RA. ONE (Dir. Anubhav Sinha, 2011, India)

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The first rule of stardom – never believe your own hype. Not unless you are SRK who has not been making the best career choices of late. When was the last time SRK really made a great film that he can lay claim to? You might have to go back to Paheli, Swades or even Asoka – all respectable films which were well received. The same cannot be said for poor SRK’s recent choice of films, which have not only been terribly inflated vanity projects but measured by a desire to emulate the feel easy stylisation of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Oddly enough two of his most recent films – Chak De India and My Name is Khan have in fact saw SRK come closest to his real life persona and even tapping into his ambivalent Muslim identity. Both films seem to have something valuable to say about stardom whereas Don 2 and Ra. One offer a version of romantic heroism, which is precluded on a strangely pretentious narcissism. Ever since SRK hit the gym after Om Shanti Om, his face has gone through a period of star transformation whereby the new, leaner and metrosexual SRK feels like a conceit driven to indulge deeper personal fantasies to do with body worship. The trip to the gym seemed to work for someone like Salman Khan but only because he never truly took him or any of his films that seriously to begin with. Dabaang brought Salman to a much wider audience than ever before, helping to kick start a re-interest in the masala action film genre and reconstructing the romantically infatuated male protagonist into a new age revenge machine.

Ra. One was touted as a big budget science fiction spectacular on par with Hollywood productions in which the special effects play a leading role. Some critics resolutely trashed Ra. One while some were unsure what to make of it all including SRK’s wooden performance. I never expected Ra. One to be a brilliant film but given all the hype surrounding the special effects, the film never really delivers in that category either. The story draws strong influences from the Terminator films, Tron, Lawnmower man and many different Hollywood comic book films. Ra. One attempts to merge familiar science fiction concepts with comic book heroism but suffers from a highly formulaic script, strangely OTT performances, ropey special effects and a schizophrenic narrative structure. In many ways, the film is a spectacular failure for a major film star who seems to going through an increasingly public middle life crisis. Had the film been able to harness the imagination and energy that went into the brilliantly executed Bandra train sequence that sees G-One (SRK) bouncing through the compartments to stop a runaway train (one of the few points in the film in which narrative interruption via the soundtrack feels justified) then the film may have had the potential to rise above its genre trappings into moderately pleasing escapist fare. However, not even this brilliantly executed sequence can save Ra. One from disappearing into the abyss of Bollywood stardom.

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) – Postmodern Masala

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This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences.

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.

MADRAS CAFE (Shoojit Sircar, 2013, India) – Re-imaginings

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If the formerly curious RGV arrogated his restless style from the Tony Scott School of cinema then it seems expressly ironic that directors like Shoojit Sircar redeploy such a hyper aesthetic in a geopolitical context with sadly lacklustre results. Madras Cafe, which claims to be an espionage thriller, is an archetypal vindication from mainstream cinema dealing with an antagonistic political issue or event. In this case, Madras Cafe, is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war including the assassination of Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealam (LLTE) or Tamil Tigers fought a protracted war against the Sri Lankan Army and Indian military, arguing for an independent state for the persecuted Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. To argue that both sides of the conflict are shown to be at the mercy of geopolitical dynamisms such as corporate power reasons for an objectivity sadly lacking in a film that paints the Tamil Tigers and its leader as bloodthirsty terrorists. The trauma and persecution of the Tamil minority is not only airbrushed out but their sense of loss, displacement and pain becomes a distant spectacle in which the Tamil Tigers complex Marxist ideology (not even mentioned in the film) is equated with contemporary terrorism, facilely inferring resistance as fanaticism that simply must be eradicated in the name of India’s national security. More troubling is Sircar’s dubious choice to employ an overly stylised cinematic approach reducing the conflict to clichéd war imagery and simplifying a history that demands microscopic interrogation. By changing the scenery from Pakistan to Sri Lanka may come as a relief but the casual ideological rhetoric in which insurgency, resistance and liberation are treated, as a ‘problem’ is unchanged. Even more abhorrent is the treatment of the Tamil Tigers who are denied a credible, ideological voice and constructed as the villainous Other. Such essentialist ideological oversimplification homogeneously and dangerously re-imagines the past, using cinema as a political conduit for historical engineering.

SHOLAY / EMBERS / FLAMES OF THE SUN (Ramesh Sippy, 1975, India) – Mastering the ‘cut’

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Animalistic may seem hyperbolic trying best to describe the raw essence of Sholay but the term animalistic makes sense when you recognise Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), the villain of the film, behaves in totality like a beastly allegory of nightmarish anxieties. Sholay is many things: a bandit film, an epic melodrama, an Indian western, the ultimate masala film, and homoerotic spectacular. Since the critical discourse on Sholay is so rich and pluralistic, I want to briefly focus on a singular edit, a cut that is arguably the most significant in the entire film. The narrative structure of Sholay is predicated on a key flashback unfolding midway that gives way to the intermission. Firstly, here’s what happens narratively before we get to the end of the flashback.

