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.

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.