Thursday, November 20, 2014


Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathway, Jessica Chastain, David Gyasi, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 169 min.
Verdict: Personal territory I would want to keep coming back to. Also, might just be Mr. Nolan’s most accomplished film yet.
Genre: Sci-fi, Drama

(Spoilers abound! I assume you’ve watched the movie because I’m not devoting any obvious space to introduce the plot as such.)

Memory must be a medium for love. Faith surely is fuelled by memory. I mean, if our movies have managed to tell us one thing it is that objects do retain the past as a narrative, transforming the commonplace present into a meaningful past, snatching history from the jaws of archival hegemony, as if it were closed and sealed forever, and make it personal memory, living and breathing, isn’t it? The objects this time around are books, and the bookshelf housing them, and dust, and a written word, and a watch, and a bed and a model spaceship. Even a sweater on the seat of the truck. I love the watch. It is a mass-produced thing, like so many other things, and yet, all my life, I’ve had an instinctive attachment to watches in the way I’ve associated my faith with them. You see, a coin is different, because it only responds, or talks, when you flip it, making it an object whose response is caused by us hence making us aware of its inanimate and mathematical nature, i.e. chance. It is, in many ways, a representation of our rationality, and a reminder of it. A watch, or a clock, is different. It’s always running, always doing its thing, and when I use it to make decisions, based on whether the second-hand is between 1 and 30, which is a yes, or it is not, which is a no, I feel as if I am tapping into a stream. I feel like I’m talking, and for a large part of my conscious life, the watch in my home was how God communicated to me and I communicated with him. The watch made sense. It is what kept me moral, and at this point in my life, when I am questioning the rationality of all of it, there is a huge part of me that so desperately wants to return to the simplicity or those days where I could just ask my watch. You could say I’ve issues in the upper part of my hemisphere, but my binary conversations with my watch – and it is incredible how I could reduce a whole set of stuff just by thinking about it in my mind and then seeking confirmation from that watch – will always be muscle memory to me.  
There’s a room here, a sort of personal temple, which probably makes it unlike the one in Stalker, that houses all these objects and thereby the memories, and towards which everything in Interstellar gravitates towards. This is a space movie which under the guise of travelling outwards eventually reaches inwards. It is the central figure here, this room, in the first act and the third act (I suspect, from a Bordwellian angle, this is a film with the three acts and an epilogue rather than four acts, but I will be happy to be proved wrong), absolutely absent in the second, and it becomes both the source and destination that Mr. Nolan shapes his narrative around. Cooper (Mr. McConaughey) keeps looking beyond the frame of that monitor searching for his little daughter Murph (Ms. Foy) and, or maybe in, that room, as if to create a new memory overwriting the older one where he left her to pursue the pioneer half of himself, and it seems to be stubbornly resisting that, growing more and more intense. Like the man in La Jetée, and like Graham Hess in Signs, Cooper, as Aaron Stewart-Ahn mentions here, becomes something of a prisoner of this memory space where only he and his daughter ever enter in the entire film. If the home, and the farm surrounding it, and the dust covering it come to represent the mortality of our existence that needs to be transcended (as when Alfred Borden knocks on the wall he is leaning on) via the pioneer within us, the room becomes the meaning we seek and the interpretation of our memories we construct – Interstellar gradually becomes the journey of a man marked for the rest of his life by a memory of the past.
At the same time, do not allow me to convey the impression that Cooper is some kind of variation on Scottie, obsessing over a memory image, because he’s not. He’s a prisoner of that conflicting emotion that drives all of Mr. Nolan’s guys, between the ambition and the domesticity, between the curiosity of the Langford double and the satisfaction of the kids and wife, for both are essential parts, and I probably should link to Mr. Jonathan Nolan’s interview where he articulates that predicament most simply and precisely.
There’re television monitors too, not skype (digital) but having the grainy monochromatic almost grungy quality of old video, and they are not live and do not allow two-way communication, thus becoming, like letters, information that has travelled and experienced the passage of time. They are memories, and for some strange reason, probably because Tom and Murph look up at it while speaking into it, they feel like prayers. Tom sharing his life into that little screen not knowing if somebody on the other is listening, and Murph pouring her heart out, and there is the unmistakable need of hope, of faith. Much has been said about Mr. McConaughey’s performance, none more encompassing than Danny Bowes defining him as the guitar string that resonates at the frequency of America, and all of that ought to be extended to Ms. Chastain. Mr. Malick made her the mother, and Mr. Nolan comes perilously close to making her the daughter, essentially bringing her to the center of it all. I remember the film, and I am reminded of her, just like the mere mention of The Mirror condenses the image of the mother sitting over the fence. It also ought to be said here that rare has been the occasion where such significant emotional sensual (in a purely platonic way) returns have been drawn from the head of a performer, and this here is one. If that wretched opening-closing shot in Gone Girl is abstracted misogyny, this here is all grace.
As always, I digress, and as always I use those words to pull myself back. To the room. Murph might be the room’s soul, for without her, the room almost doesn’t exist. She’s resisted and seemingly repressed the feelings (memories) the room evoked, and Mr. Nolan patiently builds the narrative, selecting his moments most carefully to switch between the space travel and earth, none more effective than the screen-switch from Cooper to Murph on the other side. Or a pan up to the clouds when Dr. Brand (Mr. Caine) visits Donald (Mr. Lithgow) at the farm , evoking the sense of loneliness and distance and disconnectedness. After the simple narrative pattern of this happened and then this happened of the first act (single line), and the this happened and meanwhile this happened of the second act (parallel lines), it is almost as if he seems to find within the moment Murph mentions the memories of her ghost and the image of Mr. Nolan’s daughter Flora (I suspected the little girl on the truck Murph sees is Mr. Nolan’s daughter, and the end credits told me I suspected right) the necessary trigger to weave all of it that memory space the film seems pre-destined to move towards. There is also the second video from Murph, questioning his intentions and thus questioning the faith and love, and that video causes the same kind of desperation that is most vulnerable because of the guilt inherent to pursuing one’s ambitions. He needs to get back to her, and to that room, and what follows is  unlike anything Mr. Nolan has done till now, for what seem to be mostly disparate this-here-and-meanwhile-this-here events on paper seem to be galvanized narratively finding a new meaning for Murph’s memory. Or Cooper’s. I won’t go into the details of the context, yet there’s probably no harm to be had in disclosing that on the one side of that shelf exists Murph and her memory, and on the other side her father both in and seemingly causing that memory. Or maybe, even caused by the memory.
