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.

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.

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.

Freeze Frame #165: Anjali

Now, it’s no secret that this is one of my least favourite Mani Ratnam films. He got some things gloriously right, but I found it a touch too melodramatic, the kids a touch too annoying (and I wasn’t much older when it came out), the Revathy character a touch too whiny… I didn’t walk away from the film with the warm and fuzzies, and that has nothing to do with the fact that the eponymous character dies at the end.

Okay, it does a little bit. Here’s what I wrote some years ago:

And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Ratnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

But it did have a few knock-out moments, my favourite being the scene where Arjun, the elder child, bonds with Anjali. This occurs in the aftermath of a fight where Arjun gets into a scrap with some kids in the neighbourhood who have been harassing Anjali. It would be easy to interpret his actions as “Ah, so he does love his newfound little sister”, but I think it’s probably a bit more and less than that. There’s a bit of an impulse to do the right thing, a bit of whatever-my-issues-she’s-still-my-sister… However he feels about her, he hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged it.

That comes when he sees how Anjali reacts to his injuries. The way I state it, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how perfectly that little scene works.

Watch how he sees her as though for the first time, beyond whatever preconceived notions he had up until then about this “different” little kid who seems to have turned his life upside down. (It’s not as dramatic as that in reality, but wouldn’t it have seemed like that to him?) His reaction is the first time a character in the film deals with his or her prejudice and defeats it. The rest of the film is mostly just about the others following suit. It is, in my opinion, the scene most emblematic of the film’s central theme.

However, the reason why this scene has been on my mind recently has nothing to do with pride or prejudice. You see, my daughter recently bit my leg hard while throwing a tantrum. And even now, several days later, she keeps pointing to the place where the remainder of a scab is still barely visible, looks a bit remorseful and gives it a quick kiss.

What’s that line by Dr. Seuss about the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes at Christmas?

Freeze Frame #164: Kalakalappu

Writing a good screwball comedy sequence is like solving an n-body problem in Newtonian mechanics. But tougher — physics doesn’t have to worry about making you laugh.

My favourite by far is the one towards the end in Michael Madana Kama Rajan where pretty much every other Kamal Hassan character is pretending to be Madan. But a more recent sketch that has been climbing the charts is the car chase in Kalakalappu.

Here’s the setup: Vettipuli (Santhanam) wishes to marry Madhavi (Anjali). Madhavi wishes to marry Seenu (Vimal), and the two decide to elope — it all goes south, and he ends up having to take Madhavi’s grandfather hostage in order to escape Vettipuli and his goons. Marudamuthu (Manobala) wishes to get his daughter to marry Vettipuli, and decides that kidnapping Madhavi would solve the problem. He thinks, however, that Seenu is Vettipuli’s friend.

All of these bodies carom around for around 10 minutes of inspired hilarity, in three cars that keep going around a few village streets. It plays out so smoothly that it takes a while to realize the skill that must’ve gone into the writing.

Freeze Frame #163: The Newsroom

The trouble with being an insufferable churl about word choices is that the universe, yourself included, pisses you off on an almost hourly basis. (It’d be a helluva lot more frequent if I actually paid attention to what went on around me.)

But then, this scene comes along, like some kind of cosmic gesture of solidarity. That it comes in the middle of an immensely problematic third and final season suggests that the Department of Cosmic Gestures is staffed with beings possessing an overdeveloped sense of irony.

One wishes they’d greenlight a spin off about the early days of Atlantis Cable News. I for one would happily look forward to watching it if Aaron Sorkin solemnly promised, in the name of Archimedes, to insert enough volume of Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston to displace the batshit.