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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Secret Superstar

Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar begins on a train. A bunch of school kids are singing and dancing. The songs range from the raucous to the raunchy. Watching them is a girl who smiles at their antics but doesn’t participate. And when she does sing, it is with her own composition. You suspect that, all this time, while the other girls were singing Beedi jalai le, she was listening to the music in her head.

While the song is of a different ilk, the kind that makes elderly co-passengers smile rather than frown, the girl herself isn’t all sweetness and light. She has a short temper, one that she has to keep in check so assiduously in the presence of her abusive father, that she doesn’t bother to rein it in when in the presence of others. She is assertive, resourceful, brave. And it is evident that she gets at least some of these qualities from a mother (and perhaps also a grandmother) who is equally fascinating in her own right. These are wonderfully textured characters in the midst of a wonderfully written but, alas, not wonderfully told story.

The broad contours of this story are well-known by now: a girl in a middle-class Muslim household wants to become a musician, and starts off by uploading videos of herself in a burqa with a guitar in her hand, singing her own songs. Her work catches the attention of a famous music director in Mumbai. You know how this goes, more or less. But consider all the little moments that one doesn’t expect to see in stories like these. A discussion about a celebrity divorce leads a classmate to gently correct her preconceived notions that all divorces are the result of the husband being an asshole — sometimes, things just don’t work, he says. Or a discussion about whether an abused mother and cowed down daughter could just up and leave without taking her little brother with them — should they try and bring him up in an environment where he learns to be a better man? That this conversation even happens without heightened melodrama is one thing. That there is a moment there where the brother is shown eavesdropping on their conversation is something else entirely.

There is so much here to unpack, that I am left wondering whether to praise the movie for all the little stories it tells at the fringes, or the damn it for its faults. And there are faults, trust me. There are moments of incredible mawkishness (like a late scene with the little brother) that one could’ve done without, but the bigger issue is that you get the sense of seeing a script being filmed rather than a film being made based on a script. I could see a great writer coming up with a story with all this detail, but apart from the odd visual flourish (like a moment in a recording studio with the girl mutely observing the goings-on outside), where is the director in all this? A skilled director and a dispassionate editor would’ve made a much better, shorter film, it feels like.

In all of this discussion, I have left out Aamir Khan. The idea that he will ride in on a white horse in the second half feels more or less pre-ordained, but the horse, and this knight’s armour, aren’t entirely blemish-free. The general idea is that a crass, unpopular music composer turns out to have a soft heart, and in helping this girl, he finds some small measure of redemption himself. But listen to the version of the song he originally wants this schoolgirl to sing, before she cuts out all the moaning and groaning and gets him to propose a sweeter version for her to sing. Maybe all that the film is doing is saying that this is the world she is stepping into, and changing in her own little way. And I can appreciate that.

But watching Aamir Khan do his shtick (and he does it pretty well), my mind kept flashing back to all that I have been reading about Harvey Weinstein and James Toback and… What I couldn’t do is create for myself the soundproof room where I could just hear the music and block out the cacophony outside.

 

Mersal

Okay, let me get this out of the way: I went to see Mersal because I had heard that Vadivelu was in it. Thirty seconds into the film, I felt like I had received my money’s  worth. He doesn’t get a full fledged comic role or a parallel track, just a regular supporting role with the odd zinger (the one about digital india is a hoot). While he doesn’t bring the house down every time we see him, just Vadivelu back on screen feels good. 

The film itself isn’t great cinema, or great masala, but it isn’t a train wreck either. It’s okay in parts, a bloated mess in others, and by far the most entertaining aspect for me was the easter egg hunt (i.e., looking for political statements in the dialogue — not that there was much hunting required per se) .

I am more amused than annoyed by the current brouhaha surrounding the film and its comments on GST, digital india and what not. Some “factoids” mentioned in Vijay’s big speech are not quite accurate. (Alcohol, for instance, is taxed pretty heavily.) But the sound and fury against the film has only served to drive up its popularity: if Vijay is getting a percentage of the gross, and does take the plunge in the near future, the BJP can take credit for at least partially bankrolling his political career. (To be honest, the overheated reactions of one of Tamil Nadu’s BJP leaders reminds me of a story told in Thani Oruvan — I will leave you to look up the reference for yourself.)

But let us set aside what has been happening off screen and focus on the film for a bit. 

While the plot has pretty strong shades of Aboorva Sagotharargal, it is Shankar’s filmography and cinematic sensibilities that I was more often reminded of. While AS was fashioned as a revenge drama, this one wants to make bigger points about cleaning up a corrupt system (in this case, healthcare), and Vijay is the vigilante who does the job. The reference to his mentor is even called out explicitly in the dialogue.

Another example that springs to mind: the background score in one of the film’s flashback scenes  sounds eerily similar to the one that precedes Pachai kiligal in Shankar’s Indian, and plays over a similar context (the flashback details a grave injustice done to one of the characters, itself a Shankar trope).

The dogged cop on the trail of the vigilante is there, too. Except in this case, this character might as well have been part of the furniture for all the work he gets to do. But compared to the “romantic subplots”, he practically gets a plum role. Kajal Agarwal could’ve been left out of the film entirely. Samantha has one scene involving rose milk that just about sputters to life in contrast, then nothing. (On the other hand, the Nithya Menen character is a joy to behold. Thirty seconds into her entry, I found myself smiling. Her chemistry with Vijay has a lot to do with why a long flashback late in the film still feels light on its feet.) 

This is not to say that the film is just a pastiche of Shankar-isms and thin characterisations. While I didn’t care much for Raja Rani, Atlee has, over the course of his two Vijay films, shown that he understands how to craft a good masala moment, even if he sometimes doesn’t know when to stop. A scene involving an Indian doctor saving a French woman, for instance, is well conceived but undone by its ending.

In some other cases, he gets it exactly right. There’s a scene involving the death of a little girl that has all the moral outrage of a Shankar flashback, but without the wretched excess. One where Vijay describes how he met and married Nithya Menen is outstandingly well done.  (I suspect it would have been just as good, had he toned down the depiction of the C-section a bit, but I see what he was going for.) 

What he also understands is that the villain needs to be big enough for a film of this nature. While SJ Suryaah might not seem like the obvious choice, he turns out to be a good one. Since Iraivi reintroduced him as a character actor, he seems to be having a lot more fun on screen. He was creepier in Spyder than he is here (and that is more a function of the characterization than his acting), and his mannered brand of villainy brings back memories of Thengai Srinivasan, but he doesn’t torpedo the film.

As for Vijay, well… when you sign Vijay, you get Vijay. It must be admitted, though, that while the man sticks to a template, he seems to have upgraded his template since Thuppakki or so. The odd Bairavaa notwithstanding, it seems to be working for him. He gets to do more speechifying in this film than usual, which I suppose is a result of someone (the writers, director, star, who knows?) wanting to shoehorn as much loaded dialogue as possible within the running time. There’s enough and more about the state of our nation’s healthcare, but there’s also a line about urban development on top of erstwhile water bodies, and a reference to jallikattu, and a nod to MGR, and a couple of references to Rajnikanth (not just the Thalapathy bit)… you get the idea.

Had the makers gone easy on the political commentary, paid a bit more attention to the script, and trimmed the bloated bits, they might have ended up with a shorter, better film, rather than an election rally with a plot. I for one would’ve liked to see that movie. 

ps: I wonder if in fact Vijay has no political aspirations, and decided to just f*** with us. If that turns out to be the case, I’ll upgrade my opinion of the film.

pps: The first film where I noticed Vijay making some sort of allusion to his political ambitions was, um, Sura. Make of that what you will.