LOOTERA / ROBBER (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwane, 2013, India) – Paper Flowers

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Lootera is in fact more of a testament to Bengali cinema than anything else. It is more Bengali than Indian and as a period melodrama the film arguably comes close to being excluded from mainstream Hindi cinema. The narrative takes inspiration from a short story titled ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry. I have not read the short so it is difficult for me to comment on the relationship between the film and text so I’m not going to focus on this particular area and instead consider the various links and cinematic allusions made by the film to the riches of Bengali cinema. Before I continue, it may be useful to briefly outline the story and key characters. The main story is effectively a romance between archaeologist Varun (Ranveer Singh) and Pakhi (Sonaskshi Sinha), the daughter of a wealthy, decadent zamindar. Varun and Pakhi’s romance is blighted by wider social forces including the introduction of a zamindari act (which forces zamindar’s to hand over much of their estate to the government) and a rising resentment towards a privileged zamindar elite clinging into vestiges of power. It is a film set in the 1950s, a point made well by the playful use of the iconic song ‘Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqgdeer Bana Le’ from the 1951 Guru Dutt film Baazi starring Dev Anand.

One abiding link to Bengali cinema is the iconoclastic work of Ritwik Ghatak, underlined in Pakhi’s tuberculosis. Pakhi’s ‘bloody’ coughing recalls that of Neeta’s gradual deterioration in Meghe Dhaka Tara. Neeta is admitted into a sanatorium by her older brother Shankar in Meghe Dhaka Tara and whereas Pakhi’s symbolic exile from her ancestral house to the snowy idyllic retreat of Dalhousie smacks of potent romantic imagery, it is her despairing isolation that echoes Neeta’s predicament. Perhaps my next cinematic allusion to Ray’s Charulata is stretching it a little but Pakhi’s voyeuristic position she takes up, peering through the shutters at Varun is a motif deployed so strategically by Ray particularly in the opening sequences of Charulata. Unlike Charulata’s voyeurism that smacks of a longing to break free of boredom, Pakhi’s is predicated on more traditional romantic notions and such perpetual gazing which is repeated melodramatically in the final third continually reminds us of a psychological imprisonment linked to the story ‘The Last Leaf’. Another similarity that Pakhi shares with an archetypal female protagonist like Charulata is a desire to write. This hunger for literature comes through strikingly in Charulata but only seems to linger as an afterthought in Lootera.

While Charulata is a notable point of comparison when it comes to the representation of power and class, two other Ray film possibly alluded to by Lootera is The Chess Players and The Music Room. Both films are concerned with a narrative concerning the loss of power. The Music Room, featuring a story about a zamindar’s fading respect is voiced in Pakhi’s father, the zamindar babu, who has his land and wealth taken from him by a politicised gang of looters. Lastly, in terms of Ray’s cinema, the use of pathetic fallacy is evident throughout Lootera in the two distinctive moods represented in the two contrasting halves of summer and winter. Pathetic fallacy is a common enough literary device adopted by many filmmakers and the second half set in a glacial landscape is a suitable context for a denouement in which death plays a preoccupying role. I’m tempted to even say the second half of the film reminded me of Ray’s Kanchenjunga in the metaphorical use of nature and weather.

If such plural cinematic allusions are true, does this make Lootera less or more of an original work? Motwane’s reluctance to explain the political motives of the gang of looters targeting the zamindari elite may at first seem like an ideological flaw but such fantasy wish fulfilment taps into a contemporary and growing resentment towards an over privileged elite that has emerged as a result of Indian market liberalism. When Varun is challenged by Pakhi over his actions in the cottage (he accidentally kills his best friend) he never really explains in detail why and how he joined the gang. Although this is the 1950s, an elitism and casteism still prevails in much of India that is reflected in an explicit narrative closure that by punishing Varun for his crimes not only re-establishes the social order but reiterates a hegemonic condemnation of potentially criminal acts of dissent. I’m not arguing Varun is a revolutionary but his death at the hands of the establishment martyrs him, transforming Varun into a tragic figure which is in conventional of popular Hindi cinema’s representation of the male hero or in this case, anti-hero.

