AURAT / WOMAN (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1940, India) – Lost & Found

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Sardar Akhtar as Radha

Aurat, a social melodrama, forms part of Mehboob’s period of filmmaking that saw him shift between the studio system of the 1930s and early 1940s before he went independent. He made a number of key films for National Studios including Roti. Mehboob was a studio bound filmmaker, working in many genres and often collaborating with the same technical crew including cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani. His post-independence work is what still garners attention amongst film fans and his colour period resulted in populist classics such as Aan & Mother India. His films also had a remarkably consistent presence at the box office and he had the flair to make even the most unappealing political films of his career such as Roti (1942) succeed with film audiences. So much of Mehboob’s early films has either simply been forgotten, lost to time or have been rendered inaccessible. This was certainly the case with Roti that only recently surfaced online and which I have argued is a key work in pre-independence Hindi cinema both in terms of its political content and appreciating fully Mehboob’s auteur status.

Aurat was recently reissued on DVD by Shemaroo and subsequently uploaded to their Vintage YouTube channel. I am not entirely sure who owns the rights to Roti or Aurat, maybe it is the Mehboob Khan estate, but since the copyright has lapsed on both of these films they have arguably entered the public domain, which seems somewhat sneaky of DVD labels to re-issue these films hoping to make a profit from them. Now, had the films been restored and then re-released in new prints including special features then it would make perfect sense and one would dually buy into such an enterprise. Alas, given the despairing state of DVD authoring and manufacturing in India, films like Aurat are likely to continue circulating in the realm of BitTorrents. What remains to be seen is, if and when, the work of Mehboob is likely to be restored and released in two separate retrospectives; pre and post independence.

Aurat is the story of Radha, a peasant woman of considerable fortitude, left to fend for her four children when her husband burdened with the weight of impoverishment leaves the village, abandoning his family. Through hunger Radha loses two of her children but still succeeds in raising her two remaining sons who grow up to become polar opposites; Birju, the outright rebel and bandit, and Ramu, the romantic, doting son. The narrative template of a mother, the interests in female narratives is a recurring theme in Mehboob’s films, and her two conflicting sons immeasurably influenced dozens of Hindi films. Imagining nationhood through the symbolic coding of the mother figure would reach a Nehruvian zenith with Nargis as Mother India. Sardar Akhtar is equally accomplished in her unassuming performance as Radha, a feminist portrait, growing to occupy a position of respect and autonomy in the village.

In Deewaar, the trade unionist father, ostracized from the village for selling out his fellow workers has its antecedents in Aurat when Shamu abandons his family, the crisis of masculinity insurmountably deathly in its discordant musings. In one of the boldest sequences in the film, Mehboob uses a series of bold superimpositions and deep focus photography, juxtaposing Shamu’s male despair to the quandary of poverty:

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Since the quality of the video I watched varied considerably, the photographic work of Irani still shone through, framing the village in pastoral landscapes of elemental riches, clouds, water and earth, reminiscent of Soviet cinema and the cinema of Dovzhenko that intersects with Raj Kapoor’s Awaara and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin. This nostalgic view of the village, complemented by the traditional folk music by Anil Biswas, is an aspect of Indian rural life that often appears in Mehboob’s work while his criticisms of modernity in terms of its impact on ordinary Indian culture predates Satyajit Ray and many other Indian directors. One can see Mehboob and his regular editor Shamsudin Kadri experimenting with editing devices such as the dissolve, used masterfully to mark the transition of Birju from boy to man:

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One of the noted parallels between Aurat and Mother India is the unruly, scheming figure of the moneylender Sukhilala (actor Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi would reprise his role) manipulating the despair of the villagers and trying his best to take advantage of Radha’s misfortunes. Sukhilala upsets the equilibrium of the village since his moneylending interpreted, as a capitalist critique, is a source of hostility that antagonises Birju, like it did his father, pointing to cyclical notions of wounded male pride and impotency that can only be resolved by a tragic mortality. Such a deep, eternal realisation is delineated by Mehboob’s dolly shot on Radha’s horrified face (see below) after she has shot Birju, a cataclysmic rupturing of rural laws and Oedipal complications.

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We have had a monograph on Mother India (BFI) by Gayatri Chatterjee and two publications on Mehboob as a director; one by Rauf Ahmed that is underwritten and very basic and also a biography by Bollywood insider Bunny Reuben. Neither of them provides a comprehensive analysis of Mehboob as an auteur since much of his work still remains inaccessible, suggesting a reclaiming of his earlier works as they slowly become available is likely to be a revisionist task.

