Monday, October 06, 2014

HAIDER (Hindi; 2014)


Haider is at once the strongest and weakest of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations: most of the film has little to do with Hamlet, except in the loosest sense, and focuses on the efforts of one Kashmiri Muslim youth (Shahid Kapoor, the Haider of the film’s title) to find his father Dr. Hilal (Narendra Jha), who has joined the ranks of the disappeared after he secretly treats a militant leader in his home, even as Haider’s mother Ghazala (Tabu) draws closer to her brother-in-law Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) in the wake of the tragedy.  Paradoxically, these are in fact the strongest portions of the film, which is perhaps the only popular Indian film “on Kashmir” to be made for adults.  Freed of the need to draw cartoon characters (the Good Kashmiri Muslim oppressed by the state; or the Good Indian Army Officers protecting the state from evil jihadis), writers Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj give us human ambiguity.  It would have been easy to have Dr. Hilal treat the militant because of his devotion to the Hippocratic oath – but the doctor is coy about his political sympathies (even to his wife), and it is entirely possible that he is a sympathizer; his son Haider is more openly hostile (and nor is this a function simply of his father’s disappearance, as a flashback shows); and his wife Ghazala isn’t ideologically committed to either side so much as fearful.  Even the Claudius of this tale is not hateful: Khurram’s name is well-chosen, the writers preferring to evoke the specter of the Mughal Empire’s most glamorous fratricidal monarch, Shah Jahan, rather than its most infamous, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb.  This concern with his characters’ irreducible humanity, be they Kashmiri militants or ruthless local politicians (but not, it must be said, Indian soldiers), is perhaps the most Shakespearean thing about Bhardwaj’s adaptation.  As homages to the Bard go, one could do worse. 

One could also do better: the movie degenerates as it starts to hew more closely to the plot of Hamlet, until, by the end, we are left with a farce that has little to do with either Hamlet or good cinema.  It’s a great pity, because through the first two-thirds of the movie Haider is Bhardwaj at his most cinematic: the pacing is fantastic, the narrative grabs you and won’t let go, to the point where I realized on multiple occasions that I was half-holding my breath while watching the movie unfold – it didn’t seem to matter just what was happening on screen, I couldn’t keep my eyes away.  And oh, those visuals: this isn’t the Kashmir of picture postcard valleys, but possessed of a more ordinary beauty, shabby and wild.  Crucially for the film’s texture (and perhaps for its politics), this beauty isn’t merely natural, but cultural: we see the insides of wonderful old Kashmiri houses, intricately carved woodwork (in one scene, a jaw-dropping headboard serves as backdrop to Tabu’s face when she wakes up), and fabrics so lovely the heart aches to reach out and touch them (the stand outs for me were a shawl Kulbushan (playing Haider’s grandfather) wears in a flashback sequence at his home; and Tabu’s black kurta with green embroidery at a public meeting: these are objects so lovely they wound).  Nothing in Maqbool, Omkara, or Kaminey prepared me for the open spaces and trees in Haider, and while cinematographer Pankaj Kumar surely deserves a lot of credit, the memory of The Blue Umbrella suggests that Bhardwaj might have an especial affinity for the Himalayan winter.  Not since Mani Ratnam’s “Satrangi” video from Dil Se has anyone captured any part of Kashmir so memorably – and that song was all of seven minutes; Bhardwaj’s visuals demand more patience here, and their rewards are gentler.

Tabu deserves all the accolades she has been receiving for her performance, and then some: her wary eyes, with shadows under them, make the movie worthwhile on their own; and when we see her running after Haider after he sees her singing and laughing with her brother-in-law, her fully covered bosom disturbing the luxuriant kaftan she wears, we almost sympathize with Khurram: if ever a woman was worth betraying your brother for, surely this is the one. (Bhardwaj appreciates this fully: his Hamlet is post-Freudian, and the erotic charge when the boy Haider applies ittar on his mother’s neck, or when the adult Haider kisses it, is un-mistakable. One might speculate – although Bhardwaj doesn’t do much with it – that Khurram’s trespass with Ghazala is unforgiveable precisely because it gives flesh to Haider’s own traitorous desire.)  Shahid Kapoor does well as Haider (far better than I had given him credit for after the first trailer), although Kay Kay, while his usual enjoyable self, doesn’t imbue Khurram with the sort of nuance the role demands.  Shraddha Kapoor’s Arshia is under-written and inadequate as any kind of Ophelia, but (and this is a compliment) she is barely recognizable as the actress from Ek Villain, reminding us that few contemporary Hindi film directors are as interested in female characters – or at least their eyes – as Bhardwaj is.

