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!

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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…

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.

 

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.

 

Akhil: The Power of Jua

This isn’t a review. I am not going to provide a critical analysis of the buried subtext and reflexive postmodernism inherent in the film. (No, I don’t know what reflexive postmodernism is, and quite honestly, I don’t even know if the term makes sense. Why the eff are you even asking?)

I am simply going to narrate what I saw one night when I was working with the TV on. I switched to the channel playing this only after two thirds of the film was over, so I might have missed much of what makes this a great film. That is why I am not calling this a review — I can’t truly review something I haven’t fully seen. I save that sort of nonsense for work.

So this guy — the Akhil of the title — and his girlfriend and a couple of comic sidekicks are stranded in Africa. There’s a tribe on one side and some kind of warlord on the other. The girl’s dad is there as well, but I’m not sure which side he’s on, and I’m not sure he knows either. Anyway, it turns out that there is some precious artifact — the Jua of the title — that has been dropped into a lake somewhere, and needs to be rescued and returned to some shrine maintained by the tribe before the solar eclipse, otherwise the earth will be destroyed. (It’s always solar — lunar eclipses happen so often that if we risked the planet every time we had one, sooner or later the odds won’t work in our favour and we’ll no longer be around to make movies like Akhil – The Power of Jua.) And our intrepid hero has to be the one to find it.

Oh, and the warlord wants it as well, on behalf of some Russian gangster who I assume is willing to pay handsomely for it. Clearly, imminent destruction of the planet doesn’t faze said mafioso. I’m assuming he has a condo in Mars waiting for him. I’m sure it was covered while I was watching Sooryavansham instead of switching to this channel. But he looks like the kind of guy who would grow potatoes using his own crap and then make vodka out of them.

So our hero goes to the lake and dives in. Now, because this is the sort of artifact that can destroy the planet, a school of piranhas have migrated to Africa to guard it at the bottom of the lake. I briefly wondered how they got there, and the obvious answer that sprung to mind was that they piggybacked on an African swallow, which then led me to wonder about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow… But I digress.

So, piranhas. African warlords don’t get to where they are without some knowledge of diversionary tactics, so they throw a cow into the water to distract the fish. (Where’s a good gau rakshak when you need one, the cow would’ve probably thought, except I think it was dead before it got dropped in.) Our man makes use of the distraction to go find the artifact and then… I don’t remember exactly, but I think he pivots on some branch and jumps out. Then of course he fights off the Russian on a plane and jumps out before it could crash into an active volcano.

The properly thankful tribal chief takes the artifact back to its shrine and places it on top of an inverted tripod-like stand just before sunlight can stream in and the photons can notice that the orb isn’t there. There’s actually a moment when they’re racing a beam of light and placing the orb just before the beam can hit the tripod. And I’m obviously sitting there thinking, if the photons got there just ahead of the tribals and noticed that the orb wasn’t there, could they make up some excuse involving Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?

I didn’t get a lot of work done that night, but I did google piranhas and swallows and Heisenberg. It was all very informative. Now I have to watch the rest of the film in order to see what else I can learn. Trouble is, I keep getting distracted by Sooryavansham and Indra the Tiger and Ek Aur Most Wanted and…

I suppose I should be thankful that the fate of the planet doesn’t rest on my easily distracted shoulders. You could put the orb in a bucket in my bathroom and ask a guppy fish to guard it, and the earth would be swallowed by a black hole while I’m still ooh-ing and aah-ing over Ravi Teja’s dance moves.

Movie Review: Dangal

There’s a quiet exchange between Mahavir Singh Phogat and his wife where talks about the difficulty of being a coach and a parent. I can’t be a parent when I’m being a coach, he says. That the world expects him to be a parent and not a coach matters little to him. He is clear-eyed about the choice he has made, though: Inka kasoor sirf yeh hai ki inka baap baawla hai, he says at one point.

This isn’t the only subversion of traditionally assigned roles in this story. The girls’ cousin Onkar is drafted to cook and clean and help out – “woman’s work” in the world they inhabit. Given that the girls are busy subverting gender roles themselves by becoming wrestlers, why not. And thus it is that a man bulldozes a path for his daughters through the thicket of patriarchy with single minded obsession. And the world mostly lets him because, well, nobody has the guts to tell him otherwise. That a story like this is told more entertainingly than earnestly (the lyrics to Haanikarak Bapu bring the house down) is a little miracle in and as of itself.

The world of high level sports is replete with examples of parents who put their children through the wringer in order to get them to achieve their potential as sportspersons.  What makes this man’s situation interesting is that it could be argued (and is, by one of the characters) that this is a less horrible choice than being a traditional parent and all that it entails. Does that excuse his behaviour?

I, personally, am on the fence. The makers of the film, however, know where their sympathies lie. Consider the conversations among the people watching the first competitive wrestling match that Geeta participates in. One man worries that her t-shirt might be torn in the fight. His companion is practically salivating in anticipation of this outcome. The creepiness of this setting, the casual misogyny, is appalling.

The makers are telling you: Had Mahavir simply wanted to rebel just a little bit against this system, he and his daughters would’ve probably been squashed like bugs. He had to go big. (Not that his crusade was about gender equality. It was about making his children internationally successful wrestlers. Patriarchy was just collateral damage.)

It is because the first half is such a thing of beauty that some of the machinations in the second half feel ham-fisted in comparison. For a while, there is much promise even here. Geeta discovers that there is a world outside where she can be a world class wrestler, but grow out her hair and wear nail polish if she wants to. That this puts her at odds with her disciplinarian father is but natural.There’s a scene where she wrestles with her father that sets the standard for how something like this should be shot.

You can see here, all the elements of a wonderful story about a helicopter parent learning to let go. And by focusing on that story, the makers could’ve also told the story of Geeta and Babita Kumari Phogat transitioning from a world where he needed to be this kind of parent to a world where he did not, and how both worlds existed but a bus ride from each other.

Instead, you get saddled with an additional subplot about a petty, vindictive coach whose methods and strategies are at odds with that of the father. You get the tired old sports movie cliche about the old timer whose methods are proven right. You can hear the plot machinery creaking so loudly here that it drowns out the dialogue. (Even dialogue like that little gem of a cricketing analogy.)

But to be honest, I find myself less bothered by its flaws than I normally would. A day after watching the movie, my memories are primarily focused on what it does right. And there’s plenty of that to cheer about.

ps: The scene with the national anthem — has there been a better instance of its use as a cinematic device? Well played!