Category: Indian Cinema

Soni (India 2018)

Film_Companion_Soni_Ivan-Ayr_lead_26th-Oct

Cops on the street

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.

GFF19 #15: Bhonsle (India 2018)

Manoj Bajpayee as Bhonsle

It’s become clear in the last few years that Indian Independent films or ‘Hindies’ – as well as what might be called ‘New Bollywood’ films – still struggle to find the best way to get onto the international film festival circuit and to interest buyers in overseas territories. Mainstream commercial pictures from the larger Indian language cinemas generally have their own overseas distribution systems. My local multiplex regularly shows Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu films alongside Bollywood, but I have much less chance to see the indies. Occasionally one or two pop up in UK festivals and when I spotted Bhonsle in the Glasgow programme, I was determined to get to see it.

Writer-director Devashish Makhija and the film’s star Manoj Bajpayee first made a short film together a few years ago while trying to find the funding to make Bhonsle which now appears as produced by Indie Muviz, although I’m fairly sure the credits suggested that Bajpayee himself had a production input. Makhija’s first two features were both very well received.

The film begins with a long title sequence in which we see the construction and painting/dressing of a clay Ganesha idol for the local celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi – something which formed the centrepiece of Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Kings (India 2012). In Bhonsle, the preparations are intercut with a sequence in which a police officer gradually strips himself of his uniform and emerges in simple white clothes. We also see a farewell that marks the moment of his retirement from the police force, but we get the sense that his retirement is not something he really wants and he asks for consideration of an extension to his employment. There is clearly meant to be a link between the religious celebration and this man’s retirement. This is a film that generally shows rather than tells and over the next two hours plus we have to work out some things for ourselves. Reading the film requires some knowledge of Indian geography and culture and some of the (limited) commentary on the film from non-Indians seems to get a few things wrong. I’m not sure I understand everything, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

Ipshita Chakraborty Singh is Sita

Eventually we realise that the retired police officer is ‘Bhonsle’. In fact he is ‘Ganpati Bhonsle’. Ganpatai is another name for Ganesha. I’m not sure if Bhonsle actually carries this as a family name or whether it is simply a name to link him to Ganesha. Either way, he is the oldest man in the ‘Churchill Chawl’, one of small housing blocks in Mubai, and he is in some ways the respected elder although he now keeps himself much to himself and is gently mocked by some of the younger men. The chawl is not a peaceful place. Mumbai has long been the land of dreams for migrants from across India and now Biharis from North East India are coming to live in some of the cramped rooms. A local hothead Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), a taxi driver, has been recruited by a local politician of a Marathi Nationalist Party to stir up trouble among the Marathi youth (i.e. the local population from Maharashtra). Bhonsle ignores this at first but then discovers he has new neighbours, a Bihari woman Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her young brother Lalu. Bhonsle finds himself, reluctantly at first, standing up for these two against Vilas and the main part of the narrative involves these four characters leading to a chilling climax. All four gibve strong performances and Santosh Juvekar reminded me very much of Nawazuddin Siddiqi in appearance.

The Glasgow programme suggests that this drama is about India’s ‘class structures and racial divides’ and I’ve seen other comments that is about ‘caste differences’. But I think it is simply about prejudice against ‘outsiders’ and something whipped up by India’s current populist politics which in other cases are indeed nationalist/regionalist or religious/communal. Biharis are a sizeable minority in Maharashtra, as are many other groups who have migrated to Mumbai from other parts of India. Sita is a nurse and in terms of social class presumably on a par with Bhonsle.

The first part of the film in particular has a very slow pace. We spend quite a long time watching Bhonsle come to terms with what it is going to be like getting old and decrepit and lonely in his cramped room. At one point we are offered a dream sequence, in effect a series of images of the room falling into decrepitude. The cinematography by Jingmet Wangchuck a graduate from the Film and TV Institute of India in 2011 is one of the important elements of the film’s look alongside the soundtrack by Mangesh Dhakde and editing by Shweta Vengkat (who has worked on several notable ‘Hindies’ such as Newton and Gangs of Wasseypur).

The pacing speeds up for the remainder of the narrative once the interaction with Sita and Lalu begins. I enjoyed the film and I was always engaged. The ending is shocking with a brutal scene brilliantly photographed in an enclosed space. I do wonder though about whether the narrative is stretched out too far. 132 minutes, though not long by Indian standards, could be tightened up a little to attract international buyers. Others disagree I know.

Here is an excellent interview (in English) with the director Devashish Makhija at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in which he explains his personal reasons for making Bhonsle.

