Last week, more or less by accident, I attended back-to-back screenings of India’s top box office film, Kabali (India 2016) and Hollywood’s latest revamp of the Bourne franchise, simply titled Jason Bourne (US 2016). I’d wanted to see Kabali but Jason Bourne was an ‘impulse watch’, mainly on the grounds that Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel are two of my favourite stars. I’d seen two of the previous Bourne films and three recent Rajnikanth spectaculars. The result of this current contest between the action champions of the US and India was, for this viewer, an away win for Superstar Rajni.
Let me deal with Jason Bourne first. The return of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, this time with his regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who first came to international attention as Ken Loach’s cinematographer), gave hope to fans of an action film par excellence. Vikander’s casting and that of Cassel matched earlier European casting choices. They were joined by Riz Ahmed in a Steve Jobs type role and the whole package had a very European flavour for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, the script was left to Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse and they proved to not be up to the job. In truth, Jason Bourne is four separate action sequences somewhat loosely tied together by the familiar plotline of Damon’s character Bourne trying to find out what his own father did that started this whole chase scenario in which he is pursued by corrupt CIA officials. The novelty is that this time he might expedite a further release of Edward Snowden type secret materials – and in doing so create further problems for the CIA in its link to the surveillance potential of the Riz Ahmed’s character’s new software developments.
In the first major action sequence, Bourne is on the streets of Athens during anti-austerity riots. He’s meeting his ex-CIA ‘insider’ partner played by Julia Stiles. Bourne is in ‘drab’ but she has long flowing blonde hair – easily visible to the satellite cameras of the CIA back in Washington where Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander can track the couple’s every move and release ‘The Asset’ – the assassin played by Vincent Cassel. We never learn what the Greek riot was about (are audiences expected to know the details of Greece’s economic and political problems?), but various Greek bystanders are killed in the mayhem and the action moves to Berlin where Bourne and his local contact make similarly stupid mistakes. After that it is London and then finally Las Vegas. In each case, the main confrontation is between Cassel and Damon with the CIA mission being compromised by Vikander’s realisation that something may be amiss in what they are doing – or perhaps she has her own ulterior motives?
The action is indeed spectacular but by the fourth sequence it starts to get boring, though I perked up and genuinely laughed when a Police SWAT vehicle crashes into a Las Vegas temple to the fruit machine. In technical terms, the film is very efficiently made, but the script is full of holes. Bourne has no personality and I wanted the Cassel character, who unfortunately has no redeeming features, to end up with Vikander. Perhaps the oddest aspect of Jason Bourne is the BBFC entry on the film which shows a 12A Certificate and suggests that there is ‘moderate violence’. So, children can’t be harmed by multiple deaths by sniper bullets or beatings in which people are repeatedly hit to a sickening soundtrack. But there are no sexual encounters or drugs so children won’t be affected. The hypocrisy is staggering.
Kabali is, by comparison a lot less slick and at times quite slowly-paced, but it wins because of warmth and wit, because it is actually ‘about’ something and because it has Rajnikanth, genuinely a superstar, mainly in South India, but also in parts of the world with a Tamil diaspora and other surprising places such as Japan. Rajnikanth is now billed as ‘Superstar’ in his film’s credits. Now 66 he has appeared in some 200 films since 1975. His superstar status depends on his affinity with the ‘common man’ in the crowd (I’m not sure about his appeal to the ‘common woman’). Whatever trouble he is in, Rajni’s character will emerge and live to fight another day, mainly because of his lightning reflexes. Kabali reminded me of one of Rajni’s earlier successes as a gang leader in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (India 1991). In the new film we meet Rajni as a man who has served 25 years in a Malaysian prison for a crime he feels he was not responsible for – and which was associated with the death of his pregnant wife. He is met at the prison gates by followers who have been waiting patiently for him – and building a school in his honour to train young Tamils in Malaysia who have ‘failed’ or lacked opportunities. But Rajni (Kabali) is a gang leader, albeit one with principles and political ambitions. Flashbacks reveal how he began as the leader of Tamil workers on rubber plantations in Malaysia, striking for better conditions. His enemies are other Tamil gangsters who resent his leadership and reject his political aims and Chinese gangsters led by Peter Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao).
