Super Deluxe: There are more things on heaven and earth…

There might be the odd spoiler, so beware. But as with most of my reviews these days, read it after you’ve watched the film, please?

Those of you who have been following my reviews, sporadic as they are, would have noticed that I seldom write about the whole movie anymore. I tend to focus on that which grabbed my attention. Two viewings and a lot of thinking about Super Deluxe later, I still don’t know what to talk about.

I could talk about the performances. The powerful ones, the delightful ones, the surprising ones, the one that made my skin crawl, even the one that lasted maybe a minute and involved pretty much just one word: Go.

I could talk about the sound: Yuvan’s minimalism, his use of just ambient noise to underline a mood in incredible ways. The layering of voices and overlapping conversations (some of them from TV and radio) — like Robert Altman on steroids. The use of music in surprising ways: Maasi maasam aalaana ponnu plays over a visual of a ponnaana aalu. A localized rendition of the Star Wars theme over, well, a Death Stair?

I could talk about what each subplot reminded me of. Like Eugene Ionesco’s Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, a play about a married couple dealing with a corpse. Or Guy Ritchie. Terry Pratchett. Tarantino. BaashaArjun Reddy. The recent dist-up around Radharavi’s ill-advised comments about Nayanthara. Trust me, if you ran a drinking game around finding them, you’d have cirrhosis by the time you get to the interval point.

I could talk about guilt and acceptance, and how each subplot explores these themes in its own way.

I could talk about any of these things and it would make for a lengthy blog post all by itself. Rarely has a single film given us so much to take in. I was speaking to Baradwaj Rangan recently about how keeping my eyes wide open during a film has made the viewing experience so much more enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for the kind of sensory overload I encountered in Super Deluxe.

So, instead of talking about these things, let me talk about what the film seems to be about.

Filmmakers have dealt with the concept of connectedness of individual stories in different ways. Mani Ratnam in Ayutha Ezhuthu took three individual stories and have them dovetail into a single incident. Linklater in Slacker followed one character for a short while, then followed another who was in the same scene, and then another who was in the same scene with the second character, and so on.

But connectedness can be so much more than just people and stories and even objects caroming off each other. And so much less.

Sometimes, as one character says in the film, we look for a deeper meaning in patterns that could have just been random coincidence. A man turns his life around because he survived a natural disaster, and holds as the basis of his faith, the object that was the instrument of his survival. One could argue, as Jules did in Pulp Fiction, that it didn’t matter if it was an “According to Hoyle” miracle. He felt the touch of God. God got involved. But this character, who has named himself Arputham — meaning miracle — is himself dealing with a crisis of faith. Not only do the others not understand his faith (he doesn’t consider himself Christian, although everyone else seems to), he no longer understands it himself. Has he been seeking meaning where there was none to be found?

But here’s the thing: this is a movie where a character tells us that we might be reading too much into random coincidence, but there is nothing accidental about its making. Nothing.

A little boy learns the f-word when an adult uses it, but it’s not a one-off. You see another boy using the word kamnaatti after you’ve heard an adult in his family use it in an earlier scene. One father’s attempt at suicide is mirrored in his son accidentally harming himself, but that’s not all: another father worries that his sins have been visited upon his son. A throwaway line in the beginning about television beating porn on a phone is illustrated later in an unexpected way. I could go on.

All this does not just happen in a movie. Someone has to make it happen.

And so it is that two viewings and a lot of thinking about Super Deluxe later, all I know for sure are two things:
a. Thyagarajan Kumararaja has made a great film, and
b. He’s definitely messing with us.

I’m not feeling particularly creative today, so…

Let me talk about this ad that’s been popping up every so often while I’m on YouTube, or the Sun Nxt app.

Now, I like chocolate as much as the next person, okay? Hershey’s Kisses, too. But a few things bother me about this ad.

First, why is this food item feeling so happy about the prospect of being eaten? This isn’t the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, after all. Does it have a Pinocchio Complex, i.e., “I look like a poop emoji, so here’s my chance to become real poop”?

But more than that, what really gets to me is the disclaimer at the bottom that says Creative visualization. Which marketing genius did the research on that one and found a segment of kids who could read and understand the term Creative Visualization, but needed to be explicitly told that this was one?

