Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Houston, we have a winner

In 1985, Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society. It started as a modest venture, a chance for the 25-year-old Linklater and his cinephile friends to screen films by Ozu and Demme. At the time, Linklater had yet to direct a full-length film; Slacker, a touchstone for the American indie movement, would only release in 1990. It was at the Film Society's theatre that a young man from Linklater's hometown of Houston met him, and asked what he could do to help. The student was Wes Anderson. According to Time's Richard Corliss, Linklater's reply was "Grab a broom."

Three decades later, Anderson and Linklater are together again — linked in the most public manner possible. Their films are frontrunners for Best Picture at this month's Oscars, and both have scored Best Director nominations for the first time. Though the clash was building all awards season, the Golden Globes brought it all to a head: Linklater's Boyhood won Best Picture (Drama), while Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel won Best Picture (Musical or Comedy). Anderson's film leads the Oscar nominations race, with nine nods to Boyhood's six, though Boyhood is the odds-on favourite to snap up the top prizes.

The films in question could hardly be more different. Boyhood is a deceptively simple look at one person's journey from child to young man, rendered unique by Linklater's decision to shoot the film with the same actors over the course of 12 years. It's an intimate, spiky film, filled with the boredom and disappointment of childhood more than its occasional epiphanies.The Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, is a Fabergé egg of a film, set in a world informed by, but much removed from, reality. The tale of hotel concierge M. Gustave and his beloved lobby boy might not be Anderson's most resonant till date, but what it lacks in soul-searching characters it makes up in its evocation of an old world, pre-Nazi Europe that audiences first saw in the films of émigré Hollywood directors like Max Ophuls and Ernest Lubitsch.

That Linklater and Anderson are about to go head-to-head on 22 February is both gratifying and slightly surreal. The Academy spotlight rarely falls on directors who avoid big issue filmmaking and are content churning out modest masterpieces. The fact that these two films are in Best Picture race along with Sundance fave Whiplash and the genuinely weird Birdman could be seen as a hopeful sign that Academy voters might be opening their minds to options other than prestige cinema, mainstream weepies and obvious Oscar bait (in another year, these films might have been replaced by Unbroken or Interstellar). If this is so, it's fitting that these two are front and centre, for these are filmmakers who, even while working within the studio system, have hewed stubbornly to their own path for two decades, leaving behind not a string of hits but that rarer achievement: a body of work.

What Richard Linklater, normally used to flying way under the radar, is feeling right now is anyone's guess. Boyhood was the critical smash of 2014, topping a staggering number of critical shortlists (online aggregator Metacritic places it at number one on 72 separate lists). This was an outpouring of love much deserved but slightly bemusing in its intensity. It's like the critical establishment had just discovered Linklater, even though he'd been doing un-showy, inventive work for over two decades.

When Linklater's Slacker released in 1990, few would have predicted that this strange, ramshackle film — shot with a cast of non-professionals on a truly shoestring budget of $23,000 — would be the harbinger of a major movement. Yet, most people trace the start of the American indie film boom of the '90s to this and Steven Soderbergh's Palme d'Or-winner Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Linklater followed this with the much-loved high school film Dazed and Confused (1993) — which introduced Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey — and the equally delightful walking-and-talking-in-Vienna film Before Sunrise (1995). He ranged far and wide in the next few years, trying his hand at animation (Waking Life), period comedy (The Newton Boys) and intense indie drama (Tape).

In 2003, he had the only hit of his career, the Jack Black-starrer The School of Rock. Yet, rather than worm his way into big-budget projects, he continued to jump from genre to genre. All the while he continued to gather Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane to shoot yearly installments of Boyhood. His reputation — which for years had suffered at the hands of auteurist critics used to seeing patterns in less varied output — grew steadily as his early cult films celebrated their 10th, 15th, 20th anniversaries.
Someone who's never had any shortage of attention from critics is Wes Anderson. Like Linklater, he was born in Houston, Texas — a fact that many would be disinclined to believe, given that Anderson's films give the impression of having been made by a European aesthete and not someone from the state associated with Dubya. At the University of Texas at Austin, he met Owen Wilson, with whom he collaborated on a screenplay for his first film, Bottle Rocket. This heist comedy was to become a cult hit, and Martin Scorsese named it one of his favourite films of the '90s.

