Sunday, October 9, 2016

MSG The Messenger - Lion Heart

A few years back a friend asked me if I had any excitement for Conan The Conquerer, the proposed continuation of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan movies. To this I said, The movie will probably start with an old Arnold sitting on the throne. In his thick accent he'll say, "Let me tell you about one of my adventures", and the rest of the movie will go into flashback mode with a bland (Jason) Samosa playing Conan. At the end, we'll be returned to seated Arnold, who bids us part with, "In the sequel, I will tell you about another of my adventures."

MSG3 isn't that remote because all the lead roles are played by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan (who now also calls himself Dr. MSG, having in the interim has picked up a doctorate, probably one of those honorary thingummies no-name Indian universities fling about like so much confetti). But Pitaji has succumbed to the lure of needlessly splitting a movie into multiple instalments.

The opening was hearteningly explosive. Dr. MSG as the star agent of (I kid you not) Lion Heart Investigation Agency, takes out a batallion of inept terrorist-kidnappers (wielding bright yellow or mauve hued oversized plastic guns) with a sword that morphs into a grenade launcher cum laser pistol, and later shrinks into a pen. With characteristic subtlety they don't mention the device that allows him to change his shoes in the midst of combat (surely not a continuity error!). Agent Pitaji also has a plastic kit-bag that transforms into a souped-up bike he proceeds to do wheelies on for no particular reason. The LHIA seems to house a conference room dedicated specifically for his sycoph...erm, colleagues to pay tribute to his awesomeness (to which he in the most reluctant and mild manner says, "Chamchagiri band karo, yaar [Stop the spooning, pals]"), since for actual business they move to yet another place.

In the 'actual business' conference room we are introduced to the bad guys of the movie, alien races from 4 different planets, all of whom favor art decor picked from the Ramsay studio scrap sale and lightbulb-studded couture a la Amitabh Bachchan from Yaarana, differing only in the color-code. Agent Lion Heart proceeds to give a projector presentation flashback of how in ancient times he as Commander Sher Dil (See the subtle connection?) dealt with the aliens.

The flashback would have been more than acceptable as a snappy half hour max interlude, breezing through the CG-aided exploits of medieval-era MSG. Alas, this is the rest of MSG3, now matching the pace and tone of a Ramanand Sagar tele-serial. Yes, ineptitude as a benchmark is consistently adhered to, and there are bits of campy fun, like when he grapples with astonishingly shoddy CG elephants, snake-men and Gorilla Grodd wannabes, but it gets repetitive and has a decidely 'meh' flavor. You keep hoping for the flashback to be concluded and for the further adventures of Gurmeet Bond, but all you get at the end of 2 hours is an announcement for the next part. Disappointing.

Just before the film, me and my mum (who probably hates me for conning her into this) were the only people in the cinema. But shortly after the credits rolled, a whole mob of rustic punjus sauntered in filling most of the hall. I think they were holding free tickets since one of the leaders was directing someone on the phone to herd people to some Kohinoor theater, since this one was already spoken for.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Chantal Akerman special

On Sunday, I saw a couple of Chantal Akerman films as part of an appreciation at the local Liberty cinema.

First was Jeanne Dielman...[long title giving the name & address of the protagonist]. At 200+ min, the majority of it devoted to scenes of a homemaker doing her chores almost in real-time, it's jumping off at the deep end as an introduction to a director, and based on reputation I was all prepared to pronounce it as pretentious and dull, but the film has a rhythm and a reason for its structure. Day 1 can be interpreted as the last of the woman's orderly if dull existence. We see her wholly a creature of routine, her life devoted to accomplishing a series of tasks, be it cooking dinner, polishing her son's shoes, babysitting a neighbor's infant or sleeping with a regular client for money, all with the same unemotional precision. Day 2, we see a repetition of those tasks but with slight instances of disorder, like a tiny crack on a window, creeping into her routine, suggesting a long gestating mental breakdown. Day 3 shows those cracks spidering ever so little more, until we reach an abrupt startling crescendo

🚫[spoiler]where she stabs that day's client with a pair of scissors. It is shown that she gets an orgasm during sex prior to that and is therefore perhaps disturbed by her emotional involvement. I felt so, but not sure[/spoiler].🚫

The rhythm is what defines the film, stick with the first half hour or so of the film and it will suck you in. The differences in Day 2 will further intrigue you as to where the build-up is leading to, and the film doesn't disappoint in its culmination. There are instances where the film tests your patience, with 5 min static shots of the protagonist staring into space, but even if indulgent they make sense within the context of the film's thrust. I would urge people to see this film.

