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.