Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.
Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).
Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.
The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?
I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.
I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.
There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested.
Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.
The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.
Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.
I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.
Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.
Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.
The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.
Outline (no spoilers)
The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.
This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.
The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.
For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way. I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.
This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?
This was the major Hindi cinema release for Christmas 2017, one of the most expensive Indian productions and already a global hit. It’s a follow-up to the similarly successful Ek Tha Tiger from 2012. At the end of that film, ‘Tiger’, an Indian ‘super spy’ was assumed ‘missing’ after an incident in Cuba. This sequel sees the agent of RAW (India’s secret service) discovered living a settled family life in the Austrian Tyrol when his services are required to rescue 25 Indian nurses held captive by ISIL-style terrorists in Northern Iraq. What he doesn’t realise at first is that there are also 15 Pakistani nurses in the same predicament and Tiger’s Pakistani wife Zoya, also a ‘super spy’ agent, but for Pakistan’s ISI, is charged with getting them out.
Tiger Zinda Hai displays all the elements we might expect in a contemporary Indian blockbuster. Its narrative is built around its two major stars, Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, re-united from the 2012 film. These two find themselves in a typical masala film in the sense that it combines elements of the family film, the romance, action picture and war combat film. In doing so it borrows from a range of well-known films and star vehicles. Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) are married spies just as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr & Mrs (US 2005) are married assassins hired to kill each other. Tiger and Zoya might indeed find themselves on opposite sides of a case (as they did in the earlier film). But they also have a young son, Junior, like the secret service parents in Spy Kids (US 2001). Once the action starts, Tiger becomes an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Superman – while Zoya is more akin to a Michelle Yeoh or Bridget Lin in a Hong Kong action flic. Hindi cinema has always been keen on importing ideas from Hollywood and Hong Kong but I’m sure there are also homegrown Indian models I haven’t seen. I am well aware, however, that Indian cinema has had ‘action women’ since at least the 1940s.
There are several interesting aspects of the narrative. The idea of Indian and Pakistani agents fighting together against terrorists in the current climate is perhaps a fantasy, but still an intriguing prospect. It’s also novel (in the UK) to see a narrative about the continued fighting in Iraq which doesn’t take the American or European perspective. (The Americans are portrayed as not altogether trustworthy in this film.) Ironically, the film was shot mainly in the UAE which has a significant population of Indian migrant workers (a third of the local population?) mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The UAE is also a market for Indian films. How many Indian migrant workers are in Iraq is less straightforward to quantify. News reports about stranded migrant workers have been numerous, but mostly in construction rather than the oil industry. The city where the nurses are held is given as ‘Ikrit’ – presumably a fictitious version of Tikrit (the birthplace of Sadam Hussein). The villain in the film is the terrorist leader played by Sajjad Delafrooz, an actor born in Iran but now living in the UAE. He’s very effective I think. I’d like to comment on the actors playing Americans but IMDb’s cast list seems to omit most of them. They seemed OK and certainly better than many of the Anglos in Indian films.
The traditional masala film in the 1970s-90s had six or seven lavish song and dance sequences. Tiger Zinda Hai still has songs but one is used for the closing credits (and is performed in a Greek island setting). Only one other song actually stops the narrative as such – a love song in the Tyrolean setting. I can’t remember much about the other four.
