Category: Indian Cinema

The Incessant Fear of Rape (Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal, India Hindi 2019)

In 2012 a young woman was gang-raped while travelling on a private bus in Delhi and her friend was beaten. All the six men on the bus, including the driver were involved in the rape and beatings. The incident and the trial that followed created a media storm in India and internationally. The Incessant Fear of Rape is the second film from the team that made Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017), a film which was much admired when it was shown at festivals in the UK in 2018. It dealt with sex workers who set up a female co-operative as a protection against abuse and exploitation. The new film, again written and directed by Aditya Kripalani and co-produced by Sweta Chhabria, is not directly about the 2012 gang rape incident but instead explores how a group of women might respond to the constant threat of rape they face travelling in the Delhi region.

It is significant that the narrative is set in Delhi which as a city region has grown extremely quickly to become the ‘National Capital Territory of India’ and the second largest urban area in the world with 26 million residents. It rivals Mumbai as symbolic of the ‘New India’ with the ‘satellite city’ of Gurgaon where the women live and the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. All of this means that many workers find themselves commuting for long periods across the city region. Kripalani’s film sees four women who find themselves in a ‘female only’ taxi struggling to make the journey home one evening when the traffic congestion is particularly bad.

In the taxi, from left Shagun driving, in the back Vibha and Shaila and, in the passenger seat, Chitra

The driver, Shaila (Kritika Pande) is the young owner of a taxi company who finds herself driving tonight but who is soon ousted from the driver’s role by the aggressive police officer Shagun (Sonal Joshi) who claims she knows a better route. In the back are Vibha (Shalini Vatsa), employed as a ‘social media consultant’, and Chitra (Chitrangada Chakraborty) who teaches martial arts classes for women. With her closely cropped hair, it took me a while to recognise this lead player from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb. The women don’t know each other but they are soon chatting about, among other things, forms of feminism, and when they decide to stop at a roadside bar/café because the traffic is so bad, Shagun tells the others about her first encounter with a violent man in her police work. At their outdoor table a man in leathers on a motorbike leers at Chitra and makes a nuisance of himself around the four women. Later, the women find themselves on a lonely road where the same man (played by Vinay Sharma) re-appears, riding close to them and shouting. Chitra loses her temper and manages to knock him off his bike. Soon the four women have a ‘captive’. What will they do with him?

After a long day in the office Vibha takes a double dose of nicotine for the journey home

The women have already discussed the fear of rape and how men don’t understand what rape means and what it means to be fearful on the streets at night – or in buses and taxis. They quickly determine to teach this man a lesson. Shagun knows about some empty premises and they lock him up in a metal cabinet. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative pleasures about how the plot develops but I do want to discuss ideas about genre and narrative structure. There are four women in the car who don’t know each other and who each respond differently to the situation. We learn most about Vibha. She is introduced at the beginning of the film arriving for work on a Metro train. In a clever title sequence we see her framed under signage indicating the ‘Women Only’ carriage on the train and later aggressively smoking two cigarettes as she looks out over the city. On the soundtrack is a rock song with some English lyrics I couldn’t quite work out but they relate in some way to the narrative. Vibha recognises something in Chitra’s behaviour and invites her home after they have locked up the man. We will learn about Vibha’s back story in some detail and later we will learn about Chitra too. (Vibha’s story is told in flashback introduced in an elliptical way). Only Shaila will remain without a back story. Her role, in generic terms, is to be the one who has to be ‘taught’ and convinced that what the other three women plan to do is thought out and ‘justified’ as a response to male violence. In a way she stands in for us, the audience.

The women in the print shop contemplating their next step

Once the man is locked up, the generic elements of a different kind of film come to the fore. Now we have a prisoner and four potential gaolers. I was impressed by the script at this point and the way that a certain kind of ‘training programme’ was developed. Although I haven’t watched any examples, I remember the cycle of ‘torture porn’ horror films such as the Saw films and I wondered if the women would inflict increasing forms of physical pain on the man. But their plans are more sophisticated and involve breaking him down psychologically. To some extent this draws on ideas about BDSM. Rape is about power rather than sexual drive and the women want the man to understand this so they use humiliation and link it to gender roles. They discuss how men in India still think of women only in three ways: women must ‘dress to look hot’, ‘cook well’ and ‘be fuckable’. (I think the film’s Hindi title refers to this sexist language.) This might well apply to male ideas everywhere but India does seem particularly mired in this form of sexism. The recent film Article 15 (2019) focused on sexual violence in rural Uttar Pradesh and linked it casteism, but The Incessant Fear of Rape takes place in the National Capital Territory and involves the ‘New Women’ of India. The women want to ‘break’ their captive and to publicise the lesson they are giving. I won’t give away the ending which is in some ways shocking, but on reflection makes some sense after I read about the Delhi bus gang rape in 2012. The Incessant Fear of Rape is a disturbing narrative – as it should be. The women’s fear is understandable but their actions might be considered excessive in relation to what the man did and they conjure up ideas about vigilantism and revenge which aren’t lawful. What do we make of the moral questions about their actions alongside our thoughts about the social evils of rape?

