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Archive for the ‘Kashyap, Anurag’ Category

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.

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Dev.D: “I can make your sorrows go away in a moment.””Fuck you.””That too.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 26, 2009

Title card

There’s a moment in Dev.D when you suddenly realise what the background song is saying, and how damned relevant it is. What am I saying? There’s one every ten minutes. The movie was directed by Anurag Kashyap, one of the new wave of Indian ‘independent’ directors. These guys, they aren’t really independent in the American sense of financial independence, bt in a sense of artistic independence. They are all involved in some big budget studio-produced movie now, but they don’t make studio movies.

Each one has a different style. For example, there’s Navdeep Singh who made a masterful noir set in the Indian rural areas called Manorama – Six Feet Under, which was a copy of Chinatown (mainly in story; what I’ve seen of the older movie is rather different from the newer one). Doesn’t sound very good, I know but he’s my favourite of this wave (I’m not comparing to the French and Mexican new waves; there’s some way to go before that), because he showed how well traditional noir adapts itself to Hindi, making use of the fact that Hindi speakers speaking Hindi have a certain frankness in their sound and look. Then, there’s Dibakar Bannerjee, a sort of Indian Jason Reitman, who makes light-spirited but serious movies(Khosla ka Ghosla, meaning Khosla’s Nest, and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!). There’s Vishal Bhardwaj, who specialises in Shakespeare flicks (Omkara from Othelloa review – and Maqbool from Mac… you can guess; both are character’s names, like the originals), dark children’s movies (Makdee meaning Spider – a review – and The Blue Umbrella, possibly his best movie, a review) and a great-looking tribute to Tarantino(Kaminey, meaning Scoundrels; a review), all of which are, more than anything else, visual treats.

And then there’s Anurag Kashyap, the case in point. He started off with a crime drama called Paanch (Five) that the censor board didn’t allow. Then, there was a sensitive look at the terrorists who participated in the 1993 Bombay bombings called Black Friday, which I remember watching and being affected by but nothing more. Then, he made the Lynch-ish No Smoking which had similarities to the Stephen King story ‘Quitters Inc.’ but was not based on it (Kashyap added in stuff from the other end to make it look more like it was when he realised how similar his script was to the story). It was a parable about freedom, which was actually much more linear and coherent than a Lynch movie is (I talk about Lynch only from reputation). Then, there was Dev.D this year, which is the case in point but coming to which I’ll delay for a while. Then, there was Gulaal (it’s the name of a red powder used to colour the skin), which was political… something. It was structured like a play, not in terms of its scenes and setting but in terms of its characters, the way they faced off against each other and the way tehere was a Shakespearan jester chock-full of wisdom… you know what I’m talking about. This last one or Black Friday would be my idea of a good introduction to Kashyap.

My favourite thing about Anurag Kashyap is the way he seamlessly combines madcap elements of popular Bollywood with the gritty realism and silence of ’70s Hollywood with the stream-of-consciousness imagery of Godard (I think) and the like. As I’ve already said, there’s a moment every ten minutes in Dev.D when you suddenly realise what exactly the music is saying. And there’s a lot of it, I tell you: it was a big thing when it came out that it had eighteen songs, none of which, however, play full length. I don’t think anyone counted the excerpts of songs from other movies.

Dev.D is based on Saratchandra’s classic Bengali novel Devdas, which there have been either twelve or twenty-one screen adaptation of. In fact, I as of now have a disk of the classic nineteen-fifties Bimal Roy version which I’ll get down to next week. The original novel is the story of Devdas, a Bengali landlord’s son who is in love with the manager’s daughter Paro (short form for Parvati). His parents force them not to marry because she is of a lower caste, and he loses it, drowning in his unrequitable love, and drink. During this period, he meets a dancer Chanda (short for Chandramukhi) – during that time, that was a disreputable profession – and her ringmaster Chunni. I’m slightly hazy on what happens now, but I know it ends with Devdas dying.

