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Bombay Velvet: Ellipses and Environment

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 15, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Delightful, completely irrelevant, note about circumstance: I went into this movie completely uninitiated; all I knew that there was a new Anurag Kashyap movie coming out some time around now, and that it had Karan Johar. The plan was concocted over drinks at Irish House in Kala Ghoda, and we went to Regal because it was the closest theatre whose prices didn’t leave the insides of our noses sore; for the longest time I was wondering where I had seen the intersection in the movie before. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, I suggest that you resist the urge to find out and let it hit you while watching the movie.)

bombay-velvet-stills-anushka-sharma-singing-songMany Hindi movies have a bit in which there’s a song being sung and we are shown wheelings and dealings relevant to the story. These sorts of scenes have a particular grammar, rather different from normal film grammar. A patron of the dance bar is approached by a lackey; the patron goes out the back entrance and finds his arch-nemesis standing there; the arch-nemesis raises a gun; inside, the former’s right-hand man walks out of the bathroom, looks around, his eyes rest on a particular spot, presumably where the patron was sitting earlier, and then he continues to enjoy the dancing. In this short sequence, we’ve been very efficiently, and effectively, told a story of betrayal and murder. Bombay Velvet is a movie told almost entirely in this grammar – every cause is connected to its effect by ellipses, and it shouldn’t be hard to fill them in.* Apart from being a purposeful and awesome choice on Mr Kashyap’s part, it’s also absurdly hard to keep up; many movies use it for short sequences but it’s incredibly hard to tell a whole story engagingly and well in this style – I was waiting for a lot of the running time for the set-up to end and the story to start, since I just did not imagine that he was doing this for anything beyond set-up.

This style is not strictly new for Mr Kashyap; he’s always been weirdly fond of his ellipses. In Gulaal, the last movie of his that I enjoyed, Raj and Kiran meet and exchange slightly lingering gazes, after which the story chugs on for a while till: they both turn up in a post-coital scene. I thought these sorts of things in Gulaal were very much a weakness, since the movie’s effect hinges on our identification with Raj and in this we are being cruelly yanked out of our involvement in his emotional evolution.

But what is new in Bombay Velvet is that this ellipsis-ising is an integral part of Mr Kashyap’s vision (it doesn’t always work, I’m obligated to inform you, since I’m calling this a review; now, more interesting things). It has three, somewhat different, effects, and they add up nicely to make Bombay Velvet ultimately be some sort of ballad, told in a style that is a hodgepodge of old-timey (American) gangster movies, Bollywood, the sound of tapori slang, and… whatever the type of song is that the movie keeps on calling jazz.**

First, it allows the movie to feed off the rhythms of these songs. There’s a fundamental difference between prose and poetry; it’s the intuition behind the differences between the words ‘prosaic’ and poetic.’ The prosaic is more mundane not because it necessarily deals with more mundane things (unless you think bug-headed women are more mundane than daffodils), but because it deals with them in the mindset we use to deal with mundanity – it’s involved in the details, it’s important for the whole to work that the jigsaw puzzle is completed to the extent that the missing pieces don’t jump out and viscerally affect you. The poetic, on the other hand, is about the mind; details are beside the point, either irrelevant or left as an exercise to the reader. The long and short of all this being that, because he’s ellipsis-ising everything here, Mr Kashyap can let the movie feel like a song, borrowing rhythm and flow from the songs intricately threaded through the narrative.

Another, possibly more important, effect is that Bombay Velvet is a story told, not lived. By not showing you the details of its character’s lives or their transformations, we have no emotional anchor to feel with, no one we feel like we know (I suspect that this was what led one of the people with me to call it ‘so fragmented,’ despite the fact that it has a very distinct and linear narrative). The characters are not so much developed as stated, with them behaving in qualitatively new ways even very late into the movie; two and a half hours in, in a pivotal scene, Anushka Sharma’s Rosie asks Ranbir Singh’s Johnny to make a choice, and I for one had no clue what he would say. This sort of thing is usually a sign of weakness in the telling, a failure of proper character development, and no doubt many people reacted negatively to this. In this case, however, it’s no such thing. It’s completely irrelevant that we don’t know Johnny at all, since this is a story about Johnny, not the story of Johnny.

And why are we interested in a story that’s merely about Johnny? What creates the emotional and dramatic stakes that involve us in the movie? Why, in the climax, did I emotionally, viscerally, tie my good cheer to a particular outcome (with relevant spoiler alert, more on this in footnote***)?

Ranbir-Kapoor-Bombay-VelvetThat brings us to the third, and possibly most important, effect of the ellipses. This story about Johnny Balraj is really a story about the world which includes Johnny Balraj living this story, and therefore about colonialism. Okay, that’s a lot of things to say in one sentence. Let’s go through it more slowly.

Consider the opening sequence (I may have misremembered, but the precise truth of the following is not that important). Raveena Tandon is singing to a club. Then, we flash back to 1949 with a train pulling into a station in Mumbai. A kid and his mom get off, with the kid briefly pausing to survey the fresh new environs. Cut to, another kid is picking an Englishman’s pocket, and then we see that the earlier kid is watching him and his mom, barely audible, is begging for work. Cut to, the pickpocket is being beaten up, hopelessly outnumbered, and the other kid jumps into the fray with barely a moment of hesitation. Cut to, the kids introducing themselves to each other. And so on.

What do we get out of this? What we don’t get is a sense of identification, or for that matter affection, for these kids. They exist, and we’re being told about them. I think, and you may disagree here, that what we get is a sense of world, and a sense of destiny. We’re first told that the kid getting of the train is walking into the world with the club, implicitly leading us to believe that he will end up there. Then, we’re shown that this is a world where little kids pick English pockets, immigrant women beg for work and kids beat each other up. This is literally the flow of information, apart from the fact that we are being shown the reactions of the first kid.

