Friday, January 27, 2012


Cast: Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Mukul S. Anand
Runtime: 167 min.
Verdict: One of our finest filmmaker’s masterstroke.
Genre: Drama, Crime

                It might be tempting to brand Mr. Anand’s Agneepath as one of those “interesting failures”, especially when he himself wasn’t exactly satisfied with the finished film, and walk away. But then, this was a time a kid (me) was fed with ready-to-digest stuff like Toofan and Shahenshah, or even Deewar (this was the late 80s, my dad started taking me to the movies as early as he could), where the images were exciting but linear, and where the general notion assumed an Amitabh Bachchan film was mostly designed keeping the kids in mind, Mr. Anand’s film, with its grim barely lit interiors mostly served only by a silvery ray barging its way in, and its dynamic almost distorted frames – the distortion seeping from/into the anger within – the experience was somewhat maddening, and probably even unpleasant. It was an Amitabh Bachchan film unlike any Amitabh Bachchan film, and there was a resident ugliness about the proceedings I probably wasn’t prepared for.
This is, we need to understand, a time when the social structure was easily defined, what with our movies mostly being mouthpieces for the working class, and a deep-rooted suspicion of any foreign body wanting to “invest” in here, who happened to be easily classified under the section provided for my Mr. Tom Alter, or the late Bob Christo, or even Mr. Kader Khan donning a white suit and silken grey hair and a pair of sunglasses and walking inside a submarine. This was the time where suits were almost shorthand for some kind of corruption, or in the very least financial affluence, and power, that one ought to be in the very least suspicious of. And unlike much of mainstream Hindi cinema’s resident classical cut-and-dried approach to such issues as if reading out a newspaper article, Mr. Anand doesn’t leave the fabric all clean and dry. The camera does track along smoothly but jags along in a staccato. There’s a roughness in those “steadicam” (probably?)shots that seem to betray the undulating undeveloped terrain below. There is some serious physicality going for his film here, and in the manic energy of the film’s exaggerated movements the feeling is one of exploding warts. You know, like watching, and applauding and squirming watching Saurav Ganguly’s shirt-waving antics down at the Lord’s, or Virat Kohli in general. I quite like the tone of this article.
                Mr. Anand probably was the only other filmmaker, besides Mr. Chandra Barot (Don), who displayed the filmmaking chops to modulate an Amitabh Bachchan performance, and to not let the rest of the film be an aside. There sure is respect, so much so that one might even be “fooled” into believing the film is playing to the performer’s tune. Vijay Chavan (Mr. Bachchan) walks into the Commissioner’s house intending to warn him, and in keeping with his restlessness Mr. Anand provides us with this profile foregrounded heavily with the Commissioner’s body. We know he’s talking, but until now it mostly feels like rhetoric.

And the camera starts tracking in, slowly as the performer’s restlessness gives way to conviction, and this is where we end. Oh yeah, we’re listening. Movements like these, and Vijay Chavan feels less a character and more a force of nature.

The film, though, wouldn’t let the performer run away with its tone. Here was a man fresh from his political debacle and really angry, and Mr. Anand both plays up the icon and causes him to embarrass himself using that very same raw material (performance). Vijay Chavan walks into his bosses’ den, and Mr. Anand uses one of narrative cinema’s standard tropes – the introduction through shoes – to not merely tune into its standard service of representing the power equation, but to let him physically announce his presence as well. Be it the murder in the prison, or climbing down those symbolic stairs down in Mauritius, or the crowd outside the hospital, Mr. Anand goes real close with his compositions and wraps it around the corporeality. In those dark rooms he’s the one surrounded by enemies, or in those slums he’s the one hogged by devotees touching him, feeling him. The need for this reverence, or worship, is at the heart of Agneepath, and it is a need that seems to run within the genes, from dad to son. Mr. Anand highlights (contrasts) this spectacularly in a sequence down at a classy restaurant, an absolute caricature/shorthand for the bourgeoisie, and despite the odds (what chance does the precious affluent class of society have against the raw honesty of the working class) Vijay Chavan neither intimidates nor trumps the establishment (ala Howard Hughes in The Aviator) but instead, thanks to the almost disdainful calmness of everyone including the restaurant official, is basically caught frothing in his mouth. It is an expansive place, with human figures distributed around, and in its vacuum Vijay Chavan cuts a pathetic figure, the embarrassment of which he wishes to wash away in the intimacy of the slum. There’s a sense of insecurity in the performance that Mr. Anand taps into. Here is a man neck-deep in his identity crisis, and to constantly recite his roots is probably more of a defense mechanism than anything else.   
                Mr. Anand draws some serious leverage from banisters, which hitherto in Hindi cinema were only silent representatives of status, but here becomes the defining boundary, a sort of separation between the powerful and, well, us.

                It is in fact one of Mr. Anand’s one of many masterstrokes in the way he separates even “our hero” from us, making in many ways “the inaccessible powerful”. This was never the Amitabh Bachchan we have known. The whole sequence down in Mauritius, i.e. the Alibaba song, becomes a sort of meta-narrative to the proceedings (so much so that I might as well shed everything else and concentrate wholly and solely on this song), chalking out the power zones within the film, and also through those spectacular uber-stylish ultra-closeup staccato pans, from right to left and from top to bottom around Vijay’s profile, juxtaposing the opaque present with the past, acting some sort of reminder is probably one of Hindi cinema’s inspired moments. There were many films (Ram Lakhan and Parinda) that dwelled on revenge and moral corruption but none that incorporated the whole bargain into its very aesthetic.
                This makes it all the more frustrating when the narrative absolutely derails in the final hour, achieving some ludicrously high melodramatic pitches, which, to be honest, didn’t make sense then, and don’t make sense now. Mr. Anand was rightly unsatisfied the way the film came out. I never understood his wife lamenting him about Mandwa, as if he had meandered from his goals, when the film presents a Vijay Chavan so resolutely chasing his vengeance. There’s probably something about Vijay Chavan coming around from wanting to be worshipped to conforming to God, and I guess that was on Mr. Anand’s mind, that gesture of dropping the village’s mud before the idol could be an indicator of submission and acceptance. Yet, Agneepath is a maddening trainwreck, arm-twisting its way into some sort of resolution. Which is disappointing. Because this remains one of my greatest influences. Those intense expressionistic closeups focusing on a raised brow or a moved finger, those rack-focused shots, the staccato pans are personal territory. But more importantly it showed one of cinema’s great actors in a rather new light. Despite Adalat, despite Trishul, and despite Aakhri Raasta, there never was an image of my man sitting around talking whilst a man pleaded on his legs. I never knew Amitabh Bachchan could be ruthless and frightening. To see a hero smile whilst his sister is kidnapped leaves one hell of an impression. It was some experience, when I first saw Agneepath, of not an anti-hero but a neo-villain. For that alone, for bringing a crisis into the very identity of this great actor, I consider this Mr. Mukul Anand’s masterstroke. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011, and your Best Picture

The Grumbach Awards 2011
I thought this might be the appropriate moment to discuss the one title that has managed to make the transition from my wish-list of movies-to-see to things-to-do, although it is still a fair distance away from things-to-do-before-I-die. Nevertheless, I have fantasized all year, since the day I read David Bordwell’s blog, to one day pack my bag with portable food, take my wife and spend a whole day watching Christian Marclay’s The Clock. And talk. And watch. I say, that’ll be the day. 

Best Picture

The Nominees are (In alphanumeric order):

Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da (Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (Review forthcoming)
The mayor’s daughter sure is beautiful. I mean, she’s divine. Not since Inglourious Basterds’ opening has there been a scene that has achieved such precise connection with the audience, being both with it and ahead of it. It’s magical and amusing working on so many different levels, motivating explaining and mystifying the entire film. Not many movies remind us of Stalker, and Mr. Ceylan’s film does. My guess is it isn’t merely the most perfectly crafted film of the year, but its most perfectly realized. A masterpiece. 

Budanggeorae (Dir: Ryu Seung-wan) (Review forthcoming)
If somebody ever wanted to make a sequel to The Departed, here is a film infinitely more skillful and precise. What’s more, it is readily available. Arguably the year’s most dynamic film, and easily its most stylish. From its opening of a city enclosed within and under a media-controlled apparatus, to its skyrises, to its golf-courses, Mr. Ryu Seung-wan, much like Elena below, creates the year’s keenest layout of a city in a social context. This is what we call an absolute stunner, the kind of genius we seek from the Koreans in the genre department. This is a filmmaker we need to keep a track of. At least, I need to. 

Elena (Dir: Andre Zvyagintsev)   (Read review)
 Mr. Zvyagintsev’s best film, and I absolutely agree with what I believe to be the film’s central political stance. I mean, why the hell should he? But leave all that, and relish the sheer mastery of some of the shots here, especially the opening, where new spaces are revealed in a way as if the history of a nation is being re-created. I do not think any other film this year builds a keener more insightful layout of a city in a historical context. And yeah, those three-way mirror shots not only reveal a novel way of staging that cliché but greatly intensify the Macbeth-ian angle. Killer, I say.


El Primio (Dir: Paula Markovitch)
The autobiographical film of the year. Filled with so many moments so detailed it could not be fiction. The way a name is to be pronounced, to the way a chessboard is to be used, to the way words are understood, to the way an essay is written, Ms. Markovitch’s incredibly moving film doesn’t let the shaping of a childhood be oblivious of a country’s politics, or the society, or the family. My guess is that linguists, and maybe even anthropologists, would be thrilled. And in the mother’s breakdown piece we’ve the sort of honest and heartbreaking moment James M. Cain would be proud of.

Ha-Shoter (Dir: Nadav Lapid)   (Read review)
In Mr. Lapid we probably (there’s Ms. Julia Leigh as well) have the hottest new talent. For topicality alone (Israeli social unrest), this movie achieves the kind of significance few others this year have. Very political, and very critical, my guess is this movie probably finds Israel at a very critical juncture in its history. Or maybe…I don’t know. Whatever it is, this film gets macho. And that is an A+ in my book. 

Hwang hae (Dir: Na Hong-jin)  (Read review)
Sergio Leone once said of Once Upon a Time in the West“The rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes just before dying. Once Upon a Time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death.”  All of the characters, apart from Jill, seem to be conscious of the fact that they wouldn’t arrive at the end alive. In Mr. Hong-jin’s film, everyone seems to be destined to their death, and yet they are resilient to survive at any cost. It’s a dog’s life, they say. This follow-up to The Chaser is a massive epic, slowly building and spreading into some sort of a contagion, affecting everybody. Arguably the most intensely physical film of the year, and certainly it’s most visceral.

Meek’s Cutoff (Dir: Kelly Reichardt)
The tension here is unbearable. Your mind runs in a thousand directions, and as opposed to Mr. Ceylan’s masterpiece, we do not even have the comfort that everybody would end up safe. It runs something like an extended Hitchcock experiment, observing the everyday details, but ticking the bomb in the background. Ms. Reichardt uses the academic ratio to killer effect, essentially boxing what would have been Lawrence of Arabia widescreen, and somehow manages to create claustrophobia from that expansive landscape. Oh yeah, there’s the year’s most astonishing dissolve. 

Mildred Pierce (Dir: Todd Haynes)   (Read review)
I hated this film. I mean, I was filled with hate while watching this film. For its characters. Mr. Haynes, channeling Fassbinder here, creates such carefully constructed frames, where you’re watching and reading the stuff at the same time. Womenfolk are in full control here, and men are constantly used. And re-used. At the end of it, you want to strangle somebody. Probably the strongest I reacted to any movie all year.

Nostalgia De La Luz (Dir: Patricio Guzmán Lozanes)
If The Tree of Life was the film Rise of the Planets should’ve been, than Nostalgia for the Light is what The Tree of Life should’ve been. From the earth to the moon to its craters to plates to wheels to telescopes, Mr. Guzmán makes us see the cosmic in every little bit. An order so to speak. At once specific and cosmic. If you haven’t seen it, I wouldn’t reveal to you the film’s central connection, except for that it is probably impossible to identify which is the metaphor between the two. Whatever it’s worth, one of my personal favorites. It is a movie I shall be losing myself in with some regularity now. 

 Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Rupert Wyatt)  (Read review)
In a year that would historically be remembered for the revolution-virus, and where this film reminded us of moments from our own consciousness, this Ape film thundered across with blockbuster filmmaking of the awesome kind. A moment that serves as a victory for sound in cinema, a moment where an animal learns to control another animal, a moment where an animal looks at another sleeping peacefully, a moment where an animal achieves chilling cruelty (as against grace), and they all serve to hail one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments – Caesar!

Senna (Dir: Asif Kapadia)  (Read review)
The humanity in here is overwhelming, and more than movie I’ve ever seen, this documentary really gets what sports is all about. Yes, it is about us v/s them, but historically sports movies tend to stop there. Mr. Kapadia doesn’t leave Prost as a rival but an integral part of Ayrton Senna, as much as his father was, or as much as McLaren was. Involving arguably the greatest tracking shot ever…okay, let us keep it down to my favorite tracking shot, it is a shattering film and a humbling experience.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir: Tomas Alfredson)   (Read review)

Ah, that killer ending! To which I stood up and applauded. To which the film itself applauds. There’s that faint smile on George Smiley, and trust me here when I say that if Mr. Alfredson had made Smiley declare – It’s just you and me now, sport – I would’ve taken my shirt off and waved it around like a madman. Who knows, given all the frenzy, even running around the auditorium would’ve been a distinct possibility.

And the Grumbach for the Best Motion Picture of 2011 goes to:

Word of advice: Ideal time to watch it – 0400 to 0630. As the night breaks into dawn into morning, the film shall be a memorable experience. Take my word.

Oh yeah, just in case you’re wondering, The Tree of Life is some sort of achievement, if not a masterpiece. The editing is something monumental, the way it picks up tiny fragments and associates them all. And so is A Separation, which is one giant moral mess, just as its frames are.

Movies I’m looking forward to:
Myshkin’s Yuddham Sei, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Life in a Day, Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Steve McQueen’s Shame, Jeff Nichols Take Shelter, Mariano Llinas’ Extraordinary Stories and Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.

Oh yeah, if you’re thinking there’re as many titles to watch as there have been nominated, that’s a bingo.