Monthly Archives: December 2016

Thoughts on DANGAL

Again, Aamir gifts India with a movie in Christmas and proves why he continues to be the Santa donating gifts in the form of a few hours of magic, yanking your earthly problems out of your mind space for 150 minutes and taking you on an adrenalin ride and making you believe that life, as bleak as it might be, when looked at purely as ups and downs of moments and emotions attached to them, can be livable and be looked back at with sighs and smiles, albeit in different doses. If life were a vehicle, Aamir the driver arranges a journey in which he packs characters that are real, earthy, smelly, and sweaty and lets them be; with him interjecting, commanding, demanding, talking, cajoling – all the while, only as an interlocutor: Throughout, the film is about those moments and characters that are part of Aamir’s Mahaveer Singh Phogat’s life, and they remain so. Aamir remains the root of the movie, but only as the root, always buried beneath but having the huge heart to dirty oneself in mud but let the viewers/audiences/people enjoy the tree, the rings, the leaves, the twigs, the branches, and of course, the shade.

Dangal is a massive achievement since it consensually consummates a rare marriage between serious issues of gender inequality and cinematic treatment. The bridge between entertainment and issue-based stories is a serious one to effectively construct but here, it’s one great construction. Dangal took me back to my days with my grand father, who was an accomplished multi-language writer and who would tell me stories every night after dinner, in our family verandah, mainly about Hindu mythologies (he was a master in Sanskrit) and stories regarding kings, queens, ascetics, with ‘rakshasas’ in tow of course. The main thing I looked forward to, and the one I never failed in experiencing, was entertainment and eliciting highs and lows of emotions whenever he narrated those stories. Any complexity in the story; be they of emotions or of constructs, would never be lost to me: And that was his victory in storytelling; not my intelligence in understanding it.

That’s what director Nitish Tiwari and his team of writers accomplish here. The visuals always embellish the writing here and not otherwise. Amitabh, of course, IS the lord of ‘masala’ introductions in Hindi cinema (sorry, couldn’t resist bringing him in), but Aamir’s middle-aged introduction with a chiseled body watching a game of wrestling and then defeating a state champion—as the 1988 Seoul Olympics is broadcast in the background—and then wearing his shirt on while the title-credits roll is a pure masala moment, accomplished with a rousing soundtrack that is pure ecstasy-rush. (The other one I cannot forget, of course, is the one in Haider for Irrfan right before the intermission.) The credits then roll on with ‘akhadas’ being shown along with all the activities that go on in making a wrestler out of a potential. Through the girls’ cousin Aparshakti Khurana’s voiceover, the film takes us through the journey of the sisters, mainly focusing on Geeta Phogat till her winning gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Babita, her sister, continues to stay in the background till the end because Geeta is the one competing at the international level.

Ultimately, the story is of Geeta winning an international medal after successive defeats at that level. Everyone is a supporting character, be it Mahaveer’s wife played with restraint by Sakshi Tanwar, the cousin, the chicken-supplier, or even her coach at NSA in Patiala.

I wouldn’t want to write much about the ‘trajectory’ of the movie since that is something to be experienced and enjoyed. Everybody knows the ‘wikipedia’ story of the Phogat sisters by now, especially after Aamir’s own Satyamev Jayate episode. The main strength of the movie is how it inter-laces folksy humor – (Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, and especially Suppandi and Shikhari Shambhu are the ones that I reminisced about when watching the movie)— with story-line progression. This is a remarkable achievement for the writers. Here’s the difference: In all movies that depict the hinterland, there’s always a ‘glorification’, a ‘pride’ that one doesn’t speak or understand English. And who laughs at such scenes: The English-speaking or English-butchering lucky elite like me. When Dhanush equates forget me with I Love You Too in Raanjhana or when Salman says he can be a ‘soo-soo’ guy to woo Anushka in Sultan, it is clearly addressed to make US (the de-monetization unaffected folks) condescendingly laugh. In such films, the attempt is to make the so-called elite laugh at the ‘attempts’ of the hinterland to ‘equal’ us (which to me as a privileged-person thanks to that phenomenon called accidents of birth is offensive and insulting). But in Dangal, these are the lyrics when Geeta fights ‘men’:

निक्कर और त-शर्ट पहन के आया साइक्लोन
(हन जी)
रे निक्कर और त-शर्ट पहन के आया साइक्लोन
लगा के फोन बता दे सबको
बचके रहियो बघड़ बिल्ली से
चंडीगार्ह से या देल्ही से
तनने चारो खाने चित्त कर देगी
तेरे पुर्ज़े फिट कर देगी
डाट कर देगी तेरे दाँव से बढ़ के
पेंच पलट कर देगी
चित्त कर देगी, चित्त कर देगी

In whatever Haryanvi twang one uses English words like T-shirt, cyclone, or even the word Nikkar, there is a ‘context’ to it by extrapolating it to the Khap-infested Haryana patriarchal mind-set. There is a meaning to those scenes when the girls are made to wear ‘nikkar’; when they complain about not being comfortable running wearing ‘salwar-kameez.’

