Kabali

Warning: Here be spoilers

After a more-or-less obligatory, yet absolutely rousing introduction to its eponymous hero (Rajni pretty much defines the word ‘swag’), Kabali parachutes us into the middle of a plot that has been unfolding for over twenty five years. We hear names of characters, get snatches of dialogue and flashback scenes that tell us who they are, but it doesn’t help. While it is admirable to avoid having the characters tell each other what they both know just so the audience would understand what’s going on, I found myself having considerable difficulty following the plot.

The immersion is not just into this story but also into this milieu — the Tamilian community in Malaysia. This whole section is not without its rewards, but is hamstrung by a severe lack of two things: narrative fluidity and the ability to evoke a sense of empathy with this community. It feels as though there is a story here that requires a more old-fashioned treatment than the one we get.

It is close to the end of the first act, in an extended interaction between Kabali and an assembled group of youngsters, that the pieces fall into place. This whole sequence, involving a Q&A interspersed with flashbacks, is so effective that one wonders whether the man who could conceive of something like this is the same man who made the 30-odd minutes preceding it.

This entire sequence, and the few scenes that follow, are a prelude to a quiet and surprisingly affecting second act, a lot of which is set in India. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Yennai Arindhaal, in the way a leading man puts away his gun in order to focus on something else equally valuable to him. Rajni’s performance here is a thing of beauty — you still see the man you know, but his transition from dreaded gangster to family man feels utterly natural.

And yet, that is not all there is to this segment. Upon landing in Chennai and Kabali makes a comment about how he is first since his grandfather to set foot in India. You wonder for a moment what conditions would have driven the old man, and so many like him, to take up the job of wage labourers in a plantation in a faraway land. You wonder how they would’ve dealt with that strange land with its own language and customs, how they would’ve tried to make a home there, tried to find their own slice of happiness. And you wonder if these visitors from Malaysia realize that they are going through the same process in reverse, back in the land of their forefathers.

The idyll is interrupted by yet another fight sequence, one that heralds the beginning of the last act where Kabali takes care of business once and for all. This section isn’t any more violent than the average gangster saga, but for a Rajni movie it feels positively blood-soaked. It is also, sadly, the weakest portion of the film. Apart from wrapping things up, there is hardly anything here to admire here. The ending especially feels tacked on. It is not implausible given the world these characters inhabit, but it feels less like an organic development and more like a nod to an earlier, acclaimed film involving another man who rose from humble origins as part of a Tamil community in another place to become a dreaded gangster.

The trouble with watching any Rajni starrer, especially one with the kind of pre-release hype this one has come with, is that it is difficult to divorce the experience of seeing Rajni from the experience of seeing this film. A lot of it has to do with the gravitational field of the superstar, which bends space, time, screenplays and performances around him.

By far the most interesting thing about Kabali is that the relativistic effect of Rajni is kept to a minimum. There are scenes that pander to the screaming audiences, but we’re not simply watching an awestruck director paying homage to a star he’s grown up worshipping. We’re watching a storyteller with a point of view and a lot of things to say, and there’s not a lot of room for hero worship on that agenda.

And that, unfortunately, is also what makes this such a problematic film. Ranjith wants to tell the story of a gangster trying to regain his place after coming back from prison, and an old man searching for relevance. But he also wants the film to be about this place, these people, this subculture of Tamilians who have lived in Malaysia for generations and are still clawing their way up a long, slippery slope.

It is possible to make a good, even great film that is about all these things and have Rajni in it. But this film is not it. But if Kabali‘s most egregious fault is that its conception is not matched by its execution, that is not such a bad thing.

ps: Oh, and there’s a sly little Iron Man reference. And in a Rajni movie at that. Especially apropos, don’t you think?

Freeze Frame #169: Airlift

Airlift ends with a surprisingly affecting song: Tu bhoola jisse. It begins with the tricolour being hoisted in Jordan. And when I saw this film in the movie theater, I found myself wanting to applaud.

This doesn’t happen often. The only other flag hoisting scene in the movies that has well and truly worked for me is Shahrukh’s sardonic line in Chak De India. More often than not, movies don’t earn the emotion they wish to evoke with the flag — they’d much rather let the flag do the filmmaker’s job for him, which is pretty lazy. This one earns the reaction it gets.

For the entire stretch of the film, the anchor for these refugees has been simply: I am Indian. In the beginning, this is not patriotic fervour so much as survival instinct: if you’re an Indian in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1990, it’s like a suit of armor. Funny thing about armor: wear it long enough and you can no longer tell the difference between yourself with and without it.

The idea of a national identity is stress-tested in strange ways. Knowing you’re Indian and proving it to a man with a gun are two different things. And when you have a bunch of trigger-happy young men with guns, even this may not be enough.

Their identity, which has been the only thing between them and a bullet, is tied to a country that is far away. For some, like the protagonist played by Akshay Kumar, that distance is emotional as well. It is when they turn their eyes back in the direction of home that they realize how far they have traveled, and in how many ways.

