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).

COURT (Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014, India)

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It’s an impossibility to keep track of the numerous directorial debuts coming our way from India these days. Chaitanya Tamhane joins such ranks with his skilfully scripted docu-fiction courtroom drama unequivocally studying the Indian legal system and its many contradictions. Rather than look at many different cases, Tamhane fixes his observational gaze resolutely on Narayan Kamble, a folk singer, who is arrested for inciting the suicide of a sewage worker. While this case drives forward what is a warmly absorbing narrative, Tamhane is similarly interested in exploring the outer lives of those involved with the case, namely the two lawyers; Sharmila Pawar (prosecutor) and Vinay Vora (defence). Tamhane’s trick is to humanise everyone so that it becomes impossible to take sides and nor does he want us to. Furthermore, such impartiality is mirrored in Tamhane’s arresting use of tableaux as a framing device, utilising master shots in much of the film particularly the courtroom sequences, thus filling the frame so to capture those most trivial of details that provide the unfolding drama with an air of indifference. Yet Tamhane’s brave directorial choices are also paralleled in the ideological commentary, the sewage worker’s story bringing to light the insufferable conditions faced by Mumbai’s invisible underclass. Court walked away with two prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival, winning Best Film in the Horizons category. Various distributors have already took note and picked up Tamhane’s assured debut, making him one to watch in the future.

THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2010, India)

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Kalki Koechlin’s rise has been somewhat meteoric and deservedly so in many respects. She is a fine actress and her 2010 collaboration with husband-director Anurag Kashyap on That Girl in Yellow Boots (the title refers to the yellow Doc Martins worn by Koechlin) suggests she will inevitable shift into filmmaking. Koechlin wrote the screenplay with Kashyap and she is also the main lead. The story involves Ruth Edscer (Koechlin) who comes to India in search of her father who abandoned her in England a long time ago. Ruth finds work in a massage parlour to supplement her obsessive attempts to track down her father. For a film that was shot in just 13 days, the end product is exceptional and much of the iconoclastic spirit generated by the film is largely down to Kashyap’s ability to improvise with both locations and narrative. Many of Kashyap’s films including Satya (for which he wrote the screenplay), Dev D, No Smoking, Black Friday and Gulaal have a strong visual style that comes directly out of the topography of the modern Indian city notably Mumbai. And what makes his representations of the city so distinctive is the unconventional choice of locations – the living and breathing milieu of alleyways, bars, apartments and roads construct a dystopian melting point. Given the narrative revolves around a search, Kashyap let’s his camera roam through the underbelly of Mumbai as Ruth goes about her quest to find her father. Not to over emphasise Kashyap’s authorial contributions, this film is very much an important collaboration between actor and director. Apparently, the trigger for the story was from Koechlin having experienced the judgemental gaze a white girl or foreigner can be subjected to in a city like Mumbai – a point made expressively transparent in the opening minutes. Koechlin is not your typical Indian film lead and for an actress, she is even more unconventional in terms of her looks. I think this is what makes her quite appealing and starkly distinctive when compared to many of the contemporary film actresses. Koechlin is prepared to take a risk. In the film, working in a massage parlour, Ruth resorts to performing a ‘handshake’ for her male clients at the price of 1,000 rupees.

Very few Indian actresses would be prepared to breach such an on screen taboo in fear of losing either box office credibility or deconstructing their star image. In one point in the film, Ruth is told by someone she is a cross between ‘bugs bunny and Julia Roberts’, to which Ruth replies, ‘I like bugs bunny’. It is obvious from this exchange that Koechlin feels very self aware about her looks and is not afraid of using reflexivity as a performance device. Ruth is an outsider and her encounters with all of the men in the film presents us with some unsavoury characters such as a drug addict, demented gangster and a self righteous elderly man. Perhaps Ruth’s position as an outsider is extenuated by the anxious representations of male identity – they all want or need something from Ruth. If Ruth’s relationships with the men in the film points to a familiar theme of patriarchal exploitation then the final revelation at the end suggests that masculinity is altogether more corrupt, perverse and archaic than first imagined. Unfortunately, the film was never released in UK cinemas and was not given much of a distribution in India. I guess we could say the same for Kashyap’s best work to date such as Gulaal. That Girl in Yellow Boots was partly financed by NFDC and it is an iconoclastic art film with a dark subject matter. The most direct link between the film and parallel cinema of the past is the presence of stalwart Naseeruddin Shah. Kashyap is such an exciting and uncompromising new voice in Indian cinema and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming gangster project. What separates Kashyap from his contemporaries is innovation, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.

SHANGHAI (Dir. Dibakar Banerjee, 2012, India) – State of a Nation

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Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film Shanghai is a brave attempt at the political thriller genre. The film adapts the 1967 novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, which was made into a film in 1969 by Costas Gavras, and updates the material to contemporary India. Weaving together the lives of four key characters, the narrative focuses on the murder of an outspoken social activist and charismatic leader Dr. Ahmadi. The murder of Ahmadi by the major political party, which is running for election, brings together filmmaker (specialising in porn films) Joginder (Emraan Hashmi) who was present at the time of Ahmadi’s murder, Ahmadi’s staunch supporter Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an emerging civil servant. The murder of Ahmadi, which takes place as a spectacle before the eyes of his supporters, results in the current government implementing an enquiry headed up by Krishnan into the Ahmadi’s killing. It is only later that Krishnan discovers that the enquiry was set up primarily by the current government as a way of covering up the crime since it involves the Chief Minister. Joginder and Shalini’s amateurish investigation lifts the lid on a quagmire of corrupt politics with the main political party, the IBP, using its members to intimidate and kill Ahmadi while attempting to cover up the truth. Ahmadi’s concerns seem real enough, arguing that the government’s longing to steal land that belongs to the oppressed underclass of India so that it can be used for an expensive infrastructure project is very much about corporate expansionism. Ideologically, Ahmadi’s outspoken political position makes him a target and the silencing of his voice is familiar signs of a government that cannot offer protection to those who speak out against prevailing economic and social interests.

Director Banerjee succeeds in capturing the nexus of power relations that intersects amongst the people of a city in a state of unease and on the edge of self-destruction. For me the weak link in the film is Kalki Koechlin who plays Shalini. Her character seems underwritten and the role she plays in the narrative should have been more critical and dynamic. Additionally, Kalki is miscast in the role of Shalini unlike Emraan Hashmi who is effectively creepy as an unsavoury amateur filmmaker. When Shalini and Joginder finally present their audio and visual evidence to the enquiry it falls upon Krishnan to take action. At first Krishnan is coerced into accepting that the enquiry set up to deal with the murder of Ahmadi be closed due to lack of evidence. Krishnan is trying to forge himself a political career, which is expedited by the backing of the Chief Minister who appoints him as an adviser to the government. Banerjee dares to debate a very important issue in India today, that of development, and the price the oppressed have to pay so that the ruling elite can continue to rule unequivocally and with a frightening impunity. Shanghai is certainly his most ambitious film to date and what makes it one of the best Indian films of the year are the closing moments in which the juxtaposition between development and dissent coalesce into a terrifying reality.