In some ways Kabali is a melodrama. Kabali is ruthless when he first emerges from prison, immediately taking down some of his Tamil enemies. But he is soon distracted by memories of his wife and begins to follow up clues to what really happened 25 years ago. Flashbacks take us into a family melodrama in which we learn of miraculous recoveries. Kabali still has a wife, but he will need to travel to the ex-French colony of Pondicherry to find her. He also has a daughter who emerges in true melodrama fashion – and he has surrogate sons from the school founded in his honour. But all this family business means that Kabali’s enemies have time to organise and the film’s finale will prove whether Kabali can still be a boss in Kuala Lumpur – which offers a cityscape of tall buildings to match any American setting. As one Hindi/Bollywood critic writes, this is indeed a ‘Southern pot-boiler’ but the emotion got to me. Rajni himself remains eminently watchable. He is now playing close to his age and the wig works very well – he looks cool and stylish as a don in his sixties. He dominates the frame and speaks commandingly and he can still use a gun and make his moves.
The release of Kabali in India has been a media event in itself – even outside the South. Kabali‘s producers claimed the biggest ever opening box office for an Indian film. Box office figures in India are always dubious and especially so in Tamil Nadu. Nevertheless the film has attracted huge crowds in the South and has been dubbed into Hindi, Telugu and Malay (where several scenes have been censored) and probably other languages too. In North America, the UK and Australia we are able to see the Tamil original with English subs. One of the most interesting Hindi/Bollywood reviews of the film suggests that Hindi dubbing is very poor for Kabali and that it loses not only Rajni’s great delivery, but also the political subtext of Tamil identity in colonial and post-colonial Malayan history. (Malaysia and Singapore with their significant Tamil diaspora communities are key audiences for Rajni films.) Another article commenting on Rajni’s status as superstar claims that no film script can contain him any more and that the his films will always fail for fans who have enormous expectations. (Rajni fans treat the star like a deity, making offerings to giant cardboard cut-outs of their hero and watching the films multiple times. His fans outside Tamil Nadu will fly in and purchase tickets at inflated prices to see their hero.)
Kabali is directed by Pa. Rajnith, one of the younger feted directors of Tamil cinema. Having not seen his first two films, I’m not sure how Kabali stands up to them. He seems to do an OK job and it’s good that Superstar Rajni can work with the new generation. But surely he can’t go on playing the same kinds of roles much longer? He can certainly act and it would be good to see him take on something new – perhaps something with less action and more politics. But I doubt his enormous fanbase would agree. One thing you can say about Rajni and Kabali is that apart from the Godfather references that helped to build Superstar Rajni’s persona, Hollywood has so far not produced anything to compete with him directly.
There were just the two of us in Screen 15 of Bradford Cineworld for a lunchtime screening of Raman Raghav 2.0, the latest from Anurag Kashyap, the doyen of the ‘new’ Indian Cinema. But then, a release during Ramadan in Bradford is always going to be tricky. When the trailers for upcoming Bollywood and Punjabi blockbusters had finished my companion remarked: “I see that Indian cinema makes crap movies too.” I assured him that an Anurag Kashyap film was a different proposition – but then remembered that Kashyap’s earlier film, the 1960s noir with a starry cast Bombay Velvet (2015), which I didn’t see, had been an expensive flop at the Indian box office. But I needn’t have worried. Kashyap’s new film, for the ‘directors’ company’ Phantom Films (Kashyap is one of four partners along with director Vikramaditya Motwane) approaches some similar material with a much more realistic budget (around US$600,000). This time the film is being distributed by the major Indian company Reliance which has taken a 50% stake in Phantom Films. Again this raises questions about Kashyap’s ‘independent’ status, but the film looks and feels like an ‘Indian Independent’ film.