It is heady upon reflection, and visceral in its immediate impact, with Cooper struggling to survive and trying to dock the ranger, and Murph seeking meaning to her faith in that room, each event seemingly shaping the other. Love, Amelia (Ms. Hathway) says, transcends time, and I think the conduit is memory. You see, memory is not fact, memory is not archived, and memory always exists in the present, being shaped and reshaped all the time. Leonard Shelby wanted to overwrite his memory, but unfortunately he neither had cross-cutting nor did he have Mr. Zimmer’s score. Most importantly, he wasn’t in a science-fiction, and I’m not implying the whole Cooper is dead and these are his dying memories scenario, because Mr. Nolan really wants to transcend the solidity of the world, and yet he is constrained by what he can perceive (Is it rigid, and if it is, is there some kind of relation between that and the lines – the books on the shelf, the sand, the contours of the robots, or the spacecraft, of the representation of the fifth dimension). His characters feel the instinctive need to touch the surfaces around them a lot, Cooper here mostly. The surface of the surveillance drone. Or the air of Miller’s planet while landing. The video screen. The handshake. Even the craft touches the frozen cloud and its legs the surface of the frozen ground of Mann’s planet. There’s this elemental almost perceptible quality he brings to Interstellar, in the texture of the close-ups, in the contrast of the wrinkles of old Murph (Ms. Burstyn) and Cooper, in the crops, or the dust, or the steam coming out of the coffee, or the fireballs crackling along the ship. We need to touch it to know it, I suppose, and as my dear friend Srikanth tells me whenever I start raving about my kindle, hey, we can drop those books on the floor!    
So yeah, Mr. Nolan isn’t implying that all of this is happening is some sort of head-space, because he is probably not even making that distinction. As long as we can touch, as long as we can perceive, as long as we’ve our memories, we’re in our realities. He tried to say the same thing with that damned ending in Inception but I believe he chose to focus on the wrong object, and he doesn’t make that mistake here by providing any sort of easy cynical ambiguities. I’m not really suggesting here that the spinning top is a cynical or gimmicky move as much as it is a filmmaker trying to end with his signature of what his beliefs are, but I would have wanted him to rather make a statement – maybe via a pan from the top towards Cobb. So yeah, Mr. Nolan needs reasons to believe, and believe he does want to. There’s nothing out there and nothing out here, except for us, and that his both humbling and moving. Two people fight in the middle of the icy planet in a bird’s eye-view shot that dwarves us to mere particles against the impersonal enormity of the planet, and yet through the score, and his framing, he finds humanity. Mann (Mr. Damon) is leaving Cooper to suffocate and die, and yet Mr. Nolan finds an over-the-shoulder shot of him looking back. There’s so much there in that shot, like the best of Melville, where we all understand each other’s perspective, for Mann is merely an extension of the pioneer part of Cooper, just as Tom at the farm is the domestic conformist part  (or whatever there is of it) of him. Mr. Nolan rarely, if ever, judges. Mann cannot watch, yet he turns back twice, part of him deeply sorry, part of him wanting Cooper to survive and a part of him rationalizing it all as necessary sacrifice for the larger good of mankind. I had tears in my eyes, and Mr. Damon is an incredible incredible actor. Wonder to Mr. Nolan is in a family pursuing a drone through cornfields, tragedy is in the shot of a man standing in the darkness behind a door waiting for 23 years – that shot of Romilly (Mr. Gyasi) is incredible in the way it both captures his loneliness by crushing it to a moment and a stance. A blip, in the enormous context of the universe. Grace, to Mr. Nolan, are people driving their vehicles in a file while migrating away from the dust bowl, sanctity to him is in those objects we perceive and send to our memory (it is interesting   mystery to him is in the diaphysical rather than the metaphysical, (cue: Mr. Carruth’s Upstream Color), in what we create as opposed to what is already out there (seldom has there been such scant disregard for spectacle provided by outer-space relegating it to the domain of purely functional), warmth to him is Ms. Chastain’s hair (I hope for purely descriptive purposes, this is considered Mr. Nolan’s The Tree of Life rather than the Kubrick film, because he seems to be interpreting/charting history as personal memory most clearly represented in the talking heads), in medium shots, in close-ups of faces looking at each other and up towards the sky, for the sky itself is empty and barren and indifferent and, well, just stares back. Gosh, do the clouds even move?
So yeah, I’ll want to disagree any theory out there that classifies this as a dying man’s wish, because I believe and I want to believe that what’s happened is Mr. Nolan finding a way through the genre he is working in (rationality) and through his technique, to actively shape and alter the memory and its perceptions, thus ending up causing the reality around. Cooper is struggling to survive gasping for air, and Murph once again sees Ms. Flora Nolan, and Mr. Zimmer’s score soars, almost causing her to feel something to push the jeep into the cornfields (almost mirroring the wonder of the earlier drone scene). Like The Hours, or Cloud Atlas, show us, cross-cutting causes the kind of exhilaration music often provides, because there is an inherent immediacy caused by the motion in it. The past becomes alive, and it feels as if anything might be possible.
In Mr. Nolan’s hands, across the barrier of space, it becomes an evidence of the transcendence of love. More than Memento, and maybe even more than The Prestige, there is an incredible union of form and content, and in that room, where Cooper is caught up in the memory space, and Murph outside desperately reinterpreting her memory, it feels almost as if the narrative is fuelling itself. Cooper watches those moments helplessly from the outside practically praying (like the video screens) across the bookshelf to be heard by his daughter and to be stopped, and it is one of the great moments movies have given us. He sees himself leave, and he breaks down, and in a classic usage of deus-ex-machina (as I said, narrative fuelling itself) TARS appears, both to provide context and to provide purpose (the transmission of quantum data). As Leonard Shelby did it all those years ago, the need is to rewrite those memories, or re-contextualize them so as to shift the guilt. This is where Mr. Nolan has made his most poignant and hopeful film yet, helping his protagonist leave the cage of individual memory and finding via love a way to not merely share the memory but essentially rewrite/repurpose them via those memory objects, rendering within them an associative sense and through them a meaning. It is terribly intimate moment, and Mr. Nolan plays it to the grandest most melodramatic pitch possible, wanting to celebrate this transcendence. He believes in the sanctity, for the room and its objects come to represent experience, aspirations, and identity, i.e. memory, and curiously that room with that book shelf and all its objects is not even present (or at least not shown) in the archived model of it on Cooper station. As Amelia says, migrating is not really finding a new condo.
               I want to come back to that room, and Ms. Chastain’s-Ms. Foy’s Murph, and their virtual absence from the final moments on Cooper station and beyond. I look back at the films I have unabashedly loved over the last few years (so much so that some of them are my passwords) – The Grey and its wallets, In the City of Sylvia and the unknown faces, Public Enemies and the trivialization, via history, of pursuits that probably were most personal, Moon and the commodification of memory – and I realize that memory is what kills it for me at the movies. The room is gone, earth’s gone and most importantly Murph has left it behind now that she has the closure and the comfort that it was her dad all along. And yet, amidst all of that there is just that tinge of sadness to the fact that Cooper just doesn’t belong to the present, on the station, where he meets the older Murph, her wrinkles a perceptible reminder of the passage of time, of a memory lost. Cooper has essentially seen three persons in his daughter, and when he feels her hand on her chin and closes his eyes, all I wanted to was to stop articulating it all and cry. She asks him to go, and in what might just be the most moving moment in all of his films, they seemingly share the memory of a new home to return to. It is a glorious declaration of our need for domesticity, of destroying loneliness. Cooper flies, to find Amelia, in the vastness of space, and I hope that wormhole is no longer there, for theory makes way for love and memory. After all, as Mr. Jonathan Nolan observes here, if science (nature) is enormous and formidable and indifferent, science fiction is always there to provide, in the form of a wormhole or a robot, the deus-ex-machina. It is so profoundly sincere and innocent in that hope of its that I want to cuddle up in the corner of my green room and cry. Mr. Nolan here has made a truly great film. More importantly, while I’ve always had boy-name for my future kid – Takeshi Kitano, with Beat being the nickname – I now have a girl-name too. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014