Vibha and Chitra after they have taken the man captive

I did the film disturbing to watch but it certainly made me think about rape in new ways and overall I thought it was an example of how a different kind of ‘social’ film could expose the issue and engage an audience. But how is it as a ‘film’? It’s low budget and classifiable as an ‘Indian Independent’. I don’t think the film has been released to cinemas in India but it is available on Netflix and that’s how I accessed it in the UK. Since I don’t have a Netflix account I had to watch it at a friend’s house. One weakness in the film, which may have been attributable to how the Netflix signal was received, was the poor sound quality. I had difficulty hearing the English dialogue used by some of the women and the music didn’t come across well, especially the bass notes in the guitar track which ran through several sequences. Aditi Sharma’s camerawork, following on from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, uses mainly ‘available light’ and works to represent the harsh environments. The empty print shop is sometimes bathed in different single colours. The mise en scène of Vibha’s apartment offers us artworks, a shelf of books and film posters. I recognised a poster for Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a parallel film starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Vibha is cine-literate and Aditya Kripalani was an FTII graduate. He is also a novelist and the eclectic selection of popular fiction and biographies on Vibha’s shelves made me think about where my images of Gurgaon and ‘New India’ came from and I think they are literary, for instance from Chetan Baghat or Aravind Adiga novels. Chitra’s apartment has another display of artworks and the lives of all four women are quickly sketched out in a series of montages.

The Incessant Fear of Rape is a raw, vital film about a serious issue in the ‘New India’. It deserves a wide audience and a thorough discussion of its ideas.

Photograph (India-Germany-US 2019)

Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar) encourages Rafi to buy a drink for Miloni at a street stall near the Gateway

Photograph is an independent Indian film with a supported release by the major UK arthouse distributor Curzon. That makes it unusual and you’d have to go back to the same writer-director Ritish Batra’s 2013/4 release The Lunchbox to find another. At HOME in Manchester, Photograph was introduced by Dr Omar Ahmed in relation to HOME’s upcoming ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ (3rd edition) season in September. I think that the audience for this screening was lucky to hear Omar’s intro as he helped to place the film in context and to think a bit more about it than some of the US/UK reviewers seem to have done since its appearance at Sundance earlier this year.

I’d seen some lukewarm reviews and was a little worried about what would unfold but I soon became engaged and I found the the film low-key but moving and possibly a different kind of film than I was expecting. After The Lunchbox, Batra made two English language films adapted from novels. I haven’t seen either of them but I wondered why he did this (ie why he couldn’t make the films he wanted to make in India). On his return to India he brought back with him his film editor John F. Lyons who has worked on all four of his films and other creatives who I assume he met during his UK/US production periods. Photograph is again his own script and it has strong connections to The Lunchbox. For me the ‘feel’ of the film is similar to that which I get from diasporic or exilic directors such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta. There is one direct connection with other recent Indian independents and that is the actor Geetanjali Kulkarni who also appears in Sir (2019), Court (2014) and Hotel Salvation (2016).

Nawazuddin Sidiqqui is the other link back to The Lunchbox. This time he takes the role occupied by Irrfan Khan in the first film – an older single man who will gradually fall in love. However, this man has less standing than Irrfan’s character and he also has a family history to contend with. Rafi is a Muslim is from a village in Uttar Pradesh and he has been in Mumbai for many years, earning money to send home to pay family debts and to provide a dowry for his sisters. Rafi works as a street photographer, snapping the tourists around the ‘Gateway of India’. One day he snaps a pretty girl who dashes off before he can print out the photo (and before paying him). When he hears through the local village grapevine that runs through his Mumbai district that his grandmother (‘Dadi’) is threatening to stop taking her medicine unless he marries, he decides to send the photo to Dadi, claiming it is his new girlfriend ‘Noorie’. But then, of course, Dadi wants to visit Mumbai to meet the girl . . .

