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?

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?

Thani Oruvan

After an intriguing opening sequence, Thani Oruvan settles down to the serious business of making us want to throw up. There is only so much hero glorification nonsense that I can take, and this film reaches that quota in fifteen minutes. It’s not that the guy isn’t smart, or that the tricks he uses to catch criminals aren’t interesting. It’s the way his adoring friends keep talking about his greatness that gets to me. What part of “show, not tell” does this filmmaker not understand?

Then a funny thing happens. The villain comes into view. While the hero is smart and boring, this guy is smart and interesting. It helps immensely, I think, that the villain is played by Aravind Swamy. Our cinema is no stranger to suave villains, but the suavity is so often of the overblown, put-on variety that it is a relief to see the real article.

Once the film shifts its focus to the cat and mouse game between the hero and the villain, we’re off to the races. There is some bang-bang to be sure (this is a cop drama, after all), but most of the action is cerebral. The feral edge of something like Yennai Arindhaal is missing here, but this is not necessarily a drawback.

There is a line that appears in the beginning: Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are. The film seems to take this idea very seriously, in ways that are sometimes obvious (the hero and the villain ‘choose’ each other to do battle with) and sometimes not so much.

Much of what makes the film’s latter portions work is the fact that each of these two characters begin to see themselves a lot more clearly as a result of the other’s existence and actions. It’s surprising how much introspection there is for a film in this genre. There is a tendency to get a bit too cute (like right at the end), but this is still much better writing than average.

Sometimes, films that focus on the need that heroes and villains have for each other end up losing a bit of perspective. Both characters have bigger fish to fry than obsess about each other (although to be fair, it takes a while for one of them to realize this, and that too only after someone else points it out to him). That sort of clear-headedness is as rare as it is gratifying.

Love is probably the one thing most explored in cinema, and it is a potent enough feeling to deserve that. There is, however, another very potent emotion that is often underrated but especially comes into focus in a cop drama: respect. It is the reason why the centerpiece of Michael Mann’s Heat is a quiet conversation between a cop (Al Pacino) and a thief (Robert De Niro) over coffee in a diner. We get enough films where the hero and the villain shout variations of “Aaaeei!” at each other. A lot more than enough, actually. So, when a couple of smart people face off against each other, we are instantly riveted.

Whatever the film’s title might lead you to believe, this is a duet, not a solo. And that might be the best reason to watch it.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

I got robbed, I tell you.

A few years ago, when I wrote a review of MI4 (not to be confused with the smartphone model — this one’s more expensive, and that one won’t do too well hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa), I wrote about Ethan Hunt’s hypothetical dilemma: would there be a mission he’d look at and say, “Nah, I think I’ll sit this one out, man.”

And early on in this film, Ethan finds his mission description in a record store, and the message is a wicked little riff on the usual format.

In my review of the earlier movie, I wrote of the missed opportunity in not casting Vadivelu (to be fair, I said that about Citizen Kane as well).

And in this film, you have Simon Pegg playing a sidekick who is dropped into a bunch of situations where he finds himself in grave danger (is there any other kind in this franchise?). They didn’t get the great man himself, but they certainly infused the film with his spirit.

So you see, someone somewhere owes me a lot of money. Not that I’ll ever get paid. (My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to get a percentage of the gross rather than contribute to it in a miniscule fashion. And I’m choosing to sit this one out.)

But protestations of theft aside, here’s what I think. I think the franchise is a victim of its own success.

The first film did laughable things with computers and the Internet, but had absolutely kick-ass sequences (most memorably, a scene where the Hunt tries to get into a secure computer by hanging from the ceiling), and a plot so labyrinthine that it looked like Picasso wrote it after eating a few too many magic mushrooms.

So the sequel-makers had to ask themselves, how do I top that? You can’t make the plot any more complex if you want anyone to watch it, so what’s left is upping the ante on things going bang. And it’s not just the earlier films in the franchise you have to outdo: it’s every other franchise in the same race. The second one didn’t do so well on that count and the third was no better. The fourth managed a couple of truly impossible feats (hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa and driving fast through Mumbai rush hour traffic), and added a dollop of humour to what was becoming an increasingly sombre series.

The success of the fourth film (not to mention someone’s blog posts), must’ve given the makers an idea: maybe humour is the answer. So you have a, um… plot as usual, but Simon Pegg has a lot more to do and Jeremy Renner gets a nice bit part that allows him to deliver straight lines with wonderful comic effect.

Which is good, because the action has skipped past impossible to ridiculous. There’s probably a whole batch of JEE aspirants solving the physics problems in these movies rather than focusing on Irodov like they usually do. It’s not that I found it implausible – that’s never the driving factor. I simply got bored.

I gotta give them points for one thing, though: the use of the word “torus” instead of “ring” in a particular context. I don’t know if it sounds any cooler, but it certainly makes it easier for those JEE aspirants, and allows me to me hold out hope that the next MI film will have a computer hidden in a Klein bottle.

And if that actually happens in the next film, I’m definitely suing. Or writing a blog post, whichever sounds more possible.

OK Kanmani

Let’s start with the meet cute at a church wedding — it is a rom-com after all. They recognize each other from a brief glimpse at the railway station some days ago. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, so their initial few lines are whispered and mimed. He asks her for her phone number.