Sphere of Influence

I was witness to one of the stranger variants of Tu jaanta nahin main kaun hoon recently.

I was traveling in an auto from Nandidurga Road to my place. My auto driver was a rather portly, elderly gentleman, the kind who could moonlight as Santa Claus in the mall if business was tough. The traffic police had barricaded a road near the Ulsoor gurudwara and were diverting traffic towards the lake, ie, away from my house. I thought it might make sense to just get off there, but before I could ask him to stop, my driver had decided to go straight through the barricade.

The policemen who stopped him seemed somewhat put out by his behaviour, which was understandable. But what wasn’t so easy to understand was why my driver was the one who lost his cool. He pulled himself up to his full height (which was about the same as mine, so not hugely impressive), puffed out his chest (which, when it expanded to match his potbelly in the y Axis, was truly impressive), and vibrating with the sort of inner anger befitting a man who has just found out after spending ten years in jail that his defence lawyer had colluded with the prosecution, said, ‘Naan yaar gothha nimge?’

So I stand there thinking, ah, this is going to be fun. I’m still waiting for my change, but that’s now secondary; I’ve never seen this sort of thing play out before. So I settle down to watch. The cops don’t quite know or care who this guy is, but they’re more worried that he might pop a couple of blood vessels right there, given how he’s puffing up (honestly, he could’ve given lessons to puffer fish). They ask him to relax, and enquire how old he is, but my indignant and apparently quite influential hero is not to be deterred. He goes on to inform the cops that he does not have a single document in his auto. No license, no rc book, nothing. How a confession of this nature is supposed to help his cause is not immediately apparent to a clueless individual such as myself. (To extend my earlier analogy, it sounded like the wrongfully incarcerated prisoner had confessed to being the Zodiac killer, by way of a threat against his defence lawyer.) The cops either get it and don’t care, or are still focused on making sure this guy doesn’t die on their watch.

The reason for this strange confession soon becomes relatively clear. The man says, call the police commissioner and give him my auto number, and you’ll know why I drive around without a single piece of paper in my pocket. By now, I’m practically in paroxysms of delight at having encountered a virtual emperor in disguise, but by then a more senior cop decides to come by and spoil my fun. He simply barks at the emperor and asks him to move his chariot out of the way and keep going. Against all reason, His Highness decides to comply. Affecting the sort of calm demeanour that Buddhist monks take decades to attain, he gives me my change and lets me go on my way.

ps: My grasp of kannada is sketchy at best, so this might not have been what actually happened.

pps: But you gotta admit, it sounds more fun if it did.

Depth of Field: Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Vada Chennai

I remember walking out of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam with mixed feelings. It felt precise, like the work of a master, but not fulfilling. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, and to be honest, I am still unable to explain it.

A few days later, I watched Vada Chennai and found myself blown away. I even wrote about it back then. But I kept returning to CCV in my head, and trying to articulate to myself what I liked and what I didn’t. Then, a few days ago, something hit me.

The obvious first. Both films begin the narration in the middle of the story. In Vada Chennai, a murder has just been committed, and that deed will shape the lives of not just the perpetrators, but that of so many others. In CCV, it is an attempted murder.

But it is more than that. Both films drop us in the middle of the action in other ways. The characters in both movies carry a lot of baggage, and their actions in the present are informed by their past. But where Vada Chennai chooses to tell the story through a series of flashbacks, CCV is completely linear.

Whatever you need to know about the past is told to you through dialogue, and through how the characters interact with each other. You understand the characters and their relationship with each other through the performances and the dialogue, which is sometimes expository but very often just loaded enough to make you fill in the gaps in your head.

This is not to say that one approach trumps another. In Vada Chennai, the structure itself is designed to reshape our understanding of each character’s actions by peeling away the present and revealing the past. Also, it is not just the story of those people but also of the place. It needs to show us, not just tell us. CCV, on the other hand, tells a simpler story. The layers matter, but we don’t need to know everything.

The most obvious parallel, to me, is the first two Godfather films. The first film tells a loaded story in a linear fashion and uses dialogue to tell us what we need to know. The Godfather uses the long opening sequence around Connie’s wedding to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the tension with an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life. CCV uses an attempt on Senapati’s life to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the intrigue through a key conversation at his granddaughter’s naming ceremony.

