25 February 2017

Manly Women, Womanly Men

My Mirror column, on Akshayambara and Harikatha Prasanga:

A new play and a new film step into the world of Yakshagana performers to sharpen our sense of what it means to be a man — or a woman.

A still from Sharanya Ramprakash's play Akshayambara
The seated figure, stage right, is in the middle of buttoning a blouse over a patently false bosom. It is a tightly fitted sari blouse, closing laboriously over the hardness of the fake breasts, and yet transforming them before our eyes into an imagined curvaceousness. Still, when the man – for of course it is a man who turns this intimate act into something so frontal, so prosaic – stands up, what draws the eye is the line of hair that runs down his muscled torso, between where the blouse ends and the petticoat begins.

But then he covers himself with more of the paraphernalia of femininity: the twinkling nose ornament, the brilliant green sari swirling, the long thick plait that snakes down to the waist, the girdle that circles it. And lo and behold, we have before us Draupadi — on the morning of her swayamvara, picking flowers from her father's garden to weave into a veni for her hair. We are enchanted, thinking about how the humming Kshatriya princess is just another girl. Then our performer ambles back into his corner, hoists up his gorgeous sari and pisses – standing, like a man. Just as swiftly as the spell was cast, it is broken. The audience breaks into laughter.

The scenes above are part of Sharanya Ramprakash's remarkable Kannada play Akshayambara, staged in Delhi during the National School of Drama's annual theatre festival last week. Ramprakash is a Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner who started exploring the traditional folk form of Yakshagana with the Udupi-based Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna after receiving an Inlaks fellowship in 2013. Akshayambara, which emerged out of this interaction and won Ramprasad the Best Original Script META award last year, casts long-time Yakshagana performer Prasad Cherkady (who won at META for Best Male Performance) in the role of a male actor who plays Draupadi. The play deals with his response to the arrival of a female actor (Ramprakash herself) who has been cast in the role of Kaurava (Duryodhana).

Performing in public has been socially stigmatised for women in South Asia. So most traditional dramatic forms, from Ramleela in the north to Yakshagana in the south, have a long history of men who play popular female roles. In the Kannada cultural sphere, the female impersonator of Yakshagana has clearly emerged as a lens through which gender and performance -- and gender as performance – can be thought about.

Akshayambara
pushes Yakshagana's seeming embrace of cross-dressing to its political limits by bringing in a woman. When it is a woman who takes on a male role, the play asks, why does that seem to shake the traditional structure? Ananya Kasaravalli's debut feature film Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari), itself based on a short story by Gopalakrishna Pai, approaches the same subject from a different angle.


Akshayambara needed to bring in a (biologically) female actor to push the man-acting-as-a-woman to actually encounter his vulnerability. Harikatha, in contrast, gives us a male protagonist who is vulnerable because his performative engagement with femininity has transcended the stage.


A still from Ananya Kasaravalli's film Harikatha Prasanga
What makes someone or something feminine is a recurring question here, too. The one time Hari (an affecting Shrunga Vasudevan) tries out a more vigorous style on stage, his jumping attracts his guru's ire as signifying the 'masculine'. “What kind of dance is that? When you act like a woman, you should make your gestures like a woman.”

Hari complies on stage. But soon he finds it harder and harder to persuade others – and soon, himself – of his masculinity off-stage. A proposed wedding falls through because a seasonal Yakshagana performer does not fulfil the traditional masculine role of breadwinner. He goes to see a sex worker, only to be distressed by her charmed reiteration of what she sees as his feminine softness. Gradually, he finds himself adopting female garb daily: a long skirt, and later a sari. Again, like with Akshayambara, we encounter the question of what makes up femininity: soft hands, long hair, feminine clothes?

While challenging us to think about what femininity and masculinity mean, Kasaravalli's film occasionally compresses both into stereotypes — and deliberately lets the moments ring out, waiting to watch if they will resonate. “[Women] need women to share agony with, and men for pleasure,” says a woman who has come to watch Hari act. Akshayambara moves more in the direction of an essential selfhood: “You can never be disrobed,” says the woman to the man.