Motwane was a long time assistant to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and what he has inherited from Bhansali is a propensity for overblown melodrama which unfortunately creeps into the final third of the film. In fact, the winter wonderland fairytale topography of Dalhousie, in particular the artificiality of the snow, recalls Bhansali’s Saawariya in which formalism works to erase any sense of narrative. The unreal properties of the cottage could almost be interpreted as Pakhi’s deepest imaginings of a romanticism unable to be realised in a world in which she has lost her place. Her exile, a consequence of independence, positions her later as an outsider, and by existing on the margins Pakhi becomes a pitiful, if not, obtuse creature. Her loneliness at first seems cosmetic yet what makes it affecting is a salience in regards to a doting father who comes undone by a new India that attacks gross inequalities and unspoken collusion with the British. The production design, costumes, cinematography and music are all first rate and it is not surprising Anurag Kashyap is one of the producers given his association with Motwane from Udaan. Since Motwane has only directed two films to date, Lootera may in fact turn out to be a minor work, but as a second feature it is undoubtedly a major achievement.

PEDDLERS (Dir. Vasan Bala, 2012, India) – City of Ghosts

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Vasan Bala’s directorial debut premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 when Indian independent cinema was finally receiving the notice it merited transnationally. No one quite knows what happened to Peddlers in terms of finding distribution in both India and internationally. This remains a mystery yet points to one of the reasons why New Indian Cinema has not been embraced internationally; many of the key films have only just made it to the festival circuit and not reached cinema audiences. Peddlers is indubitably a crucial film in the fruition of the New Indian Cinema movement and the missing part of a filmic jigsaw puzzle helping to elucidate the iconoclastic intents of a young generation of bold Indian filmmakers. This is a very dark, very grim and very pitiless odyssey through a ghostly Mumbai populated by dreamers, outcasts and loners. Prior to directing Peddlers Bala assisted Anurag Kashyap and Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), which undoubtedly forged a healthy cinematic sensibility.

The narrative of Peddlers rotates around four characters; Ranjit, a Narcotics cop, Mandar, a middle class runaway teenager, Kuljeet, a married housewife and Bilkis, a migrant worker with terminal cancer. At first, Bala intercuts between these four characters in a seemingly unrelated way, gradually linking the stories through the Mumbai drug trade, finally connecting them unknowingly into a nexus of dissoluteness. Peddlers is a city film that reiterates a familiar class disparity; the interaction between the middle and lower class is both negative and destructive. Bala does use songs (lyrics by the talented Varun Grover) but sparingly and instinctively, complementing themes of loneliness and insecurity infecting the city’s anonymous inhabitants and their perilous emotional state.

Kashyap in particular is not afraid of flouting on screen cinematic taboos and much of the talent he has helped to cultivate share his proclivity for dealing with urban realisms habitually romanticised by mainstream Indian cinema. Arguably this comprises a gamut of traditional themes such as sexuality, identity, violence, gender, power and the subaltern experience re-presented in an unconventional narrative and visual style. In Peddlers, the urban noir cinematography by rising DOP Siddharth Diwan (Queen, Titli, Kahaani, The Lunchbox) shows us a contrary image of Mumbai in which the characters uncomfortably inhabit spaces, often projecting a personal disconnect that points to a wider sense of displacement epitomised in the transient Bilkis. All of the characters are grappling with self identity, trying but failing to carve out a trajectory through an impersonal Mumbai cityscape that can only offer an urban experience predicated on alienation. The only time when the city opens up in a traditional sense is during an exhilarating chase sequence through the slums, but then Bala undercuts this with a moment of horror that is relayed with a disturbing elliptical gravitas.

I want to return to my initial point about distribution. Peddlers seems to be without a UK distributor (or perhaps it does with Eros?) yet I have been lucky enough to see the film via festivalscope as a screener. However, we are now two years down the line and with many more Indian indie titles being released more regularly each month, the initial critical furore around Peddlers seems to have faded away which is a little frustrating for those involved and for such a significant film. Although Peddlers deserves a distribution deal and UK release, like much of New Indian Cinema, it’s status as a key film in the New Indian Cinema movement is a considerable achievement.

