MULK (Anubhav Sinha, 2018, India) – Us and Them

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The final shot of Mulk is an unexpected one, a freeze frame of a young Muslim boy leaping in the air. He is wearing a white topi cap and the No 7 shirt of Dhoni, an icon of Indian cricket. There is a pluralism at work, the co-existence of multiple identities, that seems under threat right now in India. This parting shot is from the perspective of Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), a self-hating Muslim and Head of an anti-terrorist unit. As we are shown in the opening, Danish executes with impunity a young Muslim man, a religious extremist, who has bombed and murdered a bus full of innocent people. Although Danish acts out of a similarly extremist view that brands all Muslims as terrorists, his murderous actions also enact both a genocidal impulse that point to past and present examples of ethnic cleansing that have become wrapped up in a dangerous bombast of neo-nationalism. The casting of Rishi Kapoor in the main lead of Murad Ali Mohammed, the Muslim patriarch, is what certainly raises the mainstream significance of this work, delivering in my estimation his best performance in years and one that he embodies with a surprising elaboration.

Any film that presents Muslims as a problem is problematic. Director Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk goes about posing an endless array of questions to do with the present day social and political position of the Muslim community including citizenship, the nation state, radicalisation and marginalisation, all of which are presented in seemingly simplistic ways. However, Mulk is a mainstream film so there are limitations both aesthetically and ideologically what the film can say about Muslims in India. Why, one may ask, when Muslims are represented in contemporary Indian cinema, are they rarely ever depicted as normal citizens? To be sure, the othering of the Muslim is perhaps to be expected. But Mulk wants to do something different though which is to deconstruct, critique and interrogate the very process that leads to the framing of the Muslim as the Other.

On the other hand, I don’t think Sinha handles such a critique with finesse. Thus, much of the film plays out in the confines of the courtroom, blighted by the trope of the Hindi melodrama that could have been avoided given what was as a stake ideologically. In one respect, the milieu of the courtroom, a symbol of civil rule and justice makes perfect sense considering the significance of communalism, co-existence and terrorism are in a perpetual process of negotiation and contestation amongst the various religious and political factions. Moreover, Sinha takes a sledgehammer to the important political dialogue he is trying to develop. However, to be fair, a sledgehammer is probably what the Left needs right now to be heard amongst the conformist din and neo-fascist propaganda. Indeed, the recourse to signposting moments of political weight comes across as heavy-handed. Nonetheless, Sinha didn’t have to make this film and his cultural intervention at a time when dissent is increasingly dangerous should be applauded in trying to reimagine relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the status of Indian Muslims points to Muslims living in India as one of the poorest and deprived communities along with the Dalit underclass. Much of this has been made significantly worse ever since the ascendancy of the BJP and popularisation of Hindutva in the 1990s that has sought to demonise Muslims as the enemy, labelled as a proxy for Pakistan. In the past, Indian Parallel Cinema sought to intervene culturally with films like Garam Hawa, Mammo and Naseem, exploring the lives of Muslims with a political complexity. Contemporary Indian cinema, talking here about both independent and mainstream films have skirted around the political questions yet have codified Muslims in specific ways that play into wider cultural imaginings. Moreover, Mulk fails to map the broader economic paradigm of deprivation and poverty faced by Muslims who have become ghettoised and live in slums while also facing the problem of high unemployment. Instead, we are given a Muslim family that is arguably middle class, and that skews the reality of an important socio-economic dimension; neoliberalism masking over a narrative about class that is rarely ever discussed by filmmakers in Indian cinema.

One could reason the systemic lynching of Muslims and Dalits that have increased under Modi’s reign is the story that should have framed the narrative. However, the worrying deportment of Hindu nationalism finds rabid expression in the character of Santosh (Ashutosh Rana), the prosecuting lawyer, who behaves with a hyperbolic zeal and which is amplified by the anti-national sentiments directed against the Muslim family. This is initially hinted at in the opening when a young Hindu boy tells his father to stop consorting with the Muslim family who he brands as traitors. Interestingly, the fanaticism of Santosh becomes equated with that of Shahid, the Muslim terrorist but I would argue this is problematized because we never really see the extremist actions of Hindu fundamentalism – such crimes remain concealed and perhaps cannot be broached in the face of censorship.

Albeit the film explores the semantics of terrorism as a category appropriated for political rhetoric and how the term can come to mark an entire community, the script still falls back on dealing with Muslims through the prism of religion and expressly religious fundamentalism. Indeed, there is no normal Indian Muslim male in the entire film except for the secularist patriarch. Even when Aftab (Aarti’s husband) arrives towards the end of the film, his silence is troubling to say the least. The same goes for the Muslim women. If this is a comment on the relative powerlessness of Muslims in India today, then Aarti’s (Taapsee Pannu as the defending lawyer) dissenting voice, becomes altogether courageous, emerging from an integrationist Indian identity, a celebration of religious co-existence but one that also harbours a precious secularist refrain.