With Rushmore (1998), Anderson created the first of his memorable eccentrics — Max Fischer, a precocious child who develops a crush on his high school teacher. This was also the film where the various Anderson trademarks began to fall into place: the British invasion soundtrack, the whip pans, the rueful melancholia, the low-key whimsy and the obsessive symmetry. Underlying it all was the constant search for acceptance and companionship. Family, or the absence of it, was at the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. (It isn't as central in The Grand Budapest Hotel — a possible reason why the film was less affecting than some of Anderson's other efforts.)

Working with the cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Anderson developed a filmic style so unique that it became the unofficial template for the American indie. Soon, dozens of films with hyper-articulate, maladjusted characters were being made — it goes without saying that without Wes, there'd be no Little Miss Sunshine or (500) Days of Summer. Anderson, to his credit, has neither called out his many imitators nor abandoned his signature style. His style is so specific that it passed over perfectly into animation with Fantastic Mr Fox, a stop motion adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novella, which looked and sounded exactly like one of his live action films.

They might be products of the same Austin arts scene, but Anderson and Linklater are poles apart as filmmakers. Linklater guides his productions with a very light hand, while Anderson crafts his movies with the precision and attention to detail of a fine watchmaker. You can tell you're watching an Anderson film from the first frame (the yellow Futura typeface credits are a dead giveaway), something even die-hard Linklater fans would hesitate to claim about his films. The flipside is that there's a world of difference between, say, Before Midnight and Bad News Bears, while Anderson's films can, after a while, acquire a whimsical sameness.

The one thing these directors do share is a commitment — or determination, or stubbornness — to keep making the kinds of films they want to make. This is why, even though they work within — or in Linklater's case, on the outer edges of – the studio system, they continue to be seen as indie in spirit. This sets them apart from the other remarkable filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s — Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan — directors who continue to choose their projects, but who have moved far beyond the indie-sphere in terms of budget and approach.

On the film website The Dissolve, Jen Chaney, while lamenting the absence of Selma's Ava DuVernay among the Best Director nominees, suggests that Linklater and Anderson's nominations should give hope to those who believe that "non-conformity and unwavering commitment to one's artistic integrity are actually worth a damn in Hollywood". This may sound like an especially serious way to describe directors as unassuming as Linklater and Anderson, but it's hardly an exaggeration. Fifty years from now, long after the memories of The King's Speech and Zero Dark Thirty have faded, we'll still be worrying about Margot Tenenbaum and Olivia Evans, and delighting in M. Gustave and David Wooderson.

This piece was published in The Sunday Guardian.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Excuse me, while I read between the lines

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at 27. His stint as the lead vocalist, guitarist and composer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted roughly four years. Four years, three studio albums — that's the bedrock of the Hendrix legend. Everything else — the live albums, the footage of him playing Woodstock and Monterey, the numerous outtakes and b-sides — is window dressing. Every year some new Hendrix curio comes to light, and is solemnly packaged and distributed to the faithful. One of the strangest of these is Starting at Zero, a quasi-autobiography assembled from Hendrix's own writings.

Starting at Zero's journey began when British filmmaker Peter Neal, director of Experience (1967), the first ever film on Hendrix, began to gather material for a documentary on the musician. To create as authentic a portrait as possible, Neal, along with writer Michael Fairchild, set about collecting everything Hendrix had ever said: quotes culled from press meets, books, magazines, recordings and concert raps. They had an unexpected windfall in 1990, when a large collection of Hendrix's handwritten notes were auctioned in New York (Fairchild somewhat overestimates this as "the most amazing archaeological find since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls"). Neal incorporated some of these notes, and completed a first draft in 1991. However, a copyright battle with the Jimi Hendrix estate stalled publication for almost two decades. It was finally published in the U.K. in 2013.

The entries in the book, though not precisely dated, cover the entirety of Hendrix's life. We know this because the first page has Hendrix recalling his birth ("It was fireworks — so it must have been the Fourth of July"), and the last words in the book are "When I die, just keep playing the records". In between, Hendrix discusses the first time he heard Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, his stint in the air force, his largely unhappy career as a sideman in the States, and the chance meeting with Chas Chandler that bought him a ticket to Britain — and instant fame. It's certainly Hendrix's voice — you can almost hear him speak some of the lines in his woozy, dulcet tones.

