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.

GANDHI (Dir. Richard Attenborough, 1982, India/UK) – ‘Hey Ram!’

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David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of my favourite films. It is a sprawling biopic in which the film’s grasp of history and politics is problematic to say the least. But Lean gives us some of the most poetic images committed to celluloid; a rousing spectacle that compensates for what is a dubious account of T.E. Lawrence’s exotic exploits. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was long in gestation, coming to fruition in the early 1980s, an Indo-British co-production which involved the NFDC at the behest of PM Indira Gandhi. Gandhi was an unusual project since the remit the NFDC had cultivated over the years was exclusively indigenous but this meant for the first time the NFDC worked in tandem with an external international body, GoldCrest Films, a British production company with ties to Channel Four. The film is populated by a plethora of Parallel Cinema faces while Govind Nihalani directed the second unit. It is certainly true that Gandhi would probably never have been made without the endorsement of the Indian government but one can only wonder what a filmmaker like Shyam Benegal or Mrinal Sen would have done with the project. Although Richard Attenborough had long pursued the dream of making a film on Gandhi, the final film was a resounding international success story, garnering many Oscars and a favourable critical response.

While the figure of Gandhi has been immortalised in many films, it has now become a revisionist task for film historians since the story of Gandhi continues to remain tentative. Attenborough’s Gandhi has become a significant point of reference for those who may be unfamiliar with the man. There is no denying Attenborough’s view of British colonialism is an accessible, populist representation of Gandhi’s achievements made palatable for a broad audience. However, the film is both inert in terms of its cinematic storytelling and simplistic historicising. Attenborough is so enamoured by the mythology of Gandhi, his view of history is disconcertingly linear in which equally influential political leaders like Nehru and Jinnah come away as ineffectual caricatures. Also amiss is the lack of focus on the ordinary people of the Quit India movement, the millions who were part of a seismic passive movement and the many who also gave their lives to the cause. Attenborough’s is an abridged history of modern India, cataloguing Swadeshi, Gandhi’s ascension, the end of British rule, the holocaust of Partition, to name a few. The calamity of trying to film history is the burden of history itself, which in this case is too much for Attenborough and his writers to studiously traverse.

While the defining gestalt is Ben Kingsley’s legendary performance, the film’s overblown critical reputation, much like Attenborough’s directorial career, can partly be attributed to the ambivalent critical halo of Oscardom. If anything Gandhi was the film that helped to revive the commercial fortunes of the NFDC that in turn led to a production and distribution surge in Indian Parallel Cinema. Although the term epic is often used to describe Attenborough’s film, it lacks both an emotional intimacy and cinematic zeal that Lean conjures so superbly for Lawrence of Arabia. It is not Attenborough’s linear view of history that is the problem, potentially a charge that can be levied at most films dealing with historical events, but a boring, inert and flat style of filmmaking that leads to a parochial, if not preachy, biographical tone. There probably never will be a definitive film on Gandhi and we do not need one as his legacy and story is one that is continually being fought over by historians, a site of ideological contestation so to speak. Contemporary films have been made on the topic of Gandhi notably Shyam Benegal’s The Making of a Mahatma (1996) and Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram (2000), both brilliant films in their own way while a populist film like Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) evokes the ubiquity of Gandhi to great satirical effect.

MANJHI – THE MOUNTAIN MAN (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 2015, India)

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Ketan Mehta is questionably one of the few remaining Parallel Cinema filmmakers still actively making films. One could probably include Shyam Benegal in this tryst. Many of the Parallel Cinema films declared an affinity for ‘Subaltern Voices’ (see Sangeeta Datta’s monograph on Shyam Benegal), which in turn became a recurring unofficial hallmark of institutional NFDC policy, and Mehta’s latest film ‘Manjhi – The Mountain Man’ spiritedly recalls the Parallel Cinema movement. Manjhi is a co-production between Viacom and NFDC, a collaboration between private and public funding, resulting in a film that is an uneven mix of politics, melodrama and history. One of the most confusing aspects of the film is the way Mehta structures the narrative, shifting back and forth without any real purpose other than to overstate the decorative idea of one man’s journey. Parallel Cinema intervened in the historical invisibilities of India, functioning as an instrument to decentre monolithic narratives that often marginalised subaltern groups especially the lower castes. Mehta was a central filmmaker in this project and his early work in this period is remarkable, if not, inconsistent.

