26 June 2016

The Copycat Criminal

Today's Mirror column:

Raman Raghav 2.0 is a breathtaking portrait of a serial killer. But it is also an incisive, disturbing perspective on violence. 



Whether in his still-unreleased Paanch, about a band of friends who turn killers, or 2014's Ugly, in which a child becomes a pawn in a game of one-upmanship between adults, or the more familiar power struggles of Gangs of Wasseypur, the psychology of amorality has always been Anurag Kashyap's predominant interest. Raman Raghav 2.0 might be the tautest, most mature exploration of that interest. This is particularly admirable because the subject is a serial killer, someone without any rational reason to commit the crimes he does. Unlike in an Ugly or GoW, violence here cannot be explained as a means to an end. It is sui generis, and its own reward. 

And yet violence is also - like all human traits - something we learn by mimicking others. Kashyap and writer Vasan Bala make that imitative impulse central to their brilliant script, in more ways than one. The fictional protagonist—played with pitch-perfect, chilling ordinariness by Nawazuddin Siddiqui—is not the notorious 1960s serial killer, but a murderer in the present who decides to model himself on him. Like the filmmakers, he is fascinated by the figure of Raman Raghav. Some of this sense of kinship may or may not be triggered by his own given name, which may or not be Ramanna. But the man who first surrenders at the police station gives his name as Sindhi Dalwai, telling the confused cops that that was Raman Raghav's real name, and now it is his. Raman was in wireless communication with God, he says, killing whoever God tells him to. As for himself, he's a little more advanced: he's God's CCTV camera. 

But Ramanna's copying of Raman is only the first form this mimicry of violence takes. [This isn't a review, and there are spoilers ahead, so if you plan on seeing the film, you might want to stop reading now and come back afterwards.] Much more terrifying is the mirroring between the serial killer and the policeman, Raman and Raghav. "I'm like a Yamraaj ka doot [an agent of the God of Death], ridding the world of people," says Siddiqui's Ramanna to Vicky Kaushal's cocaine-fuelled Raghavan. "Is maamle mein hum same to same huye [In this respect we're exactly the same]." The impunity and arbitrariness with which the police murder people in India is a public secret (the devastating Tamil film Visaaranai is a recent filmic reminder). But that fact has perhaps never received a more sinister, personalised reflection in fiction than Raman Raghav 2.0. 

Ramanna and Raghavan may seem poles apart to start with, but as the film progresses you see their similarities: their vulnerability and the violence that disguises it, their salaciousness about women they are close to. Kashyap adds other signifiers of mimicry, as ordinary as they are masterful. For instance, in accordance with his self-declared persona, Siddiqui keeps circling his fingers around his eyes (it is a gesture familiar from a very different sort of Hindi film thriller: Pran used it as informer Michael D'Souza in the 1974 Majboor). If Ramanna is constantly putting on imaginary spectacles, Raghavan never takes his real ones off. If Ramanna's ek-tak gaze never misses anything, his eyes lighting up in the dark, Raghavan's is always shielded from the light. It is no coincidence that the last purchase Ramanna makes is a pair of secondhand sunglasses. 

Barring a couple of exceptions, Kashyap provides few clues to why this man kills those he does. But what the film suggests, emphatically, is that he only kills those he knows he can. In what might be one of its most breathtakingly filmed scenes, a homeless, starving Ramanna, having just escaped from days of illegal police confinement, discovers a little hutment almost hidden by greenery. A woman is cooking rotis on an open-air chulha, handing one to a little child. Siddiqui's hungry gaze follows them first, and then he picks up a stone and does the same. But where he had imagined a solitary woman, there is a whole circle of men, eating silently, sitting on their haunches. As he almost trips backward and makes a run for it, one thinks of how effortlessly the scene has suggested his animality: the cat whose mewing first draws his attention, the leafy wildness of the surroundings, the silent padded feet on which he approaches his victim, and his fleet-footed departure from a sense of self-preservation when he realizes he is outnumbered. 

