Tuesday 31 December 2019

Mirch Masala [1987]

Bold, provocative and confrontational, Ketan Mehta’s visceral feminist film Mirch Masala was all these and a bit more. Subtlety wasn’t among its facets, and yet, ironically, its bluntness – a tight-fisted punch against patriarchy, and the accompanying sexual oppression and abuse against women (legitimized through traditional power structures) – is what made it all the more powerful. The tale, based on a short story, is set in an arid hamlet in colonial-era India. The village is marked by its disdain for anything that challenges status quo – the then swaraj (self-determination) movement against the British, education for girls, the right to dignity and agency for women and lower castes, etc. – and the same is perpetuated by the village headman (Suresh Oberoi) and slimy priest (Harish Patel). The vicious and arrogant subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) represents the worst of the lot, assuming it his birth-right to plunder the village for fun, brutally thrash his servants, ogle at women and have his libido satisfied at will. Things take a dramatic turn when his lascivious gaze falls on Sonbai (Smita Patil), a sultry and defiant married woman lusted by the village. And all hell breaks lose when she displays the gall and temerity to wound his fragile male-ego, leading to a thrillingly shot pursuit, and the iconic climax that the film is led to upon her taking refuge in a factory, guarded by an old watchman (Om Puri), where womenfolk grind red chillies into powder. Both Patil and Shah gave electrifying performances, while Deepti Naval, too, was memorable as the headman’s feisty wife who, like Sonbai, refuses to go silently into the night. The film’s dominant colour palette was red, symbolizing passion, sexuality, fury and rebellion.

Director: Ketan Mehta
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Ensemble Film
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Sunday 29 December 2019

Knives Out [2019]

Rian Johnson’s enjoyable murder mystery film Knives Out is at once classicist and modern. On one hand it’s a lavishly mounted pastiche on the classic whodunits of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, where a gentleman sleuth in a dapper suit makes use of minute clues, half-truths and circumstantial conjectures for solving a case. On the other hand, it also had undercurrents of social commentary, in its evocation of class politics as well as in its vocal critique of the rising reactionary wave of xenophobia and majoritarian supremacy in opposition to immigration and multiculturalism. The death of wealthy crimewriter Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), on the night of his 85th birthday party, invites the visit of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a renowned detective with a hilarious Southern drawl, to the Thrombey mansion in order to investigate the potential crime. What he finds is a dysfunctional family of pampered, devious and self-centered hypocrites who’d go to any lengths to secure their share of inheritance – Harlan’s egoist daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) who started her business thanks to her father, her philandering husband (Don Johnson), and their narcissistic brat of a son (Chris Evans); Harlan’s slimy son (Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing company, his right-wing fanatic wife (Riki Lindhome) and their alt-right teenage son; Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who’s a lifestyle guru and siphon’s Harlan’s money on the side, etc. And then there’s Harlan’s gentle-natured nurse (Ana de Amas), a Latin-American girl whose origin is hilariously confused as Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil by the wretched family members. Even if too slight to be taken very seriously, the film nevertheless was both funny and stinging in its parody and satire.

Director: Rian Johnson
Genre: Crime Comedy/Mystery/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Friday 27 December 2019

Varda by Agnes [2019]

There have always been stirring self-reflexive elements in the disarmingly radical cinema of Agnès Varda’s – be it in her championing of leftist politics and feminism, or subverting the conventional form of documentaries by permeating them with her memories, opinions and experiences. Therefore, while watching Varda by Agnès, a charming retrospective – a “Greatest Hits”, if you will – on her fascinating journey as a filmmaker, one can’t really think of anyone more suitable than Agnès herself to make this; it was a trgic irony that she passed away just a month or so after completing it. Compiled from a mix of lectures and interactions; laced with her customary humour and irreverence; and interspersed with delightful quips, anecdotes, reflections and reminiscences, this takes one on a whirlwind tour through her pioneering filmography through nicely established thematic linkages (some intended, others post facto), covering her fiction features (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, One Sings the Other Doesn’t, Documenteur, Vagabond, Kung Fu Master, A Hundred and One Nights, etc.), docufictions (Jane B. by Agnès V., etc.), memoirs and diary films (Jacquot de Nantes, The Beaches of Agnès, etc.), documentaries (Daguerréotypes, Mur Murs, The Gleaners and I, Faces Places, etc.) and short films (Diary of a Pregnant Woman, Salut les Cubains, Uncle Yanco, Black Panthers, etc.). Along with her views on filmmaking, her effortless transition to digital, and her participation in the fight for women’s rights, she also lovingly speaks about her late husband Jacques Demy, her key companions and milestones in her journey, her passion for photography and love for paintings, her tryst with experimental audiovisual forms (Some Widows of Noirmoutier, etc,) and, of course, idiosyncracies, mortality and legacy.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Documentary
Language: French
Country: France

