Category: Indian Cinema

Action! – Jason Bourne vs. Superstar Rajni

JasonKabali

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.

Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman

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.

Vicky Kaushal as Raghav

Vicky Kaushal as Raghav

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.

Sobhita Dhulipala as Simmy

Sobhita Dhulipala as Simmy

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 (India 2014)

The accused, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidir, right) waits in the lower court in which he will be arraigned to appear in the Sessions Court.

The accused, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidir, right) waits in the lower court in which he will be arraigned to appear in the Sessions Court.

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.

Filming style

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. 

Courtroom scenes (and many outdoor scenes) are sometimes seen in long shot.

Courtroom scenes (and many outdoor scenes) are sometimes seen in long shot.

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 two lawyers: for the defence on the left Vinay (Vivek Gomber) and on the right for the prosecution (Geetanjali Kulkarni)

The two lawyers: for the defence on the left Vinay (Vivek Gomber) and on the right for the prosecution (Geetanjali Kulkarni)

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:

GFF16 #2: Guilty (Talvar, India 2015)

Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) examines a kukri. Could this be the murder weapon?

Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) examines a kukri. Could this be the murder weapon?

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.)

Nutan Tandon – the mother of the murdered girl – played by Konkona Sen Sharma

Nutan Tandon – the mother of the murdered girl – played by Konkona Sen Sharma

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.

Charlie (India 2015, Malayalam)

Charlie (Duluar Salmaan) and Tessa (Parvathy) finally meet.

Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan) and Tessa (Parvathy) finally meet

Charlie has been designated a ‘superhit’ by Indian commentators – an indication that its reception by audiences and critics should lead to success after its launch on Christmas Eve in Kerala and January 8th in the UK. That sounds an obvious point to make but the Indian convention of designating films in this way is unusual and not necessarily based on ‘real’ box office figures. I can only give a limited response since, despite assurances by the distributor, the film was not subtitled at Cineworld in Bradford. Fortunately, the outline narrative is straightforward. ‘Tessa’ (Pravathy) is a young graphic designer who arrives home for her brother’s engagement party to discover her mother plotting to arrange her daughter’s (i.e. her) marriage. Tessa escapes to Kochi (Cochin) where she finds a flat in an old house. It is filled with an amazing array of art objects and clutter and eventually Tessa finds a draft of a graphic novel (pictures only) which seems to tell the story of a magical ‘do gooder’ character. We see the ‘real’ events featuring ‘Charlie’ (Dulquer Salmaan) as Tessa reads the draft. Tessa will then seek out Charlie, not finding him until the end of the narrative, but having learned to love him through the stories that she discovers from the other people whose lives have been affected by Charlie.

Without the dialogue, there is always the music and action to enjoy, the local ‘colour’ and beautiful landscapes and in this instance the costumes – bohemian and hippie, drawing on the Malabar Coast’s tourist history perhaps. Kerala is certainly in my top 3 most beautiful places in the world and the film spends plenty of time in Kochi’s ‘old town’ and then up in the mountains in Munnar (with the tea plantations). I understand that some of the scenes on the sands were shot in Gujarat. The narrative is also careful to honour the three religions of the state so there are scenes with Christian, Muslim and Hindu festivals. The film is suffused with ‘magical’ elements. Charlie performs magic tricks and CGI features heavily in some of the music scenes. But there are also terrific scenes shot to capture the crowds, especially in the closing festival sequence in which, as the title at the beginning of the film informed us, “no elephants were harmed”. The song clip below accompanies a montage in which Parvathy’s character begins to enjoy the strange room she has rented.

I can’t comment on the romance (or the numerous sub-plots) without some knowledge of the dialogue, but I enjoyed all the performances. It was good to see Dulquer Salmaan again after OK Kanmani and Parvathy was equally impressive. She is another Southern actor who is more ‘real’ (i.e. less fantasy) than many Bollywood stars. Her personality shines through. Again, unlike some Bollywood films, Charlie takes place in a recognisable India. However, the narrative does focus on some of the more touristy spots in Kerala – which has its big, modern cities just like other leading states. Although definitely a romance, the film does include some fight scenes and dramatic moments – not everything Charlie does has a positive outcome, even if his intentions are good. For a more informed view of the film, look at this English language review from Australia. The blogger either knows Malayalam or she has actually seen the subtitled version.