Raman Raghav was a serial killer who murdered 41 people, mainly ‘street-dwellers’, in Bombay in the 1960s. We are told this in the opening titles for Raman Raghav 2.0 – but then told that: “This film is not about that case.” Instead, Kashyap has constructed a modern-day story about a Mumbai killer which uses some of the ‘real life’ 1960s story elements. Bombay Velvet was so expensive partly because it sought to recreate Bombay settings from the 1960s. In the new film Kashyap restricts himself to a limited number of locations, several using specific run-down or abandoned areas in the conurbation. The camerawork by Jay Oza (who IMDB lists as coming from a TV background) uses shallow focus on several shots allowing Kashyap to stylise scenes and make more of his limited range of locations. Kashyap also reduces costs by sticking to a relatively small number of characters and, apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, actors with limited exposure.
Siddiqui has become a major figure in independent cinema following his roles in earlier films directed or produced by Kashyap and he is mesmerising in this new film, ‘holding’ the screen with his portrayal of the killer Raman. This character displays what might be typical traits of working-class Indian characters – an obsequiousness towards police interrogators masking a terrifying hardness beneath which we eventually recognise the cold calculating mind. The narrative includes several sequences where Raman has either given himself up or been arrested but for various reasons the police interrogation fails to uncover/comprehend/accept what has happened. With little more than a few props (a facial scar, requests for cigarettes) Siddiqui takes control. The police officer in charge of the investigation is Ragav, played by Vicky Kaushal, a handsome young actor who also appeared in Bombay Velvet. Here he spends much of the time with a beard and dark glasses, shielding himself and his drugs habit from his colleagues. As his character’s name suggests, Kashyap and co-scriptwriter Vasan Bala have turned the hunt for a serial killer into a psychological thriller in which ‘Raman Raghav’ has become ‘Raman and Raghav’. This takes us into a discussion of references, sources, influences.
The narrative is divided into chapters with titles that refer to either a character or a distinct narrative action. The Sister, the Hunter, the Hunted etc. are offered as chapter titles in presentation which resembles street signage – like white chalk on a black background or whitewash used for grocer’s display boards. For some critics this has recalled Tarantino, but it is also a nod towards classical storytelling of different kinds. The presentation of the titles reminded me of Se7en and Siddiqui does have the same kind of presence as Kevin Spacey. The Se7en parallels can be traced further but for me the Hollywood influence seemed to be Hitchcockian, especially around that idea that the investigator is locked into a relationship with the criminal. The detective may be becoming like the killer and that the killer is able to control the detective because of his weaknesses. The classic Highsmith/Hitchcock Strangers On a Train comes to mind as well as the ambiguous hero/investigators of Rear Window and Marnie. However, I stopped thinking about Hollywood during one interrogation scene in which Raman seemed to refer to the Ramayana. I’m grateful to the New Indian Express review by Aditya Shrikrishna which provides the way in to the analysis I was struggling to make. Shrikrishna actually begins by linking Raman Raghav 2.0 to Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan/Raavan (2010). Ratnam’s Tamil and Hindi versions of the same script met with a similar rush of uncomprehending social media comments which failed to grapple with what was a much clearer take on the Ramayana myth with contemporary characters in a contemporary setting. Now Kashyap might be suffering in the same way – with a genre film that offers much more than the thrills and chills, sex and violence offered by the mainstream.
If, like me, you have only a sketchy notion of what the Ramayana is about, it involves Rama and his wife Sita in an epic story that at one point involves Rama in a battle with Ravana in which Sita is threatened. Kashyap’s script is an inverse of this so that Sita, in the form of Simmy (former Miss India 2013, Sobhita Dhulipala), is the girlfriend of Raghav and a potential target for Raman. Shrikrishna in the New India Express review reads one scene in the film between Raghav and Simmy in an illuminating way and it occurs to me that two of the best sequences in the film are those in which Raman visits his sister Lakshmi who he hasn’t seen for years and the bedroom scene described by Shrikrishna. Dhulipala and Amruta Subhash, who plays Lakshmi, both do very well in difficult parts.