Cast: Madhuri Dixit Nene, Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Huma Qureshi, Vijay Raaz
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: An intelligent film with an incredibly humane plea.
Genre: Drama

                Let us start with something that sounds like good old-fashioned hyperbole – it astonishes that Mr. Chaubey has only ever made two film, including this one here, especially after one were to parse the images he puts on screen – and then proceed to try and argue that the way it sounds isn’t remotely the way it is. As in, Mr. Chaubey might not be the best filmmaker we have, although he could be there very soon, he sure could be, through their density, up there with our best image-makers. Consider a moment at the very end of his debut film Ishqiya which I discuss here (and I was only disappointed by his choice because it end up as the film I wanted it to be), and its strict cutting out of the external world through stonewalls and a dimly lit room from what is the true essence of that picture – a husband and a wife and the dynamic of their relationship that surrounds them symbolized via the gas cylinders. Unlike his mentor (?) Mr. Vishal Bharadwaj’s recent offerings. Mr. Chaubey’s images sure feel organic to the story but are to be read as much as they are to be felt.
                Consider one here, towards the end, where Khalu (Mr. Shah) and Babban (Mr. Warsi) are bound in something of a warehouse, and they both (not us) see Begum Para (Ms. Dixit Nene) and Muniya (Ms. Qureshi) indulge themselves in bonding and playfulness that is, let’s just say, seems to cross the boundaries of mere friendship. Now, here’s where watching the film as late as I did with complete knowledge of the supposed relationship between the two women – apparently they’re lesbians – really helped, for as with most narrative twists, I was looking for evidence and I could find none. I was confused, until this shot came along, and in hindsight I consider myself so fortunate to have watched the film the way I did, for often I’m slow and I fear I might have completely missed the point.

                But let us come back to that shot, and parse that wonderful wonderful image. Khalu is hand-tied, and so is Babban off-screen, and to the left we see the shadows of Begum Para and Muniya together in a heap. As in, no daylight between them. Moments earlier both the males look with their brows raised as Begum and Muniya play together, leading Khalu to comment – Thand lag rahi hai, lihaaf maang le (It’s pretty chilly, should we ask for a quilt) – leading Babban to laugh. Over and above being a nod to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (more of which could be learnt here), and something that smacks of homophobia, what it also reveals is our need to classify things into brackets so that we can understand them. A green apple is an apple, and a red apple is an apple. It makes us less anxious, making the unknown familiar. Mr. Chaubey’s orchestration of the image and all its variables (and what they represent) is quite genius in the way he doesn’t show us the action, but turns the view on itself. The shadows aren’t Begum and Muniya, as much as they are our viewpoint of them, and Mr. Chaubey smartly and dare I say damningly turns that on us. As in Ishqiya, Khalu and Babban seem to represent something close to idiots, i.e. us viewers, who scarcely understand the world and its various dynamics. They’re journeymen, or like one of them travel-channel anchors, trying to discover (and in the process sell) the world for us, and as much as Krishna (Ms. Balan in Ishqiya) turned their (and our) perspective of her upside down, the shadowplay is desperately interpreted as foreplay by that comment from Khalu.
                And in this image from Mr. Chaubey, those shadows being viewpoints is not merely an interpretation. That is, it is not the prerogative of the viewer, but that these shadows are a part of a performance. It might be worthwhile here to mention that if not anything else, Dedh Ishqiya is all about performativity, especially of the gender kind, and all of its characters are caught in moments where they are exhibiting themselves to an audience, and thus conducting themselves accordingly. Allow me to share a few of these –

Here’s Begum Para being a dancer, and Khalu with all the chauvinistic entitlement one can attribute to such a moment, peeking through the door and appreciating the “feminine grace”. Also, that the performer is Ms. Dixit (whose identity/classification can be done on two counts – (a) dancing queen (b) million dollar smile – and I suppose I don’t have to tell you it is as much an appreciation of her talents as much as it is a straight-jacketing of her identity).  

