Friday, January 29, 2016


Let me start with the extras on this Criterion DVD.  
The first segment is an interview of film critic, Ujjal Chakraborty, who explains the symbolism in the film through its various scenes and motifs. He draws from Ray’s storyboards, his cover designs and illustrations to explain Ray’s visual style though some of the examples of symbolism seemed a little stretched.
That is followed by a conversation with Satyajit Ray recorded in August 1958, when he visited USA. The interview is about his early filmmaking career, followed by a fairly detailed description of the making of Aparajito. Ray talks about composing his visuals and adding on music in great detail, confessing that “I like a bit of a rough edge to my films”.
After that, there is a video-essay with narration by Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer. If you are a Ray aficionado, you’d probably have read much of this (in Robinson’s biography itself) but there is still a lot of charm to hear it in Robinson’s voice.
The final piece is an absolute gem – a half-hour documentary made for Canadian television in 1967. Part of a series called ‘A Creative Person’, the short film shows him talking extensively about his though process during the filmmaking process and also shows him shooting with Uttam Kumar (on Chiriakhana), with him actually operating the camera and instructing actors. There are some extremely valuable scenes showing Ray location hunting and composing for (for Gupi Gayin Bagha Bayin) and explaining his choices. He is also doing something that later became a trademark – collecting props from a classmate’s palatial house for use in his films. The documentary also has his chief technicians – Subrata Mitra and Bansi Chandragupta – talk about their experiences of working with him.  His actors are interviewed including Madhabi who speaks in Bengali, with Soumitra translating it to English (both of them on sets and in costume for some period drama). The film gives an idea of Ray’s celebrity status (even when he was just a decade into making films) when he is mobbed by a huge crowd as he comes out of a location.
Ray’s very articulate self is intercut with scenes from Calcutta of that times (including some shots of browsing books on College Street). About Calcutta, he says, “[it is a] rich and dense and complex city… intellectually alert… people are constantly reacting to things… and as a filmmaker, that’s what interests me…” 
The extras are a sumptuous, juicy dessert after the feast of a film.

The restored version of Aparajito brings alive the dazzling power of the Kashi Vishwanath temple aarti, the aging elegance of Varanasi, the crumbling walls of the city, the intricate carvings inside mandirs and the dramatic light and shadow of the night scenes.  
And yet, the enhanced visual delight is just a support to the wonderful screenplay – of what is essentially a rambling story – that brings a certain pace to the proceedings. In his usual unobtrusive way, Ray paints some cruel pictures that are distressingly real. The casual ease with which a young boy leaves his sick father to burst Diwali crackers or gets over his father’s death is something picked up from real life and yet, something commercial cinema has never been able to depict.
Even the small characters like the lecherous Nanda Babu and the idealistic school Headmaster are so well-written and lovingly detailed that there is never a boring moment. (And yes, the caricature of the headmaster on the school wall was done by Ray himself.)
Karuna Banerjee’s performance as Sarbajaya is surely one of the finest acting performances in Indian cinema. Apart from her speech and facial expressions, even her body language evolves in the film as she goes from being a sheltered wife to a strong single bread earner to a neglected mother. The dark circles under her eyes, the roughness of her hair, the frailness of her gait, the gradual wilting of her voice all add up to a towering performance.
While Hindi cinema is about the bombastically sacrificial mother, Sarbajaya exemplifies the ‘strong silent type’ who sacrifices a lot because she is determined not to let her son become a rich household’s minion. Her limited world view makes her want her son to become a priest in the family traditions but when the son’s strong ambitions are made clear, she is the one who finds the funds to make it possible. When the young Apu says “Maa, ami schooley jabo” (Maa, I want to go to school) and asks her for money, her helplessness gives way to a resolve, one that only mothers are capable of.
She is obviously not keen on her son going away and her argument with Apu about his future in Calcutta is a distressing one because it is the sort of argument that parents always lose, or maybe they want to lose. Again, her grief gives way to resolve and the scene in which Sarbajaya packs Apu’s suitcase is so well-written and well-performed that you don’t realise that both the writer and actor are just two films old.