A number of viewers have objected to the film's politics as "one-sided", that is, as sympathetic to the views of those in favor of Kasmir's secession from India.  The reality is a little more complicated: Haider simply underscores that every other popular Hindi film about Kashmir has been about abstractions, about the Big Ideas of Peace, Love, Terrorism, and Indian nationalism, that is to say about debates that the wider Indian public might or might not be engaged in; while Haider throws in its lot with representing the fabric of life in Kashmir for a certain kind of person at certain moment in time. That is, Haider offends inasmuch as, and precisely because, it insists on showing what the world might seem like to a Kashmiri Muslim during the state's wretched 1990s, replete with gross human rights abuses, black sites, state repression, and militancy (both Pakistan- and India-sponsored), without embedding this into any kind mainstream narrative.  If the rest of us are offended by this representation's indifference to how central Kashmir is to our notions, that testifies to our political narcissism; indeed, Haider's (understandable) narcissism -- his father's absent body embodies Kashmir to him -- unsettles us precisely because it is the local reflection of our own, more national self-regard.  Haider is uninterested in any other story but that of his father's betrayal by both his uncle and mother, and is indifferent to Ghazala's pain in being trapped in a love-less marriage; to us, who have been similarly indifferent, in the sense that we have for far too long been interested in ideas of Kashmir, and what those say about the ideas of India (or Pakistan, for that matter), rather than the people of Kashmir, Bhardwaj's mirror is discomfiting.

As an aside, there is something more than a little perverse on this insistence on "balance", on pairing State atrocities with those committed by militants, Kashmiri or otherwise.  But such "balance" yields not fairness but an equivalence between the Indian state and non-state actors, an inadvertent concession of sovereignty's attributes to those who cannot be deemed to legitimately possess them.  In their devotion, nationalism's adherents turn treasonous. More bluntly: the sort of "fairness" that would lead one to invoke the specter of militant abuses every time violations by arms of the State are discussed undermines the position of the Indian state's adherents.  There can't be any "fairness" or "balance" because there isn't any counter to the Indian state in Kashmir (to say that there is defeats the whole purpose, which is why official channels, more sensitive to the attributes and pretensions of sovereignty, prefer to deny claims of abuses, not, as Twitterati and bloggers do, cite justificatory atrocities by the other side).

I don’t mean to be coy here: the Indian Army is not the good team in this movie, and nor are the soldiers we encounter fully realized characters the way they would have been in a Shakespeare play; they serve here not as people but as threatening manifestations of a power that is malign because it is unaccountable.  And it is bitterness at this unaccountability, rather than any question of whether or not the filmmakers are “anti-national,” that serves as the appropriate frame for Haider.  The very atrocities the film focuses on – extra-judicial killings and “disappearances” too well-documented to be denied; torture; the government sponsoring of militants to fight militants (amply reported in the mainstream media itself); the power over life and death afforded by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (“AFSA”), a statute that blights life in several states, not just Kashmir – testify to this, marking out the contours of a grievously injured liberalism and political culture, of which Kashmir is merely one symptom. (Likewise, I am not insensitive to the fact that this film cleared the censors, and despite the rumored cuts and alterations that entailed, the fact that it was cleared at all is striking, and does the Board a lot of credit.)  Indeed, the injustice of this unaccountability is a better frame for the film than even Hamlet is, as Bhardwaj and Peer re-work a number of the play’s tropes into commentary on Kashmir: thus, “to be or not to be” is here not an expression of any interiority, but the state of limbo the families of the disappeared find themselves in; the same is true of the disappeared themselves, the ghosts who haunt Kashmir from beyond the grave.  It doesn’t help illuminate Hamlet for us, but it does serve to shed some light over Kashmir. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

BOYHOOD (English; 2014)