I’ve seen one review which describes the film as ‘vile’ and others that describe the women as ‘submissive/passive’ and criticise the lack of background given to the characters. I’m not sure the latter criticism is important in this kind of story which has no claim to realism or sociological treatise. It uses banal genre conventions but it is delving into dark questions about corruption. The scene in the sister’s apartment is genuinely terrifying but most of the time the actual killings are not shown. Instead we hear the sound of a heavy wheel wrench being dragged along the pavement and then the horrible sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Hitchcock again? The film does have a soundtrack of techno music with some very strange lyrics at times. I would need at least one more viewing to say more about the music and overall sound design. I would tend to agree with Shrikrishna again in thinking that Kashyap’s quickly shot low-budget film has all the benefits of vitality – but perhaps it is sometimes just too clever? There was one moment in a chase sequence when I groaned out loud at one over familiar trick. Perhaps it was a joke. Even so, I would very much recommend Raman Raghav 2.0. Along with Suburra which I saw the next day, it helped me to find genre films with enough intelligence to restore my faith in popular cinema.
This is quite a useful trailer demonstrating some of the points made above. It refers to the film’s appearance at Cannes 2016 – Kashyap has found this useful in developing an international profile:
Court is a singular film and one of the most interesting and, despite being disturbing in its exposure of injustice, most enjoyable films released in the UK in 2016. It has been a prizewinner at festivals around the world and in 2015 was selected as best film in the Indian National Film Awards. Released by the independent distributor ‘day for night’ you can trace its journey across the UK on the company website. If you are in the UK there are still a couple of dates left on its tour. Don’t miss it! Court was released in North America in 2015 by Zeitgeist Films and is now on iTunes in the US.
Court is the first feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane. It’s an impressive production that is the result of meticulous research and preparation. Tamhane takes aim at the Indian judicial system, but also exposes issues of social class and caste. There are many Indian films that feature court scenes but these are usually high profile cases and the court procedures are only seen for a short time. No One Killed Jessica (India 2011) and Guilty (Talvar, 2015) are two recent films that have explored high-profile cases with the attendant interest of the Indian media. After lengthy research and observation of a local court, Tamhane decided to base his story on what happens in a ‘Sessions Court’ in a Mumbai district where cases are usually mundane with little interest by the media. As the name implies, these courts should deal with criminal matters within a single session, but in practice the use of adjournments and the culture of Indian bureaucracy means that cases can drag on for several months or even years while the accused is detained on remand – unless bail can be agreed and surety found. Tamhane wrote a detailed script based on his research but what transpires on screen appears as though it is part of a documentary.
The approach adopted by Tamhane and his crew is very simple – and thus unconventional. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai (who worked second unit on Slumdog Millionaire – a very different kind of film) ‘simply’ plonks down his camera and films in long takes (and often framing in long shot) from that position. It seems simple but requires careful choreography of actors and well-chosen positions from which to view the action. It perhaps sounds dull and although the film is in ‘Scope with vibrant colours, there aren’t many exciting vistas of Mumbai. Yet it works and more than that it works well. The film opens by following a character from an informal schoolroom in a housing block across the city to a square in another suburb. The character turns out to be a performer who climbs onto a makeshift stage and launches into a song/performance poem with lyrics that encourage protest and resistance. During the performance the camera first moves in to frame just the performance itself and then pulls back and, just like the classic scenes in a Rossellini neorealist film like Rome, Open City (Italy 1945), we watch in alarm as police enter the square with officers carefully positioned in the crowd while their leader strides onto the stage and arrests the performer. He is Narayan Kamble, the accused man whose trial we are about to witness.
