PK (Rajkumar Hirani, 2014, India) – $100 million and counting…

PK

Indian cinema’s attempts to take on the science fiction genre have been patchy, misconstrued and at times downright embarrassing. Certainly, recent Indian science fiction films have operated in the realms of ‘sci-fi’, focusing on familiar superhero tropes. Given Rajkumar Hirani’s illustrious track record at the box office, each of his films tends to accumulate an undeniable anticipation consequently raising his films to a national event. Hirani is an unashamedly populist filmmaker, pandering to the sentimentalities of the audience but in a way that doesn’t make appear him crass or crude like his fellow contemporaries. In fact, Hirani has a nimbler comic touch, abjuring the 1970s cinema of Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in which a more erudite style of comedy was contrasted to a mantic societal dynamic. Having said all this, Hirani’s skills as a director over his career have been modulated by his on-going collaboration with producer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra. He’s not really been given the credit that he deserves. Hirani writes, directs and produces, which makes him a chiefly noteworthy mainstream filmmaker. Comedy is the one genre that is problematic to discuss given it subjective nature. It is also a genre that masks attempts to impose an authorial framework since it is not taken as seriously as other film genres. Comedy films are dismissed a lot more readily than say films from either the crime or religious genre. While Hirani’s comedies are some of the best-loved mainstream Indian films of recent times, Munnabhai MBBS and 3 Idiots, they have a complicated ideological relationship with the audience that taps into dialogue about the nation-state, which yet again obscures Hirani’s authorial contributions.

PK is indubitably Hirani’s best film, mainly because it comes nearest to the work of Raj Kapoor who had the propensity to merge comedy with the social to create a special kind of melodrama. In the films of Raj Kapoor in which we find a variation of Chaplin’s tramp figure, the lovable rogue, it was always the outsider who could see most clearly the injustices of the city. Hirani is smart enough to eliminate the iconographic spectacle of science fiction so that it cannot become a criticism with which to hurt the film’s credibility; a wise choice indeed. Instead, he takes the simplest of narrative situations; stranger arrives in a foreign land (India) only to collide with a secular culture complete with its many religions, rituals and traditions. Hirani then situates romantic entanglements and cross border politics into a framework that uses satire to bravely critique religious dogma. For a mainstream project of this stature the polarising ideologies on display is a risky proposition. I’m not saying all those involved were taking a gamble (this is a critic proof film) but Aamir Khan’s association with the project and Hirani’s track record, social satire must have been a logical approach to take and they do just about enough to pull it off.

The discovery phase of the film in which we find PK (Aamir Khan) naively interacting with daily life is marked by Hirani’s well-honed observational mode, finding pathos in the everyday. This is the perfect star vehicle for Aamir Khan, showcasing his underused comic skills while acting as a filmic extension of his Oprah style hit TV show in which he debates the ills of Indian society. In fact, the film culminates in a ‘TV moment’ in which nationalism, religion and co-existence are scrutinised, mirroring the public persona of Aamir Khan as social campaigner. Hirani takes broad swipes at everyone really: organised religion, the media, demagoguery; you name it. Nevertheless, the symbolic cross border love story between the Indian Jagat (Anushka Sharma) and Pakistani Sarfraz (Sushant Singh Rajput) advocates a much needed message of co-existence between the two nations. Regrettably, Indian Cinema’s repeated advances to enter into some kind of cinematic dialogue with Pakistan have always been met with a vitriolic response from religious groups in both countries.

There are some flaws with PK; it is too long, the songs are generic, the cross border romance is depicted stereotypically and the film’s pacing is uneven. However, PK does works as a blithe social satire but this is a film that is going to be admired for other reasons too. It is the first Indian film to cross the $100 million mark worldwide. This might be a landmark for commercial mainstream Hindi cinema as it points to the potential of Indian films to increase their box office on a global scale which seemed unattainable in the past. The cultural phenomenon of PK also reiterates Aamir Khan as Indian cinema’s most interesting and bankable of film stars, surpassing both Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan. Innovation has been key to Aamir Khan’s success and his excited ability to respond to both independent and mainstream cinema has seen him negotiate commerce and art with a sensibility that has won him the affections of both his peers in the film industry and Indian film audiences. Expect more from Hirani and Khan in the future.