Boyhood – which I saw earlier this evening – has to be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of my life.  I was initially skeptical of the central device that has garnered most of the attention since the film’s release, namely Richard Linklater’s tracking of his actor Ellar Coltrane (the boy in the film’s title), over the decade that he made the film, as Coltrane grows from six- or seven year-old to college freshman; but this move, along with wonderful editing and Linklater’s mastery of unhurried narrative that is always engrossing, enables the director to represent the passage of time in a more meaningful way than just about any other film I can think of.  So completely did Boyhood draw me into its world, so thoroughly did the film evoke the rhythms of ordinary lives in early twenty-first century Texas, that I found myself caring for the film’s characters – not just Coltrane’s Mason but his parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), each also played by actors whose real-life aging is captured on-screen – more deeply than is true of other movies.  In the time the viewer feels he has spent with these people, Boyhood is reminiscent of great nineteenth century-novels, or contemporary television series – yet the film is short of three hours, and, given that it has been shot over such a long period, remarkably compressed.  (In this, it is the opposite of the director’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy, each of which represented a relatively short period of time drawn out over the film’s time at greater length than is typical for movies, creating the illusion that the films captured the characters’ encounters in something close to “real time”.)

Coltrane’s wistful eyes and furrowed brow – at every age – anchor the film, even as the effect of his gesturality changes from melancholy early on to a charmingly laid-back form of cool by film’s end.  But both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are outstanding as well, the latter as the absent-but-loving father who changes from a left-leaning young man into a middle-aged pillar of the bourgeoisie; and the former as his ex-wife, who makes more than one disastrous romantic decision but emerges strong and successful – hers is the character you really root for.

What’s the film about?  What are all coming-of-age books or movies about? But just when I thought that the film’s ambition was to represent a young, creative consciousness, Boyhood surprised me: “I thought there would be more” are an anguished Olivia’s last words in the film, articulating both her drive and the naïveté underlying it.  There isn’t, really, but that doesn’t make the ending bleak: the film’s last shot is of Mason and a new friend after they’ve just agreed that life isn’t about seizing the moment, but about the moments seizing you, because they’re all there is.  The insight retrospectively structures the movie, studded as it is with scenes – father and son on a hike; an unlikely testimonial as to how Olivia has changed someone’s life; Mason Jr. and his girlfriend’s night out in Austin – that remind me, despite my own preference in recent years for the best of American TV when it comes to storytelling, of just what is possible in cinema: beauty.  

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Note on QUEEN (Hindi; 2014)

It would be easy to dismiss director Vikas Bahl's Queen as the sort of movie one has often seen in Hollywood, and that is increasingly common in Bollywood: suffused with a kind of cheap liberalism that makes one root for a sympathetic and intensely imagined female character, in a world populated by a number of men who are, not to put too fine a point on it, assholes, and who in some way, shape or form will get what's coming to them.  Queen certainly is that, but it is also quirky, charming, and at times very funny, so much so that by the end I was reminded that cheap liberalism isn't the worst thing in the world.  If movies had hearts, this one -- about a bride-to-be who won't let a little thing like having a wedding called off get in the way of a "honeymoon" to Paris and Amsterdam, each city with gurus ready to initiate her into "real life" -- would have its in the right place, even if there's never any doubt about what you'll find there.

The film is a triumph for Kangana Ranaut, who not only carries it off, but almost HAS to, for the film to be even remotely credible.  (The other actors don't have very much to do beyond play assigned stock characters -- there's a smattering of assorted Punjabis; Raj Kumar Rao's Vijay is Rani's fiancé and a prick; Bokyo Mish's Olik is the sensitive European roommate; Lisa Haydon is well-cast as a Paris hottie with a heart of gold; and the ensemble has more than a little affinity with English Vinglish, the nastiness of "Mind Your Language" smoothed into a cheerful multiculturalism.)  Rani understands what even the filmmakers do not, namely that Rani is odd, a bit of a misfit in the world, not because she is an "ordinary middle-class girl" from Delhi (the condescending way in which far too many slice-of-life films -- including this one -- are made and marketed these days), but because she is simply odd (to that end, the actress' mumbling dialogue delivery, an irritant in other films, works wonderfully well here).  Ranaut plays Rani as standing out even in her own family, a bit of a wounded bird in a stereotypically raucous Punjabi brood, more child than adult.  Ranaut is right to do so, enabling her to serve as a more effective vehicle for the film's representation of female liberation than any number of ideologues.  Stated differently, Rani isn't liberal or progressive -- she simply suspends judgment on the new people and experiences and encounters, poking gentle fun at a bourgeois tendency to the opposite.  Queen eschews many of the usual Bollywood stereotypes about Westerners (none tries to rape her; no-one is racist; and Paris (far more than Amsterdam) seems like a real place), at least occasionally turning its lens toward desi complacency.