What makes a man a man? Or a woman a woman? Is it about who struts and who mocks? Who performs, who applauds? Who deflates, who builds up? Who steps back? Must vulnerability be identified with the feminine? Both play and film, happily, do not provide pat answers. It is enough that they ask the question at all.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 February 2017.

16 February 2017

Forms Lost and Found

My Mirror column:

Ashim Ahluwalia's film on the artist Akbar Padamsee provokes one to think about half-remembered histories of experimental art and film.



In 1969, Akbar Padamsee was awarded a Nehru Fellowship for a project which he entitled The Vision Exchange Workshop. After some disillusioning experience in Delhi art circles, he moved to Bombay and started work in a five-room apartment on Napeansea Road [sic].” So wrote the poet Nissim Ezekiel in an article entitled 'Padamsee and his workshop: Academic or Avantgarde', published in October 1973 in Z magazine.

The “work” that Ezekiel was talking about was really the setting up of a rare sort of collaborative artistic milieu. The 1928-born Padamsee, who was already well-known as an experimental painter, was keen to establish a space in which conversations might be made possible across boundaries of medium and disciplinary training. “Equipment was provided for experiments in painting, etching and film making. The available space was redesigned to suit a wide variety of technical and human requirements. In a number of tangible as well as intangible ways, the place developed a serious artistic atmosphere. Formalities were kept at a minimum, sociability and companionship were stressed but the focus was on creative endeavour,” Ezekiel wrote.

Formally VIEW, as the Vision Exchange Workshop was called, only lasted about two years, until the Nehru Fellowship’s funds ran out. The artistic and personal camaraderie it created among its invited participants – a group that included sculptors like Pochkanwalla and Davierwalla, painters like Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel, photographers like Navroze Contractor and filmmakers like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul – lasted longer. The VIEW space had three 16mm cameras and a projector, enabling artists to experiment with the film form and vice versa. Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973), an atmospheric adaptation of Vijay Dan Detha's Rajasthani folktale, starring Padamsee’s daughter Raisa, was edited at VIEW. Padamsee himself made two forays into filmmaking, making a film called Syzygy, and another called Events in a Cloud Chamber.

That original Events in a Cloud Chamber, which was first shown at Pundole Art Gallery at the opening of Padamsee's show 'Metascapes', on February 1, 1974, has since been lost. In fact, the whole experience of VIEW was practically erased from public memory until last year, when the filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia (John and Jane, Miss Lovely) made a 20-minute film -- re-using the title Events in a Cloud Chamber, and like Padamsee, showing it in a gallery space (Jhaveri Contemporary).

Ahluwalia's film, which was shown last week as part of a curated package of films about art and artists at the India Art Fair in Delhi, is a strange, haunting mood piece. It splices together a variety of things: a present-day conversation with the 88-year-old Akbar Padamsee, home movies shot by Ahluwalia's grandfather, and black and white footage from the Third International Film Festival of India. The “found” footage is a somehow apposite way of recovering the memory of a “lost” film.

Padamsee in Ahluwalia's film is an old and frail presence in baggy shirt and shorts, largely confined to a wheelchair, except for a grainy slow-motion sequence in which he is throwing and catching a large ball with a caretaker of sorts. The woman standing with her back to us is a figment in green, the curtains create waves of dark and light: the shadows help create an expressionist mood that is quite painterly.

Using words and images, Ahluwalia offers us a sense of Padamsee's film, but not to actually recreate it. He also gives us a glimpse into Padamsee's other film Syzygy, which was a formal experiment: an animated film with an infinity of patterns, created using straight lines to connect dots that had been placed at regular intervals based on a mathematical code using four numbers. The process was, he says to Ahluwalia, utterly “free, but completely logical”. Speaking to the poet and lecturer at the time, Eunice D'Souza, Padamsee had tried to explain this in another way: “An infinity of possibilities is chaos and the limitation of this infinity through a programme, is ‘order’.”

