Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.

Aligarh

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Aligarh (Hansal Mehta, 2016)

Director Hansal Mehta seems to have found a new calling of Hollywood-esque social message cinema after starting out directing a broad pallete of commercial attempts from the by-the-book romantic music comedy Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! to a by-the-book thriller Woodstock Villa. It’s a career filled with safety-net cinema similar to what Tigmanshu Dhulia was doing before he broke out with Paan Singh Tomar. Hansal Mehta’s newfound invigoration with social issues in India was no doubt ignited through his short hiatus from filmmaking, in which he declared he would travel, explore his other passion in life of being a foodie, and start working on things which truly mattered to him.

This culminated in his befriending of Rajkumar Rao, a relatively newer actor who gained some acting praise for his sidekick role in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che. Mehta and Rao’s collaboration for Shahid struck a sort of mini-Gowarikar-Aamir Khan spark, where a film’s critical and international success lead its director and actor a path of cinema much higher than what they were previously doing.

So now, we arrive at the third film in what I’d call Mehta’s career rebirth, Aligarh. Many people consider Shahid to be the film in which Mehta really came into his own, but I think Aligarh speaks much more to his handling of social issues and his confidence in his direction. Shahid, while accessible, played out in a familiar fashion to most routine biographical films, a series of tick marks on a timeline that make for an easy scene-by-scene structuring of a film. It undermines the narrative creativity which can put a biopic over the top and instead reduces it to a History Channel Sunday Night Special. While Mehta was tackling more important issues in Shahid than in his previous films, his manifestation as a by-the-books safety net director still hung with him. He found something more meaningful but was stuck in the routine trappings of his early-career unimaginative commercialism.

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Aligarh on the other hand, is his real breakthrough. The casting of Manoj Bhajpai (solidly reliable performance) in the lead role was an inspired first step to success, and the film’s aim to place S.R. Siras’s own beliefs, interests, and his moral character at the center of the film is commendable. Many directors would be too eager to use a media entity like Rajkumar Rao’s character Deepu as the noble cipher of the film, investigating and exposing further details of the case. Instead, Mehta is equally critical here of the overzealous liberal media as he is of the overzealous conservative religious. Siras is stuck in the middle only left to continuously recall the awful moments of the night where is homosexual relations were ripped from their innocent privacy into a world of contempt and unrelenting shaming. The actual issue surrounding Aligarh may end up being less about gay rights, and more about how clashes of media and social politics hardly ever end with the outcome of a winning side. It’s a testament to the volatile global culture of “us vs. them” which is a sensation created by people who feel strongly without much perspective. The use of the word “gay” is consistently put down by Siras himself:

“How can you reduce how I feel to just three letters”? The media sensationalism and talking points are also equally frustrating to him:

“I hate that word, lover. Do you even understand love? Love is such a beautiful thing. You people make it sound like a dirty thing.”

A seminal moment in the film, when Siras’s lawyer makes a compelling argument which ultimately wins the case, he turns back and Siras has his head leaned against the wall, snoring away. For him, his rights and his life are so deeply felt, so personally experienced, he cannot fathom such political diatribes, media talking points, liberal and conservative scuffles and monotonous proceedings of the Supreme Court being needed to justify himself as an equal person with equal beliefs.

The film isn’t quite as harsh or unforgiving as Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut, and Mehta certainly falls a few times into the over-explanation trap, where visuals of the violent invasion of privacy cannot be left to our own sick minds and must be shown exactly how they happened, something I felt completely chopped down the brilliance of the opening sequence, like a demented Rear Window sequence, with us in Jimmy Stewart’s shoes. But it is a testament to Mehta’s confidence as a filmmaker. He may never fully let go of his commercial roots, his safety net which even the best filmmakers sometimes cling to in momentary lapses, but he is certainly forging ahead on his journey he carved for himself, and Aligarh is a milestone which he may look back to as the moment he made a film which really mattered to him.

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Dum Laga Ke Haisha

Dum Laga Ke Haisha (Sharat Katariya, 2015)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic movie from India quite like Dum Laga Ke Haisha. That’s not to say that it’s a blazingly original piece of work, because it is far from that. There is much in here that is easily predictable and it follows such a simplistic storyline that being surprised by what goes on in the story is literally impossible.