And, throughout its running time, the movie keeps an eye trained at the world around these characters. We are always shown, from the stand-up’s mouth, or by quick cutaways to newspapers and rallies, or even by the plot machinations, that Johnny’s story is merely part of something much bigger than him.

And it’s here, finally, that the specifics of the story make an appearance. The central conflict of the movie is that Balraj wants respect and power, and the world constantly denies him it. He behaves in such a gutsy manner to get it that multiple people give him the opportunity to do bigger and bigger things. This all leads to him trying to mug Karan Johar’s Kaizad Khambatta with a hand posing as a gun, and Kaizad renaming him and making him the owner of the club Bombay Velvet. And then, Johnny Balraj – as he’s now called – helps him and his friends get a huge construction on the freshly reclaimed Nariman point and Backbay going. He wants his share of the profits; Kaizad and co find this funny. And thus begins a feud, in which Johnny has nothing but a hot head, his best friend (Satyadeep Misra’s awesome Chiman) and determination, and Kaizad has the whole system on his side.

Now, a couple of historical notes. A large part of the motivation for the founding of the Indian National Congress was that rich, well-educated Indians had a ceiling; they couldn’t go higher than a certain position in any organisation. And, Gandhi made the Indians following him help in medical care during the Boer war, because he strongly felt that the British were very much a positive influence on the world.

At various points in Bombay Velvet, people tell Johnny, Kaizad’s been so good to you that he took you from a street rat to the owner of the biggest and most exclusive club in the city, why do you insist on gettting more frm him. Johnny, meanwhile, believes that his services should be rewarded, independently of earlier rewards for earlier services.

Yes, Johnny is a freedom fighter, being oppressed by the brown Babus that replaced the white ones in 1947; and, in the most significant fact of all, he never gives up the name given to him by the brown Babus.

* A tangential reference to fnording political articles feels apposite, even though the similarity is but superficial.

**I asked my friendly neighbourhood musically knowledgeable person if this was actually jazz, and he agrees with my (far less trustworthy) opinion that there’s only a smattering of jazz-y-ness in it. I still liked the songs, though. (Update: I like them less after listening to them on youtube; likely the movie fed a lot into my liking the songs. I emphasise, however, that the extent of my enjoyment of them is logically unconnected to my perception of whether they are jazz)

*** [SPOILER ALERT] Rosie lives! Compared to my feelings about this, I don’t give a shit about Yossarian. I think this is because she’s the innocent woman just trying to live her life stuck in the middle of these larger-than-life tectonic shifts, which means she’s basically a symbol for us.

Posted in Kashyap, Anurag, Movie Reviews, Movies | Leave a Comment »

Sin City 2: In Which Joseph Gordon-Levitt Smells too Nice

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

I strongly believe that sequels of genre movies are best reviewed by people who appreciate the original, and ar not dumbfounded by the existence of a sequel in the first place. This is because every movie has its particular charms, and sequels prefer to dig themselves deeper into the pleasure-niche so as to attract the audience it already attracted, except more strongly. Sometimes it works, and you have Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End, clearly the best movie in the trilogy and also the most hated by critics who didn’t think very highly of the first two. Other times, not so much, and you have The Dark Knight Rises, widely agreed among fans of The Dark Knight to be a horrible waste of potential, whereas every writer I read who didn’t like TDK thought this was significantly better. So, the question is, am I the right reviewer for Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For?

The answer is, partly. I was extremely impressed by the first movie when I first watched it, but my ardour has rather cooled over time. On the other hand, my lack of excitement of the film is one of ideology, and I continue to think of it as extremely masterful in execution. So, I assume, I can continue to dislike the ideology and still enjoy a good sequel. Which Sin City 2, for the most part, isn’t.

First, the ideological issues with both movies. Noir is a misanthropic genre, no doubt, whose protagonists have a deep-running mistrust of everyone and everything. But what Sin City misses, and what makes noir work well, is that the world of noir isn’t Basin city. The reason Sam Spade doesn’t trust Brigid O’Shaughnessy not because everyone in his life has been horrible, but because he honestly doesn’t know how horrible a person she is. For all he knows, she has a heart of gold. In Sin CIty, no one does. Even friendships are children of convenience and alliance as much as love and the basic human need for companionship (which murderers also have, to be clear).

Sin-City-Eva-Green Now, for this film. The first sign that something was off came in the prologue, when Mickey Rourke’s Marv (protagonist of possibly the most memorable of the stories from the first) is describing his murder of four college kids who… never mind. The sequence is a narration from Marv right after he’s done… and there are shots with his face in close-up and little cars going around illustrating his narration. It’s all very wee. Now, if you feel anything like appreciation for the first film, you’ll understand how wrong it is for me to be able to apply that word to this film. But, let’s not judge the film too much, I think; and also let’s write the rest of this piece in a SIn City-style narration (except, I decide, there’s no point keeping the verbal style).

Then, there’s the first story. It has Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing over Basin city. My brain simultaneously performs fanboyish palpitations and tries to jump out of my head at the incongruity. He likes gambling, it turns out. He goes into Kadey’s bar, the epicentre of Basin city, and goes to the back – to play poker with corrupt mayor Powers Boothe.

Quick cut to the second story, that of Josh Brolin who’s mysteriously contacted by green-eyed ex-flame Eva Green (I do know the names of the characters, but that’s not where the film lives and you know it). He is very bland in the role. And why is there so much colour? What was the point of making a whole woman look colourful, especially if Gordon-Levitt has no feelings for her? The first film worked beautifully on the splash of colour principle – so much so I don’t consider it hilarious that Clive Owen’s shoes were in colour throughout the film. Eyeballing the patterns of colour, my guess is that they couldn’t resist adding a splash here to emphaisse this thematically and a hint there to emphasise that. And then you get an Oldtown (the part of Basin city ruled by the prostitutes) that has so much colour it stinks to high hell. When, clearly, Oldtown should be the dourest and scariest part of the film.