The inherent contradiction of subaltern re-presentation was the complicated question of who was doing the representing; namely a privileged middle class body of filmmakers. While it would be wrong to dismiss the credibility of caste politics in Parallel Cinema, the issue of caste has a clearly variable record in contemporary popular Indian cinema. Mehta’s film is fundamentally about caste and one can certainly see evidence here of NFDC’s institutional involvement but unlike ‘the developmental aesthetic’ (Prasad, 1998) that emerged from Parallel Cinema in an attempt to break with the legacy of realism in Indian cinema, Manjhi operates in a universe of compromise, projecting a somewhat timid discussion of politics that is conflated to a stylised aesthetic which cannot help but advertise a patronising spectacle. Mehta tries to use the dulling allegory of the mountain to address caste politics but seems unable to keep at bay a hyperbolic attachment to stereotypical visions of conventional romantic imaginings.

The legacy of Parallel Cinema is unmistakably signposted in the film through the subplot of the despotic landlord and subjugated peasants in the village that forms a major backdrop to the film. This subplot is later inverted when the action shifts to the 1960s and the Naxalites sweep through the village, hanging the landlord in a moment of violent insurrection. Such an indescribably political moment that in fact ends in the massacre of all parties in a shootout is an authorial marker of Mehta. Naxalism is a thematic historical thread that runs through many of the political works of Parallel Cinema, and is a relatively unexplored one. While the casting of Nawazuddin seems all but obvious given his current indie status, justifiably so, Mehta is unsure what kind of film he wants this to be. I would have preferred it to remain a character study but Mehta is obligated take on the ‘extraordinariness’ of the true story of Manjhi by attempting comprehensiveness, a noble but self defeating position.

In terms of film style, Mehta’s has always shown an ability to draw in ideas from painting, theatre and mythology to create a complicated mode of address. Manjhi feels most like a broad example of magical realism, inconsistently so. Mehta finishes with acknowledgments to the real Manjhi and his family and although one is reminded of the ideological significance of the story, it also makes one realise that this project worked far more successfully as a documentary. Why? Because if this story about caste oppression, a perpetual one, then the metonymy of the mountain does explicate a troubled past and present, but it somewhat dislodges the authentic, real voices of the lower caste.

Mehta takes a more populist approach to the story of Manjhi as it seems to have been retold in many different ways now, so by approaching the story from a popular front perspective makes the politics palatable for a wider audience. Nonetheless, the theme of caste oppression does still come through, and while Mehta may not as be erudite as he once was, he continues to make films on relatively on his own terms. Conclusively, one could argue Mehta deliberately steered away from opting for despair and the celebratory tone the film strikes at the end is a little fantastical, perhaps unhelpfully reducing Manjhi to a symbol. Furthermore, the main reason why Manjhi carved a road out of the mountain is because he wanted to make it much easier for villagers to get access to medical assistance. Mehta obscures this fact, allegorising Manjhi’s herculean efforts, and also somewhat depoliticising the narrative. Mehta’s melodramatic re-telling of Manjhi’s almost legendary, mythical story is still worth seeking out.

BOSE: THE FORGOTTEN HERO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 2005, India) – ‘Chalo Delhi!…’

Revolutionary, leader, politician, humanist, socialist, Marxist, communist; Subhas Chandra Bose was a remarkable figure in the struggle for India’s independence. Director Shyam Benegal’s exceptionally researched historical biopic has an undeniably epic sweep complemented by a towering central performance from the wonderfully talented Marathi actor Sachin Khedekar – it is a faultless and charismatic turn by Khedekar exuding a defiance constantly expressed through his impassioned voice. Had Benegal not been at the helms of this project it is more than likely casting would have been a point of conflict for any other director up against the cynical economics of the box office. In a way, casting is what ultimately compromises the sincerity of recent historical films including Jodha-Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey – both had the potential to be great films but the emotional and cinematic baggage brought by mainstream stars (who are weak actors) jeopardises audience engagement. If you are going to make a historical film that should be both didactic and entertaining then cast it properly even if this means turning to non professional actors. Of course the problem with this scenario for a producer is that the film may fail commercially but sometimes it is worth taking a risk so that the material does not lose its creative integrity.