The main crux of this tale of romance is that it centers around an arranged marriage, and in which, the girl happens to be overweight. Its easy to pin this movie, as so many people have, as a film which debunks the old Bollywood trend of casting skinny, light skinned, attractive women as love interests. A movie who’s main social message is that “size doesn’t matter”. Rather, I would say that this movie brings to the forefront that looks do matter, and that it’s a barrier that many of us must be able to cope with and carry ourselves across without being offended or meaning to offend. Is it wrong for Prem, the main male protagonist (played by a reliable Ayushman Khurrana), to feel bitter that he is being forced into an arranged marriage with a girl he doesn’t find attractive? Of course not, much of what love entails comes certainly from physical attractiveness, it is a fact of life. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and had Prem or some other guy chosen to be in relationship with and get married to Sandhya, the main female protagonist (wonderfully portrayed with humility and surprising natural charm by newcomer Bhumi Pednekar), then there wouldn’t be an issue of looks at all.

Rather, what Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s most important attribute happens to be, is that it treats its overweight and well educated modern female character as a well-adjusted human being… much more well-adjusted than her male counterpart. Too many times we have seen weight be an issue for women in film, and that it must either be ridiculed, or rebelliously tackled. In the era of Amy Schumer, a strong independent woman per Hollywood movies, must now also be an ‘in-your-face’ one. A well-educated woman must now also be one who is constantly seen ‘taking down’ the men who assume she is helpless and naïve. It’s a manner in which cinema has tried to rebuke the decades of misogyny that has encapsulated a male dominated form of storytelling. They’re not wrong to do it, but even when it tries to empower women, cinema seems to slip up anyway because it treats them as caricatures. Instead of timid helpless damsels in distress, these “strong female characters” are essentially men in women’s clothing and they harken to preach to others what women should be. Isn’t that counter-productive?

Sharat Katariya on the other hand, manages to make the lead female in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Sandhya, an “every-woman”, a girl in India who is only longing for companionship but doesn’t necessarily need a man. She’s a girl who is okay with the traditional practice of having her parents help her find a suitable groom, but doesn’t necessarily need them to find one for her. Who enjoys the idea of having a husband and starting a family, but is still well-educated with hundreds of career opportunities waiting at her doorstep so she doesn’t need to commit herself to Prem and the possibility of children. Rather, its what she wants. That is feminism in cinema… a female protagonist who creates decisions on her own and is capable of changing and turning tables for herself and others as she pleases because she is the one who is adjusted well enough to take control of the situation. Sandhya is grounded, and despite her weight which is seen as a taboo and black mark against her in our materialistic society, she never complains about it, or cries over it, or feels sorry for herself about how she looks. We see her posing in front a mirror, dancing and smiling at parties and weddings, and even when surrounded by skinny fit women, she doesn’t see herself as out of place. While Prem is floundering to understand who he is, constantly feeling embarrassed and insecure because of his poor education and social status, eventually losing the will to live, Sandhya remains a symbol of someone who knows exactly who she is and her self-worth is undiminished. Only when Prem embarrasses her about her weight in front of the whole community do we see Sandhya cry for the first time, but even then her immediate reaction is to slap Prem, because it is not her weight which makes her sad, it is the viciousness of her husband, the complete jealousy he has for her self-worth and confidence, that he must bring her down to his level to feel better, that she is angered and devastated by.

For maybe the first time in Indian romantic film, we are seeing a female character who is in complete control of her own situation, that each choice made by her is a manifest of her own emotions and her own life choices, and that she is comfortable with all of them. Even when Prem shuts her down time and again, mistaking her helping him with English as her boasting about her own education, she doesn’t back away and keep shut. She slyly jabs at him while still lifting him up to keep trying to do better for himself, letting him know that her education is not just resulting in book smarts, but wit and insightfulness as well. When her mother scolds her for being too educated and “bold” for a woman in Indian society, she never belittles her for her old-world, patriarchal views. Instead, she listens to her mother and offers to take care of the situation herself. This isn’t a female protagonist who’s strong stature in society culminates in vengeful holier-than-thou attitude. Sandhya is a female character who’s strength lies in her ability to legislate her own life, without pretense, and with regard for those who mean a lot to her. This is as well-developed a female character as has ever existed in Indian cinema.

