MACHINES (Dir. Rahul Jain, 2016, India/Germany/Finland)

machines

The worker as machine is not a new phenomenon. It goes as far back as the industrial revolution. But I have to admit though. I thought this documentary was going to be about the singularity of the physical, industrial and technological symbolism of machines. It still is in some respects. But Rahul Jain trains his eye on translating the processes of manufacture, waste and labour into a hypnotically poetic synthesis of the toils and uncertain rituals of economic liberalisation. And what rises to the surface through a series of revelatory interviews with the factory workers in particular is a voice that speaks not of Marxist revolution but of the want for better (and safer) working conditions, a reasonable work shift, and acknowledgement from the boss that they exist. The interviews with the workers are interspersed with observational footage in the labyrinthine textile factory, relaying a socio-political discourse aligned to a wider social conscience. But this sort of comes undone towards the end. In an instant, the quizzical workers reduce the filmic apparatus to an obsolete ideological entity – deftly overturning the gaze of the documentarian and raising doubts about the ethical validity of the entire project. Machines is a tactile work that has a remarkable tempo that draws you in with its sincere political testimony of the migratory, factory worker. A masterful, accomplished exposition on the perpetual effects of globalisation.

REVELATIONS (Dir. Vijay Jayapal, 2016, India)

revelations

Revelations is about the inadequacies and vulnerabilities of relationships. Writer and director Vijay Jayapal crafts four memorable characters and appreciatively gives them time to grow. In doing so the director also draws on common archetypes – the housewife, the husband, a mysterious stranger, the youthful novice – connecting with a recognisable cultural code but inverting our expectations in trying to figure out their psychological flaws, taking such convincingly told urban stories into unpredictably rewarding places. A major theme of a city based film of this type, shot on location in Kolkata, is the ghostly lives of the characters (in fact, the central character of Shobha, a young Tamil woman, played by Lakshmi Priyaa, exudes a lasting spectral impression that recalls Shahani’s 1972 Maya Darparn) that seem at once invisible and concrete in the migratory urban sprawl. Credit to Jayapal for embracing the aural landscape of Kolkata, offering an incessant urban ambience (impressive sound design) to the unhurried narrative. Much of the film capitalises on the dead space that traverses the desperate lives of the four characters, personal repressions and anxieties rising to the surface. An abiding theme that seems to be the connective glue is the destruction and guilt that marriage can breed. But more significantly, Jayapal captures a benign resignation that marks the melancholy and enigma simmering beneath many of the relationships. Performances are impressive notably Lakshmi Priyaa and Chetan. What stands out in respect of the direction is Jayapal’s capacity to articulate the essence of what made Parallel Cinema so exceptional: the understatement of human emotions.

PINK (Dir. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, 2016, India) – Gestural Cinema

11

Stylistically and structurally Pink is a fairly parochial work. Where it resonates is in the ideological mode of address, polemicizing contemporaneous gender politics in which the norms of gender behaviour are regulated by a regressive culture of misogyny, corruption and privilege. Amitabh Bachchan has often functioned as a mediating figure and certainly in this respect he amplifies the sexual harassment suffered by three lower middle class Indian women, reminding us that when Amitabh spoke in the 1970s his miraculous baritone voice projected a ferocious anger that resonated with audiences. It still does. There is a terrifying and prescient rage in this film, like a punch in the face, directed towards the lack of dignity, respect and silencing of women in a society that has normalized sexual harassment, rape and violence, having completely forsaken the significance of body politics to the identity of women.

The later half of Pink unfolds in a courtroom, absorbing conventional elements of the courtroom drama. But the significance of allowing gender politics to be contested within the public space of the court transforms the space into a microcosmic site of the Nation. Besides the didactic blackboard politics, there is a gesture in the film that I found acutely communicative of the often-overlooked salience of micro-gestures (Adrian Martin, 2014), resonating with Giorgio Agamben’s (2000) proposition of a gestural cinema. Gestures, non-verbal communication is perfectly suited to the advanced visual literacy of popular Indian cinema yet rarely spoken about in relation to mise-en-scene analysis.

Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) and Minal Arora (Tapsee Pannu) are together in the park, an interlude that breaks up the courtroom machinations. The sequence actually begins with a master shot of Deepak on a bench, the loose framing extenuating his loneliness but more importantly indicating this public space of the park is a safe one, but perhaps only for men considering what transpires.