The other Akerman effort I saw was Je Tu Il Elle (I / you / he / she). It is at 86 min a brief venture. Although released in the same year as Jeanne Dielman, it carries far more of a student film feel. The opening segment has Akerman monologuing in stream of consciousness mode while we see her sleeping / writing / binging on sugar, all with / without her clothes on. The middle segment has her hitching up with a trucker who takes care of her. Apart from his instructing her in giving him a handjob we don't see any overt evidence of sexual interaction between them. There's a really good monologue (taken in a single shot, IIRC) in this section where the trucker rambles on about his married life and the routine it has been reduced to. It's a lot more comprehensible and easy to empathize with than the intellectual garbage of the first segment. In the concluding act of the film, Akerman joins up with a former girlfriend, with who she behaves in a terribly boorish fashion before proceeding to have vigorous sex with (a precursor to the sex scenes in Life of Adele). The end. My opinion: Akerman has a sexy Venus-like figure she fully exploits, but the film itself is prententious crap IMO.

There was also a 10-min short La Chambre (The Room), which is just a series of 360 degree pans around a 2 room apartment where the only change comes in the position and activity of the woman on the bed. If there was something to be made of this, it missed me entirely.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Teen Prahar Concert [12 March 2016 St Andrew's Auditorium]

Last evening I attended an Indian music concert called Teen Prahar, held in Mumbai at St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra. It is an annual event conducted by the Banyan Tree group, and this is the first time I attended. The program promised a staggering 5 hours of music (from 5-10pm), and delivered hugely on that.

The first part was a presentation of classical pieces by talented children. I'd say most of them were around 10 years give or take a couple, reminding me of the time when my folks enrolled me in Harmonium classes at school which I bunked so flagrantly they had to take me out (they were very indulgent to all my whims, sometimes I think I would have been a better person if they'd whacked me a few times). Anyhoo, Flautist boy did renditions of Marwa (one of my fav ragas) & Hamsadhwani, Harmonium boy did Bihag and Tabla girl gave a performance of Teen Taal. The boys were accompanied by professional tabalchi Anubrata Chatterjee (they seemed a little intimidated by his florid playing, but did a good job, especially in the fast runs for which they had reserved their stamina). Tabla girl was accompanied by another little girl on the harmonium and did a fine job (I'm not versed in the technicalities of the piece to make any real comment on that).

Next up was an percussion ensemble - Taal India. Led by Anubrata Chatterjee, this is a supergroup that included percussion instruments from all corners of the country - tabla, dhol, naal, khadtaal, dholak, mirav, edddakka, chenda etc. There were some 8 performers on stage (joined in the last by another 3, who played Dhak, a traditional Bengali drum). While everyone in turn showed their virtuosity, the khadtaal player with his royal mustache, pot-belly, mischievous eyes and dramatic way of moving his arms garnered the most cheers and applause - A case of showmanship over music, but that's to be expected in a popular concert, and definitely not the fault of the performer. The finale in which everyone performed together was almost a good way. The group got a standing ovation from the crowd.