This sounded almost mystical to me until I remembered an utterance I heard recently from a very different sort of creative person, working in a very different context: the poet Javed Akhtar, being asked at a Delhi seminar about whether the cinematic and musical context – the writing of lyrics 
– placed restrictions on the writing of poetry. “Zabaan paabandi mein jab jaati hai, tabhi toh shaayari hoti hai,” he said. “When the language is forced to work within certain limits, it is only then that it becomes poetry.” It is a remarkable thought about what creativity really is: one must create a form first, before one can find ways to produce newness within the form.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Feb 2017

14 February 2017

Heritage, after a fashion


Relative Value: The youngest of the Kotwara royalty weaves her way into the family business. 

(My first-ever 'fashion' story, and one that allowed me to meet a director whose work I have admired: Muzaffar Ali. Published in the Mumbai Mirror's 'Relative Value' slot last Sunday.)


The home shared by Muzaffar Ali, his wife Meera and their daughter Sama is very much a reflection of them. Kotwara Farm lies at the end of Rumi Lane, just off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Road, a graceful amalgam of the contemporary and traditional — much like the clothes that emerge from the Kotwara fashion label that Muzaffar and Meera created in 1990, with Sama joining in 2014. Their latest collection at the recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week (Aditi Rao Hydari walked for them) was well received by critics and fashionistas alike. The line was what some described as “Indian with modern touches”.

We meet the family in their plush but comfortable drawing room, off an arched courtyard that would be stately if it weren’t for a slender stone frog that rises, as if to welcome you, one leg raised off the ground. Muzaffar’s quirky artistic touch (paintbrushes embedded in glass doors, leftover tiles crafted into a striking floor) combines with a studied elegance — yet the farm is a relaxed domestic space, with space for a cow called Gomti and Rough Collies called Drogo and Sansa (Sama is a Game of Thrones fan). The house was designed by Meera, who trained as an architect before she accepted a small role in a film Muzaffar was making — and ended up marrying him, six weeks after they met. Muzaffar, a painter, poet and acclaimed director of films such as Gaman, Umrao Jaan and Anjuman, had been married twice already: to art historian Geeti Sen, and then to CPM politician Subhashini Ali (director Shaad Ali, of Bunty Aur Babli and OK Jaanu fame, is their son.)
My parents had no formal training in fashion. But I guess destiny finds you,” says Sama. In 1989-90, dealing with the setback of an aborted film project in Kashmir (the unreleased 1989 Zooni), Muzaffar moved back to his ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh with Meera. Even as a filmmaker, Muzaffar had been fascinated by how clothes and textiles can constitute a milieu, whether it was the khaki he foisted upon Farooq Sheikh’s taxi driver in Gaman, or the attention he lavished on Rekha’s clothes in Umrao Jaan. “For me, soft furnishings were a tactile experience, a layer which preceded the making of any film. Costume was the outer expression of a character, a situation, a mood,” says Muzaffar.

That interest, honed by his work with American couturier Mary Mcfadden exploring Kashmiri craft traditions during Zooni, now combined with his desire to give something back to the place his ancestors had ruled for centuries. Meera and he decided to develop Kotwara as a centre for handicraft. Since 1990, they have been training local artisans under their Dwar pe Rozi (‘employment at your doorstep’) initiative. Producing jobs for people where they are, the foundation ties into Muzaffar’s early concern with the travails of migration (think Gaman), producing exceptionally skilled embroiderers who give Kotwara clothes their distinctive quality.

