My Sunday Guardian film review column this week:
Director: Shoaib Mansoor
Starring: Atif Aslam, Iman Ali, Mahira Khan, Humaima Malick, Shafqat Cheema
At one point in Shoaib Mansoor's Bol, the exhausted father of a missing teenage boy says to the rest of the gathered family: "Kahan kahan nahi dhoonda hai humne... (Where have I not searched for him?)". It's an almost predictable filmi dialogue. But then he turns away from the camera and completes his sentence with: "...Khuda kare mar-mara gaya ho (God willing, he'll be dead by now)."
Bol consistently challenges your expectations. Its tenor is that of an old-style Hindi movie – clumsy first person narrative, slow build-up complete with depiction of childhood, slightly overblown characters, melodramatic dialogues, fairy tale ending – and yet it cannot be called predictable, because it is unlike any Hindi film I've seen. The frankness with which it speaks of the things it has set out to speak of – the subcontinental obsession with sons, the neglect and oppression of daughters and wives, the blinkered interpretation of religion that is marshalled in support of chauvinistic practices, the social sanction for treating hijras as less than human while secretly lusting after them – is irreproachable.
There are cop-outs, to be sure, like the too-perfect romance between the pardanasheen 5th-class-pass girl and the guitar-playing doctor neighbour (not to mention her unbelievable one-shot transformation into swaying rockstar), or the inevitably tragic fate of the hijra, which one could choose to perceive as akin to what used to be the fate of the golden-hearted prostitute in older Hindi films.
But there's also much here that is nuanced, while being just broad-strokes enough to communicate perfectly with its audience. For example, the father, a Mohajir hakeem who sets up shop in Lahore after Partition, is responsible for much of the unrelieved awfulness of the life his family leads, and certainly we are not meant to sympathise with him. But we are given ways in which to begin to understand him, too, as a victim of his circumstances, trapped by his own beliefs. There's also the wonderful subplot involving a household of courtesans (mirroring the houseful of girls spawned by the Hakeem Sahab), which cleverly incorporates a critique of marriage – before it has to kowtow to dominant sexual morality.
Watch this film to see what the Bollywood blockbuster could be doing with itself.
THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah, Gulshan Devaiya, Pooja Swarup
Ruth (Kalki Koechlin) is a white girl with an expired visa, doing the rounds of government offices so that she can stay on in India and look for a father she's never seen. Random men look at Ruth and think dirty thoughts, their fake smiles contorting into grimaces, even their burps emerging as a seedy, too-intimate confession.
It works at first, the unsettling focus on the instinct for prey that seems to unite the lowest of passport touts with the faux-British-accented foreign service officer ("I like your teeth: sort of like Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts," he says to Ruth).
But the bleakness is unrelenting, and one begins to tire of it fairly soon. Not only is Ruth fatherless and an illegal migrant – the screwed-up flotsam of the developed world – she also has a job administering Swedish massages, sometimes with thousand-rupees "handshakes", in a sleazy massage parlour, a cokehead boyfriend with whom she doesn't want to have sex, and a dangerously edgy ganglord who's out to redeem the boyfriend's debts from her. By the time one gets to the sexual abuse that is the film's primary theme, it feels worn thin.
True to Anurag Kashyap's record, spaces are stylishly shot: all tight corners and grimy walls, harshly fluorescent streets and depressingly dark interiors, and the film gives us some superb cameos: Pooja Swarup as the massage parlour manager who's chatting on the phone all day long ("School mein na Maggi quiz contest mein mujhe Best Memory prize mila thha, kucch bhoolti nahi hoon main") and Gulshan Devaiah (seen in a very different role in Shaitan) as the Kannadiga ganglord are almost worth watching this film for, and there's also Naseeruddin Shah in a tiny appearance as a massage parlour client who feels fatherly towards the hapless Ruth. But none of them – apart from Devaiah, perhaps – ever jolt us into feeling anything other than jaded by this deeply exhausting film.
Koechlin herself, with her red-lipsticked mouth, quivering hands and vacant stare (she really seems to have perfected the vacant stare), more or less completely inhabits the character of the lost little girl who must act tough. But even this performance is unable to shake this profoundly overdetermined film out of its too-tight skin.