The Zany and Flimsy ANGAMALY DIARIES

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 6.40.49 PM.jpg
Angamaly Diaries (Lijo Jose Pelissery, 2017)

 

Whatever criticism there is to be made, you can’t knock Angamaly Diaries for having energy. That much is certain. That it manages to still maintain control over its own (thin) narrative while being completely balls-to-the-walls in every visual and audial aspect is no mere feat. Intersplicing between gang wars, pork carving business rivalries, Christian rituals, a dash of a love story (I think?), and trumpets and drums ringing, the movie aims to completely drown you in whatever the hell goes on in the lives of Angamaly’s proud young gundas (read, street thugs). Sifting through this bubbling pot of pork curry to makes sense of it all is up to you… good luck.

The story takes place in a Kerala village town called Angamaly, predominantly populated by Christian Indians, most likely descendants of those converted by St. Thomas the Apostate, supposedly around AD 52… note the names of the characters: Vincent Pepe, Lilly Davis, Thomas, Marty, Alice. Even the film’s director’s name, Lijo Jose Pelissery, isn’t one anybody unfamiliar with India’s colonization history would expect to hear in the country. This is important, as the movie’s affixation on the food culture of Angamaly tied to the plotline of Vincent Pepe, the main character’s delve into the pork butchery business, becomes Pelissery’s main way of defining his setting as unique. India, a predominantly Hindu nation with a sizeable Muslim population, has strict laws on the treatment of cows and has de-facto-shunned pork from being sold in most places, yet here in this town, pork and beef are an indispensable part of the economy and everyday life.

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.07.04 PM.jpg

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.07.59 PM.jpg

The genuineness of Pelissery’s directing of action sequences comes through in the frenetic camera movement and the unrelenting editing that cuts and follows between different actors, constantly switching. It illustrates the complete chaotic nature of gang-fights, a stark removal from the Indian film tradition of showing fights in a composed ballet. The main character, Pepe, many a time isn’t even in the center of the action, he’s just a cog in the muddled mess of arms and legs flailing at each other. If you find yourself not knowing what the hell is going on or who the hell is ‘winning’ in many of these sequences, well, that’s precisely the point.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 10.05.24 PM.jpg

This being said, what stops Angamaly Diaries from reaching its intended heights is that it doesn’t have many interesting things to say about its setting or characters other than they like pork a whole lot. It’s unfortunate for a film trying to follow the likes of Rajiv Ravi’s gargantuan Kammatipaadam, a film which doused itself with the culture of its region and featured characters who’s insides boiled with the pride of their home, to not put much effort into making us care about Angamaly as much as its central characters care about it. Where Kammatipaadam’s setting managed to still attain a vibrancy through its fleshed out characters and a rollicking story despite not being unique from the rest of India in its own history or culture, Pelissery’s Angamaly has to constantly rely on its shots of food and chopped up pig and cow parts to continually remind us that this doesn’t take place anywhere else in India. This is while not even mentioning how much more of a gripping presence Dulqer Salmaan is in Kaamatipaadam than Antony Varghese in Angamaly Diaries, who’s pretty boy looks (like a greasier Jake Gyllenhaal) don’t do much to elevate his completely forgettable, stoic as a tree character.

Admirable in its zaniness and energy, and featuring a much-talked-about 12 minute continuous single shot towards the film’s end, I could see clearly the aim of Pelissery to define himself with this film as a “showman”, but you can’t put on a show populated with people the audience has no reason to care about.

Advertisements

Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 5.43.15 PM.jpg
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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 4.07.13 PM.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 5.40.37 PM.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 6.48.35 PM.jpg

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.

Three Stories from India’s Rural Heartland

The regional cinema of India, away from the glitz of Bollywood and bustle of Westernized city-life and in the isolated patches of huts and farms of the country, revealed a cinema which is starting to examine village-life with a keen eye. This trend started a little while ago, but more and more filmmakers from India are turning their cameras to capturing tall fables, inspirational stories, and timely socio-economic examinations of life in the rural heartland of India’s villages. Here are three such movies which caught my attention this year:

Umrika_KEY STILL_Rama_Suraj_Sharma_and_Lalu_Tony_Revolori-0-2000-0-1125-crop.jpg
Umrika (Prashant Nair, 2016)

UMRIKA  (thick-accented Indian pronunciation of “America”)

Prashant Nair’s Umrika, like many independent Hindi features from India had an incredibly difficult time finding distribution because of the over-saturation of mainstream garbage cinema Bollywood continues to pump out like a vomiting gutter-pipe. Yet, thanks to the revelation of online-streaming media and the newly sprouting avenues as well as rave reviews from the Sundance Film Festival, Nair’s little film found a home in Netflix. God bless.

