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Please, please go watch this film before reading my blog post.

What an amazing, amazing film this is!

I didn’t get to see it during its theatrical release, and I had the dubious fortune of being laid up with an infection on Deepavali evening, so it was just me and the TV at home. (Not that I agree with Sun TV’s decision to telecast it so soon after its release.) There’s a lot to say about the film, but let me just list a few things that struck me.

The film opens with a depiction of Ram’s life, and it is a thing of beauty. You see him swinging from a branch, playing in a sand dune, sleeping in the hollow of a tree. Here’s a man doing things by himself: the sort of montage that sometimes features a free-spirited heroine. But the tone is different. It is one of a man content to live within himself. You’re not thinking Roja, you’re thinking Henry David Thoreau.

Jaanu’s songs always start from the second stanza. Always beautifully sung (Chinmayi is in top form here, but even by those standards, the one sung at the reunion is an absolute standout), yet always incomplete. She only sings one song from start to finish, and it is exactly the one that needs to be sung that way. To be fair, it’s a small song with not much middle to it, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice.

Lots of scenes of the couple in an elevator. Two lives in limbo?

For what is principally a two character drama, there’s so much warmth provided by the supporting characters. Devadarshini (as well as Niyathi, the girl who plays her younger avatar) oozes sass. Bagavathy Perumal has an absolutely hilarious moment when he fakes a phone call to exit a frame and starts it by saying “Hello, Dubai-aa…?” And who better to evoke the 90s than Janakaraj?

My favourite cameo, though, was that of Kavithalaya Krishnan as a barber. There is a lived-in feeling to this character that owes as much to our memories of Crazy Mohan’s comedies as to the brief expository dialogue. It’s as inspired a casting choice as that of Janakaraj. There is a moment when he understands more or less precisely who Jaanu is without actually being introduced to her, and he absolutely, perfectly nails it.

The scene in the coffee shop with Ram’s students is an interesting one. It appears at first that the focus is Jaanu’s re-imagining of their past, but there’s another story being told on the sidelines – Prabha’s. There’s a lingering handshake at the end that speaks volumes. For a long film, some of its most eloquent moments are startlingly brief.

There’s a conversation in Ram’s apartment where Jaanu worries about Ram being single. The content is reminiscent of the last scene in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. But where the tone in the earlier film was more elegiac, there’s an urgency here, an undercurrent of desperation. The difference lies in the woman’s state of mind — Jessie has moved on, but Jaanu hasn’t. Listen to her talking about what she needs Ram to do, as opposed to what Jessie wanted Karthik to do.

Half the story is told in body language, in the distance between the characters. To begin with, Jaanu is the one who determines it. Ram resists, then gives in, and sometimes simply passes out. Sometimes it’s in small gestures: There’s a moment in her hotel room where he recounts a memory, Jaanu pats a space closer to her, and Ram simply scoots over. It’s casual, it’s telling, it’s beautiful. But by the time they’re driving to the airport, it’s Ram who takes charge. Left to Jaanu, they’d still be stuck on neutral, unable to move on.

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On beginnings, storytelling and Vada Chennai

Consider the prefix “Once upon a time in” that is affixed in the English subtitle that appears during the opening credits. Here’s a director who has pretty much announced, right at the start, that he’s attempting to do to the bylanes of a fisherman’s slum in North Chennai, what Sergio Leone did to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in Once Upon a Time in America. This film too, has a sprawling canvas, a nonlinear narrative, characters who are perpetually armed with their baggage if not their weaponry…

If you’re looking for other gangster sagas to point to, there’s Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Or, if you’re looking towards literary cues, there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose memory is evoked in its circular narratives and repetitive motifs and knack of having a larger story nudge a smaller story every once in a while. Or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The thing is, if you’re making an epic, and Vada Chennai is indubitably one, you’re unlikely to break a heck of a lot of new ground in terms of the basic emotions and storylines. Yeah, there’s lust and greed and betrayal and vengeance. And a girl and a gun. At that level, we’ve probably described most stories.