CONTEMPORARY BANGLADESHI CINEMA: THE FILMS OF MOSTOFA S. FAROOKI

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Director Mostofa S. Farooki

Bangladeshi cinema is a major blind spot for me so I when I stumbled upon the films of contemporary filmmaker Mostofa S. Farooki I was determined to find out more. Festivalscope presently has three films by Farooki available to watch. Many of his films are on YouTube minus English subtitles. Unsurprisingly none of Farooki’s films have been distributed officially in the UK. Some context is necessary here about the Bangladeshi film industry. In an interview for Screen Daily (2012) with Liz Shackleton, Farooki says Bangladesh produces on average 40 films, ‘most are really bad Bollywood copies’, reiterating yet again the hegemonic footprint of populist Hindi cinema on regional output and neighbouring countries. This figure seems low for a country with a sizable youth population. It was the introduction of satellite TV in 1999 that Farooki contends led to ‘aspiring young filmmakers’ to make ‘short telefilms on digital for really low budgets’. Farooki has been the most high profile and most outspoken of this new generation of Bangladeshi filmmakers.

The Bangladeshi film industry seems to be in a similar position that Indian cinema was in before the government granted industry status, and Farooki has said new Bangladeshi cinema needs the intervention of government policy to improve exhibition, helping to install ‘digital cinema systems’ but also encouraging local funding for feature film projects. In principle, Farooki is suggesting indigenous homegrown Bangladeshi cinema can only emerge fully and creatively through some kind of state based funding body like the FFC, which was set up by the Indian government in the 1960s to help support alternate cinema. Farooki has also been resistant to the import of Bollywood films, citing the example of South Korea in developing an indigenous, commercially successful domestic cinema. However, much of Bangladeshi’s recent best work has come from television. My contact with Bangladeshi cinema has been very limited but Farooki’s position in the industry seems significant in trying to push forward a new cinematic agenda for emerging filmmakers. Farooki is clearly not reasoning for a new cinematic manifesto but more crucially calling for institutional implementations that could help the industry grow internally. This is certainly backed up by his body of work so far. Three films, all directed by Farooki, are key in terms of understanding the politics, themes and style of what could potentially lead to a new wave in Bangladeshi cinema. This includes Third Person Singular Number (2009), Television (2012) and Ant Story (2013). Farooki’s work fits nicely into the international market and many of his films have been feted at film festivals, heralding him as a critical voice in the context of South Asian cinema.

Third Person Singular Number (2009) is the film that got Farooki noticed. It is arguably a radical text since it depicts the story of a young, seemingly liberated, middle class woman and the experiences she faces in a controlling patriarchal Bangladeshi society. In one extended sequence, Farooki details the ostracism Ruba faces when she tries to rent an apartment for herself, eventually duping a seedy old landlord to rent her a room in exchange for the promise of sex. The sequence emerges as a comical one as Ruba slowly turns the tables on the landlord, ridiculing his attempts to exploit her. While gender politics are a key interest across all three films, Ruba’s journey becomes an existential one, striving to forge an identity in an urban, modern Bangladeshi society.

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Third Person Singular Number (2009)

Television (2012) is by far the most ideologically provoking, centring on a village in which the local community chairman (also an Imam) bans television. Not only does this central concept reflect the contemporary anxieties of a Muslim orthodoxy suspicious of media imagery but leads to a series of comical situations that sees the villagers using subterfuge to watch television. Farooki deploys the television as a symbol of change and modernity that the chairman regards as abhorrent. However, the ending sees the chairman leave the village to go on pilgrimage to perform Hajj only to discover he has been swindled. The chairman’s trip to the city is framed by the ubiquity of images in the shape of advertising adorning the cityscapes, which Farooki argues can only create false needs and distract, complicating the Imam’s objections about banning television in the village. Ironically, when the chairman cannot face the shame of returning to the village having not performed the pilgrimage he stays in a hotel in the city and resigns himself to watching the Hajj on television. Farooki makes the point quite brilliantly, that imagery and technology can also be progressive and in some ways offer another conduit for proselytizing religious ideology.

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Television (2012)

The third film, Ant Story (2013) is Farooki’s most recent film, and perhaps the quirkiest of the three, exploring the nuances of contemporary urban life through the eyes of a lowly young salesman who becomes embroiled in a blackmail scheme with an actress. Taking its cue from films like Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Ant Story is a dark comedy about the culture of victimization, which has emerged as a consequence of new media technology. Farooki’s films have an inimitably understated style (often blurring reality), multi layered narratives that favour aperture, interests in female narrative perspectives, and the collision between tradition and modernity. His voice is very progressive when compared to other Islamic countries with a film industry such as Pakistan, since he often debates the hypocrisies of Islam and is not afraid of speaking out against a stifling orthodoxy that can limit and strangely beget creativity.