“A mechanisation process had set into zardozi and chikan after 1947: cheap patterns, cheap markets, saris with big-big bootas, being sold in Punjab and Delhi,” says Muzaffar. “When we started, in 1990, chikan was at its lowest ebb in workmanship and aesthetics,” Meera agrees. “It took us 7-8 years to improve the quality of work, and to bring the buyer back.” The Alis are in agreement that the contemporary rich need to be educated into being patrons who recognise quality and are willing to pay for it. “Historically, art has always bloomed under the patronage of rulers,” says Sama.


Meera points out that Kotwara has been a trendsetter with silhouettes and reviving South Asian fashions. “In 1990, we brought in angarakhas and peshwas, which people now call anarkalis. When people only wore churidars and salwars, we brought back the chauda pyjama, the wide loose pants which everyone now wears as palazzos. Culottes have come back to India, where it is now called the Pakistani pyjama. But it were the Awadh Nawabs who took the Mughal style of dressing to the highest level: the gharara, sharara, big farshi pyjamas,” she says. Kotwara ventured into zardozi with thread work, creating “evening wear that’s elegant but not blingy”. “How chikan and zardozi have come together through us is itself a new form: let’s call it Kotwara craft,” smiles Muzaffar. “When you’re working with artisans with a regional legacy, your innovations become organic.”


The Alis are justifiably confident of the quality of their work, and between their aristocratic past (Meera just published a coffee-table book called Dining with the Nawabs) and Muzaffar’s association with Bollywood, Kotwara lacks neither for glamour nor cultural capital. The UP Tourism Department is co-sponsoring Muzaffar’s current pet project — reviving Lucknawi thumri and kathak as part of his Wajid Ali Shah festival, whose fourth edition opens on 14 February in Lucknow.


But they seem concerned about not being cutthroat enough for the present. “I’m hoping that Sama can learn the business end of things, because we get taken for a ride very easily,” Meera smiles ruefully. “My mother didn’t want me to get into this. She said, ‘fashion is beautiful, everything around it is ugly’,” laughs Sama.

“I want to add my own touch to their brand. Right now my focus is making Kotwara more contemporary, [to cater to] the many independent young people with well-paying jobs, who can buy a 30,000 rupee item without asking mothers or mothers-in-law. Papa’s too nice. I’m very open. But being nice doesn’t mean being stepped over,” says Sama resolutely. Muzaffar is accepting of his daughter’s vision for their brand and changing times. “Today’s reality is very harsh,” he agrees. “But we agree on being exacting and being human.”


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Feb 2017.

13 February 2017

Picture This: Modern is as modern does

My BLink column this month:

An evocative new documentary explores the faltering first steps of India’s architectural modernity.