Violence is an elemental display of strength, Kashyap seems to be saying: a way of expressing one's advantage over those who cannot fight back: the unarmed, older or physically weaker, the drunk, the fast asleep. It can, once the brain has contorted itself thus, give the powerless man a strange sense of power, no matter how ephemeral. And sometimes that power is infectious enough to be a warped kind of sexy. 

But it is not only serial killers who experience that high. Perhaps the film's most devastating insight comes from Raghavan's scene with his father (the superb Vipin Sharma). The cocky young cop, whom we have so far only seen bossing over his team and bullying his lover (a very interesting Sobhita Dhulipala) takes only a few seconds in his father's hectoring company to be reduced to an errant child. And then, like a confused actor who's suddenly remembered his role, he turns the tables. It is as if the only communication between them is fear—and here, too, the son mirrors the father. As with Raman and Raghav, the copy outdoes the original. 

Bala and Kashyap have produced an unforgettable character, a man whose madness is unique-—and yet also located him on a continuum. That makes RR 2.0's exploration of violence more frightening than any serial killer film I've ever seen.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 June 2016.

19 June 2016

The Straight Dope


Udta Punjab may not always fly as high as it wants to, but its portrait of the drug-fuelled state steps fearlessly off the edge. 



There's a moment in Udta Punjab when one of the film's primary characters, an otherwise easygoing young cop, suddenly decides he can no longer be a willing cog-in-the-wheel of the terrible drug chariot rolling through the state, crushing people in plain sight. 

Before his companions guarding the naka know what's hit them, Sartaj has cracked open the headlights of a truck carrying the latest illegal consignment and bashed up its driver instead of letting him through. When his boss manages to get him back under control, he takes Sartaj aside and says to him, deadpan: "You beat up the man, I can deal with that. But why damage the truck?" 

That line of dialogue is a pithy pointer to the tragic state of Punjab today, where the gainers guard a corrupt system — like that truck — at the cost of a vast population. Cheap drugs have made inroads into the smallest hamlets, eating through the innards of a once-prosperous state. From the political big man to the small-time operator, the gainers worship at the altar of money, closing their eyes to the human wreckage piling up behind the throne. 

Sudip Sharma, who wrote the superb and harrowing NH10, joins forces with director Abhishek Chaubey to write this ambitious but not completely successful script. Unlike NH10, which channels our fear of the other, creating a chillingly believable war in which the battlelines are drawn by patriarchy, Udta Punjab asks us to suspend our disbelief as its disparate characters unite across barriers of class, language and experience, against drugs. 

The quietly winsome Punjabi star Diljit Dosanjh plays Sartaj Singh, a policeman who has no problems being on the take until he's shocked and then taunted into a change of heart by a personal situation — and by Kareena Kapoor's saintly but sharp-tongued activist-doctor Preet. Alia Bhatt plays an unnamed Bihari migrant labourer whose attempt to use drug money to engineer her way out of her circumstances goes terribly awry. And finally, but most importantly, we have Shahid Kapoor as the seriously unstable Tommy Singh, a rockstar whose highs and lows as a performer are no longer extricable from his highs and lows as a coke addict. 

There is nothing wrong with the characters per se. In fact, Sharma and Chaubey make a wise choice by deciding to keep the focus on each character's personal battle with drugs—the only one who seems to be acting purely out of the goodness of her heart, Kareena's Dr Preet, is the least fleshed-out (though Kareena isn't terrible, and she even has some sweet scenes with the effortlessly effective Dosanjh). 

But I found it hard to believe in the ease of the romantic alliance between the highly qualified Preet and the largely uneducated Sartaj—perhaps if we'd had more time with these people, it would have seemed less convenient, less pat? Bhatt dives enthusiastically into her harrowing role, but despite her valiant efforts at Bhojpuri, neither her body language nor her accent allowed me to believe she was anything but Alia Bhatt in brownface. As for her character's hockey-playing past, I wish it had had more play—it's certainly easier to imagine Bhatt as an aspiring rural sports star than as a landless labourer used to working in the fields. Who knows, I may even have believed in a rockstar falling for her. 