Ideally the organizers should have announced a proper break before the second half of the program, but Shujaat Khan was brought on shortly after, so one had to scramble to get a bit of coffee and a sandwich at the short-staffed cafeteria (and of course finish them outside the hall). Khan saab jokingly complained that after the thunderous percussion display, people would not be interested in hearing a man plonking on a Sitar, but the soothing strains of Sham Kalyan were just what was needed after that chunk of excitement. I cannot say anything about the purity or technical finesse but one thing was evident to me - the extent to which he can stretch and modify a meend, the man could really extract not just notes, but emotions from the sitar. A satisfyingly long exploratory alaap was followed by a composition of his father Vilayat Khan. He was accompanied by 2 percussionists, which was in most part redundant, but they had their individual solo sections during the gat, and I noticed that they played their solos in different styles. Later, Khan saab revealed that they are from different schools (one from Allarakha, and one from Kishan Maharaj) and to paraphrase his words, you can get the "khushboo" of their school from their playing. After that wonderful finish to his performance of Sham Kalyan, he launched into a medley of songs cheered by the audience (both his own and some standards like Vaishnav jan to). He also naughtily played the opening bars of Tu hi re, then said that this was just a trailer for the next performance (by Hariharan).

The last leg of the concert began with a rendition of a thumri (about a gopi calling Krishna to the river, don't recall exact words). There are a few things I have come to accept about a Hariharan show now: 1) His low-end is kinda gone, and he doesn't have the level of fluidity what a Mallikarjun Mansur or a Maharajapuram Santanam had even in their later years 2) His song repertoire now mostly consists of the blander stuff, and I'll probably never get to hear him sing Dard ke rishte (Hazir) or Khud ko behtar hai saraabon mein bhatakta dekhun (Ghazal ka Mausam). 3) Urdu blues - I know I'm being close-minded but this fusion-confusion stuff sucks. Those caveats in place, I had a good time. I was hoping for one song of my choice to be performed and this time I was rewarded with Shahar dar shahar from Hazir (based on Nat Bhairav). Expectedly, he finished with a rendition of Tu hi re, sufficiently freshened up to make it a nice experience. Among his accompanists, the flute, harmonium and tabla sections were frequently exciting: the flautist was marvelous, moving seamlessly from Indian classical to a jazz-inflected style. The keyboardist did a noticeably good job with the Nat Bhairav style in Shahar dar shahar, the guitarist played middling to bad blues/jazz solos.

In general the crowd really grooved to the music. Of course, a few sore points typical of audiences I've sat with.

Behind me I had to have the one elderly ass who had a remark for every frakking thing that happened, loud-voiced compliments for each turn of musicmanship he perceived, and even responded to the audience chatter done by the performers. An example: Even Hariharan knows his Urdu Blues is not universally acclaimed, so he modestly says to the audience "If you like it, please clap for it [he meant as a beat, not applause], otherwise forget it"

I previously mentioned the khadtaal player who charmed the audience with his style. As soon as he finished his part some in the crowd started yelling "Once more!" Hello, he is part of an ensemble and there are several others who have not had their chance to show their prowess. You could see the embarrassment on the faces of the other performers.

As soon as Hariharan finished the first song on his setlist, a dude gets up and starts shouting for X song to be performed, at which other people take a cue. Everyone has their favorites they would like to hear (I know I would) but you shouldn't be a boor about it, not with a senior artiste who has just barely started with his program. I sometimes feel organizers should include an audience etiquette sheet with the ticket.

But overall, I had a great time and would definitely be looking to attend more such concerts.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Aligarh [dir. Hansal Mehta]

Aligarh is Hansal Mehta's attempt to depict the tragedy of an AMU professor Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) who was illicitly filmed indulging in a consensual sexual act with a rickshaw puller, hazed into admitting guilt, and subsequently suspended by the authorities and pilloried by shrill conservatives for immoral behaviour.

The script travels two paths. The first is external, the struggle to restore Siras' position and dignity through the press, in which he is supported by journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), and through legal procedure (in the wake of the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgement which amended section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalize homosexuality, subsequently reversed by the Supreme court in 2013, in who-knows-what wisdom). The second path is internal, an exploration of the psyche of a lonely outcast. Apart from his closet homosexuality, Siras was a divorcee single man, who taught Marathi in an Urdu dominated institution. Despite this he was appointed Head of the Modern Languages Dept (The film implies this was a motive of jealousy for the sting operation, in which senior university officials seem to have a strong hand).