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017)

Vibhawari Deshpande (left) as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul (Tikli) in Laxmi’s one-room apartment

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb was the final film screened in HOME Manchester’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. It was introduced by the season’s curator Omar Ahmed who added to his review of the film on his blog at Movie Mahal. Omar usefully contextualised this film, about two female Mumbai sex-workers who rebel against the control of the pimps and corrupt police, with references to the contemporary cycle of Indian films about the ‘New Woman’. Just as importantly, he also recognised that there have been films throughout Indian film history which have attempted to present the ‘New Woman’, most notably perhaps by Satyajit Ray in Mahanagar (The Big City) in 1963. Another way of looking at this is to think about the stories of courtesans in the Mughal era who have featured prominently in historical Indian dramas and whose presence has often shifted readings of the male characters in the films.

The film is an adaptation by Aditya Kripalani of his own (third novel). It’s Kripalani’s first feature as a director and in addition he produced the film and worked with the film’s music composer, Marcus Corbett. (See the YouTube clip below for the story of the film’s crowd-funding.) I tend to agree with Omar’s comments on the film. I found it engrossing and thought-provoking throughout and the two central performances by Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul/Tikli are quite stunning. The ensemble cast members are well-written, as is the action in each scene as might be expected from a filmmaker coming from a scriptwriting and literary background. I’m less sure about the flow of the overall narrative structure and the mixing together of seemingly different filming styles. It appears to be an independent film which has not quite digested the generic conventions of the mainstream that it hopes to incorporate. In addition there are a number of devices in terms of the use of songs and moments of reflection which work well on their own terms but perhaps stand out too much in the film overall. The films lasts around 150 minutes. I was never bored throughout the long running time, but there were several moments when I thought we might have reached an ending but after another fade to black the film carried on. There was no Intermission as there might have been in a mainstream film.

The group of women who form the hard core of ‘Tikli and Laxmi Bomb’

As I’ve tried to indicate, the narrative uses generic conventions but in a sense supersedes them by developing ’rounded’ characters for the two leads. Laxmi is a street prostitute working with a group of women on a dark roadside in Mumbai. She’s an experienced worker who ‘mentors’ the new girls and her pimp brings her Putul, a seemingly lively and smart young woman, who will stay with Laxmi, sleeping in her room until she knows the ropes. Putul soon reveals herself as no timid victim and Laxmi finds the roles in their relationship almost reversed as Putul (who gains the nickname ‘Tikli’, meaning ‘short fuse’, I think) begins to break the rules and threaten to subvert the system. We gradually learn something of the characters’ backgrounds, though little is stated directly. I noted the Prabhat Studios poster on the wall. The famous studio from the 1930s and 40s was based in Pune, where Vibhawari Deshpande was born. Laxmi is to some extent the local, whereas Chitrangada Chakraborty, as her name suggests is from Calcutta and Putul is a stranger to Bombay.

The film’s main strength is the way in which Aditya Kripalani explores the structure of the street prostitution racket. He offers us an almost ‘procedural’ presentation, taking us carefully through the process to show how the women take payment before a ‘trick’, how they have a ‘protector’ in the form of an auto-rickshaw driver, how they pay a percentage to the pimp and how the police round them up every few weeks – but drop charges because they have been paid-off by the pimp. And with power over everything (and everyone) there is a ‘super pimp’ who is aiming to be elected as a politician. Having laid all this out, Kripilani then uses Tikli and Laxmi as agitators who explain to the other women how they are being oppressed and how they could subvert the system by ‘doing it for themselves’, cutting out the men who oppress them and keeping a greater percentage of their earnings. There is a scene in a local café in which Lami and Tikli explain their plans and one of the older women plays the character who argues that what they are suggesting just can’t work. For a fleeting moment I was reminded of the famous scene in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (UK-Spain 1993) when villagers argue about land seizure during the Spanish Civil War.

Suchitra Pillai plays Manda, the woman who warns against trying to subvert the system. She’s with Saharsh Kumar Shukla as Mangatram Pichauri, the purveyor of coffee and cigarettes to the women

The weakness of the film is that the villains, the pimps, the auto-rickshaw driver, the hired goons and corrupt police are simply generic types and this undermines both the performances of the leads and the writing of the scenes between the women. The two central characters develop so that we care for them but this in turn is lost in a genre climax with a chase scene. At the end Kripalani adds a short coda with a little twist which gives a positive note. As well as noting the filmmaking flaws, I agree with Temple Connolly in feeling that the film’s poster suggests a kind of ‘tacky sex comedy’ (see the first image of the trailer below). Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (which refers to the women as a ‘street gang’) has moments of humour but is essentially a serious film with an important argument to make. I want therefore to praise the filmmakers for broaching the subject of street prostitution and recognising the exploitation of women, but also their capacity to organise and to fight back. They demonstrate solidarity and an understanding of patriarchy and how to fight it. I understand that many of the heads of department on the crew were women and certainly the general representation of the female characters is quite different than the usual exploitation film with its ‘male gaze’. The film has been successful at various international film festivals, showing in London, Leicester, New Zealand and Berlin as well as Manchester and winning various awards. In India the film is distributed by Netflix, which alongside Amazon seems to be the saviour of certain kinds of Independent Indian films (see Rajat Kapoor’s comments during last year’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Q&A and screening of Ankhon Dekhi).

