Category: Hindi Cinema

Not Today (India, Hindi 2021)

Aliah keeps the call going seated on the central reservation of a major road

Not Today is the enigmatic title of a film that is difficult to categorise. Writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s first three films all focused primarily on women’s lives and the misogyny they face, especially in India’s major cities. Exploitation as sex workers, targets for rapists and domestic abusers are all dangers for women and seen as contemporary social issues. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017), The Incessant Fear of Rape (2019) and The Goddess and the Hero (2019) don’t shirk from violent confrontations. Not Today is also in a way a ‘social film’, announced as being about ‘suicide prevention’. However, although the narrative is concerned initially with a call to a suicide prevention centre, it develops into a more complex kind of drama acted out between the caller and the young woman who answers the phone. It is also a calmer and more reflective form of drama than the earlier films for much of its running time, though it does have moments of suspense.

The narrative opens with Aliah, a young woman who has secretly applied for a job as a counsellor with a Suicide Prevention Team, being put through a role play by a supervisor (Vibhawari Deshpande who appeared in two of the the earlier films). The credit sequence then shows us Aliah in her bedroom, decorated with vinyl discs and posters of Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Amy Whitehouse and Ella Fitzgerald. She has sophisticated tastes for a young Muslim woman. Jazz-tinged songs in English on the soundtrack run throughout the credit sequence. We see her slip out to visit a graveyard across town late at night and peer through the gates. Outside her bedroom, Aliah wears the ridah, a two piece garment covering everything except her face, hands and feet and this is how she faces the world each day. 

The director and crew on the rooftop used for all of Ashwin’s scenes.

Aliah starts her trial period on the phone lines and after a prank call (which she correctly ends, blocking the caller), she gets one from an older man on a rooftop, threatening to jump. As the call continues it becomes an increasingly tense and emotionally-charged exchange and the supervisor intervenes. Aliah is not prepared to abandon the caller and leaves the centre, calling the number on her own phone as she makes her way across Mumbai. What follows is a two-hander between Aliah (Rucha Inamdar) and Ashwin (Harsh Chhaya). Both performances are very good and we gradually learn about their backgrounds and what has motivated them – in Aliah’s case to apply to join the suicide prevention team and in Ashwin’s case to go up to the roof and threaten to jump. There are surprises in what is revealed, but the narrative becomes more about their personal engagement and what we learn about the two individuals rather than an exploration of the social issue itself, although there is a form of commentary on the ‘rules’ designed to guide the suicide prevention team.

Out of interest, I researched the figures for suicide worldwide. I was surprised by the differences between sources so I can’t be sure about the data but India doesn’t appear to be one of the countries with the highest suicide rates, though it is certainly not towards the bottom end (i.e. the lowest rates) either. Rates can be affected by religious and other factors such as illegality which means cases might not be reported. Anecdotally, suicides among farmers in parts of India are seen as constituting a social issue. I’m not sure anything in the stories that we hear refers to a specific issue associated with suicide and on that basis I think this is primarily a drama about two people. I’m not going to spoil the plot development. But I will say it is refreshing to see a long conversation between a young woman and an older man which is not about seduction or sexual power. We do also discover the precise meaning of the title.

This is a narrative that takes place over about 30 hours. It is particularly interesting in terms of mobile phone use. Personally, I don’t use my mobile much so I was fascinated and intrigued by the possibilities offered by video phone calls and merging calls. The script is well written and although there are passages when the connection is broken or one of the pair remains silent, the narrative drive and the sense of engagement remains. This is an independent film offered in Hindi. I think the visuals are well presented through the photography of Aditi Sharma and the film editing of Rachita Singh. With the performances and the music, the whole package directed by Aditya Kripalani is impressive. I did find the film difficult to watch at some points because of the fear that the man might jump. Watching it on my computer, I broke off several times but that’s probably a bad habit I’ve developed during the last two years away from cinema screens. I don’t think I would have had any trouble in the cinema and it is relatively short for an Indian film at around 90 minutes.

If you get the chance to see this film, I would certainly recommend it. In India it will become available on various ‘OTT platforms’ – what in the UK are usually referred to as ‘streamers’.

