Category: Hindi Cinema

Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman

There were just the two of us in Screen 15 of Bradford Cineworld for a lunchtime screening of Raman Raghav 2.0, the latest from Anurag Kashyap, the doyen of the ‘new’ Indian Cinema. But then, a release during Ramadan in Bradford is always going to be tricky. When the trailers for upcoming Bollywood and Punjabi blockbusters had finished my companion remarked: “I see that Indian cinema makes crap movies too.” I assured him that an Anurag Kashyap film was a different proposition – but then remembered that Kashyap’s earlier film, the 1960s noir with a starry cast Bombay Velvet (2015), which I didn’t see, had been an expensive flop at the Indian box office. But I needn’t have worried. Kashyap’s new film, for the ‘directors’ company’ Phantom Films (Kashyap is one of four partners along with director Vikramaditya Motwane) approaches some similar material with a much more realistic budget (around US$600,000). This time the film is being distributed by the major Indian company Reliance which has taken a 50% stake in Phantom Films. Again this raises questions about Kashyap’s ‘independent’ status, but the film looks and feels like an ‘Indian Independent’ film.

Raman Raghav was a serial killer who murdered 41 people, mainly ‘street-dwellers’, in Bombay in the 1960s. We are told this in the opening titles for Raman Raghav 2.0 – but then told that: “This film is not about that case.” Instead, Kashyap has constructed a modern-day story about a Mumbai killer which uses some of the ‘real life’ 1960s story elements. Bombay Velvet was so expensive partly because it sought to recreate Bombay settings from the 1960s. In the new film Kashyap restricts himself to a limited number of locations, several using specific run-down or abandoned areas in the conurbation. The camerawork by Jay Oza (who IMDB lists as coming from a TV background) uses shallow focus on several shots allowing Kashyap to stylise scenes and make more of his limited range of locations. Kashyap also reduces costs by sticking to a relatively small number of characters and, apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, actors with limited exposure.

Siddiqui has become a major figure in independent cinema following his roles in earlier films directed or produced by Kashyap and he is mesmerising in this new film, ‘holding’ the screen with his portrayal of the killer Raman. This character displays what might be typical traits of working-class Indian characters – an obsequiousness towards police interrogators masking a terrifying hardness beneath which we eventually recognise the cold calculating mind. The narrative includes several sequences where Raman has either given himself up or been arrested but for various reasons the police interrogation fails to uncover/comprehend/accept what has happened. With little more than a few props (a facial scar, requests for cigarettes) Siddiqui takes control. The police officer in charge of the investigation is Ragav, played by Vicky Kaushal, a handsome young actor who also appeared in Bombay Velvet. Here he spends much of the time with a beard and dark glasses, shielding himself and his drugs habit from his colleagues. As his character’s name suggests, Kashyap and co-scriptwriter Vasan Bala have turned the hunt for a serial killer into a psychological thriller in which ‘Raman Raghav’ has become ‘Raman and Raghav’. This takes us into a discussion of references, sources, influences.

Vicky Kaushal as Raghav

Vicky Kaushal as Raghav

The narrative is divided into chapters with titles that refer to either a character or a distinct narrative action. The Sister, the Hunter, the Hunted etc. are offered as chapter titles in presentation which resembles street signage – like white chalk on a black background or whitewash used for grocer’s display boards. For some critics this has recalled Tarantino, but it is also a nod towards classical storytelling of different kinds. The presentation of the titles reminded me of Se7en and Siddiqui does have the same kind of presence as Kevin Spacey. The Se7en parallels can be traced further but for me the Hollywood influence seemed to be Hitchcockian, especially around that idea that the investigator is locked into a relationship with the criminal. The detective may be becoming like the killer and that the killer is able to control the detective because of his weaknesses. The classic Highsmith/Hitchcock Strangers On a Train comes to mind as well as the ambiguous hero/investigators of Rear Window and Marnie. However, I stopped thinking about Hollywood during one interrogation scene in which Raman seemed to refer to the Ramayana. I’m grateful to the New Indian Express review by Aditya Shrikrishna which provides the way in to the analysis I was struggling to make. Shrikrishna actually begins by linking Raman Raghav 2.0 to Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan/Raavan (2010). Ratnam’s Tamil and Hindi versions of the same script met with a similar rush of uncomprehending social media comments which failed to grapple with what was a much clearer take on the Ramayana myth with contemporary characters in a contemporary setting. Now Kashyap might be suffering in the same way  – with a genre film that offers much more than the thrills and chills, sex and violence offered by the mainstream.

