MIRZAPUR (2018) – A strange duality

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[This piece contains a shed load of spoilers so best to read after you have seen the TV series].

Mirzapur takes its time to come to life. In the final episode a wedding reception descends into a cornucopia of shootings. Reviews have remarked on how Mirzapur is derivative of the depraved noir soaked universe of Anurag Kashyap’s gangster films notably Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW). Naturally it is almost impossible not to draw that comparison considering the influence of GoW on the Indian gangster genre. However, take Mirzapur out of the wider cinephile context and read the series as a genre piece then the reversion to type becomes altogether understandable. The thing is Mirzapur strives to use a steely cinematic aesthetic but beneath the burdensome style is a judicious soap opera narrative that carries with it a transgressive socio-political subtext. Mirzapur maps a crime milieu that is fairly conventional to the gangster/crime genre – the heinous don, his emasculated son, the two brothers in over their heads, the don’s army of loyal foot soldiers, and of course, the power struggle over the city between rival gangs. But as it is often the case with genre cinema, the willingness to repeat the standard repertoire of elements is part of the audience pleasures of having our expectations fulfilled. Undeniably, a great genre work reinvents and innovates or adds something we may have not encountered before. Stacked up against the best of the Indian gangster genre Mirzapur falls short yet I stuck with it mainly because we’ve never really had a contemporary TV series from India on this scale that has the time to build a crime world that often gets a short shrift. Indeed, GoW succeeded in achieving this feat because it was split in two parts and interestingly was later broadcast as a TV series on Netflix.

Many gangster films can be read as a commentary on masculinity. But what makes Mirzapur seemingly different is the hierarchy of masculinity the film weaves is indicative of a wider contemporary social and political reality in which the character of Akhandanand Tripathi (Panjak Tripathi), popularly known as Kaleen Bhaiya, emerges as a symbol for Modi. It is important to note that Tripathi is a surname associated with upper caste Brahmins in India. Moreover, Mirzapur, which means ‘Place of the King’ has a notable Muslim past and history, one of many towns and cities in India that are having their names redacted as part of Hindutva historical engineering. Mirzapur is a microcosm of Modi’s India. Perhaps it is of little surprise that Kaleen Bhaiya rules despotically over the city with a reign of terror. And it is a rule that is contested intermittently and with which it brings violent repression. Since the line between business and politics in the world of the gangster has often been absent, the power Kaleen Bhaiya exerts over the city is overwhelming ubiquitous. The benign demeanour of Kaleen Bhaiya invokes the media friendly image cultivated by Modi whose impulse for genocide and murder remain repressed beneath the extravagantly tailored clothes, explicating an incomparable degree of self-aggrandizement.

Ideologically, the coding of the Brahmin gangster ruling over a Muslim named city holds a veritable denotation that ties in with the figure of Maqbool (Shaji Chaudhury), the loyal right hand man of Kaleen Bhaiya, a Muslim who has been brought into the fold of the family, yet another metaphor for political appeasement and tokenistic overtures of the BJP used to placate anti-Muslim sentiments. Maqbool’s presence, reduced to a narrative function, becomes a symbolic link to the one time Islamicate culture of the city, a history far removed. But there is a strange duality to the reading of Kaleen Bhaiya as a projection of Modi. The lawlessness of Mirzapur, a city over which the state does not have real power, and which is ruled over by the liminal figure of the gangster, is depicted in opposition to the state. The repeated attempts at trying to bring the city under the control of the police, a police force that is predictably bought off by the Tripathi clan, posits Kaleen Bhaiya as somebody who poses a threat to the prevailing social order. So when Kaleen Bhaiya antagonises both the Chief Minister of Mirzapur and the Police Chief sent to restore law and order, his attempts to hold onto some kind of autonomy directly challenges civil rule.

Over the course of the series it is masculinity that is toxic, entangled in a web of interrelated male anxieties from which everyone is suffering a symptomatic social malaise; misogyny. Guddu (Ali Fazal) is building the perfect body so that he can enter the Mr. Purvanchal competition, resorting to steroids that take their toil on his well being. Hard body hyper-masculinity, a current idiom of popular Hindi cinema, has become part of the iconography of male heroism, the gym-sculpted bodies amplifying Hindutva soft power and conjoined by the materialisation of the gun. Unlike mainstream imaginings of hyper-masculinity in which Salman and Ajay flex their muscles, Guddu’s body becomes an aberration over which he has little self-control. Anxieties to do with masculinity materialise profusely. For instance, Kaleen Bhaiya cannot satisfy the sexual appetites of his wife and Munna Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma), his over zealous son, is an emasculated toad who fails repeatedly to woe a girl he lusts after at college. Indeed, many of the imaginings of male anxieties rely on stereotyping and the overwhelming representation of masculinity is one of abject failure with the fear of emasculation a recurring psychological threat.

Ramakant Pandit (Rajesh Tailang), a symbol of the upstanding citizen, who defies the rule of Kaleen Bhaiya is a common feature of the gangster genre but Pandit’s morally righteous stance is undone by his own children. Pandit never capitulates to the demands of Kaleen Bhaiya’s despotic rule but his coercion into silence becomes yet another metaphor for the ways in which the left leaning secularist middle class has also lost its will and courage to speak out in the face of violent, corrupt rule. If Kaleen Bhaiya’s rule can be read as an allegory for Modi, the BJP & Hindutva then this particular paradigm or axis of neofascism is manifested even more clearly in the recruitment of Guddu and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), young disaffected men who are often recruited by right wing nationalist groups and instrumentalized as both an electoral device and extension of Hindutva violence. Guddu and Bablu argue they have no other choice other than to join Kaleen Bhaiya, a stark reminder of the degrees of conformity and coercion that exists when there is few other viable alternatives. It is important to recognise that Pandit never backs down but the price he pays for his defiance is self-exile and isolation from his family, an apt comment on the dire consequences of speaking out against the establishment.

