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.

BADLAPUR (Sriram Raghavan, 2015, India) – Purgatory

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Director Sriram Raghavan fourth directorial feature Badlapur opens with a brave bit of tableaux cinema. We can’t quite figure out where to look; the frame is wide open with the camera observing at a distance everyday street life, all in a single take. A bank robbery and the violent getaway disrupts the ordinariness of the moment creating an urban tension that is never fully resolved but intrinsic to the thriller form. Badlapur is less neo noir and more urban thriller. Although one could argue the two are indistinguishable in many ways, what categorises Badlapur as a thriller is the way melodrama is constantly rising to the surface. Having said that Badlapur does still have numerous noir traits but it seems to have more in common with South Korean revenge thrillers like Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life than American film noir. Raghavan really knows his cinema as testified by his previous work and is more adept at working in such intertexts with a playfulness that doesn’t jar or feel too obvious in its mode of address. Particularly interesting is a capacity to reference an eclectic mix of pop culture; he begins by thanking Don Siegel and later acknowledging Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Don’t Look Now. Arguably Badlapur has more going on than simply labelling it a revenge thriller but the emotional thrust of Raghu’s (Varun Dhawan is inconsistently good) revenge mission is underdeveloped and the flashbacks (too few) to happier times with his wife and son are simply crass and unconvincing. Subsequently, Raghu’s thirst for revenge is contrived, lacking the necessary sense of indignation and violation often characterising classical revenge narratives. The songs are also dispensable, bolted onto as an afterthought.

Badlapur is a deeply nihilistic film though and Raghavan does succeed in getting across the way revenge creates a cloud of moral ambiguity but isn’t that a little simplistic? That revenge consumes even itself until nothing remains. Nawazuddin shines though as Liak in a delightfully comical role as a low life criminal who breezes through the film uttering the best lines and creating the film’s most rounded, involving and empathetic character. In a strange sort of way, this is a film about anti-heroes so returns to my early objection that Badlapur isn’t strictly noir. Perhaps it is then noir but only in its downbeat ending. Overall, this is still an efficient genre piece that shows Raghavan has a knack for pulling good performances out of average mainstream Hindi actors. It’s just not as brilliant as Johnny Gaddar which still remains Raghavan’s best film to date. Part of me would have loved to have seen what kind of film Badlapur could have been if Raghavan had replicated the tableaux style throughout, offering a Haneke like exercise in mainstream cinema (I’m thinking of how Cache works as a terrifying edge of your seat thriller). However, considering the categorical failure of Agent Vinod, Badlapur is a step back in the right direction for this promising young genre auteur.

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

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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.