Talking heads

Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interactions with contemporary Thamizh directors on Film Companion reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. When Al Pacino introduced Lumet as he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, he said, “The director directs.” But what does that entail, exactly? This is the question that drives the book, as also this series.

This similarity is most evident in his three part long conversation with Mani Ratnam, which goes into much depth about what instructions he gives to his cast and crew, and what he expects in return. Thanks to the fact that these two people have had a whole book’s worth of conversations prior to this one, there is a level of comfort that makes this one riveting. Irrespective of your opinion of Mani Ratnam’s films, here is a peek into a maker’s thought process, and it’s fascinating how much is revealed.

The two part conversation with Mysskin doesn’t have the same fluency, but that director’s clarity of vision is impossible to miss. Here is a director with such a distinct style that one is naturally inclined to wonder how his mind works. Mysskin doesn’t disappoint.

It also makes for a study in contrasting approaches. For instance, Mani Ratnam’s instructions to Rajeev Menon for a particular scene in Bombay are elliptic bordering on cryptic. Yet you can see how it translates to a certain approach to shooting the scene. Mysskin, on the other hand, does all but specify how the DoP should hold the camera when he writes a script.

Some of the episodes have had a lot more to do with other aspects on the periphery of filmmaking. The one with Vetrimaran, for instance, has to do with the mechanics of promoting a film at the Oscars. The one with Balaji Mohan has to do with the whys and wherefores of making a web series.

I wonder if Baradwaj Rangan’s training as an engineer has had anything to do with how these conversations have unfolded. He is anything but prosaic in his writing (which other critic would think of using a phrase like lysergic rainbow?), but his approach here is akin to that of someone taking apart a gadget to see how it works. From what I could discern, the makers have been willing to oblige. You don’t find yourself listening to a high-concept metaphorical exchange about “the creative process”.

Aside: The language has a big part to play in this — most of these directors are very fluent in English, so the content is not limited by their expressive power. I do hope that the series eventually expands to cover directors who would prefer to have this conversation in their mother tongue, maybe with a smattering of English thrown in. I am sure they have as much to say.

I also wonder if the opportunity to peek behind the curtain robs us of our ability to immerse ourselves in a film. The next time I watch a Mysskin film, would I be more conscious of where the camera is moving? (To be fair, I have wondered about this even with regard to my own habit of blogging about the movies.) Honestly, I am not sure. I suppose in a day and age where live-tweeting a review is a thing, this isn’t the biggest threat to the viewer’s attention that one needs to worry about.

Or maybe our perception of cinema is as much about its making as it is about the end product.  A viewer today is highly unlikely to watch Citizen Kane without having heard about it first, but that foreknowledge does not rob the film of its power. In fact, I think it enhances our appreciation of it. When I watch The Third Man, the knowledge that it was shot in the bombed out streets of Vienna gives the film an additional charge.

This is not to say that you should view cinema the same way. If you’re the kind of person who prefers not to know how panchamritam is made, then this is not for you. I for one hope that these people keep talking.

Wonder Woman

Much has been written about the fact that this is a film about a female superhero helmed by a woman, and about how this has brought a unique set of sensibilities to the genre. I have nothing further to contribute in this regard. I agree with the assessment in general, and I agree that it is a wonderful thing. (But since my favourite superhero movie still happens to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, you will forgive me if I don’t go into raptures about yet another movie that involves a lot of stuff going bang.)

That having been said, here are a few things I noticed:

There is obviously a feminist angle to the whole plot (how many really famous superheroines can you think of?), but what makes this one interesting to me is that this idea is presented through a different trope: fish-out-of-water. To Diana, this world, and its notion that the woman’s place is in the background, is simply alien. Her thrill at seeng babies and eating ice cream is endearing (Gal Gadot nails these portions). When she walks into a meeting where a bunch of old men are deliberating the armistice, her expression conveys that she cannot think of any conceivable reason why she shouldn’t be there. It’s like watching someone who would break the glass ceiling simply because, well, it was glass and she didn’t see it. (As a result, though, the line about slavery she tells Steve’s secretary Linda, funny as it is, feels out of place.)