And then somewhere there’s the third story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba, who actually sinks into the character) wanting to kill Powers Boothe in revenge for the death of Bruce Willis in the first film. Rodriguez seems to think he can put an emotionally pregnant scene between Alba and Willis’ ghost in the middle of a Sin City movie. Seriously, I wonder – snorting out the last bits of snort stuck in my nose by the laughter -, does he not know how noir works?

And then, we return for no particular reason to Gordon-Levitt’s completely unmemorable story – I feel a jolt of electricity sent up to my brain as I curse myself for forgetting that this story ever began – and I stare in wide-eyed incredulous horror as I see one of the most hare-brained plots ever thought up playing out in front of me.

And then all the stories draw to their endings. Nothing unexpected happens, no one is forced to accept any new fact about the world, and Marv looks extremely happy with all the violence he’s perpetrated in all the stories. The third one’s nice, I guess.

I want to call it a failure, but I get the distinct feeling that it didn’t even try hard enough for the word failure to be justified. It’s the product of a director who knows he has well-written source material and enough effortless competence to make an engaging 90-minute film without trying particularly hard to make it worth watching.

Posted in Miller, Frank, Movie Reviews, Movies, Rodriguez, Robert | Leave a Comment »

Piku: “Bhaskar nahi, Bhaskor!”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 13, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

PikuRecently, I’ve been playing this game on facebook – in which I say my favourite thing about the people who ask me to. It is lovely, emotionally draining and cathartic. More relevantly, though, it has become a parade of me asking myself, why am I sad I’m not this person? Why can I not even conceivably be this person? And that is usually my favourite thing about that person; this is not an accident – Elementary‘s Sherlock Holmes agrees with me:

one of the things I’ve gained from our collaboration is a working definition of the word “friendship.” Friendship, I’ve come to believe, is most accurately defined as two people moving towards the best aspects of one another.

Not long after I played this game (well, began playing this game; I still have two people left), I was watching Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi’s Piku.

There’s a scene early on in which Deepika Padukone’s Piku, Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhaskor, and a maid are fighting. The maid is angry because Bhaskor is the most irascible sahib in the history of five distinct worlds, an unrelentingly suspicious crotchety old man. Bhaskor is… um, convinced that she stole the phenyl. And Piku is annoyed as hell that her unbearable arse of a father has scared away yet another maid, and deperately wants the maid to stay on. But, he’s her father dammit! She’ll be damned – damned – if she lets down the side! These conflicting feelings, that drive much of the movie, are both treated with equal legitimacy by Piku; Bhaskor is a person of his own, a fully-formed character, and the Miss Chaturvedi and Mr Sircar will be damned – damned – if they bestow judgement on him (to clarify, I’m not saying the movie portrays him in a positive or even neutral light, just that it lets Bhaskor choose his own light).

I spend a considerable amount of effort steering myself away from serious engagement with people I foresee a lack of compatibility with; I have very little patience for people in general. Which means, if I wrote Bhaskor, he’d be a foil, and strictly that. Not only do I not have the ability to breathe life into any of the character in this movie, let alone Bhaskor, but I also have trouble even feeling that such people are real; ultimately, my favourite thing about Piku is that it couldn’t conceivably have been made by me.

In fact, this goes a lot deeper. And the best way to understand that is via something that Manoj Gopalakrishnan, the founder and director of my improv group (and a professor at my institute), said. Paraphrasing him (liberally), one way – the most common way – to plot a piece of fiction is to plot it, map out the cause and effect and (ideally) insert living breathing characters in the middle of the hurly-burly. Watching Piku, it is very easy to feel like it’s not going much of anywhere (an interesting relation to the same pair’s Vicky Donor whose plot takes so many sharp turns that it was a wonder what a pleasurable watch it was – if you don’t believe me… quick, what was the theme of that movie?).

That’s because these movies are not plotted around plot; it’s just a bunch of characters with certain relattionships being around each other, with the occassional feathery nudge from the writers to change the situation (or, in conspicuously incongruous moments like the one right after the interval of Piku, to dig it out of a hole). At this point the characters would have resistance from the parents? Awesome, now this is a movie about lovers getting their parents to look beyond regional prejudices. At this point the characters would continue to shout at each other about the same things? Awesome, story momentum is for noobs anyway.

This is not how movies are structured. Most movies have a particular theme in mind, a particular arc, and even if they have great characters they find themselves the need to keep the momentum on (this is as true of Godard’s incomprehensible thingies as Action Jackson). So much so, I often consider the central stance of a movie to be the direction of an arc (as opposed to the directions it did not take). These movies, however, while they have arcs, have arcs only as subsidiary things, emergent phenomena of the people and the little nudges.Piku-4

It’s this fact that makes this pair’s work as touching and affecting – and alien to me – as it is. Not only are they people who are intimately familiar with the normal middle class person, not only are they people who can show the sensibilities of their characters (main owner hoon driver nahin, Irrfan Khan, and literally everyone else, repeatedly opines) as mere facts rather than value judgements (an incredibly hard feat, since the inclusion of a scene in a movie is attached to an implicit claim that this is something the makers want you to take notice of), but they are also people who give their characters so much space that they can fill up the screen. It’s not often, after all, that the big B immerses himself into a role and loses his Bachchan-ness; there’s just no way he could have done this movie with the Bachchan-ness intact.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, Shoojit, Sircar | Leave a Comment »

Interstellar: “Gracious.” “No, But Efficient.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 12, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Reportedly, Christopher Nolan walked up to composer Hans Zimmer and gave him a really short story about a father leaving his son for some unspecified reason. Hans Zimmer wrote something in a day, and that’s the music Nolan used for Interstellar, an epic about humanity looking for an extraterrestrial home because of the impending death of the earth and a dad being forced to leave his daughter by his sense of duty. I found this out after the end of the film, and the whole movie I was thinking that it was being made significantly more awesome by the music. There’s nothing better for a movie about space exploration as a lethal taskmaster as well as the frontier of human knowledge than a melancholy and poignant score as opposed to the deep bass thrums Zimmer usually puts in Nolan’s movies.