In many ways, Rafi has set up a classic rom-com scenario. He’ll have to find the girl again and convince her to play a role and the two of them will be brought together under pressure and . . . But although this plot will play out, Batra doesn’t necessarily take it in the expected directions and he sometimes refuses to offer us the expected scenes. If a Hollywood or Bollywood romance is what audiences expect to see they will be disappointed by the ellipses in the narrative, by the periods of introspection and by the general slow pacing. None of this bothered me since my interest was in the two central characters and their backgrounds. The young woman in the photograph is Miloni played by Sanya Malhotra who first came to attention in Dangal (2016) – a film I must watch. She is very well cast and gives a beguiling performance as the daughter of a middle-class Gujarati Hindu family who expect her to become a chartered accountant and to marry a successful graduate. She is literally the ‘poster girl’ for a small private accountancy college and the top student. But she feels trapped by her family’s expectations. She’d always enjoyed drama at school and perhaps that is why ‘playing the girlfriend’ attracts her.

One of several taxi rides during which Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) tentatively discover something about each other

One convention that Batra does follow is to provide the two leads with a supportive ‘crew’. Rafi lives in a communal room with other men from his district and Dadi (a terrific performance by 86 year-old Farrukh Jaffar) will find a space for herself in the same room. By comparison, Miloni’s family is wealthy enough to have a live-in maid/cook/housekeeper played by Geetanjali Kulkarni who can advise her about the village man and will be discreet. The romance can only be tentative at first and its prospects in the long-term are not good. Religious differences and social class differences do not make Western-style romances straightforward (not that they do in the US or UK either in some circumstances). Batra offers some good examples of how their daily lives differ and he uses a favourite cinema as a meeting place for the couple which endlessly replays the same films from the 1980s (a similar nostalgia to the TV soaps of the period in The Lunchbox). Omar stressed in his introduction how the Bombay (rather than ‘Mumbai’) in the film is not the Bombay of Bollywood gangster films nor is it only a place of poverty and desolation – or of the glossy modernity of the ‘New India’. Bombay has always been an almost mythical place for migrants from other parts of India, especially in the Hindi cinema social films of the 1940s and 1950s. A more recent tradition of Bombay ‘street films’ takes an almost documentary interest in the lives of the city’s poorer inhabitants, e.g. in a film like Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (India-UK 1988). Photograph shares its starting point with that film – the tourists at the Gateway of India – but it uses the street as a setting for a different kind of narrative, one which still represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, but which which also finds stories at the micro level in the interactions of characters.

The image that has been widely used to promote the film and which perhaps typifies Ritesh Batra’s careful compositions and mise en scène

Batra uses Bombay’s streets, cafés and food stalls carefully. As in The Lunchbox, buses, trains and traditional taxis are important meeting places in which Miloni is taken out of her comfort zone. Significantly it is a food stall that creates one of the moments of distrust by Miloni’s parents about their daughter’s behaviour. Batra also introduces an eccentric story about the history of Indian soft drinks. We see Miloni drinking ‘Limca’, an Indian brand of lemonade/lime now owned by Coca Cola and she tells Rafi that as a child she liked a now defunct brand of Cola. I take this as a signifier of the old Bombay, before the changes of the 1990s brought in American-style fast foods and shopping malls. But some things don’t change. Dadi comments on how dark her grandson’s skin is and he begins to use lightening cream. I think it is also important that at the beginning of the film we see Miloni being taken by her mother to buy clothes. We recognise that Miloni wants something else and throughout the romance we see her wearing quite simple outfits that seem more ‘natural’ and which I thought suited her much better than the more showy costumes of Bollywood films.

Both Rafi and Miloni have times when they sit in their rooms contemplating their futures but in Rafi’s case we get a fantasy sequence in which he discusses his current situation with another migrant from earlier times. I liked this and it worked for me. I’m not sure everything works in Photograph but overall Batra creates a distinctive vision of Bombay through the creation of a ‘feel’ and ‘tone’ for Rafi’s community and Miloni’s family. He presents a unique Bombay story rather than fulfil genre expectations. He’s aided by terrific performances from his two leads and from Farrukh Jaffar. I would very much recommend this film to anyone prepared to be open to Batra’s ideas.

Article 15 (India, Hindi 2019)

Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.