Shahid Kapoor gets the best written role, but he also puts body and soul into it. His Tommy Singh is the film's crazed, throbbing heart: careening wildly through both his concerts and his life, and dragging us willingly with him. It is Tommy — and the darkness of his life in the spotlight — that gives Udta Punjab that edge of madness, of devil-may-care-ness, that is so threatening to the powers-that-be. And certainly there is an unapologetic use of gaalis and cusswords -- not the only thing about the film that seems Tarantinoesque. 

But other than the lyrics of a song like Chitta Ve —dedicated to the 'White One'—you'd be hard put to find something in Udta Punjab that could be construed as "glorifying" drug use. But while Chaubey is obviously gifted in his ability to make narrative use of songs (think of Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji in his marvellous first film Ishqiya), songs in our cinema do sometimes have a tendency to become breakaway units, declaring their independence from the film that houses them. 

On the whole, Chaubey's film makes it absolutely clear which side of the fence it's on, showing us a whole gamut of utterly depressing examples of people and families gutted by addiction: in homes, in jails, in hospitals and de-addiction centres, and most scarily, in the thousands of empty sheds and barns and brick shelters across the state in which young men and boys lie about, shooting up all day. 

It is the smaller characters that make Sharma and Chaubey's script really speak—from Sartaj's sharp-eyed boss Jujhaar Singh, who counts himself amongst the gainers, to the creepy rapist (Vansh Bhardwaj) who takes selfies with his drugged victim before injecting himself with another dose of something. 

Udta Punjab isn't a perfect film, perhaps not even a great one. But it has an unstoppable energy, and a fierce honesty of purpose that almost always manages to stop short of preachiness. That's worth a great deal.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19th June, 2016.

12 June 2016

The Salt of Time

My Mirror column:

If you can ignore the gimmicky title, Te3n's Calcutta offers both an atmospheric whodunit and an affecting take on ageing. 



There is plenty to be said about the plot of Te3n, but Ribhu Dasgupta's seond directorial venture is tense and surprising enough for me to want to keep its secrets. Suffice it to say that it tackles a subject that is beloved of thrillers and whodunits, perhaps because it is every parent's worst nightmare—the kidnapping and death of a child. An authorised remake of the 2013 Korean film Montage, the film is about the kidnapping of a little boy in the present which ends up re-opening an unsolved case from the past, and gives a guilt-ridden policeman a chance to redeem himself for previous failures. But while the Korean original directed the bulk of the audience's sympathies to the dead child's mother, the Hindi version gives emotional centre-stage to her grandfather. 

That grandfather—a once-tall man now hunched over with the twin burdens of age and sorrow—is played by Amitabh Bachchan. Much of the emotive power of the film lies in watching this man, who once strode across our screens like a colossus, transform himself into something old and frail and vulnerable. From the very first scene, in which we see him uncomfortably positioned on a wooden bench in the police station, the fatigue of long years of waiting is visible not just in his sunken cheeks, but in his gaunt frame. Bachchan's delivery, especially in the film's early and final scenes, contains too much of his star self, but his body language manages to convince us that he is that all-too-frequently seen by-product of India's non-working systems: a broken old man. 

There is, of course, an occasional glimmer of the old tenaciousness, even arrogance—and Dasgupta milks this when he can, such as the withering glance Bachchan gives a low-life who settles into the bench next to him, forcing him to make room—or the caustic comeuppance he delivers to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's policeman-turned-priest Martin for having turned his back on a case he failed to solve: "Tumhari tarah situation se bhaagna wala nahi hoon main." None of this evidence of spirit, however, prevents us from experiencing an almost bodily fear for the old man's safety as he traverses the city on his rickety old blue scooter, following up obscure new clues that no-one in the police force will give the time of day. (That projection of vulnerability shares something with Vidya Balan's pregnant heroine in Kahaani, a previous Calcutta-set thriller directed in 2012 by Sujoy Ghosh, who is producer here.) 