At Bradford Cineworld last night you could choose between 2 Hindi films, 2 Malayalam films and one Pakistani film in Urdu. Often there is a Tamil film too (it was Pongal last weekend and several Tamil films were released in the UK). We have a local Malayali community in the Bradford district and they occupied the back rows of the cinema (I was on my own nearer the screen). The Malayalam screenings are a relatively recent development in Bradford cinemas, I think. I had a similar experience with How Old Are You? in 2014 but that was a different distributor – and a different kind of film. The website of PJ Entertainments, distributors of Charlie, seems to suggest that they were active in the UK from 2010 until 2014 but returned in January 2016 with a new slate of releases. They need to sort out their operation quickly. When I asked why the film wasn’t subtitled (the film’s credits even list the person responsible for the English subtitles) the Cineworld duty manager said that they had received the ‘hard drive’ but no subtitle track. I didn’t mention that the projected film had also suffered from vertical thin blue lines running through many scenes – a fault in the DCP I assume. It’s great that distributors release films for diaspora audiences, but they could do much more to attract other audiences and getting subtitling sorted out would certainly help. I won’t be put off. I did enjoy Charlie and I’ll look out for other titles that sound attractive – but having to check with the distributor and the cinema first is a drag. As a personal preference, I rate South Indian films highly and I’d like to see them competing with mainstream Hindi films in the UK. For most of the cinephiles I know, South India with four prolific film industries remains almost unknown and that’s a shame. Charlie director Martin Prakkat has a couple of earlier films that sound interesting.

Here’s the trailer for Charlie:

Bajirao Mastani (India 2015, Hindi)

Mastani (Deepika Padukone) and Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) in the foreground, Kashibai (Proyinka Chopra) looks on.

Mastani (Deepika Padukone) and Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) in the foreground, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) looks on.

Bajirao Mastani is currently racking up admissions worldwide. I was drawn to it for two reasons. It stars Deepika Padukone and there have been (unsuccessful) attempts by activists to censor it in some way. The latter is not unusual but in this case seemed to revolve around communalist politics. I enjoyed Bajirao Mastani but I’m glad I read up a little on the history of the Maratha Empire in the 18th century before the screening and I admit that my experience of Hindi historical films is limited, so I probably missed some meanings as well as the cultural import of the music and dancing.

Bajirao (played by Ranveer Singh) was at 19 the eldest son of his family on the death of his father, the peshwa or prime minister of the Maratha Empire in 1720. He proved himself to the court and replaced his father, becoming a successful warrior who took on the Mughals and their governors (such as the Nizam of Hyderabad) to the North, South and East in order to expand the Maratha territory from what is now Marahashtra across much of Northern, Western and Central India. The empire reached its greatest extent towards the end of his son’s leadership in 1758. A few years later its power was challenged by the British. Director and co-writer Sanjay Leela Bhansali begins his film by acknowledging help from historians but but also offering a disclaimer stating that he is not claiming historical accuracy as the basis for his story. What this means is that some military actions have been ‘moved’ chronologically and that others (the majority) have simply been ignored so that what begins with the suggestion/promise of an action picture becomes a palace-bound romance and melodrama of intrigue and plotting. The crucial decision is to focus on Bajirao’s relationship with Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of the ruler of Bundelkand in North Central India after he was freed from the threat of Mughal occupation by Maratha armies. The historical Mastani sounds like the ultimate fantasy Hindi cinema heroine – a trained court dancer also adept as a horsewoman and educated in arts and literature. Deepika Padukone makes a brave stab at convincing us that she can do all these things. It seems likely that Mastani was the daughter of a Rajput father and a Persian dancer and therefore brought up to respect both Hinduism and Islam. This did not go down well with Bajirao’s family. Nor did the fact that Bajirao was already married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). In several ways, the most powerful character is Bajirao’s mother who orchestrates the systematic exclusion of Mastani within Bajirao’s household.

Kashibai and her husband Bajirao.

Kashibai and her husband Bajirao.

Watching the film I was reminded of two Zhang Yimou films. The classic melodrama Raise the Red Lantern (HK/Taiwan/China 1991) sees Gong Li as the youngest concubine in the household of a warlord in the 1920s attempting to survive and prosper as the ‘fourth mistress’. In Curse of the Golden Flower (HK/China 2006), Gong Li is this time the Empress who is being poisoned by her husband and who plots to take power herself with the aid of her son. I mention these two films because I think that there needs to be more attention to the links between Indian and Chinese cinemas and I think it helps to understand how narrative ideas develop. I’m not suggesting that Bhansali consciously used Yimou’s films but perhaps he responded to similar cultural mores in the households of Asian ruling families. Bhansali’s decision to spend more time on palace intrigue and less on military manoeuvres is important. Whether the balance between the romance and the drama works is open to debate. Some audiences have complained that the romance is not allowed to develop fully. For me, the strength of the film is the presentation of Kashibai who maintains her love for Bajirao and who brings herself to support Mastani as best she can because of that love for her husband – and because it is the right thing to do? This is contrasted with the actions of her mother-in-law Radhabai who faces the same dilemma but is more wedded to the survival of the family.

The moment of 'truce' when Mastani accepts Kashibai's gift of a costume and joins her for a festival dance. The daughter of the Muslim court dancer joins her rival the Maratha warrior's Hindu wife.

The moment of ‘truce’ when Mastani accepts Kashibai’s gift of a costume and joins her for a festival dance. The daughter of the Muslim court dancer joins her rival the Maratha warrior’s Hindu wife. (I hope I have understood the significance of this move.)