Umrika uses Indian village life’s conservative traditionalism and isolationism as a comedic device. Clearly Nair’s film is meant for the urban-dwelling Indian or the innocent Westerner discovering Indian cinema for the first time. As a village family’s oldest son ventures off to America (they call it, in their heavy Indian accent, “Umrika”), they fantasize about a land of plenty that they cannot even fathom. He sends back letters and photos of strange things incredibly alien to these isolated villagers. A scene shows them holding up a picture of a muscular meaty American beef cattle and comparing it to their own Indian gai comprised of just flimsy skin and bones. These comical moments are relatable because they create the dichotomy that we already hold in our minds between Umrika and the rural poor of India. However, once the son’s letters stop coming, we know something is wrong and the story shifts to a more urban environment as the younger son, Ramakand goes searching for him. Here all our prejudices of rural life are confronted with the corruption of money amongst the urban elite. The idea of Umrika changes from being a land of plenty to a myth shrouded by deceit and phoniness. Umrika is an innocent film, and its ambition exceeds its grasp, but it does get one thinking about how we define our place between where we come from and where we ultimately go?

14520826704thithistill.jpg
Thithi (Raam Reddy, 2016)

 

THITHI  (English: “Funeral”)

Part of what made Raam Reddy’s debut film Thithi so compelling is its ability to give a real account of village life ongoings and procedures through a fully unfiltered lens. Yes, there have been other “village” films to come out, particularly those from Bollywood such as Peepli Live, but the forced media-eye encounter of that film was still a bit decorated and polished. Here, we get Karnataka in its utter primal state. Even the semblance of a love story that starts bubbling in the tall grass, one which could have gone the way to a orchestrated first class crescendo like in Manjule’s Sairat, instead only teases and taunts and ultimately fizzes out to the everyday monotony of village worklife. The film’s story centers around two sons of a dead centenarian. But the story or the ultimate capture of one son’s lie and the other’s redemption in the climax of the film is a narrative which trudges us along. Even the main character, Channegowda’s, horrific revelation of his father’s rape is a disturbing plot-twist that gives depth to his character, but is still a side-note in the cinematic landscape that Reddy paints with such an authentic brush. The real treasure lies in the minute details of a vibrant community that is hidden in the plains, away from an India quickly undergoing what the United States did in the late 1800’s. It is a nation on the cusp of something great… but there is still a life away from all of that, wandering aimlessly in the bushels, chugging a bottle of whiskey, just waiting to die.

webstill3.jpg
Kothanodi (Bhaskar Hazarika, 2016)

KOTHANODI  (English: “River of Fables”)

Kothanodi might be the most disturbing Indian film I’ve ever seen. There have been unnerving films, like Kaun or Phobia and depressing films like Matrubhoomi, but Bhaskar Hazarika has tapped into something incredibly unique here. This film is weird, strange, and left utterly uncomfortable about the whole ordeal. Kothanodi is a film comprised of four mythical tales which revolve around a stream. A woman is followed by a mysterious fruit which she inexplicably gave birth to… a husband and his uncle kill a woman’s three children and bury them in the forest, but when the fourth one is born, she decides to take a stand… a young girl is left alone with her stepmother, whose mind is possessed by a demon… and a greedy couple plan to marry their daughter to a King Python in hopes the snake will bless her with fortune and riches.

This is a hard movie to shake because its stories are unrelentingly bleak. It’s also uncompromising in its regressive “village politics”. Many of these stories are old and their lessons may seem outdated in today’s age, yet its commendable Hazarika doesn’t bother to “adapt” them for a modern audience. He leaves them as is, a relic of the past and presents them as a “take it or leave it” situation.