It seems to me no coincidence that Dasgupta chooses to set his film in Calcutta, nor that the character he places at the centre of this crumbling, once-grand city is a crumbling, once-grand man. But much like the Calcutta of which he is an embodiment, Bachchan's ageing John Biswas is down but not out. He still does his baajaar like a good Bengali man, and even steps in to cook and clean in lieu of his wheelchair-bound wife. He may walk slowly and climb gingerly, but he is both intrepid and dogged in his conquest of the obstacle race the city presents as its ordinary face. In Calcutta, Te3n suggests, even violent crime and the sharp-edged investigation of it must tangle with petty bureaucratic tyrannies. The slow deliberation that is required as a response is what Dasgupta uses to set the pace of his film. 

And though the star roles are handed to three Bombay-based talents—Bachchan and Siddiqui are joined by Balan's over-confident police officer Sarita—the filmmakers do pay atmospheric tribute to Calcutta. The daylight scenes are full of bright whites and blues, while greens and yellows dominate the dimly-lit night sequences. There is some gratuitious use of Calcutta cliches—Durga Puja and Howrah Bridge, hand-pulled rickshaws in the background and too-empty ferries in the foreground, and Clinton Cerejo's faux-Baul song annoyed me particularly. The homes we see, all located on a continuum between the romantic and the shabby, appear a little too artful. But that slight quality of excess seems right when it comes to the tubelit government office and the dilapidated rail yard, the deafening rhythms of the printing press and the plodding low rumble of the trams. The large white expanse of St. Paul's Cathedral contrasts interestingly with the more threadbare feel of the Hooghly Imambara (and though this predominance of religious spaces seems of a piece with the story's focus on death and redemption and justice, the film's primary characters being Christian seemed odd: I wondered if it was strategic, giving an audience that doesn't know better a supposed reason for these Calcuttans being Hindi-speaking.) 

What the film affords the viewer is an experience that often feels particular to Calcutta: that of peering through wooden slatted windows or creaky doors left slightly ajar, to look at those hidden places the city hugs to itself, like secrets guarded more zealously as one grows older. The city's new colours do make an occasional appearance— such as an exciting chase scene aboard the brightly patterned Duronto trains. But when events as recent as 2007 are shown to contain cassette players, one wonders if the filmmakers are insisting on ageing the city before its time.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 June 2016.