Here, moments later, Begum and Muniya perform together, and Khalu and Babban peek together. Performance being watched by, well, a performance. 

Crudely speaking, boys and their toys. Crucial here, Mr. Chaubey’s composition. 

Men standoff in a circle, while women gather in a circle. In the night. 

Men, aside from peeking through dusty windows, also wax poetry, for it is their prerogative to appreciate. 

                Now, I do hope that these moments have provided some kind of context as to what that film is all about – we are all performers, performing to the idea of an identity created by society culture and history. Mr. Chaubey’s great move, both via the script and via his staging, is to classify sex as an act, as a performance. In that way, the irony within the scene is not slight as most of the irony in movies is these days, but heavy and bordering on tragic. On the face of it, Khalu and Babban are tied, but by turning it into a flat image by superimposing the performance on the viewer, Mr. Chaubey’s makes the performers prisoners of their identities.
                Does this fly in the face of Freud’s pleasure principle? Rather, I would say, it argues for it, for sex is a desire, but a performance is an act that communicates with the ego. Leonard Shelby was indulging in a broad performance of an avenging husband for he wanted to satiate his ego, i.e. his identity of himself. Thus performance is ripe enough to use as a manipulating device, and our culture does make sure that our desires are strongly dictated by our identities, which in turn are shaped and classified by that culture. Muniya makes sure to manipulate Babban, for his identity (alpha male) is intermingled with his desires (heterosexual male) so much so that there’s significant confusion over there. Mr. Chaubey implicates Babban too, when he kinda cuts the sex from the frame, and instead zeroes in on him early in the film. 

So yeah, what he intends to say is to want the id and the pleasure seeking impulses not to be hijacked by the pressures of identity. Begum Para and Muniya are thirsty, and when the two are running away, hand-in-hand, towards freedom, all they seek is to quench their thirst. That they drink straight from the bottle sticking it into their mouths, or pour it into a glass and sip it is their prerogative. In fact, even they are thirsty might just be our assumption. Dedh Ishqiya sure has a twist in its narrative, but the twist isn’t that Begum Para is not an aristocratic woman, or that she and Muniya are lesbian lovers. The twist is that their identities and desires and pleasures are far different from what their society attributes them with, or even forces onto them. Mr. Chaubey never concedes, and in his determination to not include anything gratuitous or indicative, all he wants to say is that two people can mean the world to each other without us wanting to throw in desires and sex into the mix. Here’s a thoughtful filmmaker for you, and I tell you, they come so rare.

Thursday, October 09, 2014


Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Lalit Parimoo, Irrfan Khan, Narendra Jha
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Runtime: 162 min.
Verdict: A tad disappointing, but the mother-son relationship is its own film and Mr. Bharadwaj surrounds that masterpiece with stuff a hack could arrange.
Genre: Drama