Where you make your mark is in how rooted the story is, how organically its characters’ motivations are tied into the time and place they’re from. Vada Chennai’s characters are driven by the same base impulses as anyone else, but you can’t imagine them in any other milieu. And what’s more, this film is not just about its characters. It’s about this location, about its importance to the people living there. The film is narrated in chapters, each named for three of the characters. But the key chapter that details the genesis of this story uses the word Oor, meaning place. This place.

One useful way of understanding a film is to ask yourself: what has changed between the beginning and the end? A narrative this nonlinear doesn’t lend itself easily to such analysis. But consider the opening and closing shots instead. The opening shot is of a bloodstained murder weapon casually thrown on a table. The reasons for this murder have to do with this place, and what people want to do with it. The closing shot is of the oor itself. There’s an old wall separating this neighbourhood from the more “gentrified” world on the other side. The other wall is the sea. The place hasn’t changed. Nor have the pressures from the outside. The people dealing with them have, and sometimes their stories have their genesis in that of the people who came before them.

A character with an ability to look beyond the immediate term gifts a pair of binoculars to a little boy. You see him sitting on top of a tower with the binoculars as a young adult. You see him capable of looking past the short term as an adult. And you realize that even a throwaway moment, where an adult gifts a child something he fancies, has such an emotional resonance in hindsight. These stories are like geological formations. Scrape away a layer of rock, and there’s another layer that tells the story of a previous age.

You don’t see them all in chronological order, though. The nonlinear nature of the storytelling is a wee bit disorienting at first, but you realize soon that this is not mere gimmickry.

The effects of a murder — the one referenced in the opening shot — are seen well before the murder itself is shown, in what is probably the standout sequence in the film. As good as the film-making is in that scene, the emotional charge comes from the fact that we already know how the ripple effects of this event will be seen in the coming years.

An attack that happens around the interval block comes as a surprise, but in the scenes that follow, Vetri Maran interleaves the backstory that motivated it along with its aftermath, thereby shaping our perception of that attack in very interesting ways. And then he adds another layer of motivation that precedes this one, thereby reshaping our view once again.

This is not a filmmaker toying with form, or with the audience. This is a master storyteller telling us that Once upon a time is not where the story starts. It’s just where you begin to narrate it.

 

Freeze Frame #171: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

The most interesting scene in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for me, is the one where Ayan (Ranbir) meets Tahir (Shahrukh) for the first time. Shahrukh’s lines in this scene are so unbearably pretentious that one would want to throw something at the screen, were it not immediately apparent that he’s very deliberately hamming it up.

It gets better. Karan Johar sets up an interesting dynamic in that scene where Saba (Aishwarya) matches Tahir’s tone and penchant for overly dramatic wordplay to throw out her own barbs, while Ranbir plays the wisecracking outsider. But it’s clear that all three are basically playing parts in a little drama out there, and they all know it. It’s a very interesting conversation, because you can practically see two scenes playing inside your head in parallel, one that’s on screen, and another one where they speak normally but convey the same message.

But what really elevates that moment is a single exchange in the middle, that makes it clear that the characters are also playing the “normal” scene inside their own heads. Ayan drops the mask for just a moment, and asks, “Is it easy to love someone who doesn’t love you back?”

And Tahir lets his own mask slip literally for just a second. And within that second he manages to convey this: “Hey, it looks like the kid’s noticed something! He’s not just a dumb boy-toy after all. And what’s more, you don’t even notice something like this, much less ask about it, unless it matters to you, and it’s clear that it matters to this kid. I wonder why. It can’t be Saba. Oooh, interesting!”

And then the mask is back on.

And I’m sitting there thinking, holy shit, one second. One. Freaking. Second. That’s all it took for Shahrukh and Karan Johar to convey what I took a whole paragraph to write.

 

On the unevenness of Kaala

There is a long, unbroken take early in Kaala that serves to introduce the eponymous character’s family. It ends with some playful banter between a few characters, after which you get The Song.

(You know, the one that’s a paean to The Hero and has been such a staple of big-budget hero-centric Thamizh cinema that, if you see one without The Song, you’re apt to make one up in your head while watching the film, like an amputee scratching a phantom limb.)