Modern love, ’50s style

A book review published in BL Ink:
What was Hindi cinema’s ‘Golden Age’ all about? A new book wants us to take off our nation-focused spectacles and open our eyes to how the ’50s Bombay film world shaped the modern Indian idea of romance.
Film scholar Aarti Wani shows how the public conversation around star pairs shaped our response to their onscreen romances. Seen here are Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, with colleagues Dev Anand and Raj Khosla
(The Hindu archives)
The Hindi cinema of the 1950s has received so much attention, both scholarly and popular, that it seems an over-ploughed field. But film scholar Aarti Wani has written a book that casts fresh light on this familiar terrain. Rather than looking again at the ways in which 1950s cinema spoke to — and of — India’s new nationhood, Wani examines the models it constructed of romance. In fact, she argues, “the category of the national”, while explicating several aspects of post-Independence Hindi cinema, such as the creation of a national geography through travel and landscape, or of a moral economy based on a certain portrait of tradition, has failed to “account for the 1950s films’ overarching investment in romantic love.”
Wani’s principal argument is that love and romance were Hindi cinema’s fantasy of the modern in the ’50s. She starts with an obvious but important point — while romance was the ubiquitous narrative content of ’50s cinema, there was very little space for romantic love in the lived experiences of most Indians who watched these films. Of course, such an imbalance has existed with regard to literary depictions of love long before cinema. Sudipta Kaviraj has suggested that novelistic depictions of love “create an impression of commonplaceness of such action and behaviour”, whereas in fact, love relationships continued to be extremely rare in the society that was being described in these novels.
This modernity was signalled, among other things, by the fact that in contrast to films from later decades, ’50s Hindi films were marked by the relative absence of family. Most ’50s heroes had no father or mother, that is, no parental family. And most ’50s heroines, Wani argues, either had non-oppositional, even supportive, families, or they were shown with villainous fathers/father-figures from whom they needed to be rescued. Films like AwaaraDevdas and Mughal-e-Azam are exceptions. Very few ’50s film protagonists lived in joint families — thus freed from the “crippling family ties that would thwart romantic aspirations in real life”.
This cinematic vision of romantic love, Wani’s argument continues, was entwined with the experience of urban modernity; the city functioning as a site of “unexpected meetings and romantic encounters between strangers”. In contrast to love affairs in rural settings, which often had tragic ends — Arzoo(1950), Deedar (1951) or Devdas (1955) — the urban fabric seemed to allow for young men and women to choose and court potential partners. The primary locale for these filmi encounters, of course, was Mumbai (though Calcutta did feature in films like Pyaasa and Howrah Bridge).
The urban modern was closely tied to spatial exploration. Pointing to the many romantic connections made aboard trains, in taxis and buses, and in garages, Wani makes a rather lovely point: that romance in the ’50s film did not need transportation to an exotic or foreign location — “the dream remained eminently quotidian”. Of course, women and men — even those on the silver screen — did not have equal access to these city spaces, especially in a host of films that played up a noirish iconography, in which gambling, bank heists, thefts, kidnapping and even murders were deployed as sources of excitement. Still, Wani analyses some very interesting films — like 1958’s Solva Saal, starring Waheeda Rehman, and 1957’s Gateway of India, featuring Madhubala — in which the frisson is produced by the female protagonist’s adventurous, even dangerous, brush with diverse spaces in the city.
The other female figure identified with the cosmopolitan spaces of the city is, of course, the club singer/dancer. Wani notes that the role of the vamp/gangster’s moll in ’50s films was not reserved for particular actresses as it later became. The actress singing in a club might be the leading lady of that film — think Madhubala in Howrah Bridge — Geeta Bali, Sheila Ramani and Shakila all had roles that spilled across these boundaries.
Madhubala as a nightclub singer in Howrah Bridge (1958) was the film's heroine
Perhaps the most remarkable reworking of the split between the ‘heroine’ and the ‘other woman’ is in Pyaasa. Guru Dutt crafts a melancholic critique of the city as a calculating, inhospitable place based on the opposition between two female figures. But here the prostitute Gulabo (Rehman) is the true romantic, an appreciator of poetry, while the college-educated bourgeois woman (Mala Sinha’s Meena) is the faithless, money-minded one. (In a related aside, Wani points to the rising anxiety about women marrying for status rather than love, a fear expressed in mid-’50s films like Mr and Mrs 55 and Paying Guest.)