Now, in less than a week this movie is going to overrun the internet. Everyone in the world is going to tell you how it is the psychologically deepest and most philosophically sophisticated movie ever made. It is not unlikely that you will be one of those people. It’s not. What it is is a darned good blockbuster with a slightly (slightly) non-trivial third-act twist (I actually thought of it, and I’m someone who used to regularly get surprised by the TV show Gossip Girl). This has been true of all of Nolan’s movies (well, the non-trivialities happened at different points in the films), all of whose philosophical trappings are, for lack of a better word, bullshit. This movie, unlike any of the previous ones, didn’t make me want to kill anyone – because this time around we just get Nolan telling a story with minimal bullshit philosophy, at least not more than any other Hollywood blockbuster.

Okay, actually I lied. It is philosophically sophisticated, but none of it is really EXPOSITED as you would expect a Nolan movie to do. There’s this speech in the middle where Anne Hathaway spouts some noxious piss about how love has predictive power – and Matthew McConaughey just says, grow up. There are few other moments in the world of cinema that have ever made me want to hug someone this much.

And, really, it is in the existence of McConaughey’s character that this movie hits its heights. On earth, he is an irascible misanthrope deeply discontent with the duty assigned to him in the new scarcity world that he lives in (if you’re reading this chances are that you’re effectively living in a post-scarcity world, regardless of all the starving people of the world). But, the moment it is presented to him that he needs to save the world he jumps to the opportunity and then does exactly the right thing at every moment*, at one moment even when the right thing to do was completely surprising to me (this never happens). No speeches about emotions, no annoying Holvudine psychology (which proliferates all his earlier movies).

Actually, the lack of Holvudine psychology is something worth dwelling on. There’s this tendency in Hollywood, noticed as early as the 1950s by J D Salinger in Franny and Zooey, to include psychology by deciding psychological facts and then their causes. While it is true that psychological facts are caused, the relation between cause and effect is never as clear as it is in a Hollywood movie or TV show. Nolan films fall prey to this failing, except for, for some reason, this one. McConaughey has a bunch of quirks and failings, but no one ever says it’s because the anti-technology culture of the earth killed his wife. This makes me feel all warm inside.

I don’t want to stop saying how awesome this is, so allow me to devote another paragraph to this: McConaughey plays rationality ubermensch, and no one objects!interstellar-robot

And also the robots are smart and adapt well and are super-cool. But despite that they aren’t considered people for no discernible reason, and I don’t see how everything in this movie couldn’t have just been done by robots.

Achchhaa achchhaa, let’s get back to the rest of the movie. The most important thing to understand about it is that it is a blockbuster at heart, and one shouldn’t try and take it completely seriously. These movies go for broad strokes and simple themes, with generic characters; that’s not a bad thing, but that is a thing that tells you not to take every dialogue it in it as a literal expression of sophisticated philosophy.

To be fair, this is somewhat better in this respect than other blockbusters; it graciously and subtly undercuts the emotional bullshit that it is purportedly pushing in the climax (or, to be more precise, it makes it extremely easy to interpret the climax without positing supernatural forces at work), and its ending is a lovely synecdoche of the never-ending nature of the mission of humanity that is science and exploration.

Another thing: because this is a Nolan movie, there’s going to be discussion about plot holes. While not plot holes per se, these are the egregious mistakes. Non-McConnaughey non-Chastain non-robot characters all have at least one moment of behaving like Hollywood zombies, a pivotal decision depends on people who are experts completely ignoring how black holes work (this fact about how they work is actually mentioned in the movie – I state it in second footnote** if you’re interested), McConnaughey’s character seems to be named Cooper Cooper, spaceship hulls are not just millimetres thick (this annoyed me) and often the equipment and plans are designed pretty badly.*** A lot of things seem scientifically off, but I’m not as sure of those things. After the plot-hole-free nature of Inception I was expecting better. Oh, and the biggest plot hole: sending people instead of just the robots is a stupid waste of resources.

So in conclusion, despite my general dislike of Nolan’s movies I quite enjoyed this (actually, apart from The Dark Knight which was overflowing with bullshit that marvelled at its own cleverness he’s always fun to watch). Don’t take this too seriously, but love the existence of McConnaughey’s character. Enjoy the fact that it’s not in 3D. Have fun. And I’ll hate it in a week after the millionth time I hear about how this is better than anything Kubrick ever did (it’s not even a fraction of the stunning vision that is 2001: A Space Odyssey).

*There’s one moment when he makes an argument that is suspiciously convenient for him, but he’s actually right anyway, and he listens to the others’ objections. And, in this scene, they would clearly have been better doing what he thought was better in the first place; these scientists show an inexcusable inability to make order of magnitude estimates.

** If you are falling into a black hole and I’m watching you from outside, I’ll see your approach to the black hole getting slower and you getting dimmer till the end of eternity; I’ll never see you reach it).

***In particular, no one really thought through plan B.

Posted in Christopher, Movie Reviews, Movies, Nolan | Leave a Comment »

La Jetée: “Nothing sorts out Memories from Ordinary Moments”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 11, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

vlcsnap-00005Beginning no 1: There was this woman I’d been flirting with and after lunch our group had to split up, me going somewhere and she somewhere else. Right after we said our good byes, I turned to my friend and said to him, “That smile, dude, that smile. That’s the dream.”

