Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Indian Film Today


Over the last three years, the best film I've seen every year has been from India.

2015- COURT

Court is not just one of the best films to come out of India; it is also the best film about India. In fact I think this is one of the best films to come out of anywhere period.

A film so restrained that it doesn't have any background music score; Court is a masterful exploration of Indian justice and socio-economic differences. It is unjudgmental towards its characters and entirely trusting of its audience to make up their own minds about what and whom they see on the screen- where they eat, what they eat, how they commute and how they spend their leisure time if they are privileged enough to have any. Also it captures the essence of India in its depiction of a people who just forge on with their mundane, often seemingly purposeless lives, undeterred. What else can they possibly do? You have to do what you have to and the invisible power structure will accordingly thwart or support you.

I believe the Oscars missed a huge trick by not nominating and awarding this original and pertinent film whose reputation will only grow in years to come. That it was the first film of a 27-year-old Chaitanya Tamhane makes him somewhat of an Indian Orson Welles, a filmmaker so confident and unafraid that the documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) called "Court" the masterpiece of the decade. Sometimes genius exists in our own backyard, yet we fail to applaud it though outsiders see it as plain obvious.  
Mention must be made of the brilliant producer/actor Vivek Gomber for creating conditions that allowed that genius to flourish.

Standout sequences:

The uncomfortable grilling of the guest at lunch by the lawyer's parents, the section at the end with the superstitious judge, and the Goymari sect sequence which ends memorably (and notably off-screen) outside the popular Chetana Restaurant in Mumbai.

2016 -SAIRAT

A film that lulls you into thinking you are watching a typical musical love story (several comparisons have been made with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.) But this is all part of Manjule's long game, he takes you through the conventions gloriously, the sweeping love songs, the "meet cutes”, the familiar familial opposition but then he switches gears. Once you are secure, he hits you with the movie he really wants to make - one about the brutality of India's caste system and the impossibility of sustaining love. Moreover he does this with perhaps one of the best female characters in Indian cinema - the irrepressible and defiant Archie. The film is really about her. In the first half of the film she exerts her independence and authority by virtue of the power granted to her by caste and status, in the second half she has to rediscover it by empowerment through employment - by finding her worth in the workplace.

Archie and Parshya are brutally tested - they think they have escaped the parental opposition and violence of their hometown but can their superficial relationship survive the pressures of economics, the big city, lifestyle changes and personality differences. In one of the film's great scenes, Parshya even slaps the independent Archie; violence towards women is all he knows. This is a brave directorial and writing choice - to have a lead character we like take this unpleasant step is risky. These are the kind of choices brave directors like Martin Scorsese make often but are rarely seen in Indian cinema (not since the early days of Benegal and Nihalani) Yes, the Bhiku Mhatre character in Satya slaps his wife but he is a gangster and an anti-hero, not a conventional leading man.  Moreover there the violence is immediately softened moments later by a cutesy love scene between husband and wife.  Here the moment, the buildup to that moment and the aftermath are about 10-12 minutes of screen time. We are put through the ringer before the letup.

Standout sequences:

The couple's arrival in Hyderabad and subsequent struggle with the reality of day-to-day living.

The fight in the restaurant that spills onto the street


A film so staggeringly ambitious and ridiculous but yet meticulously constructed with popular Indian tropes - the eternal mother in law-daughter in law battle which really is the central battlefield in a film filled with battle sequences, the all powerful Herculean/Samsonesque flawless hero whose long hair resembles another beloved national hero M.S. Dhoni (a deliberate choice I suspect)

Consumed by its excessive spectacle, one can easily miss the complex, carefully plotted screenplay (the film begins and ends with a ritualistic firewalk assisted by a son, the Pindari who kill people by drowning, meet their end in a watery grave)

Is it an imperfect film? Yes. Is the CG SFX poor in sections? Yes. Does it derive some of its ideas from 300, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars? Yes.
Is it nonsense?  Probably but it's glorious nonsense- with gorgeous, visceral imagery, a goose bump-inducing, chest thumping score, and enough myth making for ten films.