In a film where the eponymous character muses over the materiality of death and how it is merely a passage not towards reincarnation but towards re-materialization, as a cup maybe, it is pretty poetic when that very character fails to find even a shred of the person’s body he loves most. I do not exactly remember, but he probably doesn’t even get blood. All there is left is sand and the debris left from the explosion. That person, made to completely vanish from any kind of material existence that could provide a sense of closure, is Haider’s (Mr. Kapoor) mother Ghazala (Ms. Tabu), and her death starkly contrasts with that of the other woman in the film, Arshi (Ms. Kapoor), who despite having shot herself in her head, arrives mostly in pristine condition (except for a mark on the right side of her temple) in that very graveyard so as to facilitate a passionate-bordering-on-the-maniacal embrace from Haider. The climax is set in, of all the places, in a graveyard, and Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic, for although Haider might not be a treatise on death it sure as hell is surrounded by it. Or, maybe, it’s like a hallway to death, with no other exit door.  
What next after death, then? What is in store, in hell for instance? What treatment awaits to the next of kin of who have been branded terrorists, by the country and its authority? This question of post-death seems to preoccupy Mr. Bharadwaj’s mind the most, and like Dante’s trip into the depths of hell, the narrative here provides for dead people to speak their fate and for sinners to try and atone. What should then be considered Ghazala’s fate, and will she ever be able to tell her side of things? Or, has she already explained herself and maybe even justified her life when she kissed her kid? On his lips. In Mr. Bharadwaj’s universe, where women have their identity hinged on how the men around perceive them (“The girl who can steal from (betray) her own father, how can she be trusted by anyone else”, Omkara (2006)), where women either conform to the society’s norms (Arshi) or stand antithetical to the societal notions of femininity, it is interesting how Arshi dies just as the way she lives, pure and complete. As in, all in one piece. As in, her identity intact. Ghazala, on the other hand, has been defragmented into so many pieces, like T-1000, that it is probably impossible for her to be reconstructed.
But then, here is the interesting part. Unlike Nimmi (Maqbool) or Dolly (Omkara), who along with their identities also had their eventual fates hanging on that perception, Ghazala shapes her own fate and all the events about her. Which is somewhat heartening, in the same way Ishqiya was a few years back, and Dedh Ishqiya is now. Because for all the raised eyebrows that are caused by the mere mention of feminism, as Miriam Bale puts it here so simply, it is at the end of the day a movement borne out of a belief that male supremacy for thousands of years has created systems and values that must be recognized and destroyed restructured. Ghazala is the one playing the moves, or reacting to the circumstances with moves, and in her wake, every male and thereby every social structure about her seems to be lost. Of course, it could be easily argued that the manipulative femme-fatale cause-of-everything is a trope that has existed in our mythology since ever. To which one might counter, Ghazala’s moves, her intent and her emotions were always tethered to one thing and one thing only –her son.
Although I’m no good at this, here’s where I roughly sketch a mapping between the representational elements of the narrative. There is the father, Dr. Hilal Meer (Mr. Jha), who as the opening events suggest (as if Mr. Meer himself penned them from his perspective) is surely not a traitor but a humanist, understands the separatist sentiment, and doesn’t blink an eye in aiding them. There is Khurram (Mr. Menon), who is mostly about self-preservation and self-promotion and the judgmental negative shades about him are because he seems to have no significant ideological stance. Yet, he dearly loves Ghazala, and when all the men are running away from her in her final moments, he, along with Haider, is the one running towards her. He could be considered as a representation of the pro-authority (India) self-preservation elements.
Ghazala, and pardon me for this mostly eyeroll-inducing mapping, probably represents the soul/spirit/sentiment of the land, and in Haider that land sees the future. The flashbacks show moments where the mother is running behind the son, and where the son is mostly idolizing his father, via polishing his shoes. A simple enough synecdoche for a patriarchal system. The whole oedipal dynamic is hardly the stuff of subconscious here. Her running behind Haider is later mirrored in the present when he walks out of his uncle’s house in search of his father, and as I said, Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic. So, the patriarch is always about his ideology and ego, echoing through the judgmental old-testamentesque undertones to “Allah will take care of Haider”, and one might readily and rightly assume that the patriarch would have no apprehensions if Haider would take up the arms for what he believes to be the right cause.
And here, via the mother, whose selfishness is only account of her son, and whose one true love of her life is that son, Mr. Bharadwaj brings home the whole eye-for-eye-makes-the-whole-world-blind lesson into the narrative. The twist, if I could label it thus, is that Ghazala, who all through the narrative seems inclined to do anything for personal gains, and who is provided a mostly gratuitous moment (doubling as a misdirection if you will) during Khurram’s “coronation”, is and always was all about her son and him finding an exit out of the graveyard.
And here’s where I reveal my indulgence, and pull the rug, when I say that this is exactly the kind of problem I have with these kind of narratives and their deification of the feminine form, because in a roundabout way Mr. Bharadwaj has asked of his female character to conform to her role in society and stay true to her representation (as the land). Mr. Irfan Khan has labelled the film as the modern Mother India, and rightly so, but that label to me is some kind of backhanded compliment. As if to say, and this is a classic underpinning of most of our mythology, a woman can never think of herself and still be in grace.
This kind of certainty of both intent and action, especially for an adaptation of a play whose very soul is built upon the indecisiveness of action due to the uncertainty of events, probably robs the narrative of a few pleasures and indulgences that could have been continued in the comments section of movie-boards and blogs. Haider has a brilliant monologue of the uncertainty of his predicament, and it is a remarkably moving moment. The casting of Mr. Kapoor seems a masterstroke, for we feel the confusion of a little boy thrust with the weight of patriarchal responsibility. Yet to squander all of that for reasons I am not sure of (I’m sure Mr. Bharadwaj can think beyond his leftist politics), when several (and needless) pains have been taken to include the mostly useless Salmans and the incestuous vibes from Liyaqat (Mr. Aamir Bashir) towards Arshi, is probably beyond me.
But beyond all the issues with theme, which of late I find mostly uninteresting, I’m disappointed with the overall craftsmanship at hand. I mean, isn’t the low-saturated blue the default for terrorism-prone Kashmir (Yahaan)? There sure are some striking images, but the structure of the narrative is another weak-link. We could indulge in another Bordwell-style analysis when the film is released for home-viewing, but what I felt is that there are quite simply too many scenes crammed together whereby the plot takes precedence over the emotional arc of one moment/scene. I think we might learn on another viewing that any scene that runs for less than say a minute can be edited out, like for e.g. the thing where the two Salmans stop the police van to pick up Haider, so that the dramatic arc of the stronger ones could be prolonged. Also, for a man who made Omkara, where the opening shot of the legs reminded me of the best of Sergio Leone, Mr. Bharadwaj here really seems to be unimaginative on the style-front. Roohdar (Mr. Khan) is given a thunderous introduction (like Mr. Sunny Deol was introduced to change the proceedings in Damini), and then he proceeds to fast lose that thunder by overplaying that background drum again and again, to the point where it becomes a very annoying choice/theme/cue/agent for purpose in this narrative about indecisiveness. I might be wrong here, but I suspect Mr. Bharadwaj of now is more suited for something as crazy and rip-roaring and imaginative as Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola rather than straight-faced Shakespearean adaptations, which he can probably oversee a protégé direct.  

Also, now that I think about it, there isn’t really much difference between the two characters who commit suicide, isn’t it? So why the distinct fates? Arshi was a reasonable rebel who would ask “tough” questions about torture to the army but mostly gullible before her father, in which case, I’m not sure the purpose behind her killing herself other than guilt. But, for what? Am I missing something when I brand that act meaningless, as opposed to Ghazala’s which had a higher purpose? I started writing this with these two characters in mind, and now I’m not sure where I am. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Rajkumar Rao, Lisa Haydon, Mish Boyko
Director: Vikas Bahl
Runtime: 146 min.
Verdict: Mr. Bahl lets the ideology govern the narrative rather than the other way round. Things, i.e. the “little” moments on which he builds his narrative upon, thus feel a little pre-processed.
Genre: Drama, Comedy