Wani’s next section, about the role of the song in the creation of a modern Indian romantic sensibility, is the book’s weakest. Several classic songs — ‘Yeh raat yeh chandni’ from Jaal, ‘Dum bhar jo udhar moonh phere’ from Awaara, ‘Do ghadi woh jo paas aa baithe’ from Gateway of India — are analysed in detail, and these analyses are usually interesting, if long-winded in a predictable academic way. Wani spends several pages, for example, on the framing of the Christian Maria in the Jaal song, and while I found fascinating the antecedents she claims for this character (in Ramamoorthy’s analysis of the interracial ’30s ‘Modern Girl’), I was often stopped in my tracks by sentences like “The spectacle of nature that frames the drama of this seduction marks Maria’s sexuality as natural” or “Maria’s performance, her expression, gestures and movement, along with the black and white mise-en-scene of the night saturated by the insistent sounds of the song give spatiality to desire that is cinematically spectacular and provides parallel moments of pleasure and identification”.
The rest of this section makes a shifting set of arguments about how space is used in the ’50s film song. Among Wani’s most specific claims is that duets were very rarely sung in a closed room (“which in fact offers a spatial setting for its possible consummation”). More broadly, she argues that romantic songs made for a fantasy in which the ‘public’ sphere could be occupied “for non-public, personal ends”. Moving onto songs of sorrow, she seeks to map songs sung by the heroine onto closed spaces and those by the hero onto open spaces — “a river bank, a sea shore, on a bench in a park, or on a rooftop”. I was less persuaded by Wani’s claims about how sound spills out of “the edges of the frame”, making songs in general a way of destabilising our perception and experience. Her conclusion seems particularly strange, using as it does a quotation on Hollywood “producing a new common sense about how love looked and what was required to overcome the manifold dangers that threatened it” to make her point about the film song. None of this is wrong, but it feels terribly unspecific. Perhaps the problem is songs are too slippery to stay put in neat analytic boxes — Wani herself goes from categorising the song as “a conduit of narrative meaning” to something that stakes claims “in excess of what the narrative allows”.
The final third of the book is where Wani abandons her laboured shot-by-shot analytic technique for a lively weaving together of film texts with journalistic and anecdotal texts about stars who had attained cinematic and public status as romantic pairs. Drawing on Neepa Majumdar’s pathbreaking work Wanted Cultured Ladies Only (2009), which locates the phenomenon of stardom in ’40s India within the context of a deep social ambivalence about cinema, Wani scrutinises how Bombay film stars in the ’50s were anointed as experts on love and romance — being asked to write articles and answer readers’ questions.
Returning to her framing argument about the rarity of love relationships in Indian society at the time, she suggests that stars began to be seen as authorities on the subject both because they performed love on screen and because they were among the very few people with any real-life experience of love affairs. Wani’s study of 1950s film journalism in English, Hindi and Marathi is attentive to detail, distinguishing between the different registers — sympathetic, gossipy, or judgemental — in which the stars’ love lives were produced as artefacts for public consumption.
Finally, Wani zooms in on the four legendary star-pairs of the decade — Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman, Nargis-Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand-Suraiya and Dilip Kumar-Madhubala. Her mapping of the contours of their real-life affairs onto some of their famous cinematic romances produces some of the most fascinating readings of these films. In moving beyond the official narrative on screen to the unofficial knowledge of stars’ lives which, without a doubt, informs the way we watch films, Wani offers an immensely productive lens with which to look at Hindi cinema. Work on Chiranjeevi and his fans, by SV Srinivas, offered a complex and thoughtful reading of film texts in the light of stardom and fan-expectations. Wani’s work is an allied but original project.
Despite its sometimes meandering and repetitive prose, Fantasy of Modernity is a thoughtful and enjoyable book, which contains several careful readings of films and offers a persuasive way of looking at both ’50s cinema and 20th century Indian ideas of romance. The many typographical errors — misspelled proper names, like ‘Ashish Nandi’ instead of ‘Ashis Nandy’, or ‘Chidanand Dasgupta’ instead of ‘Chidananda’, recurring errors like “libratory”, and completely erratic Romanising of Hindi lyrics (what should be spelt ‘anbujh’ is instead spelt, on the same page, alternately as ‘anbooz’ and ‘anbhujh’) — are extremely unfortunate distractions from an otherwise rich and immersive read.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 11 June 2016.