Mehta displays a genuine sadness and anger towards the tragedy. The collaboration between him and Bajpayee gives us a very moving portrayal of a man who only wanted to be accepted for what he was. Sexual orientation aside, the cruel bias faced by an ageing bachelor in a society where marriage and family are the de facto standard is something that anyone should be able to empathize with. Every moment of his life, Siras feels the burden of being shunned and judged by his peers. It is no wonder then, that even after the Allahabad High Court ruled in his favour, restoring his position and benefits, he committed suicide shortly after (There were some allegations of murder, but nothing was substantiated). While certain elements may seem overly composed and deliberate, the film depicts this aspect with honesty and feeling.

Which is why the portrayal of the legal battle seems unnecessarily shrill. Of course, after Court, typical courtroom dramas will always seem artificial, but Ashish Vidyarthi's smug cockerel act as Siras' lawyer and the general theatrics in this section are at odds with the subtlety depicted elsewhere in the film. Still, Aligarh's core remains strong and the film is a vital protest for acceptance and peaceful inclusion of differences between human beings for us to retain the right to be called a civilization.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Court [dir. Chaitanya Tamhane]

Court made waves more than a year back when it was screened at the Venice and Mumbai festivals, and was honored with the National Award for Best Feature Film, which is amazing for a debut feature. After having watched I can say it's worth the hype.

To be frank, it's not for the impatient or people that insist on a dramatic experience. In the film, a social activist (Vira Sathidar) is arrested on charges of having incited a sewer worker to commit suicide with an inflammatory song. The film mainly deals with the proceedings of the trial of this individual. But the script is not focused on the activist character, who in most part is a silent or monosyllabic cipher. Nor, unlike what we usually see in Indian movies, are the trial proceedings a showcase of verbal fireworks. In fact many a time, we see the trial played out with the context of the other proceedings of the court. We see how a court moves from one case to another, making a quick decision in one, postponing another, the debates about whether or not an accused can be given bail in the interim between court hearings.

The spotlight is on the major players of the court - the prosecution (Geetanjali Kulkarni), the defence (Vivek Gomber), the judge (Pradeep Joshi). In a conventional film, the prosecution would be presented as evil and the defense as good. Here, both are just doing their jobs. We also get a look into their personal lives, which go on regardless of their professional duties. The defense lawyer is fighting the case as a social cause, but he himself is rather well-to-do, who doesn't think much of dropping a few thousand rupees for an evening at a pub (perhaps he makes his money working for rich clients indulging the social exploitation his activist client is protesting against). The prosecutor is a lower middle-class lady whose idea of an outing is lunch with her family at an Udipi-type restaurant followed by a local drama. She has to worry a lot more about the cost of living, and in that sense is closer in lifestyle to the accused than her counterpart. There are no personal egos involved in their arguments in court, each one is doing her/his own job, at the end of which they go back to their respective lives. The case comes to an end, a verdict is passed, but is that all? No, life goes on, there are and will be new cases, many same as the old cases. The film also has an epilogue dealing with the personal life of the main judge in the case. Again it drives the point that for everyone, life and the court go on.

Using many non-professional actors and a very grounded visual style, writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane focuses on the realism and bureaucracy of the institution, and thus makes them come alive in a manner we don't normally see in movies (since mainstream Hollywood also tends to have very glamorized dramatic court scenes). Highly recommended for offbeat movie fans.

For the fools like me that didn't catch this at the cinema, Reliance DVD gives a nice A/V presentation of the film (digitally shot), with a decent making of. Watch it.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Lady Vanishes [dir. Alfred Hitchcock]

The Lady Vanishes was one of the last films Hitchcock made in Britain before moving to Hollywood. Apart from this, I have only seen The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps from his Brit period and there's a fair degree of similarity between these films, mainly in the relatively frothy carefree spirit that embodies them, and the typical British deadpan humor.

The first act of the film, set in a crowded resort of a fictitious European country where we are introduced to most of our main cast, is primarily a comic act with some racy verbal humor. Apart from Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) whose spicy spats only convince us they'll be in love before long, there is the archetypal sweet old spinster Miss Froy and the cricket crazy schoolboy-minded stiff-upper-lip duo of Charters and Caldicott. This act concludes with the characters getting on a train as they journey to London.

