DOC (1971, Dir. Frank Perry, US)

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The legend of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday is inexhaustible, having given birth to numerous cinematic incantations, which have all in their own way brought something distinctive to the Western narrative. Frank Perry’s Doc, made in 1971 just as the term revisionist was about to take hold of the genre and begin in earnest the process of demythologisation, refuses to adhere to the Hollywood legend. Perry’s Doc is an austere vision of the West, and sets about validating Doc Holiday as the infinite star of this tale, not Earp and his brothers. Director Frank Perry’s work seems to be all but forgotten in the story of 1970s New American cinema, yet his career seemed to peak just as the idea of auteur cinema in Hollywood was ruled artistic bankruptcy at the end of the 1970s. Like many of his contemporaries Perry seemed to do most of his best work in the period of transition, the long sixties. When put up against the Hollywood Earp and Holiday legend, Doc opts for a deconstruction of sorts, presenting an oppositional counter narrative in which Earp is a cowardly, shrewd and greedy capitalist while Doc is a man who longs to be a father, and to leave behind a positivist vestige. Even the supposedly epic gunfight in the OK corral is reduced to a fleeting pitiless ritual that re-situates Doc as a disturbed, brutal killer. When Doc shoots the kid, Perry magnifies this transgression, shattering the doubling trope to suggest a provincial and monolithic archetype of masculinity remains unbroken. Stacy Keach was born to inhabit the Western landscape and his take on Doc Holiday is significantly understated and in some respects on par with Victor Mature’s sad laconicism in Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The luminous Faye Dunaway provides support as a reformed prostitute in what should have been a more substantial role. Doc is indeed an underrated Western but then so is the work of Keach and Perry.

HIGH-RISE (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2015, UK)

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Class devours itself. And the politics of class creates an indescribable antagonism that often spills over into violence, and in the case of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, class is explicated through the prism of satire in which modernism is a debauched, sulking creature. Intrinsic to Wheatley’s treatment of Ballard’s writing is an abandonment of logical narrative contrivances in which a spasmodic flurry of visual and tonal meta-cinema explications rise up from a corpus of anarchic British iconoclasts, of which Wheatley now holds company with, notably Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey (an American exile who made his best films in England). High-Rise as dystopian science fiction is an equitable genre reading to make. But Wheatley’s deliberately modernist cinematographic voice is augmented by a meaty political tract, featuring the Utopianism of Old Labour with a contemporary sagacity of Yuppie, white privilege. And beneath the deplorable sentiments of an opportunistic class ridden society is an atavistic impulse threatening feeble democratic notions of social mobility. Wheatley orchestrates a transgressive, masala like parable of mischief, conducting an indescribably palpable ideological discord of congenial malfeasances. What rise indistinctly to the surface is a gamut of modernist disturbances: psychological disembodiment, sexual malady and consumerist neophytes – a cinematic orgy of 1970s British cultural tropes. Wheatley has crafted something bravura with High-Rise, a work of staggering cinematic resolve, a wretched, cannibalistic tour through the cabals of political and social modernism.

COBRA (Dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1986, US) – Genre slippages

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Growing up, Cobra was one of those cinematic anomalies in the career of mainstream Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, a blip that was drowned out by the summer of 1986 in which Top Gun and Aliens projected fascistic rumblings, dreaming of an infantile militarized Americana. Although Cobra did decent business at the box office, the film wasn’t well received by critics. While the Wikipedia entry points to ‘overuse of genre tropes’ as a point of criticism, this in many ways is one of the undeniable strengths of the film, that it converses with a gamut of genres and does so in a way that renders it a charming pastiche. Most visible and transparent are the neo noir and horror accents, which contradicts the hard body action tag used to market the film. In 1986 Stallone’s stock was high and he had just departed from the Beverly Hills Cop project that would eventually launch the international career of Eddie Murphy. Cobra is certainly derided mainly because at that time Stallone was becoming a self-parody, explicating a narcissism that is fetishized in all aspects of the film. While the film is an obvious vanity project for Stallone’s international stardom this puerile aspect of the project is augmented by a neo noir sleaziness and exploitation horror aesthetic that recalls the vigilantism of Dirty Harry and the dystopian neon landscapes of The Terminator. Cobra is a melange of genres and film styles, and in many ways exudes an uncertainty about its own cinematic existence. You can almost hear Stallone saying back to himself; ‘how can I sell this to audiences?’

The original work print of Cobra was significantly longer than the theatrical version, around 2 hours in length. Now that does not necessarily mean the work print is probably a better film just because it is longer; some of the best films are those that comprehend the lost art of narrative economy. The problem here is we know that Stallone butchered the work print as he panicked when he saw the final product and edited the life out of the film, in fear of the filmic competition that year and also because he apparently didn’t trust or have faith in director George P. Cosmatos. Cosmatos had already worked with Stallone on the hugely successful Rambo 2 so this argument doesn’t really hold any credence with me. Furthermore, Cosmatos’s reputation as a more than competent genre director has been maligned by stories about his presence as a pseudonym, a cipher through which actors would perform directorial exegesis. This seems to be the case with both Cobra and Tombstone, two films that apparently Cosmatos did not direct but was merely on the film set cracking jokes with his cast and being paid handsomely. It doesn’t help that stars including Stallone have actually validated the perception of Cosmatos as a hack. Unsurprisingly, Rambo 2, Leviathan, Cobra and Tombstone, four of Cosmatos’s best genre work, is never really acknowledged as such, but instead derided and reduced to a fluke.