(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)

The Goddess and the Hero (Devi Aur Hero, Hindi, India 2019)

The third film from the Indian author-turned-director Aditya Kripalani was well received at the Kolkata International Film Festival in late 2019 where it won the NETPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) but was then stalled in distribution by the impact of the COVID pandemic. It is expected to be available on streaming services in the near future.

The ‘Goddess’ and ‘Hero’ of the title are Kaali Ghosh (Chitrangada Chakraborty) and Dr. Vikrant Saraswat (Vinay Sharma). She is a young woman trapped by a history of abuse and he is a practising therapist suffering from a form of sex addiction. She needs his help but he is told by his own therapist that he must try to keep practising for both male and female clients but must not become emotionally involved with his female clients. He must focus on his work.

Compared to the earlier two films Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) and The Incessant Fear of Rape (India 2019) this feels like a different kind of narrative though elements are shared across all three films and the main theme is again the misogyny of contemporary Indian society. One of the main common elements of the three films is another notable performance by Chitrangada Chakraborty and Vinay Sharma is also making a return after his role as the male hostage in The Incessant Fear of Rape

Our first view of Kaali (Chitrangada Chakraborty), trapped in her abuser’s apartment

Kaali Ghosh is a young woman from Kolkata now living in Mumbai and seemingly trapped as a sex worker. As a teenager she was abused by her father and subsequently became the sex slave of the son of a wealthy industrialist. When we first meet her she is clearly disturbed but escapes from Mittal Jr’s apartment, sees and advert for Dr. Vikrant and sets out to meet him. During this introduction intertitles are used to emphasise ‘The Problem’, ‘The Hero’ and ‘The Goddess’. I’m not sure if this is intended to present the narrative as a form of ‘Psychiatric Case Study’. Later we will get ‘The Resolution’ but I didn’t notice/remember other titles.

Vikrant (Vinay Sharma) spends perhaps too much time fantasising about his phone contacts . . .

I did find this opening sequence less engaging than those of the other two films but whether this was to do with my reading failure or the difficulty of constructing the introduction of the two characters, I’m not sure. There is a long history of film narratives dealing with the psychiatrist-client relationship, with several well-known Hollywood films released in the 1940s and 1950s when Freudian practice began to become better known in the US. I’m not sure if representations of psychiatry have appeared often in Indian cinemas. In this film we have two therapist-client relationships and then when Vikrant and Kaali meet he will struggle to establish a professional relationship before diagnosing her condition as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In the past this was sometimes known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and it is characterised by moments of blackout and loss of memory associated with the appearance of different distinct identities. The sufferer may see and hear these alternative ‘selves’ and take action according to what the voices are saying. DID/MPD may be brought on by traumatic experiences, including childhood trauma. It can sometimes last just a few weeks, but may last much longer and require extended therapeutic treatment.

Therapist and client both have problems

The relationship between therapist and client/patient is key to successful treatment and the premise for the narrative involving Kaali and Vikrant is doubly problematic because of his sex addiction. She needs his help and he needs to develop a working relationship with her both for her sake and his own. The sensible option would be for him to refer Kaali to another therapist, but to do so would be to ignore his own therapist’s advice – and anyway would not make such an interesting dilemma. The set-up that does develop leads us into a form of melodrama with plenty of action. ‘Kaali’ is presumably a name which refers to ‘Kali’ the Hindu goddess seen as one of the ‘aspects’ of the mother goddess Parvati. She is associated with defeating evil and often depicted

I’m a little out of my depth here but I did note that twice Kaali alters the name board outside Vikrant’s office. She moves the letter ‘i’ of the clip-on characters so that it appears at the end of Vikrant’s family name which now reads Saraswati, the name of the goddess of learning and wisdom. Kaali is an intelligent young woman and she appears to have an interest in art and in martial arts. Once Vikrant has established that Kaali hears voices and these are activated via tex messages and audio, the narrative moves into action sequences as the pacing of the narrative increases. By this stage I was very much engaged and overall I thought film was successful.