By the time these refugees have somehow managed to get themselves to Jordan, they are at the end of their tether. They have escaped a war zone and are stuck in limbo: what they need is for their country to recognize their plight and bring them home. That is what the flag represents to them. And to us, who have journeyed with them for the past two hours.

The other wonderful moment comes right at the end, when the bureaucrat Sanjeev Kohli (an absolutely fantastic Kumud Mishra), who ran from pillar to post in Delhi trying to coordinate the Government’s response, stands in a corner and smiles broadly while the External Affairs Minister accepts plaudits for a successful rescue operation.

It would have been so easy to make this a cynical moment and focus on him being sidelined. But the man’s smile says it all: this is not about him, or about who gets credit. This is about people coming home.

When that tricolor is hoisted, it isn’t just saying: you have a country. It is saying: you have fellow countrymen.

Freeze Frame #168: Udta Punjab

I started thinking about this post because of this song:

Aside: The version in the film is sung by Shahid Mallya — this version is a reprise on YouTube, sung by Diljit Dosanjh (who is part of the film’s cast) and tells part of the Alia Bhatt character’s back-story. It’s an interesting idea.

In one scene, Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is seen noodling with his guitar, trying to come up with a new song: that’s where you first hear the opening bars. The smoothness of the guitar work suggest that you’re seeing a talented musician who has lost his way. But that’s all you hear of the tune at that point. He’s stuck — musically and otherwise.

A few scenes later, you hear those chords again again, as a background score in a fight sequence. He’s not the one doing the fighting: he’s witnessing a girl go medieval on some punks, and with a hockey stick at that. (There’s a lovely little moment in there when you see her setting up a stone as if for a penalty shot, a neat little reference to her background as a hockey player before straitened circumstances forced her to a life as a wage laborer in Punjab.) And the song begins to coalesce in his head.

A few more scenes pass before the vocals are heard: this time, he’s locked himself in with a guy in a hospital room and is trying to get the name of the village where the girl can be found. The man demands a song as payment, and this is the one that bursts forth. The serene, somewhat reflective tone of the opening line is such a contrast with the frenzied tone of the conversation preceding it. It’s almost jarring, but that is sort of the point.

When he starts, his voice has to compete with the sound of the cops rattling the door from the outside, trying to get him to open it. Two lines later, it’s just him. The visuals suggest that they’re still banging on the door, but you don’t hear them. And, the film suggests, nor does he or his rapt audience in that hospital room. There’s just the music.

The additional subtext here is about how this singer’s music affects his audience. In an earlier scene, two teenage drug addicts talk about how he and his music inspired them: one of them says that it was his face he saw when he took drugs for the first time. Even in his drug-addled state, the horror of what he has come to represent, what he has inadverdently inspired (the kids are in jail for having killed their mother for drug money) doesn’t escape him. Here, when he’s in full flight, belting out Ikk Kudi like lives depended on it, the man on the hospital bed tells him the name of the village. That moment, that song, is redemptive for both of them. It’s a thing of beauty.

The pieces of the song come together right at the end. Its arc is complete alongside that of the characters it is about — its creator and his muse.

We are pretty used to songs in our films, much to the puzzlement of Western audiences. Sometimes they’re used for crass commercial reasons (Chikni Chameli and its ilk), as filler, sometimes as a punctuation mark, sometimes even as a storytelling device.

Rarely does a song get its own story.

Udta Punjab

Udta Punjab is an absorbing cerebral journey, a hyperlinked story that follows multiple characters through the labyrinth that is the drug business. Some are users in one form or another, some do their best to stop the abuse, and some others are simply collateral damage. And sometimes, the same person falls into all of these categories. It’s wonderfully written, performed and put together. There isn’t a weak scene or a weak performance that I can think of.

Trouble is, for me at least, that’s all it is. A very well-made film.

I wasn’t emotionally engaged. I wasn’t moved by the plight of the drug addicts, or angered by the politician-dealer nexus. I could see how this was an important film, but to misquote Terry Pratchett, important isn’t the same thing as personal. If at all something struck home, it was the fact that, maybe ten to fifteen years from now, drugs would be one of those things that I’d be terrified that my daughter might be exposed to.

And to be quite honest with you, I am unable to identify what it was that left me in this impressed-but-indifferent state. Was it the fact that some character arcs seemed too easy, too driven by the necessity of redemption that it didn’t feel real? Was it the fact that the performances were competent enough to engage us, but not brilliant enough that we would be transported, sometimes in the course of a single look, into the soul of a character? I don’t know, and it bugs the heck out of me.

I might come back to this film later, and update this blog post with something more sensible and articulate than “it didn’t work for me.” Until then…

 

Freeze frame #167: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

To anyone who has not actually watched the film, it would seem like a minor miracle that a film populated by ageing character actors would turn out to be such a crowd pleaser that it would, in true cynical Hollywood fashion, warrant a sequel. It is, however, no surprise to anyone familiar with the careers of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and the like, that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of pav bhaaji outside Heera Panna in Mumbai — perfect comfort food.