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Ant Story (2013)

Farooki is somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries in India and the rest of South Asia but his work deserves wider exposure in Europe and the US. No Man’s Land, his current project, will be shot in New York and was awarded the NFDC development award in 2014, and will be about ‘a member of the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan, which is discriminated against by the Sunni majority’. He is certainly a director who deserves more recognition abroad and is one to look out for in terms of leading the way for new Bangladeshi cinema.

Bibliography

Interview/Feature on Farooki by Liz Shackleton, Screen Daily, 17 October 2012

NIZHALKUTHU / SHADOW KILL (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 2002, India)

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Grimness evades the essence of this quasi-horror film recalling the disquieting ugliness caught wholly in Kieslowski’s A Short film about Killing, a haunting tale about the dreads of capital punishment. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s 2001 film Shadow Kill examines the story of an executioner (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) in British colonial India suffering from the insurmountable crises of guilt, loyalty and death. Rituals dominate in what is an exercise in non-linear subjectivity as the story of the servile executioner collides with the swadeshi politics of his son, a Gandhi convert. One such ritual is the physical and symbolic entity of the rope, politicising the narrative with a multiplicity, framing the creation of the rope by prisoners, and later appropriated for superstitious intents by the executioner as a kind of religious science. The film enters a terrifying domain in the last third when a jailer tells the story of the rape of a young girl, filtered through the horrific imaginings of the executioner, culminating in the suggestion the boy about to be hanged is in fact innocent. Gopalakrishnan is a master at evoking and sustaining mood, an authorial instinct which he has repeatedly returned to in many of his best films. While melodrama is a salient genre marker, horror seems almost an unlikely category until you recognise the iconography of death lingers portentously throughout this primordial tale of woe.

BOMBAY VELVET (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2015, India) – Bollywood Intermezzo

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Ambition can be a cruel thing: blinding, deceptive and bellicose. It can mean adulation and reverence for an artist while at the same it can produce sharp reactionary criticism. Imaginably worst of all is the euphemism ‘ambitious failure’ expressly for a film director who may have spent years on a project only to see it evaporate into the ether of cinematic memoirs. Anurag Kashyap is a risk taker, someone who has been disillusioned with a parochial mainstream Indian cinema. To date his oeuvre sings from an alternate hymn sheet since no one film is alike. Kashyap’s continuing impact on mainstream Indian cinema is substantial, serving to contest the traditional paradigm of stars, genres and narrative storytelling that has so often plagued Indian cinema. Although there is a complicated debate regarding the definition of middle cinema, much of Kashyap’s films have straggled such a middle ground, taking up a space contentiously dubbed the ‘Hindie’ film. Far too many Indian directors play safe.

Kashyap’s latest film Bombay Velvet never lacks ambition. It is his most mainstream film to date, featuring an ‘A’ list cast, hefty budget, studio backing and a glitz not far removed from high end Bollywood cinema. With Bombay Velvet, Kashyap is reaching for a wider audience than ever before (an audience who admittedly do not understand him as a director nor see him as an auteur) deploying a postmodern potpourri of Hollywood filmic intertexts (Kashyap borrows the device of factotum magazine writer Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito) from Hanson’s L.A. Confidential who acts as a sort of omniscient narrator with his acerbic commentary) and riffing on classic Bollywood tropes to articulate what should have been a very compelling story indeed. We are told that Bombay Velvet was bit of a dream project for Kashyap except didn’t they say the same things about his crime opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)? To get past such hyperbole, one is faced with a broader problem; a script lacking in confidence to flex the edges of writer Gyan Prakash’s reclamation of Bombay’s netherworld. Why this project makes for perfect cinematic interpretation is not hard to see. It is a Bombay that everyone knows about unconsciously through film, mythologised in Indian cinema over the years, undeniably hypnotic in its pull and equivocally realised by Kashyap with a spectacular, unmarked stylised finesse. It has the swankiest opening titles to an Indian film in years. Aesthetically the world of Bombay Velvet is constructed with a real zing and we should not overlook the distinguished work of cinematographer Rajeev Ravi (Kashyap’s regular DOP), production designer Sonal Sawant and music composer Amit Trivedi.

