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.

DEEP VALLEY (Dir. Jean Negulesco, 1947, US) – Melo-Noir

deep valley

The first time I heard about Ida Lupino was in Scorsese’s journey through American cinema series, which first aired, in the mid 1990s on C4. Scorsese framed Lupino as an auteur director who dealt with social issues that went unmapped in much of mainstream American cinema, such as rape. It was only later I realised how great of an actress she was: British born, eloquent and unassailable. Lupino was a film star first and had unbelievable range; she could play trashy and classy with relative ease and cropped up in many film noirs during the 1940s. She was most striking when she played characters that were inflicted in some way, physically or psychologically, conveying a vulnerability and timidness that mark performances such as Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. There was also a capricious side to her acting. Below the vulnerabilities lurked a volatile social rage incessantly pushing outwards. In many ways, Lupino’s career was a germinal one since she not only acted but also directed, offering a counter hegemonic view of a patriarchal Hollywood system.

Deep Valley was a star vehicle for Lupino, featuring one of her most accomplished performances as Libby Saul, an impecunious and shy girl, secluded from the outside world by unreasonable demands placed on her by an ailing mother and churlish father. Libby lives literally a life of quiet desperation with her parents in a dilapidated farm in the woods of the California coast. Her life is complicated by a convict, Barry (Dane Clarke), working nearby as part of a group making a new road that will lead from the coast to the valley. Libby is attracted to Barry but represses her feelings. During a landslide, Barry escapes and meets Libby who has run away from the farm. They hide out in the woods and slowly Libby falls for Barry.

The director of Deep Valley, the Romanian Jean Negulesco, made over 80 films during a career that saw him work on many studio genre films in the 1940s and 1950s. Negulesco spent much of the early 1940s learning the craft by on short films and also assisting on other studio projects. This is a point made by Scorsese in his documentary; that directors got to work all the time, on four or five pictures a year, and this naturally meant they got to be good at what they did. Moreover, having to work under austere utilitarian and economic constraints also imposed a discipline on many studio directors, leading to the mastery of narrative economy, an important classical notion all but absent from contemporary mainstream Hollywood. It is an approach still evident in the work of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of narrative economy is Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg like Hitchcock before him storyboard meticulously, reiterating that such a process is intrinsic to the traditions of classical Hollywood storytelling. Negulesco’s break came in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitriois, a low budget film noir with Peter Lorre. Deep Valley, made at Warners in 1947, arguably saw Negulesco at his peak, bringing together noir aesthetics with the melodrama form. What makes Deep Valleyi a particularly striking work from the 1940s studio era is the involvement of Ida Lupino who is given a more unconventional role as a female film star than was expected at the time.

Categorising Deep Valley as a mood piece is a position that I am compelled to agree with as Negulesco creates a disquieting ambiance, presenting a dysfunctional family reminiscent of a Gothic horror trope in which instability radiates from an arduous past that remains closed to us. There is a sickly tone that materialises. Libby’s desire for escape is realised through Barry, symbolising the forbidden, whereas the father dubiously pimps his daughter to Jeff, the mildly arrogant engineer overseeing the construction of the road. The film is uncharacteristic in such respects but when contextualised in the melodrama form, female subjectivity is key to our understanding of the way the genre functions and communicates with audiences.

Although Libby’s longing for Barry could also be viewed as a form of late teenage rebellion, it is Barry’s status as an outsider that forges a relation since this is how Libby has been positioned by her family and those around her; a strange, odd girl (not a woman) and an outsider. This raises questions about gender that the film deals with subtly. Since Libby has been raised in seclusion, her social skills are infantile while her understanding of sexuality is also erroneous. In many ways, her identity constructed by her parents explains why Libby feels most at ease when she is in the woods with her dog. The interactions with Barry and Jeff complicate her independence as they place demands on her related to negotiating new ideas concerning gender and sexuality. The father in particular wants Libby to conform to traditional ideas of gender and the choice of Jeff as her suitor smacks of dogmatism that Libby contests.