Yes, the movie has many flaws in its juggling of arranged marriage issues and family relationships, and its narrative trajectory is rather too easy to predict even veering into classical cop-outs of melodrama like threats of suicide, deaths in the family and of course, simplifying the hurdles of unrequited love into a team sport at the end of the movie, but the way Katariya handles Sandhya, who is very humbly and aptly played by newcomer Bhumi Pednekar, and her tumultuous relationship with her reluctant husband Prem is the fruit of this story, is enough of an achievement (and shockingly by a tradionalist film production house – Yash Raj) that it could eventually lead into better stories and greater female roles for actresses in Hindi cinema, if not regional cinema as well.

Badlapur

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Badlapur (Sriram Raghavan, 2015)

From the first 5 minutes of this neo-noir thriller, there is no anticipation or genuine concern felt for Varun Dhawan’s character’s (Raghu is his name) revenge plot or of Nawaz’s (Liak is his name) fate as the brutal murderer. Noir is dependent on aesthetic, but it is also dependent on the personas of its heroes and villains. Their introductions gage us for who they are, and why we should care about their actions.  From the get go of Badlapur however, the only question that comes to mind is “so what?” That may seem heartless considering its a wife and child who die at the hands of the crooks, but Raghavan literally castrates any intensity from that initial robber-murder scene out and throws it to the dogs. It happens at lightning speed and is poorly directed, with Raghavan’s camerawork and writing as fumbling as Nawaz holding his pistol while driving. If anything, the most adequate word to describe the whole ordeal would be “awkward”. Rajkumar Hirani’s opening scene in Munnabhai MBBS was more edge-of-your seat than the beginning of this film.

Throughout the film, we are subjected to Varun Dhawan trying his best imitation of Ajay Devgan in a Prakash Jha political thriller… scowling and looking at the ground for an hour and a half. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this guy cannot act, but to top it off, Raghavan insists on keeping the camera at a closeup of Dhawan’s face, making us watch this cold metallic robot star pretend to cry. So Raghu is depressed that his wife and child have passed and he keeps this grudge for a good 15 years, which in the meantime, the murderer Liak attempts to escape jail 5 times and fails, in the process getting into fights with hoodlums behind bars. Siddiqui is of course a naturally good actor, and watching him is a saving grace despite the fact that his character is as multi-faceted as piece of gray construction paper. Raghu is visited by one of Liak’s family members who makes a lame attempt at emotionally manipulating him into forgiving Liak and letting him be released from jail since he is now terminally ill and wants to die at home and not in a cell. Like Liak’s repetitive sequences of trying to escape and getting into fights, we see several people confront Raghu about his own faults and his obsession with revenge. Again, its a trait of the Bollywood filmmaker nowadays to make sure that we get what he’s trying to say, you know, just in case we’re too stupid to digest the idea of a man who is out to seek revenge for his dead wife and son can also be deemed as mentally disturbed and morally dubious. Whether this is done for mass appeal or not, the fact is that Raghavan isn’t out for subtlety because its not enough… he needs to know we have his “message” imprinted onto our asses like branded cattle. Dhawan then goes after Siddiqui’s accomplice Harman, played by Vinay Pathak, who is serviceable in his role but again, it’s hardly a meaty part.

The one redeeming quality of this film however, is that it doesn’t feel the need to tie itself into a neat little bow by the end. We are left with strands, and aptly so. What transpires through Raghu scowling and wrecking his way towards revenge is Sriram Raghavan’s favorite noir trope… that of the self-destructive anti-hero. It is Newton’s 2nd law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, as Raghu piles on anger towards his family’s killers, he himself comes undone bit by bit, destroyed through his own vengeance, and he is left asking if any of it was worth the trouble, alone and cold in the rain. It’s a cliche, yes, but its at least better than what many other directors would try to negotiate for their leading man. At least Raghavan draws some inspiration here, though overused. In this sense, Badlapur at least remains an average, if mediocre film as opposed to a misguided one.