DHOOM 3 (Dir. Vijay Krishna Acharya, 2013, India) – All gloom and no dhoom! [spoilers ahead!]

 

It was Walt Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs who was the first to licence the characters in a feature film, opening a new era in merchandising opportunities. Although it is probably never the sanest of ideas to take a comparative approach to Indian cinema and even more perilous comparing it to Hollywood but the trend for franchises and franchise building is something common to many film industries. The Dhoom 3 marketing campaign, an expensive one, orchestrated by Yash Raj has seen the main leads including Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif making a point of promoting the merchandising launched specially to tie in with the film’s release. Nothing new here then, just more vertical integration. Films like Dhoom 3 are tentpole films and this is one which has been promoted aggressively as one of the must film events of the year will surely succeed at the box office. The term ‘critic proof’ has become synonymous with franchises in particular and although critics arguably don’t have the sway they once did, they are still a barometer of quality and taste. Although Dhoom 3 has been greeted with mixed reviews, having seen the film, in my opinion, many of the reviews by certainly the mainstream critics could be accused of hyper inflation. Of course, no such accusatory fingerpointing stands any chance of being taken seriously in the face of a saturated screenings, consensual back patting and intensive marketing. I don’t want to be overly cynical about tentpole films since I enjoyed both of the first Dhoom films as mildly diverting. Mainstream big budget films tend to be an easy target for reviewers and critics but when a film is made such with sloppiness and somewhat contempt for the audience then it is a film that needs to be singled out and criticised for its failings. Dhoom 3 is part of a franchise and considering the various revenue streams a film of this commerciality can generate inevitably means a film’s content can be end up a casualty of the creative process. This seems to be the case with Dhoom 3, a film so inept, contemptful and ridiculous that it made me walk out before the end credits started to roll.

The key attraction of Dhoom 3 is star Aamir Khan, one of the highest paid and most respected of actors, who simply looks out of place in this nonsensical universe. None of it is particularly convincing. The story of a son who wants to avenge his father’s death caused by a heartless banker has a Dickensian ring to it but why Chicago and why 1990 as a point of reference for the film’s narrative? Aamir Khan maintains a singular facial expression throughout, which I can only label as thoroughly pissed off, while Katrina’s role as a glorified stripper implies a continuing appropriation of demeaning sexual imagery often found in gangsta rap music videos. In fact, Katrina’s presence is unjustified and cynically related to the marketing of the film. Equally troublesome are the set pieces which border on the ridiculous whereas the dialogue is ladened with enough cliches to put any Bollywood ‘B’ movie to shame. Most embarrassing and problematic is the direction by Vijay Krishna Acharya, the writer of the first Dhoom films. The conflict between cop and criminal lacks any kind of energy or interest to sustain audience interest and many of the on screen encounters are absent of a vitality and chemistry much needed for a film nearing three hours. Even more problematic are the woeful songs by Pritam as none of them are particularly memorable. Perhaps it is too much of Aamir Khan as he really takes over the film, eclipsing the Dhoom brand in many ways. But this is at the expense of Jai and Ali’s characters who hardly seem to matter. Dhoom 3 amounts to nothing more than a ‘spectacular’ mess and I am having trouble recommending anything of cinematic value in the film other than the welcoming presence of Jackie Shroff. Another sore point is the blatant product placement evident throughout, signposting Mountain Dew, Apple and BMW with such vulgarity that it renders any artistic intentions a mute point indeed. The Dhoom franchise is a cash cow for Yash Raj and significant to the commercial framework of the Hindi film industry. However, like all formulas, reinvention and innovation will be key if it is to sustain itself in the future, a point which sadly goes unnoticed in this latest outing.

PEEPLI LIVE (Dir. Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India)

Farmers committing suicide so they can be compensated after their death by the government is the backdrop to this Aamir Khan production. The opening dilemma of two farmers, Natha and Budhia, having their land seized by the feudalistic powers that be echoes Shambhu Mahto’s enslavement to the demonic zamindar in Do Bigha Zamin. Peepli Live takes the story of impoverished framers to analyse the state of the Indian media. At times, it was a case of too many characters and sub plots overwhelming the main narrative. I’m no sure why the film feels the need to work in so many narratives and although it might work to highlight the hysterical media frenzy, ultimately it detracts from the original story of the farmers. When the national media discovers that Natha has promised to commit suicide, they descend upon the village, turning the rural space into a media carnival. The film’s parasitic depiction of the media recalls with eerie precision the vicious journalism of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Similarly in Peepli Live, the media pretends to care in the interests of coverage for their respective news channels. If the media is rightly the target of this satirical critique than it does a far better job than a recent film like No One Killed Jessica in which the media is presented as flawed but still courageous in its support of those denied a voice or misrepresented.