As warm and wonderful as all those characters are (even Maggie Smith, who has perfected crustiness into an art form, turns out to have a gooey core), the most wonderful of the lot turns out to be Tom Wilkinson. I first noticed him as the ageing laid-off factory worker turned stripper in The Full Monty and the grieving father in In the Bedroom, both roles that require him to project varying degrees of quiet desperation. The same feeling permeates his character here as well, but then, not all forms of quiet desperation cloak the same unquiet heart.

From the start, his character seems to be the one most comfortable with the heat and dust and chaos of their surroundings. While it is established early that his familiarity with the place has a lot to do with it, the man is not without his baggage. One of the more affecting passages in the film is the scene where he recalls a youthful affair with a young boy his age. The affair was discovered, the boy was sent away, and so was he back to England. And now, at the end of a long career as a jurist, he has returned to find what happened of his lost love. And when he does find the man, he realizes:

He’s been happy. He’s had a peaceful life and he’s never forgotten me. That’s what he said. <laughs> All that time, I thought I had sentenced him to a life of shame. But I was the one in prison. But not anymore.

Those are his last words. I was not surprised: his character arc was done. What was surprising was how happy I felt.

Kapoor & Sons

Short review:

Dear filmgoers,

I am terribly sorry about K3G. Please accept this by way of reparations.

Sincerely etc.

Karan Johar


Longer review:

What a marvel of a script this is!

The premise is not new. Dil Dhadakne Do, for instance, was also based on the same pressure cooker premise: throw a dysfunctional family and a few supporting characters in, close the lid, turn up the heat and film the result. I’m sure you can name a handful of Hollywood films with the same premise as well. What is rare, at least in Hindi cinema, is the felicity with which it is written, performed and directed.

Director-writer Shakun Batra and his co-writer Ayesha Dhillon get so many of the little things right. When Arjun walks into his old bedroom upon coming home, the first thing he sees is an indoor bicycle in the corner. At the same time, Rahul — the favoured son, the Golden Boy who could do no wrong — enters an immaculately maintained room. It’s a small detail whose purpose is to indicate the contrast between how the two sons aren’t treated the same way, but here’s the thing: a lesser film would have made that room an utter dump. This one just shows a room that has been repurposed a bit. What you see here is the result of a natural sequence of events (the cycle was probably purchased after a visit to the doctor by either or both parents, and a vast majority of people who buy that thing put it in a spare bedroom where there’s some space) combined with semi-conscious choice (his bedroom, rather than his brother’s).

Rahul and Arjun have a somewhat fractious relationship as siblings who have enjoyed varying degrees of success; the same is true of their father and his brother at some level. Every major character (the parents, the siblings, the girl) carries around a load of guilt, most of it having to do with the secrets they’re hiding; no wonder the happiest man around is the ailing potty-mouthed grandfather who doesn’t seem to have much use for the term “impulse control”. Tia’s statement around her fear of flying isn’t simply meant to set up a gag around Rahul’s fear of rats — it serves to set up a later, more dramatic conversation. Even the ending, where people seem to have achieved some degree of happiness/peace, isn’t entirely forced: it recalls an earlier conversation between the brothers on stories having happy endings. Like I said, so much, so right.

Then there’s the dialogue: This film envelops you in a wall of sound when more than two characters are in the frame. The work of Richard Altman comes to mind. It takes a certain skill to make that sort of thing work.

The most impressive example of this comes in a scene where the siblings and their parents are all arguing while a plumber tries to fix a leaking pipe in the background. It’s amazing how they carom off each other — the conflict keeps shifting, and not one of the characters is uninvolved. Not even the hapless plumber, who, when asked how much he is owed, gets probably the funniest line in the script.

The other great example comes late in the film, when the characters are supposed to assemble to take a family photo. The writing sets up the whole sequence wonderfully: the previous night is spent partying and the characters go to sleep more or less happy. The calm before the storm, if you will. The next morning, things begin to unravel slowly. In separate scenes intercut with each other, each character finds out something about the other and is set on a collision course. Batra even uses the weather (gathering clouds threatening to make a mess of the photography plans) to punctuate the action — I know it’s a cliche, but he doesn’t use it like one, and has the sense to close the loop with another photography session on a warm, sunny day.

The way these narrative strands cohere as the family ties themselves are unraveling — the whole thing is so fluid, it’s an absolute delight to watch.

If at all there is a misstep here, it is in how Batra doesn’t quit while he’s ahead. From a film-making standpoint, everything in that sequence is more or less a logical consequence of things that have already happened. The contrivance is only in having it all happen at once. But the sequence is supposed to end when an external force disrupts the rhythm, i.e., when a character dies unexpectedly. But where the narrative rhythm is broken, the fluid editing rhythm isn’t — we cut smoothly to the funeral, when we should be pausing to register what has just happened. It robs that disruptive moment of its impact.

But look at what I am complaining about: Too many secrets come out at the same time, whereas in real life such coincidences are improbable. A great sequence has a less-than-great ending because the editing is too smooth. How wonderful is it that these are the film’s major faults?

Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.