The controversy surrounding the film seems to derive from attempts by activists to try to ‘own’ the historical story in terms of what it suggests about the Hindu and Muslim figures in the story. Hindu activists argue that Bajirao led his armies in a campaign to win India back from the Mughal invaders and to establish/re-establish a Hindu state. The film narrative shows Bajirao devoted to his Muslim lover and to their son and Bhansali provides dialogues in which he argues for love ahead of religion – the narrative clearly sides with Mastani in her internal exile rather than the family’s aversion to admitting a Muslim. Bhansali does seem to be addressing contemporary issues (so Mastani has a speech in which she refutes the easy identification of saffron and green as the colours of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’). If I understand Indian history correctly, all of the armies of the imperial powers included Hindus and Muslims – and no doubt other religions and other nationalities. Most territorial wars do.

Whatever audiences make of the romance or the intrigue, or indeed of the music and choreography, most of them will enjoy the production design of this film which seems to meld ‘real’ locations, studio sets and CGI very well. For older audiences there will be a real frisson created by some of the scenes in the ‘hall of mirrors’ that surely must be an hommage to Mughal-e-Azam from 1960. I also thought one of the night-time outdoor dances was designed to invoke the earlier film as well. I can’t comment on the actors’ handling of the dialogue but in terms of their movement and use of their bodies, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh are very impressive. Overall, I’m not surprised that this film has become a major hit across Indian diaspora territories. It’s worth noting too that amidst all the discussion of roles for women in Hollywood films, this film features three roles for women out of the four leads in the narrative.

Here’s the official trailer (with subtitles):

Crow’s Egg (Kaakkaa Muttai, India 2014, Tamil)

The family watch the new TV sets

The family watch the new TV sets

One of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently, Crow’s Egg turns out to be a notable début for writer-director-cinematographer Manikandan. Based on the brief blurb in the Leeds Film Festival brochure, I’d thought this might be a children’s film or a kind of social realist drama. But it’s an interesting hybrid drawing upon several different models in order to present something new. At the film’s centre is a simple narrative idea that might come from neo-realism. Two young brothers live with their mother and grandmother in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. Their father is in prison and the money that should pay for their schooling goes on fees for the incompetent lawyer who has so failed to even get him out on bail (we don’t know what the father has done). The boys contribute to the household income by collecting the coal that falls from the coal trains rattling into the city.

The boys play on a piece of spare land where they ‘harvest’ crows’ eggs from the trees to supplement their diet, hence their nicknames ‘Big’ and ‘Little Crow’s Egg’. When the land is re-developed and an outlet of a pizza chain is opened, the two boys have a new aim – to eat pizza like the people in the adverts on the TV screens (the family appears to be given two TV sets by the state government as part of some new scheme). A single pizza costs 30 times what the boys might earn in a day and so a quest to earn money by any means begins.

If this plot outline suggests a feelgood conventional Hollywood quest narrative, it’s certainly true that the film takes something from the success of Slumdog Millionaire – and it is important that the production was backed by Fox Star studios, the Indian subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, the distributor of Danny Boyle’s film. However, this isn’t an attempt to replicate Boyle and Dod Mantle’s frenetic style. Instead, Crow’s Egg sometimes draws on more realist depictions of slum life such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay as well as recent ‘Hindie’ (i.e. Hindi independent) films and aspects of popular Tamil cinema. The music score by G.V. Prakash Kumar and editing by Kishore Te combine in several montage sequences which accelerate the narrative – sometimes by using slow motion as well as conventional montage editing. A little digging reveals that this is the fifth Tamil film from Fox Star to receive a positive response and the relatively high profile of the film in India partly depends on its co-producer, Tamil superstar actor Dhanush.

The local boys waiting to ambush a train. The stick is used to knock the mobile phones out of the hands of passengers sat by open doorways.

The local boys waiting to ambush a train. The stick is used to knock the mobile phones out of the hands of passengers sat by open doorways.

I can’t quite remember the point in the film when I realised that the script was constructing a many-layered satire on contemporary India but I’d be happy to watch the film again to study how the narrative works. The commercialisation of Indian food habits, corruption in policing and local government, TV reporting, healthy eating, the rum shop and drunkenness, inequalities in income, housing policies and land control etc. are all woven into the central story, often in quite ingenious ways. The crucial scene is perhaps the one where the boys’ grandmother sends them to local stalls to buy the ingredients for a pizza topping (onions, peppers, chillies etc.) and proceeds to cook a dosa (a South Indian lentil and rice flour pancake) that resembles the pizza on an advertising flyer the boys have picked up. This little scene encapsulates everything that the satire strives to capture. It does make you wonder why the dosa – in my view the healthiest and tastiest food imaginable – isn’t as widespread as the globalised pizza.

Crow’s Egg has been around the festival circuit for a year or so now. Its appeal is partly down to the engaging performances of the two leads, Ramesh and Vignesh. The older couples sitting near me in the audience, clearly not cinephiles, applauded the film at the end and seemed to have a very good time. A distributor with a little patience and imagination ought to be able to make this film work on screens in Europe and North America as well as Asia. It doesn’t have the stars and arthouse flourishes of The Lunchbox but it’s just as entertaining.

Piku (India 2015, Hindi)

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.

The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.

The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.

Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?

It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.