Like many films made under the studio system it was the endings, habitually striving for closure, that were characteristically compromised ideologically and thematically, and in some cases struck a tone which clashed with the rest of the film’s narrative. Deep Valley ends incongruently. Barry and Libby cannot be allowed to escape and their affections for each other are undercut by an ending, promulgating a moralistic tone, that sees Barry/Libby neutered for their attempt at transgression. However, it is not clear from the closing moments if Libby is now with Jeff. Though they are seen together in the final shot, the inclusion of the dog suggests primitiveness still exists and that Libby retains her unconventionality and that she is still free from the tyranny of men.

A noir reading of Deep Valley compared to other noir films released around the same time offers some notable vagaries. For example, traditional noir conventions argued the femme fatale typically seduced the central male protagonist, leading to his entrapment and subsequent downfall. Deep Valley reverses such a narrative idea, arguably positioning the femme fatale as Barry, the male protagonist, whereas Libby is the prey and to a certain extent becomes Barry’s attempts to escape a fatalistic trajectory already mapped out for him by society. Unlike the dangerous woman who is usually punished for transgression, this time the male anti-hero gets his comeuppance. However, there is no satisfaction for Libby in this conclusion but rather a loss that is romantically inclined which returns to the cathartic audience pleasures of the women’s melodrama.

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.

SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK/US) – Ruins of an Empire

Silva (Bardem) toys with Bond (Craig).

James Bond exists in his own unreal universe of preposterous dynamism. Such unrealness cannot compete with the recent demands for realness from a spy franchise which for a time looked outdated when going up against its nearest rivals such as The Bourne films. Skyfall is perhaps the Bond film many of us have been anticipating since its the closest that a director has come to elevating formulaic conventions into the realms of capable mainstream cinema. Both Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace were recognisably bombastic in their over eager attempts to reinvent the Bond formula. What Skyfall does, especially for the first two acts, is replicate the genre tendencies of the thriller and noir film but does so against a prescient socio-political landscape. Whereas previous Bond films have been greatly concerned with sustaining an illusion of Empire and nationhood, Skyfall refuses to repeat such illusionary politics. Instead, we get a more engaged offering and unflattering depiction of the British secret service and James Bond living in what Silva (Bardem) refers to as ‘the ruins of an empire’. The death of Empire is anchored symbolically in the death of M since Judi Dench’s stoicism is modelled on a combination of The Queen and Churchill. In the film, the threat to Western power and capitalism comes unsurprisingly from China and technology. Not only is Bond depicted as a fragile, ineffectual and aging spy, but the first hour tears down the mythology of Bond and substitutes immortality with an unglamourous consolidation of a man who is simply a cog in an unforgiving system. Bardem’s Silva who appears superficially as a revenge filled narrative device is metaphorically Bin Laden; trained by Western intelligence only to resent his expendable status and thus transforming into an invisible agent of ideological chaos. Even more fascinating is that Silva can be viewed as a mirror image of Bond; little separates the two of them and this makes their contest altogether more complicated than the traditional conflicts we expect from a Bond film. 

Silva may want revenge but his transfigurement as a result of M’s betrayal is a costly one for the British establishment as the blowback which they encounter is difficult to defend against without blurring certain moral and political boundaries. Some would say it is sacred territory to venture into the history of James Bond as it invalidates his enigmatic personality. Part of me would agree with such an argument of nostalgia yet by foregrounding his past and by locating the final conflict within a familial context humanises Bond so an ordinariness shines through. It is an ordinariness that is paper thin though and thankfully lasts for only the denouement. Skyfall is certainly the best looking Bond film in a long while and the visually noirish cinematography of Roger Deakins is transparent throughout. In many ways, this is Deakins film. What interested me the most was the contradictory politics at play at the heart of the film. Although it is a progressive Bond film since it critiques Empire, the film’s reflexive ending reclaims a regressiveness that characterised many of the classic Bond films. It is a film that contests an open battle between progressive and regressive ideologies yet at the end by reinstating familiarity, Bond recognises that its endurance as a cultural entity remains with being repetitive and different as a genre. Moody, dynamic and ideological – this is a Bond film with a pulsating heartbeat. It will be a hard act to follow for the next director who signs up for Bond as Mendes may have delivered one of the finest outings to date.