, you have wasted your life watching something other than masala movies.  There are plenty of surprises left, though: in the second half, the film shifts gears, focusing on a flashback sequence culminating in what has to be the longest, most impressive battle scene in Indian film history, and a film-ending cliffhanger worthy of Game of Thrones.  That's right, this film doesn't end -- it directly leads into the finale to be released next year.

The film's representation of women is striking.  Both Ramya and Tamannah Bhatia play characters with great strength and agency (although Avantika does become more passive once she falls in love with Sivudu), and the Rajmata is just as impressive in the film's second half as any of the male characters she shares screen time with; easily one of the most memorable "kick-ass" female characters on an Indian screen in years.  That this film has gotten called out for sexism in a few media articles, when every multiplex Bollywood film gets a free pass for similar sexism (and is bereft of any strong female characters to boot), speaks volumes about the role social class continues to play in Indian film criticism.  Stated differently, Western-style sexism, imported from American pop culture as it were, and to the taste of the upwardly mobile, urban classes who increasingly dominate the Bollywood audience, does not even register as sexism; whereas representations in a more "vernacular" idiom are called out, even as those who do so pat themselves on the back for being progressive.  Don't believe it.  Is Baahubali sexist?  Sure, a few scenes are -- but overall this fantasy world of battles and court intrigues, with its female warriors, armed guards, and matriarchs, is less sexist than the vast majority of Hindi and Telugu films I have seen. Perhaps no scene epitomizes this better than the real Avantika’s entry (you’ll see why I’ve used the adjective once you see the film): the warrior is pursued by a band of soldiers, and just when Sivudu – and the viewer – think he’ll have to jump out and rescue the damsel in distress, she and her fighters turn the tables and slaughter their enemies.  This woman needs little rescuing.

The charge of racism is perhaps closer to the mark, given the long battle scene with hordes of black, demonic/sub-human enemies (inspired at least in part by the White Walkers from Game of Thrones).  Even here, though, many of the film's critics miss the point: on the Mahishmati-side, the Rajmata camps out next to a statue of Durga, and I found the linkage of the opposing side with the asuras that goddess defeated in Hindu mythology unmistakeable.  Baahubali represents the enemies as demonic precisely because it seeks to evoke the specter of Durga's forces in battle with the armies of Evil: there is certainly a broader discussion to be had about the metaphysics of blackness in Indian and Western cultures (why, that is to say, "black" stands for "evil" or "sin"), a metaphysics Baahubali uncritically perpetuates -- but this is a very far cry from the naked racism of Bollywood "blackface" in the 1970s, or the threatening African-Americans of the NRI films of the 1990s, or the crude mockery of East Asians in films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003).

A word on the cast: Prabhas is certainly the right physical fit for the part of Sivudu, but his pleasantly blank face is devoid of intensity, and I do consider him a weak link here; I certainly would have preferred the impish charm of NTR Jr. (admittedly he is too scrawny for this role).  Rana Daggubati as Bhallal Dev is splendid, showing us how much fun a one-dimensional performance as a baddie can be (indeed, he looks so good here I was mildly irritated at the use of CGI to bulk him up in his entry scene), as does Ramya in her authoritative role (she isn’t the only woman here to dominate her husband, as she does Bijjaladeva (Nasser); even where Sivudu’s adoptive parents are concerned, it’s clear who runs the show).  Tamannah Bhatia as Avantika made me eat my words: I’ve never been a fan of hers (a feeling reinforced by seeing her in the songs in Baahubali) but she is very good in her warrior get-up – I found myself missing that Avantika once she is somewhat “domesticated” by the relationship with Sivudu, and would have liked to see some more action involving her.  Sathyaraj as Kathappa, the warrior-slave sworn to serve Mahishmati's royal family, even when he knows it’s rule is illegitimate, was another surprise: he has a lot of screen-time here, and creditably acquits himself in a role painted with broad brushstrokes.

Baahubali has other charms too, ranging from a superbly choreographed "item" song -- Manohari, deploying genuine, sensuous, dance moves, rather than the stripper shimmies that too many Hindi films have gotten addicted to -- to Sudeep's fun cameo as the Afghan Aslam Khan (the fleeting role will, I suspect, assume significance in the sequel).  Indeed, nothing suggested the good ol' fun of something like Dharam Veer more than this figure, trying to hawk the ultimate sword to Kathappa. Aslam Khan is an adversary of sorts, ultimately bested in a sword-fight by Kathappa, but he is a certain type: the enemy who both gives and merits respect.  It isn't a coincidence that Aslam Khan is from Afghanistan (the only real place-name in the film); that detail situates him within a specific Hindi film-tradition of noble Indo-Islamic warrior-types, "others" the audience is expected to esteem.  (I consider Feroz Khan the patron saint of this sort of figure, both because of films like Dharmatma (1975) and the public persona he cultivated, reflected even in late – and degraded – offerings like Janasheen (2003) and Welcome (2007); the likes of Jackie Shroff (in Palay Khan (1986)) and of course Amitabh Bachchan as the Afghan Badshah Khan in Khuda Gawah (1992) offer other variants, as does Pran as Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973).  One might even say that this figure's turn towards evil, beginning with Lotiya Pathan (Kiran Kumar) in Tezaab (1988), is a watershed moment, symptomatic of a turn in Hindi cinema towards the less capacious understanding of difference that so scarred the cinema of the 1990s.)  

