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.

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.

JAYA GANGA (Vijay Singh, 1996, India/France)

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Jaya Ganga is a tale articulated as if it was part of a wider mythical narrative while having roots in something metaphysically profound. The film draws on the mysticism of the Ganges, conjuring two female characters, extending from the same soul. In both instances, the two female apparitions could just as easily be fictitious imaginings of the writer Nishant who journeys down the Ganges in search of a confounding truth. This film’s strength resides very much in its tragic narrative trajectory, a wounding one, finding a sacred beauty in the most fatalistic of endings. Zehra, a gentle courtesan, appears as discordantly as the memory of Jaya and Nishant falls in love with her. Helping her to escape from the brothel in which she has been incarcerated recalls the conventions of courtesan films such as Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan. Unlike Nishant, a professional writer, Zehra has no place in society and thus in a way her outsider status simply adds to her mystique.

Like Scottie in Vertigo who becomes fixated with the impossible and misogynist notion of the ideal woman, Nishant supplements what he cannot attain with Zehra leading to a tragic outcome. By trying to rescue Zehra Nishant is also playing out romantic imaginings as a means of testing his masculinity which craves for excess. Jaya and Zehra are not mirror images though; they represent different male fantasies and desires. Jaya fulfills an intellectualism which Nishant associates with modernity whereas Zehra is an image of sensuality recalling an ancient tradition. For both ideas of womanhood to exist side by side, tradition and modernity, is in fact impossible since it is not right for a man to lay claim to such infinite desire as it harbours a mutual destruction of both. Jaya Ganga is a haunting melody of a film based on Vijay Singh’s novel of the same name which he adapted as his directorial debut.

Jaya Ganga has been released on DVD by NFDC’s Cinemas of India Label. However, the film is not a new transfer and is formatted incorrectly.

CHAURANGA / FOUR COLOURS (Dir. Bikas Ranjan Mishra, 2014, India)

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Synopsis: A fourteen year old dalit boy is growing up in an unnamed corner of India. His dream is to go to a town school like his elder brother and his reality is to look after the pig that his family owns. His only escape is to sit atop a Jamun tree and adore his beloved passing by on her scooter. His unspoken love is as true as his mother’s helplessness who cleans the cowsheds of the local strongman’s mansion, with whom she also has a secret liaison. When the boy’s elder brother comes on a vacation to the village, he soon finds out about his younger brother’s infatuation. The learned elder brother makes him realize the need to express his love and helps him write a love letter.

(http://www.anticlockfilms.com/films/chauranga)

I’ve been considering what to say about this film for a few weeks now but still cannot find the clearest way to express my thoughts. The film deals with feudal caste politics in an Indian village. What it is clearly trying to do is recall the films of parallel cinema which were interested in Subaltern ideology and representation. Chauranga is closest to the cinema of Shyam Benegal and particularly recalls Ankur. Similarly, the maid servant who is enslaved to the local Brahim family is readily exploited for sex while her two sons are mistreated by the upper caste Brahim boys who roam the village with pernicious impunity. Writer-Director Bikas Mishra does what Benegal did regularly in many of his early films that can be positioned within the sphere of subalternity, he humanises the powerful and the powerless but in a subtle twist on a familiar tale of rural caste oppression Mishra brings in a touch of providence that complicates the tragedy that befalls late in the film.

Rest assured Mishra aligns himself with the Dalits and is especially interested in the narrative perspective of the two boys and their differing personalities; one wants to study abroad while the other is an outright rebel who refuses to be subjugated like his mother. Mishra’s benign depiction of the Brahmin family in which an ancient brand of violent patriarchy breeds is especially disturbing since an unspoken nexus of oppression exists amongst the men that is never questioned; it is natural and normal for them. Since Dhaniya’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee dependable as ever) death is framed ambiguously makes it difficult for us an audience to pass a judgement on Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the Brahim patriarch but when Dhaval, by chance, intercepts the love letter which older brother (Riddhi Sen) writes in jest for his younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) who is in love with a Brahmin girl, it offers Dhaval the opportunity to annhilate his crimes by expunging the Dalit family from the village. Incensed by Santu’s innocent propositions to his daughter, Dhaval sanctions the violence enacted against Dhaniya’s children. What comes to the surface are caste tensions, exploding into brutality, recalling yet again the cinema of Benegal and his rural trilogy including Ankur, Nishant and Manthan. Another link to parallel cinema is the presence of Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee (Padatik, Pratidwandi, Akaler Sandhane) who plays a blind priest.

Something that Benegal refused to do in many of his films in which he brought to light subaltern exploitation was to never present Dalits as completely subjugated. Instead he often showed the subaltern as a political force resisting, fighting back and challenging the status quo. Perhaps this was a little idealistic and never truly depicted the cruel reality of caste politics, that they could not fight back, that they simply had to get on with things. Mishra advocates such a truism and it is a painful one but one that seems altogether appropriate for the poignant note on which he ends. Santu escapes, unlike his older brother, but as he looks back at the village on the train we get the sense he has never been any lonelier. It’s a parallel cinema ending, a homage of sorts that works as social protest while articulating an underplayed belief that Santu’s escape is almost necessary, that the best thing for him is to remove himself completely from the village as this will at least let him live without the fear of being persecuted. Nonetheless, Santu’s future’s is equally uncertain now and one thing is for sure, no matter where he goes he will always be invisible. This is a terrible truth that Mishra does brilliantly to expose.