Sobhita Dhulipala as Simmy

Sobhita Dhulipala as Simmy

If, like me, you have only a sketchy notion of what the Ramayana is about, it involves Rama and his wife Sita in an epic story that at one point involves Rama in a battle with Ravana in which Sita is threatened. Kashyap’s script is an inverse of this so that Sita, in the form of Simmy (former Miss India 2013, Sobhita Dhulipala), is the girlfriend of Raghav and a potential target for Raman. Shrikrishna in the New India Express review reads one scene in the film between Raghav and Simmy in an illuminating way and it occurs to me that two of the best sequences in the film are those in which Raman visits his sister Lakshmi who he hasn’t seen for years and the bedroom scene described by Shrikrishna. Dhulipala and Amruta Subhash, who plays Lakshmi, both do very well in difficult parts.

I’ve seen one review which describes the film as ‘vile’ and others that describe the women as ‘submissive/passive’ and criticise the lack of background given to the characters. I’m not sure the latter criticism is important in this kind of story which has no claim to realism or sociological treatise. It uses banal genre conventions but it is delving into dark questions about corruption. The scene in the sister’s apartment is genuinely terrifying but most of the time the actual killings are not shown. Instead we hear the sound of a heavy wheel wrench being dragged along the pavement and then the horrible sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Hitchcock again? The film does have a soundtrack of techno music with some very strange lyrics at times. I would need at least one more viewing to say more about the music and overall sound design. I would tend to agree with Shrikrishna again in thinking that Kashyap’s quickly shot low-budget film has all the benefits of vitality – but perhaps it is sometimes just too clever? There was one moment in a chase sequence when I groaned out loud at one over familiar trick. Perhaps it was a joke. Even so, I would very much recommend Raman Raghav 2.0. Along with Suburra which I saw the next day, it helped me to find genre films with enough intelligence to restore my faith in popular cinema.

This is quite a useful trailer demonstrating some of the points made above. It refers to the film’s appearance at Cannes 2016 – Kashyap has found this useful in developing an international profile:

GFF16 #2: Guilty (Talvar, India 2015)

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

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

Here’s a good example of the new form of Indian cinema the (H)indie or ‘New Bollywood’ film. Talvar boasts two of the stars of crossover films in India in lead roles and a third in a cameo role. Irrfan Khan is now one of the best-known Indian stars worldwide after appearances in global blockbusters like The Life of Pi and Jurassic World, as well as both Indian independent and mainstream Bollywood films. Konkona Sen Sharma is known for Bengali films, Bollywood films and the independent films of her mother Aparna Sen. Tabu starred opposite Irrfan Khan in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) and a host of other independent films as well as Bollywood films. Here she has a small role as the wife who Irrfan’s character is divorcing. The film is a directed by Meghna Gulzar with script and music from Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014). Each of the three stars have worked with Bhardwaj before (Tabu and Irrfan Khan play the modern-day Macbeths in Maqbool) and Talvar appears as the production of friends who just happen to be Indian cinema aristocrats. I thought at first that this was a real ‘independent production’ because none of the major Indian (or Hollywood) media corporations was involved. Then I discovered that Junglee Films is actually the new ‘movie arm’ of the Times of India Group – which describes itself as “India’s biggest media corporation”, owning mainly print and broadcasting brands. This makes it surprising that the film has not so far been released in the UK and Junglee Films seeks to make films for ‘the diaspora market’ as well as the Indian film market. (See press notes.)

