ISLAND CITY (Dir. Ruchika Oberoi, 2015, India)

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The worker as drone is a familiar enough image these days, ubiquitous with the way corporate companies suffocate the life out of its employees so that they can maximise profits. The worker drone, dispossessed of all pleasure, is drolly captured in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City.

The first story eponymously titled ‘The Fun Committee’ is a darkly comedic parable featuring a deadpan absurdist turn by Vinay Pathak, synthesizing Tati and Kaurismaki into a sardonic comment on the emptiness of office culture, shopping malls and consumerist hedonism. Oberoi even has a go at terrorism. In this first story Oberoi uncovers that most ideologies induce systemic structures imposing a rigour that inevitably cultivates fascistic practices in both the private and public sphere.

Ghost in the Machine, the second story, is the best of the three. A major theme linking the three stories is that of imprisonment; societal anxieties entomb all three characters, repressing desires. The second story is a melodrama about the middle class figure of the repressed housewife who is re-centred as an agent and catalyst for reconstituting the family along altruistic lines. Oberoi’s instructive skill with this second story is the way she parallels the misery and euphoria of the family with the fictional popular Indian soap ‘Purshottam: The Ideal Man’, a parochial, mythological paradigm. This complicated narrative address juxtaposes the fictional utopian constructions of masculinity with the painful realities of an oppressive vision of the despotic Indian husband. With the man of the real family in a coma, liberates the family, but leaves them with a final decision that Oberoi frames incongruently. The final episode is also sensitively observed, a bittersweet deconstruction of romance that narrates the story of an impoverished young girl searching for an idea of love, which cannot exist in such a hopeless lower class milieu.

The portmanteau form is well suited to tales about the city and this has become a popular narrative mode in Indian independent cinema, having spawned a cycle of films including Shor in the City, Dhobi Ghat, Peddlers to name a few. Island City signals an exciting new talent in the shape of director Ruchika Oberoi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, and this is a compelling first work. Performances by Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash are notable.

KOTHANODI / The River of Fables (Dir. Bhaskar Hazarika, Assamese, 2015)

river of fablesA sour fruit that is really an unborn child, a young girl’s marriage to a python, a stepmother coerced by a demon are some of the folk tales or popular fables that form a major part of this impressive supernatural, horror compendium, the debut feature film of Bhaskar Hazarika. You could just as easily label this a feminist melodrama since the focus on the lives of four women, mainly connected by motherhood, depicts the nightmarish anxieties of the women in a pastoral mysticism. Hazarika imbues the fables with a horror in which rustic landscapes, transformed into a spectral one, craft a disquieting temperament. Hazarika is less occupied with narrative execution, favouring characterisation, themes and the construction of a specific and unsettling undercurrent. At the end, when the stories do connect, to the surface rises a terrifying cycle of ancient superstitions, rituals and alchemy seemingly anchored in an old historicism. Hazarika has a wonderful pictorial eye, evoking a magical realism, staging much of the action in the rich and beguiling sceneries of Majuli and Dergaon, superbly photographed by Vijay Kutty. Indie actors Seema Biswas and Adil Hussain appear in supporting roles. The film’s budget was partially raised through crowd funding. Kothanodi has been met with favourable reviews, having been screened at various film festivals including the London Film Festival in October.

AN OFF-DAY GAME (Dir. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2015, India: Malayalam)

1Director Sasidharan’s experimental, anthropological dispositif takes a group of friends, lets them drink, throws them into the jungle, and then steps back with his camera, adopting tableau to frame their cruel, animalistic and casteist behaviour. The effect is unnerving to say the least, made altogether confrontational with the presence of a lower caste woman who prepares a meal for the men and whom becomes a source of ridicule, and later physical abuse. Days and Nights in the Forest, one of Ray’s least appreciated films, is an inspiration for this similarly fortuitous and discordant tale of friendship that culminates in an acutely disturbing consummation. The first half of the film unfolds in a series of master shots and since none of the characters are given a formal introduction in the way of close ups creates a detachment placing upon the spectator the burden of observational study. Sasidharan takes no interest in sustaining plot, preferring to turn his camera on the characters, studying their actions, reactions and interactions as if it was an ethnographic project. What Sasidharan seizes upon is that intricate psychological testing amongst the friends masks a deeper distrust, contempt and antagonism, which rise to the surface in an uncomfortable and ultimately savage way. The ancient game the men agree to play in a drunken haze enacts a hidden social ritual, one that manifests an unconscious, primal longing for power, control and death.

STUDYING INDIAN CINEMA (Auteur, 2015)

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My first book on Indian Cinema is finally here! I’ve been banging on about this book for ages, and a lot of the work that is in the book is derived from the writings on my first film blog which I set up in 2007 titled ‘Ellipsis: The Accents of Cinema’. Covering 14 chapters, the book surveys Indian Cinema from a personal perspective, offering detailed close analysis of 14 key films ranging from the past to the present. Having seen the book now in its finished form, I wish I had been able to include a final chapter on the emergence of independent Indian cinema aka ‘Hindie’ cinema since this seems to be an area in which Indian Cinema is flourishing. One can’t imagine a contemporary book on Indian cinema without discussing the significance of Anurag Kashyap. A lot of the ideas in the book were triggered and developed further through the cinephile exchanges on social media but more pertinently from film blog and the many comments left by readers. I am hopeful the publication of this book will open a few more doors for me now so I can publish a few more things which I have developing over the past few years, most of them revolving around Indian Cinema. Thank you to all those who have encouraged, supported and inspired me over the years to continue writing the book. By the way, I’ve already spotted a few typos! Yikes, this is for real, its out there!

‘Studying Indian Cinema’, published by Auteur, is available to buy now.