However, the danger Benegal seems to have faced with dramatising the extraordinary intricacies of Bose’s learned life is a continuous deference to the performance of Khedekar who appears in virtually every scene. The film steers clear off providing a complete overview of Bose’s career, leaving some personal aspects including his childhood and the formative relationship with Gandhi in the background, and by focusing on what are the most controversial years of his life Benegal constructs a narrative dominated by the politics of revolutionary struggle. The emphasis on ideological debate makes this more of a political film than a conventional biopic and whilst the very nature of the subject matter cannot fail to adhere to some of the more crowd pleasing elements of the biopic genre, namely drawn out speeches and epic crowd scenes, the ideological significance of bringing the story of Bose to film and governing an authentic voice for him is immeasurably an achievement in itself.

Admittedly, much has written about Bose now and his position in the history of India’s fight for independence has become a point of celebration today. Benegal’s regular scriptwriter and collaborator Shama Zaidi approaches the narrative in three distinctly structured parts. The first part explores his escape from British house arrest in Bengal, entering Afghanistan and finally arriving in Kabul under the identity of a Pathan. Affectionately known as ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) by his friends, the first part also gives us an insight into his family life in Calcutta whilst the political threat he posed to the British establishment remained more volatile and revolutionary in its ideological stance than Gandhi’s passive position. Bose believed that India’s independence could only been achieved through violent uprising and an open call to arms; independence had to be absolute and not waged through protracted negotiation with the powers that be. In many ways, his hope of an intellectual awakening amongst those Indian soldiers subjugated by the British Empire fails to transpire. Instead, the Indian National Army that he attempts to build into a mighty military force with a strong ideological agenda falls apart and he duly acknowledges that perhaps Gandhi’s belief in civil disobedience was ultimately the most moral and just path to achieving an independence that could be regarded as dignified.

In Part Two, Bose finds political and military sympathy from the Germans, Italians and mostly notably the Japanese who encourage the expansion of an Indian National Army that could potentially be used as a force of liberation. In Nazi Germany, Bose meets with Adolf Hitler and though he denounces their racist policies he sees the liberation of India as the ultimate goal, thus in a way temporarily tolerating the Nazis to build a political platform for propagating the desperate need for a national army. His time in Europe also sees him falling in love with his personal secretary, the Austrian born Emilie Schenkl, whom he marries and has a daughter with. The endless meetings underline the lengthy negotiations and discussions that went on with both the Germans and Japanese in terms of granting political recognition to Bose’s make shift Indian government in exile. For me, Part Two is the most ideologically fascinating as it does not shy away from exploring the dubious political relationships Bose forms with both the Nazi Party and the Japanese, implying he was willing to forge uncertain political alliances so that the aims of achieving independence could be met at any cost.

With the escalation of World War II, the early promises of full military and political support never transpire and this forms the final part of the film, examining in detail the attempt to put together a formidable army and push through Burma to arrive in India. Whilst Bose’s dream of complete independence through military opposition ends sourly, it is the inspirational refusal to compromise both politically and personally that imprints itself on the conscience of the Indian people. It is still not clear how Bose exactly died. Whilst many argue he was killed in a plane crash due to a technical fault, some say he was assassinated and others contest he went into hiding. Benegal opts to reiterate the stance that Bose was killed in a plane crash but the film seems to hint at the possibility of a political assassination orchestrated by unnamed nation(s). Bose’s death is surrounded in mystery and deserves to examined in length in another film whilst on another point the life of Bose would arguably work well as a documentary.

I’m not so sure if this is one of Benegal’s greatest achievements but I do feel that Indian cinema as a whole needs to continue making films of such historical importance as it not only revisits the struggle for independence but constructs history through indigenous eyes. Benegal is supported by a cast and crew representing some of the finest talent in the industry, including stunning cinematography by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, editing by Sreekar Prasad, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, costumes by Pia Benegal, a solid supporting cast, and of course A. R. Rahman’s moving soundtrack made up of 19 tracks including instrumentals. The song that sores is ‘Azadi’ which is sung beautifully by Rahman and patriotically rendered by the pen of Javed Akhtar. Oddly enough for such a prestigious picture that received international acclaim, it is very difficult track down a copy of the film on DVD. However, it is regularly and encouragingly shown on some of the Asian TV channels. I do hope a distributor is brave enough to pick this one up one day and give it a proper 2 Disc release including a making of and interviews with the cast and crew as it deserves a much wider audience and appreciation from film academia.