THE MAGNIFICENT 7 (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016, US)

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What if you got the opportunity to rework a contestable classic but had nothing to say? This is pretty much what The Magnificent 7 feels like. One can probably imagine the creative heads that cooked up this idea stemmed from the certified stone cold image of Denzel Washington as a mysterious gunslinger on a horse cloaked in black; an irresistible cinematic construct indeed. But that’s where this idea should have ended.

Fuqua’s re-imagining is a lamentably inert, mechanical Western that refuses to take a breath. Washington’s intro is ace, conjuring a laconic rhythm that Fuqua should have tried to mirror in the rest of the film. Asking that a director slow it down seems like a prosaic request to make these days but even if this was the case then that typically means having something good enough to explicate to fill those silences. Consequently, characters cultivate insubstantial psychological depth, relying on the debatable vestiges of parody. Fuqua may not be the most rousing of filmmakers yet Training Day spasmodically articulated a promise to grow. However, it did not take long for us to discover Fuqua is just as parochial in his approach to big budget high concept cinema as his contemporaries. Perhaps then it would be erroneous to set him apart, deploring his authorial limitations as singular in a cultural practice of artistic habituation.

A paralysing inertness arises from a half-baked script that lingers thoughtlessly on how best to regurgitate a litany of genre clichés. While the elemental simplicity of Kurosawa’s original idea marked The Seven Samurai as a classic, what Sturges got spot-on with his hip Hollywood updating, regardless of the detractors, was the accent on epic moments, something which is altogether absent from Fuqua’s lacklustre updating. The Magnificent 7 may foolishly signal diversity and progress in Obama’s post racial make-believe, but the tired, one-dimensional stereotyping reeks of a regressive cinematic imagination, infecting the lumbering narrative trajectory. Not only does the film refuse to develop the promising austerity tinged ideological machinations alluded to in the opening but points to a political acquiescence rendering both the racial and economic politics of the film a banal afterthought.

An extended opening and an even longer protracted ending means a middle section goes missing. Typical emotional investment by the audience never transpires. Instead relationships, characters and emotions are given to us in digestible bite size anachronisms, amounting to a type of corrosive creative contempt. Such contempt is mirrored in an altogether familiar aesthetic, stylistic monotony. Infuriating hyper edits, a terribly uninspired score by James Horner, stock action sequences and misplaced quips delivered with unusually poor comic timing by Chris Pratt may appear like minor quibbles but the culminating effect is a totalizing self-aggrandizement evident in contemporary popular culture. However, critical observations of this kind are not uncommon for high-end Hollywood cinema. If so, then how can the Western like Science Fiction, one of the few genres that accommodates for a transposition of anxieties, where genre subversion has flourished, come across as incredulous and oblivious to such faculties?

Since this reworking of The Magnificent 7 retains the title and the thrust of the narrative, then why abandon the original theme music for a completely redundant and forgettable score by Horner? I am not sure if this was down to an issue to do with rights or the distracting penance for nostalgic affectations but in my opinion Fuqua should have blasted Bernstein’s mythical music all over the place. At least give us some nostalgic satisfaction. Not only does the absence of the original theme music explain the lack of the requisite gratuitous money shot in which we dispiritingly never see our magnificent seven riding together but points to the absence of spectacle which a film of this scale should have been aspiring to, at least in spirit.

The film opens with a flawed panning shot, moving from left to right, an attempt to draw on the mountainous milieu of the American West and Frontier imagery. But what should have been a shot that lasted for much longer takes place hastily, striking a tone of artistic impatience. This instance points to the wider disjointed design of the film, problematizing the increasingly populist critical position often chosen when big budget Hollywood films fail to deliver, labelling them as passable, great fun, mildly diverting and so on. Even the mammoth shootout at the end is feebly conceived, the problems of filming a half-decent action sequence writ large once again. I should also briefly mention the villainous Bart Bogue; an apparition that lingers indistinctly, dwindling into a puddle of cowardly piss which may be wholly representative of the whoring capitalist tyrant archetype but fails to offer concrete oppositional ideological threat – it is all rendered as cinematic bluster.

If anything The Magnificent 7 is a star vehicle for Denzel Washington (with the long sideburns Washington is a ghostly reincarnation of Henry Fonda’s Frank from OUATITW) and the likely success of the film at the international box office is a continual reminder that he is probably one of the few American film stars who can still pull in a loyal crowd of filmgoers and justify being labelled bankable. Part of me hopes the film does well at the box office. We might get more Westerns. However, if they are all going to be as derisible as this then maybe we should stop right here.