Okay, I didn’t tell him that. But, looking back at that short time, other things come to mind too if I look hard enough, but it is this and two or three other moments that jump to mind. One of the questions La Jetée asks is, what if these were all there was to life? Or more precisely: how much of life do these form, and in what sorts of non-constituent ways do they affect your life?

Beginning no. 2: Much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye, I knew when I read it that Holden Caulfield was in some sense less wise than I. I’d already gone through the phase where phoniness bothered me and got out the other end: the other end was the realisation that people are fundamentally clueless and do whatever they can to get by, and that social norms were basically guidelines. We live in a large world, with many moving parts both visible and invisible, and the set of actions that would be best for intimate little groups of loved ones – what we might call ‘genuineness’ – is very different from those best for this world – this latter set must consist of rigid rules. This is a manifestation of the larger fact that what is good for a group is often bad for individual people (though, by definition, the good of the group is on average good for each member).

Much ink has been spilt about this fact: you can’t turn on star movies for five minutes without the hero giving up the good of the group for a comrade or a loved one. There’s a standard phrase for this: ‘tension between the personal and the political.’

Beginning no. 3: Chris Marker wrote La Jetée, as he describes it, in an almost dreamlike state as a reaction to the interviews he was conducting for his movie Le Joli Mai, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “just after the close of the Algerian War and the Évian Accords, Marker and his camera operator Pierre L’homme shot 55 hours of footage interviewing random people on the streets of Paris. The questions […] range from their personal lives, as well as social and political issues of relevance at that time.”La Jetee 2

The story [super-mega SPOILER alert]: Paris, post-apocalypse. Everyone’s stuck underground, supplies are absurdly short. The scientists have devised a time machine that works, somehow, using memories. Our hero, popularly known in the literature as the man, is picked out because he has in his mind this stark image of a woman’s face from the landing jetty at an airport, from the day in his childhood he saw someone die.

The time machine being a somewhat unpolished thing, he goes back in fits and spurts, jumping in at random points in the woman’s life.* They build a relationship. Then he’s sent to the future, to ask for help, because their existence depends on his time’s survival; the future gives them the required help, and then offers to take him in. He refuses, saying that instead he wants to be sent back to the pre-apocalyptic world. He ends up in the landing jetty at the airport. The woman is there and he runs; and as he runs he sees one of the experimenters pointing a gun at him: that obsession which gave him the ability to come back in time was created by the scientific team.

Tying most of it up: La Jetée is a movie about a man trying to save the world told as a ‘photo-novel,’ a series of stills with voiceover narration and non-diegetic music, apart from one shot: a woman wakes up, sees him, and smiles.

Sometimes, this tension between the personal and political is not so clear: in the largest view (the one I gave) it feels icky – the man was horribly manipulated, after all – but then it gave him great love in his life, but then again it caused his death, but then again he helped save the species.

*An interesting question about this film which I will not even hint at in-flow here is the personality of the woman and the nature of her acceptance of the relationship with him.

Posted in Chris, Marker, Movie Reviews, Movies | Leave a Comment »

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Food Is Memories

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 10, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Plot: The Kadam family of restaurateurs (endearingly patriarched by Om Puri) moves to a little village in France and set up shop right across the road (“it’s a hundred feet, we measured!”) from a single Michelin star-toting restaurant owned by the ‘rarely seen to be in sympathy with anyone’ Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Hijinks and romances ensue; really, use your imagination. Includes a nubile sous-chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who teaches the young Indian son (Manish Dayal) French cooking in the first steps of his ascent to glory (as defined by the third Michelin star).

Papa Kadam: “Indian cannot be French, and French cannot be Indian!”

Madame Mallory: “I think I just spent all day rubbing those words off your walls.”

I’m rather torn about The Hundred-Foot Journey. In its main thrust it is an entirely wee romcom-y addition to the budding genre about the integration of southeast Asian families into Western countries starring Om Puri as an irascible patriarch; on every other dimension it is a rather non-trivially intelligent movie acutely sensible to the conditions of its world. Originally, I led with a joke about how everyone, unbeknownst to zirself, has always been shipping Om Puri and Helen Mirren (this is true, by the way), but that was clearly doing the film a disservice – which caused me to begin with a tongue-in-cheek summary and one of the film’s most powerful moments (which I won’t bother to explain).

The main thrust of the film is, in case you haven’t yet grokked it, that it’s a romcom. Now, I live for romcoms – or any of the similar genres which consist of people just existing – so I consider that an entirely positive thing. But, here’s the thing, the best romcoms talk about things. The rest, as smiley-weepy as they may make me, are wee. And they don’t even have to be good to not be wee – oddities like Break ke Baad mine non-trivial thematic ground too. This one here, it’s a remarkably well-made romcom; its characters and their motivations and stakes are well-drawn and efficiently exposited, it’s always competently and often beautifully shot, and I was jumping up and down in glee at people deciding to be together. This, make no mistake, is good stuff – no less than you’d expect from Lasse Hallstrom (the director of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) and Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises). It, however, is basically wee – to the extent that it thinks that relating food to memories is thematic ground.*

And there’s some actively bad stuff too. Mostly, the first half stinks of the kind of idiotic mysticism that romcoms so love. The film begins with a scene in the market where the young Hassan causes his mother to win a bidding war for sea urchins by smelling the part you’re supposed to eat, because apparently the fisherman is an artist who’ll sell his stuff to… wait for it… the boy who knows. Shortly after, Hassan the youth smells another sea urchin in sea urchin soup while Chawla spouts some arbitrary mysticism about how people like food because there are ghosts in food (and when she began, I thought it was a rant again non=vegetarian food – thus letting me down doubly). This is followed by the Kadams’ car breaking down outside a village because, you know it, ‘brakes break for a reason.’ Fortunately for us and for the film, it soon leaves this sort of stupidity in the dust, only looping back to it selectively at moments of emotional power. Oh, and it really does love its bad jokes – ‘brakes break for a reason,’ anyone? Even though Om Puri can make anything adorable (including the fiim’s funniest moment, which I won’t reveal).

