AUTOHEAD (Dir. Rohit Mittal, 2016, India)

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Rohit Mittal’s macabre slice of docufiction plunges the depths of Mumbai’s underclass. The concept of Autohead involves a documentary crew observing a rickshaw driver, Narayan (Deepak Sampat), who gradually reveals a murderous defect in his unpleasantly compelling disposition. Mittal’s docufiction recalls most readily Belvaux and Bonzel’s magnificently twisted Man Bites Dog (1992). Analogously, the crew become embroiled in the dubious actions of Narayan, recording his homicidal designs with a hesitant yet droll voyeuristic gaze. Deepak Sampat who plays Narayan is brilliantly cast in the main lead and delivers a chilling performance. Since the majority of the narrative is spent in Narayan’s unsavoury company, his deliciously warped direct camera address becomes the film’s signatory formal device, deployed with an amusingly unreliable postmodern affectation. Indian cinema has repeatedly depicted the auto rickshawallah as the noble and submissive sub-proletariat, and Mittal has fun subverting this conventional imagining. Narayan is a social misfit, derided by his mother, friends and the prostitute he longs for her, and while he emerges as a disturbed sociopath, his skewed view of the world is filtered through the prism of popular Indian cinema permeating the nocturnal milieu of Mumbai. It all leads to a lurid ending in which the ethics of the crew are brought into question that seem suitably appropriate for those typically involved in the observational, participatory documentary form. Mittal’s assured directorial debut is a bleak, self-reflexive rendering of film as an illusory accessory and morally dubious instrument that in some instances can augment and mask reality to a worrying degree.

THE BATTLE FOR BANARAS (Dir. Kamal Swaroop, 2015, India) – The Crowd

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There is a spectacular political trice at the end of Swaroop’s participatory documentary. At night, on the banks of the river Ganges, which is teeming with euphoric revellers and a swathe of India’s police, Modi emerges victorious, returning to Banaras, where he had stood for election as a BJP candidate. As he makes his way down to the banks, the crowd parting restlessly, Modi continually raises his hands in reverence to the electorate and to the people of India. The crowd, a metonymic focus of Swaroop’s documentary, now markedly acquiescent than ever before, is no longer the impulsive, unpredictable and incensed mass. The insipid demagogy of the BJP and Modi have won out, the crowd is now benign, overwhelmed by political spectacle. And the declaration of Modi’s victory, unfolding on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred site for Hindus, reconnects the modern to the ancient in a grand democratic totem. Modi’s speech, narrating an anecdote about Neil Armstrong, and referring to himself as a ‘son of the land’ invokes a cosmic nationalist dogma, displacing the memories and history of secularism with an insincere centrist appeasement. Swaroop’s plural and largely unbiased account of the electioneering in Banaras in 2014 is an ideologically prescient encounter between cinema and history, but it is one the BJP have suppressed (the film has not past the censor board) since Swaroop’s work does not fit a polarising, nationalist agenda.

Swaroop does exceptionally well to detail the contesting political parties in Banaras, positing a deeply complex yet richly connected and inclusive democratic process, in which the Indian electorate is shown in dialogue with contesting ideological voices. On so many occasions, Swaroop sutures the contradictory voice of the electorate into the narrative, whereby ordinary people of Banaras speaking candidly about the dubious electioneering gives the work a distinctly communicative, inclusive legitimacy. However, when political leaders speak, they do so at a distant and through the apparatus of the mainstream corporate media. By denying the politicians an authentic voice and subsequently a privileged position, which is often facilitated by a wider institutional infrastructure, Swaroop’s semi-observational approach catches those details, which are often edited out by the media, so to construct democracy and politics as a kind of theatre. It is the extraneous minutiae particularly the body language of the politicians, notably Modi, who is shown desperately trying to project an underdeveloped image of the statesman that Swaroop exposes as a false yet uninterrupted performance. Swaroop’s vatic documentary is an intellectual enquiry, probing the image of the crowd and its many avatars, notably the concept of hysteria, in this case ‘Modi hysteria’, which once amplified, completely takes over the crowd and creates an unsettling doubling in the people, as exemplified in the visually ubiquitous ‘Modi mask’ the electorate naively don as both a worrying form of submission and idolisation.