6 June 2016

The World Is What It Is

My Mirror column:

An internationally acclaimed Kannada film offers a funny, sad, insightful take on an India we don't often see on screen.



The most colourful character in Thithi is dead within the first ten minutes of the film. When we meet Century Gowda, thus anointed for managing to live that many years upon this earth, he seems like that familiar village fixture: a gap-toothed old man, capable of nothing except sitting on his haunches and watching the world go by. But Century Gowda is not like most people at his stage of life. Age has not withered him, nor custom staled the infinite variety of taunts that flow from his ancient tongue. "You kids neither study nor graze cattle," he berates a passing posse of uniformed schoolchildren. "No men at home to graze the buffalo?" he jeers at a woman trying to steer the lumbering beasts past him. A hapless looking fellow who scurries by dressed in an incongruous black suit gets a more personalised insult: "Has your wife left you yet?" he calls out. 

But then his nonstop activity comes abruptly to a close. The film pauses for an instant, marking the moment with a shift that is both visual and perceptual. The human world carries on — it is the animals who notice. The camera suddenly gives them to us in close-up — the rooster crowing, the cow mooing, the goat bleating, as if to announce they're alive and well, and that crumpled heap on the ground is not. 

It takes barely a minute, though, to return us to a human perspective. A crowd gathers, the old man's grandson is called, and soon enough an astrologer has been sought out to offer advice on what must be done. Thithi is the word for that funereal feast he ordains. Ere Gowda and Raam Reddy take the ritual markers with which we seek to make our lives intelligible, and craft around them a film that is about the unmarked, everyday business of living. The marking of death is part of the carrying-on of life. 

Yet Thithi is not the sort of film that is about only one thing. If it outlines the generational scaffolding upon which life in the village still stands, it also shows us the cracks that individuals can create in that structure. Century's grandson Thamanna may cleave to the rules of community, but his father Gadappa — Century's son — has long refused to abide by them. 

Played by Ere Gowda's real-life uncle Chennagowda, a wiry man with a shock of wild white hair and a thoughtful gleam in his eye, Gadappa is perhaps the film's most affecting character. We start off being amused, perhaps even a little shocked by his response to the death of his father. "No big deal," he says, striding off into the fields with his usual quarter of local liquor. As Thamanna's harried existence — negotiating with his wife, disciplining his youthful son, running around for a motor mechanic to get the water back into his fields — is juxtaposed with Gadappa's free-floating, alcohol-fuelled wanderings, one wonders if the film is setting up the householder against the ascetic. Is social obligation the glue that keeps things from falling apart, or that which unnecessarily binds us? Is Gadappa the irresponsible wastrel his son treats him as, or does his lack of worldliness makes him a model worth emulating? Even much later in the film, when his 'unfeeling'-ness is partially explained, Gadappa retains an intriguing air. 

Reddy manages to combine an observational documentary style with an almost indulgent affection for every character he places on screen. Women remain largely tangential, though watch out for the marvelous Kamalakka, who accosts a drunken customer with a threat appropriate for anyone you've ever wanted to shake by the collar: "I'll pass your life through a strainer!" Yet for all its pleasurable meandering, Thithi is not plotless. Its seemingly unplanned threads do in fact come together in the end — just not in the dramatic pitch we have been schooled to expect from cinematic resolutions. 

My favourite of these narrative threads involves Gadappa's spontaneous joining-up with a group of sheep-herders. Their surprised but ready acceptance of the old man reminded me a little of another old man who finds himself taken into a nomadic community, albeit under starkly different circumstances: the Marathi film Astu, in which Amruta Subhash's Telugu-speaking nomad finds herself sheltering an aged, confused Mohan Agashe. On an altogether different plane, Chennagowda's adamant refusal to stay in one place made me think of the immortal David Gulpili in Rolf de Heer's devastating Charlie's Country. Of course, Gadappa is rebelling against his own community; while Gulpili's Charlie is rebelling against a whole modern civilisation that has swallowed up the old aboriginal way of life. But like Gulpili, Chennagowda has a twinkling, laconic way of declaring his intentions, and a dogged pursuit of life on his own terms. He may have always wanted to wander, but he will not do so at anyone else's behest. These are spirited old men laying claim to the lands of their forefathers — but doing so in a way that rejects accumulation. 

Thithi is a remarkable, unusual film. Not just because it gives us a set of memorable characters (all non-actors) and etches in almost ethnographic fashion a rural Karnataka milieu, but because it so beautifully balances the event with the non-event, the extraordinary with the ordinary, the gently comic with the deeply sorrowful. A little like life.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5th June 2016.

30 May 2016

Inside, Outside

My Mirror column on Phobia:

Pawan Kripalani's smart new horror movie goes the psychological route, but stops a bit short of its political possibilities.



Pawan Kripalani's new film, Phobia, casts the talented Radhika Apte as a young woman who develops a psychological condition called agoraphobia, finding it harder and harder to leave the confines of her home. 