1

Next as Deepak and Minal are walking, two young men walk past heading into the opposite direction, whispering indistinctly. It is obvious they are talking about Minal. Suddenly, what should be a safe public space for both men and women is rendered threatening for Minal who responds instinctively by raising her hood over her head. This act of concealment, a signifier of being shamed in public by a judgemental male gaze, momentarily renders her invisible. Her head down, Minal continues walking, accepting the public space is privileged for men, although she comes here to jog regularly. Deepak looks back hesitantly at the young men who continue walking away freely.

Next comes the gestural trice. Deepak reaches over, his arm entering the shot in which Minal is still walking, and casually flicks back Minal’s hood, undoing the concealment. It is an ideological gesture packed with political significance because by making Minal visible again not only reclaims the space as a public one, shared by both men and women, but lets Minal realise there is an individual ready to validate her identity as a woman and enough to question male privilege. However, much more than gender politics, the micro-gesture is a humanist one, relaying a compassion that Minal needs to see and feel.

This gesture, which I have magnified for the purposes of this brief analysis, tells us everything we need to know about Deepak’s compassionate character. Although he does not have the right to question the men in the park, given we cannot quite hear what is being said, he does challenge Minal’s subjugating act of concealment since to ignore this act is to also become part of the problem of perpetuating and normalising gender attitudes. In response, Minal’s facial expression, although hesitant, exhibits both a surprise and pride that someone respects her for who she is. Furthermore, Minal does not question the gesture, her silence confirms a tacit emotional understanding for Deepak’s intervention.

12

The gesture of unveiling that which should not be hidden is a political one and resonates with Agamben’s discussions on working towards gestural cinema:

‘Agamben has developed a new theory of gestural cinema, arguing that the element of cinema is gesture and not image…cinema belongs to the realm of ethics and politics, and not aesthetics’ (Noys, 2004).

In this context, Deepak’s flicking of the hood becomes altogether potent as a site of ethical and political contestation, a struggle to reclaim identity. It is a remarkable cinematic gesture, one that has stayed with me. Crucially the sequence ends with Deepak walking alongside Minal, an image of solidarity and elementary in terms of its humanistic intent. Gestures can sometimes realise a break in the narrative, screaming out at us about the complicated psyche of human relations and behaviour. Popular Indian cinema does this more often than we give it credit and perhaps a closer examination of formal elements might point to a subterranean language of gestures. But this calls for a much broader shift, to look at the evolving visual literacy of Indian cinema as a whole and the ways in which it has developed over time.

MOH MAYA MONEY / In Greed We Trust (Dir. Munish Bhardwaj, India, 2016) – Delhi Noir

in greed we trust

In the traditional film noir universe the destruction of the male protagonist is manifested in a downward spiral of paranoia, guilt and death. And it becomes a virtual impossibility to attain redemption. No matter what one does to rectify an earlier regret usually leads to certain calamity from which there is no return. Thematically, a noir continually invests in the psychology of power and desire, returning to a morality, which is often framed, in capitalistic terms. Marriage, betrayal, adultery, masculinity, and all of the above steadily rise to the surface in director Munish Bhardwaj’s gripping slice of Delhi noir, in which Aman (Ranvir Shorey), a contemptibly low life real estate broker, is sucked wholly into a whirlpool of greed. What makes this slice of urban noir somewhat idiosyncratic is the locale of an affluent Delhi middle class desperate to get ahead in a morally dubious neoliberal capitalist India. Everyone is flawed and so they should be, after all this is a noir. Aman’s world, a corruptible milieu of back end real estate dealings, is made altogether worse by a repugnant exhibition of ethics.

Even Divya (Neha Dhupia), Aman’s wife, concealing her own terrible secret while castigating Aman for harbouring his lies, expounds a sordid marital and familial hypocrisy. And it is Divya’s marital betrayal that neuters the wounded masculinity of Aman, another trait of the doomed noir male protagonist, threatened earlier by the violence of Raghveer and his goons. Not many films have been made on the topic of white-collar crime in contemporary Indian cinema, surprising since the world of economics especially business is often romanticised in popular Hindi cinema as a stylish, apolitical accessory. Bhardwaj and Mansi Jain’s script acutely taps into disquieting anxieties notably social mobility, problematized as a kind of middle class syndrome representative of a new generation of Delhi socialites. If Aman is coded as a Yuppie, he is also like a modern-day vampire, sucking the life out of those around him so he can get ahead. And while Aman foolishly pretends he can remain immortal in a world from which there is no escape, he realises a little too late that his desperation to get ahead is contradicted by a guilt that consumes both him and Divya.