The film isn’t a horror film, but it has a very unnerving feeling about it. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Hazarika is an avid fan of Kanedo Shindo because there are so many moments that bring back visions of a Onibaba or Kuroneko. The ominous music, rustling tall grass hiding and revealing characters and secrets, wild eyed possessed women and a disturbing entity brewing through each story. It’s a unique film in its ability to merge traditional Indian dramatization with a cold surrealism that is indescribable except for how it made me feel… uncomfortable.

Airlift

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.56.45 PM.jpg
Airlift (Raja Krishna Menon, 2016)

I’m going to place a disclaimer here for myself from the get go of this review because I grew up in the United States and was raised mainly on American cinema despite being born in India and being of 100% Indian heritage. Perhaps it is this qualifier that will help the reader gain some perspective as to where I am coming from when I say that Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift is a film with many opportunities to evoke emotion through its inspirational story, but systematically rejects said opportunities and aims only for the low hanging fruits of cheap melodrama.

Melodrama as a means of rendering emotion within audiences is a trope of Indian cinema which has existed since time immemorial, sometimes to its brilliant benefit (Guru Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Raj Kapoor, early Mahesh Bhatt) and many times its colossal detriment (too many to name). But through different cultures, the ways of portraying emotions from pain, to joy, to anger are shaped not only by the culture of the people within that nation, but of the reception and communicative value from screen to audience that speaks the best. Perhaps it is the condition on which I was brought up as a filmgoer and film admirer, that makes it hard for me to take a film like Airlift seriously, when every sequence meant to depict the helpless tragedy and senseless death of those Indians and Kuwaiti’s trapped in Saddam’s hellfire, is a slow-motion shot of people crying or Akshay Kumar looking longingly in a very awkward stance with chest almost jutting out of his sleek dress shirt, or diatribes by characters one-upping each other with moral statements as if they were carefully written political speeches meant to stir a nation to their feet. These moments are nice as nationalistic set-pieces, and clearly by box office and critical raving, the Indian populace has been won over by them, but they hardly evoke more than an eye-roll and a sigh from me.

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.50.22 PM.jpg

Perhaps it is growing up with American cinema that turned me away from such direct melodrama. American cinema has had its share of it sure, but at least since the era of my childhood, it has either been considered completely passé or, in the case of Douglas Sirk, looked upon through cinematic nostalgia as a classical relic of one auteur’s signature style (implemented in films like Far From Heaven not as actual tool for evoking feeling, but as a tool for remembrance of cinema that once was). In Indian cinema, it seems to be the easiest and thus, most utilized way to evoke emotion and its done in most instances where I expect more tact, effort and subtlety.

I always find myself questioning why filmmakers like Raja Krishna Menon feel compelled to spell everything out so obviously through melodrama, and use their camera to make sure absolutely nothing loses our sight and every proverbial socio-political stone is turned so that we don’t have any gray areas to discuss after the film is over. Airlift is the kind of film that, upon returning to a second time, there will be nothing that we discover anew that wasn’t seen upon first-time watching. To compare this film to an Argo and even more egregious and insulting, a Schindler’s List, is to say that this movie riveted or disturbed us in a way those films did, using similar effect to those films to depict the selflessness and sacrifice of individuals to save those less fortunate. But that’s not what I got. I’ve seen Argo, Schindler’s List, even Hotel Rwanda and the basic structural premise, stretched a bit, is all I could say with a straight face was in common between those three films and Airlift. If your thoughts right now are, “well it’s so unfair to compare Airlift to Schindler’s List” you’d be 100% correct. It’s horribly unfair, yet, a good amount of Indian critics have already done it.

Airlift is based on a story that screams for a film adaptation, and in our politically volatile world, a renewed Indian patriotism movement, and turmoil in the Middle East, it seems the right time to create a movie like this. To Menon’s credit, there are some sequences, especially the phone communications between Katiyal and the foreign ministry back in Delhi that ring not only true, but powerful in their criticism of bureaucracy. We see as the desperate calls keep ringing in the Ministry, employees start leaving for lunch. As one worker reaches for the phone, his friend, carrying a tiffin, juts him away signaling to him not to bother because they are officially on break. It’s these types of visual moments, unfettered by any overpowering cinematic music, or dialogue, or overexpression from actors, which make the best moments of Airlift… but they are few and far in between. The rest of the movie is rife with the same ingredients picked from numerous disaster films, aided by a hokey film score to pair with pained closeups of actors faces and the helpless lost look of children in their mother’s arms. Had no context been provided for these scenes, I’d have thought they were part of some NGO or Red Cross outreach infomercial asking for dollar-a-day donations.