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

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

Talvar is what used to be known in Hollywood as a “torn from the headlines film”. In fact it is the fourth attempt to create a narrative inspired by a double murder case in Northern India in 2008. (See this Wikipedia page.) The story involves a dentist’s household in a ‘colony’ in the city of Noida – a modern planned city in the ‘Capital City Region’ of Delhi, known for its wealthy residents. When the cleaner comes in the early morning she finds the door locked and when she gets in she is faced with the distressed parents Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma) who have seemingly just discovered the body of their 14 year-old daughter lying on her bed with her throat cut. The police are called and an investigation begins – but it is not until some time later that a second body, the male household servant, is found on the roof terrace. The film then proceeds with what is often now referred to as a ‘Rashomon approach’ following Kurosawa Akira’s famous film in which the same incident is viewed from the several different perspectives of the characters involved.

The first investigation by the Uttar Pradesh Police is clumsy with evidence not collected, lost or damaged and a second investigation is ordered by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This team is led by Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Kahn) a brilliant detective with some odd habits. His investigation offers a different suggestion as to who is guilty but he is then taken off the case and a second CBI team with another rather odd detective takes over and produces a third version of what actually happened. Finally, the new CBI Chief tries to make sense of what the three investigations have achieved before a judge takes over and prosecutes the parents.

The film is 132 minutes long – about standard for a Hollywood procedural with a similar plot. I did notice a point in the narrative where an ‘Intermission’ might have been placed for the Indian release. The film does use songs, but in the Western mode such as playing over a montage and not in the Bollywood manner, effectively pausing and reflecting on the narrative with choreographed dance moves. The film also has more of a sense of an ensemble cast, so that the stars are not constantly on screen. The question is whether Irrfan Khan’s star status (and undoubted on-screen charisma) means that we believe his character’s version of the events of the murder more than we do the others. This is important because the audience (in India at least) knows that the parents are in prison.

It isn’t difficult to see why the film has created so much interest in India. As well as the intriguing puzzle of a version of the old ‘locked room’ murder case, the film offers a form of commentary on several aspects of contemporary Indian society. The Indian police have a very bad reputation for brutal treatment of suspects, the senior officers and government officials are depicted as covering for each other as part of a club culture and the perennial question of Indian bureaucracy comes up in relation to evidence. A more specific discourse here deals with a Nepalese migrant community in North India where suspicion of minorities from the North and East appears rife (the dead house servant is Nepalese). And in all of this the divorce of Ashwin and Reema (Irrfan Khan and Tabu) seems particularly poignant. I have seen stories which involve campaigns to investigate murders and seek redress and I’ve seen films which depict legal procedures in India but I don’t think I’ve seen a detailed police procedural before and not one that involves family relationships in this way. The media coverage/intrusion seems almost lost in the midst of everything else. It’s almost as if there is too much to fit in and I would like to see the film again to fully understand how it works. I’m sure, however, that this is a very important film and I hope a UK distributor decides to pick it up.

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):

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.

The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:

These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.

Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.

Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –

The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.

Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.

This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema.  Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.

The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.

Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.

The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film.  The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:

Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.

Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.

The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:

In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.

Vijay is a poet who

encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.

[including Meena].

Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.

The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title.  The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha

combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.

The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.

Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.

This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film

Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.

The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:

It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.

(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that

the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.

Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.

This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.

This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.

The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.

The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.

Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in

 

Highway (India 2014)

Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and Veera (Alia Bhatt) on the last leg of their journey.

Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and Veera (Alia Bhatt) on the last leg of their journey.

This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.

Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.

The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.

I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.

Vicky Donor (India 2012)

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of 'Vicky Donor'

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of ‘Vicky Donor’

Vicky Donor is a successful example of the ‘New Bollywood’ trend. With a relatively small budget and an ‘edgy’ theme it pleased both critics and popular audiences and became a hit. Produced by the Bollywood star John Abraham, it is the work of the pairing of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, the latter pair first meeting in the advertising industry. The trio have recently worked on Madras Cafe, a critical success, albeit much more controversial. Since its release was abandoned by my local multiplex chain, I’ll have to wait to see it but on the evidence of Vicky Donor, it should be worth seeking out. Perhaps, like Vicky Donor, it will get an airing on Channel 4 in the UK?