Cobra is certainly not one of the best films of neither 1986 nor the 1980s but it is worthy of a second look as it feels closer in tone and spirit to a loose collective of films that emerged in the mid to late 1980s, such as RoboCop, which project a vision of urban American society as not just nightmarishly dystopian, but manifest a nasty vigilantism, critiquing gender politics and decentring the establishment. I’m not arguing Cobra does all of these things but only be reclaiming genre cinema of this kind which is often glibly scorned upon can we begin to really fully contextualise and track the development and slippages of mainstream Hollywood cinema in this particular moment in time. But that also means giving Stallone’s career the candour that it deserves. In some ways Cobra already has been reclaimed, but by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has acknowledged the film’s influence on Drive, another genre pastiche.

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.

PAAN SINGH TOMAR (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2010, India) – From Hero to Bandit

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Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens – namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit.

The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.

ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) – Star Crossed Lovers

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Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film.

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn’t suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late – this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist – usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma’s successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya’s secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today’s India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya’s secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya’s union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya’s marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism.

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural ‘lawless’ geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance – any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother’s dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards.

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare’s classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) – A Royal Affair

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Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is an uninspiring title to what is one of writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s best films to date. Less of a sequel and more of a continuation, Dhulia reunites the main leads of Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill in a story that reaches back to the past. Unlike the first film which utilised more traditional noir narratives, with echoes of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, this seeks to frame a contemporary power struggle between Aditya Pratap Singh (Shergill) and his enemies (including his duplicitous wife) against a quest for revenge led by fallen prince Indarjeet Singh (Irfan Khan). This time round Dhulia adds a layer of political intrigue to the narrative but his thematic focus on the decadence of the royal families of India still remains a central concern. The role of Aditya Pratap Singh as a seemingly untouchable Nawab (prince) belonging to a once important Royal family based in the state of Uttar Pradesh and whose power and prestige has faded away a long time ago is a poetic, tragic and sinister figure. It is a role, which Jimmy Shergill performs with real assurance, offering a charismatic yet flawed symbol of India’s past. Pratap Singh’s faded power is rendered even more symbolically as his incapacitation in a wheelchair, as a result of the gunshot wound from the first film, becomes both an intertextual nod to masculine impairment in the noir universe and points to an incapacitation related to a deeper ancestral powerlessness. Estranged from Madhavi (Mahie Gill), Aditya has a desire to remarry and sets his eye on Ranjana, the daughter of a wealthy Nawab, played surprisingly well by Soha Ali Khan.

The first film drew its strength from the antagonism between Aditya and Madhavi, and this bitter rivalry between husband and wife provides the film with much of its narrative tensions. Dhulia is careful to never lose sight of the centrality of Madhavi’s character to the overall narrative and she is deadly as ever. Madhavi is a contemporary variation on the traditional femme fatale and unlike the first film in which sees uses his sexuality to cause havoc, Dhulia expands such predatory instincts by depicting her rise to power as a means of re-working the femme fatale vernacular. A new addition is Indarjeet Singh, a prince whose entire family was wiped out by the ruthless Pratap Singh family, now headed by Aditya. Indarjeet’s revenge quest is complicated by his relationship with Ranjana whom he intends to marry once he is avenged his family’s honour. If Indarjeet has any hope of ruining Aditya completely he has to woe Madhavi, which he does, and she becomes an ally in exchange for political power. However, it is not long before Indarjeet is embroiled in an affair with Madhavi. Ultimately, Indarjeet succumbs to the poisonous sexual manipulations of Madhavi, eventually taking up the position of the doomed noir protagonist. Yet such a doomed and fatalistic state gives the relationship between Indarjeet and Ranjana a genuinely tragic dimension.

Dhulia knows his cinema and pays homage to numerous classic Hindi films. The tragic love story, fraught relationships and decadent settings suggest this is a film in love with the past and could easily have been made in the 1950s. One striking connection to Hindi cinema of the past is the deployment of the title track ‘Lag Jaa Gale Ki…’ from the 1964 film Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?). The song, a notably haunting one and sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar, is about doomed love and is used sparingly by Dhulia in key moments of the narrative to underline a loneliness that afflicts the main characters. Although the film is set in Uttar Pradesh, the first film (and I am assuming this one too) was shot in Devgadh Baria, a small town in Gujarat with a royal past. Remarkably, the history of the town’s royal kings that were abolished after India gained independence may have in fact formed an inspiration for the film itself. A key ingredient in conjuring up a strong sense of the past is channelled through the architecture of the royal ancestral house in which much of the film takes place. The house is a disembodied place and the characters are made to seem uncomfortable, dwarfed by a faded grandeur in the empty rooms. Moreover, the ruined fort, once occupied by the ancestral family of Indarjeet, is another site of ghostly memories and tragedies inevitably consuming those who refuse to reconcile.

Only Indarjeet’s narrative is resolved, tragically though, while the other remaining dilemmas faced by the characters of Aditya, Madhavi and Ranjana are left open. Indarjeet succumbs to pride and commits suicide when he realises his sweetheart Ranjana has betrayed him. However, Indarjeet convinces Madhavi to smuggle Aditya’s gun out of the house and he uses the gun to commit suicide, thus directly implicating Aditya in the murder. As Aditya is arrested and taken away, Kanhaiya, his loyal bodyguard and shadow, is seen lurking in the background, hinting at Kanhaiya’s potentially decisive role in the final part of the trilogy. Like the first film in which men are the casualties and victims of Madhavi’s scheming, Dhulia ends on a similarly refreshing note, with the camera tracking a transformed Madhavi as a fashionable politician making her way to a meeting. Out of all the characters, Madhavi is the one character that manages to consolidate her power and Dhulia relishes transforming her into a proto-feminist icon, leaving the film open for a potentially fascinating third part in which arguably political power relations will be contested in a grand finale.