The relationship between Diana and Steve is developed through gentle humour for the most part. There are moments when Diana’s naivete about the world, and about relationships between men and women, set things up for broad humour, and the film wisely sidesteps the obvious. The laughter comes from what isn’t said. (I was reminded of Bill Murray’s ageing comedian in Lost in Translation.) Chris Pine really excels in these scenes.

The scenes where Diana first encounters the horrors of World War I are a big misfire. Maybe this has to do with the fact that enough movies have laid bare the horrors of war (the long opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind). I can see the filmmaker’s dilemma — if the scenes work only at a superficial level, they feel fake, and if they work too well, they end up being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film — but there you have it.

Speaking of people dealing with wars, what works well is the performance of the two older supporting actors playing the Amazons Antiope and Hippolyta. Robin Wright’s lean face conveys such fierceness of expression that one wonders if she would’ve even been considered for the part, had she not done House of Cards before this. Her expressions provide a nice counterpoint to Connie Nielsen’s, which project a certain weariness of spirit (one imagines that this is the aged queen that her character in Gladiator might have grown to become). Those two by themselves provide a nice little commentary about living with the memories of an old war.

There are some interesting aspects to the visual strategy in the film. The backstory narrated by Hippolyta is pictured like it was a motion poster painted by Caravaggio. (I know that the art purists among you will throw up upon hearing this description, but hey, I couldn’t find a better analogy for it. Besides, which art purist reads my blog anyway?) Similarly, the fight sequences involve slow motion at crucial moments, like for instance when Wonder Woman is leaping into the air while attacking someone.

Why is this important? In both cases, the objective of adopting this strategy is to translate onto film, the way in which people think of these stories. When people hear about Greek myth, their internal frame of reference is Renaissance painting, because that is the best known depiction of these stories. When people think of action sequences involving comic book heroines, their internal frame of reference is comic book panels frozen in mid-action. The approach shows an active intelligence at work, and that is gratifying.

On the whole, I’m happy this film got made. It could’ve been better, but it does enough right to be worth a watch. Sort of like how a certain Diana, Princess of Themyscira, feels about mankind, I guess.

 

Hidden Figures: Per aspera ad astra!

A black woman in a plaid dress walks into a room full of white men in starched white shirts. She is Katherine Goble, a child prodigy who has been assigned to the Space Task Group at NASA owing to her skills at analytic geometry. In an ideal world, the first of these two sentences would be entirely irrelevant. But this is Virginia in the 1960s, so there you have it.

A bathroom break takes forty minutes because Katherine has to run ten blocks to a building that has a bathroom for colored women. When she helps herself to a mug of coffee from the coffee machine, there is a scandalized hush around the room. The next day, there is a separate coffee machine labeled colored kept on the same table. (When you see the two coffee machines, you realize why the term separate is not the same thing as equal.) Her immediate supervisor treats her with barely veiled contempt. Her name is redacted from every report she authors.

And yet, she is not cowed down. When the situation demands it, she speaks up. She goes around her immediate boss if need be, to ask for what she wants. She has a sympathetic boss-figure who recognizes her talent and has no time for petty nonsense, but the film is smart enough not to make it his crusade (one slightly shlocky scene involving bathroom signage notwithstanding).

Katherine is one of three women this film is about. There’s Mary Jackson, who needs to convince the court to desegregate night classes at a local high school so that she can eventually apply for an engineer trainee program (her conversation with the judge is a delight to watch). Then there’s Dorothy Vaughan, who supervises — in function, but not in title or pay — a group of computers, back when the term referred to people who did calculations by hand and calculating machines. Math doesn’t care about segregation, but organizations do, so African-American women computers had a separate division for themselves. (It is their bathroom that Katherine has to run all the way across the NASA compound to use.) Then NASA purchases an IBM mainframe machine. And when it does, Dorothy is among the first to realize what this represents, teaching herself and her subordinates FORTRAN so that they could write programs on the machine.

That these women face down, and surmount some pretty heavy odds is amazing in and as of itself. (In some cases, the opposition comes from white women as well, as in the case of Dorothy’s supervisor Vivian, with whom a late exchange about being treated equally is brief but incredibly loaded.) The beauty of this film is, it gives us a portrait of these vibrant, competent women who aren’t simply reduced to their struggle against a system that undervalues them at every turn. They lead full lives. You wonder if they wear their opposition down by sheer grace and force of will.

