BOMBAY VELVET (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2015, India) – Bollywood Intermezzo

1

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

badlapur

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)

jaya6

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)

1418647414editor_four_colours_02

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.