The second Godfather film, on the other hand, tells two stories set in different timelines, in an attempt to show us how the past impacts the present in myriad ways. Michael and Vito Corleone. Anbu and Rajan.

Bhoomi.

Ooru.

On the craft in Gully Boy

Caution: Spoilers ahead. Read this only if you’ve watched the film.

Gully Boy is a rousing tale, but it’s easy to look at the broad outlines of the plot and dismiss it as Dharavi’s 8 Mile or some such thing. That would be doing the film a huge disservice. A genre exercise must not automatically be classed as generic; it deserves its place in the sun if the story is rooted in its milieu and respects both the setting and the characters while still hewing to the broad outlines. Much of what worked for me in Gully Boy were in fact the little things, the evidence of “craft”, the moments where Zoya found truth and beauty in places that most people would pass by without a second glance. And in this film, she has found herself a mighty team of collaborators who have executed on her vision in a manner that does the material credit.

To begin with, how good an actor is Ranveer Singh? There’s not a single thing I noticed that others haven’t raved about already, so let me not bother with it at all. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little bamboozled by his outfits off screen, but watch him in the film, and see how he reins in his flamboyance, and only slowly lets us see the energy within. Watch how his performances change, and how they build up to the unbridled energy of Apna Time Aayega. This is an extraordinarily well-calibrated performance.

The running time helps. This is a story of an artist discovering his voice, discovering that he is a person of worth. Zoya takes her time in showing us this process. The first thing you see about him is what he doesn’t like: rap music that is purely about a lifestyle rather than a point of view. Then you see his life, his environment, what he likes, where he finds space to breathe and grow. You see a man with talent, but no yardstick to measure his own worth — when he presents Doori to his mentor, watch how much he yearns for that iota of appreciation. Watch his comfort with a mic and with the recording process grow over time. You don’t get it all done through a lazy montage.

Alia Bhatt’s performance too is a thing of beauty. I would gladly pay money to watch a movie about Safeena “Danger Apa” Firdausi. To begin with, it’s a very well-written character, but so much hinges on her being able to find that exact tone, and Alia delivers. She gets a lot of big moments, a lot of crowd pleasing moments, and some beautiful ones with Ranveer (I think doing all those MakeMyTrip ads together really helped). My favourite, though, comes during his rousing solo performance right at the end. She’s sneaked out of her house to watch him, perform. You see her putting on lipstick while waiting for her train — something that is foreshadowed by a comment in an earlier conversation with her parents. And when she arrives at the venue, you see that she’s done her best to pretty up for her boyfriend’s big night, and that it still looks just that little bit different, just that little bit less practised, as compared to the women around her. And when the whole crowd is going nuts and waving their hands up and down, you see her doing it too. But her movement is just that little bit more awkward. This isn’t her world, but she’s there for him, and the film recognizes both aspects. You see this for literally just one second, and yet it registers. Incredible.

Bridges are a recurring leitmotif in their relationship. The one they meet on regularly, the sharing of a pair of earphones, their gesture with their hands… And it’s an appropriate leitmotif because, in their little world, they still have to bridge some gaps in order to be together. Even their relative position on the vertical axis is used thoughtfully.

There’s a reconciliation scene between the lovers late in the film. He’s had an intimate moment with another woman earlier, which she suspects but he doesn’t admit to. Her confrontation with him about this leads to their breakup. When they reconcile, she asks him about her and he says, they’re just friends who make music together. She still presses him with a gentle but firm “But…” — he has to come clean, it is important to her, to them. He does. When she says, “So it’s okay if I do that with someone as well?” he responds with “You can do whatever you want.” And they kiss. Don’t read the lines. Read between them. His response isn’t about reciprocity, it’s about freedom. There is an earlier conversation where he worries about the things he can’t give her, and she says that her ability to be herself with him is what matters to her. This conversation starts off about his little infidelity, but that last question and response is not about that. It is simply a reaffirmation of what is so right about their relationship.

But the film is not just about these two. It’s about the world they inhabit, about the characters around them, and these characters are written with respect for their lives.

His friends, for instance. Moeen stalks the screen like an apex predator, and in their little world, he kind of is. Murad disapproves of his actions, and they’ve had the odd tiff about it, but it comes to a head in a scene where he sees that Moeen is using local kids in his drug trade. That scene is set up to play out exactly like so many others in so many other movies, but the way it actually plays out is truer to the world the characters inhabit. Murad breaks down, and Moeen sends the other kids away and finds out what’s going on. Even his earlier conversation about Murad’s break-up with Safeena doesn’t adopt the “my friend is always right” tone — there’s some quiet truth-telling about what he owes his girlfriend.

The relationship between the rappers is another plus. MC Sher is outstanding as Murad’s mentor, of course, but what stood out for me is the positivity. You don’t have manufactured drama around a veteran feeling out of sorts at being bested by his protege. Even the rap battles are verbal pugilism, but you can see that they regard this as sport. Right at the end, when Murad performs at the final, even his rivals are nodding along — they respect the craft, the talent. (Which is why the big moment in the semi-final where he defends his roots against an “entitled” opponent, while crowd-pleasing, feels just that little bit false; the sentiment is true, but the situation feels a bit manufactured.)

It’s lovely how the music reflects the sensibilities of the characters driving the action. When Sky and her friends invite Murad for some late night vandalism, the music that plays over the scene isn’t hip-hop. It suggests a sort of genteel protest. One character doodles
“Feed me” on a picture of a fashion model. In their presence, Murad looks just that little bit awkward. What makes this scene work is really the context outside the film — Zoya’s Dil Dhadakne Do was panned for focusing on first world problems — and by placing a little window to that world inside Murad’s own, Zoya seems to slipping in a sly bit of commentary herself.

There’s so much detail even in throwaway moments. Like the way Murad’s new stepmom has a habit of leaving her plates and cups in the kitchen for his mom to wash, and how it is mirrored in the household she works in. (Again, all it takes is a second for a shot to linger on a particular thing for a good storyteller to tell a little story on the fringes.) Or the way one character slamming the door is reflected in another’s similar action in a late scene.

And finally, in a movie that is about an “English ki poetry zor zor se sunaane-wala” art form (thank you, Bombay 70, for that succinct description), the words. In a late scene, Murad says “I have a gift from God, and I don’t plan to return it.” Watch the word choice. He doesn’t use a word that suggests throwing away or wasting the gift, but returning it. Returning is an active measure, one that suggests an individual’s complicity in his own failure, and Murad will no longer have it. There’s also the scene where he describes his life without Safeena with an analogy that is so unexpected, yet so perfect. You realize that this ability to find the words even in a halting, awkward conversation is what makes him who he is as an artist. And his artistry reflects, in turn, that of the makers. Kudos!

Manmarziyan

Taapsee Pannu occupies the center of Manmarziyan like this was the role she was born to play. And why wouldn’t she? The role’s a peach, and Pannu mines a vein of ferocity that makes her character in Baby and Naam Shabana look mild in comparison.

It has been argued that the level of agency she gets in the film makes her a more feminist character than most others who inhabit the Bollywood landscape. It has also been argued that smoking and drinking and having sex with whomsoever one wants does not a feminist make.

Personally, I can see the merit in both points of view, but one little moment early on in the film encapsulates my own take on the issue. Rumi is walking down a narrow street, furious about something. (Which, for Rumi, is a naturally occurring state.) She bumps into some random guy. He turns around, angry and presumably ready to do what countless men in countless small towns in countless movies (and, sadly, in reality) have done. And then checks himself and apologizes to her. You don’t see her reaction, just his. For all we know, she might not even have noticed any of this and simply ploughed on. Some people, you simply don’t fuck with, no matter what their plumbing is.

And the plumbing is important to this film, which is concerned with both pyaar (matters of the heart) and fyaar (think further south). All three characters want both. Whether they realize it, or want both at the same time, is another matter entirely.

Vicky (Kaushal) at first appears to be all about the fyaar, and it is easy to interpret his commitment-phobia a standard issue douchebaggery. But it doesn’t take long to realize that he is actually quite committed to her. It’s not like he is willing to walk away from the relationship. He just isn’t ready for it to be anything more than it is.

Robbie on the other hand wants it all and is willing to play the long game. While the broad template is that of a husband willing to step aside if his wife is in love with another man, Robbie isn’t written as a generic type, either. (Abhishek is well cast here – this role isn’t a stretch, but you can see why they’d have wanted to cast him.) He knows from the start that Rumi is in a relationship. If she and Vicky both want each other, there’s nothing I can do about it, he says, but that doesn’t mean I will remove myself as an option. If you saw her, you’d understand why, he says at one point. And we do.

His outburst towards the end, though, is somewhat strangely written/performed. I can see what Anurag Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon wanted to achieve, which is to get him – the one capable of making considered decisions – to do something and disrupt the rhythm. Left to the other two, the plot would go nowhere. However, Robbie’s reason for doing what he does doesn’t ring true. And Abhishek plays his cards too close to his chest for us to figure out if we’re seeing bad writing or good acting.

Still, this is much sharper writing than most films with this template manage to have. Even the peripheral characters have something. Their conversations have a lived-in feel to them – consider the banter between Robbie’s mom and her domestic help, or the quiet exasperation with which Rumi’s family regard her outbursts. There’s a lot here to enjoy on a second viewing.

When my wife and I were discussing the film afterwards, she made an interesting comment: the families look way too chill about all that is going on with the principal characters. It’s not that they don’t have opinions. They’re just expressed at a muted pitch. Even the guy who’s supposed to fill in the role of the hot-headed brother is actually so mild mannered that nobody actually takes him seriously. For his part, he’d much rather put his MBA to use than his hockey stick. I wonder, though: Have we watched so much melodrama that anything short of loud arguments or honour killings – basically, anything resembling sanity – doesn’t seem plausible anymore?

Plausible or not, it’s nice to see a woman get the space she needs to figure out what she wants. Or maybe they just don’t want to tangle with Rumi. Like I said, some people you simply don’t…

Seethakathi: State of the Art

How did a film like Seethakathi even get funded in the first place? The story lends itself to a kind of dryly comic narrative (Isaac Asimov’s One Night of Song comes to mind), but here’s the thing: the contemplative mood that permeates much of the film is not the one you might imagine while hearing it.

The first 40 minutes are so sedate, so quietly affecting in their depiction of an ageing theatre actor’s life, that you wonder if you just stumbled into a Balu Mahendra feature. (Archana’s presence as his wife helps.) There’s a moment when Ayya Aadhimoolam, the aforementioned artiste, returns home by auto after a stage performance that only a handful of people have attended, and passes by some youths watching something on their mobile phone. The film just shows him observing them, but the earlier scenes have made his reaction unnecessary. Watching this film on the Prime app on my phone, I felt vaguely guilty when that scene played out. Lovely.

Even when the film goes on to take a slightly supernatural turn, the elegiac tone doesn’t change. If at all it morphs from a Balu Mahendra film, it is into an M Night Shyamalan one.

And then, when you least expect it, the film finds a funny bone. A film shoot in a park goes horribly, hilariously wrong. That Balaji Tharaneetharan has a deft comic touch has been evident from his debut feature, but this sudden shifting of gears is, well, startling.

There’s obvious comedy featuring some of the best bad acting I have seen in a while, but the straight guy in the scene plays it so beautifully straight that his performance becomes a stand-in for the movie it has been so far. It feels as though the humour is somehow finding a way to bubble up through the layer of sombre contemplation that the film has wreathed itself in. The effect on the viewer is unexpectedly cathartic.

It goes on a bit too long, and there’s a similar sequence later on where you really wish they’d get on with it, but this is, to be honest, a minor quibble. I still found myself laughing both times.

And then, even more amazingly, the film turns into a sort of satire on the prevalent state of cinema, our tendency to worship our stars, and our rigid notions of what the A, B and C centres want to see. While it appears a bit preachy at times, the script finds room for nuance. Even the stereotypical I-want-every-cliche-in-my-film producer is not depicted in an entirely unsympathetic manner – he is simply a man who has invested a lot of money in the film and cannot afford to deal with an actor who refuses to turn up. The notion of cinema as a collective, as well as commercial, art is driven home in more ways than one.

Perhaps the film’s most interesting reading, for me, comes from a meta perspective. Here’s a mostly well-reviewed venture featuring a great actor who loomed over the film’s promotions in much the same way that his character looms over the story it tells. It enjoyed but a modest run at the box office, and yet, soon after its release on Prime video, I find a slew of complimentary posts about it on my Facebook timeline.

Seethakathi lives on.