The same camera style is employed throughout and often it is highly effective in creating that sense of realism often termed the ‘reality effect’. The fixed camera means that we are invited to watch everything that is happening without the framing ‘directing’ us to look specifically at the characters in the central narrative. The camerawork is accompanied by an editing style that works in two ways. Sometimes scenes end quite abruptly and the story seems to leap forward to the next scene. On other occasions the camera continues to film when the characters in the main story have left the scene and sometimes the sequence begins before the characters appear. This means in court that we see the tail-end of one case and the beginning of others. The overall effect is to confirm that what we are following in the main story is just one element in the daily life of the city.
Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Some are friends or colleagues of the director. Although the courtrooms look like the ‘real thing’ filming is not allowed inside them so Tamhane built sets – you aren’t likely to notice. The film’s story appears to have been based on a specific real life case, but there are many similar cases.
Finding the human story
A key aspect of the film is the focus on each of the central players (except the accused) – and their lives outside the court. We follow the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers. The object of this is not so much to drive the narrative forward as to fill in the social context of the trial. All of the central characters are ‘real people’ outside the court with the kinds of problems that everyone has. Crucially the three characters represent different social strata.
The crime at the centre of the court case is frankly ludicrous and the prosecution is based on an obscure and obsolete Victorian criminal code. The purpose of the legal action is to persecute social activists – the kind of community music/poetry activism depicted is real enough and is explored in the recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) by Anand Patwardhan which focuses on activism in Dalit communities (i.e. the lowest caste groups). Tamhane decides not to tell us about Narayan Kamble himself – apart from what is revealed in the court exchanges. The object is to expose the injustices and bureaucratic incompetencies of the court system. The ‘humanity’ of the film comes partly through the almost surreal humour that underpins certain scenes. Tamhane does not directly undermine any of his characters. Instead he invites the audience to come to their own conclusions (though he does decide what to show as well as how to show it).
The importance of language
The film uses four languages. The official languages of the court are Hindi and English. However, the working-class Mumbai communities use the local language Marathi (which, incidentally, has quite a strong local/regional film culture) which is allowed in court. The defence lawyer is a middle-class, upper caste man who takes the case much like a pro bono lawyer in North America. At home he speaks Gujarati with his family, but in court he speaks English – and is seemingly at a disadvantage with important defence witnesses who speak only Marathi. He speaks the local language but not fluently. Sometimes, characters use phrases from different languages in the same sentence – a common feature of Indian cinema. Do the judge and the prosecution counsel have an advantage in speaking three languages in court? Mumbai attracts migrants from across India so in some cases witnesses may not speak any of the three languages of the ‘Bombay’ court (as it is still officially known). The court system is clearly out of date and needs reform. The language question suggests that one of its chief problems is the lack of equal access to quite literally ‘speak’ in court.
The language of the judicial system is English and the archaic laws were introduced under the British Raj. They are now being used by Narendra Modi’s government to curtail the actions of political activists in much the same way the British curtailed political activity in the early 20th century. The three legal figures in court are all in one sense ‘middle-class’ which is a difficult concept in Indian society and in practice they live very different lives. The defence lawyer inhabits a global world of delicatessens and Western music bars with an income boosted by family wealth. The judge is part of a clubbable local community with its outings and social events. The prosecution lawyer has perhaps the most difficult job in managing both a professional life and her family – but this in turn perhaps makes her harder on the people she prosecutes. In the UK she might be a lower middle-class Tory, especially hard on working-class activists.
Court, in its quiet way, dissects and exposes the workings of contemporary India. It’s essential viewing.