Bahubali is also very aware of the zeitgeist (the beheading of a sexual harasser actually caused the audience to clap in a screening I attended- I may or may not agree with its politics but remember this is something happening on a two dimensional screen provoking a physical reaction in an audience that 's aware it's watching a fictitious "ridiculous" work). This experience is very different from the catcalls and whistles that a Salman Khan or Rajnikant appearance guarantees by virtue of their star personas. That's a reaction to an individual, this is a pure reaction to something in the storytelling -whether that reaction is right or wrong is irrelevant.

Standout Sequence: The beautifully choreographed dance/battle sequence where Bahubali and Devasena fire multiple arrows at the enemy soldiers - a set piece" that in the words of Mike McCahill at the Guardian "speaks both to a love of action, and love in action".

All three films are brilliant to me in totally different ways, Court with its inordinate restraint, Bahubali with its glorious excess and Sairat somewhere in between. All require multiple viewings to be appreciated fully, all provoke discussions and debate and all are tremendously entertaining which is why we go to movies in the first place.  And all are united by a language of images.

Here are a few striking images that come to mind.

Court - The sewage worker's wife's face as she testifies in court- a portrait of pain and struggle

The sleeping judge on the park bench, a metaphor for justice in India  

Sairat - As Parshya and Archie flee the life of violence and run towards the train that will aid their escape, Archie tosses the gun, a symbol of the violent life they hope to leave behind.

Bahubali 2- The Herculean warrior Bahubali climbing atop two bullocks with horns on fire against the backdrop of a full moon, the stuff that heroic legends are made of


The villainous Bhalla walking against a fiery yellow background with the raging fire casting a 12 foot shadow of him making him seem even more imposing, the stuff that monster legends are made of
Notably, none of these films are made in Bollywood, an over-rated creation that undeservedly consumes attention, despite its sustained unprofitabity and mediocrity. I could go on about that but I'd rather end on a positive note and remark that these "regional" films are going places "Bollywood" rarely even dreams or dares to -- whether it's success at international festivals or international box offices or capturing people's hearts.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My Favorite Directors

1. Alfred Hitchcock

2.Billy Wilder

3.Martin Scorsese

4.Woody Allen

5.Oliver Stone

6.Michael Curtiz

7. William Wyler

8. Clint Eastwood

9.Vincente Minnelli

10.Francis Ford Coppola

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Best Billy Wilder Films

1. Double Indemnity(1944)

2. The Apartment(1960)

3. Ace In The Hole (1951)

4. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

5. The Lost Weekend (1945)

6. Love In The Afternoon(1957)

7. Sabrina (1954)

8. Stalag 17 (1953)

9. One,Two,Three (1961)

10. Fedora (1978)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Best Kevin Costner Films

1. JFK(1991)

2. Dances With Wolves(1990)

3. Tin Cup(1996)

4. Bull Durham(1988)

5. The Untouchables(1987)

6. For Love Of The Game(1999)

7. No Way Out(1987)

8. A Perfect World(1993)

Best Martin Scorsese Films

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

2. Goodfellas (1990)

3. Casino (1995)

4. The Aviator (2004)

5. Raging Bull (1980)

6. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

7. Cape Fear (1991)

8. Mean Streets (1973)

9. The Departed(2006)

10. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)

Taxi Driver (1976)

(spoilers ahead)

Early on in the film Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) cab passes a movie theatre playing “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” foreshadowing the end of the film. The violent world Travis inhabits is emphasized throughout . We hear shouting and fighting constantly in his apartment building. As he drives , we see a man on the street screaming “ I’ll kill her” . Later, one of Travis’
passengers ( Martin Scorsese) shares explicit details of his plan to shoot his adulterous wife. In this world the only fate possible for Travis is a violent one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Great Film Moments

(spoilers ahead)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

When faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) returns to the studio to discuss her comeback with director DeMille, he asks her to sit in his chair and wait till he finishes his rehearsal. At that moment a microphone swings above her and disturbs her hat much to her annoyance. This is apt since it was the advent of sound that effectively ended her film career.

The French Connection (1971)

The honest cop 'Popeye' Doyle (Hackman) is tailing the refined French drug baron Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) Charnier dines in an expensive, warm restaurant while Doyle waits in the freezing cold outside and eats bad pizza. A frustrated Doyle then pours the terrible cheap coffee he is drinking into the street . At the same moment, a waiter pours expensive coffee into Charnier's cup,immediately establishing the economic disparity between those who uphold the law and those who break it.