Ideologically, and perhaps most elucidating, is the final episode, which is all about the violent reassertion of Hindutva masculinity that is threatened on many different levels notably by a sexual potency harboured by the lower caste. The vehemence of this reassertion finds a grotesque imagining in the sub plot of Beena Tripathi (Raskia Dugal), the matriarch of the Tripathi clan, who is carrying on with a lower caste servant. Bauji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), her benign father in law and impaired patriarch of the family, soon discovers what has been going; only he doesn’t tell Kaleen but exploits the situation for his own sadistic pleasures. Bauji blackmails Beena into having sex with him then coerces her to dismember the servant’s penis, a horrific act of violence that not only equates the woman and lower caste servant as powerless in the face of a double bind of patriarchal-caste oppression but also offers a historical link to systemic caste discrimination. In the final episode, Mirzapur seems to say everything it wants to and fails to in earlier episodes, albeit the time it takes imagine a world of crime is full of narrative diversions and intermissions, a trajectory that really doesn’t add up to anything significant. Nonetheless, there is still much to savour here in terms of a prescient socio-political subtext which intermittently pushes to the surface with a strange duality and notable disaffection for the current state of things.

ARDH SATYA / HALF TRUTH (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India)

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Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut in 1980 with the award winning Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded) was inevitable. As an ace cinematographer, Nihalani collaborated closely with Shyam Benegal on many formative semi-realist critiques including Ankur, Nishant, Junoon and Bhumika. Benegal’s scepticism of social institutions and his sensitive representations of women, often victims of patriarchal oppression, would determine the equivalently leftist ideological machinations of Nihalani’s films as a director in the 1980s. Benegal tended to work with the same cast and crew for many of his early films including Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri and Amrish Puri, many of whom would be shared across with Nihalani in his own films.

Ardh Satya was only Nihalani’s third feature as a director and probably the one that he is best remembered for. It is also another key film from the second wave of Parallel Cinema. In some respects the use of melodrama which Benegal and Nihalani both relied on as a means of narrative storytelling raises the continuing question of the relatively undecided status of films like Ardh Satya; were they Middle Cinema or Parallel Cinema, or were they in fact both. Or was Middle Cinema a completely separate mode of categorisation and approach to filmmaking. Furthermore, the police/crime thriller moniker only adds to the complicated genre status of Ardh Satya. Because of this, Ardh Satya occupies a dubious status as an example of Parallel Cinema since the film has been claimed as critical to the development of the Bombay police/crime thriller. Though Ardh Satya marked a change in location for Nihalani with much of the film shot on location in and around the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), thematically, the focus on the police as both a public institution and the officers who struggle to retain a sense of moral integrity in the face of corruption was a continuation of Aakrosh and would also signal a preoccupation with the police; Drohkaal and Dev would act as further evidence of Nihalani’s claim as an auteur of some considerable distinction.

The story of Ardh Satya, which means ‘Half Truth’, follows a young police officer, Anant Velankar (Om Puri in one of his most memorable roles), in the Bombay police department. Perceived as someone who is both upright and fair in his approach, Velankar discovers there are those who exist outside the law and have the political reach to manipulate the police for their own ends. One such person that Velankar tries but fails to arrest is Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a notorious local crime lord who reigns with a terrifying impunity while continuing to rule over the slum dwellers. Shetty uses his electoral support with the Bombay police and the slums to run for city council in the local elections. Velankar becomes increasingly disillusioned with the police as a potent institution for justice and his relationship with Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil), a lecturer, offers respite from his doomed trajectory. Flashbacks recall Velankar growing up in a rural village in which his harsh, orthodox father, (Amrish Puri), also a police officer, humiliates his beleaguered mother. At the same time, Velankar is prevented from pursuing an ambition to become a professor, reasoning why he finds an emotional connection with Jyotsna’s intellectualism. Any attempts at Velankar confronting the lawlessness of Rama Shetty are undermined by the inherent corruption of his superiors, apathetic to the concerns of the ordinary slum dweller and more responsive to the demands of the middle class elite. Nihalani’s representation of a corrupt and complacent Bombay police acts as a wider condemnation of Indira Gandhi’s leadership and government.

Another significant element to the nightmarish tone is the substantial ideological contribution of Marathi playwright turned Indian art house scriptwriter, Vijay Tendulkar. Tendulkar was a regular collaborator with Shyam Benagal, having written the screenplays for Nishant and Manthan. The contempt for feudalism Tendulkar brought to the screenplay of Nishant is mirrored in the angry temperament of Ardh Satya. In the generational divide that opens up between the traditional values of the father (Amrish Puri) and the secular politics of the son (Om Puri), Velenkar’s rejection of his father’s marriage proposal extenuates his criticism of the way in which rural village life and its traditions simply perpetuate a status quo that aids those in positions of power, namely the ruling elite. Velankar finds it problematic to escape the shadow of his domineering father. But by taking the law into his own hands Velankar inadvertently shatters the social order, censuring his father for failing to question his own frailties as both an inadequate father and a benign police officer.

While the second wave of Parallel Cinema under the auspice of the NFDC was somewhat less angry, political and iconoclastic then the foundational years, many of the later films continued to adopt endings with a striking degree of disillusionment and fatalism, an idea of non-closure that was unconventional for Indian Cinema. Indeed what remains germane about Ardh Satya today is the urban topography of Bombay, an aesthetic motif that would leave its imprint on the Indian crime genre including Parinda, Satya and Black Friday.

Ardh Satya will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 20 Aug 10pm

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.

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.