HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016, US)

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With a title straight out of a Sam Fuller film, Hell or High Water is a delicious neo-noir Western, or a ‘film soleil’ as film writer Adam Batty pointed out to me, unexpectedly emerging as one of the most political films of the year. The political sensibilities of Taylor Sheridan’s very brilliant script tap into a bankrupt American culture. Truly, this is a flea bitten, austerity world sympathetically drawn out through a sinewy, fatalistic narrative so the loathsome political iconography of banks, foreclosures and mortgages aggregates to an undeniably prescient and antagonistic context. As brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) shoot their way through a series of bank robberies so that they can raise enough money to save their mother’s ranch from being swallowed up whole by a demonic bank, the real monster of our times, one cannot but help feel they are strangely justified in their actions.

While Hell or High Water has a brooding ideological subtext, the film also deals in many of the familiar conventions of the Western genre, notably the archetypal buddy bromance between Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), played out with a piercing beauty all of its own. Director David Mackenzie seems to understand and explicate the psychology of men better than most directors of his generation. And in some ways Hell or High Water is a continuation of Starred Up (2013), pausing to probe at male deficiencies with a suitably philosophical gaze. In addition to all of this, you also get Jeff Bridges, the cinematic personification of self-effacement, expressing a distinctly classic Texas drawl. Hell or High Water, along with The Hateful Eight, reminds us yet again the Western genre is perhaps the one genre that can live and breathe in any era.

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

THE JERICHO MILE (Dir. Michael Mann, 1979, US) – Out of Time

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Mann’s exceptional staging of action sequences often amount to an orgasmic visual and sensory poetry. Mann’s action is not dirty but graceful. It has a kind of scholarly attention to detail made implicit in the micro gestures of his characters that amplify a grand psychological schemata. In 1979 Michael Mann was 36 when he co-wrote and directed The Jericho Mile. This was a TV movie for ABC that Mann was inspired to make when he was in Folsom State Penitentiary researching to re-write Straight Time (1978) for Dustin Hoffman. Mann would spend much of the 1980s producing popular TV crimes series such as Miami Vice and Crime Story, using television as a basis to develop and test out ideas which he would in some cases return on a larger cinematic canvas. Perhaps the most notable example is L.A. Takedown (1989), a TV movie which would re-emerge as the epic crime saga Heat in 1995.

In The Jericho Mile, Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy (Peter Strauss) is the forerunner to the archetypal Mann protagonist: a male loner, habitually a professional criminal and proletariat, unyielding to the powers that be. In fact, there is something inherently spiritual and ancient in the Mann protagonist; articulating a contempt for normal life while adhering to an unbreakable, punishing moral code. Serving a life sentence in Folsom State Penitentiary Murphy has resorted to distance running in the prison yard, an act he has perfected so precisely and rigorously, the administration at the prison notify the Olympics distance running team of Murphy’s exceptionalism. Mann portrays running as a kind of expiation ritual for Murphy, explicated through a corporeal figuration in which the body, notably through slow motion and rhythmic editing, becomes magnified as both defiantly spiritual and political. If running is one of the few actions the state cannot regulate, Murphy’s refusal to stop running is a conventional manifestation of the rebellious anti-authoritarian prisoner often witnessed in the genre of the prison film.

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The Jericho Mile is a work cloaked in the repertoire of the American prison film, professing Mann’s preliminary and assiduously subversive capacity to navigate genre cinema. If the auteur theory is dead and no longer holds the validity it once had, engendering a sickening proselytisation of mostly white dead directors, then it becomes almost sacrilege in these overly testing times of film criticism to put up a reasoned defence of Mann’s authorship without being razed to the ground by a profanely persecutory tide of reactionary debate typically instigated by hack culture. The mere mention of the word auteur is certain to raise enough dread to vanquish those directors who may have been immortalised in the past. But Mann’s work does owe a substantial debt to the legacy of American genre cinema and he may in truth remain one of the handful of directors including Martin Scorsese who have continually sought to refine thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in the hope of inadvertently living up to the auteur myth.

The Jericho Mile lacks an aesthetic finesse and technical proficiency, which can be partially attributed to the relatively low budget of the production compared to Mann’s later films. Nonetheless, a considered glance points to cursory stylistic signifiers such as the classic use of an exacting asymmetrical/planimetric framing Mann would nurture exponentially into an abiding theme of transience; characters floating through the non-spaces of super-modernity and habitually sutured into urban architectural landscapes – an expressionistic totem of his crime films. But like so many of Mann’s later protagonists, Murphy is out of synch with society; he is literally moving against the grain. And it is the equation of time, usually not having enough of it, and in this case, time as a source of oppression which rings true in the final act of The Jericho Mile. When Murphy throws the stopwatch, a series of slow motion edits amplify the act of ideological resistance, thereby articulating a refusal to not only stick it to the man, the powers that be, but stressing the rule of no attachments, later emerging as a defining trait of the Mann protagonist.

One can read further into the merits of this ideological sentiment, establishing a proletariat exhortation of the outsider and the repudiation of assimilation and the surrendering of a specifically ancient notion of moral integrity. The prison board does not let Murphy run, and they were never going to, because he refuses to repudiate the social circumstances in which his crime took place. Doubly, Murphy cannot do this as it would mean having to compromise his view of the world. The sense of self worth and integrity the Mann protagonist guards against is also demonstrated in the sequence that sees Murphy burn Dr. D’s (Brian Dennehy) stash of money. The burning of the stash is in retaliation for the murder of Stiles (Richard Lawson), a black inmate, and Murphy’s sole friend. Since Mann’s next film Thief (1981) is manifestly connected to The Jericho Mile, the eponymous Frank (James Caan) is very much how Murphy would have behaved had he made it back on the street, and when Murphy burns the stash, it is another act of defiance that is played out again at the end of Thief when Frank destroys what he has built over the years. In both cases, there is a patent notion the Mann protagonist cannot be at peace until a kind of requisite equilibrium is restored and this can at times mean the neutering of materialism.

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Folsom, an intense microcosm of racial and ethnic fidelities, is the the connective glue, bringing together Mann’s crime universe, and in The Jericho Mile. In Folsom, Mann depicts an intense gang rivalry, often a key feature of the American prison genre, contested by the inter-racial friendship between Murphy and Stiles who is killed by the white gang for his refusal to become a drug mule. In some respects, and though Murphy resolutely remains a loner, he later emerges as a communal force, creating a united front amongst the varying gangs, the hispanic and black gangs eventually coming together to oppose the ruling hegemonic white prison gang. Murphy’s act of running is far more political than emotional, personal than mutual, enunciating an extraordinary catharsis which soars as Murphy races round the prison yard to the blinding guitar riffs of Sympathy for a Devil. It is a Mann refrain, one filled with a melodious, organic and beguiling cinematic sleight of hand.

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.