That whole sequence right there tells you nearly everything about what’s right and wrong with Kaala. The unbroken take itself is a nifty piece of work. There’s a bit of an 80s vibe in the joint-family-with-simmering-tensions intro, but Eswari Rao, who plays Kaala’s wife, distracts you from that with a near-monologue of rare brilliance and shepherds you through that whole take. There’s enough colour, density, prickliness and warmth in two minutes worth of lines to fill a whole movie.

And then you register that the guy who was earlier doing a non-violent protest and was frustrated with Kaala’s violent intervention is also his son, as is the hothead who served as Kaala’s hatchet man. So a part of you goes, oh, there’s Sonny and Michael right there. So you’re sitting there thinking, here’s a director who took a standard issue family introduction scene and turned it into something really interesting. Nice!

And then Pa. Ranjith decides to take a big steaming dump on your head. Basically, a bunch of youths turn up like a hip-hop Greek chorus, and one of the supporting characters says something to the effect of, why don’t you sing a song and we’ll dance. And you sit there thinking, how can a man who wrote and directed that also be capable of this?

This unevenness is evident throughout the film. A slum redevelopment project championed by the younger non-violent son turns out to involve a golf course, and a bunch of characters are naturally in opposition. This is a complex issue — the slum dwellers too want their lives bettered, but they want it on their terms. This conflict is already established bit by bit in the earlier scenes, and the argument isn’t presented only from one angle. But why the golf course? It is such an outlandish thing to put in there that it trivializes what was building up as a nice conflict. I have no quibble with Ranjith’s politics, or that he chooses to use film as a medium to espouse his views. But this deliberate turning-away from nuance is disappointing, to say the least.

If there’s the brilliance of overlaying a narration of the final war in the Ramayana with the final fight here, there’s also the amateurishness of the scene where people talk about what they want in the housing project.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The film ends with a somewhat hallucinatory sequence set during Holi, which I suppose is pretty apropos. A riot of colours on one hand, a hot mess on the other.

Empire

I felt a strange sort of dissonance while reading Devi Yesodharan’s Empire. The story is told from the point of view of two major characters, and while the inner monologues and the descriptive sentences feel exquisite, the dialogue itself feels stilted. Does the fact that Thamizh is my mother-tongue have a part to play in how I feel? I suspect it does. Your mileage may vary.

As for the novel itself, it is a splendid work of historical fiction. I shall not comment on the veracity of the period descriptions, since I know very little of the period aside from what I have read in historical fiction (notably Ponniyin Selvan). I assume that Devi has done her homework, and done it well, and used artistic license wherever appropriate.

The novel, in any case, is a lot more interested in the emotional landscape of Aremis, the heroine of the story and a member of Rajendra Chozha’s guard, and Anantha, a much-decorated, weary general tasked with carrying out the emperor’s plans to wage war on the Srivijaya empire in South-East Asia. There is much by way of palace intrigue and internecine quarrels between factions in the King’s court. Some of these plotlines are resolved, some others not. But the plot is more of a clothesline to hang these two individual stories. And they are fascinating.

Aremis has to deal with being a foreigner (she was offered as a vassal by a captured invader from Greece after a defeat) in this land, being a woman in a mostly male army, and the burden of a centuries-old prophecy. This is a character with a lot on her plate, and Devi does a great job of making us see her as an interesting, complex individual.

And then there is Anantha, her captor, and the general of Rajendra’s army. There are moments during his section of the narrative when I found myself reminded of Thomas Cromwell’s narrative in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Not the characters themselves — Anantha comes across as a simpler character than Cromwell — but in the sense of watching a man trying to do his King’s bidding and the difficulties that accompany the task.

One could argue that the story is essentially one of how these two characters relate to each other. There is an early scene where Devi describes Anantha’s relationship with his dogs — he explains how the ones most likely to rebel turn out to be the ones most loyal. The obvious parallel being drawn is to Aremis, one thinks.

Until one realizes that, sooner or later, everyone is someone’s dog.

 

The Post

Let me begin by talking about the weakest couple of scenes in The Post, the ones that made me so angry I could spit.