Since this franchise is built around its two stars, it’s necessary to think about how Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif perform. Since I haven’t see them in anything else except the first Tiger film (and in Kaif’s case as a fantasy figure in one episode in Bombay Talkies), I’m dependent on news reports and trailers for other films. Salman Khan is a big star, perhaps only just behind Aamir Khan and Sharukh Khan in the rankings. His persona is very much as the muscle man and in this film he does rip off his shirt at one point to display his physique. My impression is that he has put on more bulk since the first Tiger film. He is also said to be quite a short man (various claims are made but he’s probably about 5′ 6” – the other two major stars are not much taller). This makes Salman Khan almost square but his movements are impressive. I thought he was fine in his role and gave his fans what they want. Katrina Kaif was much more impressive than I expected her to be. Her career was dogged in the beginning by claims that she was ‘inauthentic’. She was born in Hong Kong to an English mother and British Kashmiri father and lived in various countries before settling in London where she was ‘discovered’ by a British-based Indian filmmaker when working as a model. Brought to India she continued modelling and featured in several films but was hindered by her lack of Hindi language skills. Her Tiger performances have helped to establish her properly (especially since both films have made substantial profits). I was most impressed by her athleticism – I believed that her character could perform the action moves. She is tall (certainly taller than Salman Khan) and lithe and she dances well. I will certainly consider watching her future films. As it turned out, I watched the first Tiger film, the day after watching the second. (There is a post on Ek Tha Tiger (2012) here.) I think I actually prefer the first film because it has more romance and fewer explosions. The second film is also 20+ minutes longer under a different director, Ali Abbas Zafar. He also wrote and directed Salman Khan’s 2016 blockbuster, Sultan, a genuine muscle-man flic on the basis of the trailer.
The Leeds Film Festival showed the restored version of Aparajito in the 60th anniversary year of its appearance on the world stage. Satyajit Ray’s film, the second part of his Apu trilogy, received many prizes on its first appearance and much praise from cinephiles over the following decades. This was initially mainly from international rather than Indian audiences, though a balance has since been restored. As such a revered classic, there is a danger that an audience now might take it for granted. Personally, I found that the restoration, although it couldn’t overcome every aspect of the damage done to the original film following years of neglect, still managed to produce a print of startling clarity and I felt like I was watching a new film.
As the second film to be based on the original novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Aparajito (‘Unvanquished‘) bridges the two novels. Satyajit Ray did alter the narrative in significant ways. The young Apu has moved to Benares with his father and mother. Father works as a priest on the ghats, but quite quickly catches a fever and dies. Apu and his mother move back to the village of Apu’s great-uncle where the boy decides to abandon his apprenticeship as a priest and attend school. It is the final section of the narrative that Ray changed in terms of the relationship between widowed mother and son – and in doing so, alienated more traditional audiences.
The presentation of Apu’s development and his eventual estrangement from his mother is very subtle and effective. I admire and respect Ray for what he achieved in this film, but I was most taken by Subrata Mitra’s camerawork (and the accompanying music by Ravi Shankar). The early scenes of Benares in what is meant to be the early 1920s are beautiful and make an interesting comparison with the recent film, Hotel Salvation (India 2017) also set on the ghats of Benares (now Varanasi). The later images of the village recall the train on the horizon as it was in Pather Panchali, but I was delighted to see images of Calcutta, including shots by the Hooghly River and on the Maidan. What is surprising (and possibly a result of the very limited budget) is the complete absence of any evidence of the British Raj in a city which up until 10 years earlier was the capital of British India and still the major commercial city of India. Perhaps this absence is one of the factors which gives the Apu Trilogy its ‘timeless and universal’ appeal? Ray hints at the impact of modernity on the adolescent Apu as he sets off for Calcutta clutching the globe given to him by his village schoolteacher and wearing his first lace-up shoes. In Calcutta he is delighted to find his room has electricity for lighting. All this is very effective, but what are we to make of the presentation of Calcutta without the crowds? Was it really so sleepy and deserted in the 1920s? Or again, is it just a matter of budget. technology and learning what can be done with the available technology? Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) has quite a bit to say about the innovations made by Ray, Mitra and designer Bansi Chandragupta in photographing the studio sets and matching them to location shots in Benares. The key was the discovery of so-called ‘bounce lighting’ using diffused studio lighting and reflectors to simulate daylight seeping into the Benares house.
The outpouring of critical praise for the film in the West and the reluctance to recognise the ‘modernity’ of the relationships by the Bengali audience were indicative of the way Ray soon became institutionalised within the international ‘humanist art film’ movement of the 1950s. He also quickly became the kind of director who would be seen as an auteur, a ‘personal’ filmmaker. I haven’t read the original novels from which he took the Apu character but looking at the photos of the young Ray in Seton’s book, it isn’t difficult to see the young Apu (played by Sumiran Kumar Ghosal) as the same tall spindly young man who Ray was when going to Presidency College some ten years later in the 1930s. Apu even lives over a print shop where he works part-time. Ray’s family had once owned a printing and publishing business. I was also entertained by the university classroom scenes in which I finally learned how to explain the meaning of ‘synedoche’. But in the end, Aparajito‘s greatest gift for me is to set the scene for Ray’s 1960s films set in Calcutta and before that the third film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959).
