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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Mersal

Okay, let me get this out of the way: I went to see Mersal because I had heard that Vadivelu was in it. Thirty seconds into the film, I felt like I had received my money’s  worth. He doesn’t get a full fledged comic role or a parallel track, just a regular supporting role with the odd zinger (the one about digital india is a hoot). While he doesn’t bring the house down every time we see him, just Vadivelu back on screen feels good. 

The film itself isn’t great cinema, or great masala, but it isn’t a train wreck either. It’s okay in parts, a bloated mess in others, and by far the most entertaining aspect for me was the easter egg hunt (i.e., looking for political statements in the dialogue — not that there was much hunting required per se) .

I am more amused than annoyed by the current brouhaha surrounding the film and its comments on GST, digital india and what not. Some “factoids” mentioned in Vijay’s big speech are not quite accurate. (Alcohol, for instance, is taxed pretty heavily.) But the sound and fury against the film has only served to drive up its popularity: if Vijay is getting a percentage of the gross, and does take the plunge in the near future, the BJP can take credit for at least partially bankrolling his political career. (To be honest, the overheated reactions of one of Tamil Nadu’s BJP leaders reminds me of a story told in Thani Oruvan — I will leave you to look up the reference for yourself.)

But let us set aside what has been happening off screen and focus on the film for a bit. 

While the plot has pretty strong shades of Aboorva Sagotharargal, it is Shankar’s filmography and cinematic sensibilities that I was more often reminded of. While AS was fashioned as a revenge drama, this one wants to make bigger points about cleaning up a corrupt system (in this case, healthcare), and Vijay is the vigilante who does the job. The reference to his mentor is even called out explicitly in the dialogue.

Another example that springs to mind: the background score in one of the film’s flashback scenes  sounds eerily similar to the one that precedes Pachai kiligal in Shankar’s Indian, and plays over a similar context (the flashback details a grave injustice done to one of the characters, itself a Shankar trope).

The dogged cop on the trail of the vigilante is there, too. Except in this case, this character might as well have been part of the furniture for all the work he gets to do. But compared to the “romantic subplots”, he practically gets a plum role. Kajal Agarwal could’ve been left out of the film entirely. Samantha has one scene involving rose milk that just about sputters to life in contrast, then nothing. (On the other hand, the Nithya Menen character is a joy to behold. Thirty seconds into her entry, I found myself smiling. Her chemistry with Vijay has a lot to do with why a long flashback late in the film still feels light on its feet.) 

This is not to say that the film is just a pastiche of Shankar-isms and thin characterisations. While I didn’t care much for Raja Rani, Atlee has, over the course of his two Vijay films, shown that he understands how to craft a good masala moment, even if he sometimes doesn’t know when to stop. A scene involving an Indian doctor saving a French woman, for instance, is well conceived but undone by its ending.

In some other cases, he gets it exactly right. There’s a scene involving the death of a little girl that has all the moral outrage of a Shankar flashback, but without the wretched excess. One where Vijay describes how he met and married Nithya Menen is outstandingly well done.  (I suspect it would have been just as good, had he toned down the depiction of the C-section a bit, but I see what he was going for.) 

What he also understands is that the villain needs to be big enough for a film of this nature. While SJ Suryaah might not seem like the obvious choice, he turns out to be a good one. Since Iraivi reintroduced him as a character actor, he seems to be having a lot more fun on screen. He was creepier in Spyder than he is here (and that is more a function of the characterization than his acting), and his mannered brand of villainy brings back memories of Thengai Srinivasan, but he doesn’t torpedo the film.

As for Vijay, well… when you sign Vijay, you get Vijay. It must be admitted, though, that while the man sticks to a template, he seems to have upgraded his template since Thuppakki or so. The odd Bairavaa notwithstanding, it seems to be working for him. He gets to do more speechifying in this film than usual, which I suppose is a result of someone (the writers, director, star, who knows?) wanting to shoehorn as much loaded dialogue as possible within the running time. There’s enough and more about the state of our nation’s healthcare, but there’s also a line about urban development on top of erstwhile water bodies, and a reference to jallikattu, and a nod to MGR, and a couple of references to Rajnikanth (not just the Thalapathy bit)… you get the idea.