When we first meet Apte's character, an artist called Mehak, she is the centre of attention. A show of her art work has just opened at a gallery, and she is surrounded by friends and acquaintances, chatting and telling ghost stories and generally being the cynosure of all eyes. Within the blink of an eye, though, the mood has changed. Mehak looks into the distance, thinks she sees something strange, then realizes what she 'saw' is no longer there. She is disoriented enough to leave her own opening night abruptly. But worse is to come. 

After having dropped off her friend and admirer Shaan (Satyajit Mishra), she dozes off in the cab, and (in a clear reference to the Uber rape case of December 2014), comes to only to find the taxi driver in the back seat, trying to force himself on her. The film does not dwell on the incident, except to make clear that this attempted rape forms the trigger for Mehak's ailment: her increasingly irrational fear of the outside world. 

A female character's descent into madness has been the subject of a lot of powerful films, from Gaslight to Repulsion to Black Swan, to John Cassavetes' astounding A Woman Under the Influence and Todd Haynes' disturbing Safe. Like several of these films, Phobia suggests that its protagonist's affliction has something of a sexual undertow. But for some reason, Kripalani doesn't put this aspect of things in the spotlight. 

What we get instead is a true-blue scary movie, which has the tropes of a traditional horror flick -- spooky spiders, eerily silent cats, bathtubs and broken mirrors, lamps that crackle and drains that make strange sounds. Phobia is an effective piece of apartment horror. 

Mehak's growing irrational behaviour starts to create problems for her family, and she temporarily shifts out of the house she shares with her sister and little nephew into a Malad apartment owned by Shaan's friend. The place is furnished but empty, since the tenant, a girl called Jiah, has seemingly skipped town, leaving all her belongings behind. In classic horror movie fashion, Mehak starts to see and hear things in the flat, while reading Jiah's (conveniently detailed) diary and gradually becoming convinced that Jiah is dead and her unhappy spirit is wandering around. The agoraphobia now becomes merely a plot device to keep Mehak indoors. 

Having started off in an art gallery, Phobia then shifts to the interior of a moving taxi, followed by an open road, and finally the interiors of two successive houses, from which Mehak's (and the film's) only forays into the outside are virtual. 'Agora' is the Greek term for marketplace, and agoraphobia means 'fear of public spaces'. 

But it was fascinating to me that the 'virtual therapy' device through which a therapist twice tries to get a panic-stricken Mehak to 'pretend-travel' beyond the four walls of her house takes her, both times, into a virtual mall—as if shopping is necessarily therapeutic for women. Of course, the mall is also an increasingly popular setting for horror films (Kripalani's own previous outing was called Darr at the Mall). The director--whose first film was Ragini MMS — also expertly uses CCTV footage to add to the ever-present question: did it happen or did she imagine it? 

Phobia does many interesting things, and does most of them well. The camerawork and editing keep you on your toes, and the actors -- not just Apte, but also Satyadeep Mishra and Yashaswini Dayama as Mehak's cheeky young neighbour Nikki -- are very good. But as I started looking up agoraphobia, I began to wonder why a film that had decided to take this as its premise didn't do more with it. Because it turns out, the ailment affects many more women than men. 

In the United States, 90% of those with severe agoraphobia are women, and 70% of those with mild symptoms are women, too. Women agoraphobes are twice as likely to experience general anxiety, and three times as likely to have panic attacks. The figures are similar for other countries. Feminist approaches to agoraphobia suggest that the disease needs to be seen in a social context: the fact that women are socialised to think of public spaces as threatening, and often learn to police their own behaviour in public, placing restrictions on their own mobility out of a fear of men. 

The converse of a fear of the outdoors is, of course, a greater attachment to and identification with the home than displayed by most men. The scholars Gelfond (1991) and Fodor (1992) have argued that it might be worthwhile to look at agoraphobic women as representing one end of a continuum -- i.e., as sharing many forms of behaviour with large sections of the adult female population. In being unable to claim her rightful place in public space, Seidenberg and De Crow (1983) have suggested, the agoraphobic woman is a "living and acting metaphor, making a statement, registering a protest, effecting a sit-in strike". 

Phobia could certainly have been a more chilling indictment.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 May 2016