Dev.D is the story of Devendra Singh Dhillon (Abhay Deol, nephew of legendary Dharmendra), son of a sugar mill owner in Punjab. Paro, yet again, is the manager’s daughter. He comes back from London, where he went to study. Then, he and Paro (beautiful, beautiful Punjabi actress Mahie Gill) have a series of sexual encounters which just refuse to end up in sex. At this time, Dev’s brother Dhwij is getting married. Here, Dev meets Rasika who lures him out for a drive. They start making out but Dev has to stop, because she’s not Paro. He comes back, and almost immediately is told by a worker who loves Paro that she sleeps around with anyone who wants. So, Dev leaves her, and overhears a confession of the lie during the marriage. Soon, Paro is getting married to someone else, and there’s a song when she is getting married (two madcap Bollywood elements right there: a song, and the fact that an adult-material song is playing at an Indian marriage). Here’s a video of the song, called ‘Emosanal Attyachar’ (Emotional Torture). The drinking man is Dev, and the woman madly dancing in a red dress is Paro. Sorry, non-Hindi speakers, I couldn’t find a version with subtitles, but watch it for the music anyway.

Anyway, this guy starts going downhill, meets hooker Chanda (French-descended theatre actress Kalki Koechlin), who has her own back-story, and… well, I won’t tell you what happens then, but it’s different from the original.

Title card for Paro segment

Paro's theme

Mahie Gills face


The movie is divided into three segments: Paro, Chanda and Dev.D. The first is about Paro, which I’ve described above. The old Paro was the perfect woman by early twentieth century standards, respectable as they get, and effusively in love with Devdas. The new one is the perfect woman by today’s standards; sexually alive, madly in love, and the real wearer of the pants in the pair who makes the other think he is. At one time, after many unsuccessful make-outs, Dev asks her to do something, anything. She says, “Why? You’re throbbing?”(pardon me, I’m not a very good translator, so I just do literal) “Yes.” “Good!” And she runs away. In normal playfulness, it’s the guy who’s complacent. Also, there’s Abhay Deol’s body language. So, it ands right after the song I posted up there.

Chandas theme

Chanda theme

Chandas gace

Her face

The second part, ‘Chanda’, is about the back-story of Chanda. She was a half-French half-Indian twelfth-grader in New Delhi called Leni who loved Hindi movies when her lover publicised a video of her giving him oral sex. Her father kills himself, she’s generally feeling quite unsupported by her family, her paternal grandmother accuses hr of killing her father… and she runs away. Back in Delhi, she’s picked up by a brothel owned by Chunni (well-played by Dibyendu Bhattacharya, who wasn’t given too much to do anyway), who allows her to finsh her education as long as she has real and phone sex and stars in pornographic movies. She has to choose herself a hooker name, and she chooses Chanda while watching the great-looking 2001 Sanjay Leela Bhansali Devdas movie. One day, a semi-conscious man is hauled into her room, and he, while still in the daze, murmurs “Paro”.

Dev's theme

Dev's theme

Dev's face

Dev's face

The third segment ‘Dev.D’ is about Dev’s further decline, relationship with Chanda (the title is an exchange between Chanda and Dev), and the eventual (eventual) end. This is a man who only feels in a flat, undistinguished way. His elation is reserved, his sadness is angry, his depression is an emptyness rather than a negativity. It is this emotional rut that he gets out of in the movie.

The two best things about this movie were the colours and the acting. You see the screenshots of the faces? That’s only part of the variation of the colour palette in the movie. And the acting: all three actors have amazingly honest faces, and all they need to do to draw us in is feel what the character is feeling.

Okay, now I’ll stop. The post is already way too long. I’ll just say that this is in true bollywood style as given by this quote from Ebert:

Bollywood musicals are the Swiss Army Knives of the cinema, with a tool for every job: comedy, drama, song and dance, farce, pathos, adventure, great scenery, improbably handsome heroes, teeth-gnashing villains, marriage-obsessed mothers and their tragically unmarried daughters, who are invariably ethereal beauties.

It is hilariously funny, a great musical, has some though not many unplumbed depths, has some gritty reality, and has Arronofsky-sequences. What more can we ask? Well, it’s not perfect. It has a substantial number of sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb shots, and it often glosses over real sadness, perhaps in an attempt to make us feel Dev’s flatness of emotion but which results in a sort of apathy.

The Twilight Players, three singers who keep on randomly turning up in the Delhi segments

The Twilight Players, three singers who keep on randomly turning up in the Delhi segments

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