Munish Bhardwaj adopts an understated directorial approach which often best suits the melodrama form. But he also keeps in check the risk of tipping into sentimentality, a major problem with the domestic melodrama, instead confidently weaving together a narrative that switches back and forth as a means of exploring the moral choices and personal dilemmas that define this consuming, corrupted world of Delhi noir.

MANJHI – THE MOUNTAIN MAN (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 2015, India)

manjhi

Ketan Mehta is questionably one of the few remaining Parallel Cinema filmmakers still actively making films. One could probably include Shyam Benegal in this tryst. Many of the Parallel Cinema films declared an affinity for ‘Subaltern Voices’ (see Sangeeta Datta’s monograph on Shyam Benegal), which in turn became a recurring unofficial hallmark of institutional NFDC policy, and Mehta’s latest film ‘Manjhi – The Mountain Man’ spiritedly recalls the Parallel Cinema movement. Manjhi is a co-production between Viacom and NFDC, a collaboration between private and public funding, resulting in a film that is an uneven mix of politics, melodrama and history. One of the most confusing aspects of the film is the way Mehta structures the narrative, shifting back and forth without any real purpose other than to overstate the decorative idea of one man’s journey. Parallel Cinema intervened in the historical invisibilities of India, functioning as an instrument to decentre monolithic narratives that often marginalised subaltern groups especially the lower castes. Mehta was a central filmmaker in this project and his early work in this period is remarkable, if not, inconsistent.

The inherent contradiction of subaltern re-presentation was the complicated question of who was doing the representing; namely a privileged middle class body of filmmakers. While it would be wrong to dismiss the credibility of caste politics in Parallel Cinema, the issue of caste has a clearly variable record in contemporary popular Indian cinema. Mehta’s film is fundamentally about caste and one can certainly see evidence here of NFDC’s institutional involvement but unlike ‘the developmental aesthetic’ (Prasad, 1998) that emerged from Parallel Cinema in an attempt to break with the legacy of realism in Indian cinema, Manjhi operates in a universe of compromise, projecting a somewhat timid discussion of politics that is conflated to a stylised aesthetic which cannot help but advertise a patronising spectacle. Mehta tries to use the dulling allegory of the mountain to address caste politics but seems unable to keep at bay a hyperbolic attachment to stereotypical visions of conventional romantic imaginings.

The legacy of Parallel Cinema is unmistakably signposted in the film through the subplot of the despotic landlord and subjugated peasants in the village that forms a major backdrop to the film. This subplot is later inverted when the action shifts to the 1960s and the Naxalites sweep through the village, hanging the landlord in a moment of violent insurrection. Such an indescribably political moment that in fact ends in the massacre of all parties in a shootout is an authorial marker of Mehta. Naxalism is a thematic historical thread that runs through many of the political works of Parallel Cinema, and is a relatively unexplored one. While the casting of Nawazuddin seems all but obvious given his current indie status, justifiably so, Mehta is unsure what kind of film he wants this to be. I would have preferred it to remain a character study but Mehta is obligated take on the ‘extraordinariness’ of the true story of Manjhi by attempting comprehensiveness, a noble but self defeating position.

In terms of film style, Mehta’s has always shown an ability to draw in ideas from painting, theatre and mythology to create a complicated mode of address. Manjhi feels most like a broad example of magical realism, inconsistently so. Mehta finishes with acknowledgments to the real Manjhi and his family and although one is reminded of the ideological significance of the story, it also makes one realise that this project worked far more successfully as a documentary. Why? Because if this story about caste oppression, a perpetual one, then the metonymy of the mountain does explicate a troubled past and present, but it somewhat dislodges the authentic, real voices of the lower caste.