MONSOON SHOOTOUT (Dir. Amit Kumar, 2013, India) – An Occurrence in Mumbai at Night

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Director Amit Kumar says Monsoon Shootout was inspired by An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, an influential short story by writer Ambrose Pierce. The narrative hook is relatively high concept: a rookie Mumbai police inspector’s shooting encounter with a vicious criminal relives the impact of the moment in three radically different ways. A more clearer cinematic influence is Kieslowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance. This makes for an innovative narrative neo noir genre piece also seizing the chance to explore the inner lives of those who populate this atmospheric Mumbai underworld. Produced by Anurag Kashyap and Asif Kapadia, Kumar’s well paced directorial debut draws on a history of classic Indian police films such as Ardh Satya to flesh out what is a conventional story about the trials and tribulations of a rookie cop fighting for acceptance and integrity. What makes the film brilliantly enjoyable is Kumar’s considered handling of a narrative that defies expectations, disrupting the usual conventions associated with this genre. The sequences that unfold at night are particularly memorable, with the crimson red lighting and endless monsoon rains, producing a resolutely sleazy tone. Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a scene stealing turn as a low life criminal lackey proves yet again that supporting roles often allow the actor to take more risks than the main lead. A film like Monsoon Shootout certainly proves that there is still a lot of mileage left in the Mumbai noir genre, drawing inspiration from the traditions of film noir to give us an ending in which themes of fatalism and doom are played out in tragic circumstances.

MATRU KI BIJLEE KA MANDOLA (Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, 2013, India) – Drunken Imaginings

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Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM), labelled a ‘Bollywood political satire’, is a googly of a film traversing classical Hindi cinema (particularly agrarian pastoral films like Do Bigha Zamin) and the spirit of parallel cinema (a feudal revolt forms part of the narrative) with a postmodern satirical sensibility that squarely has neo-colonial capitalism as a target for critique and denunciation. Bhardwaj has in the past shown adeptness at integrating songs into his films so they become part of the thematic and narrative content but MKBKM is a film into two states of mind. It is both Bollywood and Indian art cinema, schizophrenically clawing at each other so it becomes a film about Bhardwaj the auteur trying desperately to explore very political themes in the guise of Bollywood cinema. Bhardwaj is arguably one of the more interesting filmmakers of his generation and MKBKM’s average commercial business clearly suggests the quirky and edgy marketing for the film was too smart for audiences. In many ways if one was to discount the songs and the love story then MKBKM could be classed as a film that harks back to parallel cinema. Some of the visible intertexts include the casting of Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi, iconographic markers of parallel cinema. Perhaps the most striking link is to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, an influential political satire and key film of parallel cinema which also features Pankaj Kapoor in the role of an exploitative housing contractor. In MKBKM Kapoor plays the role of an ambivalent zamindar seemingly in cahoots with the state minister to sell of land owned by peasants to make way for a shopping and apartment complex. In the past, the zamindar has been constructed monolithically as stereotypically despotic, remorseless and morally corrupt. Nonetheless, MKBKM might be a first for the zamindar as we see a buffoonish redemption that takes hold at the end, forging an alliance with the oppressed peasant farmers. This could be interpreted as ideological fantasy though which is as brilliantly audacious as the Gulabi Bhains (pink buffalo) that haunts the drunken imaginings of the zamindar. MKBKM shares much in common with Peepli Live but cleverly filters ideology through the prism of populist Hindi filmic tropes.

MISS LOVELY (Dir. Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012, India) – Tales of Desperation [Spoilers ahead]

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Defying categorisation certainly testifies to the originality of director Ashim Ahluwalia’s latest feature Miss Lovely. Most of the reviews to the film particularly the ones from America and Europe find it difficult to position the film within the context of Indian cinema (past or present) and inevitably fall into the trap of unfairly comparing the film to Boogie Nights. This smacks of a eurocentric attitude when it comes to reviewing Indian films especially from Bollywood. Slant reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. argues ‘the women of Miss Lovely certainly deserve better’ but this is a point that goes unfounded (the review is challenged by a comment left by an eloquently enraged fan of the film) if one compares the female representations to mainstream Hindi cinema and even Indian independent films. This point levied at gender politics seems particularly unfair if one goes about comparing the representation of women in Indian films to those in Hollywood since differing cultural, institutional and political contexts are in operation. Besides, by using Boogie Nights as a point of excellence when discussing cinematic representations of the porn industry is flawed in that Anderson’s female characters are not entirely absolved of the male gaze. Respectively, the misreading of a film can usually be detected in the way a reviewer relinquishes original interpretation for an unhealthy postmodern dependency on filmic intertexts as this not only gives the reviewer more to write about but also situates the film within populist signifiers that we can all identify with.