When Apu comes back home from Calcutta, Sarbajaya recounts her fears of disease and death to him while – oblivious to all that – a tired Apu drifts off to sleep. One is reminded of a similar scene in Pather Panchali when Sarbajaya rambled to Harihar and her husband too drifted off to sleep. From son to husband (and maybe her father before that), Sarbajaya is the Indian Everywoman.
In the final scenes, when she resignedly says “Shey jodi ashey to nijei ashbey” (He will come on his own if he has to), it just brings a heartbreaking curtain down on her life of struggles.

To bring this to an end, I will link a letter Mrinal Sen’s son wrote to his mother about the impact Aparajito had on a group of Indian students in the US in mid-1980s. I think it brings alive at least a part of what I felt during this viewing of Aparajito.
The last time I watched Aparajito, I was on Apu’s side. This time, I had shifted over to Sarbajaya’s. I think this is what distinguishes a master’s works from those by lesser mortals. The work has a new relevance and a new meaning every time you watch it.

[Frivolous Footnote: In one scene, Apu gleefully tells his friend that he has ‘managed’ to wriggle out of going home for the vacations by sending a money order to his mother. His belief that his mother would be satisfied with the money reminded me of Deewaar, where another son tried to buy his mother’s support for his wrongdoings.]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

6. Airlift

More than one and a half lakh Indians get stranded in a country which is invaded by dictator. Who – do you think – would take the lead to rescue them?
1. Air India / Indian Airlines
2. Minister of External Affairs
3. Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs
4. A Punjabi businessman
Facts of the matter be damned, when a Katyal played by no less than a Bhatia saunters into the stage with a Kaur in tow, I don’t think any part of the Indian government machinery really stands a chance. 

After the release of Airlift, many individuals have come forward to claim that the Indian government and its national carrier played a stellar role in the evacuation of the Indians stranded in Kuwait during Iraq’s invasion. But frankly, when they show Air India pilots reluctant to undertake the evacuation mission or a craven minister in a minority government, they hit home so well that you tend not to dig into the facts of the case. 
The film ends with a tribute to two South Indian (most likely, Malayali) gentlemen who were largely responsible for the Indians leaving Kuwait safe and sound via Jordan. The rationale for changing the Malayalis to Punjabi was rather obvious. I could not imagine Akshay Kumar pulling off a Mallu accent or Mohanlal pulling in a capacity crowd outside of Kerala (and maybe, Gelf)! 
[This was somewhat reminiscent of No One Killed Jessica, where the Barkha Dutt character was depicted ‘stinging’ the Shayan Munshi character while it was Tehelka magazine which had done it IRL. Tehelka got a mention for ‘Breakthrough Journalism’ in the end.]

Many have declared Airlift to be the finest performance in Akshay Kumar’s career. While that is debatable (and Special 26 comes to mind as a contender), he does put up a splendid performance as Ranjit Katyal – a wheeling dealing businessman who becomes a messiah almost by accident. The devil-may-care attitude at the beginning, his change of heart when he sees his driver getting shot and his reluctant shepherding of the Indian masses have been most realistically portrayed. Nimrat Kaur, on the other hand, has precious little to do except for one scene (which she does extremely well).
Apart from the performances, what made Airlift really good is the slow transition it depicted in all the characters. The transition of Nimrat Kaur from the exasperated wife to the understated supporter was very well-written (apart from being well-performed). The transformation of a Foreign Ministry official from a foot-dragging minion to crusader for the 'refugees' is done with a lovely balance of realism and emotion. 

One of the most difficult things – I think – in Hindi cinema is to make a rousing film with a patriotic message without degenerating into jingoism. And this, Airlift does exceedingly well. The diversity of India is brought out beautifully, without going over the top. The motivations of the people, their unconscious selfishness, their self-conscious beliefs are all seamlessly woven into the script.

And the high point of the film – for me – was done superbly despite being expected. At Jordan’s Amman airport, the fleeing Indians are met with typical bureaucratic apathy and absolutely no signpost for them to reach out to. All the nations had put up flags to guide their citizens, except for India. And just then, the Air India official receives a call from New Delhi and wheels start turning. As Akshay Kumar – who often claimed to be Kuwaiti early in the film – looks up, we see a nondescript airport official hoisting the Indian flag and with its unfurling, we get the climax we came for. Many of us stand during national anthems, many of us don’t, some of us are made to… but the honest truth is that when you see the three colours forming a perfect arc as someone straightens the flagpole and fixes it to the ground, you have to really hate your country to not have a lump in your throat. 
And Airlift is a good place to test that out.