The filmmakers discuss how the film came into being:
Here’s a good example of the new form of Indian cinema the (H)indie or ‘New Bollywood’ film. Talvar boasts two of the stars of crossover films in India in lead roles and a third in a cameo role. Irrfan Khan is now one of the best-known Indian stars worldwide after appearances in global blockbusters like The Life of Pi and Jurassic World, as well as both Indian independent and mainstream Bollywood films. Konkona Sen Sharma is known for Bengali films, Bollywood films and the independent films of her mother Aparna Sen. Tabu starred opposite Irrfan Khan in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) and a host of other independent films as well as Bollywood films. Here she has a small role as the wife who Irrfan’s character is divorcing. The film is a directed by Meghna Gulzar with script and music from Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014). Each of the three stars have worked with Bhardwaj before (Tabu and Irrfan Khan play the modern-day Macbeths in Maqbool) and Talvar appears as the production of friends who just happen to be Indian cinema aristocrats. I thought at first that this was a real ‘independent production’ because none of the major Indian (or Hollywood) media corporations was involved. Then I discovered that Junglee Films is actually the new ‘movie arm’ of the Times of India Group – which describes itself as “India’s biggest media corporation”, owning mainly print and broadcasting brands. This makes it surprising that the film has not so far been released in the UK and Junglee Films seeks to make films for ‘the diaspora market’ as well as the Indian film market. (See press notes.)
Talvar is what used to be known in Hollywood as a “torn from the headlines film”. In fact it is the fourth attempt to create a narrative inspired by a double murder case in Northern India in 2008. (See this Wikipedia page.) The story involves a dentist’s household in a ‘colony’ in the city of Noida – a modern planned city in the ‘Capital City Region’ of Delhi, known for its wealthy residents. When the cleaner comes in the early morning she finds the door locked and when she gets in she is faced with the distressed parents Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma) who have seemingly just discovered the body of their 14 year-old daughter lying on her bed with her throat cut. The police are called and an investigation begins – but it is not until some time later that a second body, the male household servant, is found on the roof terrace. The film then proceeds with what is often now referred to as a ‘Rashomon approach’ following Kurosawa Akira’s famous film in which the same incident is viewed from the several different perspectives of the characters involved.
The first investigation by the Uttar Pradesh Police is clumsy with evidence not collected, lost or damaged and a second investigation is ordered by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This team is led by Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Kahn) a brilliant detective with some odd habits. His investigation offers a different suggestion as to who is guilty but he is then taken off the case and a second CBI team with another rather odd detective takes over and produces a third version of what actually happened. Finally, the new CBI Chief tries to make sense of what the three investigations have achieved before a judge takes over and prosecutes the parents.
The film is 132 minutes long – about standard for a Hollywood procedural with a similar plot. I did notice a point in the narrative where an ‘Intermission’ might have been placed for the Indian release. The film does use songs, but in the Western mode such as playing over a montage and not in the Bollywood manner, effectively pausing and reflecting on the narrative with choreographed dance moves. The film also has more of a sense of an ensemble cast, so that the stars are not constantly on screen. The question is whether Irrfan Khan’s star status (and undoubted on-screen charisma) means that we believe his character’s version of the events of the murder more than we do the others. This is important because the audience (in India at least) knows that the parents are in prison.
It isn’t difficult to see why the film has created so much interest in India. As well as the intriguing puzzle of a version of the old ‘locked room’ murder case, the film offers a form of commentary on several aspects of contemporary Indian society. The Indian police have a very bad reputation for brutal treatment of suspects, the senior officers and government officials are depicted as covering for each other as part of a club culture and the perennial question of Indian bureaucracy comes up in relation to evidence. A more specific discourse here deals with a Nepalese migrant community in North India where suspicion of minorities from the North and East appears rife (the dead house servant is Nepalese). And in all of this the divorce of Ashwin and Reema (Irrfan Khan and Tabu) seems particularly poignant. I have seen stories which involve campaigns to investigate murders and seek redress and I’ve seen films which depict legal procedures in India but I don’t think I’ve seen a detailed police procedural before and not one that involves family relationships in this way. The media coverage/intrusion seems almost lost in the midst of everything else. It’s almost as if there is too much to fit in and I would like to see the film again to fully understand how it works. I’m sure, however, that this is a very important film and I hope a UK distributor decides to pick it up.