Miss Lovely has to be situated in the context of an ongoing and significant new wave of Indian ‘indie’ films that continue to challenge in radically iconoclastic forms the politics of gender, class and power. If Miss Lovely had been made ten years ago one could have easily dismissed the film as a singular anomaly. However, to say this kind of daring cinema would never have got funding ten years ago rings false as one of the main supporters of Miss Lovely is NFDC, a key player in parallel cinema, which has continually financed edgy, esoteric cinema. On the surface Ahluwalia’s film is about two brothers working in the illegal world of C grade porn/horror cinema. However, Ahluwalia uses this narrative trope of brothers in conflict (the mother figure is absent who typically acts as mediator) as a means of filtering the melodrama through a self reflexive study of his own gaze as a director and the film industry as a whole. Last year, Kaushik Ganguly’s Shabdo, delved into the life of a foley artist with an atmospheric brilliance, offering a telling insight into the often overlooked department of sound and its contribution to cinema. Similarly, Miss Lovely succeeds in building an evocative atmosphere of sleaze and desperation through a quasi documentary aesthetic sensibility. At the same time, Ahluwalia remaps the Mumbai filmic terrain, filming in new spaces in the way Parinda and Satya did so to not only reconfigure the cinematic geography of Mumbai but also construct the city as an urban prison, thereby invoking noir like allusions.

Sonu’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) dream of raising money to make a ‘real’ film titled eponymously ‘Miss Lovely’ could just easily be construed as an allegory for the filmmaking business itself. Both Sonu and his older brother Vicky (Anil George) find themselves at the mercy of vindictive financiers who are seen to use the industry as basis for exploiting the girls entering the business. Whereas the first half sees Ahluwalia interested in the sordid machinations of the industry, the second half, is more ideologically pronounced detailing the Indian government’s inability to reconcile with the C grade sex industry. Here questions concerning censorship, exploitation and violence are raised directly in a pre-internet age of the 1980s. Having seen Nazia Hassan credited at the start I was anticipating how exactly Ahluwalia would use her music and which song. Unsurprisingly, he savours this musical opportunity for the final moments of the film, which are also the most audacious and cinematic. The end shot sees Sonu, covered in blood from having killed his brother for betraying him, enter a studio filming a sequence with Pinky, a new star. Pinky is an actress who has eluded Sonu throughout the film, refusing to have anything to do with his line of business. Nonetheless, this final moment reverses everything. Not only is Pinky now a sex star of the C grade film world but the confidence with which she performs for the camera to the music of Nazia Hassan’s ‘Dum Dum Dee Dee’ makes for the ultimate spectacle of desperation. What has driven Sonu to this point in the film stems from his brother’s betrayal whom he discovers coerced Pinky into the sex industry, the girl of his dreams and film. As Sonu looks on he realises that although Pinky is now part of a world from which she can never return, her performance for the camera is characterised by an honesty, the desire for fame. In this fleeting moment, a strained half smile appears on Sonu’s face as a sign of acknowledgment of a shared desperation at the need to be someone else in a world of hypocrisy.

What makes Miss Lovely such a remarkable work in the context of contemporary Indian cinema is that it lifts the lid on a hidden world, breaking many taboos. Most importantly, it presents a counter hegemonic view of the Indian film industry, shining a light on the impossible dreams and desires of the good, the bad and the ugly who populate such a bygone world.

