Category: Indian independent

Soni (India 2018)

Film_Companion_Soni_Ivan-Ayr_lead_26th-Oct

Cops on the street

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just Bollywood at HOME Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anurag Kashyap at the trailer launch for MUKKABAAZ in December 2017

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

Outline (no spoilers)

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

Jimmy Shergill as the terrifying Bhagwan Mishra

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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