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.

BAJIRAO MASTANI (Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, India, 2015)

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Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films have tended to confound me for their emotional and psychological emptiness, often masked by a fondness for the engrossing worlds he imagines through the art of production design. Bhansali is an unashamed mainstream, populist filmmaker who with his interests in narratives of unrequited love and fatalistic romance recalls the films of the golden age of Bombay cinema. His films are also marked by their notable musical compositions and elaborate choreography, recalling the way Guru Dutt often found innovative ways of picturising songs to extenuate narrative and thematic ideas. Nonetheless, his films have never quite come together as a whole; one appreciates elements in them but never the complete work. Bhansali’s cinema exists in a world of self indulgence and hyperbole, and this has often meant his film’s tend to self implode as the narrative digresses into beautifully staged, isolated moments of mise-en-scene spectacle.

With Bajirao Mastani, a long gestating project and labour of love, Bhansali has finally created something organically whole. The story itself is not that complicated (the familiar Bollywood love triangle), drawing on past cinematic imaginings of Maratha and Mughal histories, but it is the Hindu-Muslim love affair as social, cultural taboo that gives the film an unexpected, prescient contemporary twist. While Bhansali is never really interested in pursuing the deeper politics of the Hindu-Muslim dimension, the film does raise several questions about the nation-state, notably secularism, acceptance, belonging, national identity and assimilation, which admittedly form part of a much larger conversation concerning free speech and the tolerance/intolerance debate. Bhansali has worked with newcomers in the past but he prefers to cast major film stars in many of his projects, as this seems to be the guarantee of a considerably substantial budget.

Certainly there are problems with Bajirao Mastani, notably the simplification of the Hindu-Muslim paradigm, which is reduced to a mythical sensibility. As a piece of cinematic spectacle, this is perhaps the sharpest Bhansali has been to date, conjuring a sense of the epic with not so much his battle sequences but a outlandishly ‘tangible’ production design by Saloni Dhatrak, Sriram Iyengar and Sujeet Sawant, fusing thematic motifs of fire, water and blood into an ardently byzantine expressive scheme. Most salient though is Bhansali’s staging which is a lot more measured than his previous efforts, allowing sequences to breathe, opting for the studious master shot in many occasions to not only foreground the scale of the world we are in but to create even at times a seemingly contemplative cinema.

Since Bhansali is working with three major stars, Ranvir Singh, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, he has to a certain degree give them equal screen time, and there is certainly enough in the script to showcase their stardom. It is Deepika’s Mastani that intrigues the most, the Muslim outsider, who longs for acceptance, recalling the conventions of the Courtesan film in Indian cinema. Mastani’s partial acceptance, signposted in a celebratory dance with Kashibai, Bajirao’s first wife, yet again underlines the necessity of songs as a central emotional device. But Mastani as Bajirao’s illegitimate wife, labelled his Muslim mistress, is never fully accepted into a Hindu nationalist Maratha empire, and nor is Bajirao for his secularist stance, articulates the politics of religious, social, cultural tolerance that is so much at stake in the new India. In many ways, like PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bajirao Mastani is another mainstream Hindi film, viewed as a reaction to the current BJP Modi govt., contests the legitimacy of Hindu nationalism as the hegemonic prism through which we should read the histories of India.

BHUVAN SHOME (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, India) – ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle’

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I’ve only really started to look at Bhuvan Shome so here are some tentative thoughts about the film, which I hope to return to at a later date.

Bhuvan Shome is often cited as having initiated the New Indian Cinema movement. Released in 1969, along with Sara Akash and Uski Roti, as a triptych, the films were aided by loans from the FFC, a state institution set up in 1960 by Nehru. In its early years the FFC tended to back already established or successful filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray who was central to attempts to cultivate a high brow cultural identity of state-led film patronage. With Nehru’s passing in 1964 and Indira Gandhi’s rise to power, the FFC underwent some significant changes including the installation of a new chairman B.K. Karanjia, Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s New Cinema decree and finally the FFC’s decision to support low budget, offbeat films. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi approved the loan for Bhuvan Shome, setting in motion Parallel Cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a film that is more important in terms of where it is placed in Indian film history, as a cultural, historical artefact, and less substantial as a piece of cinema. It may still be Mrinal Sen’s most successful commercial project and is often talked about with great affection by those critics and audiences who have championed Parallel Cinema. 1968 is a crossroads for the New Left movement and although I would argue Apanjan, directed by Tapan Sinha, exploring the impact of the Naxalite movement, predates Bhuvan Shome, acting as a precursor to the beginnings of Parallel Cinema, Sen’s film shares the privilege of marking the official start of the movement.