As a footnote, I would like to add a Facebook post from a friend. Her father, then working for Air India, was part of the team stationed in Amman for nearly three months to evacuate the Indians. Going off to a war zone for three months at three days' notice... wonder if there is a film in that story?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

5. Monchora

Monchora is the story of a charming thief, who enters a household to steal a priceless gem, and then things get complicated with the presence of a young woman in the household with whom he forms a mixed doubles team and wins the Australian Open. Well, no… of course, not! What are you thinking?
Written by Saradindu Banerjee probably in the 1950s, the story has a certain charm unique to those times, when life was simpler and people were innocent. A film out of such a story can be very promising if it made as a period film or modernized suitably. Monchora does neither and falls flat as a rather dull mish-mash.

Thieves with hearts of gold do have an appeal, if presented intelligently but their motivations and – as importantly – modus operandi have to engage the audience. Thieves wearing black, jumping off parapets and picking up prawn cutlets instead of jewellery could work in a French farce but one needs that mood to hold from start to finish.
Apart from not being updated psychologically, the film doesn’t even keep pace in physical terms. So, Rs 3000 is made to seem like a large amount when a wastrel asks for it – a sum unlikely to last more than half an evening in the places he seems to be frequenting with his lady love. Calcutta’s police chief is constantly hobnobbing with a man whose weekly expenses are no more than Rs 7500 and who doesn’t seem to have any known source of income or power.
Another thing about this film – and most Sandeep Ray films – is the juvenile art direction. A supposedly priceless ruby looks like child’s trinket, bigger and redder than a sugary lozenge. In another scene, a very expensive diamond ring looks like something you’d pick off those temporary stalls that come up during the Pujas. Bengali cinema is no longer hamstrung by low budgets and surely, there are enough jewellery brands – or visual effects studios – who can make these look a bit more believable. This is even more jarring because there are much better looking Bengali films nowadays and certainly the days of clunky sets and props are behind us.
The lead players – especially Saswata Chatterjee – bring in their considerable charisma but the script lets them down and they seldom look more than cardboard cutouts. This story and these characters would have done great in the times of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – backed by some kickass music – but in the present day and age, it just doesn’t cut ice. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pather Panchali

For the last several years I have been waiting for the restored version of the Apu Trilogy and when it released (theatrically in the US), I waited patiently for at least the DVDs to come to India. When that did not happen, I went to Amazon USA, bought the set and had it shipped to India – easily the most expensive individual piece of cinema I have bought.
I expected to not like it as much as my earlier viewings because I was now a cynical, jaded, middle-aged man – immune to (and far away from) the Bengali fandom of the legendary director. My reaction to Pather Panchali – which I watched today – was one of stunned silence, broken by the occasional tear. 
Pather Panchali – to borrow a phrase that came nearly six decades after it – was EPIC. I cannot recommend it enough.

From my earlier viewings of Pather Panchali, my most abiding memories were some of the striking scenes – the train scene, the sweet seller scene, Indir Thakurun’s death, Durga’s death and so on. I expected to be wowed by those visuals once again and more so, because this was on a restored print. But while the visuals were more vivid than anything I had seen before, what struck me this time was the purity of the emotions, realness of the relationships and the consistency of characterisations. And I say this not only in the context of this film but the entire Trilogy.

Sarbajaya and Harihar form such a real couple, with contrasting character traits – one hardened by the travails of a life of poverty, the other retaining an intellectual, idealistic and somewhat unreal view of life. Their uneasy partnership in negotiating life, celebrating little joys, looking forward to a better tomorrow while mired in penury did not touch me all that much when I watched it last (probably twenty years back) but as a married man today, it just broke my heart.
The ups and downs of their married life, the ebb and flow of their relationship is from a film made in 1956 and a book written in the 1930s… and yet, it is so real that I could recognize them in scenes that I see with married couples today. If this is not a triumph of characterization, I don’t know what is.