Thew chief officer Ayaan Ranjan with his plain clothes PR man and his driver Nihal Singh (Sushil Pandey)

Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.

A misty dawn as the the new District Chief is shown the bodies of the two girls.

The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities.  The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.

Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.

Aditi (Isha Talwar) is perhaps underused

Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.

The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!

Ranjan eventually persuades all the police units to join the search for the missing girl

The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.

Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):

The Lift Boy (India, English 2019)

Raju (Moin Khan) ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) and her mother (Shilpa Iyer)

This second film in the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ was screened at HOME in Manchester. It’s a first feature written and directed by Jonathan Augustin who I take to be from the Roman Catholic community long resident in Bombay/Mumbai. Augustin trained at Bournemouth University and after returning to Mumbai he began work in advertising and TV. The background to the production of The Lift Boy is described in the radio interview below. The film dialogue is 60% English, 35% in Hindi and the remainder in Marathi. The film has relatively few ‘sets’ – a traditional Victorian school, a bar/restaurant, a multiplex, a residential tower block in an affluent area and the poorer dwelling where the central character lives. Apart from these there are a few street scenes. Overall the film reminded me of a British TV series from a while back (Mumbai Calling, 2007-8). The cinematography is bright and ‘clean’ but lacking any kind of realist ‘feel’.

The cast includes several first-time performers and some local Marathi actors. That is remarkable as I would say that the narrative is held together by the performances of four or five main characters. The story, sparked by the director’s encounter with a lift boy, features a 24 year-old young man Raju (Moin Khan) who has just failed his engineering drawing exam for the fourth time. He’s already in the multiplex cheering himself up when he learns that his father Krishna has collapsed at work and is in hospital. With his father required to rest for several weeks, Raju is pushed into deputising for him as the lift boy in a residential block in an up-market neighbourhood. Raju has always looked down on menial jobs like operating a lift, thinking it beneath anyone who has attended English medium school. He expects to become an engineer but he really wants to be a writer. But knuckle down he must as the owner of the building Madame D’ Souza, who lives on the top floor of the block, appears to be a stern taskmaster. The only compensation appears to be the presence of ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) the 18 year-old model and actor whose mother is pushing her into a Bollywood career that she’s not sure she wants. The film includes several familiar themes about contemporary young Indians.

Raju at first feels uncomfortable meeting Madame D’Souza and giggles a lot

Raju is a very likeable character who oddly has only one close friend (who has successfully made it through the exams) and no girlfriend. He turns to reading The Great Gatsby sitting on his stool in the lift. He’s at first wary when Madame D’Souza starts to take an interest in him but eventually he realises that he has plenty to learn when he is invited into her apartment. (His mother warns him about getting too familiar with his boss, but don’t jump to conclusions!) The director reveals that his crew found Nyla Masood who plays Maureen D’Souza by following his advice and looking in the shopping malls for what he describes as ‘posh Catholic aunties’. She gives a very convincing performance. The cast developed their performances through extensive rehearsals after working on their own dialogue.

The London Indian Film Festival brochure describes The Lift Boy as “a heart-warming entertainer” and that’s not a bad description. I enjoyed the film and particularly the performances. I did worry that it might tip over into mawkishness. This was mainly because of the music. I don’t really want to criticise but I thought the music was just too much at times and undermined the playing. From the interview I learned it was composed in the US. I think the film is a little too long for the narrative and I’m not sure about the short coda that finishes the film. The story is fairly predictable once you’ve asked yourself the question “how does the son of a lift boy get to go to a fee-paying English medium school?”. On the other hand, the plot did remind me in an odd way of one of the first (and best) English language parallel films, 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981).

The writer-director Jonathan Augustin with his two leads at one of the 21 film screenings.

The radio interview reveals the film’s unique release pattern. In a tie-up with the PVR cinema chain, the film opened on just 7 screens (3 in Mumbai and 1 in each of Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) with just one evening screening per night over three nights. The film was then pulled. This is a ‘premium release’ strategy aimed at attracting the biggest per screen audience. The film has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK via the Film Bazaar in India and Augustin will be looking for similar deals in other territories. He mainly paid for the film himself and took an active role in marketing and selling tickets. He suggests that he recovered the marketing and distribution costs and that he hopes to recover the production costs from further sales to other territories and TV networks.

Overall, this was an enjoyable watch and an interesting and informative research exercise covering the background. Jonathan Augustin is a bright young man who works hard and deserves to go far.