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 not hit the ground at the same instant only if they were falling through a vaccuum. 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.

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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!

 

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.

Movie Review: 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…