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.

COBRA (Dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1986, US) – Genre slippages

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Growing up, Cobra was one of those cinematic anomalies in the career of mainstream Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, a blip that was drowned out by the summer of 1986 in which Top Gun and Aliens projected fascistic rumblings, dreaming of an infantile militarized Americana. Although Cobra did decent business at the box office, the film wasn’t well received by critics. While the Wikipedia entry points to ‘overuse of genre tropes’ as a point of criticism, this in many ways is one of the undeniable strengths of the film, that it converses with a gamut of genres and does so in a way that renders it a charming pastiche. Most visible and transparent are the neo noir and horror accents, which contradicts the hard body action tag used to market the film. In 1986 Stallone’s stock was high and he had just departed from the Beverly Hills Cop project that would eventually launch the international career of Eddie Murphy. Cobra is certainly derided mainly because at that time Stallone was becoming a self-parody, explicating a narcissism that is fetishized in all aspects of the film. While the film is an obvious vanity project for Stallone’s international stardom this puerile aspect of the project is augmented by a neo noir sleaziness and exploitation horror aesthetic that recalls the vigilantism of Dirty Harry and the dystopian neon landscapes of The Terminator. Cobra is a melange of genres and film styles, and in many ways exudes an uncertainty about its own cinematic existence. You can almost hear Stallone saying back to himself; ‘how can I sell this to audiences?’

The original work print of Cobra was significantly longer than the theatrical version, around 2 hours in length. Now that does not necessarily mean the work print is probably a better film just because it is longer; some of the best films are those that comprehend the lost art of narrative economy. The problem here is we know that Stallone butchered the work print as he panicked when he saw the final product and edited the life out of the film, in fear of the filmic competition that year and also because he apparently didn’t trust or have faith in director George P. Cosmatos. Cosmatos had already worked with Stallone on the hugely successful Rambo 2 so this argument doesn’t really hold any credence with me. Furthermore, Cosmatos’s reputation as a more than competent genre director has been maligned by stories about his presence as a pseudonym, a cipher through which actors would perform directorial exegesis. This seems to be the case with both Cobra and Tombstone, two films that apparently Cosmatos did not direct but was merely on the film set cracking jokes with his cast and being paid handsomely. It doesn’t help that stars including Stallone have actually validated the perception of Cosmatos as a hack. Unsurprisingly, Rambo 2, Leviathan, Cobra and Tombstone, four of Cosmatos’s best genre work, is never really acknowledged as such, but instead derided and reduced to a fluke.

Cobra is certainly not one of the best films of neither 1986 nor the 1980s but it is worthy of a second look as it feels closer in tone and spirit to a loose collective of films that emerged in the mid to late 1980s, such as RoboCop, which project a vision of urban American society as not just nightmarishly dystopian, but manifest a nasty vigilantism, critiquing gender politics and decentring the establishment. I’m not arguing Cobra does all of these things but only be reclaiming genre cinema of this kind which is often glibly scorned upon can we begin to really fully contextualise and track the development and slippages of mainstream Hollywood cinema in this particular moment in time. But that also means giving Stallone’s career the candour that it deserves. In some ways Cobra already has been reclaimed, but by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has acknowledged the film’s influence on Drive, another genre pastiche.

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.

TITLI / BUTTERFLY (Dir. Kanu Behl, 2014, India) – Badlands [SPOILERS]

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The construction site in which empty buildings, namely shopping plazas and apartments, that has reoccured throughout so many contemporary Indian indie films could arguably be a trope now. In Titli, it is the parking lot that acts as source of neo capitalist aspiration and means of flight from a vicious New Delhi underbelly. What is it about a building under construction that haunts the urban topography of Hindie cinema? Thematically, a half constructed building connects psychologically to the idealistic dreams of an underclass striving to elevate themselves out from beneath a hopelessness that swallows them up in a screaming totality. Then it’s about striving for something much greater, the impossible perhaps, and never quite reaching that goal. Such ‘new’ buildings that represent a ‘new’ India in a constant state of rapid urban development evident in recent Indian indie films set in an urban milieu, be it Mumbai or Delhi, usually take advantage of the shot in which we see characters ‘dreaming’ in such a space about a better life. Films including Slumdog Millionaire, Peepli Live, City Lights, Kai Po Che, Dhobi Ghat and Peddlers all use the trope of the construction site as an ideological metonym for the way in which materialistic dreams take on a strange festishization that can inevitably lead to the fatal imprisonment of such fickle aspirations.

Titli starts with such a proposition with the main character dreaming of a parking lot that he has been promised if he can come up with the money. Titli, the youngest of three brothers, lives in a dysfunctional family. Vikram, the oldest brother, and the most violent of three, coerces his brothers including a reluctant Titli into committing small robberies, perpetrated with a casual, indiscriminate brutality against ordinary Delhi folk. Vikram’s (played with a terrifying brilliance by Ranvir Shorey) rage, fuelled by his estranged marriage and uneasy relationship with his father, is manifested in his refusal to accept an alternate to crime. Director Kanu Behl borrows a familiar convention from the Hindi melodrama, the family, but subverts traditional intentions by excluding the mother. This leads to an unconventional family setup in which traditionally the mother as a source of vitality and stability has given way to the father who in this case symbolizes a new social apathy, leading to an alienation that eventually destroys the very notion of family. The hidden suggestion that the family unit cannot truly function without the mother figure is one that resonates with the Hindi melodrama schematic since it is the mother who typically fills the gap when the father reaches a defeatist position. Behl asks the question: what happens to the Indian family if the mother is taken out of the equation? In this case, such a question is complicated by Behl’s refusal to delve into the past of the father, preferring to take an ambiguous position that works pointedly to express the animosity between the father and his three sons, a theme articulated by a continual silent exchanges of looks in the confines of the house, conveying an unspoken hurt that gives the film an expressly tragic tone.

The absence of a woman in the lives of these four men is resolved by marrying off Titli to Neelu, a young girl who is secretly in love with an older man. It’s not long before Titli and Neelu form a secret alliance; she promises to sign over her dowry as long as Titli ensures Neelu is united with her lover, Prince. All of this happens under the eyes of Vikram, and although Titli never succeeds in reaching his original goal of the parking lot, he does manage to escape the family, eventually returning to Neelu. Behl seems to be citing neorealist narrative ideas here, as the primary narrative goal becomes merely a way of advancing the storyline, while what rises to the surface is the emotional connection Titli makes with Neelu. In essence, the family he never had becomes symbolized in Neelu’s naivety and fragility while Titli’s social aspirations remain unapologetically on a plateau of false dreams. Before Titli can dream, he needs to be human. This seems like a mawkish inference but it defines (thematically) the quintessence of neorealist cinema (perhaps social realism would a more appropriate means of categorising the cinematic influences and approaches) and also the Hindi melodrama form. If we read Titli as partly inspired by neorealist themes then much of what is key to neorealism, the casting, is also central to Behl’s portrayal of the New Delhi underclass. It is Shahshank Arora’s vacuously unreadable face that demarcates Titli, bearing the painful disillusionments of a Delhi youth underclass and the final shot of Neelu and Titli on the scooter seems to sum the essential arbitrary trajectory of their insignificant, anonymous lives.

Titli premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is scheduled for a release in India later this year. It is worth noting this is yet another superb directorial debut, fluently mixing genres such as noir with social realism. Titli is also the first of a 3-picture deal between Yash Raj (a major Indian film studio) and director turned producer Dibakar Banerjee (a leading Indian filmmaker).