It’s all a sign that Baahubali is very Indian, with deep roots not just in Indian culture, but in Indian popular cinematic culture: you just don’t see filmi heroes anymore with a playful, even at times competitive relationship with their Gods, as Sivudu does here in a long sequence early on in the film vis-à-vis the village Shiv lingam (this sort of thing holds a special place in my heart, given that Hindi films served as my introduction to Hinduism as a child; Bachchan in Deewar had more to do with my excitement at first visiting a Hindu temple than anything else did); these days, the archetypes of the Mother; the Messiah/Prince; the Foundling; the Usurper, and the rich signification they enable are, at least in Hindi cinema, barely ever deployed in overt fashion (and are acceptable only under the cover of either a neo-Hollywood aesthetic, or the sort of consumption vehicle Bollywood has made its own where mainstream commercial films are concerned; under both, the sign of the Hero is perhaps the only one that is left. and not surprisingly, the feminine iconic mode has withered away).  These sorts of tropes are used fantastically well in Baahubali. The commercial success of this film, including, most remarkably, the scale of the Hindi dubbed version’s success, surely owes something to the chord it has struck, by satisfying a craving for deeper, more resonant storytelling that many of us had forgotten.  Baahubali is magnificent.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

MASAAN (Hindi; 2015)

By the end, Masaan (“Cremation Ground”) was very different from the film I thought I was watching after the first fifteen minutes: the opening sequence, involving a sexual encounter violated and sullied by policemen intent on cruelty and extortion, is one of the most riveting, and nauseating, representations of the police in years (only the sequence in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014), where the father of a missing girl tries to register a missing person-complaint, comes close). I was filled with loathing, and wanted to hurt someone.  That feeling stayed with me – Bhagwan Tiwari as Inspector Mishra has an important and continuing role over the course of the film – but Masaan turned out to be about something other than misogyny or the workings of a corrupt and oppressive state machine.  What that something is I’m not quite sure, but in its moodiness, its air of mystery, its poetry, I am confident Masaan heralds the arrival of an exciting, reflective new directorial talent in Neeraj Ghaywan.  To the extent Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) may be said to have spawned successors, Masaan is among the worthies.

At one level, the film is a coming-of-age story, a genre that relies on assumptions that the protagonists will be typical in some way (the Lover; the Student; the Prince; even with Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, a category – the Artist – is immediately and explicitly invoked).  But Masaan, like Udaan, wraps the bildungsroman into a narrative of exception: Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) seems like a typical Polytechnic student in Varanasi, until you appreciate that he is from the Dom caste, traditionally associated with cremating dead bodies on the Varanasi ghats – as caste hierarchies go, it’s hard to think of anyone lower down the totem pole.  But Deepak’s father has ensured an education for him, one that estranges him from the family’s traditional profession (the estrangement personified by his sullen brother Sikandar, who hasn’t been able to do what Deepak has done) – it’s not an impossible story, merely a remarkable one.  Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), the young Brahmin woman who, along with her father, is ensnared by the police in a manufactured sex scandal and resulting extortion, is remarkable for her inner strength and poise: her conviction that she has done nothing wrong seems unshakeable, not only in the face of sexual predators who want to sleep with her because, well, she’s done it once before with someone else, but also in private, before her father. 

A story about the coming of age of two people who are self-consciously atypical is not a problem per se (Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover are surely entitled to tell any tale of their choosing), but does raise wider questions of meaning.  That the stakes are higher than those involved in the story of two remarkable young people is not in doubt, given the metaphysics of death and re-birth self-consciously deployed by the film.  And there is Varanasi itself, loaded with meaning (and its ghats wonderfully shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun), sought by both the pilgrims and tourists who visit (the former are obligated to go in some sense, out of religious duty, but even the latter – of whom I was one for five memorable days in 2009 at a small guesthouse near the Kashi Vishwanath temple – are convinced that they are visiting a special place, one like no other: the city’s proximity to death has by now become a cliché, although no less true for it). 