This is some consolation for a film that suffers from a discordant script, failing to capitalise on developing the potential of many likeable characters and narrative strands (a Bombay jazz scene that goes under-explored is a mystery) into something gripping or a coherent whole. The creative liability with casting ‘A’ list stars is the star baggage they bring with them. Kashyap knows better than most that stars should be used cautiously. Both Ranbir as masochistic Johnny Balraj and Sharma as Rosie, the fatal moll, look the part, with a striking costume design, but they are in my view woefully miscast. Sharma is painfully wooden at times while Ranbir is out of his depth especially when throwing a punch. He lacks the swagger of a wannabe gangster and both actors struggle to convince that they could come from and belong to such a sordid milieu. Furthermore, not enough screen time is devoted to cataloguing the rise of Johnny Balraj. We don’t root for Johnny in the way we have rooted for other low life criminals in the past and the very idea of sympathising with the anti-hero never really transpires into an aspect of the genre paramount to our conflicted audience position as a spectator. I’m not advocating Kashyap should have gone for non professionals but Ugly and Black Friday is evidence enough that he produces his best work when casting relatively unknowns or underrated actors from whom he can get some unexpected work. Karan Johar as Khambatta, a sort of glorified middleman, is surprisingly good but then his character emerges as just another superfluous Bollywood villain.

In truth, I wanted more from the incidental characters populating the seedy margins of this Bombay and a far greater ideological engagement with the socio-politics of the time that Kashyap touches on fleetingly. Also, the way the film jumps around haphazardly, speedily ploughing its way through an epic narrative that should have unfolded more organically, pointing to a weighty script that tries to cram in too much. In fact, Bombay Velvet could have succeeded as a high end TV series with each episode focused on developing the backstory of all the characters. One gets the sense that Kashyap made far too many compromises in getting the project to the screen. Sad to say this is a disappointing studio film (raising wider institutional questions concerning the way working under studio constraints can be an anathema to some directors), much like the super vacuous spectacles that Sanjay Leela-Bhansali so often makes. Bombay Velvet is a wax museum without a pulse, a museum that quickly melts into a void of joyless intertextuality, over ambitious homage & self-aggrandisement. Moreover, I would not consider the film a misfire. Instead it needs to be positioned as part of Kashyap’s evolution as a filmmaker and his willingness to take on new challenges in trying to innovate, hybridise and fuse together authorial preoccupations with the demands of an ever changing commercial Indian cinema. In many ways, this is Kashyap’s Bollywood intermezzo, an overly cinephilic film and if anything it articulates a sensibility about his own tastes, influences and understanding of the traditions of populist Indian cinema.

DEEP VALLEY (Dir. Jean Negulesco, 1947, US) – Melo-Noir

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The first time I heard about Ida Lupino was in Scorsese’s journey through American cinema series, which first aired, in the mid 1990s on C4. Scorsese framed Lupino as an auteur director who dealt with social issues that went unmapped in much of mainstream American cinema, such as rape. It was only later I realised how great of an actress she was: British born, eloquent and unassailable. Lupino was a film star first and had unbelievable range; she could play trashy and classy with relative ease and cropped up in many film noirs during the 1940s. She was most striking when she played characters that were inflicted in some way, physically or psychologically, conveying a vulnerability and timidness that mark performances such as Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. There was also a capricious side to her acting. Below the vulnerabilities lurked a volatile social rage incessantly pushing outwards. In many ways, Lupino’s career was a germinal one since she not only acted but also directed, offering a counter hegemonic view of a patriarchal Hollywood system.

Deep Valley was a star vehicle for Lupino, featuring one of her most accomplished performances as Libby Saul, an impecunious and shy girl, secluded from the outside world by unreasonable demands placed on her by an ailing mother and churlish father. Libby lives literally a life of quiet desperation with her parents in a dilapidated farm in the woods of the California coast. Her life is complicated by a convict, Barry (Dane Clarke), working nearby as part of a group making a new road that will lead from the coast to the valley. Libby is attracted to Barry but represses her feelings. During a landslide, Barry escapes and meets Libby who has run away from the farm. They hide out in the woods and slowly Libby falls for Barry.