PARINDA (Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989, India)

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At times watching Parinda is like seeing the handiwork of a geographer dissecting the topography of an urban landscape, flattening and amplifying the fissures of a Bombay milieu that had typically never been printed on celluloid in quite the way director Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his cinematographer Binod Pradhan had in mind when they were shooting this paradigm of late Parallel Cinema. The tale of two brothers, who are both infected by crime and the underworld, harks back to the Warner Bros gangster melodramas, imbuing the film with a sense of tragedy, fatalism and doom that also recalls noir affectations. Parinda is a film about aesthetic and style though, opting for an expressionist mode in which the favoured visual trope becomes the overhead shot, flattening the space so we become sutured into the melodrama as floating voyeurs. It is a work that came at the end of Parallel Cinema, signalling the end to the early, and at times, experimental phase of Chopra’s career as a filmmaker, one that was arguably more daring than the overly predictable, mainstream films he would go on to make in the 1990s. Parinda’s sharpness as a gangster noir underworld hybrid comes from Chopra’s precisely staged framing and compositional work in which the underworld of Bombay is posited as a hopeless, mortifying open prison. The contemporary sub-genre of Mumbai Noir, notably Satya, was greatly influenced by the psychological nihilism of Parinda. One of the strangest aspects is the soundtrack, which deploys classical music to uneven effects, not without recognising the boldness with which Chopra tries to implement this stylish flourish. Pradhan’s miraculous images are matched by Ren Saluja’s audacious editing choices, making Parinda an intensely rich work that continually surprises with its grand formal design.

FAN (Dir. Maneesh Sharma, 2016, India) – Star Studies

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Fan is facilely about the political and psychological chasm between stardom and fandom. On paper, this seems like a very tasty proposition indeed; especially considering SRK has not made a good film in quite a while. The doppelgänger, a ubiquitous motif, suited to the fragmented, interruptive form of popular Hindi cinema, is familiar to the star persona of SRK, an avatar that he has adopted on many occasions in the past, producing an ambivalent response to the say the least. A project as narcissistic as this one could only suit the self-aggrandizing star imaginings of SRK, a man who has literally disappeared into the pretentious vacuums of stardom. There was a time when SRK knew which projects to pick, and while Fan attempts to rectify this forlorn nostalgia for the SRK we once knew and respected as both a credible actor and likable star, film audiences desire to see him cast against type remains prescient. Whereas Salman Khan’s troubled stardom, augmented by recent intriguing films, notably Bhajrangi Bhaijaan and the forthcoming Sultan, has been somewhat in the ascendancy, SRK’s demise as an actor could have been prevented a long time ago. Fan certainly stakes a claim for a revival of sorts but even this film falls short of the kind of epic actorly comeback one expected from SRK. A central problem with Fan is the film’s shaky and chaotic narrative, forever moving from one situation to another with no real momentum or consistent stylistic impulse. What the film should have been about is that central relationship between star and fan, which unfortunately gets capsized by a commercial propensity to suture in set pieces, ironically enough permitting SRK to practice his over-recognised thrills for his real fans!

Why not excise the stylised edges, and just go for a really simple film style, one or two locations, and actually debate the politics of stardom in an open and earnest way. Unsurprisingly, the Yash Raj authorial studio stamp gets in the way of such utopian aspirations, explicating SRK’s stardom as a product of a globalized, disaporic imagining of Bollywood; justifiably so. In many ways, Fan is simply not edgy enough for a film that claims to do so from the marketing and promos. I was hoping SRK would be really pushed to the edge, not held ransom by consumerist mono-cultural devices such as Madame Tussauds. Alternatively, this could be read as a reflexive critique of the superficiality of stardom. Surprisingly, for a songless Hindi film, there are some pretty serious issues here with pacing. Fan emerges as an overlong chase film in which a man chases his shadow around the world, or double in the Dostoyevsky sense of the word. I guess the lengths to which SRK goes to reclaim and protect his stardom becomes a metonym for star power and also the anxieties film stars undergo when their star image is threatened especially from a devoted fan or the media.

But I assure you I am not trying to be reductive in my understanding of the film as there are some notable aspects to the film that did resonate with me including Gaurav’s grotesquely over-animated facial augmentations, the initial prison cell encounter between fan (Gaurav) and star (Aryan) which should have been replicated in the film’s narrative throughout, and of course, the morally abstruse denouement. In many ways, Fan is salvaged by an ending that we expect but once delivered sits uneasily with what we know about SRK’s ‘everyman’ public image, and the film finally and reluctantly questions the moral integrity of the film stars which populate the Bollywood filmic universe. As SRK looks on at his fans, the image of Gaurav coming back to haunt him, I could not help but think of Guru Dutt’s Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959), perhaps the greatest and melancholiest commentary on stardom that has come from Indian cinema, in which the star is held ransom to an idolisation that is both ephemeral and beguiling, masking an adulation that we all furtively crave. Fan may in fact be a very complicated study of stardom and only on a closer examination will we be able to determine if it stands up as an instructive postmodern parable of the contemporary Bollywood film industry.