Kaali in her warrior identity confronts one of her abusers

I noted a couple of issues around the sexual content in the film. A couple of times the camera focused on parts of the action rather than showing the whole scene. I wasn’t sure if this was a form of self-censorship. Deciding how and what to show in a sex scene is tricky and in this case visualising Vikrant’s compulsion to fantasise about Kaali and her red nails is a real challenge. It is necessary I think for the plot, but it isn’t pretty. My other concern is that as in the other two films, all the men (apart from Vikrant and his struggles) are shown to be misogynistic. Of course there is no real reason why a filmmaker can’t choose to write/direct characters like this but it does make me wonder about the differences between social realism, various forms of genre cinema or a character-driven drama. At times this film has elements of all three. I will be intrigued to see if this kind of mix carries through to the next film by Aditya Kripalani.

From the few comments I have seen this film does speak to audiences and they are prepared to listen. The central story is intriguing and there are other pleasures including the use of Mumbai locations and several music tracks. I would recommend the film as a sensitively handled and thought-provoking action melodrama.

(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)

Party (India, Hindi 1984)

The writer Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh) and his wife Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi) and between them the party hostess Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) 

Party is one of several ‘parallel cinema’ films that are now available for streaming in the UK via MUBI’s Library. It has been very difficult to see these films in anything like a decent print for many years and it is good to have this new opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since I last tried to summarise what was meant by ‘parallel cinema’ and ‘New Indian Cinema’ in the 1970s/80s. Since then, Omar Ahmed has worked hard in the UK to find film titles and scholarly work around them. His blog at ‘Movie Mahal’ and his writing and PhD research is now a very useful source of both background and reviews of specific titles. His review of this film is here. I’ll try to approach the film a little differently in an attempt to use it more as an exemplar.

Party is a film by the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani. Born in Karachi in 1940, Nihalani’s family moved to independent India after partition and he later attended one of the first film schools in India in Bangalore. He then began work as an assistant to the legendary V.K. Murthy, the cinematographer who worked with Guru Dutt in the 1950s. Nihalani  took on cinematographer roles on the parallel films of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s before his own directorial career began in 1980. Party is based mainly on a Marathi theatre play with a script by Mahesh Elkunchwar and it was financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). This public funding and Nihalani’s background are two indicators of parallel cinema and a third is an extensive ensemble cast list including several names associated with this type of cinema.

Vrinda the would-be communist and feminist takes on the poet Bharat

In some ways, Party is a familiar genre narrative, a form common in many developed societies where discussion of politics and the arts meet in middle class gatherings. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally Potter made The Party (UK 2017) and there are other films discussed on this blog which share similar elements. However, the mix of Indian literati and journalists, actors etc. takes place in a Bombay house under circumstances that are significantly different to those in the UK and where demographics are very different. The politics of inequality, the persistence of caste, communalism and the very real violence of political resistance set up an environment in which an upper middle class drinks party is not the same in Bombay as it might be in London or Paris or New York. (It is difficult to discuss Indian society using the socio-economic class definitions familiar in the UK. The hostess of the party is the daughter of an eminent lawyer – a national leader and ‘Cabinet Minister’.)

A classic mirror shot sees Mohini, wondering who she is

Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) is a widow who hosts a party in honour of a playwright, Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has won a literary prize. She has invited a range of other writers and their spouses. She has inveigled her daughter, who has a small baby but not a husband, to join the party. Meanwhile her son invites his own friends to a smaller party upstairs where they drink and listen to Western pop/rock music (including the Irena Cara track ‘What a Feeling’ from Flashdance (US 1983) – I wonder what or if – this might have cost?). It soon becomes apparent that there are several conflicts waiting to erupt among the party guests, some of which are sexual/marital but most of which involve politics. There is also a considerable intake of alcohol. Inevitably this is a very ‘talky’ film with relatively little chance to develop an expressive visual style. There is a short section at the beginning of the film setting up the party that finds the various characters in their ‘home’ environments and the house itself is a useful location with staircases, mirrors and a garden which allows some possibilities such as a classic mirror set up in which a character might look at their multiple reflections in adjacent mirrors.