The incredible thing is how much wit and charm there is in the writing. The film opens with a shot of a car stranded on the road, with our three heroines in car. Well, Dorothy is underneath it, trying to fix it. A cop car pulls up. Our minds have been so conditioned by recent news items and old stories that we can feel ourselves clenching. But the women pull out their IDs and the surprised cop gives them an escort all the way to their workplace. “Three Negro women chasing a cop car on a highway in 1961. Now that’s a God ordained miracle,” exclaims Mary, the wiseass. The laugh comes so naturally, so explosively, you realize later that it’s because you’ve been holding your breath until then.

There is a moment late in Hidden Figures when Dorothy looks back at an empty room, on top of which is a signboard that says Colored Computers. Her facial features rearrange themselves into an ever-so-dismissive gesture that only an actress like Octavia Spencer can manage so wonderfully. The unspoken conversation between her and that signboard seems to be:

You can’t do that! <<That being, well, just about everything>>

Oh yeah? And who’s gonna stop me?

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!

 

Movie Review: Moana

By far the most refreshing thing about Moana is what it does not have: gender politics. The heroine, a plucky little girl born to the leader of a tribal chief on an island paradise, is expected to succeed her father. There’s no resentment on the part of anyone in the village on this count, nothing requiring her to fight preconceived notions around what a “woman’s job ought to be”. If anything, she is regarded as being equal to the task. It’s nice to see.

Given the target demographic for these films, there’s absolutely nothing surprising about this one as far as the overall story is concerned. Ten minutes into the film, you pretty much know how the rest of the story is likely to unfold.

Not that this is necessarily a disadvantage. When you watch a romcom, you don’t wonder if the hero and heroine would end up single or attached to someone else. You just focus on how entertaining it is until they get together in the end. You don’t expect big surprises, just little ones. It is no different with Disney’s animated features. The only difference is that you more or less demand that one of the characters ought to be improbably colorful.

Here, that role is played by Maui, an exiled  demigod whose redemption forms the crux of the story. The surprise is that he is voiced by Dwayne The Rock Johnson, who seems to have had more fun with this role than with anything he’s done in a while. His performance as a braggadocio with aspects of vulnerability plays off nicely against the earnestness of Auli’i Cravalho, who voices Moana.

That, sadly, is all there is to recommend this film. It is a safe, middle-of-the-road entertainer that children are likely to enjoy. My daughter did – – it was her first visit to a movie theater. Then again, it might have just been the popcorn. Hard to tell at that age. Which might be why Disney gets away with it.

Movie Review: Kodi

There is a scene at the beginning of the third act of Kodi when Dhanush’s mother, played by Saranya (she must, by now, consider this role about as routine as brushing her teeth) has a conversation with a major character. She starts off saying that she is not happy with what her son has become, but the end of her monologue is a line whose sole purpose is to introduce her son as a swashbuckling character who is now set to conquer his enemies and take on the world. How did she get there from I’m-not-happy-with-what-my-son-has-become? Saranya tries gamely to seem concerned while saying it, but to no avail.

The asinine, shape-shifting nature of the monologue serves to illustrate one of the key problems with Kodi. After a passable first act that introduces the characters and the setting (only the romantic subplot seems tacked on), and an utterly engrossing second act that involves some Machiavellian plotting on all sides, the film’s writer cops out of creating a plausible denouement, choosing instead to take what can charitably called the “mass” route. What could’ve become an engrossing character drama and a whodunit becomes a generic star vehicle.

What is infuriating isn’t what it is, but what it could’ve been. For around 45 minutes to an hour in the middle, the plotting is absolutely top-notch. Two political parties, neither of which can claim moral high ground, fight for power in a small constituency. The prime movers in the locality on both sides are youngsters who have grown up in the milieu — while they are on opposite sides of the ticket, they also happen to be lovers. There’s enough conflict of interest here to make some cement-company-cum-cricket-board executives salivate. This is about as tight a segment as you could hope to find in a political thriller.

And then the writers choose to screw the pooch by making it a mass hero movie. What a waste of plot, of characters, of a performer like Dhanush!