                My first visit to Kuala Lumpur was couple of years back. There is not much to the city, I might be tempted to say, not much of a personality one might hold on to. It is bland. Well, mostly, you know, until one is in the city center and surrounded by the Petronas. You walk around and find it staring back at you from behind other buildings. You feel like you’re walking in circles, walking away, walking towards, covering streets, going past buildings. And yet it is there, behind two buildings. You look to the right of a building, and it is there. You look to the left of another, and it is there. Staring down at you. They are not vertical as much as they are vertiginous. For a moment you feel the path to the sky is bent. It is intimidating. Maybe even borderline scary. I don’t know why. I don’t even know why I am reminded of Godzilla, and although I sought that same fear from Empire State, I wasn’t intimidated. Mr. Bahl’s Queen has one such moment, where Rani (Ms. Ranaut) is running from and, I suppose, unwittingly running towards the Eiffel tower. The guerilla-style improvisation-filled filmmaking that Queen displays in abundance serves it best here, with the front plane harshly juxtaposed against the seemingly curved nature of the backdrop, with the frame slightly tilted, somehow reminding us of the city-bending-on-itself shot from Inception, a shot that I now interpret as an essentially literal version of this fear the vertiginous nature of the city puts into us. You see, my memory of the Petronas is not anamorphic, or shall we say widescreen. Widescreen inspires magnificence, I suppose. My memory is kinda square in its aspect ratio. Maybe even a rectangle standing on its width. I hope you get the picture. I don’t have much space neither to the left or the right, and that memory is interlocked with claustrophobia of some nature. When Rani ran shit-scared, looking back to see if the Eiffel tower disappeared, it might have been a touch melodramatic for you, I suppose. But dear reader, I had goose-bumps all over me, and it is moments such as these I seek more than anything else from the movies.
                It is only a moment though, and unfortunately for me Mr. Bahl contextualizes Rani’s fear within the memory of a promise from her fiancé (Mr. Rajkumar Rao). But that is my problem and not yours. And certainly not Mr. Bahl’s. What Godzilla is to my memory is her fiancé’s promise to Rani (my context feels a tad idiotic), and the curious bit is that they seem to evoke a similar response. What doesn’t feel like my problem though is that Mr. Bahl’s film is a tad too contextualized, not within the framework of its own memory-filled cause-effect narrative, but within the framework of its ideological response. Is it a nod, a verifiable declaration of a problem statement, when elderly women at a wedding try to learn a dance step from Cocktail that kinda heralded the moment of self-discovery of its chief female protagonist? Are there echoes of Veronica in Vijayalakshmi (Ms. Haydon)? Is the fleeting and thus strictly supporting nature of every other character a statement of intent on Mr. Bahl’s part? One that essentially states that women don’t need men to approve of their identities and one which Mr. Bahl seemingly holds on to via the resolution he provides to his narrative?  If that is the case, which I feel it is, I don’t much care for all that feminist nonsense, and my non-ideological response would be that these ideological narratives do not understand that it works both ways. As much the women need guys to approve of their identities, the men need their approval to confirm their egos, and it is just basic arithmetic – Approval – Identity = Cost of Commodity. I mean, as long as we’re living in a capitalistic society, societal approval is essential. I should leave it there then, I suppose.
                Instead, what has me rather curious is Rani’s state of mind when she decides to go on her honeymoon all by herself. Cocktail did provide its protagonist a practical reason via a throwaway piece of dialog, one based in emigration to the west, and that was probably the only moment that dealt directly with economics amidst all of its other shenanigans. Here, Rani and her father run a sweetshop. They are businessmen. Cancelling a trip and all the associated tickets and bookings would probably salvage some money, and I want to assume that I’m not entirely wrong in believing that saving this money might be somewhere close to the top on the list of priorities as far as damage control (post failed-marriage ceremony) is concerned. Still she leaves, with her father’s consent, which means there’s a bit of stubbornness in there somewhere. The same stubbornness she displays when she desperately clings on to her handbag in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Queen celebrates this stubbornness that is probably the key to its protagonist’s self-discovery, but at the same time, much like most movies around us, steers clear of making any mention of economics. Of the financial costs that are being overrun here. We never are aware of the actual numbers, making the emotions of the narrative palatable for us audience who wouldn’t be distracted. And even though, we still might have been convinced that it was all worth it even if we were made aware of the financial conditions, it somewhat troubles me that the narrative conveniently buries the financial loss to the family and how it affected the overall proceedings. More so, when we begin to consider how essential the framework of a globalized world connected not merely by the convenience of travel but also by the existence of Facebook is to Mr. Bahl’s ideological stance.
                But that is probably a minor gripe against what is my second-favorite part of Queen­ – the present continuous DNA of the narrative, which kinda mirrors in the way the Facebook-timeline epilogue not merely summarizes the film but also highlights Mr. Bahl’s essential rule of not providing any grand closure to the proceedings. In fact, apart from the return of the ring and the obvious immediate satisfaction derived from it, there is nothing that suggests that Rani’s life has found a parking. Much like the Facebook-timeline’s northbound drive, Rani’s life is still on the move. And my favorite part? Ms. Ranaut. It is somewhat of a gimmicky performance at certain moments, I do concede, but boy does she have the devil in her.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, and your Best Picture

The highlight of the year? King Vidor’s The Crowd.

Now with the wrap.

 17. A Teacher (Dir: Hannah Fidell)
Beyond Ms. Lindsay Burdge’s performance, which should rank amongst the best of the year, there might not be much by way of psychological insight the mean lean narrative provides as compared to the similarly austere but far more accomplished Stranger by The Lake. Both films look into fear and desire, yet it is Ms. Fidell’s narrow utterly modest scope that makes it something of a what-if scenario – like watching Hitchcock’s people unassumingly choose a table with a bomb underneath set to 5 minutes, and discuss baseball for those 5 minutes. It is like desire giving the courage to dare, and the 75 min. narrative is filled with spaces full of risk. Expectedly things do not resolve or explain themselves, but merely explode.

16. John Day (Dir: Ahishor Solomon) (Read review)
Here’s a film that seems to have almost never existed, and it makes me a little protective of it. Mr. Solomon’s narrative sure does have rough edges, but then his images, if freed, have a little life and a little weight of their own. The gun is placed within the Holy Bible, and this not a cynical and irreverent image, as movies often teach us, but one that is extreme in its beliefs. The Bible protects the gun. The man holds on to a cross as he is being mercilessly beaten by a bunch of men before he gets up and bites an ear off. But Mr. Solomon isn’t merely a dealer of images, and he seems to possess a keen understanding of how the length of an act can be used to create historicity within it, and thus lend emotion. As I said, I’m excited about him.

15. Stoker (Dir: Park Chan-Wook)
To everybody I want to sell this film, I only talk about the opening scene. It is an example of an image so carefully calibrated to manipulate our cognitive senses, and as India (Ms. Wasikowska) walks across the frame, what we notice – from her high heels, to her flowing skirt, to her svelte figure – is what we ought to be concerned with. She’s a placeholder, a piece of clay waiting to be molded, and it is a remarkably sensual shot. Mr. Chan-Wook has our attention (and desire) by the gruff of the neck, and to be brutally honest, it is so damn sexy, I might have been found clapping even if the rest of the film were about vampires and werewolves fighting each other out.    