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Marriage Story [2019]

Marriage Story, a reflective and compelling depiction of martial breakdown, and the vitriolic absurdities therein, couldn’t have begun on a more delicate and elegiac note. The exquisite opening montage, through intimate voice-over soliloquays, portrayed what Charlie (Adam Driver), a highly-reckoned New York theatre director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a recognized stage actress, love about each other. Their marriage, however, are already past the point of no return, as Nicole moves to LA, along with their young son (Azhy Robertson), where she’s got a lucrative TV offer which might finally allow her to create an independent identity her own; and before long their divorce proceeding starts, necessitating coast-to-coast back-and-forth flights for Adam. The film has discernible influences of Bergman, including a direct nod to Scenes from A Marriage, and Woody too, who, in turn, always wore his Bergman influences on his sleeves; the stark (albeit luminous) photography, including conscious usage of close-ups and profiles, the elaborate fade-outs and the evocative organ-based score made that all the more perceptible. Be that as it may, it was also a quintessentially Noah Baumbach film centered on NYC’s throbbing culturally scene. The movie’s immersive arc wonderfully traversed the combative couple’s increasingly ugly separation – contributed in no small parts by Nora’s gold-digging divorce lawyer (Laura Dern); Charlie chose a surprisingly humane counterpart (Alan Alda) to start with, but eventually goes nasty too (Ray Liotta) – and finally ending on a quietly poignant note. It had an especially extraordinary, emotionally charged sequence roughly three-fourth into its length – a blistering, explosive argument, featuring astounding performances by Driver and Johansson (they were terrific throughout) – particularly in the way the emotional pitch kept rising until it reached an absolutely volcanic climax.

Director: Noah Baumbach
Genre: Drama/Marital Drama
Language: English
Country: USA

Saturday 21 December 2019

Salaam Bombay! [1988]

It’s difficult to be a fence-sitter with regards to Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! – either finding in it a brutally realist fable on street children surviving and striving for tiny dreams (howsoever elusive or futile), or, contrarily, a patronizing and voyeuristic outside-in fetishization of poverty. I’m inclined to belong to the former bucket, albeit not unconditionally. The film’s key focus is Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a young kid bullied out of his home and left stranded by a travelling circus, who takes refuge on the footpaths in Bombay’s sprawling red light area. There, as tea delivery boy to the brothel, he befriends the hapless drug addict Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav) who’s nearing the end of his rope, gets attracted to a teenaged victim of sex trafficking (Chanda Sharma), and develops love-hate relationships with other other kids who’re more hardened on account of longer exposure to this grit. Drug peddler and former pimp Baba (Nana Patekar), single mother and prostitute Rekha (Anita Kanwar), and her little lonely girl were other key characters. Nair – in a display of artistic integrity and empathy – deployed actual street kids in the roles, and also setup a trust to try rehabilitate them. The sequence where the sociopathic Baba casually torments the vulnerable Chilum in front of a dumbfounded foreign journalist (Sanjana Kapoor) unprepared for the casual display of violence, was lashing and disturbing. And the natural performances by the urchins – in their street lingo, their spirit of anarchy, their sense of small freedoms amidst the squalor, their disdain for norms – was arguably the film’s best aspect, with its grimy realism complemented by a sparsely used score comprising of violins, sitar and tabla, and cinéma vérité style photography.

Director: Mira Nair
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama
Language: Hindi
Country: India