Perhaps that is the place to begin: is the cremation ground of the film’s title Harishchandra Ghat, where Deepak’s family lives and where it plies its trade?  It might be the city itself, where dying can sometimes seem easier than living (recall the opening sequence, at the end of which Piyush kills himself; Devi is stronger, and it’s clear that option has never occurred to her).  The parallels between the two leads might offer some clues: the fathers of both, albeit at opposite ends of the caste spectrum, make their living from death and the rituals associated with it, on the banks of the Ganges (Devi’s father is a pandit and former professor of Sanskrit who now advises people on post-death rituals; Deepak’s family cremates corpses); both Devi and Deepak have had lovers from Bania backgrounds (Aggarwal for her; Gupta for him); both work for Indian Railways at some point (indeed the rail as metaphor for arrivals and departures is a recurring motif in the film); both are born into families at the end of a long tradition, but one that doesn’t sustain them any longer, and is instead something to get away from, its weight felt like that of a carcass.  On this reading the Masaan of the film’s title might be the milieu itself: life, if it is to be, must be elsewhere. 

Away from the two leads, Masaan gets plenty other things right: a host of other characters populate the film, and just about every one – ranging from Deepak’s friends to the man who baldly and offensively propositions Devi to Deepak’s lover Shaalu to the foul-mouthed boy Jhonta who works with Devi’s father, to Piyush’s mother, and the two leads’ fathers– is well-etched and aptly cast.  They seem like people who might be real, and are very far from types.  Deepak’s friends are a case in point: in most other films (especially multiplex films, where middle-class men have increasingly been stereotyped as little better than swine – the charming Queen offers a great example in Raj Kumar Rao’s character, who is not just awful but awful in a way that suggests he is meant to stand in for a whole class of Indian male) they might be stereotypical louts or lechers; here they are awkward but well-meaning, and surprise us with their sensitivity.  (Don’t get me wrong, Masaan isn’t short of assholes, it’s just that the film represents many more hues than one.)  Nor is the caste angle one-dimensional, with privileged upper-castes on the one hand and the Doms on the other: the latter’s lot is grim, but in Devi’s father and his pathetic feebleness before Inspector Mishra, we also encounter how wretched upper-caste poverty can be as well (indeed at one point Vidyadhar Pathak naively mumbles that he thought he could rely on the Inspector’s sympathy – “Mishra” is also a Brahmin last name – only to be met with derision).  No position atop the Hindu caste hierarchy will save the Pathaks: only money will.

Vicky Kaushal makes the role of Deepak his own, in a winning performance that brought more than one smile to my face: his shyness is irresistible, and his wooing of Shaalu more disarmingly natural than any number of representations of boys from the “Hindi heartland” over the last decade (compare this to Vivek Oberoi crooning Lionel Richie songs in Omkara and you’ll appreciate what a condescending representation is all about).  But the most arresting acting in the film comes from Richa Chadda, who uses inscrutability as both woman’s shield and weapon in this film: her tightly impassive face conveys in precisely the proportion that it conceals (indeed, one might even criticize the film for making too much of this: Devi’s motivations are all but opaque, not only to her father but also to us, and perhaps even to the director), and compels attention.  Not to mention that she is insanely hot; the combination means great screen presence (oddly enough not showcased as well in Gangs of Wasseypur as here, or in Fukrey or in a blink-and-miss role in the Indian TV version of 24) that anchors Masaan.  Someone get her more roles!

Masaan only features three tracks, but each is memorable: Indian Ocean’s soulful music works very well here, not least because each song serves primarily as vehicle for very fresh lyrics.  Varun Grover’s adaptation of Dushyant Kumar’s poem is unforgettable and jarring – I don’t think I’ve gotten over these most odd of romantic lyrics, in “Tu kisi rail si guzartee hai / Mein kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon”; Grover does even better with the simple “Mann kasturi re / Jag dastoori re / Baat hui na pooree re”, and Sanjeev Sharma’s lyrics in “Bhor” are also very good.  Perhaps what I enjoyed was also the feeling that here were writers who like the rhythms of spoken Hindi in Eastern U.P., who are able to make poetry from a very popular and unpretentious idiom (another quality that links Masaan to Udaan).

In Masaan, leaving is no clean break (and not just because, as Devi’s Railways colleague Sadhya (Pankaj Tripathi) tells her, 26 trains stop at Benares, but 64 don’t, showing that it is easy to get to the city, but hard to leave): the Ganges is the site not just of death but of rebirth, and the films closing sequences make that explicit: Devi and Deepak achieve some kind of closure by casting the last physical objects tying them to their dead lovers into the water, and then meet each other and embark on a journey that signifies a beginning on the same river.  (The connection has already been foreshadowed: the ring Deepak casts away, then tries to find but cannot, ends up, unknown to Devi, playing a crucial role in her liberation.)  Kashi must be fled, but only with what Kashi gave you, with traces of what Kashi took away.