14. Thou Gild’st the Even (Dir: Onur Ünlü)
Deeply cynical yet full of heart, Mr. Ünlü’s film infuses the tired and beaten “patriarchy is hell” truism with more than a ton of fresh air. All this by taking a society of super-humans, or mutants, or whatever you might want to call them. Like Mr. Ki-Duk’s film he understands that it is all borne out of an innate weakness. But the real deal here is the infinitely imaginative sequences rendered with a dollop of droll. It is one of the most beautiful and sensual things I saw this past year, and Cemal (Mr. Ali Atay) rolling along unassumingly, like Buster Keaton would, is the kind of image that makes you smile and like every time you think about it. I hear that Mr. Ünlü has refused to release his film theatrically. I don’t know his reasons, but it sure does make it the perfect antidote to the superhero win-against-the-odds franchises that are littered by the studios every year.   


13. Side Effects (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)
At the risk of sounding contrarian, I would wager that Side Effects is a craftier narration than Michael Haneke’s “this-is-not-cinema-this-is-life” Amour, where the first half completely lulls us into the weariness of a domestic drama only to perform a Hitchcockian about-turn. This is Soderbergh in superb form and at the command of his skills, several camera angles only sub-consciously suggesting Emily’s (Ms. Rooney Mara) charm. It could be interpreted that Mr. Soderbergh is operating in super-cynical mode, with Emily’s purity and vulnerability exploited to maximum effect, and where a single sideways shot of her casually sitting on the couch is probably the sexiest shot we might have had this past year. The thing is, Side Effects knows it, remembers it, and is intelligent enough to use it to realize its narrative. In a year where Jacques Kallis signed off with a century, and Sachin Tendulkar with something of a half-century, one might argue that it is Mr. Soderbergh who knocks us down with his one-two punch – this and Behind the Candelabra.  

12. Moebius (Dir: Kim Ki-Duk)
Do not kill the messenger here, but Mr. Ki-Duk seems having a dialogue on rape – a crime that is considered an absolute evil; a crime where the “otherification” occurs almost unanimously – and suggests that it might not be as much a crime that involves display of power and control, but one that is where the ego and the superego are overcome by the weakness of the id. It is a moment where the criminal, maybe more than the victim, finds himself helpless in the face of his instinct. He is neither condoning nor condemning, and instead proposes a world where penetration (the tool and the act of power) is reversed and instead is “suffered” by the criminal. There is a knife pierced into the shoulder of a man whose genital has been severed not too long ago, and yet he finds sexual comfort and pleasure by the same woman he raped when she slowly rotates that knife. There is such humanity to this whole context that it might be about time, especially after this and Pieta, that we stop dismissing Mr. Ki-Duk as merely a provocateur.  

11. Raanjhanaa (Dir: Aanand Rai)
We have something of a divisive narrative here, what with everybody either branding Zoya (Ms. Kapoor) as some kind of manipulative villain to taking offence to her being portrayed as some kind of manipulative villain. Mr. Rai in his turn never glorifies his protagonist Kundan (Dhanush), and his drama is built upon the essential wrong-headedness (read: loss of control) of first love. It is something of a tragedy for Kundan for he runs into Zoya even when he doesn’t want to, but it is even worse for her – he is like the ghost of the past on her back, snatching everything from her and not leaving her even in death. I think of Zoya, and I think of a painting drawn essentially in black, with a hunchbacked old woman carrying a body on her back. Forever. 

10. Captain Phillips (Dir: Paul Greengrass)
For about an hour, the narrative is all about a chase, of a Mersk vessel running from a tiny motor boat. It is like a mouse chasing a cat, or even a lion for that matter, and it all makes up for one of the most thrilling times at the movies this past year. And then, strangely and in hindsight inevitably, the film becomes a spectacle of scale. Hulky military vessels surrounding a little escape pod, the pace considerably slowed down, and the dynamic drastically changed. From a fistfight between a set of employees, it becomes a bullying session from one of the bosses, and Mr. Greengrass’ frame feels heavy with this weight. The weight of an employee feeling for his counterpart as his boss lays down on him. The narrative changes from one of movement to one of stasis, from a chase to a matter of inevitability, and from us v/s them to one of understanding. A case could be made that this is Mr. Greengrass’ most accomplished film.   

9. Shield of Straw (Dir: Takashi Miike)
The latest film from Mr. Miike poses an impossible moral experiment – a minor has been raped and killed by a psychopath, and the grandfather of the victim, who happens to be a billionaire, announces an award of 1 billion Yen as bounty to kill the guy. Shield of Straw is that rare film that not merely presents a what-if scenario but realizes it to its extreme, where social structures and dynamics crumble in the face of money, and yet Mr. Miike ensures, much like Mr. Nolan did with the boat experiment in The Dark Knight, the humanity of the situation is never lost. This is a far trickier situation than the Joker’s act though for it is not about survival but prosperity, and everyone in the frame is a potential suspect. The more the people, the higher the danger. The narrative here is relentless, never leaving any shed of doubt about the evil within the psychopath. And just to make, in the words of Pvt. Reiben, the math of the situation worse, people die. 

8. Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola (Dir: Vishal Bharadwaj)
Here is a filmmaker who understands the system, makes fun of it too, but has the heart to desire change. This is Mr. Bharadwaj free from the constraints of his Shakespearean escapades, working in a mish-mash of fairy-tale, slapstick and Maoist politics that is uniquely his. There’s great pleasure to be had when a filmmaker realizes his voice, and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is an absolute romp. It is hilarious and heart-warming, and full of unbridled energy. It is a cliché of a praise, I admit, but this is probably the most fun I had at the movies all year.


7. Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi (In Bloom) (Dir: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß)
Unlike the two one-note utterly worthless performances that won the Palme D’Or, fifteen year-old Mariam Bokeria and fourteen year-old Lika Babluani deliver arguably the two of the finest performances of this year. I know I am being something of a prick by bringing the Palme D’Or winner into discussion for no particular reason other than to compare and contrast (I tend to be one when I hate something), but inspite of Mr. Kechiche incessantly serving us close-ups for 179 min. it is the faces of these two girls here that provide for a tableaux of varying emotions, all not thrown up in a melodramatic hissy fit (again, like the Palme D’Or winner), but by using the tableaux for what it is – a layer to try and conceal (not reveal) inner turmoil – and the best of performances reflect the inability of this effort. There is a moment, as weighed down by emotion as Anna Karina’s dance in Vivre Sa View was free and joyous, where Eka (Ms. Babluani) dances in a single uninterrupted take of close to 5 minutes as the camera holds Natia (Ms. Bokeria) in background, and it is heart-wrenching. This is about a generation willing to fight finding its feet, and I hope I get to see more of these two little gems.   

6. Stranger by the Lake (Dir: Alain Guiraudie)
I used to think that I get David Cronenberg’s Crash, but I don’t. I don’t get death-drive, and I don’t understand fear driving/fuelling desire. Yet, merely as a documentary of desexualized bodies and desire as something of a ritualistic practice, Mr. Guiraudie’s film is one of the year’s major accomplishments. Cars park, bodies walk, clothes are removed, bodies lay down on the beach, shoes are removed, bodies swim, and then the bodies lay down again. Until they pick somebody to walk into the woods and have sex. Repeat. Realizing desire, it seems, is an exercise, and not the wild act we often imagine it to be. Mr. Guiraudie, in what’s a masterstroke, puts this discussion within the context of a gay-cruising area, and thus unlike Crash, where Ms. Holly Hunter and Ms. Deborah Unger did successfully distract us from the issue at hand, our attention and our gaze is secure. Nevertheless, Mr. Guiraudie has a dull pupil in me, and I shall come around to wrap my head around in due time.   

5. Jeune & Jolie (Young and Beautiful) (Dir: François Ozon)
The late Roger Ebert, in his essay on Belle De Jour, wrote – “For a woman like Severine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself.” Mr. Ozon seems to have made a film about these corridors and doors, and his young and beautiful Isabelle is not turned by the sex but the anticipation of it. It is the idea of boundaries being crossed that makes her present herself as a prostitute, and Mr. Ozon fills his film with innumerable doors, and the narrative with the question of her age (17). Often movies confuse sex with love. Especially in the case of women, where the latter becomes some kind of essential prerequisite. Isabelle, for a while, does that too. Until she doesn’t. That is where it becomes close to irresistible.     

4. Le Passe (Dir: Asghar Farhadi)
And once again, I do not intend to come across as a contrarian, but Mr. Farhadi’s is a significantly better piece of narration than A Separation (review here). There he cut through a highly anxious moment, essentially lying to us that all’s well, only to reveal that it is not. That kind of choice, in my book, is disrespectful of the cut. There’re no such issues here, in this tender tale of people wanting to be loved, of people wanting to be freed of their loneliness, each carving a small little circle around themselves. The narration is an exercise in peeling the layers, again asking us to be judge and jury, and again asking us to arrive at the moral truth of a situation where probably none exists.

3. The Lone Ranger (Dir: Gore Verbinski)
Unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean films that were bluntly anti-capitalist, and thus limited in their worth, The Lone Ranger seems to be shaping an argument rooted in the representation of history as a carnival, this representation caused both by and for capitalism, where events and people collide like the tracks the railroad company is building, and where history and myth are rendered interchangeable and even mutable. This sounds much like The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and Mr. Verbinski pays tribute to The General, amongst other things, providing for one hell of a train-chase. This is one of our best filmmakers at the top of his game, gleefully jumping tones, and vigorously mixing tragedy with slapstick. That it has been dismissed universally, for reasons beyond me, makes me a touch protective towards it.

2. The Grandmaster (Dir: Wong Kar Wai)
The way Mr. Kar Wai’s film deals with time is something of a refinement (ouch, this might come back to hurt me) the multi-decade-narrative of Goodfellas, dividing it into several epochs, epochs into events, and events into a series of moments. There’s little by way of continuity, i.e. an overarching narrative, other than the feeling of events and epochs unfolding along with the passage of time. This divorces narrative from time, hence freeing up the latter as a causative agent, and rendering the characters in the former as hermetically sealed within their own environments and ideologies and fights. That is until time punctures that seal, the world changes, and the events seem minor footnotes. This narrative style makes us feel the immediacy of the situation and then proceeds to diminish it, and thus it becomes at once a narrative of now and a narrative of memory. An epic blockbuster this is.

1. Upstream Color (Dir: Shane Carruth)
Mr. Carruth’s film views the world as a stream. We’re all connected by the matter that makes us, and this diaphysical view is what so clearly differentiates it from the aesthetic of a Terence Malick picture, to which the comparisons have been made. Mr. Malick is transcendental, believing in something external, and thus providing a sense of hope. Mr. Carruth, on the other hand, sees us and our lives dictated by the matter that binds us all. He presents anxiety as the result of this contradiction in our understanding of our world – as dictated by the demarcation between it and the boundaries of our body – when the materiality of our selves exists and operates from beyond our bodies. That is the tragedy, of us feeling in control or wanting to be in control when we’re actually not even aware of the limits of our selves. It is hard to believe that what we have here is only a second film from a director, for Mr. Carruth seems to be a born filmmaker with an innate grasp of not merely composition but editing. His narrative seems to exist between events, and Upstream Color, if not anything else, is a masterwork of montage, all its meaning created out of cross-cutting and association.      

So yes, the Grumbach goes to Mr. Carruth’s masterwork. And only two films old, we might have a master on our hand.

Men and women and pigs and birds, Applause!!!!!

Movies to be Watched:
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher), Jealousy (Philippe Garrel), The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh), Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan), Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers), A Spell to Ward of the Darkness (Ben Rivers, Ben Russell), Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry), Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, Aleksei German Jr.), Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (Myshkin)

Wish you all a lovely 2014.