The ‘taboo’ in Vicky Donor is the subject of sperm donation and infertility treatment – a subject for comedy in many film cultures I think and Vicky Donor has been seen as similar to the Québécois film Starbuck from 2011 (now being remade in Hollywood). However, the Indian cultural context is quite different and what we get here is a ‘romantic comedy-drama’. Vicky is a young unemployed man living quite comfortably off his hard-working mother who runs a beauty parlour in the Punjabi ‘colony’ district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. One day he is spotted by Dr. Chaddha (veteran actor Annu Kapoor) who runs an ailing fertility clinic which needs to find a new donor of high quality sperm as soon as possible. Dr. Chaddha can tell just by looking at his face that Vicky will have a high sperm count. In one of the sensitive themes explored in the film we learn that Chaddha is looking for his ‘Alexander’ – a sperm donor who carries the genes of the Macedonian general who arrived in what is now the Punjab in 326 BC. This ‘Alexander’ represents what the subtitles call the ‘Pure Aryan’ legacy, a tricky concept for European audiences and many Indians I think. In the context, I would let this go but a serious drama around this issue would be interesting.

Vicky takes some persuading to become a donor but eventually the monetary rewards win him over and the next phase of the narrative deals with his meeting and courtship with Ashima, the rather aloof young woman at his local bank. I confess that I found the first part of the narrative rather slow and hard to get into but when the romance begins it picks up markedly. I realise now that it is important to set up the specifics of the Punjabi community. Vicky lives with his mother and his grandmother – a remarkably ‘progressive’ woman by comparison with her daughter. Ashima is a Bengali, so the second ‘sensitive’ issue is the play on the stereotypes of Punjabi and Bengali life. I was reminded of the Chetan Bhagat novel 2 States where the couple comprise Punjabi boy and Tamil girl. My impression is that Punjabis, Bengalis and Tamils are the most circulated regional identities in Indian popular culture. Interestingly writer Chaturvedi and director Sircar are from Punjab and West Bengal, but they have exchanged genders in creating the two lead characters. I was quite taken with the young couple and I think part of the charm of the film is that they were not stars (though the film’s success has now helped them get more lead roles. Ayushmann Khurrana has come out of TV where he has been a presenter and VJ. Yami Gautam similarly began in TV (ads and soaps) and this was her first Hindi film.

The final part of the film deals with the fall-out of the revelation of Vicky’s earlier ‘career’. By this stage I was enjoying the film very much and I thought the ending, though conventional, worked well. Overall, Vicky Donor does confirm the emergence of a new kind of Bollywood film. There is more reference to the realism of the lives depicted (at least in terms of regional culture) and the central issue is handled with some intelligence (although there does appear to be a major plot hole in the resolution). There are eight songs carefully integrated in the action, including this one sung by Ayushmann Khurrana that acts as a promo for the film – enjoy!:

Satyagraha (India 2013)

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in 'Satyagraha'

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in ‘Satyagraha’

I only see the occasional mainstream Bollywood film on release, but I try to keep up with how the industry is changing so I joined four other brave souls for a lunchtime screening of the latest film to star the ‘Big B’, Amitabh Bachchan.  I knew little about the director Prakash Jha except that he is an industry veteran. It was only afterwards that I realised that he had made similar films in the past, including Raajneeti (2010) which has a narrative comprising very similar elements to Satyagraha – and three key stars are common to both films. So, we are dealing here with familiar genre material for mainstream Hindi cinema: corruption in business, politics and the police force and a specific family situation involving possible betrayals of principle etc. My real interest is in whether the material is being presented in a different way, engaging its audiences differently etc. In particular, I’m interested in possible indications that ‘new’ Bollywood or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ is having an impact on the mainstream.