The director of Deep Valley, the Romanian Jean Negulesco, made over 80 films during a career that saw him work on many studio genre films in the 1940s and 1950s. Negulesco spent much of the early 1940s learning the craft by on short films and also assisting on other studio projects. This is a point made by Scorsese in his documentary; that directors got to work all the time, on four or five pictures a year, and this naturally meant they got to be good at what they did. Moreover, having to work under austere utilitarian and economic constraints also imposed a discipline on many studio directors, leading to the mastery of narrative economy, an important classical notion all but absent from contemporary mainstream Hollywood. It is an approach still evident in the work of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of narrative economy is Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg like Hitchcock before him storyboard meticulously, reiterating that such a process is intrinsic to the traditions of classical Hollywood storytelling. Negulesco’s break came in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitriois, a low budget film noir with Peter Lorre. Deep Valley, made at Warners in 1947, arguably saw Negulesco at his peak, bringing together noir aesthetics with the melodrama form. What makes Deep Valleyi a particularly striking work from the 1940s studio era is the involvement of Ida Lupino who is given a more unconventional role as a female film star than was expected at the time.

Categorising Deep Valley as a mood piece is a position that I am compelled to agree with as Negulesco creates a disquieting ambiance, presenting a dysfunctional family reminiscent of a Gothic horror trope in which instability radiates from an arduous past that remains closed to us. There is a sickly tone that materialises. Libby’s desire for escape is realised through Barry, symbolising the forbidden, whereas the father dubiously pimps his daughter to Jeff, the mildly arrogant engineer overseeing the construction of the road. The film is uncharacteristic in such respects but when contextualised in the melodrama form, female subjectivity is key to our understanding of the way the genre functions and communicates with audiences.

Although Libby’s longing for Barry could also be viewed as a form of late teenage rebellion, it is Barry’s status as an outsider that forges a relation since this is how Libby has been positioned by her family and those around her; a strange, odd girl (not a woman) and an outsider. This raises questions about gender that the film deals with subtly. Since Libby has been raised in seclusion, her social skills are infantile while her understanding of sexuality is also erroneous. In many ways, her identity constructed by her parents explains why Libby feels most at ease when she is in the woods with her dog. The interactions with Barry and Jeff complicate her independence as they place demands on her related to negotiating new ideas concerning gender and sexuality. The father in particular wants Libby to conform to traditional ideas of gender and the choice of Jeff as her suitor smacks of dogmatism that Libby contests.

Like many films made under the studio system it was the endings, habitually striving for closure, that were characteristically compromised ideologically and thematically, and in some cases struck a tone which clashed with the rest of the film’s narrative. Deep Valley ends incongruently. Barry and Libby cannot be allowed to escape and their affections for each other are undercut by an ending, promulgating a moralistic tone, that sees Barry/Libby neutered for their attempt at transgression. However, it is not clear from the closing moments if Libby is now with Jeff. Though they are seen together in the final shot, the inclusion of the dog suggests primitiveness still exists and that Libby retains her unconventionality and that she is still free from the tyranny of men.

A noir reading of Deep Valley compared to other noir films released around the same time offers some notable vagaries. For example, traditional noir conventions argued the femme fatale typically seduced the central male protagonist, leading to his entrapment and subsequent downfall. Deep Valley reverses such a narrative idea, arguably positioning the femme fatale as Barry, the male protagonist, whereas Libby is the prey and to a certain extent becomes Barry’s attempts to escape a fatalistic trajectory already mapped out for him by society. Unlike the dangerous woman who is usually punished for transgression, this time the male anti-hero gets his comeuppance. However, there is no satisfaction for Libby in this conclusion but rather a loss that is romantically inclined which returns to the cathartic audience pleasures of the women’s melodrama.

BLACKHAT (Dir. Michael Mann, 2015, US) – Moments, Impressions and Aesthetics

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Defining moments in films can go unnoticed since the visual expressionism of most filmmakers is relatively provincial, acquiescing to broader commercial empathies. It is not right to reduce or distil the essence of Mann’s films to mere moments, as this would make the claim his films work fleetingly and intermittently. Moments can also be interpreted as marks of distinction attributed to an auteur as formidable as Mann whose films are some of the most authentic, aesthetically striking and thematically cogent genre pieces to have emerged from the mainstream of contemporary American cinema. There are two moments in question in Mann’s latest film Blackhat that are framed outside the periphery of genre, and which would constitute as authorial slight of hand. The first is when hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is released from prison and pauses briefly on a runaway before boarding a jet. The second sees FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) gunned down by zealous paramilitary bagman Kassar on the streets of HK (Mann is one of the few directors who finds an aesthetic beauty and apotheosis from action sequences). Time and space are the two dimensions linking both moments, imbuing a transience and solemnity often affiliated with the urban universe of Mann.

