5 October 2014
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.
30 September 2014
The history of independent cinema in India has in the past been an intermittent one, beset by a dearth of funding, insufficient distribution and disinclination by critics to take directors seriously. The most sustained and creative period arose with the parallel cinema movement or New Indian Cinema in the late 1960s involving state funding from the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Directors included Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome, 1969) and Mani Kaul (Uski Roti, 1969). It is not unforeseen the current new wave of independent directors take inspiration from the accomplishments of parallel cinema. One such director is Anurag Kashyap. In the space of ten years, starting with his debut Paanch in 2003, Kashyap has become the face of contemporary Indian ‘indie’ cinema. However, it is presumptuous to contend Kashyap has been the sole talisman in the emergence of a new wave that includes Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Gandhi, Kiran Rao, Anusha Rizvi, Abhishek Chaubey, Q and Vikramaditya Motwane.
One has to re-narrate the current story being written about ‘Hindie’ cinema, beginning in 1994 with the film English, August and director Dev Benegal. In fact, it is a journey that has taken twenty years. Dev Benegal, nephew of acclaimed director Shyam Benegal, made two key films in the 1990s that were distinctively indie in terms of both form and content. Whereas English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) were financed outside of India, most of the independent films financed today are supported by studios and production companies with an extensive production slate. Though Benegal could be labelled a transnational filmmaker akin to Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, his contribution should not be overlooked in the evolution of indie cinema. Both English, August and Split Wide Open were part of a loose body of films, arguably deemed a ‘first phase’ in contemporary indie cinema, characterised by youth oriented narratives and controversial subject matter. A common link amongst the films including Kaizad Gustad’s low budget Bombay Boys (1998) was the presence of Rahul Bose, a talented actor with an international profile who has remained close to the indie scene. This first phase of a new wave of Hindi cinema also underlined the potential of the comedy genre and particularly satire as a vehicle for extrapolating the generational anxieties of a disillusioned middle class youth in an increasingly globalised India. The origins of the indie comedy tradition can arguably be traced to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), a cult film and key work of parallel cinema.
The late 1990s saw two important developments that paved the way for a potentially vibrant and creative indie cinema. The first, an institutional one, was the opening of India’s first Multiplex in New Delhi by PVR with 4 screens. Not only did this expand prospects for indie films to get distributed more widely but it created a new audience: the Multiplex crowd (predominantly middle class) with tastes different to the mainstream. The second was the release of a realist gangster-crime film, Satya (1998). While Satya spawned a cycle of ‘Mumbai noir’ films, it more crucially established the talents of director Ram Gopal Varma, writer Anurag Kashyap and composer Vishal Bhardwaj. Satya arrived just as Multiplex culture was taking shape and readily appealed to audiences looking for seemingly familiar content re-presented in new modes of cinematic address. The noughties were a transitional period for the Hindi film industry. Industry status certainly re-configured what had become a narrow and dubious hegemonic funding structure controlled by a handful of powerful producers and studios. An influx of new production banners like UTV Motion Pictures and Pritish Nandy Communications were willing to take a risk on new filmmakers, genres and alternate content. It is no coincidence the story of independent cinema accelerated in this period, leading to the rise of iconoclastic directors like Kashyap. At the same time, state funding was still backing projects such as actor turned director Rajat Kapoor’s 2003 film Raghu Romeo, an underrated black comedy with a notable performance by Vijay Raaz. Rajat Kapoor continues to work steadily in the indie comedy genre, producing work that has often been overlooked.
Financial support for the independent sector has not been exclusively studio led. Hindi film stars such as Aamir Khan have also moved into film production. Recent successes include Dhobi Ghat (2011) and Peepli Live (2010), both debut films directed by women, deal with prescient social issues involving class, poverty and exclusion in a neoliberal contemporary India. Ekta Kapoor, a television producer, also foresaw the commercial potential of indie cinema, distributing films like Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (2010). In response to the growth of the independent film sector, in 2008 UTV Motion Pictures set up their own indie production arm titled UTV Spotboy, backing audacious films such as Aamir (2008), Dev D (2009) and Udaan (2010). Most recently, UTV acted as distributor for director Anand Gandhi’s critically acclaimed debut feature Ship of Thesus (2012).