BOMBAY TALKIE (Dir. James Ivory, 1970, US/India) – ‘Typewriter, Tip, Tip, Tip…’

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were illustrious and varied collaborators and with a career spanning over 40 years it was one of the most substantial partnerships in modern cinema. I have yet to see a lot of their work but the more films I encounter the more appreciative I am of what they have achieved given the tight budgetary constraints they worked under. Whilst much has been made of their so called heritage films produced in the late 80s and early 90s, their critical reputation rests largely on this sustained creative period. The problem with such a contentious categorising of their work is that inevitably everything else becomes somewhat secondary and simply a precursor for greater things to come. Yet in many ways it is their early work and continuous interest with India that gives them a decidedly unique and emboldened body of work. Films such as Bombay Talkie, The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat & Dust and The Deceivers may offer idiosyncratic tales of unfulfilled relationships but the clash of cultures in many of the narratives points to a sustained attempt to repeatedly interrogate the relationship between the West and India. Merchant and Ivory were exceptionally lucky to have cast the emerging and talented Shashi Kapoor in their debut feature – The Householder (1963). As it turned out the experience became an on going and very creative collaboration with Shashi Kapoor returning continuously over three decades to take the main lead in many of their best films on an ever evolving Indian society. The final element and one not to be overlooked was the contribution of writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I do think it’s unfair that the title Merchant and Ivory remained consistent because its development into an international brand in the early 90s not only took the focus away from the contrasting ideological content of their films but obscured the contributions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the commercial and critical success of their finest films.

Released in 1970 Bombay Talkie continues to be dismissed by some critics as relatively insubstantial compared to their later work. Nevertheless, it is a well crafted piece of work with a very talented cast and crew who seem to really relish the opportunity of sending up the Bombay film industry. Utilising the typical Hindi melodrama situation of a love triangle in which we find two men with considerable egos – in this case a populist actor and a poet turned scriptwriter, vying for the affections of an English novelist (Jennifer Kendal – Shashi Kapoor’s off screen wife) who has come to India in search of an adventure, the film has in some ways become an influential work on western film makers approaching India from an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps this is most evident in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – a film that raids the enchanting and memorable musical scores of Satyajit Ray. Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) as the egocentric playboy actor neglects the concerns of his wife (Aparna Sen) whilst his irrational and commercially motivated approach to cinema articulates a blunt criticism of the Bombay film industry. Sumptuously shot by Subrata Mitra, Ray’s regular cinematographer, and with a memorable score by industry regulars Shankar-Jaikishan, the film’s gradual shift into a tragic melodrama may at first seem like a grotesque denouement but on closer reflection seems like the perfect way of ending a film about the Bombay film industry and all its excesses. The opening titles are a work of art:

DABANGG / THE FEARLESS (Dir. Abhinav Kashyap, 2010, India) – Star Worship

Before I begin I have a little confession to make. I have never really been a big fan of Salman Khan’s work. His refusal to take cinema and film seriously has led to a perpetual state of mockery. Unlike the radical transformation of Aamir Khan who also entered the industry as a poster boy, Salman’s star image has remained more or less constant. Whilst Shah Rukh Khan’s box office magnetism resides in the overseas markets with the NRI audience, Salman Khan is perhaps a bigger indigenous film star. Yet for all his star power, unlike his contemporary rivals including Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, he has been reluctant to branch out into the field of socially sincere cinema. He continues to make bland, formulaic and sorely mediocre films with many expressing a terrible streak of nepotism. I have to be honest, I can’t remember the last Salman Khan film I saw in cinema. However, the flashy trailers for his latest venture Dabangg certainly raised my interest in Sallu’s retro pencil thin moustache. Directed by Abhinav Kashyap, the brother of talented film maker Anurag Kashyap, and produced by Arbaaz Khan (brother of Salman), Dabangg has for the past week been busy breaking box office records in India. The context in which one watches a certain film can at times shape our initial reception and with the hype surrounding Dabangg, it would be foolish to discount the effect such commercial euphoria has had on the viewing experience. Dabangg is certainly not the best Indian film of the year nor is it the worst but it highlights a prescient point on stardom and its relationship with Indian cinema and the audiences which exist for such films.

Ever since high concept cinema emerged in the eighties, the value of the Hollywood film star in particular has diminished at the box office. Stars have become increasingly irrelevant to mainstream Hollywood film making and whilst the likes of Will Smith and Sandra Bullock can still be considered bankable stars, Katzenberg’s notion that ‘idea is king’ has become a veritable manifesto for many film producers. Dabangg borrows liberally from the playful post-modern aesthetics of a film like Kung Fu Hustle whilst repeating familiar melodramatic tropes. Yet for all its overt stylisation it is the presence of a film star like Salman Khan that suggests Indian cinema continues to depend, thankfully that is, on a plethora of stars. Whilst this may bring charges of an elitist and hegemonic power block ruling the box office, stars and their relationship with fans has always been a central part of the glamorous and alluring appeal of cinema. Salman’s introduction in Dabangg as the affable ‘Robin Hood’ Chulbul Pandey which is signposted with deliberate aplomb raised rounds of applause and impromptu cheering in the cinema audience. Having seen so many of the Hollywood summer films this year when ever a star appeared on screen the sedate audience did not bat an eyelid. I’m guessing the audience reaction to Salman’s entry in cinemas including Mumbai and New Delhi has been positively riotous. Dabangg may not be a brilliant film but it proves an important point – that though Salman Khan may be an average actor at best and makes mediocre films he is above all a star.