GAMAK GHAR (Dir. Achal Mishra, 2019, India)

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Director Achal Mishra’s impressive debut film is a semi-formalist work, resorting to a succession of absorbing vignettes and framed as tableau in which the historical spatial and temporal configurations of an ancestral family house acts as more than just a pivot, fashioning a sense of the ephemeral and conjuring a steady yet absorbing rhythm. Choosing to use three different aspect ratios may appear gimmicky at first but the logic of this stylistic decision works to signify the transition from one generation to the next. More importantly, the use of three ratios sustains the creation of tonal shifts. For instance, the opening section of the film which Mishra films in the 4:3 aspect ratio conjures a nostalgia through the skilfully colour grading that has a technicolour feel invoking the 1970s and 80s. In terms of filmic influences, the opening shot of a large tree framed against blue skies and meandering path invokes the pastoral landscapes of Ghatak’s films notably Meghe Dhaka Tara. The opening segues into an extended sequence that surveys the rhythms, intricacies and intimacies of a family in the magical glow of life as it is, which largely becomes a signature. Notable is Mishra’s restrained and resolutely observational camera style, framing many of the characters actions through doorways and windows of the family house. The personification of the family house, a conceptual choice, juxtaposed to temporal jumps in the narrative projects the spaces as sacred, sentimental and eventually spectral. A gradual neglect of the home coming to suggest an indisputable sadness is rectified in the ending that points to the ways in which renewal and change are all part of an inevitable historical process.

SONCHIRIYA (2019, India, dir. Abhishek Chaubey)

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The Dacoit Western is a transnational film genre forged out of a synthesis between the Dacoit film and the Italian Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dacoit in popular culture has undeniably been represented with ambivalence, chiefly as a romantic figure, existing outside mainstream society. Yet the rebellious nature of the dacoit, disregarding law and order has often made the dacoit an oppositional entity, a symbol of counter culture, dissent and even protest. Sonchiriya is a Dacoit Western but it seems so much more political given the age of Modi, with overtures to do with caste and gender that seem altogether absent from the genre in the past. Apart from the songs that are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, this is very much an exquisitely mounted art film pitched as moderately mainstream. Since genres like horror, science fiction and the Western are perfect vehicles for ideological subversion, allowing filmmakers to smuggle in all kinds of social and political dissent, filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey and scriptwriter Sudip Sharma succeed in delivering a high end genre film, navigating the terrain and conventions of the Dacoit Western with a creative zeal.

Sonchiriya takes place in the valleys of Chambal in the 1970s when the notorious dacoit Man Singh and his band of rebels reigned supreme. A point of real curiosity for film buffs is that actor Manoj Bajpayee had previously played a dacoit in Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen who also goes by the name of Man Singh. I’m still not sure if he is playing the same character since the historical timeframes in the two films suggest otherwise. A folklore and mythology has emerged around the dacoits of Chambal in the 1970s and the film is careful not to strip away this mystique. In fact, the film enhances the haunted nature of the dacoit with metaphysical aspects that also connect with the desolate topography. A tactile work, conjuring a sharp sense of the milieu with the camera constantly pushed up against the face of the actors while also going as wide as it can when filming the rugged vistas of Chambal makes you almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat. For instance, the film opens with the sound of buzzing flies on the rotting cadaver of a snake. Such a wretched image of death recalls the cinema of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in the way in which Chaubey chooses to magnify this particular detail whereby it takes on a larger than life symbolism and acts as a foreboding precursor of things to come, much of it twisted and violent.

In the first major set piece, the gang’s entry into Brahmpuri village is juxtaposed to a radio announcement of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency of 1975. The ambush by the police in Brahmpuri leads to a shootout and which the machinations of violent state repression unleashed by the Emergency are realised in the political impunity with which the police act towards the dacoits, massacring them. Later Man Singh’s dead body is paraded through the village, a grotesque spectacle of power and ugly expression of vengeance. It is also worth pointing out the gang see themselves as rebels whereas the police demonize them as dacoits. This is an important distinction since it is only later that we discover that Man Singh is not merely a rebel but has a conscience and lives by a stringent moral code. Thematically, redemption for the dacoit is woven through the episodic narrative structure anchored in the fortuitous device of trying to get a wounded Dalit girl who has been raped to a hospital. While the episodic structure works to mirror the nomadic and exilic state of the dacoit, suggesting how they are doomed to wander, the use of key flashbacks that narrates a past drenched in prodigious horrors and from which no one can really escape returns to Chaubey’s genre preoccupations expressly noir that he deftly mined in Ishqiya (2010).