Had the makers gone easy on the political commentary, paid a bit more attention to the script, and trimmed the bloated bits, they might have ended up with a shorter, better film, rather than an election rally with a plot. I for one would’ve liked to see that movie. 

ps: I wonder if in fact Vijay has no political aspirations, and decided to just f*** with us. If that turns out to be the case, I’ll upgrade my opinion of the film.

pps: The first film where I noticed Vijay making some sort of allusion to his political ambitions was, um, Sura. Make of that what you will.

 

Spyder

Warning: Here be spoilers

I walked out of Spyder sick to the stomach in a number of ways. It took me a while to process my reaction and realize that I had a problem with a lot of things, only some of which are about the film itself. In order to talk about this, I will have to reveal some spoilers, so if you have a problem with this, please stop reading right now. But if you are going to watch the film, please, for the love of God, don’t take your kids to see it. You’ll understand why when you see it.

So, here goes.

The hero works for the intelligence bureau, in an illegal wire tapping division that has been set up for the public good. He decides to use this to eavesdrop on a bunch of private conversations and plays vigilante. Or to be more precise, he stops crimes before they occur after having listened to phone conversations that involve the perpetrators discussing the crime beforehand.

One night, he eavesdrops on a conversation between two medical college students. One of them talks about how she stumbled upon some porn and ended up watching it for four straight hours, and now needs to get laid. So obviously he decides to go meet this girl. After a bit of stalking, they end up as friends with benefits. (I am not going to describe the scene where they have a conversation about this with the hero’s mum.) 

Am I the only one who finds this plot thread problematic? Why have a (ahem) romantic subplot at all in a film about a vigilante phone tapper on the hunt for a serial killer? And if you do feel compelled to have one due to commercial considerations or whatever, could you please, pretty please with sugar on top, go easy on the whatthefuckery?

The serial killer plot, though, has some  interesting aspects. There’s a pretty interesting origin story there: he is born in a crematorium, and needs to hear the wails of people mourning the loss of their loved ones in order to feel alive. So at some point he becomes a serial killer himself. SJ Suryaah plays the villain with such palpable relish that he walks away with much of the film. 

But here’s my problem, and this is not with the film but with something peripheral. I walked out to the loo at the interval, sometime after this origin story was told, and noticed that the hall had a whole bunch of parents who had brought their kids. I’m not talking about teenagers, I’m talking about eight year olds and the like. And I realized that the aforementioned whatthefuckery in the film couldn’t even hold a candle to this. 

My first reaction was, why on earth would you bring your kids to this. I understand that you don’t want them to stick to talking animals until they go to college, but come on! Then I realized that the film got a U/A certificate, which means that, if you’re under 12, parental guidance is advised. So if this certification is how a filmgoer decides whether or not to take his kids, then the certification process as well as how it is enforced needs fixing. 

I’m not talking about censorship here, just the idea that if a film has content that is only suitable for mature audiences, the certifying body has a responsibility to inform filmgoers of this, and the theatres screening the film have a responsibility to ensure that kids don’t get in. 

Why is this so difficult?

Honestly, I found it difficult to care about the rest of the film after this. 

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a bad film, but I left the theater feeling a tad underwhelmed.

The trouble with the franchise is, the buried themes it seems to want to explore have been done already in other sci-fi blockbuster franchises, most notably the X-Men.  Which makes it a problem because, once you take away the commentary on real life, what is left is mainly motion capture, CGI and stuff going bang.

The latter two, I’m  heartily sick of at this point. I’m sure D. W. Griffith thought he was simplifying matters when he said, “What do filmgoers want? A girl and a gun.” I just wish he had specified an upper bound on the guns as well. (We could do with more women, though, preferably in roles of substance.)

The motion capture, on that other hand, is still somewhat fascinating. I spent the entire movie watching Caesar and imagining what Andy Serkis’ actual facial expressions would’ve been. I wonder if he might be one of the great underrated actors of our time.

In its quieter moments, the film is not without its little pleasures. Steve Zahn plays a talking ape who has managed to survive alone in the wilderness, and while much of his role is written for laughs, his first line in the film is so tinged with pathos that I found myself profoundly moved.