The print shown in Leeds is the restoration distributed on Blu-ray by Criterion in the US: https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/1145-the-apu-trilogy
Here’s the Criterion trailer for the box-set of the trilogy:
Rajat Kapoor is known in the UK as an actor (having appeared in more than 40 films) across mainstream Hindi and independent features. But in India he is also recognised as a director of low budget independent films. This busy actor-filmmaker made the trip to the North of England to make appearances at both Sheffield Showroom and HOME in Manchester as part of ‘Not Just Bollywood’. He accompanied his most recent feature as director (and supporting actor), introducing his film and staying on for a Q&A after the screening. Ankhon Dekhi is a remarkable film. I left the screening intrigued, slightly bemused and realising I needed to think more about it.
The film’s title translates roughly as ‘Seeing with your own eyes’. It only dawned on me later that ‘dekko’ is another Hindi loan word that no doubt crept into English usage during the colonial era– as in “Have a dekko at this”. The central character Bauji, a fifty-something man living with his extended family in old Delhi, decides to follow the philosophical position of believing only what he can see with his own eyes as closely as possible and in doing so turns upside down his own family and his group of friends in the local community. Everything kicks off with an event both shocking and mundane at the same time. The whole of Bauji’s extended family overreacts when it is revealed that Bauji’s daughter is seeing a young man who is assumed to be a ‘bad lot’ and certainly not appropriate as husband and son-in-law. But is he that bad? Or indeed not bad at all? Bauji is not convinced that the young man is a villain, but at first his daughter’s life takes a back seat as Bauji himself becomes known as a philosopher, giving up his job and acquiring a circle of followers, mainly from the local barber’s shop where men gather (a link to African-American culture I hadn’t thought of before).
Some time after the screening, I had a revelation about what Ankhon Dekhi might be reminding me of when I read a viewer’s comment on IMDb: “Rajat Kapoor’s refreshingly eccentric yet gimmick-less (even hype-less) Ankhon Dekhi is kind of a déja vu of Malgudi Days. The film revolves around Bauji who lives in his own ideological world and believes in the inherent goodness of people” (‘rangdetumpy’ from India). I came across the charming and beautifully written novels (in English) of R. K. Narayan around forty years ago. Narayan, a southern writer born in Madras, invented his own fictional town of Malgudi. His stories deal with everyday and mainly inconsequential events which reveal everything about a small community of characters. There is definitely a link between Bauji and Narayan’s world. Ankhon Dekhi is set in Old Delhi and Rajat Kapoor told us that finding the particular dwelling with its interconnected rooms and communal spaces to serve as the film’s central location was one of the most important aspects of the film’s production. The extended family includes Bauji’s brother (Rajat Kapoor) and his family and the closeness – which has benefits and disbenefits – becomes another factor. Ankhon Dekhi works because it is both specific in its Old Dehli milieu and ‘universal’ as a family comedy melodrama. It also suggests another Indian genre – that concerned with the ‘guru’ or ‘pandit’. Bauji attracts followers and it isn’t too difficult to see that both guru and followers are ripe for some form of gentle satire. Alternatively, perhaps his philosophy works and we are the ones to be gently mocked? Again, Narayan had a similar story, The Guide (1958) which follows a character, a tour guide, who will eventually become seen as some kind of spiritual guide by his followers. Like Narayan, Rajat Kapoor ends his narrative with an open question about Bauji’s status and whether he can survive the journey he seems to be making.