“Some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not. It is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it,” said Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru of the new city whose conception he had initiated. “It is the biggest because it hits you on the head, because it makes you think. You may squirm at the impact, but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas. And the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head, so that you may think.”
Chandigarh — for that was the subject of Nehru’s dream of newness — was not just a city; it was a new design for living. Or, as the makers of a new documentary called Nostalgia for the Future put it, it was the place where Indian modernity hoped to start erasing the divides between our various homes: the body, the community, the country. In Rohan Shivkumar and Avijit Mukul Kishore’s cinematic essay, Chandigarh’s starkness was designed to place the body naked against the sky, without the covering of community.
Kishore and Shivkumar glide elegantly between various conceptions of domestic modernity in India. At the Lukshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, built as a home in 1880 by the late Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, we linger over fountain-filled courtyards and European-style classical statues. But we also see the freestyle mix-and-match that characterised this 19th-century monarch’s conception of the self and the home: European stained-glass with Indian faces and bodies etched on them, or Raja Ravi Varma paintings where our Puranic characters received Western-style artistic treatment — and fair skins. The voice-over pronounces that imitation might be the necessary origin of modernity. It is, I think, a provocative reversal of the usual critique of tradition — it is traditional ways of being and creating that are, in Western modernity, dismissed as merely imitative. Modernity is supposed to grant us the great gift of originality. And yet, we in the colonised non-West, how were we to become modern except by performing modernity as told to us?
The dilemma of performance and truth lies, of course, at the centre of much anthropological thinking — not just about being modern, but about being human. Doesn’t the external performance of something — be it grief as expressed in the ritual mourning of death, or an event like Moharram, or gender as expressed in clothes — help produce it internally?
Kishore and Shivkumar do not quite go there, but their interest in the home as a sort of costume (poshaak) for the self allows for one of the film’s clever dancing segues: as we speak of Sayaji Rao’s contribution to Indian modernity, we move to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was educated at the Maharaja’s behest, and from there to Ambedkar’s homes: the BIT chawl in what was then Bombay, and the Western-style home in Dadar Hindu colony. The Western was for this Dalit man, as it would be for many others who followed, a way of escaping the oppressive clothing of caste — and the film moves seamlessly from his home to his conscious public adoption of the Western-style suit (an unusual clothing statement for an Indian politician, even today).
But the film is by no means a purely analytic essay: it is a poetic and cinematic meditation on form that itself takes form seriously. Right from the opening credits, which are a series of ‘Films Division presents’ titling shots, it both borrows and subverts the form of the traditional documentary.
Shivkumar, who is an architect and academic, wrote the script for this collaboration between him and Kishore, which Kishore then rendered into a Hindi that is superbly evocative of the old school Doordarshan voice-over, while departing from the pedagogic certainties that it would lead us to expect. “The burden we began with is that of the architect: that he knows,” said Shivkumar after a screening of the film at Delhi’s India International Centre. “But most of the time, we just pretend to know, because that’s what is expected of us.”
Nostalgia for the Future, happily, is not a film that pretends to know. Instead it delights in unexpected associations and encounters, between words and images, between thoughts. The engineering mindset comes to us via the jaunty figure of Sunil Dutt, his white shirt “like the moon on a dark night”. Alongside shots of post-Partition refugee housing in Delhi, we see black-and-white photographs of Kishore’s own childhood home(s), sometimes with himself in them. In the usual playful but quiet tenor of Kishore’s work, no attention is drawn to this important fact.
At another moment, the use of “poshaak” in the voice-over pre-empts a neat cut to Gandhi taking off a piece of clothing, and the idea of Gandhi’s body as the source of both sinfulness and sainthood. His power, as we all knew instinctively, was based on his control of his own body. And that was what satyagraha was meant to grant us: all we had was control of our bodies, and exercising that would somehow set us free.
As Shivkumar said during the discussion, “architecture is one of those strange disciplines that has the job of creating betterness. So it bears the burden of hope.” The nostalgia of the film’s title is for that hope of Nehruvian citizenhood: the unmarked modern Indian citizen that architecture was meant to mould us into, but that we never became.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Sun 12 Feb 2017.

6 February 2017

Miya-Baniya Bhai Bhai?

My Mirror column:
Raees has its slow bits, but those dismissing it as politically tepid filmmaking are missing the wood for the trees.


Before making Raees, Rahul Dholakia made Parzania whose release was blocked in Gujarat by Sangh Parivar networks. Parzania and Raees have little in common on the surface. Although I thought it came off as distressingly inauthentic – it featured jarring English, with a pointless American character as the witnessing 'I' -- Parzania was pitched as a realistic 'political' film, with Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika turning in affecting performances as the distraught parents of a Parsi boy who went missing in the communal violence of Gujarat 2002, in which over 2000 Muslims were killed. Raees, in stark contrast, is pitched as entertainment: a big-banner Bollywood production with Shah Rukh Khan in the title role of a small-time bootlegger who rises to power and notoriety during an era of Prohibition.

What the two films share, of course, is an investment in the history of Gujarat's present. But the risks they take are very different. Parzania sought to wrangle audience sympathy at the lowest common denominator by constructing an utterlessly blameless victim – a child, and one who belonged to neither of the communities actively involved in the Gujarat violence. With Raees, Dholakia might be said to move in the opposite direction: giving us a textbook antihero.