Aligarh

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 8.33.21 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 10.10.31 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.58.02 PM

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.

Ugly

ugly7dec25
Ugly (Anurag Kashyap, 2014)

If there was ever a perfect title for an Anurag Kashyap film, this is it. Throughout his filmography, Kashyap’s reputation for dealing with the seedier locales of India, the disturbing psychological issues of battered, depraved, and broken people, has kept people (me) wanting for something that truly evoked the depths of the demented rabbit hole he consistently attempts to venture down. Of course, when Kashyap really wants to, he’s capable of doing just what we expect of him. He is capable of going those distances to reveal the darkest corners of human nature. He’s capable of unveiling the skeletons which Indian society has long held in its closet, locked and boarded up. It is precisely for this reason that I contend Kashyap’s best films are the ones which the Censor Board gives him the hardest time with releasing. The films which pick and gnaw at socio-poilitcal structure, which the higher-ups would necessarily be most insecure about, are the ones which Kashyap is born to make… they are also the ones which Indians most need to hear.

Ugly is Kashyap’s third truly great film, after his never-released stunning debut Paanch and his magnum-opus masterpiece on terrorism and the cycle of hatred in radical religious discourse Black Friday. An effective story of a young girl who is kidnapped after her struggling actor father leaves her in his car to run an errand, Ugly is a film which reveals the two-faced facade of its characters. Throughout the film, I found myself being deeply troubled by the convoluted, round-about ways in which both Rahul (the actor/biological father of the girl) and Inspector Shoumik Bose (her stepfather) try and sabotage each other’s attempts of helping the girl simply for their own heroic gains. It is a turntable mechanism which Kashyap applies to the narrative of this film which exposes a long-standing Bollywood cliche of the “hero” displaying loads of He-man machoism to save the damsel in distress. In this case, that arrogance only leads to self-defeat.

The women in the film are no less disheartening. On the flip-side, they use their sexuality, vulnerability, and loneliness in order to play the cards into their hands. It is a game of emotions, marriage and sex which further isolates the characters into never trusting each other, and thus, further pulls them away from their goal: finding the girl. There are even times during the film where I started wondering if the fact that there is a kidnapped child in the mix even phases these people’s own personal agendas. There is such a strong resentment, such conniving pettiness and pathetic game-play that entangles the individuals in the film, that they rack your brain into yelling through a movie screen. We watch them argue over inane nonsense, and all we can think is about that ticking time-bomb in the back of our minds which keeps clawing and whispering “there is a missing child”… but the reality of the situation is that greed, personal motives, and petty past differences are things which so easily distract people from their goals because they pose themselves as itching annoyances.

The task of finding a girl is so difficult in a city of such a large and dense population that sometimes, it feels better, even easier, to take care of the unimportant things. Perhaps that rejuvenates the motivation. There is a brilliant sequence near the beginning of the film where Rahul and Chaitanya go to the police station to report the missing child, but the Mumbai police, in their typical useless and lazy way, keep diverting the conversation into mundane and unimportant details. Once Chaitanya mentions that he found a guy who’s phone rang as Rahul dialed his daughter’s number, Inspector Jadhav (a brilliant Girish Kulkarni in the film’s best acting performance) automatically found a path to steer the argument into their confusion over how modern technology works. It is so besides the point, but for a solid ten minutes, this is where the conversation forays. At that point you know the police have no intention of trying to find this child, they in fact, don’t give a shit. They would rather sit on their asses for the rest of the day and just go home.

These sequences prove to be the most valuable in Ugly because they evoke the title of the film so beautifully. Nobody’s hands are clean, no business is neat, no streets or alleyways are beautiful, and no soul is un-scarred. Kashyap holds nothing back in this film, and as an indictment against a mentality which has seeped through much of India’s power and class struggles, Ugly proves to be a film which is difficult to look at, perhaps infuriating to listen to… but it is a film which tests our will and struggle to understand the worst of world, because only by knowing the worst, can be hope to make the best.