Notice how she hesitates for just a second before she goes ahead and mimes it to him by putting up nine fingers, then three and so on. Watch how their subsequent whispered conversation over the phone involves exchanging cynical statements about marriage — you sense that their relish comes at least in part from the fact that they’re having this conversation at a wedding.

Observe how PC Sreeram shoots the scene, focusing on one while blurring the other as they exchange witticisms, as if to indicate how, at this stage in their relationship, the focus is still singular, not plural. This is the first of many sequences in the film where the visual strategy plays a big part in how Mani tells the story, and the kind of conscious thought that seems to have gone into the picturization is one of the highlights of the film. A key conversation in the end happens in the midst of a downpour. Using the rains to provide percussion to the emotions unfolding on screen is nothing new, but rarely have I seen it done so skilfully.

Listen to how the characters speak and observe the conscious strategy there. The older characters speak in fuller, longer sentences while the younger ones seem to be having a spoken conversation that might as well have been on Twitter or Whatsapp.

There is much straight talking in evidence. When Adi’s sister-in-law confronts Tara with the evidence that they’re in a live-in relationship and asks “What’s happening here?”, she responds with “Blackmail, it looks like. Why are you having this conversation with me instead of with him?”

And yet, the plot is about how straight talking is not always the same as real honesty. There is a moment late in the film between an older couple (played wonderfully by Prakash Raj and Leela Samson), where she is told that she has Alzheimer’s and asks a simple, wrenching question. For the younger couple watching them through a crack in the door, that kind of emotional honesty is almost too much to bear even listening to.

It is only after they reach a certain level of physical exhaustion that they find that they no longer have the mental energy to expend in walling themselves off from each other or even themselves. The last half hour is a thing of beauty, in its construction as well as execution.

This is a film that does so much so gloriously right.

And yet I walked out of the movie theatre feeling a tad underwhelmed. I felt like a narrative of this size might have worked better with a shorter running time. All those repeated shots of the couple canoodling all over a gorgeously shot Mumbai felt a bit like a relentless Instagram feed from a cute couple who look good together, but need to ease off on the sharing. The abbreviated Mani Ratnam-speak between the lead pair got a bit tiring after a while. I found myself longing for adult conversation. I couldn’t wait for them to get home so that I could see more of Prakash Raj and Leela Samson.

I found myself imagining a film with roughly the same overall plot, but where the screen time given to the two couples was more or less reversed. More to the point, I found myself wanting to see that movie instead.

Maybe, like the Danny Glover character says in every Lethal Weapon movie, I’m getting too old for this shit.

Kashmir: Two narratives, one tragedy

I recently finished reading Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Together with Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, it makes for traumatic – and dare I say necessary – reading about a beautiful region mutilated by gunfire.

Peer’s is the older book, and in some sense the better written of the two. (Not that the quality of the writing is what I was looking for in the first place anyway.) He does a good job of detailing how militancy seemed like a perversely “glamorous” option to a while bunch of kids back then, and how those same kids grew into bitter, traumatised adults (or sometimes didn’t even make it that far).

It is also true that some of them became militants along the way — the casualness with which the phrase “attacking army convoys” is bandied about is a little galling sometimes, to be honest. As traumatised as some of them were, as much as they might have considered themselves freedom fighters, it is also true that they were fighting a guerrilla war that cost lives on both sides. Peer does mention this (there is an interesting section late in the book where he finds himself hesitant to ask a friend and former militant whether he had ever killed anyone), but his focus is on the everyday reality of living in a war zone, and this reality impacts both those who took to the gun as well as those who did not.

Pandita’s book, on the other hand, is written from the point of view of a community that was exiled from their own land as a result of this struggle. Much of the recent critical discourse around this book seems to be centered around the precise factual accuracy of what has been written (“such-and-such couldn’t have happened the way he says it did because…”). Or its one sided portrayal (“what about what happened to the Muslims left behind in Kashmir?”). Or the politics (too complex to merit a summary in parentheses).

Truth be told, I have no basis to comment on the factual accuracy of his account. Or for that matter Peer’s. However, I strongly suspect that, barring maybe some specifics, the general story is probably correct. “It sounds true” doesn’t seem like much, I know. But consider this: With any conflict of this nature and this magnitude, every narrative we hear is going to have its own set of issues.A chronicler might find it surprisingly difficult to get people to agree on whether a particular event happened, and if so, when and where. And this is before we even get to who did what and why. Perhaps the deeply personal ones, even with their alleged inaccuracies, are the ones best trusted.

As far as the one sided nature of these accounts goes, isn’t that the whole point of a personal narrative? For either party to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, we first have to agree that the shoes cannot – should not – be made by committee.

Both stories need to be told. Both stories need to be heard.

History is complex. It cannot be otherwise. But historical accounts, for lack of a better option, have to simplify the narrative to some extent. We have to trust in the collective wisdom of historians to not oversimplify, but I suspect, sadly, that we will be disappointed. But at least today, we have the choice of absorbing as much of the complexity of what is happening around us as our brains would allow. Like reading Curfewed Night and Our Moon Has Blood Clots.