A word about the music: the maddeningly inconsistent Amit Trivedi is in good form here, and not only with the superb remix of Anhonee's Laxmikant-Pyarelal "Hungama ho gaya" (the choice is a clever one: that song's lyrics are also about a (gendered?) double-standard, even if the video is good old-fashioned Bindu sleaze): "Badra Bahaar", "O Gujariya", and "Harjaaiyan" seem promising, although I'll have to spend some more time with the album (I came to the film unfamiliar with its sound, barring the remix).

Films like Queen do run a certain risk: commercial realities mean that they can end up pandering to the very audience they satirize, and there is a bit of that in this film too: thus, culinary xenophobia, a staple of both Bollywood and bourgeois Indian culture, is barely questioned here, despite the open invitation in the form of an Italian chef who sneers at Rani's preference for "Indianizing" every kind of food (rather than engaging with it on its own terms).  This particular story arc ends predictably: with the triumph of Indian food over other kinds of cuisine, staged in a manner that confirms prejudices rather than undermines them.  This isn't a huge deal, but is symptomatic of the unspoken taboo that Hindi films, because of Hindi film audiences, adhere to: don't make people uncomfortable (otherwise-commercial films like Dum Maaro Dum, Delhi-6 or Raavan ignore this at their peril; while even films safely couched in "art-house" idiom -- Gangs of Wasseypur comes to mind -- can be accepted if their disturbing representations are normalized at an anthropological remove: someone, somewhere out there, is this way, not us).  But while watching Queen, I didn't think any of those things, because I was too busy rooting for Rani, the woman at the center of the film, and for the underdog story underlying the casting: once an also-ran, Kangana Ranaut has left Bollywood's queens in her wake.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Phir se aaiyo...

I just saw Namkeen, a film I hadn't previously seen, and nor had I heard any of its songs.  The highlight was undoubtedly "Phir se aaiyo, badariya bidesi," a song of heartbreaking loveliness.  Asha and R.D. Burman suffuse this song with great longing as well as restraint (the latter embodied in Asha's low vocal ranges here); this has to be one of the best songs from the 1980s that I've encountered -- it is simply bewitching:

LINK

In both Namkeen and Mausam, Gulzar uses the somewhat discomfiting trope of the woman/women who need rescue, and can't be free unless and until saved by a man; that is hardly new, but in both films Gulzar also features the empathetic male figure who seems to be culpable precisely because of his engagement with the women stuck in a horrible situation; this commitment is in fact what enables him to be a traitor of sorts, to enable irreparable injury out of feebleness.  The result isn't entirely satisfying, but perhaps Gulzar is best appreciated as an evoker of mood, of a nameless melancholia that pervades so many of his films: I don't find it the most successful aesthetic when married to the figure of the lost woman, but transplanted to the terrain of a ruined city -- the Mandu of Kinara -- it works a quiet magic.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A brief note on WOLF OF WALL STREET (English; 2013)

I must confess this film left me a bit cold, at least insofar as it wasn't simply a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio to try and win an Oscar.  Leo is pretty darn good as Jordan Belfort, the self-made millionaire stockbroker who never saw a corner he couldn't cut, playing him with just the right amount of obnoxiousness and arriviste air, but the film seemed indulgent, and tonally inconsistent.  At times farce, comedy, and grim commentary on America's (and perhaps the world's) cult of money, the film is littered with brilliant moments -- a couple of DiCaprio's addresses on the Stratton Oakmont floor stand out -- but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  For that reason, it will be worth re-visiting in bits and pieces, on DVD.

But there is something Scorsese gets right, that no other such film does, certainly not in so comprehensive a way.  Other films document a fall from grace caused by hubris, without disturbing the essential glamor of the central character.  Scorsese and DiCaprio don't take this route, and the film is relentless in showing the degradation to which Belfort's character sinks (the final drug overdose; the sequence where DiCaprio gets violent with his wife, are cases in point).  The easy titillation of Belfort's enjoyment of his wealth isn't where this film stops; it's where it starts to get interesting.  It ends up some editing away from greatness.

A comment on Bollywood's masala remakes...

Responding on this thread at Satyamshot (the first trailer of Murugadoss' Holiday is out):

I’d add that the almost reflexive nature of these Bollywood remakes points to an ideological crisis where the Hindi film industry is concerned. It is almost as if these masala movies are being re-made because they’re the only way that the Hindi film industry today can imagine the idea of an Indian popular cinema, of a popular cinema that isn’t about representing a consumerist lifestyle, or a translation of a Hollywood genre. It is that idea, that possibility, that seems to have excited so many Bombay filmmakers (the Hindi industry’s own masala past is so irretrievable now that recovering it is akin to an archaeological enterprise), to the point where the latter have become like the Caucasian guy we all know, the one who thinks all Asian women are attractive. The mediocrity of the films re-made is almost beside the point; what is truly startling is the inability of Bollywood to tell the difference! The genuine remake here is the endless representation of this bankruptcy, this inability to think through the problem of popular cinema in India.

The wretched trailer itself can be viewed here.

Satyam's response is essential (both mine and his comments will seem in medias res if you haven't been following Satyamshot discussions on Hindi cinema over the years).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Brief Note on RAM LEELA & BULLET RAJA

RAM LEELA: When I first heard of "Rowdy Rathore," I wondered what on earth Bhansali was doing producing a film like this. The answer, evidently, was gearing up for the wretched "Ram Leela," a Romeo and Juliet story that seems quite uninterested in romance, preferring the "goliyon ki raasleela," that is to say, the IDEA of a place where people shoot up shit at the drop of a hat. Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh keep talking about love and lust, but they suggest about as much heat as ice cream (the fact that in some way shape or form, this is the umpteenth film in which Padukone plays the supposedly liberated woman, does also detract from the novelty; she might have begun wanting to bust some cliches, but Padukone risks becoming one herself: the juvenile male's fantasy of the kick-ass babe). And then there are the various references to the Ramayana, each one more forced and absurd than the last one -- or perhaps they only seemed that way to me because the script and characterisation were so thin and inconsistent (especially of Ranveer in the second half; Deepika's character is pretty consistent, even as her lover suddenly turns passive and embraces the very system he has been fighting in what can only be termed a sulk). The music is not just mediocre but odd -- it has a very 1990s sort of badness, although it is at least devoid of the completely unjustified sense of self-importance that so pervaded more than one older Bhansali film album.  Perhaps all of this would be forgivable, were the film not so tonally inconsistent: completely "straight" sequences are followed by farcical ones (eg. the "dishaaon dishaaon" song), Bhansali is clunky and awkward handling the dialog's cruder portions (precious is his forte, not earthy), and the result is the sort of mess that made me miss the purity of the vision that brought us "Saawariya". Certainly, Bhansali's latest is nowhere near as boring a film as that one, but it is also more empty. Skip this, and re-visit the far superior Ishaqzaade.

Aside: Abhimanyu Singh was excellent as Ranveer's elder brother, but his role was far too small (someone get this guy more films, please!). 


BULLET RAJA is proof that not everyone can make a masala film. Tigmanshu Dhulia, the man behind the very enjoyable Haasil, and the atmospheric Saahib, Biwi, aur Gangster, has made a turkey, a film that checks off a number of the masala movie boxes -- friendship, love, tragedy, item number, revenge -- but does so in a way that lacks all conviction and drama (oh, and the item number is simply wretched). Stated differently, people simply do things in this film, nothing impels them to that end (and more often than not, a declamation substitutes for any plot development or cinematic moment), and, as with Gangs of Wasseypur (as my fiancée pointed out), because anything can happen at any point, it is hard to take seriously the particular moment when the hero does decide to take the bad guy out. That isn't to say there was no potential: but that was drained away by some loose editing, contributing to my experience of the film as rather "flat," and continuing to drone on and on.  The bhaiyya-setting -- that is to say, a representation of U.P. and Bihar as India's Wild West, where people think nothing of massacring people and firing with gay abandon just about anywhere, and comically sprinkle their speech with mispronounced English -- has become pretty stale by the time we get to this film, and not all of Saif's pretend Brahmin bad-assery can make up for it, especially because at least this viewer was deeply resentful at the way in which Jimmy Shergill was wasted. Saif is simply not a convincing enough screen presence and actor to pull this role off, there was no villain as good as Dhulia himself was in Gangs of Wasseypur... And what the hell was Vidyut Jamwal doing here?! Ah, that "R...Rajkumar" trailer after the interval (in a theatre that was depressingly empty for a first weekend show) never looked better. But never fear, because Bullet Raja does serve one purpose: it reminds us all that we could do worse than watch Ram Leela.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mumbai Film Festival (Oct. 17-24, 2013): Round-Up

La Jaula del Oro ("The Golden Cage")

Liberty Cinema Liberty Cinema

I hadn't attended previous editions of the festival, but my fiancee and I decided to catch as many as we could this time around, not only for the foreign films, but also the Indian ones that rarely make it to wide-release or even a proper DVD release.  Over the festival week there were frustrations galore -- the organizers have set up a perverse booking/registration system that seems intended to use the internet to make life harder; a bunch of screenings weren't compatible with, um, employment; and I missed out on the films by Jafar Panahi; Asghar Farhadi; Hsiao-Hsien Hou; and Jia Zhangke) but nevertheless, there was enough magic (some of it at Bombay's legendary Liberty cinema, with its fantastic Art Deco interior still intact; Metro, sadly, is completely Ambanised as a BIG Cinemas property) to make it all worthwhile:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Music Review: MARYAN (Tamil; 2013)



In retrospect, albums like Delhi-6 seem to have inaugurated a mellow phase in A.R. Rahman’s career.  The last few years have given us a number of albums (Kadal and Raanjhana the most recent of these) to confirm the impression that the master has, where the subject gives him rein, shifted gears: the qawwalis have become more reflective (contrast “Arziyan” (Delhi-6) with “Noor-un-Alaa” (Meenaxi) from a few years earlier); the love songs increasingly suffused with a murmuring longing (“Moongil Thottam” (Kadal)), and even a jazz bent (“Aaromale” (Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya)); the sounds a bit less ornate, but just as rich. Maryan is in this vein.  It is leaner than Raanjhana (Rahman’s most recent Hindi composition), and if two of the lighter tracks are far more trivial than anything in the latter, at its best (which is to say in its four slower songs) Maryan is more reflective, almost unsettlingly so: you really miss it when the music stops playing.  This is, quite simply, Rahman’s best Tamil album in years for any director not named Mani Rathnam.

Rahman’s solo, Nenjae Yezhu, leads off the CD, a few delicate strains reminiscent of water and journeys giving way to soaring vocals that, in their sense of wonder and consciousness of a new landscape beheld, preserve a link with the very early Rahman composition “Ye Haseen Wadian” (Roja).  Over two decades and dozens of albums have barely dimmed the composer’s freshness: while the listener is aware of too much history to lend his encounter with the later work the same aura of discovery that forever tinges Roja, Nenjae Yezhu shows that Rahman remains willing to start again.  The traveler is now older for sure, but his ardor for the journey is as bright as ever.

The same sort of bucolic strains that begin “Ae Hairath-e-Aashiqui” (Guru) lead to Vijay Prakash’s vocals in Innum Konjam Naeram; Shweta Mohan joins a bit later, and the result is a melodious, if conventional, love duet, but one that is immensely satisfying – a reminder, if any were needed, that Rahman comes at the end of a long tradition.  In the final analysis, to take this most hackneyed of film music genres and keep making music that sounds soulful, not jaded, might be one of the composer’s greatest achievements.

Naetru Aval Irundhal is apt as the next track: it takes “Innum Konjam Naeram” a step further, and begins with the low notes and erotic intimacy of Vijay Prakash and Chinmayi (the simple contrast between the two voices – Prakash’s resonant bass in the words “Naetru Aval Irundhal”, reminiscent of Hariharan; followed by Chinmayi’s higher pitched, “thinner” voice, as she playfully croons “He…mariyaan” – is instantly compelling), before taking slow flight into less joyous climes.  Love isn’t just balm for the soul here, it is also suffused with melancholy, as that which will be lost.

My favorite from this album, and a song of heartbreaking loveliness, Yenga Pona Raasa is intensely romantic, taking you to a place that is familiar, sad and filled with meaning.  A song of love and loss, but not, perhaps, of loneliness (merely solitude), it brings “Kannathil Muthamittal” (Kannathil Muthamittal) to mind, although the later song sketches the contours of a soundscape that is nowhere near as lush, but marked by a trace: the afterglow of a lover’s absence.  Shaktishree Gopalan soared with the outstanding “Nenjukkulle” (Kadal) a few months ago, and is unforgettable in this far more introverted track – her pairing with Rahman looks set to give us magic for years to come.

Sonapareeya is charming without quite being memorable, the requisite “catchy number” rendered somewhat interesting by the retro – and vaguely Hindi film-sounding -- “Sonapareeya” refrain that should jar, but doesn’t.  That seamlessness is testament to Rahman’s skill, but the song is pretty modest and is a bit of filler between two outstanding tracks.  I have long been critical of Rahman’s bland rap efforts, but Sofia Ashraf’s vocals here (as, of course, MIA’s outstanding ones in “O Saya” (Slumdog Millionaire)) suggest that perhaps Rahman’s problem is male rap artists.  This album doesn’t do much to dispel that impression: I Love My Africa is unworthy of Rahman (although pretty much what I would expect from Blaaze), and sounds like something cobbled together for the 2010 football World Cup, with bits of heavy percussion, Brian Kabwe’s “Africa…Africa” refrain, and some generic mambo beats – in short, an advertiser’s idea of what an “African sound” might be like.  I wish it were the last song in the album, and thus could more easily be skipped.

Kadal Raasa Naan is actually the last song on the CD, and the opening ten seconds seem to flow from Yenga Pona Raasa (refracted through a Middle Eastern prism), before resolving into a fast-paced, and very Tamil, number sustained by Yuvanshankar Raja’s soulful vocals, combined with occasional neo-shehnai strains.  This song isn’t new, but it is pitched at an urgent level, and is stealthily addictive: I dismissed it as trivial for weeks before realizing that I couldn’t stop listening to the CD until I’d heard its last track.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

RAANJHANA (Hindi; 2013)



Over the last few years, my interest in contemporary Hindi films has plummeted; perhaps my move to Bombay has played a part in my diminished engagement, as no longing for home, no desperation for a whiff of its scent clouds my vision.  Largely, though, it is a function of the increasing soullessness of the industry’s “mainstream” products (and the films are increasingly products rather than embodiments of a living tradition), and also because the “off-beat” films themselves are often formulaic, intellectually timid and irredeemably – there’s no other word for it – bourgeois once one gets past the edgy attitude.  Old habits die hard, however, and I still end up watching many – I just don’t enjoy the experience as much as I used to, even if the thrill of anticipation as I find my seat in the hall and wait for the film to begin, hoping for trailers to delay the moment of gratification, and my willingness to give myself over to the experience (until the film itself jars me out of attentiveness first), remain the same.   Through it all, very few films surprise me – and not in the sense of plot twists (I hardly ever guess those, being much more likely to live in the present of the scene before my eyes, as it were), but in the sense of taking me somewhere I hadn’t expected to go, or showing me a glimpse of something I hadn’t expected to see.  That I expect these from cinema at all reminds me that I’m not yet jaded, merely disappointed.

Raanjhana surprised me.  Based on the trailers, I went to the cinema expecting a Hindu-Muslim love story (and yet another one where the heroine is Muslim) set in “the heartland,” one of those contemporary films targeted at urban multiplex audiences that purport to be set in small towns in U.P. or Bihar, but at the cost of the place’s specificity.  Raanjhana isn’t that sort of film: its evocation of Varanasi (a city I once had the pleasure of spending a few days in years ago) is quite specific, but more important, it does not present its lead, Kundan Shankar (Dhanush, who is fantastic here) as some kind of typical heartland hero: he remains odd, a man both in and out of place, throughout the film.  Combined with Rahman’s superb, mellow and rich soundtrack, which director Anand Rai uses better than most, these are reasons enough to watch the film on the big screen.  But there’s more: the film is often offensive (primarily in its gender politics), but it is about as close to raw as a Hindi film is likely to get (it not only features some of the most searing dialogs I’ve heard in a while; but uses words to wound, not simply gore or curses), and made me uncomfortable – a welcome respite from the mediocre timidity that dominates even “new” Bollywood.

Dhanush is excellent as a Tamil Brahmin from Varanasi, permanently stuck in his boyhood love for the (much more affluent) Muslim Zoya (Sonam Kapoor).  Dhanush has built a career in Tamil films precisely by leveraging the audience’s surprise that he isn’t the sort of guy you would expect to see as the male lead in either North or South, into cinematic impact; his shrewd film sense, and a kind of bemused intensity, only help.  “I’m odd, perhaps even absurd” he seems to say, “but this is how I am.”  That singularity is his signature: he is obviously heir to an entire tradition in Tamil cinema, but is like no-one else. And, unusually for a relatively young actor, he is able to suggest the passage of time with barely any effort.  We see this in Raanjhana, where he seems every inch the school boy in his disheveled uniform, and then, eight years later, a neighborhood tapori.  Dhanush channels the Benares ghats, neighborhoods, and, memorably, the rooftops so well that when the action shifts to Delhi, he doesn’t seem to belong on the JNU campus – the actor has been too successful in convincing us that he belongs to Benares, no less than his namesake deity, for us to believe him inhabiting any other urban space.  With his female co-star, the passage of time is about the props (pigtails and schoolgirl dress earlier on, and adult clothes and metro-lingo later on); but Dhanush doesn’t need a makeover – he simply acts.  And holds the viewer’s attention throughout a rather uneven film with his commitment; not for nothing are the film’s best, rawest dialogs given to him.  “I’ll marry the same day as you,” he tells Zoya when holding her tight but knowing she won’t be his, “even if I have to get married to a black bitch.”  The words sting, especially in the Hindi that says “kaali kutiya”; neither the filmmakers nor Dhanush are scared of veering from the anodyne, of drawing some blood. 

The same cannot be said of Zoya: Sonam Kapoor is always lovely and (a rarity among her peers) classy, but her character – spirited yet submissive; U.P. Muslim and a classical dancer, utterly modern yet inhabiting a gorgeous old haveli – is too made up, too much a figment of the male writer’s imagination (that is to say, of the maleness of the writer’s imagination) for her to hold her own against Dhanush.  The film is not as interested in knowing her as it is Dhanush, and the suspense lies in figuring out what she will do (which, in the logic of Hindi film romances simply means, will she fall in love with the this or that man?).  He cuts deep; she stays closer to the surface.  Zoya’s flatness, her filmi conventionality, is, along with the introduction of Abhay Deol as a laughably unconvincing leftie radical, an early sign that Raanjhana might end up giving less than it promises: aside from the music, Benares and Dhanush, will there be a there here?  By film’s end, the answer is clear, and it isn’t gratifying.  Dhanush is crucial to the film’s credibility, but the film falters every time it turns elsewhere.

Rahman’s soundtrack is itself one of the film’s surprises: on first listening to it I was underwhelmed by how light and mellow it seemed, but something about it meant I had to keep listening, and began to appreciate its resonance.  It lingers, and works well as an album, the songs on the CD building up to the rich tapestry of “Tum Tak.”  Rai is equal to the task, and apart from “Tum Tak” (which, counter-intuitively, occurs very early in the film), “Piya Milenge” is outstanding, while even the relatively conventional settings of “Ay Sakhi” and “Banrasiya” are elevated.  Only “Tu Manshudi” suffers from a hangover (that of Rang de Basanti), but with music like this, complaints can only be muted.  More broadly, Rai is as sensitive as Rakeysh Mehra to the dramatic possibilities inherent in using Rahman’s background music (and in turning that music off).  The two outstanding scenes (neither of which can be described without spoilers) both feature Dhanush, the first associated with the big post-interval twist and a panic-stricken Kundan in flight; and the second a wonderful vignette a few minutes later by the banks of the Ganges, involving Kundan’s encounter with a sage Brahmin.

Unfortunately, none of this (nor the moving Dhanush monologue that concludes the film) is enough to rescue Raanjhana from itself, as it wends its way from Varanasi to Delhi and becomes overtly political in the last third, degenerating into wretched farce.  I was bitterly disappointed watching this film betray itself, the promise of an unusual story about two people giving way to the usual bourgeois platitudes on what politics and political activism can be.  This stale, hackneyed representation, the sheer fakery of watching the film’s characters try and build a left-of-center political party in Delhi (the dialogs mouthed by the JNU jholawaala students caused me to cringe in my seat, embarrassed at the writing), badness that verges on parody, marred what had been, up to that point, an authentic movie-going experience.  The failure is more than just Rai’s: this generation of Hindi filmmakers can imagine many things, but politics isn’t among them (and, it must be said, the impoverishment of the imagination on this front itself speaks volumes about the politics of both filmmakers and audience).  Moreover, the fact that there even is an overtly political dimension to this film is itself part of the problem, and in this Raanjhana is a long way away from the new Tamil cinema forbears to which it pays homage.  Those films do not need politics as a prop, and are secure in the view that a story about a romance, or neighborhood friendships, or the world of a fairground or cockfighting, is inherently meaningful (even if, all too often, Tamil filmmakers feel the compulsion to invent a violent twist to jolt the audience, an overused gimmick that by now has conditioned the audience to expect it).  Writer Himanshu Sharma, it seems, suffers from some anxiety on that score, and the result is a film that tries too hard to be Important and Meaningful (without having anything more important or meaningful to say than that the government is bad, and, by implication, that the politics of the youthful is the country’s only hope).  The capitalization is painful – the film was better off merely odd.