Ankhon Dekhi is a lovely film with a great ensemble cast who present scenes about life in their neighbourhood that allow us to reflect on love and friendship and the fascination of daily life. Rajat Kapoor explained that he grew up in this kind of family in a similar part of Old Delhi. It is clearly a film that ‘Not Just Bollywood’ curator Omar Ahmed holds very dear, as was apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening. Omar asked questions which referred back to his own earlier presentation on the ‘Hindies’ phenomenon and Rajat Kapoor explained how, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, someone appeared who was prepared to find the half a million dollars required to make the film. This was Manish Mundra. Ankhon Dekhi was the first production for Drishyam Films, the company Mundra set up. Four years and several other productions later (including Newton (2017)). Mundra was able to announce a $20 million fund to finance 8-10 new Indian independent films. This development promises new films but how these films will be distributed and how they will find audiences remains an issue. Rajat Kapoor told us that Ankhon Dekhi has still not covered its production costs. But he also suggested that the new possibilities offered by Netflix and other streaming services might help indie films to be seen outside the big metros (a question from the audience queried whether this would mean that films like Ankhon Dekhi would never get into cinemas). At the moment, a film like Ankhon Dekhi is still likely to be seen mainly at film festivals (in India and abroad) – and not in local cinemas on release. Rajat suggested that it doesn’t really matter if Netflix don’t allow films they produce to get into cinemas if it means that audiences can still see small independent films on their TV sets or online. He admitted that the biggest success of Ankhon Dekhi, for him, was that every day somebody new would see his film on the various outlets and that he could feel the love for the film when people stopped him on the street to congratulate him.
Ankhon Dekhi won awards in India but Rajat Kapoor is still struggling to fund one of the four new scripts he has completed. His next film will try for crowd-funding and we were all invited to contribute. In a final response to a question by Omar Ahmed about the potential for this new ‘wave’ of Indian independents, Rajat Kapoor was not optimistic. “There are perhaps 5 films each year that are interesting independents – and we make 1500 films a year.” I’m not sure I agree that only 5 are examples of new ideas, but Rajat did finally relent by agreeing that, slowly Indians are getting more access to ‘world cinema’ and tastes are changing. Let’s hope so if we are going to get more films like Ankhon Dekhi. Rajat himself is a link to the ‘New Cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s since he was inspired by two of the directors of the period, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, while he was at the Film Institute in Pune and they are both acknowledged at the end of Ankhon Dekhi.
A short interview with Rajat Kapoor has been posted on HOME’s website:
This film in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season is an award-winning documentary from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya who together seem to have been involved in most aspects of the film’s production. Amit Madheshiya is a photographer based in Mumbai who had already received prizes for his work photographing travelling cinemas before he and Shirley Abraham worked on a film documentary. Both filmmakers received an M.A. from the Mass Communication Research Centre at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2006 and then worked on globally-funded arts projects. This film also received support from the Sundance Film Festival.
Although largely ignored in conventional film studies, travelling cinemas and similar activities have attracted the attention of ethnographers because of the curious mix of arts, religion and rural culture that surrounds the subject. It isn’t difficult to see how the film came to be listed for so many prizes and indeed to win several. The material is very engaging and the documentary style is handled authoritatively but lightly – a great achievement for first time filmmakers who have referred to taking advice from books and Sundance tutors at an Edit Lab. I would term the style ‘Direct Cinema’, going back to the classic 1960s work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and others. This is often confused with ciné vérité and there is a useful distinction between the two on the IDEAS ∣ FILM website. Direct Cinema implies that nothing gets in between the event and the camera eye, so no appearances or commentaries by the filmmakers or ‘the voice of God’.
The film’s narrative is carried by three ‘characters’. Mohammed and Bapu are both travelling cinema exhibitors and the third character is Prakash who has spent many years in his workshop maintaining and re-building cinema projectors. These kinds of travelling cinemas have been operating for seventy years or so in parts of eastern Maharashtra, 100 kilometres or more inland from Mumbai. It is a seasonal business and the exhibitors use a lorry (truck) to transport projection equipment in parts that is then re-assembled on site and films are projected from the bed of the truck onto a canvas screen erected in a large circus-style tent. Or at least, that’s how Mohammed manages it. Bapu’s truck is so vintage that the engine no longer operates and the truck is towed into place by a tractor. The two operators each have a different approach. Bapu attracts kids and lets them in free as the audience of the future – the children are allowed to use a microphone like a fairground barker to attract the main audience in the villages presumably close to his base. Mohammed has a larger crew and his is a more commercial operation which tries to show as many screenings as possible before moving on to the next fair.