In Raees, we have a protagonist who must remain both attractive and sympathetic while running a business empire that is entirely illegal and often violent, not to mention based on supplying a socially-disapproved product like alcohol. And most important, whether Shah Rukh Khan wishes to underplay the matter or not, it is absolutely important for the optics of this film that this protagonist is a Muslim in a Gujarat where the Hindutva project is on its way to political and social hegemony. Else why would the makers drive the point home with such marvellous bantering precision, emphasising even in the trailer that what makes Raees admirable is the fact that he combines in himself “Baniye ka dimaag, Miyabhai ki daring”? Miya is colloquial-speak for Muslims in several parts of India including Gujarat, and it is heavily marked – making the very use of the word 'Miyabhai' new for a mainstream Hindi film. But what is so remarkable about the power of Hindi cinema is that it can changes the word's valence.

Despite the fact that the gangster film is an accepted genre -- in which such shades-of-gray protagonists are perhaps now the norm -- it seems clear to me that the greater creative-political gamble is Raees rather than Parzania. The rise of the gangster – in life as in cinema – is tied to the rise of organised crime in dense urban settlements. Sharp social and economic inequalities produce systems outside the system, with mob-lords emerging as alternative centres of power who are feared and revered in equal measure. Dholakia's portrait of Raees – modelled loosely on the real-life figure of Gujarati don Abdul Latif – is very much in this vein: a hero shown to live by his own personal code, in which violence is always the last resort, and the poor and innocent must not suffer.

At the centre of the film's construction of our sympathies is the idea of a system whose institutionalised hypocrisies are almost bound to produce crime. Dholakia does well to simultaneously appeal here to our entrenched belief in Gujarat as an entrepreneurial society, in which money will get made if there is money to be made: as SRK's Raees puts it, “Gujarat ki hawa mein byaapaar hai saheb. Aap meri saans ko toh rok lo, lekin is hawa ko kaise rokoge?

In fact it is this uncompromising business ethic that is offered to us -- a mainstream, largely Hindu audience that might have otherwise little sympathy for the Muslim ganglord supplier of illegal, perhaps immoral daru -- as the reason to respect him. Raees is shown growing up with an independent-minded single mother who teaches him his life lessons even if she isn't in a position to help him with his school ones, and the lesson she teaches him most of all is that no business is too small, and no religion is bigger than business. “Hamare liye koi koi bhi dhandha chhota nahi hota, aur dhandhe se bada koi dharam nahi hota.” This is a thought that resonates both with an old-style Amitabh Bachchan/Salim-Javed appeal to dignity and khuddaari (self-reliance in “Main phenke hue paise nahi uthhata” mode), and allows the otherness of the 'Miyabhai' to be embraced via the familiarity of the 'Baniya'.

The Amitabh Bachchan film referenced in the film is Kaala Patthar, but it was Coolie that came to mind for me. The Apni Duniya dream is exactly the same as Amitabh's in Coolie: of independent little houses for poor working class people. Except that it is no longer a Prem Chopra or a Kader Khan but a Raees who makes that promise – the Muslim boy who dreams for his community is one who has risen up from it. It rings sadly true that that dream, in a film four decades after Coolie, must still fall through the cracks.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5 Feb 2017.

Best of 2016: Part II

My Mirror column:

The second part of my year-end list of my favourite Indian films from 2016.


Carrying on from last week's column: here are six more films that I particularly enjoyed last year.

In no particular order, they are:


6. Waiting – In Anu Menon's affecting hospital drama, two unlikely people are brought together by the shared frustration of having a loved one beyond their reach. Naseeruddin Shah is reliably good as Shiv, an ageing professor who is the epitome of softspoken rationality — except when he's not. But it is Kalki Koechlin as Tara who surprises. As a sharp young woman suddenly faced with the potential loss of the man she has just married, Tara's yo-yoing between anger, vulnerability and sassiness is at the film's heart. Shot in an upscale Kochi hospital that somehow lends itself to cinematographer Neha Parti Matiyani's clean lines and bright close-ups, Waiting serves up grief and angst without letting go of humour. (I particularly enjoyed the mild comic relief served up by Rajeev Ravindranathan as the too-helpful colleague).