Now for the good stuff. It’s all sideways, for some inscrutable reason.

As Puri and Mirren are fighting their hilariously mundane turf war, we get to see is a clear-eyed development of the integration problem, which recognises all of its participants’ failings and racisms, while all the time maintaining sympathy for all – well, most – of them. This, as well as it is done, is not the best of the film’s qualities.Hundred-Foot Journey 2

That would be its almost lived-in understanding of devoting yourself to creation of something matching a standard external to yourself, a situation that is common to artists and scientists and even uncommonly particular carpenters (well, I meant those particular about furniture, but also Jesus if you insist). As an insomniac whose sleep situation is often considerably worsened by the proliferation of malignant negative signs, I can attest to the fact that this shit just doesn’t leave you alone. When the chance turns up of you improving your craft by going somewhere else, it makes absolutely no sense to say no. When the love of your life is considerably your inferior, it can’t but hang between you two. When you find yourself wearing a gas mask while cooking a fish… obviously you have to, otherwise the sparks will fly in your face!

Oh, and it also understands the joy of food, despite its attempts to fool us into thinking the contrary by talking about ghosts. So much so, I’ve decided it’s a disgrace that I don’t know how to cook an omelette and plan to get down to correcting that deficiency… some time.

And! And! The Music was done by A R Rahman. I had no clue till the name flashed on the screen at the end, and for good reason. I mean, there are a few moments of crystal-clear inspiration but otherwise is rather standard.

*I wept a little bit when Hassan remembers all that he’s left behind in the little village by tasting some (horribly misshapen) naan and sabji,

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S’ip of Theseus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 9, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

 

Movie: Ship of Theseus

Writers: Anand Gandhi, Pankaj Kumar, Khushboo Rakha

Director: Anand Gandhi

Watched at Mumbai Film Festival 2012

A blind photographer’s boyfriend describes to her the photos she took of a scuffle on a road. This is the editing process, a peaceful homely moment of stillness and love in two ever-moving lives. There’s one in which an auto is passing by and only a hand is visible; he likes it, and says so. The moment transmutes. She hates the accidental in art. A fight begins, which has been sitting on the bylines for a while now.

This is a rare, perhaps the only, moment of emotional truth in Anand Gandhi’s sombre, ambitious Ship of Theseus. What happened here is probably not immediately obvious to everyone, but it is a marvellous exhibition of the irrationality at the centre of every person’s way of living life. There are a couple of quotes that might be appropriate here:

Battle not
with monsters,
lest ye become
a monster.

And if you gaze
into the abyss,
the abyss gazes
also into you.

-Friedrich Nietzche

“In the midst of a line, or with an eyebrow raised in exasperation, [Ricky Gervais] can capture the moment when self-doubt hardens, out of necessity, into self-confidence.”

-Stephanie Zacharek, in her review of The Invention of Lying.

Nietzche was mad for the last ten years of his life, and The Invention of Lying is a dark comedy that has an entirely ambiguous ‘happy’ ending.

Maybe it’s time to give some context to this discussion. Ship of Theseus consists of three stories of people coming across rifts in their worldviews. The first, a blind photographer gets another person’s eyes and finds that she can’t function any longer; the second, a Jain monk needs a liver transplant and therefore medicines which have been tested first on animals; and the third a nice and insular stockbroker living with his activist granny comes across the possibility that his new kidney might be stolen from a poor person (it’s not but he goes on a crusade on the guy’s behalf anyway).*

This is extremely difficult terrain; the problems posed by the need to live well in such a large and interconnected world are deep and nearly impossible to solve, and as a result any given worldview is deeply flawed and people cope by ignoring the existence of Nietzche’s abyss in their worldviews. Well-made stories about people coming face to face with any of their various abysses can take any form from comedy (Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves and Wooster series) to weird fiction (anything by Lovecraft) to tragedy (Hamlet, Othello) to arthouse (The Tree of Life, 8 1/2) to popular TV series (House MD, Gossip Girl), and are always fascinating. Few, however, tackle it with the explicitness of Ship of Theseus.

But many tackle it with the complete ineptitude that Gandhi here shows. These are stories of perturbations deep within souls, and require a deftness of touch and an appreciation for the dark and the darkly funny that this movie just doesn’t have.

Instead of actually understanding these mental states and coming up with a coherent aesthetic scheme to portray them, our man basically puts in lots of good-looking cinematography (and it is good-looking) and even more vacuous bullshit masquerading as ponderous dialogues.

A perfect synechdoche of Gandhi’s skim and fuck it approach is the name and the epigram. The myth of Theseus is a brilliant and complex one, though best remembered for his foray into the labyrinth when he killed the minotaur. So why is the movie called Ship of Theseus? The epigram explains it: he made a really long voyage, and all the parts of his ship must got replaced during it, so was it still the same ship? Here’s an alternative question: he must have also had a lot of alcohol – was any of that alcohol ingested by way of sips or was it all gulps and glugs?

I’ll leave you with something that made me laugh a lot:

*Negative brownie points to anyone who doesn’t figure out how these three are connected.

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Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 8, 2012

Realising he’s trapped by the police.

Because Shanghai – which I’ve now watched and highly recommend – was coming out this week, I decided to revisit my favourite of Dibakar Banerjee’s films. It turned out to be even better than I remembered.

When you hear that a movie is being made about the life of a thief, you assume that it is either a damning of the thief, a critique of society (“the honest people are the real evil!”) or – if the filmmakers are really awesome – a metaphysical examination of the nature of property. Dibakar Banerjee’s stellar Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! has element s of all these, but one of its basic statements is their rejection.