Nearly all of the characters that populate the film aside from the women are loathsome scoundrels. But that is to be expected, after all this is a Dacoit Western. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a mediating figure, often openly questioning their marauding nature, while Man Singh exudes a magnetism that is articulated brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, still one of Indian cinema’s most complete actors. The most startling performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as Vakil Singh, the most temperamental of the gang. Shorey has been busily working since the late 1990s but I feel he doesn’t gets the credit he deserves as an actor, especially someone who has nurtured a considerable range. The symbolism of the dacoit is interchangeable and situated on the margins it comes to stand in for many oppositional ideologies. However, I would reason the apolitical nature of the dacoit, erasing the concept of the social bandit in favour of something more mythical shows a reluctance to frame the dacoit as ideological. But the caste dimension does at time negate such apolitical reasoning. Nevertheless, Chaubey and Sharma show little in terms of taking sides in this immoral universe, choosing to enunciate a perverse social order that exists including hierarchal power struggles and an on-going contestation to do with bridari that reduces pretty much everyone to animals. And in the final shot, a twisted coda, it is vehemence and fatalism that prevails, the lifeblood of film noir.

MAYA (Dir. Vikas Chandra, 2018, India)

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Maya, a tightly scripted short film directed by the talented Vikas Chandra, opens with the face of a child. The palpable image of the child establishes a mark of innocence and youth, positing the broader themes of growing old, death and companionship. Maya, played by Kirti Kulhari, is a modern-day middle class woman who cares for her mother (Alka Amin in fine form). Having met Raunak (Naveen Kasturia) through a matrimonial site, Maya invites Raunak’s parents to her house where they both express their wish to be married. Chandra’s sensitive handling of this dinner table sequence is measured through the ways in which the mother-daughter relationship is the focal point. Exploring Maya’s refusal to negotiate where her mother belongs, pronounces the supposed norms of modern day relationships while effectively arguing for the creation of a new familial and matrimonial space that defies traditions. But when Maya announces that her mother will remain with her after their marriage Raunak’s parents are somewhat bemused by this decision, and so is Raunak, arguably demarcating her proto-feminist ideals. The sequence discloses another taboo, that of bodily degeneration that comes with growing old. Indeed, Raunak’s parents show no sympathy whatsoever for the mum’s incontinence and apathetically walk away from the dinner table when she can’t control her bladder, a gesture that conveys a coldness indicative of lofty and fixed conservative middle class apprehensions. The mother also feels she is a burden on her daughter, another social anxiety director Vikas Chandra explores with a degree of complexity, notably through Maya’s spasms of impatience. The crux of this two hander is when the mother goes missing which triggers a frantic search that finds Maya canvassing the city with the reluctant help of Raunak. A great sense of loss washes over Maya in this particular instance and her eventual reunion with her mother, staged perfectly on a stairway, returns to a perennial theme of our times – how to respond to both old age and death with dignity and empathy in a society that has shrunken into an extended malady of individualism.

SIR (Dir. Rohena Gera, 2018, India-France)

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Set in contemporary Mumbai Sir is a sharply crafted romantic melodrama, full of warmth, about a benign architect, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and a migrant servant, Ratna (Tillotama Shome). The script is sharply written and brings to life the complexities of Ratna and Ashwin who are are bound by class and caste. Although they are two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the emotional connection that is forged becomes a tentative bond and gradually emerges as a painful longing that reaches a memorable conclusion. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Ratna and for much of the film remains with her character, which is significant because a romantic melodrama of this type could easily have capitulated to a male point of view. The script is wonderfully underplayed and Tillotama Shome in superb form brings to life the nuances of Ratna, a widow who works in the city to support her family back home and has aspirations of becoming a tailor. Writer and director Rohena Gera treats Sir as an urban fairytale and thankfully channels much of the emotional interplay through subtle gestures and precise framing. If marketed with vigour and picked up internationally Sir has the potential to crossover and reach the critical and commercial heights of a recent Hindie breakout like The Lunchbox.

TUMBBAD (Dir. Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad, India/Sweden, 2018)

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A bewitching and meaty horror with an elemental sensibility, Tumbbad uses the archetypal Indian trope of the Mother Goddess to give us a perennial treatise on greed. Tumbbad’s tactile and sensory approach recalls atmospheric films like The Keep (1983) and Sorcerer (1977), combining the supernatural, mythology and history into something deeply atavistic. The expressionistic use of ancient landscapes juxtaposed to the tumultuous weather (it rains a lot!), particularly in the opening section, gives the film an unsettling Herzogian timbre. The narrative unfolds over a number of decades and is segmented into chapters, beginning in 1918 (?), imbuing the film with a historical arc that augments the ambitious scale of the production. Tumbbad reunites the talents of Soham Shah and Anand Gandhi who both collaborated on the seminal Hindie film Ship of Theseus in 2012. Recently screened at the Venice Film Festival, the film’s arrival coincides with a growing interest in the horror genre in Indian independent cinema that bodes well for what should be an international release.

TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

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The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

MUKKABAAZ / THE BRAWLER (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2017, India) – Fist of Fury [spoilers ahead]

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Mukkabaaz ends with very little of the catharsis you would expect from a boxing biopic. But Kashyap’s latest venture uses the sports film trappings as a way of navigating the politics of caste against the backdrop of an unconventional Hindi romance. This one zips along, partaking a breathless, infectious energy and enjoys circumventing audience expectations so to let those authorial Kashyap flourishes gather a hedonistic momentum.

While mainstream Hindi cinema continues to dodge the question of caste, having rendered caste invisible in the sentimental NRI neoliberal narratives, Parallel Cinema attempted to make the question of caste a central edict of the communicative political cinema of Benegal. Some time or another many of the great Indian filmmakers have all dealt with caste. Even Ray realised the urgency of this task with Sadgati, his grimmest film. And many of the best films about caste have come from the South; see Chomana Dudi. While alternative, independent cinema has thrived, caste led narratives have been intermittent. Yet the critical success of films like Sairat, Chauranga and Masaan point to a cycle of films that deal with caste head on, and so Mukkabaaz in some respects can be situated in this cycle. But what seems to separate Mukkabaaz from these films is the political address; much of it on the nose politics, which is openly critical of Modi’s polarized, nationalist rhetoric that has claimed the lives of many innocent Indians.

One gets a sense of urgency from this work that has been lacking in the past because it feels like a film that Kashyap had to make – but not to silence his critics or to stage a pithy comeback, rather to finally put his neck on the line in ways that become amplified in the coruscating tale of caste subjugation. Not that Kashyap has ever put his neck on the line before; he does it all the time on social media and usually gets it chopped off! Kashyap has been bumping up against mainstream Hindi cinema for a while now, often with mixed results; see Bombay Velvet. With Mukkabaaz Kashyap manages to pull off such a creative feat, freely mixing the idioms of 70s storytelling with the postmodern Hindie panache of hyper-edit montages and monolithic super villains. Kashyap has always been a tactile filmmaker and with Mukkabaaz he once again conveys a naturalistic feel for the urban environment and particularly the spaces the characters inhabit. The juxtaposition of blood, sweat and skin gives the film a tangible ambiance that seeps through into the unconventional romance.

Where the film really comes to life ideologically is when Ravi Kishen shows up as the Dalit boxing coach and in one particular initial exchange with Jimmy Shergil’s upper caste despotic, bigoted Bhagwan, a crippling social reality transforms boxing into a metaphorical caste struggle that energises the narrative. An attempt to depart from the conventional romance is at the level of caste but the decision to make Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) mute heralds a palpable symbolic gesture to do with patriarchy and female oppression. Moreover, muteness becomes a device with which to create lots of humour and arguably Mukkabaaz is also one of Kashyap’s wittiest films. Perhaps one of the darkest moments is when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) humiliates his boss in the workplace, overturning a caste hierarchy and privilege that seeks to disenfranchise further those already on the margins.

Most of Kashyap’s films never follow any set rules in terms of narrative storytelling and often function episodically, rarely building to a traditional sense of closure. And given the emotional catharsis often associated with boxing films, much of this is kept in check so not to sentimentalise Shravan’s epic struggle. But there are deliberate moments of hyperbole such as Shravan’s rescue of Sunaina, a brilliant send up of Bollywood’s deference to the mythological, and which Kashyap pulls off with chaotic aplomb. Indeed, such hyperbole also stretches to the sordid degrees of corruption prevalent in society, one in which the film paints a nexus of the upper caste, the police and public institutions working in cahoots, a major characteristic of popular Hindi cinema in the 70s.

Undeniably this is actor Vineet Kumar Singh’s film and he rumbles and contorts his way through, his sculpted body instrumentalized to mirror a razor sharp determination that claws into the warped psyche of a nation that seems to have yielded to a neo-fascist impulse. But what to make of the final invocation of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’? It seems to be yet another rejoinder, delivered in a tone of mockery. Nevertheless, I still felt some ambivalence towards this moment since I didn’t fully comprehend the intentions. I should also mention the final shot is a brilliant one that crackles with mischievous delight.