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UGLY (Anurag Kashyap, 2013, India)

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Director Anurag Kashyap really knows how to cast his films, finding actors (rather than working with stars) with the right level of anxiety in their faces, inculcating a strange volatility in the audience. Ugly could almost be a companion piece to Peddlers, a film produced by Kashyap and which is stuck in distribution hell with Eros. Both films are vicious tales about the city and its contemporary, hollow middle class inhabitants. Kashyap’s depiction of their psychology borders on derision, but the narrative meanders and gets caught up in the trap of trying to make all the pieces fit together especially towards the end. The story revolves around the kidnapping of a 10 year old girl but this becomes merely a device for Kashyap with which to get beneath the sordid milieu. A central métier is Kashyap’s inborn penchant for characterisation, assembling a vestige of stereotypes: the struggling actor, the depressed housewife, the desperate casting director and the embittered police chief, totaling a cesspool of monstrosity and urban depravity. Kashyap is right to take the position that his characters have created their own wretched circumstances and deserve not one shred of sympathy; he wants them to suffer as a way of expressing his own personal scorn. It also seems right that Kashyap made this film after Gangs of Wasseypur, exhibiting range but expressly reiterates a chief genre interest for urban noir that has emerged as a defining visual look. He also seems both enamored and repulsed by the Indian film industry and its systems, a theme that he has dealt with before and that resurfaces in the ridicule faced by the character of the struggling actor. Ugly is a minor work. Maybe it is a film that will stand up to repeat viewings as it certainly harbours a rawness and urgency about it that has been lacking in the past few films Kashyap has made.

ANKUSH: A Weapon to Control (N. Chandra, 1986, India)

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Ankush (Control) was an unexpected commercial success on its release and launched the careers of both director N. Chandra and Nana Patekar. Ankush, released in 1986, appeared when the angry young man films had all but ended. N. Chandra, most famous for launching Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (Acid, 1988), wrote and directed Ankush as his debut feature. Appearing years before Salaam Bombay (Nair must have taken note of Patekar’s breakthrough performance) and Parinda (which also uses Patekar), Ankush is an often forgotten film of the 1980s that succeeds in bringing together an old fashioned didacticism with a socio-political context that references both rampant unemployment and systemic corruption. The film from which it draws most explicitly is another neglected work in the angry young man saga; Yash Chopra’s 1984 film Mashaal.

The story of four unemployed friends who waste away their days internalising the injustices committed against them is questioned by the arrival of Manda (Rabia Amin), a social worker fighting for the rights of labourers, inspiring the group to draw on their individual strengths and find an economic outlet. Chandra’s unashamed admiration for heightened melodrama is counterpointed by a raw urban milieu. Against this underbelly of machismo Chandra introduces two very significant gender tropes; the mother as a symbol of trauma and the young seemingly emancipated feminist social worker. What this produces is an idea of family which in Chandra’s view restores a sense of equilibrium missing from a conservative perspective of Indian society. Nonetheless, the absence of a father figure in the lives of these young men seems to be the real crisis at the heart of this broken society. The entire film functions in a state of trauma that is never resolved, leading to courtroom didacticism, voicing injustices that yield nothing but indifference and more inertia.

HARUD / AUTUMN (2010, dir. Aamir Bashir, India)

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Harud is singular in many ways when it comes to the representations of Kashmir in the sphere of Indian cinema. It does the impossible. It tells the story of Kashmir by simply telling the story of a family. Harud communicates elemental ideas about human relations thereby transcending the way political biases have in the past, and continue to do so, ruined flawed attempts to give a voice to the people of Kashmir. Many of the films about Kashmir that have been made in the mainstream view the region and its people as simply a conflict which means the very people who define Kashmir are rendered invisible in narratives that seem far too preoccupied with digressing into the differing political positions of the various Indian and Pakistan governments. By framing Kashmir as a political conflict between India and Pakistan is important for contextualisation. However, the cinematic historiography of Kashmir has not only simplified the complexity of the dispute over territory but has failed to give a platform to the people of Kashmir who are desperate for the world to hear their urgent need for self determination and ultimately independence from both India and Pakistan.

Actor turned director Aamir Bashir does right to play this close to the ground, focusing on the level of everyday human experience of a family trying to come to terms with the loss of a son who has simply disappeared, joining the thousands of missing people who have ended up in the hands of the Indian and Pakistani military for supposed terrorist activity. Of course, resistance and dissent by the Kashmiri youth is deemed terrorism when in truth it could just as well be labelled as an on going struggle for freedom. Much of the story of Harud centres on Rafiq, the younger brother of Yusuf who has gone missing. Yusuf is a cipher in many ways; ambiguously drawn and Bashir refuses to really get drawn into the political ideologies that motivate most of the characters we meet. This is a bold move as he wants to depict Kashmir as a human place that is hauntingly exemplified through the disillusioned emotional state of Rafiq which is constantly teetering on the brink of self destruction. What Bashir shows us is that the youth in Kashmir have very few options and in the case of Rafiq he is trapped by his obligations to his parents and the injustice he feels about his brother.

Bashir’s film is unremittingly bleak, contrasting starkly with the photography visualising Kashmir as a unmistakably beautiful land. In a way, the tragic conclusion is inevitable. Such an intensely militarised country can only lead to one thing, suggesting the fragility of life is predicated on political lines; the people of Kashmir and its families are the victims of a much broader geopolitical game that has no end in sight. I have been busy praising Haider this year as one of Indian cinema’s best films. Yet it is clear to see Harud’s influence on shaping some of the ideas Bhardwaj deploys in Haider. Although they are two very different films, they are arguing for the people rather than the politics, giving us a new and defining perspective on such a contentious dispute/conflict.