The other thing that worked for me was the passing references to older films and books. The story, for instance,  is about Caesar’s mission into human territory to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the insane Colonel I-don’t-think-his-name-is-mentioned. Woody Harrelson even has a monologue that reminds one a bit of Col Stryker in the X-Men, but more immediately evokes Col Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Harrelson’s performance is pitched somewhere in between these two characters –  you see traces of Marlon Brando’s resigned tone as well as Brian Cox’s mania. (On a side note, any are all these guys colonels? Is there a promotion ceiling for bad guys in the military?) I was also reminded, at various points, of Cool Hand Luke, Exodus (the old testament book, not the Leon Uris one) and a few others.

Now, I am not sure how much of this was intentional. And I like it when films do these things, but my first instinct was to end this post with a line to the effect that, maybe Planet of the Apes was an appropriate title after all. But then, someone would wonder why I was being so snarky, and I would defend myself saying that I didn’t mean for it to sound snarky…

What we’d have is… a failure to communicate.

Vikram Vedha

While I was watching Vikram Vedha, the author whose work kept coming to mind was Ed McBain.

The film is structurally interesting — the cop and the gangster are cast as Vikramadityan and the Vedalam, and the latter narrates his story to the former as a series of moral conundrums. Each story peels off a later from the story in the foreground. It’s a lovely conceit, so obviously I kept wondering: did the structure come first, or did the story come first? The last time I went through this was when I read McBain’s The House that Jack Built — a murder mystery is told through a series of chapters named after lines of the poem the novel is named for, and the line itself summarizes the chapter.

The other McBain memory came from a novel where a cop is trying to solve a murder and boils it down to a set of people who were staying in the same lodge — I think it was called Killer’s Payoff. Agatha Christie fans might be reminded of a different one, for similar reasons.

Aside: None of the aforementioned observations have anything to do with what I thought of the film, of course. But a film that reminds of Ed McBain gets a few brownie points right there.

I don’t know if I’ve made it sound like the film is an intense cerebral exercise that values structure over content. But make no mistake, this is a wonderfully entertaining motion picture. It has its faults (an unnecessary song sequence, uneven depth of characterization, implausible deductive reasoning around the reconstruction of a crime at the end), but these did not detract from my enjoyment in any way. Director-writers Pushkar and Gayathri clearly know what they’re doing, and are aided by a very competent cast and crew. 

Much of the fun, though, comes from Vijay Sethupathi’s performance. I watched the film in a multiplex in Bangalore, and when his feet first appeared in the frame as he swaggered in, the hall erupted in cheers, and with good reason. The man has, bit by bit, evolved into a leading man with incredible screen presence, talent to burn, and the ability and inclination to work across genres. It also helps that the script is written to focus on him more than on the cop –  I suppose, in a storytelling medium, the storyteller is, in fact, king. 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum translates, I think, to The Evidence and the Eyewitness, which suggests that this is a film about crime. Which in a way it is, since the central incident that drives the story is the theft of a gold chain on a bus. Is the victim, who was the only eyewitness, to be believed? Or was she herself deceived? The policemen investigating the case suggest a plausible alternative version at one point. 

But here’s a different reading of the same phrase. The word eyewitness indicates an observer, and the word evidence indicates specific observations that support the eyewitness’ account of an incident. Throughout the film, you see eyewitnesses and evidence, and how reality might or might not match their account.

A man sees a woman buying a pregnancy test. Is it for her? There is a conversation between the woman, her husband and the policemen about her recounting of the events in the bus, and the story changes during the conversation in order to fit a certain agenda. The central piece of evidence – the gold chain – itself becomes a mutable quantity at point. There are conversations with and between bystanders that indicate their own perception of things. 

I am  making it seem like this film is a Rashomon-esque meditation on the nature of truth and our perception of it (there is, after all, a husband and a wife on a journey, and a thief). But that would be doing both films a disservice.

At a meta level, think of this film itself as an eyewitness account,and what a wondrous thing it is! When we recount an incident to someone, we focus on what happened, and whatever else was on the periphery of our awareness does not make it into the narrative. (This review itself, for instance, has just focused on one aspect of the film, and unfortunately for you, dear reader, that one thing isn’t the plot.) Films are the same way, more often than not. But not this one. There is so much detail, so much texture here, that one walks out feeling like one had inhabited this world for a while and not just seen it on screen. 

Is all of this detail relevant? That depends, I suppose, on whether you are think of a film as a way of telling a story, or a story as an excuse to make a film.