Not that this is the only problem with the film. Trisha gets an absolute peach of a role, but her performance doesn’t match up. Part of the problem is that she simply doesn’t look the part of a semi-urban political mastermind. Had that been all, it would’ve been okay, but it is more than just that. Her body language and dialogue delivery feel way too urbane and reserved. It doesn’t help that her chemistry with Dhanush feels like it would never lead to any biology. Trisha’s strength has been accuracy (a film like Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya hits her sweet spot); this role demands range.

There is a line that features in the trailer: Kodi… parakkutha? We are supposed to think of Rajni, I am guessing. Now, invoking a bad Rajni movie doesn’t seem like such a wise move to begin with. But more importantly, I’m just inclined to tell the filmmaker not to ask questions he won’t like the answer to.

Kabali

Warning: Here be spoilers

After a more-or-less obligatory, yet absolutely rousing introduction to its eponymous hero (Rajni pretty much defines the word ‘swag’), Kabali parachutes us into the middle of a plot that has been unfolding for over twenty five years. We hear names of characters, get snatches of dialogue and flashback scenes that tell us who they are, but it doesn’t help. While it is admirable to avoid having the characters tell each other what they both know just so the audience would understand what’s going on, I found myself having considerable difficulty following the plot.

The immersion is not just into this story but also into this milieu — the Tamilian community in Malaysia. This whole section is not without its rewards, but is hamstrung by a severe lack of two things: narrative fluidity and the ability to evoke a sense of empathy with this community. It feels as though there is a story here that requires a more old-fashioned treatment than the one we get.

It is close to the end of the first act, in an extended interaction between Kabali and an assembled group of youngsters, that the pieces fall into place. This whole sequence, involving a Q&A interspersed with flashbacks, is so effective that one wonders whether the man who could conceive of something like this is the same man who made the 30-odd minutes preceding it.

This entire sequence, and the few scenes that follow, are a prelude to a quiet and surprisingly affecting second act, a lot of which is set in India. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Yennai Arindhaal, in the way a leading man puts away his gun in order to focus on something else equally valuable to him. Rajni’s performance here is a thing of beauty — you still see the man you know, but his transition from dreaded gangster to family man feels utterly natural.

And yet, that is not all there is to this segment. Upon landing in Chennai and Kabali makes a comment about how he is first since his grandfather to set foot in India. You wonder for a moment what conditions would have driven the old man, and so many like him, to take up the job of wage labourers in a plantation in a faraway land. You wonder how they would’ve dealt with that strange land with its own language and customs, how they would’ve tried to make a home there, tried to find their own slice of happiness. And you wonder if these visitors from Malaysia realize that they are going through the same process in reverse, back in the land of their forefathers.

The idyll is interrupted by yet another fight sequence, one that heralds the beginning of the last act where Kabali takes care of business once and for all. This section isn’t any more violent than the average gangster saga, but for a Rajni movie it feels positively blood-soaked. It is also, sadly, the weakest portion of the film. Apart from wrapping things up, there is hardly anything here to admire here. The ending especially feels tacked on. It is not implausible given the world these characters inhabit, but it feels less like an organic development and more like a nod to an earlier, acclaimed film involving another man who rose from humble origins as part of a Tamil community in another place to become a dreaded gangster.

The trouble with watching any Rajni starrer, especially one with the kind of pre-release hype this one has come with, is that it is difficult to divorce the experience of seeing Rajni from the experience of seeing this film. A lot of it has to do with the gravitational field of the superstar, which bends space, time, screenplays and performances around him.

By far the most interesting thing about Kabali is that the relativistic effect of Rajni is kept to a minimum. There are scenes that pander to the screaming audiences, but we’re not simply watching an awestruck director paying homage to a star he’s grown up worshipping. We’re watching a storyteller with a point of view and a lot of things to say, and there’s not a lot of room for hero worship on that agenda.

And that, unfortunately, is also what makes this such a problematic film. Ranjith wants to tell the story of a gangster trying to regain his place after coming back from prison, and an old man searching for relevance. But he also wants the film to be about this place, these people, this subculture of Tamilians who have lived in Malaysia for generations and are still clawing their way up a long, slippery slope.

It is possible to make a good, even great film that is about all these things and have Rajni in it. But this film is not it. But if Kabali‘s most egregious fault is that its conception is not matched by its execution, that is not such a bad thing.

ps: Oh, and there’s a sly little Iron Man reference. And in a Rajni movie at that. Especially apropos, don’t you think?