It’s almost impossible for me to unravel the layers of nuance here and tell you what (I think) Banerjee was going for. Just as an example, take the whole real crimes show which brackets the movie: it seems to be a frame but it’s not, because when was the last time one of these episodes was over two hours long, starred the real criminal (we know Abhay Deol is playing Lucky and not the guy who plays Lucky because of the photo interludes, which are obviously from the show), and had a scene where the anchor complains about the word ‘sansani khez’? (I’ve grown up with that phrase – in exactly this type of show, actually – and take it so much for granted that I don’t have the slightest clue whether it’s one word or two and whether it means sensational or sensational news,) It’s in fact a sub-plot that acts as a simple critique of the role of the media (life is just not sansani khez, damn it) and also a synecdoche of the attitudes of society (notice that these shows at the same time vilify and hero-fy the criminals).

Lucky is above our society, a trailblazer and an outcast, and yet is so only in his own imagination. If it’s possible to fit OLLO into one sentence, that last is probably it. He is not an abstract moral anti-hero who hates his society, but a brilliant, arrogant man who considers himself a level above all those around him; the central conflict of the movie is that no one else agrees. His family considers him a nuisance, his colleagues think of him as a troublesome ‘un who can be profitable if handled right, the world at large thinks of him as a menace, and his girlfriend (Neetu Chandra) considers him just another dude who happens to have a weird career choice.

It’s telling how Lucky fights these perceptions. He tries to appear penitent to his father, impress the older brother with his wealth and power, bribes his younger brother to turn up at his wedding, tries superhuman-seeming stunts for his girlfriend, and treats his colleagues like shit just expecting them to lick his feet anyway; because, respectively, he wants to win his father’s approval, his older brother’s respect, his younger’s love and his girlfriend’s awe, and to him his colleagues are just annoying people who give him shit while he’s doing what he’s great at.

Speaking of his relationships, the juxtaposition between of and above comes out perfectly in his relationship with his girlfriend Sonal; well, it’s seen in many places actually, but it’s easier for me to write about this because I’ve been really learning about the politics of discrimination the past few months. He lives in a deeply sexist society, where a girl is ‘asking for it’ just by being a dancer or wearing a revealing dress. On the surface, he rejects this sexism, fighting violently on the behalf of women where others just say that nothing can be done because the harasser is too powerful a person and winning Sonal’s heart rather than asking her family for her hand; and yet when you really look at it, throughout the movie he often treats her like shit, first stalking her till she falls for him (that she falls for him after that is itself a symptom of society’s sexism and its effect on women), always trying to keep her in awe of his power and manliness and afterwards constantly pushing her aside, abandoning her on camels, whatnot. This is exactly how we’d expect someone who takes the “respecting women as our mothers” part of our culture very seriously indeed: love women but always remember that they aren’t men.

Looking at this essay, you might be forgiven for thinking that OLLO is rather a pessimistic movie. For most of its running time, it is; even though it is almost unrelentingly funny, the jokes usually range from the throwaway moment to the morbid, rarely if ever venturing into the territory of happy. But, it redeems humanity too; yes, it doesn’t pretend to offer a real solution to the various muddles Indian society has got itself into, but there are two scenes at the end of the movie where we are allowed to see the world stripped of it baggage, where we are allowed to see that the trouble here is in the culture not in the people in it.

The first is an extended scene where Lucky cheerily arbitrates the reclamation of property. The police love the guy; there’s both the fact that he’s something of an icon and the fact that he’s very co-operative and charming. There’s one bit here where he meets a couple who doesn’t remember him but whom he remembers: he reminds them how he robbed them, and where to find the stuff he stole. The couple and he take each other’s leave with a respectful Namaste.

The second is with a paan-walla who may or may not know who he is. Maybe he is a man who just thinks this guy is a TV star and is honestly honoured to have him eat paan at his shop, and maybe he knows who Lucky is, and he’s a fan of this icon. But whichever be the case, he is nice in the simplest, most pure fashion possible – an affliction rarely seen in this movie.

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“It’s something we are all intimately involved with.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 1, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

Recently, while reading about alternative gender identities like transgenderism and pangenderism, I came across a type of person known in porn circles as a “shemale,” usually a trans-woman who has had breasts grown with estrogen but hasn’t had the surgery to replace the penis with a vagina (less offensive term: gynandromorph). Apparently, there’s a whole sub-genre of porn devoted to gynandromorphs. Now, in the minds of most, this raises an important question: who is turned on by this? Definitely, there is a small subset of humanity for whom they are the ideal sexual partners, or one of a set of equally preferable ones, but I feel safe in assuming that the porn industry isn’t interested in targeting them; if they went down that road, the first milestone would have been porn aimed at women. So, the conclusion is that heterosexual men are turned on by gynandromorphs. But while you are pondering this question, there are more obvious ones, like why are men so often turned on by lesbian sex? For that matter, why are men turned on by women and women by men?

For the last question, we can easily fill in some platitudes about reproductive instinct and whatnot, but the fact remains that, experientially, in our head is a black box that takes certain images and sensations as input and gives feelings of arousal as output. J G Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s movie Crash are about people for whom these black boxes have wiring very, very strange to us; they make a gynandromorph fetish look like something you’d be willing to discuss with your mother.

The movie begins with a woman making love to an airplane wing, before she is joined by a man who gives her what the wing can’t: fingers. She is Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), wife of movie producer James Ballard (James Spader), who is at that moment having sex with his camerawoman just off set. Later, they compare notes – “did you finish?,” “did she finish?” – before themselves having sex, aroused by the notes.

Cut to James driving. He drops a script, veers into the wrong side of the road, and crashes. The man in the passenger seat shoots into his car and immediately dies. The woman (Holly Hunter), like James himself, was wearing a seatbelt and so is still in place. She shows him her breast.

