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.

Freeze Frame #170: Twelve Angry Men

One of the most affecting scenes in Twelve Angry Men is one where one of the jurors goes on a rant about “these people”, and the others respond to it by simply getting up and walking away and turning their backs on him. The verbal response that comes at the end of the scene is effective precisely because of the non-verbal responses that precede it.

It’s impressive how loudly the silence speaks in this scene. It drowns out the actual speaker. But consider this: we, as viewers, hear the silence. But that is because the other jurors actively create it by turning away.

Period piece?

 

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?

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.