If we look at 1969 considerately, two other films are of relevance here; Yash Chopra’s Iteffaq and Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. The discourse and canonization of Parallel Cinema gravitates to the triptych but I would argue it is a lot more complicated than the linear historiography that is often presented about this critical moment in Indian film history. It clearly is a moment that needs to revised and reclaimed in a much wider international context that saw Indian cinema conversing ideologically and stylistically with New Cinemas in both Europe and Latin America. Perhaps I am pushing it a little by acknowledging Ittefaq, clearly a product of the Hindi film industry, but still it is a cursory failure that briefly pointed to a compromised experimentation with film form by an emerging populist director. As for, Days and Nights in the Forest, this is a Ray film, which I have often said is overlooked, but since it was not directly part of the FFC project, Ray’s film can be situated in a modernist framework in which the triptych also falls into. On hindsight, it is Uski Roti, which is identifiable as a true break in terms of formalism, not Bhuvan Shome or Sara Akash, although the latter do use obvious self-reflexive devices. Yet as we all know Uski Roti was never released in cinemas, nor were many of Kaul’s early films. What makes Bhuvan Shome instructive in trying to historicise Parallel Cinema is not only the wider cinematic debates it triggered particularly from Satyajit Ray, a seemingly less antagonistic continuation of the very public conversation that ensued between Ray and Sen on the politics of Akash Kusum, but that it carried with it a new form of state patronage, one that had moved on from Nehru’s modernist ideals to something slightly more unconventional but not avant-garde. In many ways, this was Indira continuing to determine film policy, something that she had been involved since the late 1950s.

Vinay Lal describes Bhuvan Shome as an ‘expressionist exploration of the politics of class’, which amounts to a political reading of a film that is often labelled as a light comedy, offbeat and expressly apolitical in some respects. Lal bring up the equation of class which is critical and Bhuvan Shome does undeniably have a comical undertone. In many respects, it would be perhaps less objectionable to label Bhuvan Shome as a melodrama about class. The story follows Mr. Shome, a bureaucratic senior officer in the Indian Railway, who embarks on a duck hunting expedition in Gujarat, only to meet a spirited village belle, Gauri. Sen takes a loosely episodic approach to the narrative, focusing largely on the comical, gentle interactions between Shome and Gauri. It is Shome’s class snobbery that comes undone as Gauri exposes him for the buffoon he is, and steadily making him realise that going native, adopting the ways of the local, points to an affirmative class interaction. Gauri humanises Shome and disentangles the officious penchants, sending him back to the city and the office as a man transformed by her charms. But how should we read the story of the state bureaucrat and the ‘rustic belle’? What does it reveal about Indira Gandhi’s attitudes of the time, towards film and culture? Or perhaps there is a danger here of over determination, of trying to find a correlation between the politics of the film and the cultural, ideological politics of the day? The Naxalite movement was at its peak when Bhuvan Shome was released, and the unrest in Calcutta was about to be memorialized in both Ray and Sen’s work. At the start of Bhuvan Shome, Sen acknowledges the Naxalite movement, inserting actuality into the montage of Bengal with footage of protest, unrest. This might be the only historicising that takes place in the film but it certainly signposts the alternate politicised space Sen was about to take up in the next phase of his career, films which have been questioned for their supposed radicalism.

Like much of Parallel Cinema, not much attention has been given to the films themselves, and their is a dearth of textual analysis especially in terms of exploring film form, aesthetics and representational issues. Much has been written, although superficially, about Bhuvan Shome’s significance to Parallel Cinema yet little discourse exists about the construction of the film itself. In fact, amongst the triptych it is Sara Akash that asks to be re-inserted fully into the genesis of Parallel Cinema’s historiography, mainly because, of the three filmmakers, Basu Chatterjee was the one who moved most sharply to take up a centre ground, becoming part of Middle Cinema. In that shift and for supposedly selling out, Chatterjee’s career is the one which has become most prone to attack.

For further reading on Bhuvan Shome see Megan Carrigy’s chapter on the film in The Cinema of India (ed.) (2009) by Lalitha Gopalan, London: Wallflower Press.

For Vinay Lal on Mrinal Sen see: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Culture/Cinema/Mrinal.html