Going back to what I mentioned about the experience of listening to stories my grandfather narrated to me, I need to re-iterate, it is that singular strength of this movie. Narrating serious events through comical situations or every-day life situations is not an easy feat: That’s where Chaplin scored, and that’s where even here, Nitish Tiwari scores. (I hope nobody is offended; I am NOT comparing Chaplin to Tiwari, but it’s just the thought-process): Some people have the knack of explaining complex life philosophies through simple truths. That one scene contrasting a girl’s life after marriage to Geeta and Babita’s regimen is testimony to the fact: Or the fact that meat is required if you need to compete at international levels— (of course, Javagal Srinath was a fantastic masala-dosa bowler – but as per Phogat, one needs to eat meat or chicken or whatever to give you the requisite protein). It is very humorously conveyed here and such cinematic moment-to- moment depictions are the film’s success: Or the fact that Mahaveer watches and disciplines/tutors Geeta by watching her lost-matches in a seedy theatre where the owner is made to believe that exotic porn movies made with high production values from Atlanta or Jakarta are being watched: Or the wonderfully hilarious scene where each and everyone in the village is an expert on reproductive science and especially the ‘proven’ way to give birth to a baby-boy and not a girl-child. There’s a scene when Geeta wins her first medal. The entire village is celebrating, even the men who ridiculed or were skeptical are dancing away. The director cuts to a shot of an old tooth-less woman who, hesitatingly as well as enthusiastically, blesses her and wishes her good luck: A fantastic scene that, a minutiae, but one that conveys a myriad of emotions of a woman who is just waiting for her death. Did she desire to become Geeta Phogat – or an individual woman of strength— in her younger days? Or is she still confused with the messy churning of traditions and personal desires?

Coming to comparisons with Sultan, surprisingly, Dangal managed to make me completely forget Sultan and hammered my mind the world of a difference that exists between Aamir as an artist, a star-actor and Salman as a super-star. There is a world of difference between these two films thematically, and if Salman, when not drunk, would concur with me immediately. Of course, there are some negatives in this film. The chicken-vendor story is a direct throw-back to Sultan’s Kukreja cookers. The dialogue between Phogat and Geeta regarding women’s emancipation from cooking and baking before her finals is again a copy-paste of Shah Rukh’s from Chak De India — (which of course, is a re-working of Miracle– – but Shah Rukh’s was much more impactful). The second half, technically, for about a period of 10 minutes, does seem stretched, especially since they are coming on the heels of Sultan’s MMA matches. However, the semi-final match with her opponent from an Kenya is a thrilling ride in terms of cinematic execution. The primary one, of course is the one between Geeta and Mahaveer when the all-human emotions creep over. It’s NOT at all a match of strength or wit; it’s just a tussle amongst a myriad of confused emotions of a father’s jealousy, his insecurity, his age, the daughter’s exposure to a new world of fun and enjoyment, her new-found freedom, her own-way of rebellion against a father who comes-off as a dictator. And to the folks that would obviously complain about parents imposing their failures or unfulfilled-dreams on their children, just watch Phogat massaging the girls’ legs and his consequent conversation with his wife.

Regarding the performances, finally, it’s the girls that, both as kids and young-adults, tug at your heart-strings. They are fantastically devoted to their acts: But to me, it is Aamir all the way who wins the show. Why? Just look at the pitch of his performance. He is fantastic whether he is the disciplined and dictatorial father or whether he is someone begging a sports-official to provide some funds. (Fine directorial tactic that! In that scene, when Mahaveer finally, albeit in a controlled-fashion, loses his cool and tells the official that it’s because of him that talents in India suffer, the man simply gets up from his chair and says that he is ready to get up from his chair! “Could you please, then, Mr. Phogat, have some ‘aloo-roti’ with butter”? What a great thoughtful touch that is, in under-lining status quo.) Or the scene when Geeta loses international matches and Aamir so hesitatingly – just as he frustratingly takes time in his real life to approve scripts – just waits, and waits, and waits, and finally answers the phone with a ‘Haan’ to his daughter. I, of course, am biased here since I am an emotional-introvert and it moved me to tears but it’s impossible to lose the hidden love and the sense of belonging in that scene. I can go on and on and on writing about this one: But that would be my failure as a writer/reviewer. If I cannot encapsulate in few words that a mammoth of emotions that’s on display in this film, I need to take a back-seat.