The second act occurs almost entirely in the confines of the train (shot fantastically on a small stage with use of miniatures, rear/front projection, shaky movements to mimic the train's motion...every trick in the book). Iris, who has received a knock on the head from a mysterious falling flowerpot at the station and made good friends with Miss Froy, falls into deep sleep and wakes up only to find that sweet old lady gone. What's more, no one in the train, including the staff and fellow passengers, is willing to admit to the presence of such a person, insisting that Miss Froy is a figment on Iris' imagination. The headstrong girl, even as she starts to doubt her own sanity, is only more determined to dig deeper into the matter for which she must take flighty Gilbert's help, even if he doesn't entirely believe her. This act is classic Hitchcock suspense, with clever sleight-of-hand and deliberate misdirection. While the plot isn't hard to figure out, it's smoothly executed and a delight to watch. There's a canny mix of humor and thrill in the unfolding that engages the senses and keeps the mind from asking those pesky questions about plausibility. The third act is the rip-roaring off-the-rails (heh) climax, where much mayhem ensues before (British) good triumphs over (foreign) evil.

So what we have here is an easily palatable adventure, but with those delightful character touches and deft writing that raise it well above the norm. Parallels have been drawn between the depiction of the British characters in the film, how they choose to ignore Iris' suspicions in favor of "just getting on with it", and how the British government initially dealt with Hitler and the rise of Nazism. The observation does seem relevant, although it is not a necessary component of one's enjoyment of the film.

A few words on Criterion's blu-ray. The video quality is excellent for a 1938 film, with good contrast, grayscale and fine detail. The mono sound is limited but effective. Extras include a decent critic's commentary, a video essay on the film, a short audio excerpt from the Hitchcock-Truffaut sessions..and yeah, an entire other film - Crook's Tour - featuring the duo of Charters and Caldicott (I saw some 15 min of that and got bored).

Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Autumn Afternoon [dir. Yasujiro Ozu]

The story-lines for Yasujiro Ozu's 1949 film Late Spring and 1962's An Autumn Afternoon (incidentally. his last work) read virtually identical - A dependent father realizes he must get his daughter married before she ages past eligibility and ends up an old maid. While contemporary woman's libbers may take umbrage, Ozu's films are a product of their time and social milieu, and the women in his films are strong in their own way.
Anyhow, the similarity between these 2 films is not merely in the outline. Several sequences mirror each other to the extent that Autumn could be considered a remake of Spring. But that interchangeability is true for much of Ozu's output; his specialty is variations on the theme. The major difference between these particular films comes in the socio-political backdrop. Autumn plays out in post-WW2 Japan. Defeated and later occupied by American forces, traditional Japanese society is in the throes of change. It is never emphasized in the narrative, but we see the influence that Western culture is beginning to have. The pre-war generation still gathers in sake bars, talking about old times and arranging reunions (and making fun of their colleague who has taken a young wife about who wears the pants in the house). Their progeny represents a more consumer spirit, acquiring refrigerators and golf clubs. It is also less patriarchy bound, a wife can bully her husband (for his own good or otherwise) without social scorn.
But in both periods, marriage and family remain an important institution, and the father must give up his selfish need to be looked after so that his daughter can have suitable companionship and start her own family. In Autumn, the tone with which this message is delivered is a bit bleaker, especially with the depiction of the father's old school teacher, whose lonely spinster daughter is unhappily chained to the care of her run-down depressed dad.
Ozu's favorite actor Chishu Ryu once again plays the worried patriarch and does so with his characteristic subtlety. In place of his other favorite Setsuko Hara, the daughter is portrayed by Shima Iwashita, which is a good thing since a) Hara at this stage would have been a little too old for the eligible daughter part b) The daughter, while loyal to and worried for her father, is depicted as being more assertive about herself than in Ozu's previous work, another sign of the times. I don't recall if this was the case with the other Ozu films I've seen, but one thing that struck me during the viewing of Autumn was how every scene begins with a couple of frames of the location or set where the scene takes place: the patriarch's house, his office, the bar he frequents, the house of his married son, the street where his school teacher lives. Never does a scene in a different location begin without first establishing the place. As expected with Ozu, the visuals are entirely a function of the framing, with no camera movements at all.