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.

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.

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.