Fairs/festivals are common across India in cities and in rural areas. The specific fairs in this region where Mohammed operates may in the past have had a primary religious purpose, but some now seem to be as much about entertainment. As a venue for cinema exhibition they form part of the huge diversity of Indian film culture from modern multiplexes in the metros to traditional single screen cinemas in smaller centres and to ‘B’ and ‘C’ circuit cinemas as well as video screenings and mobile cinemas, outdoor screenings etc. The films are equally varied with some relatively recent mainstream films, some more ancient and in one tent what appears to be soft porn.
Part of the real pleasure of the film is in following the process of putting on a screening and seeing how the exhibitors cope with all the usual problems of exhibition – keeping the audience on side when the reels of film arrive late, keeping ancient projectors working and making sure the projectionists treat the equipment with care. The inclusion of Prakash is a good choice as his enthusiasm and his skill in dealing with projectors shines through as he demonstrates his own, hand-built projector with all kinds of refinements for perfect running. Sadly, it will probably never be used because this documentary has been made during the period when even travelling cinemas have been forced to abandon 35mm film projection and move towards digital. India has a thriving ‘E’ cinema culture which runs in parallel with Hollywood’s ‘D’ cinema system. That means cheaper projectors and laptops rather than the DCP projection. Even so, the cost of new equipment is a shock for Mohammed and the familiar problems about licence keys and software upgrades still need to be solved – and that’s not easy without local broadband connections. All this sounds like it might be the end for Prakash – a sprightly man in his 70s, immaculately turned out in his workshop. But fear not, he’s got his future sussed and his family won’t go hungry.
The Cinema Travellers is a joy to watch and deserves the interest and praise it is attracting. We do get to learn a lot about the ‘business’, but I would have liked more. I’m assuming that many of the cinema crews and audience members are speaking Marathi but I’m not sure whether the films shown are Hindi or Marathi (I’m assuming a mix?). I think for audiences outside India it is difficult to grasp how cinema distribution and exhibition works for the people in the film. Many reviews refer to ‘remote communities’. I’m not sure that these villages are ‘remote’ – they are just far away enough from a town to make going to a ‘standing’ cinema impractical. We hear how people are now watching films on their phones and we see families watching TV. Is it the social aspect, the getting away from family that makes this type of exhibition still viable, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past? My feeling is that this documentary (as distinct from the larger project for the co-directors) aims for the universal story of the small operator struggling to keep a business going than it does for ‘documenting’ an industry practice. Which is fine if it is done with the skill and artistic flair presented here.
Here is a Cannes Report that introduces the filmmakers and a glimpse of the film:
. . . and here are the filmmakers in Heidelberg reflecting on their long-term project investigating the cultural activity of travelling cinemas:
Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.
Outline (no spoilers)
‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?
Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.
The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.
For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?
Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.
I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.
‘Not Just Bollywood‘ is, as the title suggests, a season of films and other events presented at HOME in Manchester, celebrating the diversity of Indian film culture after 70 years of independence. Curated by our esteemed colleague Omar Ahmed, it offers films from ‘Hindie’ or ‘independent Hindi cinema’ as well as titles using Marathi and Assamese languages. Omar will be offering a ‘1 hour intro’, there will be a panel discussion on Indian Independent Cinema plus a Q&A with one of the directors featured and an introduction to the Assamese film.
The programme starts on 14th September with The Lunchbox (India, Hindi 2013), followed by:
16th September: One Hour Intro to New ‘Hindie Cinema’ followed by Newton (India, Hindi 2017)
20th September: Ankhon Dekhi (India, Hindi 2013) + Q&A with director Rajat Kapoor
24th September: The Cinema Travellers (India, Hindi, Marathi, 2016)
26th September: Court (India, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, English, 2014) + Panel Discussion on Independent Cinema
30th September: Kothanodi (India, Assamese, 2015) + Introduction
Full details of the programme and each screening/event are available from HOME: Not Just Bollywood.
I’ll be there for most of the dates. If you can get to Manchester, please come and join us – you won’t be disappointed!