11 January 2015

How to be a small-town superman

Today's Mumbai Mirror column

It's an unapologetically entertaining battle between good men and bad men. But if one looks closely, underlying Tevar's masaledar heroics is a fairly meaty take on masculinity.

In recent years, the Hindi action movie has grown bigger, brasher, more and more full of special effects, and less and less fun to watch. When Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgn or Salman Khan are doing the pummelling, the only people likely to experience any surprise at their being flattened into chappatis are the baddies themselves. Because we’re dealing with Supermen, and everyone knows it.

Pintu Shukla, in contrast, may get ‘Main hoon Superman, Salman ka fan’ as his ‘introduction song’, but he's no local legend. Or not yet. The hero of Amit Ravindernath Sharma's directorial debut is Agra's budding kabaddi champ, a local lafanga with a gender-sensitive heart.

Of course, Pintu, being Arjun Kapoor, is anything but pint-sized, and his opening one-man victory for the Kanpur kabaddi team has already showcased large reserves of strength and endurance. But something about Kapoor's energy makes Tevar's action scenes more enjoyable than any I've seen in a while. He captures the youthful swagger of the small town hero, in the sense of “bada hero banta hai”.

There's little by way of plot or character that could be considered new in Tevar. The small town boy's half-bored defiance of his middle class parents is something we've seen, for example, in Bunty Aur Babli (the father is even played by the same actor, Raj Babbar); the villainous politician casting a covetous eye upon a local middle class girl, too, has a long cinematic lineage — most memorably Haasil; the recreation of the UP-Bihar milieu of generalised thuggery, where corrupt cops and political goondas combine to throttle the faintest voice of resistance, has been a dominant current for more than a decade, including films like Shool and much of Prakash Jha's oeuvre. Stylistically, too, Tevar is an out-and-out masala film. It feels at least 20 minutes too long because it really doesn't skimp on the set-pieces: fights, songs, full-on dialoguebaazi.

I haven’t seen Okkadu, the 2003 Telugu hit from which Tevar is adapted, but director Amit Sharma (an advertising man best known for the Google reunion tearjerker) clearly has a sound grasp of his chosen North Indian milieu. He and Shantanu Srivastava, who shares Tevar's writing credits with Okkadu's writer-director Gunashekhara, have successfully transposed the script from its original Hyderabadi setting to a Mathura-Agra world that feels vibrant and alive, even while painted in broad, colourful, filmi strokes.

The song choreographies and fight scenes offer a satisfying tour through the grubby gullies and open terraces of the UP small town, with well-timed local colour provided by steaming istris, hot halwais’ ladles and even a tashtri full of gulaal. The opening kabaddi match between Mathura and Agra is also wonderfully imagined and nicely paced: the semi-comic display of local sporting talent spliced together with more lethal forms of political gamesmanship.

The dialogue has enough local flavour to make even predictable scenes juicy: “Jalwe toh nachaniyon ke hote hain,” drawls Manoj Bajpayee's menacing Gajendar Singh as he eliminates a rival; an anxious teammate waiting for our hero to arrive for the match, erupts: “'Aa jayega, aa jayega': kya Karan Arjun hai jo aa jayega?”

But what helped sustain my interest was the film's framing theme: masculinity. Spoken or unspoken, violent or couched in humour, there is no getting away from the film's central underlying question: what does it take to be a man in a society as lawless and violent as this one?

The answer the film offers is no different from a million Westerns and thousands of Hindi movies with even more invincible heroes: it takes brute force. This is a world in which the sharp-tongued truth-seeking journalist, for all the power of the media at his back, is easily silenced by violent intimidation; the state is run by thugs, and the police, even those members of it not in their pay, are emasculated by the deep rot in the system.

So what's left? Well, good louts versus bad louts. The street is, in Tevar, the domain of men. And I say this not to criticise the film, but to note the degree of attention it gives to what is after all, a plain and simple fact about North India, but one that doesn't get any play in most films set in the region. Here, there's an effectively menacing scene involving a phone booth and a pichkari filled with Holi colour; there's a lascivious driver at a traffic light. What is unusual about Tevar is that it makes a point to underline the non-stop harassment and lasciviousness that women face, without necessarily turning all of it into life-threatening violence.

The film's division between good masculinity and bad is built almost wholly on the edifice of respect for women. Pintu's heroicness is established early on by his playful rescuing of a cycling young woman from the leering attentions of a local ruffian—and all through the film's main rescue (that of Sonakshi Sinha's Radhika), he never once makes unsolicited advances. If you're female, though, you can be spirited and sardonic all you want, but in the end you're dependent on good brute force to rescue you from the bad. And when it does, you fall gratefully in love with it.

In a world where the cinematic POV offered to us is so often that of the man who takes the woman's reciprocation as his right (think Raanjhana, Ek Deewana Tha, and a million others), Tevar's model for masculinity is a huge advance. And for all their rambunctious filminess, the streets of Tevar's universe aren't quite a figment of the imagination. Hopefully some day, we'll have one in which men don't have to beat up other men, and women can be something more than grateful. 

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