Have a free-mind, and savour this film. It is again Aamir as an artiste and an actor that succeeds: As I said before, he is the root, and the root is always muddy, but the one that gives varied hues and colours of life. That this man Aamir just doesn’t care about super-stardom is evident; and that’s what folks like us care about him.

 

 

Dear Zindagi

[NOT-SO MILD SPOILERS]

Richard Linklater’s influences weigh much — if not heavily — on Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi [DZ]: Particularly, the fantastic BOYHOOD. And the connection is not felt as much cinematically as it is thematically, i.e., the crests and troughs of childhood and their role in shaping one’s adult life. The one startling connection between the two is parenting as viewed through the eyes of children. In BOYHOOD, Mason hears his mom talk to her boyfriend about how parenting leaves little scope for her as a single-mom to pursue her ‘life’ or her interests; in DZ, Alia [Kaira] as a 6 year old over-hears her mother telling her Dad that it’s impossible to take Alia with them to a foreign country due to financial pressures. This forms a marker of an incident in Alia’s life and her subsequent handling of relationships with men in her life.

At first, it’s frustrating to watch Alia’s reactions and her handling of men in her life. There is also a paradox; she is a HOT cinematographer [as constantly indicated by her first beau Kunal Kapoor’s ‘Raghuvendra’] who can get or  ANY man she wants, but seems to let them go; either due to their inadequacy or her lack of commitment. So here we have a cinematographer who is good-looking; who can get ANY man whether he sports a man-bun or not into her heart or her bed but ends up screwing all chances of finding and settling down with that one who can act as a soul-mate. She breaks up with a ‘Prince Charming’ who is good in all respects—[I was so getting tired of this cliched examination of relationships and marriages through Bollywood via KANK or the recently released rash-inducing ADHM where the women apparently keep rejecting men who are frogs to them but PRINCE CHARMING to all else in the universe, irrespective of their sex or orientation; I heaved a sigh of relief at the end that it wasn’t the case here]—by telling him on a dinner date that she slept with Raghuvendra. She meets the singer Ali Zafar who is hilariously named ‘Rumi’! **!$?. [The Bollywood fixation and commercial exoticization of Urdu continues]. She develops attraction to obviously his torn jeans and tattoo and his voice and then gets disillusioned with the VERY art-form that introduced and brought them together in the first place – music. [By the way, Ali Zafar turned out to be a joker in this movie; his attempts at sounding a cool girl-magnet come off so painfully bad that I am getting carpal tunnel syndrome even typing this.] At the end, it is revealed, through therapy sessions, that she is actually being pre-emptive and walking out of relationships so as not to face a disappointment the way she was heart-broken with her mother’s revelation that she hardly read any letters the kid wrote or that there was hardly a right time to take her with them thanks to their financial constraints.

I talked of the paradox in the earlier paragraph. And the paradox is again thanks to the atmospherics of Kaira’s personal life. Thanks to her professional life, of course, she is always surrounded by good looking people and people who are the ‘haves’ and not the ‘have-nots.’ [If one as an audience feels this way, it is the director herself who is responsible for this skewed feeling: When Kaira decides to gobble desi Chinese at a TAJ CHINESE road-side cart after a break-up, Gauri crafts a scene that shows her donating her food to a starved, begging kid. It is as if Gauri is bent upon signing off a sledge-hammer impact: ‘She is rich, first-world in a third-world country, got it?’] She is from a family that is welcome to having whiskey/wine as a family-gathering unifier: [The family that drinks together, well, in this case at least, does not stay together.] She is perfectly fine when it comes to OTHER aspects of her life; having fun with her coke-snorting friends or even breaking some salsa or ketchup bottles or whatever since it has a name resembling her ex and then throwing cash at the counter to cover damages. Gauri spends so much of time in SHOWING these scenes to us that it sends out the wrong signal to the extent that when one sees her talking and reacting to her parents so badly, in an utterly dis-respectful and contemptible way, one feels like slapping her and bringing some sense into her. It is actually miraculous her parents put up with her in spite of all her tantrums and her constant humiliation of them: What else can be a greater humiliation to a parent that his or her kid has to mathematically ‘add-up’ the minutes and count desperately to the sum of 10 total minutes of talk in maybe 1 or 2 weeks? She is perennially rude to her parents. [Not writing a letter to the parents after the over-hearing incident is understandable; being rude and insensitive throughout {in an earlier scene, she tells her friends when she has to go to Goa that it’s a torture to spend even a few hours with parents, let alone few days}]. So she has a degree from some film school in New York in cinematography. How did she pay for that? Did she have a scholarship? [Just imagine the contradiction here; the very thing that turned her against her parents, financial safety-net, is the one that actually enabled her to pursue her out-of-the-mainstream course in cinematography in a damn expensive place!] How did she pay for ALL her expenses in Bombay — let alone New York — with a maid in-tow who kept arranging her turtled auto-rickshaw? When a kid takes all of these materialistic bestowing for granted, isn’t it but natural for an audience – or for some at least – to face resistance in buying-in the concept of ‘blaming the parent’? So one’s got all the time in the world when parents shell out their hard-earned money and send you to a prestigious school in a developed country with a stronger currency but one’s got to think a hundred thousand times to talk for 5 minutes with a parent? This dichotomy is quite baffling to me.