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.

PLACEBO (Dir. Abhay Kumar, 2014, India)

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Abhay Kumar’s feature length directorial debut Placebo, a fiercely inventive documentary, had its world premiere last month at the IDFA in Amsterdam. What makes the project especially significant from a funding point of view is the director raised much of the financing through ‘crowd funding’. A trailer released in February 2013 helped to attract attention and as many as 82 companies have supported the project in various capacities.

I haven’t had a chance to see any of Abhay Kumar’s earlier short films, for which he has received many awards at film festivals, but Placebo is another noteworthy debut that we can add to the expanding catalogue of new wave Hindie cinema. Placebo is very ambitious for a first feature film and although at times Kumar crams his documentary with a plethora of ideas he still succeeds in creating something very special. By entering a closed world, Kumar takes his camera into one of the most privileged educational institutions training some of the best minds in India and lifts the lid on a world characterised by insurmountable pressure. Much of the documentary draws its energy from an experimental playing of the form, freely mixing interviews, some terrific animation sequences, memories and even science fiction/fact to conjure up a potent feeling of dread that pervades the student campus. By adopting a stream of consciousness fits the unpredictability of the various students who emerge in many ways as unreliable narrators.

An emotional intimacy comes from the ethical questions posed by director Abhay Kumar’s exploitation of his brother’s fragile state who becomes very much a test subject for the camera, cataloging the trauma and aftermath of his moment of madness. In doing so Kumar constantly turns the camera on himself, with his subjects openly criticising him for the way he hides behind the camera, using it to mask his own sense of isolation and discontent. Such self reflexivity seems almost necessary to remind us that any barriers between the documentary filmmaker and subject are non existent. Although Kumar is not interested in developing linearity, instead breaking and smashing our attempts to forge a narrative, one very significant social thematic does emerge, that of institutional neglect. The outrage voiced by the students on the campus, calling for the resignation of the principal, is the documentary at its most political, criticising the pastoral failings of such a prestigious institution in dealing with the ongoing problems of bullying, depression and castesim.

POSTSCRIPT: Director Abhay Kumar contacted me in regards to ‘factual errors’ so I have amended the review accordingly to reflect the truth concerning the financing of the film. My original review said Anurag Kashyap was involved in the project when in fact he was not:

Anurag Kashyap has not been creatively involved in the film and AKFPL became defunct and Anurag merged with Phantom (who also have nothing to do with our film). Guneet was supposed to help us with finances but they did not have funds and we did not have time so that deal never happened. If you saw the film you would have noted that we were supported by the Finnish Film Foundation.”   -Abhay Kumar, 20 Jan 2015

AWAARA / THE VAGABOND / THE TRAMP (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1951, India)

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The Kapoor dynasty continues to be measured against the hugely popular cinema of Raj Kapoor and one can see why such a truism exists when isolating the brilliance of a film like ‘Awaara’. Though the 1956 film, ‘Jagte Raho’, may certainly have been imbued with a sense of outrage directed against social equality and also seemed to offer a more ideologically inclined manifesto keeping in line with the emergence of neo realism, it was the Kapoor directed 1951 spectacle ‘Awaara’ that blended poverty as a theme with expressionist melodramatic fantasies to produce cinema that bridged the gap between realism and escapism. RK Studios came of age in the early 1950s with the production and release of their first film ‘Awaara’ which unexpectedly opened to international critical acclaim. The generic label of showman often associated with Raj Kapoor detracts greatly from taking such a film maker seriously as an influential auteur who succeeded at marrying the traditions of Hollywood narrative cinema with melodramatic concerns. With ‘Awaara’, Raj Kapoor not only mastered the art of mainstream melodrama but he was able to outline and refine a template that is still being imitated today.

With a script by the celebrated and influential neo realist writer and film maker K A Abbas, who would remain central to Raj Kapoor’s career, ‘Awaara’ is essentially a story about a bullish patriarch who ostracises both his wife and son for personal prejudices, formidably articulating the social anxieties of class and caste that plagued a post partition Nehruite society. Such a familial estrangement finds a startling and feverish manifestation in the stark, monochrome compositions evident in the opening sequences, with much of the imagery recalling both Welles, Toland and film noir. Daringly mounted as a first production in a studio that had yet to be completed, Raj Kapoor’s handling of the ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ dream sequence is an astonishing achievement in terms of set design, choreography and thematic trickery. Additionally, the uncompromising ending in which the figure of the vagabond remains a prisoner of class prejudice is principally remarkable for a mainstream film that offered audiences the romantic on screen star pairing of Raj Kapoor and the iconic Nargis. A spirited classic.