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.

FILMISTAAN (Dir. Nitin Kakkar, 2012, India) – Bollywood Borders

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There is a moment in Filmistaan that finds Bollywood film buff Sunny held captive by a Taliban inspired terrorist group in a Pakistani border village. It is Bollywood night in the village and local film pirate Aftaab is screening ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ to an audience of excited kids and adults. The village is rapt by the images on the small television set. Sunny, who has tried but failed to escape earlier in the day, is under armed guard and imprisoned in a small room. As the film plays, Sunny instantly recognises the sounds of a Bollywood classic, and speedily begins to pre-emit the dialogue, reciting many of the famous lines and recreating the gestures with the zeal of a true Bollywood fan. Sunny pleads with the terrorists to let him out so he can watch the rest of the film. They do so. At a crucial point in the film, and since this is a pirated copy, the sound cuts out and a vital piece of dialogue is missed that could be key to the narrative outcome. Aftaab tries repeatedly to replay the moment but the sound still cuts out. Luckily, Sunny, having seen the film countless times, remembers the dialogue, and re-enacts the moment for the pleasure of the village. They all rejoice and continue watching the rest of the film. In this beautifully judged sequence, juxtaposing a surfeit of vatic social-political ideologies including terrorism and national identity, cinema emerges as the true leveller, wiping away notions of borders and belongings that divide and propagate a perpetual enmity; Bollywood intervenes, imagining a new space in which the homeland is a singular, escapist entity. Nitin Kakkar’s directorial debut is a smartly honed satire that reiterates yet again the vibrancy and intelligence of the current wave of new independent films. Filmistaan received the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 2013 and critics in India have uniformly praised the film. Filmistaan could be grouped in a cycle of contemporary Indo-Pak border films such as Ramchand Pakistani (2008) and Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (2014) that question the legitimacy of partition and raise further concerns to do with nationhood, history and film.

HAIDER (Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, 2014, India) – House of Spirits

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Shakespeare has fashioned much of the way we think about narratives in general and his impact on cinema is analogously ubiquitous. His major plays are imperative to revenge narratives and it is not unexpected innumerable gangster films with a descendent narrative trajectory charting the tragic demise of the anti-hero can be traced to classically entrenched and abstruse figures like Hamlet. It is not just popular genres that are beholden to Shakespeare’s plays but melodrama and its rigorous inflection on family and women have antecedents in early storytelling techniques. Haider, a fearless reworking of Hamlet, is director Vishal Bhardwaj’s (VB) third Shakespeare adaptation, and sees him at his most political affianced. Inadvertently, engagement with the issue of Kashmir has divided Indian film critics. Bhardwaj’s bold ideological stance is in the eyes of some a questionable one as he refuses to take sides, instead defining the issue of Kashmir as an on going potentially Marxist struggle for self determination. VB intelligently uses Hamlet as a framework to foreground indigenous Kashmiri identity, that is rendered invisible by militancy, extremism and nationalist politics, into something normal, tangible and human.

VB chooses 1995 as a time frame when Kashmiri militancy was on the rise but by placing Haider (Shahid Kapoor) at the axis of the conflict is a adroit move as this lets VB take a more pluralist line to the political situation, generating a discourse censuring both Pakistani cross border fundamentalism and the repressive torture tactics of the Indian army as inseparably allied in upholding a ghastly hegemonic ancient precedent in which the entire issue of Kashmir becomes obfuscated in an narcissistic clash of national sentimentalities. This is no better articulated than in the pantomime sequence in which a newly radicalised Haider having returned from meeting Roodharr (Irfan Khan) and ascertaining the indeterminate truth about his Uncle having murdered his father, the militant, who sympathised with the Kashmiri struggle for independence, performs a madcap enactment in which he derides the nonexistence of the Kashmiri people, their identity erased from a divergence in which all that is heard are the voices of intemperance.

Hamlet is one of the prodigious chronicles about revenge and given the sexual frisson of the mother-son relationship and the Oedipal crisis that it triggers in the play, such an imbroglio of familial emotions seems akin to much of Hindi cinema. In fact, with the ending VB contends the tragic forte of this tale does not reside in the melancholy of Haider but the manifold mother figure of Gertrude, here played so imposingly by Tabu as the suffering wife of a partisan to Kashmiri militancy, who is compromised on all sides to navigate a precocious course through a toxic world of patriarchal antipathies in which the feminine mind, body and soul are inscribed with the valid ethical quandaries of India as nation. Tabu as Ghazala rises from the spectre of old Hindi cinema, merging with the violent politics of the now, materialising as the self sacrificing Mother India and concurrently abjuring memories of Malli in The Terrorist, Meghna in Dil Se and furthermost Veeran (also played by Tabu) in Maachis, a film that reminded me the most of Haider’s despairing political situation and the one that started the career of VB as lyricist.

VB has never really been troubled with creating realist cinema in both aesthetic and thematic terms but the politics of Haider point to a continual authorial concern with living in a new India, which still treats the Other as powerlessly severed from the mainstream. VB is arguably a postmodernist filmmaker in a world in which postmodernism has already had its time. In fact, like his contemporaries including notably Anurag Kashyap, VB’s cinema reproduces the susceptibilities of a cinephile that appreciates the obligation to mix the new with the old yet dispense entirely with hyperbole. This playfulness is evident in VB’s inspired reinterpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Haider who are reappear in the guise of Salman & Salman, two devoted Salman Khan buffs, who run a video store and spend their time re-enacting star mannerisms. By lampooning Bollywood cinema cleverly counterpoints the realities of Kashmir, reiterating socio-political priorities are subordinate to escapist ideals unanimous too much of conventional cinema around the world.

Everything that is refreshingly iconoclastic about Haider can in fact be attributed to the song and dance sequence ‘Bismil’ which forms the heart of the film. The song takes place just after Haider’s uncle announces his intent to marry his sister in law who is now officially a widow. In response to his uncle’s calculating moves, Haider uses the song as a platform from which to articulate his misgivings about the marriage, criticise his mother and make clear his intentions to avenge the death of his martyred father. The audacious choreography and piercing lyrics by Gulzar complemented by a raw production design of giant puppets, war paint and religious imagery postulates an incendiary backdrop for a sequence assembled out of an interminably spiteful altercation of gazes. In the hands of someone more orthodox such a song and dance sequence would have been picturised along more conventional lines but VB makes it less of a spectacle and more an essential part of the narrative structure. Like the play, this is a film about uncertainties, both personal and political ones, that also manage to ask the right questions for a change.