If Rahul Bose was a key collaborative element in the first phase of the new wave of indie cinema then Abhay Deol rapidly came to occupy a similar position in the second phase. Between 2007 and 2010, Deol appeared in over a dozen independent films, working with directors such as Dibakar Banerjee (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), Anurag Kashyap (Dev D) and Dev Benegal (Road, Movie). Deol who is part of a Bollywood film dynasty lacked the typical star baggage and had an understated quality as an actor that was readily exploited by directors. Remarkably, Deol has been surpassed by the impressive rise to fame of Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is currently one of the busiest actors working in the independent sector. If Indian indie cinema had yet to go global then the creation of the London Indian Film Festival in 2010 (committed to showcasing indie films) reiterated the significance of a new wave that had a reach beyond merely domestic borders.
A survey of Indian cinema in 2013 confirms the ascendancy of indie cinema but also the way new directors continue to emerge. Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), Ajay Bahl (B.A. Pass), Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), Gyan Correa (The Good Road), Anand Gandhi (Ship of Thesus) and Amit Kumar (Monsoon Shootout) all debuted to critical acclaim in 2013. In this context theorising a new wave becomes virtually redundant since each year sees the debut of many new filmmakers. Perhaps the new wave to have had the most lasting impression is parallel cinema. Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Mrinal Sen paved the way but did so in an engaged aesthetic and ideological spirit, questioning the norms of the Hindi film industry. 2013 could easily be declared as the year of Anurag Kashyap, a figure who is conceivably the most important working in the Hindi film industry today. Kashyap not only produced Lootera (2013) but also persuaded director Tigmanshu Dulia out of the director's chair to act in his gangster opus The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Kashyap had a hand in the three Indian films that were selected: Monsoon Shootout (producer), Bombay Talkies (one of the directors) and Ugly (director). He also produced a compilation film in 2013 titled Shorts, which got a limited release. Lastly, you can also add The Lunchbox, a much-admired romantic comedy, to his achievements for 2013, which he helped to produce alongside Karan Johar.
It may seem impossible to find a consistent thread that connects the new waves and independent cinema of the past and present but there is one overarching connection. This is actor Naseeruddin Shah; the most accomplished actor of his generation. Part of me is always relieved to see Shah's name in the cast list of the latest indie feature as it usually means the film is going to be good. Not only has Shah starred in countless independent films but he has also worked with many of the major indie/art cinema directors of the last fifty years; Goutam Ghose, Mrinal Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Govind Nihalani, Abhishek Chaubey to name a few. Shah has become iconographic to the way we recognise indie cinema and a much sought after actor given his astonishing range. In many ways, the story of Naseeruddin Shah is also the story of independent cinema and that is a story worth telling again and again.
7 September 2014
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.
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.
30 August 2014
The Bioscope, an early film projector, created by Charles Urban in 1897, is the magical invention that forms the basis for Keralan director K. M. Madhusudhanan’s visually imposing feature. Bioscope explores the suspicions aroused when local man Diwakaran introduces moving pictures to a village. The film portrays the early power of moving images, detailing the elemental clash between tradition and modernity in the context of a colonial India. The Bioscope, a feature of travelling fairgrounds, suggesting the cinema of attractions, is recreated in the inquisitive faces of villagers spellbound by the hand-cranked phantasmagorias projected on a rudimentary white canvas. Madhusudhanan seems acutely hypnotised by this image, the hesitant gaze of the villagers as they watch the films, uncertain how they should react. Juxtaposed to encroaching modernity are the quotidian regularities of village life that depend on rituals. The very idea that photographic technology can capture the essence of life and thereby the soul of an individual is a fear exhibited in the village, positing the Bioscope as a violation of the sacred, disturbing the equilibrium. Such embryonic unease about technology, that film steals the shadows of people and conceals within it the undetermined is extenuated in the death of Diwakaran’s mute wife. Diwakaran's desire to bring the power of film to the village is gradually challenged and ultimately disrupted by an impossible orthodoxy. Since this is a film about film, the saliently reflexive cinematographic style is articulated by bold, striking visual compositions of spatial imaginings in which the villagers are depicted in synchronity with the pastoral milieu. Madhusudhanan says Bioscope is the first in a trilogy of films dealing specifically with the origins, evolution and impact of film in Kerala. Perhaps most striking are the abstract compositions that linger in our cinematic memories, courtesy of DOP M. J. Radhakrishnan.