Of course, I understand the central conceit of this movie. It is from the point of view of  Kaira, and not her parents. As a 6-year old, it is but natural and perfectly understandable that one sees the world only from one’s limited understanding. Yes, parents might be talking of financial pressures, but what are they to a 6 year old? What’s the thought-process of a 6 year old? Has any 6-year old been wise enough to understand the financial situations of his or her family and stop asking for toys? It doesn’t matter! A kid sees another kid with a toy, and wants it. If the kid were to ‘understand’ that financial situation of the family doesn’t allow the luxury, the kid would no longer be a kid. One gets that. But how about when the kid grows up to be an adult? And is exposed to life and variants of societal life and folks the way Kaira is? It is difficult, very difficult to fathom that a person who is exposed to the kind of elitist life that Kaira leads is so incapable of understanding that whatever the parents decided at that point in their life was a decision at THAT point; not a universal, know-all, fix-all decision: That one needs a therapist to come to the conclusion that whatever the parents did was right in their mind at that point in time is indeed, to put it mildly, if not laughable, for sure amusing.

Does one need to understand child-psychology or be a psychologist/psychiatrist to understand and appreciate DZ? I am in two minds about that. How is it that Kaira is able to remember and describe what she felt as a 6 year old so convincingly to Khan? If one digs into one’s childhood, yes, one can remember per se the seminal incidents that affected one’s childhood; but how can one remember and articulate the exact emotions, the feelings that one experienced at the time? How can one remember that one felt as though a disgusting TV channel had been turned on and the TV remote was snatched away with no option to change? The scene looked and sounded too artificial to me designed with an attempt to well one’s tear-glands. I just didn’t find Kaira’s problems — in the light of her adult life — convincing; and that might be because of Gauri’s confused handling of the subject; the contradictions that she keeps throwing up: Even if one were to convince oneself that it was her intention, it still doesn’t cut ice. Mani Ratnam’s ‘Anjali’ that dealt with the parents’ handling of a troubled child still works for me — at least on an emotional level.

There are only 2 scenes in the movie that stood-out to me. One is Kaira’s outburst when man-bun Mr. Raghuvendra shows up at her friend’s Goa residence; second, the final therapy session with SRK’s Jahangir Khan. Shinde deserves all the accolades for the final therapy scene. It is a remarkably conceived and shot scene when Kaira wants to have a relationship with Khan outside of the professional boundaries. Shinde fantastically conveys ‘transference’ [http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-transference.htm]

in the scene and seems to be influenced by the brilliant HBO series ‘IN TREATMENT.’ [https://youtu.be/fUpiNh7sTkE]. It’s a team effort and each one shines; SRK with his acknowledgement and his awkwardness {Paul Weston too is going through a difficult marriage} and Alia through her transference buried in her conviction that she is actually in love with her therapist.

Alia Bhatt of course walks off with top honors. This is a fine performance cementing her place as an artist that’s bridging the gap between youth-focused roles and semi-realistic roles like that of the one in UDTA PUNJAB: Kudos to her for pumping life into an other-wise confused character-sketch by the director. SRK plays SRK, albeit restrained. For all the talk of this being a fine SRK performance, I beg to differ – it’s not. There’s too much of SRK’s mannerisms in his portrayal of the therapist. He appears too caught-up to be freely exploring Jehangir Khan as a character. So for me, DIL SE followed by SWADES continue to be SRK’s only redeeming acts in his post-stardom era.

Alia’s friends are exasperatingly vacuous and one of them even belts out a Faulkner quote regarding the past which is never dead. The reactions to this quote by their friends are ludicrous, and the audience is confused as to whether the characters are laughing at the absurdity of the usage of this quote or the quote itself. Curiously, it’s only the dumped beaus that provide some stability and maturity in terms of how the audience perceives Kaira’s relationships with them.

This is definitely quite an interesting film on paper; on the screen, however, it leaves a LOT to be desired.