At the beginning of the final act of the film, Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post, makes the decision to side with her editor Ben Bradlee to publish an article based on the leaked Pentagon Papers that detail the US Government’s flawed decision making in the Vietnam war. The moment is pivotal for Graham’s character, because you have seen her struggle with not so much the demands of her job but with having to do it in a world dominated almost entirely by men. Everybody who is party to that conversation is a man. In every scene that leads up to this point, Spielberg walks the fine line between obvious and subtle in making us see this, and is aided by an absolutely splendid performance by Meryl Streep. So, when the camera zooms in on Streep’s face, we know what is at stake here. Not for the paper, but for her as an individual. Watching her decide to go for it carries the same charge as 1984, in the part where Orwell describes Winston’s thoughts after having made love to Julia and concludes with: “It was a political act.” Like Winston’s decision, this is a lot more than just the owner of a newspaper saying, “Let’s go.”

It is a thing of beauty.

And then, Spielberg decides that his audience is comprised of morons who don’t get it, and finds it necessary to shoehorn in a couple of conversations that restate what is by now obvious. The first of these is especially insulting, because it involves one character explaining to another how brave she was. What the hell, man!

Consider the moment where Graham is required to make yet another decision, and practically every advisor she has, barring Bradlee, is crowded around her, talking more to each other than to her. And in order to make her argument, the first thing she does is stand up and walk a couple of paces. So much is conveyed in that simple movement of one character that you now find yourself not just listening to what she says, but appreciating the fact that she is asserting herself. Why would a director who could do this, find it necessary to also spell it out in a different scene?

Outside of those missteps, The Post is a fine movie about the freedom of the press,  but an especially compelling one about a woman doing what was, until then, considered a man’s job, and finding that she has what it takes to do it well. Katharine Graham presided over the spectacular rise to prominence of The Washington Post, thanks to this and their work on the Watergate scandal. This is especially remarkable when you consider that, during the time depicted in this film, she was still straddling two worlds — the one that involved soirees and lavish luncheons and what not, and the one that involved smoke-filled newsrooms and the business of speaking truth to power. As heroic journeys go, this one’s a doozy.

 

Newton

There is an early conversation in Newton where one character explains the physicist’s greatest contribution: until he came along, people thought that the laws governing the earth were different from those governing the skies. Newton told the world that the same laws apply throughout the universe. The man providing this explanation expands this into a social thesis. You could be a rich man or a poor woman, but you would both fall off a cliff at the same rate. We are all equal before nature.

In truth, though, a heavy ball and a feather would hit the ground at the same instant only if they were falling through a vacuum. Air resistance matters.

This is a useful distinction to keep in mind. The concept of a free and fair election where elected representatives would work for the welfare of the electorate is roughly like the falling bodies experiment. In the real world, there are sources of resistance, and much of this resistance comes from the fact that not everyone views elections through the same lens. Their view is informed by their circumstances.

It is this dissonance between the many Indias contained within India that defines the film. The election officers wish to enable the possibility of a free and fair election, to the extent that it is feasible. The politicians standing for elections aren’t quite the noble public servants the ideal demands. The men charged with maintaining law and order, in this case the CRPF personnel on duty in Naxal-hit Dandakaranya, have their own view of the process, which is, at least in part, coloured by the terrible necessities of their job. And the tribals whose votes this is all about? They just want to be left alone. And these are just the broad strokes. Not all CRPF personnel are cut from the same cloth. Not all election officers view their job the same way. Nor do all tribals have the same view of the elections.

Aside: I spent some time trying to make some clever allegories to multi-body problems, statistical mechanics and the like, but then I ran into a teeny tiny little problem. I don’t know nearly enough physics to do this.

But by far the most interesting aspect of Newton is how incredibly easily it packs this much material into so little running time. And how much humour there is in the storytelling. The film clocks in at a brisk 106 minutes, and not one of those minutes feels wasted. Even a throwaway moment like a police officer donning his sunglasses is packed with subtext. While one story is told on screen, literally dozens of others are roiling beneath the surface, taking advantage of every single opportunity to make their voice heard.

In great filmmaking, this is what democracy feels like.

ps: I also wanted to talk about the acting, but once again, I ran into a teeny tiny little problem. I don’t know nearly enough superlatives to do this.