The trailer below opens with Putul recording a selfie video to place on Facebook, much to the bemusement of Laxmi. I wonder if Facebook would feature so prominently if this film was made now? Perhaps it has a different cultural status in India. The remainder of the long trailer gives a good idea of the mix of styles in the film. Below it the director addresses the camera in his attempt to find funding for the shoot.

Not Just Bollywood at HOME Manchester

Last year’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ mini-season at HOME in Manchester was a very welcome development and a second season runs this September, again curated by Omar Ahmed. In a special HOME podcast, Omar explains that the first season was an attempt to introduce audiences to the range of independent Indian films that struggle to get a release in the UK and sometimes back in India as well. The second season moves on to look at some of the issues that independent Indian films might explore  and which they might be able to present more effectively than the mainstream.

The season opens with a classic example of a film that proved highly controversial in India. Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994) is a biopic of Phoolan Devi directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Seema Biswas in the title role. Channel 4 in the UK was a major funder of the film so it did receive a UK cinema release and has been shown on Channel 4, but it’s great that younger audiences will have the chance to see  the film again on the big screen on 11th September. One of several issues associated with Bandit Queen is caste and that is also at the centre of the other major film in the season which has a high international reputation, Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) from the great political documentarist Anand Patwardhan. The dalit cultural resistance highlighted in this film is linked to the central issue in Court (India 2014) which featured in last year’s season. Jai Bhim Comrade is a long but highly engaging film that is a must see if you get the chance. It’s screening on Sunday 16th.

A ‘One Hour intro’ on ‘Caste on the Indian Screen’ by Sanghita Sen precedes the screening of Bandit Queen and a discussion, ‘Re-Imagining Caste in Indian Cinema‘ will follow the screening of Masaan (India 2015) on September 18. This début film by Neeraj Ghaywan is a Cannes prizewinner.

Kadvi Hawa (India 2017) sounds like a classic ‘parallel film’ dealing with the impact of climate change on debt-ridden farmers in Rajasthan. Director Nila Madhab’s film has a terrific cast with Sanjay Mishra, lead in last year’s well-received Ankhon Deki (India 2013) plus Ranvir Shorey and Tillotama Shome, two stars who straddle independent and mainstream Indian films. Kadvi Hawa screens on September 13th. The Hungry (UK-India 2017) is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and stars the peerless Naseeruddin Shah. It screens on September 15th and is followed by a Q&A with producer Kurban Kassam and actor Antonio Aakeel. Finally on September 30th, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) is another début film, this time by director Aditya Kripalani. It deals with female sex workers coming together to start a revolution and will be introduced by Omar Ahmed himself.

Full details are in the programme brochure which you can download here. If you are in the Manchester area in September these rare screenings and events are not to be missed.

Kaala (India, Tamil 2018)

One of many posters for KAALA – Rajnikanth sits symbolically in the centre of Dharavi, on his Mahindra Jeep wearing shades, black shirt, lunghi and sandals

Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.

Kaala – ‘man of the people’ and children

Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).

Kaala organises celebrations and dances for his wife, Selvi

Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.

‘Mumbai Pure’ leader Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar) in his ‘white house’)

The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?

Rajnikanth and Easwari Rao

I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.

Zareena (Huma Qereshi) is celebrated for her work in Africa

I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.

There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested. 

Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.

In this image from the film’s climax, Kaala as Ravanaan is ‘black’ not just through his clothing but from the smoke and ashes of his home, burned to the ground by the white Rama

The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.

Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.

Anurag Kashyap and Mukkabaaz (The Brawler, India (Hindi) 2017)

Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) running her eye over the physique of Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) on a visit to his Varanasi training camp

I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.

Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.

Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.

Anurag Kashyap at the trailer launch for MUKKABAAZ in December 2017

The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.

Outline (no spoilers)

The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.

Jimmy Shergill as the terrifying Bhagwan Mishra

Commentary

This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.

The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.