The two major pressure points in the film seem to be firstly the status of women – the writer’s wife who has turned to drink and given up her career, the hostess and her daughter who clash painfully, a young woman who oscillates between flirtation and Marxist dialectics. These conflicts are also connected to the central discourse of politics and the purpose of art. The central character of Barve is revealed as egotistical and something of a fraud whereas the young poet Bharat (‘India’ in Hindi) is passionate but weak and naive. In the last third of the film, these various conflicts are thrown into relief by the late arrival of the journalist, Avinash, played with enormous energy by Om Puri. He has been injured during a protest by tribal peoples against an illegal central government development and he has news of the character everyone has been discussing – the poet Amrit who has done something practical in attempting to help the tribal community in their resistance.

Om Puri as Avinash offers a powerful challenge to the complacency of the other guests

Om Puri is remarkably powerful in these scenes, privileged by the camera, with a compelling speaking voice and his iconic rough and ‘lived in’ face. Everyone has to listen to him. I don’t remember Puri from the small group of parallel/’New Cinema’ films I saw in the 1980s and I only became familiar with him in the last 20 years of his career across independent and mainstream Indian and global cinema, so this was a highlight for me. Similarly, Amrit makes only a fleeting appearance in Party, but it is significant that he is played by Naseeruddin Shah, like Om Puri, an actor who began in films like this and who has over time become an iconic Indian actor, thankfully still with us.

Party is a well-written play with an array of interesting characters. I would pick out the hostess as perhaps the central role. Over the course of the narrative she is criticised and becomes more self-aware. She is a tragic character bit she comes across as more sympathetic than the writer who recognises that he is a fraud but is still prepared to milk his position.

MUBI’s print of Party is a restoration of a film in colour and Academy ratio – common for many films of this kind, some of which might have gained their best audiences via screenings on the Indian PSB TV channel Doordarshan, another indicator of parallel cinema since relatively few cinemas would take the films. The film’s dialogue is in Hindi most of the time but there are significant exchanges in English which would limit the TV audience I suspect. In recent years the same level of English dialogue is found in some more mainstream Hindi films Generally it looks OK. It’s very pleasing that MUBI has made its Library available in this way and I look forward to re-engaging with more of the history of the ‘alternative cinemas’ of India.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

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):

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl, India (Hindi) 2019)

This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of ‘Bradford Pride’. It was introduced as the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. That’s certainly a claim that is worth unpacking, but first I need to outline what kind of film this is. It certainly belongs in the category of mainstream Bollywood, being a Vidhu Vinod Chopra production presented by Fox Star. (It was released in February this year and I wonder what is happening to Star with the sale of Fox to Disney?) It features three stars who span the history of Hindi popular cinema from veterans Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla to Rajkummar Rao as a representative of the younger generation. But it is a début feature for writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The central character, Sweety, is a young woman from the Punjab played by Anil Kapoor’s own daughter Sonam Kapoor. Ms Kapoor has had several leading roles in Hindi productions but whether she qualifies as a ‘star’ for mainstream audiences is open to debate.

These production details are important as the avowed aim of Shelly Chopra Dhar was to make a film which would present the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship not just to the urban multiplex crowd but also to the traditional audiences of small town India. As many scholars and commentators have noted, Bollywood’s biggest problem in recent years has been that split between sophisticated audiences in the Metros and the traditional concept of the ‘All India’ audiences across the country (or at least across North India). I’m not sure she has succeeded.

It’s tricky to discuss how the film was received in India. The film’s promotion seems to have tried to maintain the surprise while the impending release was already generating controversy. In 2018 the Indian Supreme Court made decisions which seem to guarantee a choice of marriage partner to all citizens, yet there are various state regulations and legislation for different religious groups. At least one IMDb ‘user’ complains about a lack of warning about the film’s content (she had taken her young girls to a screening of what she thought would be a family/romantic comedy).

Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) and Sahil (Rajkummar Rao)

The narrative begins with a family wedding in Delhi at which enough hints are dropped that Sweety has met the girl of her dreams in the form of Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, a Tamil actor making her Hindi debut). The film’s title refers to the song first used in the Anil Kapoor film 1942: A Love Story (1994) when he meets Manisha Koirala. The 1994 film was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I don’t know if the song title and memories of the 1994 film confused audiences but Sweety’s attraction to Kuhu must be kept secret. After the wedding, Sweety and her family return to Moga in Punjab where her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is the owner of a large garment factory. Meanwhile Rajkummar Rao is introduced in Delhi as Sahil, a struggling Muslim playwright whose latest play is in rehearsal. Sweety is visiting Delhi and comes into the theatre to hide as we realise later when her angry brother Babloo bursts in. Sahil feels compelled to rescue Sweety and a chase begins. I won’t spoil the narrative any further except to say that Sahil is clearly smitten with Sweety and she, unaware that he is the writer of the play she has just watched, tells him it doesn’t convey ‘real love’ which is always more ‘complicated’. This is our clue to what will follow. Sahil will go to Moga with a plan to win Sweety. We will learn more of Sweety’s backstory through flashbacks. There will be a comedy of confusion and ‘complication’ and a grand finale in which all will be revealed/resolved. In this respect the film seems traditional and straightforward. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much in noting that Sweety’s secret will be fully revealed in a public performance, so that the cinema audience will have the same revelation as the audience for the performance in the narrative. Intriguingly, the idea for the narrative is taken from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. The novel has twice been adapted for the stage and for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Joan Fontaine film. It was most recently staged in 2015. Once aware of this it is easy to see the narrative mechanisms at play in the Bollywood film.

A brief moment of contact between Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, left) and Sweety

As I left the screening, a group of four women in front of me were discussing the film and they seemed to agree that it picked up the pace in the second half after a slow opening. We had a few moments of dark screen where the Intermission would have been. The convention appears to still hold in Bollywood despite this film being only 120 minutes long. I’m not the target audience for the film but I doubt that it will have satisfied its intended audience, although there were some quite moving moments when a young teenage girl in the audience for Sweety’s performance is clearly affected by what she sees. I also thought it was quite clever to use the same actors for the younger Sweety in the flashbacks and as performers in the show. But there are two whopping problems. First Sonham Kapoor seems miscast. Bollywood has never bothered too much about realism but it’s difficult to take an actor in her thirties playing ten years younger. I have to agree with the many comments that she just doesn’t have the vital spark that this character needs. But perhaps that is partly because she barely gets to touch Kuhu in the film. An embrace and holding hands is more or less the limit.

Bollywood stars Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are re-united in one of the sub-plots

The other reason why the central couple are not central is that the re-teaming of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla works so well. They play out several comic scenes and at one point I was almost hoping that the narrative would switch and explore the ‘feminisation’ of the Anil Kapoor character (whose mother stopped him becoming a chef and didn’t allow him into the kitchen because it isn’t ‘man’s work’). Rajkummar Rao is not really given enough to do (see Newton (India 2017) for one of his outstanding performances). As for the other ‘casting’, of Moga as a small town outside the Metros, I think that’s another missed opportunity, especially with Balbir as such an important local business person. The ‘real’ Moga appears to be a city of 300,000 people but the film representation could be anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point.

The music and dance sequences seemed OK to me but nothing special. I don’t regret seeing the film and I did enjoy many scenes but I can’t see this as a film that will break down barriers. It promises to explore the ‘complications’ of Sweety’s love relationships but barely touches the surface. I have written about a couple of much more challenging films from Malayalam cinema (The Journey 2004) and from Hindi cinema Margarita with a Straw (2014) and there is always the classic of late parallel cinema, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. I accept that these are three films made by ‘diasporic directors’ based in North America and that they are not mainstream cinema. In its review Bollywoodhungama.com lists several other titles and comes to more or less the same conclusions about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as I’ve outlined above. But it ends with the suggestion that “At the box office, its appeal will be restricted to niche urban multiplex audiences”. The review appears to have predicted correctly and after two weeks the title was declared a ‘flop’ in India (Bollywood box office analysts are brutal) even though it made 20 crore rupees in the first two weeks (around $2.86 million) in India.

Here’s a trailer (no subs) that demonstrates how Sweety’s ‘secret’ is kept.

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.