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Satyagraha is being promoted as a ‘political thriller’ that is ‘torn from the headlines’, enabling some reviewers to claim that this is a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ etc. I think that this is unlikely – but the film kept me entertained for its 152 minutes and early reports suggest that it is a hit in India (on 2,400 to 2,500 screens). The title refers to the practice of non-violent activism or resistance to bad government and specifically to the campaigns led by Gandhi. The Gandhi figure in the film is a retired headmaster played by Amitabh Bachchan who is trying to build a school for the poor children in his part of town in a district of Madhya Pradesh in North Central India – the literal geographical ‘heart of India’ (most of the film seems to have been shot around Bhopal). In one of those beloved Hindi cinema conventions, Daduji has a son, a brilliant civil engineer involved in developing the region with new roads. In a prologue we see the son about to be married and welcoming back his childhood friend, an orphan who has been more or less adopted by Daduji’s family. This is Manav played by Ajay Devgn – a very different ‘young man’ (the actor is in his 40s) who has chosen to become an unscrupulous entrepreneur in the telecoms industry. Manav is not very welcome now in Daduji’s household, but he returns when a tragedy occurs. The tragedy and its aftermath also attracts a crusading TV journalist played by Kareena Kapoor. For the media, the story begins when Daduji, finally snapping after the latest insult to poor people seeking their rights, slaps the local government official and ends up in the local cells. Manav with the help of one of Daduji’s former pupils (Arjun Rampal) organises a local campaign to free the old man.

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Manav’s prowess with mobile phone technology and social media use means that the campaign takes off very rapidly. This aspect of the film can be seen as both a contemporary reference and as an attempt to exploit some of the innovations of earlier similar films that feature social media such as No One Killed Jessica. It’s also part of the film’s attempt to attract younger viewers with an element of youth rebellion like that in Rang De Basanti. But of course, this is Bollywood – all the technology works instantly on huge screens with perfect pictures etc. In fact there is an enormous amount of product placement which seems rather incongruous when the main thrust of the story at least moves away from the metros and artificiality of most Bollywood towards the poorest part of India. But then, this is billed as a ‘middle-class revolution’, requiring the audience to negotiate that knotty problem around what ‘middle-class’ actually means in modern India. I would say that all the main participants are relatively privileged, but to be fair to the script, the real story is about how this group attempts to take on leadership of the ‘ordinary people’ – and finds it quite difficult to maintain a Gandhian consistency of action. The script brings in questions of communalism as well as corruption and hypocrisy.

This isn’t a masala film if by that term we mean a mixture of romance, action, adventure and comedy. It sticks largely to the central narrative which commentators have suggested draws heavily on the ‘real world’ story of the campaigner Anna Hazare – especially as a hunger strike is included. The songs in the film are mainly integrated into the storyline – in the muted romance moments and as part of the large public events. This means that the traditional appeals to the audience, beyond the central social issue, come from the ‘large’ performances by the film’s stars. Amitabh Bachchan pulls out all the stops and is certainly worth watching. Kareena Kapoor struck me as miscast – but then casting a female Bollywood star as a glamorous reporter is now so clichéd in films like this that the role seems impossible. The most intriguing casting is that of the chief villain, the local politico played by Manoj Bajpai who was so good as the gangster leader in Gangs of Wasseypur. Here he gives a highly coloured performance, complete with what looks like a jet-black wig. He even has a comedy henchman. Having said that, in a mainstream popular feature, the villain needs to be distinctive and he fulfils the role well.

I don’t know whether the film will prove to be an example of how traditional Bollywood can hold on to its ‘all-India’ audience while it tries to please the younger, better-educated metro cinemagoers with more radical stories. Bollywood Trade suggests that its prime audience seems to be in those regions outside the metros – in Central India. Meanwhile Sharukh Khan in Chennai Express cleans up across the Hindi cinema universe. Perhaps I’ll try to catch it.

Here’s the title song for Satyagraha: