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…


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?

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Freeze Frame #162: Ardh Satya

The scene begins with a date at a restaurant, and Anant Velankar (Om Puri) reading out poetry to Jyotsna (Smita Patil). They get to one of her favourite poems: Ardh Satya, by Dilip Chitre.

When he finishes the first stanza, he looks up at her and smiles briefly. He’s still on a date, and this is still an enjoyable pastime. But watch how the context changes for him internally as he proceeds: by the third or fourth stanza, he is no longer on a date. The words are beginning to strike home.

Shifting gears emotionally in the middle of reading something out is not an entirely unheard-of phenomenon in the movies. But for me, this ranks among the best.

Is it the brilliance of those lines? Or the mesmeric nature of Om Puri’s voice as he transforms Velankar’s reading of someone else’s words into something deeply autobiographical? Or Smita Patil’s stillness as Jyotsna realizes that, at this moment, all she can do is watch this man try to come to terms with his own demons?

The poem is recited again right at the end, in a voiceover. Just to remind you that what you have witnessed is an ending, not a resolution.

Roger Ebert often used to say that the quality of a film is determined not so much by what it is about, but by how it is about it. Here is a gritty drama about an angry, honest cop dealing with a corrupt system. And even if you watch it today, over three decades and many such films later, it feels like a punch to the gut. To me, this poem is why it does.


I suppose I ought to begin this review with a disclaimer of sorts: My views on God and religion are nobody else’s business but mine.

A while ago, I wrote about Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, and how his strategy for satire was to approach our world through the eyes of characters in a very different one. So the things that we take for granted look strange, even funny to them. And we laugh at ourselves with them.

It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if Terry Pratchett were to have written a novel about people on Discworld discovering/inventing the concept of God and religion. Alas, even in Discworld, this would be a bridge too far, so he assumed that Gods did exist in Discworld, and wrote one about God, faith and religion. It was titled Small Gods, and it remains one of the most interesting and deeply humanistic novels I have read.

Rajkumar Hirani starts with the hypothetical question I just raised: what would an alien make of our belief in God? He strands an alien — the eponymous PK — on earth and leaves him to discover all these concepts in his own way. At some point, someone tells him that God alone can help him, a phrase he takes quite literally. Hence his search for God. And just as our first experience of God is typically not with the abstract concept of an omniscient deity but with the practice of worship through whichever religion we were brought up in, this is what this alien encounters as well. The story follows his arc of discovery, belief, disillusionment and eventual insight. And since this is a Rajkumar Hirani film, the story is told with a certain amount of sweetness and light.

Just to be clear: the film does not have a problem with the idea of God, or even with the idea of religion per se. Its beef is with the way it is practiced, and how our rituals have replaced belief with mindless routine, and how cynical Godmen have found a way to exploit our need for hope in an increasingly chaotic world. This is not a new idea by any means, nor for that matter is the solution offered by our intrepid alien. Personally, I don’t think it’s offensive, but then again, I’m a lot harder to offend so what do I know?

Having said that, I do write a film-related blog, so there is much that offends me when it comes to the movies.

The idea of using PK’s naivete to expose some of the problems we have with religion is not a bad one. Trouble is, what might work as a decent short story feels stretched at feature length. What he learns about the subject and what he deduces seem to be driven, not by plausibility, but by what the script demands at that point, or what seems like an entertaining thing to put in. Somewhere, one begins to feel like the string-pulling is a bit too obvious.

Take a scene at a church: Our hero, having just discovered Hinduism, now walks into a church service, incense sticks and coconut in hand. Their reaction is predictably one of horror, so he gets thrown out. And one of the angry churchgoers ushering him out says to him, “He died for your sins.” To which our man’s response is, “But I just got here!”

Trouble is, I can’t think of a plausible reason why a conversation between these two people would’ve gotten to that exchange at all. Not within a minute of someone attempting to break a coconut at the altar during Sunday mass. That conversation exists simply so that the punchline could exist. And that, I am afraid, is simply bad writing.

Not that the film is all bad. There are moments of beauty in there. And although the film doesn’t have the serrated edge of Oh My God, it is not entirely devoid of bite. One of the first things the alien encounters is a man playing a song on a portable cassette player in the middle of a desert. The song? Altaf Raja’s Tum to thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaaoge? The story starts with this man stealing the alien’s “ET Call Home” device, leaving him with the cassette player.

Ignore for a moment, the very idea of a naked alien stranded in a hot desert with an Altaf Raja song for company. (Your homework assignment after you finish reading this blog post is to come up with at least three punchlines to describe this situation.)

Instead, consider this: Is the alien the pardesi? Or, from his standpoint, are we the outsiders? Or is it God, whom we shut out through our own pettiness?

There is a line towards the end that goes something like: We taught him how to lie. We did indeed.