Durga and Apu form a very real pair of siblings, the kind of relationship that is again heartbreakingly real and only possible when the elder sibling is a girl. Apu’s devotion to his sister and Durga’s protective arm around her brother form some of the most beautiful scenes in the film. Again, the relationship stood out this time – even more than the beauty of the scenes they did together. Their chasing of the sweet-seller after having to say no to his wares establishes both the joys and sorrows of their lives succinctly and evocatively.
For me, the defining scene of Pather Panchali is the one where Apu gets ready for school after Durga’s death and walks down the village path alone – especially when contrasted with the earlier scene of Apu and Durga together.
One thing that struck me while watching the film today was that Durga had no photographs and Apu’s memory of his sister would have got obscured with time. Or maybe not. Maybe the memories grew vivid as his imagination would have taken over the fading memories.

A small but critical relationship in the film was the one between Durga and Indir Thakurun, the aunt-niece bond leading them to close ranks whenever either of them landed in any kind of problem. The 'villain' of this piece was Sarbajaya, whose maternal instincts often overruled any civility that she could have offered her sister-in-law. In such a context, it is particularly distressing that it was Durga who discovered her aunt's dead body and the sickening thud with which Indir's body falls is a devastating end to the relationship. 

I could go on and on about Pather Panchali and I will probably come back to it later. For the time being, I will end with two characters that stood out more this time than the earlier times.  
Chunibala Devi (playing Indir Thakurun) turns in a remarkable performance, given that it comes from a person who was more than eighty years of age when she did the film. Her emotions, her voice, her physical gestures are so perfect that it is difficult to accept her scenes as anything other a documentary. In this restored version, you could even see her parched leathery skin and her tattered saree – one a testament to the director’s casting skills and the other to the crew’s attention to detail.  
Tulsi Banerjee (as the teacher-schoolmaster) stood out in his short screen-time – his bulging eyes providing a canvas of expressiveness and his mannerisms bringing the character alive. This role was, of course, the precursor to an even more fantastic role he did in Paraspathar a couple of years later.

The DVD has some excellent supplementary material, all unseen and delightful.
A Long Time on the Little Road is an audio track of Satyajit Ray reading out his account of the making of the film (the text version of which appeared in Sight and Sound magazine). The beauty of the account is matched perfectly by the mellifluous quality of his voice.
An interview of Soumitra Chatterjee has him talking about the impact Pather Panchali – both book and film – had on the Bengali psyche and he is his usual articulate, Ray-fanboy self!
The most delightful part – for me – was an interview of Shampa Srivastava, who played the young Durga in the film (and was credited as Runki Banerjee) and is Karuna Banerjee’s daughter. She had some beautiful recollections of the shooting and listening to her recounting them in an American accent (while pronouncing the Bengali names correctly) was just amazing. [I never ever imagined I would find an actor of Pather Panchali on LinkedIn but I did! Here.]
Two short interviews of Ravi Shankar (who composed the music) and Soumyendu Roy (who was a camera assistant on Pather Panchali and became Ray’s cinematographer later on) brought out interesting angles to the making of this classic.

Many students of filmmaking have said that they have learnt from Ray’s films. I am not sure how much they gleaned from Pather Panchali because it seems – to me – not a craftsman’s output that one can learn from but the production of a genius working at the peak of his powers.
I am neither a film expert nor a student of filmmaking. I can only confess to being completely blown away by the film. I don’t think I have learnt anything from Pather Panchali. I just know I am a better human being for having seen it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

4. Kill Bill Vol 1

A woman is beaten to an inch of death at her wedding and every one of the guests, her groom and her unborn child are killed. She goes into a coma for four years but wakes up to start taking revenge on her adversaries.
Zanjeer meets Khoon Bhari Maang meets Ambe Maa Blood Bank is Quentin Tarantino's supposed masterpiece, double-billed, celluloid classic - Kill Bill Vol 1.