The first moment framing Hathaway in a series of slow motion edits as he looks of into the distance is interspersed with a classic Mann visual trait, the asymmetrical composition, with the camera lingering slightly to the left of the urban male loner so that negative space fills the frame, creating a disruption which in this case could be viewed as Hathaway staring into the existential void or clearer still the abyss of cyberspace which is infinitesimal. Mann’s interruption of the logic of classical narrative cinema with such an authorial articulation punctuates and contorts the linearity of time so this moment becomes a defining point of reference rather than just an attempt to assert stylistic consistency. Such discontinuity is also philosophical since the very existence of Mann’s male protagonists is predicated on time: the time to think, to act, and above all, the time to live and die. What if we reframed such moments as in-between moments? Those extraneous micro details typifying realist cinema or the bits that no audience member would be interested to look at for a few fleeting seconds since it distracts from ignoble narrative pleasures. Kent Jones in his monograph (1999) on L’Argent (Money, 1983) argues the cinema of Bresson is a compendium of ‘impressions’ of life as recalled by the director and captured on film. Being impressionistic suggests something altogether deleterious these days, superficiality perhaps. Would we dare make the implication that De Sica was an impressionist, and that even the cinema of Mann is about framing impressions? Remarkably, Mann has referred to his cinema as a realist one. If authenticity, extended years of research, is proof that his films pulsate inorganically and demonstrate a noted aesthetic dexterity then it works aggressively to mask the realist argument, which inexorably gets displaced.

The second in-between moment is realised more sparingly than the first, occupying a more familiar Mann visual milieu, an urban topography, this time of late night Hong Kong. When Kassar and his men gun down Agent Barrett, Mann cuts to Barrett framed in a low angle medium close up, her body riddled with bullets and her lifeless eyes wide open. The next shot, from the POV of Barrett, is a vertiginous high angle shot of a glistening HK skyscraper reaching into the night skies. Framing Barrett’s death through the image of a tall building, Mann connects her death to that her of late husband, a victim of 9-11, and again contorts linearity so that a poetic visual metonymy surfaces. In both junctures, time is the enemy, the most ephemeral of contests in the Mann cosmos.

Blackhat is in many ways Mann’s first truly ‘global’ film, unfolding chiefly in HK and Jakarta. Both of these urban spaces are never positioned as alien environments and seem on many occasions inseparable from the American city streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. If a post-globalised urban context holds no barriers for Mann’s cops, criminals, outsiders and anti-heroes then cyberspace as a site for granting a precarious anonymity, so often craved by Mann’s urban male loners, is at stake, emerging as a contest in which Hathaway must confront his double and mirror image, the eponymous hacker. Such opposition educes Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and Public Enemies in which mirror images as an authorial preoccupation is taken to its logical conclusion, the shattering of the double and its final elimination, which in the case of Blackhat plays out with an erudite genre equivocation, hinging emotively on revenge. It could in fact be the most benign of all Mann’s endings since the world of crime is a digital one: undetectable and immeasurable unlike the tangible ‘scores’ of traditional urban crime.

This narrative departure is not a complete break from Mann’s authorial traits since time still matters. Yet in the past, Mann’s urban loners who know their time is up such as Neil McCauley in Heat or Vincent in Collateral, the doomed noir trajectory, means their existence is also hinged on adherence to a moral code that advocates a no attachments policy. But Hathaway goes the furthest to reject such an ideal since his escape at the end is with Lien (Wei Tang). Imaginably Mann’s male protagonists are that much freer in a post globalised world; that they can disappear and become invisible since time and space have become that much more fragmented. In this context Blackhat is closer to the narrative finality of Manhunter (note the parallels between Jack Crawford and Captain Dawai in terms of their roles as meditators) and The Last of the Mohicans. It is in the vagaries of transience that remains an absolute veracity about Mann’s work.

1992 and the release of The Last of the Mohicans is significant in terms of determining the point at which critics started to take Mann seriously. It was one of the few occasions that critics came to a consensus on a Mann film. Perhaps Heat is the film that brought wider mainstream acclaim and recognition but the mixed critical responses to Blackhat reiterates the fate of films like Thief, Miami Vice and most recently Public Enemies, misconstrued films that have grown in stature. The commercial failure of Blackhat lies with Universal who never pushed the film, botched the marketing and subsequently dumped the film. What makes Blackhat and every Mann film so exceptional is the exacting precision of the framing, composition and combination of shots; there is alchemy to his work, a rapturous aesthetician absent from the mainstream of American genre cinema in desperate need of resuscitation.

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.