Shravan and Sunaina at the bus station – this is a narrative grounded in the struggles of ‘ordinary people’

For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way.  I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.

This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?

 

Tiger Zinda Hai (Tiger is Alive, India (Hindi) 2017)

This was the major Hindi cinema release for Christmas 2017, one of the most expensive Indian productions and already a global hit. It’s a follow-up to the similarly successful Ek Tha Tiger from 2012. At the end of that film, ‘Tiger’, an Indian ‘super spy’ was assumed ‘missing’ after an incident in Cuba. This sequel sees the agent of RAW (India’s secret service) discovered living a settled family life in the Austrian Tyrol when his services are required to rescue 25 Indian nurses held captive by ISIL-style terrorists in Northern Iraq. What he doesn’t realise at first is that there are also 15 Pakistani nurses in the same predicament and Tiger’s Pakistani wife Zoya, also a ‘super spy’ agent, but for Pakistan’s ISI, is charged with getting them out.

Tiger Zinda Hai displays all the elements we might expect in a contemporary Indian blockbuster. Its narrative is built around its two major stars, Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, re-united from the 2012 film. These two find themselves in a typical masala film in the sense that it combines elements of the family film, the romance, action picture and war combat film. In doing so it borrows from a range of well-known films and star vehicles. Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) are married spies just as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr & Mrs (US 2005) are married assassins hired to kill each other. Tiger and Zoya might indeed find themselves on opposite sides of a case (as they did in the earlier film). But they also have a young son, Junior, like the secret service parents in Spy Kids (US 2001). Once the action starts, Tiger becomes an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Superman – while Zoya is more akin to a Michelle Yeoh or Bridget Lin in a Hong Kong action flic. Hindi cinema has always been keen on importing ideas from Hollywood and Hong Kong but I’m sure there are also homegrown Indian models I haven’t seen. I am well aware, however, that Indian cinema has had ‘action women’ since at least the 1940s.

There are several interesting aspects of the narrative. The idea of Indian and Pakistani agents fighting together against terrorists in the current climate is perhaps a fantasy, but still an intriguing prospect. It’s also novel (in the UK) to see a narrative about the continued fighting in Iraq which doesn’t take the American or European perspective. (The Americans are portrayed as not altogether trustworthy in this film.) Ironically, the film was shot mainly in the UAE which has a significant population of Indian migrant workers (a third of the local population?) mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The UAE is also a market for Indian films. How many Indian migrant workers are in Iraq is less straightforward to quantify. News reports about stranded migrant workers have been numerous, but mostly in construction rather than the oil industry. The city where the nurses are held is given as ‘Ikrit’ – presumably a fictitious version of Tikrit (the birthplace of Sadam Hussein). The villain in the film is the terrorist leader played by Sajjad Delafrooz, an actor born in Iran but now living in the UAE. He’s very effective I think. I’d like to comment on the actors playing Americans but IMDb’s cast list seems to omit most of them. They seemed OK and certainly better than many of the Anglos in Indian films.

The traditional masala film in the 1970s-90s had six or seven lavish song and dance sequences. Tiger Zinda Hai still has songs but one is used for the closing credits (and is performed in a Greek island setting). Only one other song actually stops the narrative as such – a love song in the Tyrolean setting. I can’t remember much about the other four.

Since this franchise is built around its two stars, it’s necessary to think about how Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif perform. Since I haven’t see them in anything else except the first Tiger film (and in Kaif’s case as a fantasy figure in one episode in Bombay Talkies), I’m dependent on news reports and trailers for other films. Salman Khan is a big star, perhaps only just behind Aamir Khan and Sharukh Khan in the rankings. His persona is very much as the muscle man and in this film he does rip off his shirt at one point to display his physique. My impression is that he has put on more bulk since the first Tiger film. He is also said to be quite a short man (various claims are made but he’s probably about 5′ 6” – the other two major stars are not much taller). This makes Salman Khan almost square but his movements are impressive. I thought he was fine in his role and gave his fans what they want. Katrina Kaif was much more impressive than I expected her to be. Her career was dogged in the beginning by claims that she was ‘inauthentic’. She was born in Hong Kong to an English mother and British Kashmiri father and lived in various countries before settling in London where she was ‘discovered’ by a British-based Indian filmmaker when working as a model. Brought to India she continued modelling and featured in several films but was hindered by her lack of Hindi language skills. Her Tiger performances have helped to establish her properly (especially since both films have made substantial profits). I was most impressed by her athleticism – I believed that her character could perform the action moves. She is tall (certainly taller than Salman Khan) and lithe and she dances well. I will certainly consider watching her future films. As it turned out, I watched the first Tiger film, the day after watching the second. (There is a post on Ek Tha Tiger (2012) here.) I think I actually prefer the first film because it has more romance and fewer explosions. The second film is also 20+ minutes longer under a different director, Ali Abbas Zafar. He also wrote and directed Salman Khan’s 2016 blockbuster, Sultan, a genuine muscle-man flic on the basis of the trailer.

Aparajito (India, Bengali 1956)

Satyajit Ray shooting in Benares with Pinaki Sen Gupta as the 10 year-old Apu

The Leeds Film Festival showed the restored version of Aparajito in the 60th anniversary year of its appearance on the world stage. Satyajit Ray’s film, the second part of his Apu trilogy, received many prizes on its first appearance and much praise from cinephiles over the following decades. This was initially mainly from international rather than Indian audiences, though a balance has since been restored. As such a revered classic, there is a danger that an audience now might take it for granted. Personally, I found that the restoration, although it couldn’t overcome every aspect of the damage done to the original film following years of neglect, still managed to produce a print of startling clarity and I felt like I was watching a new film.

Apu watches his father reading the sacred texts on the ghats

As the second film to be based on the original novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Aparajito (‘Unvanquished‘) bridges the two novels. Satyajit Ray did alter the narrative in significant ways. The young Apu has moved to Benares with his father and mother. Father works as a priest on the ghats, but quite quickly catches a fever and dies. Apu and his mother move back to the village of Apu’s great-uncle where the boy decides to abandon his apprenticeship as a priest and attend school. It is the final section of the narrative that Ray changed in terms of the relationship between widowed mother and son – and in doing so, alienated more traditional audiences.

Apu’s mother is startled by the sudden appearance of the ‘man upstairs’ and holds her kitchen knife in defence – one of the subtle little scenes which represent family life in Benares

The presentation of Apu’s development and his eventual estrangement from his mother is very subtle and effective. I admire and respect Ray for what he achieved in this film, but I was most taken by Subrata Mitra’s camerawork (and the accompanying music by Ravi Shankar). The early scenes of Benares in what is meant to be the early 1920s are beautiful and make an interesting comparison with the recent film, Hotel Salvation (India 2017) also set on the ghats of Benares (now Varanasi). The later images of the village recall the train on the horizon as it was in Pather Panchali, but I was delighted to see images of Calcutta, including shots by the Hooghly River and on the Maidan. What is surprising (and possibly a result of the very limited budget) is the complete absence of any evidence of the British Raj in a city which up until 10 years earlier was the capital of British India and still the major commercial city of India. Perhaps this absence is one of the factors which gives the Apu Trilogy its ‘timeless and universal’ appeal? Ray hints at the impact of modernity on the adolescent Apu as he sets off for Calcutta clutching the globe given to him by his village schoolteacher and wearing his first lace-up shoes. In Calcutta he is delighted to find his room has electricity for lighting. All this is very effective, but what are we to make of the presentation of Calcutta without the crowds? Was it really so sleepy and deserted in the 1920s? Or again, is it just a matter of budget. technology and learning what can be done with the available technology? Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) has quite a bit to say about the innovations made by Ray, Mitra and designer Bansi Chandragupta in photographing the studio sets and matching them to location shots in Benares. The key was the discovery of so-called ‘bounce lighting’ using diffused studio lighting and reflectors to simulate daylight seeping into the Benares house.

Apu (Sumiran Kumar Ghosal) arrives at a curiously deserted crossroad in the Calcutta neighbourhood where a room has been found for him

The outpouring of critical praise for the film in the West and the reluctance to recognise the ‘modernity’ of the relationships by the Bengali audience were indicative of the way Ray soon became institutionalised within the international ‘humanist art film’ movement of the 1950s. He also quickly became the kind of director who would be seen as an auteur, a ‘personal’ filmmaker. I haven’t read the original novels from which he took the Apu character but looking at the photos of the young Ray in Seton’s book, it isn’t difficult to see the young Apu (played by Sumiran Kumar Ghosal) as the same tall spindly young man who Ray was when going to Presidency College some ten years later in the 1930s. Apu even lives over a print shop where he works part-time. Ray’s family had once owned a printing and publishing business. I was also entertained by the university classroom scenes in which I finally learned how to explain the meaning of ‘synedoche’. But in the end, Aparajito‘s greatest gift for me is to set the scene for Ray’s 1960s films set in Calcutta and before that the third film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959).

The sundial made by the young Apu inspired by the science teaching at school

The print shown in Leeds is the restoration distributed on Blu-ray by Criterion in the US: https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/1145-the-apu-trilogy

Here’s the Criterion trailer for the box-set of the trilogy: