Category Archives: Indian Cinema

Urban Jungle {Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai}


Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) is a peep into the mess of urbanism, the static everyday and it manages to tell a tale of vast proportions. A tale of our cities and its underwired nexuses. You may say this is an old story. Well all stories are. The builder-politician-bureaucrat underhand dealings were well etched even in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1981). What is different in Shanghai is the presence of the ubiquitous digital video camera. I felt the camera continuing its quiet but prominent presence from LSD (2010) into Shanghai. Like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the underdogs piece together information and re-connect a crime to its perpetrator through images. Much into the film, Kalki’s character Shalini tells the shady but trustworthy Emraan Hashmi’s Jogi “You can do anything to me if you want, but I need that footage.” Yes, it is the footage that counts. The mainstream media in the film is relegated to the television screen. What we see on ground is the migrant from Jodhpur’s digital video store where cheap green curtains form the chroma backdrop for a politician’s advertisement to a couple’s loving proclamations. It is here in a cubby hole on the second floor of a dilapidated building that images are made, copied, renewed, re-processed and saved. There are millions of stores like this in our cities and in our small towns where images are played with. It is here that Banerjee provides the power to fight against a system that remains the same, as much as it changes.

There is time to breathe here. To look carefully at every frame and notice the little details that the filmmaker fills it with. This could have easily been made into a classic political thriller of a ride with quick cuts, pacy action or preaching dialogues. But it is not. And that is its strength. It quietly creeps onto your skin and grows on you as the story unfolds. For me, Dibakar takes conventional material but gives it an unconventional twist. For the enquiry sequence by Abhay Deol’s IAS T.S Krishnan, we watch an ordinary empty room with peeling walls being converted into a enquiry room of a major murder – a woman sweeps the floor, a water cooler whirs, a basketball falls inside, and both Shalini and Krishnan slip on the wet floor outside. The action is almost real-time, but not slow. Every character is slippery and dual. There are nuances which can probably be read and re-read on multiple viewings. This is an urban dystopia unlike that of Satya (1998), where the underworld ruled the netherlands of Mumbai. This is a new dystopia stemming from SEZ’s, displacement and party hooliganism on the streets. The city and film have always had a relationship and in Shanghai, we see a story oft heard and told. But it does so in a rejuvenating way which can only be a good thing for Indian cinema.


Keep The Cameras Rolling {LSD: Love Sex aur Dhokha}

I had read an interview recently of the actor Peter Greenaway in The Guardian, where he states that every religion is concerned with death, while art is concerned with life – which is essentially all about sex. How far you agree with him, need not matter here….but Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD (2010) does have sex at its central theme. And some other truths about life.

When I use the word truth, I use it in the sense, that the director or storywriter, would like to present his/her observations of the world around us through their story. It brings to my mind the ever present debate of cinema being an escape from reality or as Slavoj Zizek says, being even more real than reality itself and representing the ultimate truth about life. Think of the most unreal Bollywood film, or television soap..and it will still show you the truth…culturally and socially relevant themes, positive or regressive, made intentionally or unintentionally by the filmmakers.

But is truth stranger than fiction? And how far is the ‘reality’ shown on television really real? That is the underlying message for me in LSD. Cameras are rolling all the time, be it for a student filmmaker (his institute has a very sardonic name that I can’t recall right now), a Hindi TV news sting journalist or a CCTV camera follower in a supermarket. And we in the audience watch their camera footage, through the director’s camera.

True to his style, each one of Banerjee’s characters are so very well etched and rooted. His actors anonymity lends even more credibility to the story. Equally, it is socially relevant to our times, our vouyeristic age of technology coupled with mass media outlets, and their eventual corruption and lies. It is relevant to our social setup, wherein, a father is ready to let his daughter act in a film where she runs away to marry whom she chooses to….but his role as the patriach doesn’t budge outside in the reality away from the film sets. The women are strong, but are duped by their male counterparts be it in a family, a supermarket or a casting couch. The only woman who calls the shots here is the one at the head of a television news channel! It is gritty, funny, sardonic and sad….

For the only two people in this story who apparently love each other, face the worst of what reality can do.

I think LSD is a very important film for Hindi cinema…not just because it is termed as radical (that it talks about sex and is graphic, or uses digital techniques, does away with famous actors etc.) but because it is clever in sending across a message through humour, that what you see is not what you always get. The third eye here or the camera – reveals reality…which can be hyperreal as in the case of reality TV….or it can be an escape from a reality which is essentially cruel to its characters….or there is the reality….of Dibakar Banerjee’s camera itself.

I digress but I can’t help but end with a quote from Michael Haneke: “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.”

Romancing the Tragically Beautiful

Mohabbatein (2000)

Many a Hollywood and Bollywood romantic film has stuck to stereotypes. Either the audience can revel in these stereotypes as an escape into the life of characters and plots that they can fantasize about. Or discard them as over-the-top simplifications of an otherwise complicated life. In most cases, there is distinct sexism. We usually use the word “hero” for a Bollywood male character. The entire connotation, is that he is at the centre and everyone’s world revolves around him. Today, the form of the Hindi film may have changed but this standard stereotype still exists in the content subtly.

Or there is another kind of romantic drama – a tragic comedy, where no body stays together forever and the ending is open-ended. Their characters are more true to life, also more likable and identifiable….and to some extent aspirational.

I’m picking two films, for reasons being, that both bring out complexities of human relationships. They define the mysteriously tragic and comical ways of the heart, and still leave you with hope.

Sparsh (1980)

khaali pyaala, dhundla darpan (empty veseel, blurred mirror)

I saw Sai Paranjpaye’s Sparsh once again a few months ago. I saw it last as a student in college and it was a thoroughly moving experience then, if not greater now. No doubt Naseeruddin Shah as the blind headmaster of a children’s blind school is masterful, but so is equally Shabana Azmi as a woman in grief over the loss of her husband.

Both these characters want to step out of their loneliness but don’t know where to begin and how. Individually before they come across each other, they are almost self-sufficient in their pre-occupations – hers being music and his being his profession. But they come together, touched by something that each offers the other. At one point, Shabana’s character Kavita feels close to being selfish – in her quest to regain her happiness through the love of the children in the blind school where she begins volunteering. Is she being only pitiful? Or is there a genuine inspiration and love in her for the children and Naseeruddin’s character Aniruddh? And is Aniruddh being too harsh on himself and Kavita and letting go of a real chance at love?

I really appreciated these faults, the apprehensions on both sides, fears, complexes and baggage of the two leads. And it’s all coming together into something beautiful.

Manhattan (1979)
“I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.”

Why is life worth living? Asks Woody Allen’s character in his film Manhattan.

This is one of my favorite Woody Allen films, it has the signature Woody characters, humour, monologues and conversations, and the ironies of love. The cityscape in black and white and the classical and Jazz musical score transport me into old world Hollywood, while watching a very contemporary story. In the above scene, after Issac’s monologue ends, his desire to meet Tracy who he has dumped, gives the scene an almost a fairy tale feeling….where he, the protagonist is seizing the moment, to get back what he lost in one last-ditch effort. And it’s the monologue in the opening of the film, that sets us for the rest of the story to an end that depends upon our imagination and point of view.

Issac: Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be..

Diane Keaton’s Mary is pretentious, intelligent and confused. The brief appearance of Meryl Streep as Issac’s lesbian ex-wife is hilarious. And one of the most touching scenes – Issac with his young son in a restaurant on their day out in the city of New York. Issac is disillusioned with his television writing job, his best friend doesn’t mind cheating his wife for Mary, a snobbish art journalist. This to my mind, leaves the very young Tracy as the only character, pure in her intentions and passions in the bustling metropolis.

And to end, here’s a song by Julie Delpy and Nouvelle Vague from her film 2 days in Paris! A wonderful directorial début after her roles in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset….films I have seen repeatedly, and never tire of.

“I want to stay for a while…until it’s time to let go.”

Paper Flowers {Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool}

“Waqt ne kiya“, the song from Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool is not just a song. If you have seen it, wouldn’t you agree with me? After re-watching this film, I believe what I’ve always felt, that this song is a world unto its own. A world of film language which is so complete in it’s grammar, communication and emotion.

Watch the camera move away from Waheeda’s face, lighted only on the face, and then watch her face lighted from below, her eyes pleading and yearning. Watch Dutt’s face half-lighted, and his character struggling. Watch them silhoutted, together only for that one frame of time, parting ways sooner than they think. And the beam of light, like heaven’s rays cutting through them, or bringing them together…for what?

And the song with it’s music by S.D Burman, lyrics by Kaifi Azmi and vocals by Geeta Dutt is for me, something complete..for lack of any other word. I can watch this song over and over again, and feel awed, seared, inspired and I don’t know how to express it –  that emotion of having seen a work of art where you experience the joy and sadness of understanding the truth of life itself.

Dunno what I’m blabbering……this should save it…

Kya talaash hai, kuch pata nahin, Bun rahein hai dil khwaab dum-ba-dum…..

(What am I searching for, I don’t know. This heart keeps knitting dreams with each breath it takes)

Superheroes of Malegaon!


Supermen of Malegaon by Faiza Ahmad Khan is a documentary film unlike any other documentary film, about a film and it’s filmmakers unlike any other filmmakers. But they are very much like you and me, who have dreams and a passion to bring onto film – their vision.

The subjects of the documentary supply us with anecdotes and couplets, their words of inspiration and aspirations and the director Faiza, brings it all together for us in a seamless 78 min of running time.

Briefly, the documentary tells the story of a self-taught filmmaker of local films in the city of Malegaon – Shaikh Nasir. He and his group of friends, who work in the weaving looms of the city, take leave from their daily work – to come together and create cinema! The cinema is their version, their comedic spoof of famous films like Sholay and yes, Superman.

One cannot stop laughing or being amused throughout the film, at their attempts of filming this desi skinny superman, but there is also admiration and respect for their creativity and will, to go ahead and make something by themselves. Within all the mirth, resides the reality of their poverty and yet their desire to be happy, to make others happy through what they enjoy doing best –  writing and creating films.

Every member of this motley crew is inspiring. From Shaikh the director who values the fact how filmmaking is a team effort, the writer who feels the pain of his words and characters not translating half as much on-screen as how he imagined, or the villain, who dreams of making it to Bombay, or the poignancy of Shaikh’s brother who shares as much love for cinema as him, but can’t involve himself, due to his brother’s belief that it has no future.

This is a film within a film, and both the subjects and the director have done great work in putting it together as one unit.

Superman says in the film, “It is my dream to play Amitabh one day.” And after the screening of the film, he tells the audience, “Yeh abhi bhi khwab lag raha hai.” (“All this feels like a dream”)

Here’s to dreams and more dreams!