James wakes up in hospital. Catherine describes the ruins to him, in the tone of dirty talk. There’s a man (Elias Koteas) who seems very interested in his injuries.

James, after months healing, still morbidly fascinated by the experience, visits what’s left of his car and there meets Dr. Helen Remington, the other driver. He gives her a lift, they narrowly avoid another accident, they fuck, she takes him to a staging of the car crash in which James Dean died by Vaughan (Koteas) and a couple of his stunt driver friends – no seat belts, real cars crashing into each other – and they go back to Vaughan’s, where he and one of the drivers (who’s still concussed) start discussing the Jayne Mansfield crash (“we can do the dead dog”).

So, here’s the big secret: Vaughan, Helen and their posse are turned on by car crashes. Vaughan, the ringleader, has a load of words about why that is so – apparently the sexual energy of a crash victim is concentrated into a crash. He very much has the dangerous allure of a cult leader. When James tells Catherine, they have the most passionate sex they’ve had in a while.

The most amazing thing about this movie is not that it depicts such a subculture, but that it depicts it without the slightest hint of judgement. Yes, their blackboxes are oddly wired but they are their personal boxes and none of our business and all Cronenberg does is portray them; pop psychology is completely absent (most of the Holvudine idiocracy would try to add something about childhood molestation or abandonment issues) and the mainstream culture only exists in so far as these guys couldn’t care less about it.

Modern western culture is more tolerant than many others, but it’s still remarkably churlish about sex. Many people have stopped watching this movie because it is too “sick,” but, as Roger Ebert insightfully points out, replace crashes with your favourite fetish and this is pornography.

Another thing we have difficulty with is the value of individual life; in that we wish to rank it highly, but never really do except with our nears and dears. Let me put it this way: how many people here would like to see criminals behind bars (or, better yet, dead)? How many of you have watched and been deeply affected by a gangster movie where there is no black and white only grey? (Note: in real life, there’s almost never black and white.) There’s a story a friend of mine likes to tell people, about how a European traveller found a tribe where there’s a guy whose only purpose in life is to serve as the chief’s chair; the traveller, of course, was shocked, and the tribals amused at his shock. They’ve been taught to believe that there’s a social order that’s more important than they are (and despite our discomfort with this notion, the martyr is a common form of hero in our mythologies).

Where does this tie in with the movie, you ask? Remember the cult whose leader just told the whole cult to drink poison and they did? Well, in the movie, soon after the happenings discussed above, one of the stunt drivers does the Mansfield crash. And dies. And kills god only knows how many innocent bystanders (and a dog). And arouses Vaughan, James and Catherine.

The progress of the movie is similar to a teenager who starts off masturbating to women in bikinis, and then goes into pornography because bikinis don’t do it for him any more, and then… what starts off as better sex with his wife ends up with James putting his penis into a crash victim’s scar (and, for good measure, every time Cronenberg lets us see it before that it looks rather vaginal) turns into climaxing with the crashing of cars turns into Vaughan killing himself by driving off the road and landing on the roof of a bus turns into James crashing Catherine and, when she assures him she’s all right, him saying “Maybe next time” followed by a nice fuck.

The tendency here is to regard these people as damaged somehow; but remember, for you will have to understand and deal with certain truths about your own moral code, whatever such conclusion you come to is yours and yours alone – the movie merely presented the facts of the case, merely put aberration in our faces to make us think things that we really ought not to be proud of.

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Melancholia

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 24, 2012

Image

The movie takes place not in the real landscape of a country mansion so much as in the mental landscapes occupied by its two main characters.

The first part, ‘Justine,’ portrays Justine — the insane sister — in the rigid, scheduled environs of her sister’s life. Her marriage, out of which she flunks. We have a tendency to think of women like Justine, put off by social pleasantries and large gatherings of society, as damaged. Claire definitely thinks so; like her husband asks, is everybody in her family stark raving mad? Though ostensibly told from Justine’s point of view, the whole hour only aims to cement in us Claire’s worldview. It ends with Justine having broken off her marriage and quitting her job — in Claire’s terms, she has flunked.

The second part, ‘Claire,’ portrays Claire in the uncaring, bleak landscape of Justine’s life — complete with lying well-wishers and soothsaying obnoxious people. The climax of the movie is something we’ve known all along — Claire leaves Justine’s hand, flunks.

One way to take this is as a triumph for the Justine side, for it is a fight make no mistake; after all, human connection (holding hands and dying with dignity) is more important than fitting in with society. I wonder, however. Is it really that much less connected to have an understanding that the world is filled with humans and they need to be taken on their own terms? Claire’s reaction to Justine’s various eccentricities: she’s my sister. Justine’s reaction to Claire wanting some semblance of normalcy for her death: your plan is a piece of shit. The only real point made here is that while for one life makes her draw away into herself, for the other it is death (well, not only life and death: I could ascribe any number of dichotomies to the two situations, but I have particular affection for this one because I like to think of the Melancholia the doomsday planet as an agent of Justine’s psyche). It was probably taken as a matter of course that the first part could “cement in” Claire’s perception, but the second half “supported” Justine’s, because only the majority’s opinion is wrong.

But, the more you look, the more you find that both parts are “cementing in” their own sets of prejudices. And the bridge doesn’t come in the end as resolution but in the very beginning as introduction: its point is merely to call out the existence of the problem, and to point out that it is an insurmountable one. Life — as Justine so helpfully points out — is evil, but then so is death; and when you best hold the kid’s hand is nothing but a property, neither quality nor vice except when made one by the situation.

There is a certain feeble misanthropy to this movie which raises it above and beyond any normal work preaching such things. It cares not that you feel any particular feeling but only that you acknowledge. If you are crying when the planet hits, the movie has missed its mark: what you need to do is watch.

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