I have heard people go into paroxysms of delight merely on hearing Tarantino's name and indeed, he has some excellent films to his credit but sadly, I cannot add Kill Bill Vol 1 to it. Since the story is something we grew up with (in India), the choreographed violence or the occasional gimmick (a graphic novel animation style to describe one story segment) was just not enough to keep me awake and alert till the end. I watched only because I had to count one up on the #100MoviePact.
The last line is a big kicker, nicely announcing the Vol 2, but that was too little, too late for me.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

3. Wazir

Many years ago, I happened to come across a poster on the ‘net for a film called 64 Squares. To be directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, it was supposed to be a film about two adversaries meeting across a chessboard. It was initially supposed to be his first foray into Hollywood and names like Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins were bandied about. But in pre-Quantico USA, I am not sure if any serious discussions with these stars had actually happened or it was just the filmmaker’s wishlist. 
In Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, the author recalls receiving a poster for a film called Chess and he mentions that Chopra wanted him to co-write the script. Since Mehta was busy with completing the book, nothing came out of this offer (or the casting).

Subsequently, this morphed into an Indian project with Amitabh Bachchan and Anupam Kher in the lead and that was tantalizing enough for me. Those of you who remember Kher from his pre-political days would agree that he is a phenomenal actor, one of the few in Hindi cinema who can be in a scene with AB and not get chewed up. Nothing came out after this either.  

When I was writing my first book on Bollywood, I had gotten in touch with Vinod Chopra Films (in late 2011) and asked them for any posters or publicity material that they may have of 64 Squares. The CEO, Sameer Rao replied, “Coincidentally, 64 Squares in back in development. We do not have anything to share about the project as of now.” I was excited to the point of asphyxiation but unfortunately, nothing about the film came out immediately after that either.

Talking about 64 Squares (which has been called Chess and Move 5 at different points in time) during the pre-launch publicity campaign of Wazir, Vidhu Vinod Chopra revealed that the two films are completely different and only the chess theme was common.
The original film was built around the murder of champion badminton player, Syed Modi. Modi was murdered in 1988 and the script was in development since the early 1990s. Amitabh Bachchan heard the script sometime in early 2000s, loved it a lot and even loved the new version enough to agree to do it.
In a way, Wazir is that chess film Vidhu Vinod Chopra always wanted to make – though the avatar is completely different now.

A bereaved anti-terrorist cop and a handicapped chess enthusiast form an unlikely but intriguing lead pair in Wazir, which is an interesting thriller set in the politics of present-day India. 
To summarise my recommendation:
Hardcore thriller fans                     Avoid
Bollywood fans                              Worth a try
Amitabh Bachchan fans                 Must watch

As a thriller in which a cop takes on a murder case outside the call of his duty, Wazir is only moderately interesting and has some pretty obvious plot holes and a slowish second half. But as a vehicle for the histrionics of Amitabh Bachchan, Wazir is first rate because the actor just makes the role of Omkarnath Dhar his own. 
As the grieving father who gives lesson in chess to children and takes lessons out of chess as well, Bachchan is pitch perfect – making us realise once again that he’s still an acting powerhouse. Farhan and the supporting cast (including Neil Nitin Mukesh) just provide the cues for Bachchan to deliver an impeccable performance. (Oh yes… he does a great drunken scene, after several years! And has some kickass lines written by Abhijeet Deshpande.)
Vinod Chopra has a fascination for the land of his childhood – Kashmir – and the beautiful state provides an amazing locale for the climax. The music was great in an offbeat sort of way too. If only they had managed to craft the second half into a tighter story and the climactic twist was better constructed, Wazir would have become an iconic film instead of being merely a very good one.

Endnote: The publicity line for 64 Squares was: “Two players. One alive. One dead. A game unfinished.”

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2. Court

Court came highly recommended, having mopped up awards and acclaim from all quarters and even being India’s entry to the Oscars (though past history indicates that is neither a necessary nor sufficient indicator of quality).

Court is an intricate study of the Indian legal system, as it plays out in the lower courts where the State (through its various arms) quietly and efficiently strangles voices against it. Narayan Kamble, a folk singer – is accused of abetment of suicide, sedition, terrorism and what not – for performing songs that question the system. It raises some key questions about freedom of expression and its interpretation from different ends of the political/administrative spectrum. And it does so in an indirect way, tracing the lives of the defence and prosecution lawyers and the presiding judge. 

