Category: Indian Cinema

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.