TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

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The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

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MUKKABAAZ / THE BRAWLER (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2017, India) – Fist of Fury [spoilers ahead]

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Mukkabaaz ends with very little of the catharsis you would expect from a boxing biopic. But Kashyap’s latest venture uses the sports film trappings as a way of navigating the politics of caste against the backdrop of an unconventional Hindi romance. This one zips along, partaking a breathless, infectious energy and enjoys circumventing audience expectations so to let those authorial Kashyap flourishes gather a hedonistic momentum.

While mainstream Hindi cinema continues to dodge the question of caste, having rendered caste invisible in the sentimental NRI neoliberal narratives, Parallel Cinema attempted to make the question of caste a central edict of the communicative political cinema of Benegal. Some time or another many of the great Indian filmmakers have all dealt with caste. Even Ray realised the urgency of this task with Sadgati, his grimmest film. And many of the best films about caste have come from the South; see Chomana Dudi. While alternative, independent cinema has thrived, caste led narratives have been intermittent. Yet the critical success of films like Sairat, Chauranga and Masaan point to a cycle of films that deal with caste head on, and so Mukkabaaz in some respects can be situated in this cycle. But what seems to separate Mukkabaaz from these films is the political address; much of it on the nose politics, which is openly critical of Modi’s polarized, nationalist rhetoric that has claimed the lives of many innocent Indians.

One gets a sense of urgency from this work that has been lacking in the past because it feels like a film that Kashyap had to make – but not to silence his critics or to stage a pithy comeback, rather to finally put his neck on the line in ways that become amplified in the coruscating tale of caste subjugation. Not that Kashyap has ever put his neck on the line before; he does it all the time on social media and usually gets it chopped off! Kashyap has been bumping up against mainstream Hindi cinema for a while now, often with mixed results; see Bombay Velvet. With Mukkabaaz Kashyap manages to pull off such a creative feat, freely mixing the idioms of 70s storytelling with the postmodern Hindie panache of hyper-edit montages and monolithic super villains. Kashyap has always been a tactile filmmaker and with Mukkabaaz he once again conveys a naturalistic feel for the urban environment and particularly the spaces the characters inhabit. The juxtaposition of blood, sweat and skin gives the film a tangible ambiance that seeps through into the unconventional romance.

Where the film really comes to life ideologically is when Ravi Kishen shows up as the Dalit boxing coach and in one particular initial exchange with Jimmy Shergil’s upper caste despotic, bigoted Bhagwan, a crippling social reality transforms boxing into a metaphorical caste struggle that energises the narrative. An attempt to depart from the conventional romance is at the level of caste but the decision to make Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) mute heralds a palpable symbolic gesture to do with patriarchy and female oppression. Moreover, muteness becomes a device with which to create lots of humour and arguably Mukkabaaz is also one of Kashyap’s wittiest films. Perhaps one of the darkest moments is when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) humiliates his boss in the workplace, overturning a caste hierarchy and privilege that seeks to disenfranchise further those already on the margins.

Most of Kashyap’s films never follow any set rules in terms of narrative storytelling and often function episodically, rarely building to a traditional sense of closure. And given the emotional catharsis often associated with boxing films, much of this is kept in check so not to sentimentalise Shravan’s epic struggle. But there are deliberate moments of hyperbole such as Shravan’s rescue of Sunaina, a brilliant send up of Bollywood’s deference to the mythological, and which Kashyap pulls off with chaotic aplomb. Indeed, such hyperbole also stretches to the sordid degrees of corruption prevalent in society, one in which the film paints a nexus of the upper caste, the police and public institutions working in cahoots, a major characteristic of popular Hindi cinema in the 70s.

Undeniably this is actor Vineet Kumar Singh’s film and he rumbles and contorts his way through, his sculpted body instrumentalized to mirror a razor sharp determination that claws into the warped psyche of a nation that seems to have yielded to a neo-fascist impulse. But what to make of the final invocation of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’? It seems to be yet another rejoinder, delivered in a tone of mockery. Nevertheless, I still felt some ambivalence towards this moment since I didn’t fully comprehend the intentions. I should also mention the final shot is a brilliant one that crackles with mischievous delight.

HOSTILES (Dir. Scott Cooper, 2017, US)

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This unexceptional post-Western from director Scott Copper should have been a work about the historical, cultural and political trauma of the genocide of the Native American but instead decides to go down the suicidal cul-de-sac of ersatz genre cinema, flagrantly resurrecting parochial archetypes and unadventurous narrative situations so to make a false claim for revisionism. Perhaps it is of little surprise that Cooper’s handsomely shot cinematic construct collapses under the sheer burden of American history and can only merely grasp at political analysis. A potent recognition of the intersections of past trauma(s) remain, notably the perpetual trauma of violence, linked to land, conquest and expansionism, and while Cooper is brave enough to dispense with any real plot, thereby making the narrative about a journey, the inert and sluggish rhythm works against a prescient thematic tryst. Bale does his best Sam Elliott impersonation as the redemptive Army officer who undergoes a purgative transformation but I’ve never been convinced by Bale as an actor; his stoic posturing is all bluster. What did work for me though and which was really nice to see was the plethora of cross dissolves that are deployed with epicurean intent. Also, we should be calling this one a Trauma Western.

GALIGE (Dir. M. S. Sathyu, 1995, India)

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I recently caught Galige (1995) lurking in the library of Amazon’s Indian film channel Heera. Many of the key titles first made available by the NFDC on DVD through the Cinemas of India label can be found in the library. Most of the films have subtitles and claim to have been restored, which judging by some of the films I have seen, either the original negative must be in a sorry state or the term restoration has been somewhat inflated. Galige, directed by M. S. Sathyu, released in 1995, returns to the topic of secularism (Garam Hawa, 1973) but this time through the perspective of two youth; an orphaned girl who does not believe in religion or caste and a young Sikh boy who is on the run after committing an act of terrorism in the name of religion. Since they have both seen the ways in which religion separates rather than unites brings them closer together, creating a striking and refreshing socialist worldview. It might be reasonable to include Galige as part of a cycle of films released in the mid nineties, including Naseem (95) and Mammo (94) that dealt with the politics of secularism at a critical historical juncture, broadly signalling the end of Parallel Cinema.

Galige does not have an entry in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema and I had problems finding information and reviews on the film which makes me wonder why and how so many of these films have made it to DVD and now on digital platforms without any context whatsoever. Although making a title accessible to film audiences is a major step in the right direction, especially for Parallel Cinema, the dearth of basic contextual information in the shape of reviews, interviews and analysis is unsurprising in the broader picture of Indian film titles shabbily making their way onto home video. Not all of the films warrant context but there is a critical historical dimension to Galige, namely the Khalistan movement, which demanded elucidation and has rarely been depicted on screen, perhaps in the shape of a booklet or companion video of some kind. In all, the Cinemas of India label is a missed opportunity in terms of bringing to life one of the most significant and prolific film movements of the last fifty years. I guess we should be grateful the NFDC didn’t watermark all their films!