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Holi celebrations in the village are disrupted by Gabbar and his men. At first Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) try to ward off Gabbar but Jai is captured and surrounded by Gabbar’s men with the intention to massacre him. Veeru is unarmed but sees a rifle resting at the feet of Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). When Veeru pleads with Thakur to use the rifle, Thakur ignores Veeru. Veeru is outraged by Thakur’s indifference. Luckily, Jai manages to disarm one of the men. Jai and Veeru band together, killing many of Gabbar’s men. Gabbar is forced to retreat but determined to exact revenge for the humiliating defeat. Having salvaged the dignity of the village, Veeru turns his attention to Thakur, accusing him of cowardice and berating him in front of the villagers. Veeru’s accusatory tone triggers an extended flashback told by Thakur, detailing a hostile rivalry between Thakur (the crusading police officer) and Gabbar (the marauding bandit). The flashback details critically that Gabbar escapes from a prison and wanting revenge he cruelly massacres Thakur’s family. An outraged Thakur foolishly rides into Gabbar’s camp but is captured. The next action by Gabbar is perhaps the most horrific, revealing a monstrosity, which haunts and scars Thakur. Taking two swords Gabbar maliciously quotes Thakur who once referred to his arms as a noose, which would hang Gabbar for his transgressions. Gabbar inverts the arrogance of Thakur’s word and amputates both of Thakur’s arms, fulfilling his thirst for revenge.

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Showing the amputation would have been too grotesque so director Ramesh Sippy times the cut perfectly so that as Gabbar brings the swords down and across Thakur’s arms, we cut from Thakur screaming in the past (juxtaposed to Gabbar Singh’s terrifying Yeh haath hum ko de de, thakur!) to Thakur, a figure of trauma, in the present. Not only does the cut amplify what can’t and in a way shouldn’t be shown but the physical filmic edit becomes a metaphorical device. Metaphorically, the cut works to sever Thakur’s sense of history and collective memories while also reminding us the extent of his pain indescribably connects the present to the past.

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An intertext by Sholay: one of the opening images to Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly; fragmented bodies and the fetishisation of legs/feet finds a dizzying magnification in the opening to Aldrich’s film.

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Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. The man haunted by his past is an archetypal figure in film.

Intriguingly, the cut from Gabbar to Thakur in the present is more complicated than it first appears. Traditionally, such a cut would opt to begin the next scene with a shot of the character’s face as a means of orientating the audience and keeping in line with narrative linearity. Instead, the cut to the present begins unconventionally with a shot of Thakur’s legs and feet. At first, the fragmentation of Thakur’s body through this suggestive edit underlines his dismembered masculine state but more importantly, the implication here is that Thakur may have lost his arms but strength now resides in his legs and especially feet which will play a major role in the final sequences. Cinematically, this symmetrical composition is also necessary since we see Thakur’s shawl gently fall to the ground and thus preparing us for the shock reveal of Thakur with no arms. The impact of this shot is heightened with a fast dolly out from the Thakur’s face while his white clothes makes Thakur seem even more ghostly. Additionally, Thakur’s anguished facial expression reaches back into the past, a past from which Thakur has never been able to escape. In many ways, Thakur is like zombie, part of the dead and not the living. Ideologically, Thakur’s impairment not only points to an obvious collapse of law and order but is symptomatic of 1970s creeping disillusionment with institutional power.

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If Thakur symbolises masculine impairment and is positioned as a father figure to Veeru and Jai (effectively his sons) then this is a critical narrative juncture as the ‘real’ men look on at Thakur and witness the crumbling patriarch, which when linked to the notion of social order and ideological closure, must now be repaired in its entirety. This means the destruction of Gabbar. A similar narrative scenario arises in Deewaar with the patriarch, this time a maligned trade unionist, and more pronounced in terms of the politics of the time. Perhaps this is what links the films together although Sholay probably shares less with the angry young man cycle of films and more with classical Hindi cinema. A director’s cut of Sholay in which we see Thakur go through with his promise of exacting revenge by killing Gabbar completely changes the politics of the film and chimes much more with the impending Emergency of Indira Gandhi. It is also an ending that gives greater meaning to Jai’s death.

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Anand Verma – The maligned trade unionist and broken patriarch in Deewaar.

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Sholay is being re-released this January but in 3D. I re-watched Sholay a week ago on the Corlotta French DVD which I downloaded from the Internet as it is apparently the closest to the way Sippy envisioned the film in terms of creating a widescreen experience. Although I am a little sceptical about a 3D release of the film, I am still waiting for a definitive DVD release of the film with extras. Why this has yet to happen seems like an absolute travesty given the film’s immortal and beloved status amongst Indian cinephiles, audiences and filmmakers around the world.