The body-language of Court: The Accused

The body-language of Court: The Lawyers
What Court does really well is in the acting department (and the casting is spot on as well). The prosecution lawyer (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) – for me – was the performance of the film, even overshadowing the central character, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar).
The film – a dark satire – does a fly-on-the-wall on the Sessions Courts of Mumbai, tracking the desultory proceedings populated by sleeping lawyers, disinterested audiences on phones and judges who have the strangest prejudices. Some great scenes are not related to the narrative at all – one, for example, has a judge postponing a hearing because the respondent violates the principle of ‘modest dressing in courts’.
Court also has some very interesting asides on life in Mumbai – its decrepit chawls, cramped middle-class flats, its entertainment, its jingoism, its parochialism and – most importantly – its apathy.   
The music of Court – especially the ‘inflammatory’ songs – is extremely well-performed and even in the small snatches, the anger comes out strongly and muscularly. 

Despite many strengths, I was somewhat bored by Court as the screenplay did not crackle enough – both as a courtroom ‘drama’ and a critique on the State’s attempts to muzzle opposing voices. The futility of our courts and the system’s inability/unwillingness to change that radically just did not hit me hard enough. Or rather, it hit me only sporadically – not enough to make an impact.  

Saturday, January 02, 2016

1. Masaan

My #100MoviePact got off to a great start with that one movie I was dying to watch last year but could not, thanks to a change of jobs and cities (complicated further by a college and family reunion).
Masaan was absolutely stunning, to say the least and I don’t think I have much to say beyond what the unanimously gushing critics have done already.

Director Neeraj Ghaywan revealed in the Making Of section that he had got the idea for one-third of the film – the love story of Deepak and Shaalu – when he was told by a colleague about the Dom community (who burn dead bodies on the banks of Ganga). He wanted to make a short film with it and coopted writer Varun Grover (who graduated from IIT-BHU) for his intimate knowledge of Banaras. The second story of Devi developed from there and along with it came Devi’s father and a young orphan boy.
A film made from intertwined stories of different characters – as a concept – is nothing new but where Masaan differentiates is to eschew a grand closing where all the pieces (or characters) converge at a dramatic crescendo. The crossing of paths of the five main characters happen very subtly, smoothly and with a maturity that belie the youth of the writer-director duo. I felt that Masaan became a great film because they didn’t do a “look how coolly I resolved the ending” kind of stunt.  

The casting of Masaan is fantastic, with every bit player looking the part and playing the part.
The bullying police officer. Deepak’s friends, who form a typical girl-obsessed, flamboyantly dressed quartet. The internet café owner. The owner of the computer coaching institute. Even the postman bearing good news – who appeared for all of ten seconds – stood out.
And of course, the major players – Sanjay Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Shweta Tripathi, Richa Chadha – were fantastic though the revelation of the film was Vicky Kaushal playing Deepak, the love-struck yet ambitious civil engineering student.

Loved the small details as well…
The snatches from the QSQT soundtrack forming the score for the love story.
The shayeri recital on phone, harking back to a similar scene in Aandhi with Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar.
The amazingly life-like dialogues that are typical of East UP, be it the roadside romancing or campus interviews at engineering polytechnics. Silly banter between teenagers as well as uncomfortable conversations around sex between a father and daughter, all of them are superbly written.

And finally, a special mention for the soaring music score by Indian Ocean (helped, in no small measure, by Grover's lyrics)… the Durga Puja scene in which Tu kisi rail si plays has to be one of the best song picturisations of recent times – the visuals, the words and the music forming a soaring effect. (Watch the film to see what I just did there!)

Masaan is a searingly real portrayal of small-town India - the loves, the fears, the ambitions, the insecurities, the honesty, the corruption, the trains, the bridges, the lives, the deaths... If you haven't watched it, I'd say you have not experienced India to the fullest, not seen Indian cinema at its best. 

Do read this Hindi review of the film: किसी कविता सी गुजरती है ‘मसान’
And check out this album of Banarasi lingo. Bhayankar phun!