ANKHON DEKHI / THROUGH MY OWN EYES (Rajat Kapoor, 2014, India) – As Never Before

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The ascent of Hindie cinema, a funky way of saying Indian Independent Cinema, is not a fresh occurrence. It is appealing to write about Hindie cinema in terms of the ways in which funding has opened up for independent filmmakers. But as I have noted before the story of Indian Independent Cinema has its geneses in the 1990s when directors like Rajat Kapoor had already started to make Hindie films. A graduate of the Film and Television institute, Kapoor closes his latest feature with a dedication to his film teachers: Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Kapoor may have been one of the last directors of the 1990s new wave generation to have such illustrious teachers. Whereas Kaul and Shahani were perhaps filmmakers in the avant-garde mode, their faculty to make films on their own terms is a likely source of inspiration for many independent filmmakers trying to break through into an over crowded indie scene. To date, Kapoor has made six feature films and five shorts, many of which he has written. The 2003 film Raghu Romeo indubitably marked him out as an exciting talent. Unfortunately, his talents have gone unnoticed expressly in terms of the current discourse on Hindie cinema. Kapoor has also worked as an actor in order to supplement his ambitions as a director. Incidentally, he is a very fine actor indeed.

His latest film, Ankhon Dekhi, a semi philosophical dark comedy, mixing Bergman, Fellini and De Sica into an exact story about family, self identity and life reiterates Kapoor’s capacity to juggle the art of comedy along with a darker vein of social realism. Is it hardly surprising Ankhon Dekhi never saw the light of day in terms of UK distribution? Not really. Anything remotely stimulating or dissimilar in terms of content is simply a death sentence for Indian independent films these days. Hindie films like Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, and The Lunchbox all appeared in UK cinema screens as an expression of tokenism with star names like Aamir Khan propelling them onto the festival circuit with ease. The other point to make is that Ankhon Dekhi is far more idiosyncratic than the films I have just mentioned, as they all seem to replicate a familiar indie aesthetic and patent visual look that makes them far more attractive to audiences in the west since they can easily recognise something within them that they have seen before in British or American independent cinema. Personally, I feel the poster to Ankhon Dekhi should have mentioned Bergman, Fellini and De Sica as that may have certainly piqued the interests of a cinephile crowd at least and given the film somekind of platform from which to self promote its many filmic accomplishments. The real star of the film is Sanjay Mishra’s career defining performance.

CITY LIGHTS (Dir. Hansal Mehta, 2014, India) – Bright Lights, Big City

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Shahid announced Mehta as a filmmaker who has certainly evolved quite dramatically over the years. His early career as a director is best forgotten, producing some unforgettable run of the mill films. Perhaps it was the incendiary subject matter of Shahid that pushed Mehta further than ever before. City Lights, his follow up to Shahid, is a remake of Metro Manila, which is a relatively recent film that garnered critical acclaim. I haven’t seen Metro Manila so can’t really comment on the remake angle. However, and thankfully, City Lights is an official remake of Metro Manila, with the producers having paid for the rights. The plot of City Lights, a struggling family from Rajasthan migrate temporarily to Mumbai so they can prosper, is cliché ridden as they come and makes the producers appear frightfully short-sighted in their desire to imitate a narrative trajectory that is overly formulaic. Whereas in Shahid the directorial style favours a more static, character centred approach that refuses to sentimentalise the human drama, City Lights sees Mehta tip back into a familiar over stylised aesthetic that relies on the most basic contrivances of melodrama. I would preferred to have seen the narrative especially in the city unfold through a female perspective but Mehta fails to capitalise on many narrative situations which could have potentially offered a far greater ideological dialogue on the relationship between migrant workers and the city of Mumbai. What we are left with is a return to the village, reiterating the reactionary politics of 1940s and 1950s like Do Bigha Zamin that warn against the dehumanising nature of the urbanisation. Unfortunately, City Lights becomes just another tale about the city without saying anything particularly insightful about the urban experience. I wanted the pain and distress suffered by the family of three to have been visualised and relayed with so much more force and conviction. Instead, displacement, unemployment and poverty is masked by the visual gloss of the eye catching and at times distracting cinematography. Had Mehta utilised a more neo realist approach then I could have seen City Lights succeeding more often than it does. Perhaps the saving grace are the terrific performances especially Rajkummar Rao and the scene stealing and underused Manav Kaul.