Additionally, what makes this film’s representation of the media much more convincing and complex is the attempt to include the role of local media. In this case, the indigenous and authentic voice of the media comes from a local journalist Rakesh who finds the ‘real’ story worth telling in the village. Natha and Budhia’s predicament becomes a political bandwagon, creating a media platform for ideological dogma that reduces life and death to an inconsequential meta-narrative. Director Anusha Rizvi’s film is an assured debut, which benefits from a well-written screenplay, good pacing and some flashes of visual imagination. However, it is a film salvaged in many ways by the end shot of an exhausted Natha covered in a mask of dirt working in a construction site, most probably in the city; it’s the most haunting and effective shot of the film because it says so clearly that no matter where Natha goes he will be always be part of an anonymous invisible mass.

The final shot – Natha as exile, worker, migrant and part of the invisible underclass.

DELHI BELLY – (Dir. Abhinay Deo, 2011, India)

After the critical and commercial success of Dhobi Ghat, Aamir Khan returns with his second release of the year as a producer. If one was to unpack Delhi Belly and look carefully then it is plain to see the film uses many conventional elements of the multi protagonist crime comedy but adds a mischievousness that is both infectious and very funny. Abhinay Deo is a new film maker and whilst his debut film Game (released also this year) fell flat on its face Delhi Belly seems to suggest that given the right script, actors and producer he is more than capable of producing some exciting and inventive work. One could argue that Delhi Belly has all the hallmarks of another quality multiplex film and with the plethora of colourful expletives and reflexive characters it certainly seems to be the case. Aamir Khan and UTV Motion Pictures have developed a strong grip over the way their films are marketed and Delhi Belly has certainly been sold as an event film. The marketing for the film particularly the posters, trailers and accompanying music videos are mischievous and playful as the film itself. Written by LA based Akshat Verma, Delhi Belly almost seems in many ways a parody of Three Idiots, deconstructing many of the popular elements of the mainstream Indian film comedy. An interesting point to note is that Akshat Verma is credited in the opening titles as an assistant director, indicating his close involvement in the project.

Unlike the characters from Shor in the City, another multi protagonist narrative, who all seem trapped in some way in their lives, Delhi Belly gives us three wayward middle class characters who are experiencing the pains of youthful boredom whilst repeatedly coming up against a vein of traditionalism that they assumed had vanished. Much of the success of Delhi Belly lies in the script and it is well known that Aamir Khan has cultivated a reputation for taking his time to choose film projects. In many ways, recent films like Delhi Belly, Dobhi Ghat and Rocket Singh illustrate the centrality of a good, solid script. The use of swearing throughout the film was refreshing as it was delivered inventively and energetically by the cast especially comedian Kunaal Roy Kapur as Arun who really does steal many of the scenes (whilst the toilet humour may be juvenile it is also insanely funny) and much of the film with his hilarious performance as a photographer turned blackmailer. The opening titles, one of the best I have seen all year, juxtapose the wonderfully morose song Saigal Blues to a steady montage of shots detailing the dysfunctional qualities of the apartment shared by our three protagonists. What does feel like somewhat of a clique is the final denouement and I’m not sure if the film succeeds in sustaining the energy of the first half of the film. More strengths are the vivid production design and an alternate kind of soundtrack with the final number delivered by none other than Aamir Khan (tribute to Mithun) in one of the more bizarre ‘item’ numbers of recent years. New kid on the block Imran Khan definitely needed a boost to his middle of the road career and his encouraging performance as the disillusioned Tashi hints at a darker side to his acting skills. Delhi Belly holds together splendidly (no intermission folks) and comes highly recommended in terms of mainstream or should I say middle cinema from India. Like Kaminey, Delhi Belly is a very postmodern work that blends together many styles, ideas and aesthetics into a hyperkinetic cinematic whole.