Mehta takes a more populist approach to the story of Manjhi as it seems to have been retold in many different ways now, so by approaching the story from a popular front perspective makes the politics palatable for a wider audience. Nonetheless, the theme of caste oppression does still come through, and while Mehta may not as be erudite as he once was, he continues to make films on relatively on his own terms. Conclusively, one could argue Mehta deliberately steered away from opting for despair and the celebratory tone the film strikes at the end is a little fantastical, perhaps unhelpfully reducing Manjhi to a symbol. Furthermore, the main reason why Manjhi carved a road out of the mountain is because he wanted to make it much easier for villagers to get access to medical assistance. Mehta obscures this fact, allegorising Manjhi’s herculean efforts, and also somewhat depoliticising the narrative. Mehta’s melodramatic re-telling of Manjhi’s almost legendary, mythical story is still worth seeking out.

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.

PIKU (Dir. Shoojit Sircar, 2015, India)

piku

What would Satyajit Ray have made of Piku? There was a sundry of questions running through my head as I left the cinema. There is no doubt he would have agreed that the central female protagonist of Piku (Deepika Padukone) educes the classical Ray woman: progressive, perceptive and selfless. Some critics have commented that Piku’s unconventional characterization is not representative of Indian cinema. I’m not certainly swayed by this argument. A lineage of salient female characters can be traced to Ray and Ghatak, and also Bengali film culture. Just a desultory glance at Ray’s work is palpable enough. One only has to consider films such as Kanchenjungha, Charulata, Devi and Mahangar to recognise that Piku (yet another Ray reference to his 1980 short Pikoo’s Day) is already familiar to us a Bengali archetype. Instructively, our first introduction of Piku is framed indoors by the posterized image of Ray. Measured postmodern juxtaposition outlines the communal authorial intents of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar framing Piku as not only an admirer of Ray (which middle class Bengali isn’t?) but also a hybrid of traditional Bengali femininity and contemporaneous designs. In some respects Piku could easily be classed as a Bengali film, as could Vicky Donor, Chaturvedi and Sircar’s first collaboration, which relatedly explored the comical gradations of contemporary middle class Bengali culture.

The comedy is arguably one of the trickiest film genres to master in any cinema. Some of the best comedies, the ones that have endured, are marked by the lightest of touches. Piku like Vicky Donor mixes comedy and melodrama, exploring relationships, this time between a father and daughter, but applying an observational approach to humour. All of this boils down to the tasty scriptwriting talents of Juhi Chaturvedi, exhibiting a definite ear for sharp, witty dialogue that never feels forced while the plot less narrative adds a welcomed fickleness. Another genre element is at play, the road movie, using the journey to Kolkata (more Ray; Nayak anyone? –although the journey is from Kolkata to Delhi in Ray’s film), exploring themes to do with ancestral origins, identity and disconnect between parents and children. If Piku is the one suffering from familial crises then her father Bashkor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan proving yet again he can almost play any type of role with grace and consistency) is a Bhadralok, a snotty, valetudinarian Bengali patriarch with a hilarious bout of constipation servilely dependent on Piku’s daughterly obedience.

It’s too soon to say if this will be remembered as one of Amitabh’s last great roles in the twilight of a singular career but it is certainly one of his most lively in years. Irrfan Khan as Rana, a wayward owner of a taxi service which he has inherited, works as the perfect antidote, striking up a relationship with Piku, affectionately emerging as the realist, an outsider who ever so often imparts a verismo that pries open the guarded mentality of both Piku and Bashkor. Irrfan Khan is a rare actor indeed; no one has been able to shift across independent and mainstream Indian cinema with such ease and success over the years. Along the way Irrfan Khan has notched up many impressive performances. He is surely one of the few actors that most directors are scrambling to work with given his consistency as an actor. Yet this film belongs to Deepika Padukone who is cast against type, delivering her finest performance to date as the vulnerable yet feisty Piku. It is a subtly modest performance, almost de-sexualizing her stardom so that the girl next-door idea notion is acutely visible yet balanced by a wit and intellect that strives for something altogether more Bengali.

Propitiously for a film dealing centrally with death (and shit) both writer and director manage to avoid the trap of mawkishness, aspiring for something sharper in an ending that is a mastery of understatement. This is a film unassumingly about people and the choices they have to make executed with an unashamed simplicity so often lacking in contemporary Indian cinema. Yet have any mainstream UK film critics mentioned this film in their recommendations of the week? No. Why should they? It’s just another film from Bollywood after all and thus deserves to be dismissed at the expense of monolithic American and European cinema.