7. Sairat – Among the frequenters of film festivals, there are still many who cannot but view the slow-mo set pieces and addictive songs of Nagraj Manjule's hugely successful film as somehow a betrayal of the hopes he sparked with his 2014 debut Fandry. But if Fandry's placing of its dreamy-eyed child hero in an unremittingly realist cinematic milieu earned it critical acclaim, Sairat's astute, sparkly retelling of the same tale —a cross-caste romance in a rural Maharashtra educational setting — won not just fame for its actors, huge profits and massive audiences, but an unimaginable level of exposure for both Marathi cinema and the film's difficult subject. Manjule gloriously subverts India's grim social reality with our love for filmi romance — and vice versa. A film not to be missed.



8. Chauthi Koot – Gurvinder Singh's arresting adaptation of two short stories by 
Waryam Singh Sandhu offers us a tense, sometimes sinister Punjab that's almost unrecognizable as the one regularly celebrated in Bollywood's song-filled sarson-da-sagas. But though the stories he adapts are set during the 1980s militancy and their central themes — gun-toting men intent on silencing a harmless dog, or train conductors unwilling to take people of a certain community on board — are certainly 'political', Singh's rendering of them is anything but heavy-handed. Trained under the late experimental filmmaker Mani Kaul, Singh is much less invested in plot or narrative resolution than he is in the atmospheric, painstaking exploration of a place and people — and of cinema itself. A film which will reward the attentive viewer.


9. Island City – A tonally ambitious film which pitches itself somewhere between sly humour and a pessimistic take on late capitalism, debut director Ruchika Oberoi's triptych of tales about people and machines can feel quite trippy at times. Each segment is anchored in a fine performance. In the first, Vinay Pathak puts in an eerily convincing turn as the obedient corporate slave sent unwittingly on a dangerous path. The second has Amruta Subhash walking a thin line between relief and guilt as a housewife whose oppressive husband's hospitalisation finally frees her to live her own life — and sublimate her desires in a fictional ideal man. The imagined ideal man reappears in the third segment, this time not via the television, but through letters received by Tannishtha Chatterjee's lonely worker. An occasional sliver of abruptness notwithstanding, Oberoi crafts a darkly acerbic comment on our increasingly alienated lives that's well worth watching.



10. Kapoor and Sons: The dysfunctional family is practically an indie staple in the West, but in Indian cinema it is still a rare enough occurrence to make Shakun Batra's film seem remarkable. While nowhere near as devastating as say, Kanu Behl's Titli (2015), Kapoor and Sons manages to take more risks with what it serves up as family foibles than similar recent films like Dil Dhadakne DoShandaar and Khoobsurat. Batra's ability to juggle the buried resentments and the goofy jokes is further buoyed by a truly superb ensemble cast: Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah outstripping the youngsters (Sidharth Malhotra, Fawad Khan and Alia Bhatt), and themselves being a little bit overtaken by the infectiously cheerful Rishi Kapoor as the family's indefatigable raunchy patriarch.


11. Thithi: A great deal of worldwide acclaim has come the way of this remarkable film, and all of it is justified. Set and shot in the very particular landscape of rural Karnataka, Raam Reddy and screenwriter Ere Gowda's delightful debut combines an observational documentary style with a fairly large involved set of characters (who are almost all played by non-actors from the region). Things may appear to be unfolding with all the natural ease of everyday life — but make no mistake, this is a carefully thought-through portrait of family and community, age and youth, freedom and responsibility, death and life. Don't let some imagined notion of rural Karnataka or a reluctance to engage with subtitles put you off it.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22 Jan 2017.