Those who know the general trajectory of Hendrix's life should welcome this opportunity to read between the lines. When we read Jimi's 1965 letter to his father ("Nowadays people don't want you to sing good"), we can sense his quiet confidence and connect it to the fact that he was finding his own sound around this time. For someone who comes across as an unusually modest rock star, there's a rare moment of hubris when he writes in another letter home in 1966: "Tell Ben and Ernie I play the blues like they NEVER heard." He was right, of course, and in a few months, the whole world would know it.

These aren’t notes for a book; they’re simply musings and random utterances that have been collected and given the shape of a biography. This “shaping” is key; on the same page, presented as part of the same thought process, may be sentences Jimi said or wrote years apart, in very different contexts and moods.
Purists will complain that Starting at Zero is cheating — and they won't be wrong. These aren't notes for a book; they're simply musings, scattered thoughts and random utterances that have been collected and given the shape of a biography. This "shaping" is key; on the same page, presented as part of the same thought process, may be sentences Jimi said or wrote years apart, in very different contexts and moods. There are four interviews that read like regular fanzine Q&As: it's only when you go to the book's website that you realise that the questions are all from different interviews. The other problem the book suffers from is the man's famed spaceyness — his tendency to obscure meaning in clouds of science-fiction, mumbo-jumbo and marijuana fumes. This becomes more pronounced as the book goes on, and after a while, less patient readers might begin to scan pages for references to specific events, songs and performances, rather than Hendrixian raps about the planets, love and cosmic consciousness. ("Where all the earthquakes stem from is bad vibrations," he writes at one point.)

Still, this is hardly a less worthy project than the dozens of Hendrix compilations and reissues that have surfaced since his death. Hendrix anticipates these in the book, writing about recordings he made with Curtis Knight and the Squires when he was a session man that surfaced as bootlegs when he became famous: "It was just a jam session, and here they just try to connive and cheat and use... They never told me they were going to release that crap." Yet, last year, it was announced that the Hendrix/Knight recordings would be released in their entirety. Posthumous compilations such as these (and probably Starting at Zero too) are more likely to appeal more to completists — people happy to glean a lot of chaff for a kernel of gold — than to regular music fans. And there's enough gold sprinkled here to keep fans interested: Hendrix's evolving thoughts on Eric Clapton, The Beatles and Bob Dylan; his surprisingly frequent mentions of composers like Bach and Wagner; his initial aversion to political issues, followed by his growing involvement.

Of the three J's who died at 27 (Jimi, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin), Hendrix was by far the biggest loss to music. He was fertile till the end, and would have probably embraced funk, rap, perhaps even punk if he'd continued to record into the '80s. The last few entries in the book have him enthusiastically discussing his plans for setting mythology stories to music ("It wouldn't be like classical music, but I'd use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures...") At one point, he writes that he'd like to achieve a sound that combines the strengths of "Handel and Bach and Muddy Waters and flamenco". No wonder he admits soon after that "I can't play guitar well enough to get all this music together." But he came closer than anyone else, and Starting at Zero is a reminder of this, and of what might have been.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Big Eyes: Review

Big Eyes begins with a burst of freedom, as Margaret (Amy Adams) drives off with her young daughter in the night, leaving her first husband behind. We then see her in San Francisco, applying for jobs that will allow her to utilise her talent for painting (she gets one in a furniture company). Sketching portraits of passersby in the park, she meets what appears to be a fellow-painter. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) realises that Margaret's paintings of waif-like children with unrealistically large eyes are special. He courts her, and soon, they're married, trying to make ends meet by selling their artwork. But the public only has eyes for Margaret's paintings.

What follows is both incredible and absolutely true. Walter Keane — who, Margaret later discovered, was never an artist — took credit for his wife's paintings, first without her knowledge, and later, with her complicity. In the film, Walter is a gushing huckster with affectations of high culture (he's in love with France, never a good sign in a Hollywood film), and Margaret a timid '60s wife. As his star rises, she sits at home, producing paintings that Walter then sells under his own name.

That Big Eyes is directed by Tim Burton is hardly a surprise. The children in Keane's paintings could easily pass off as one of the large-eyed characters in Burton's films — The Penguin in Batman Returns, the animated leads of Corpse Bride, the wild, dark-lined peepers of Johnny Depp in half a dozen movies. Burton had been a fan of Keane's for decades, getting her to paint portraits of two of his partners, Lisa Marie and Helena Bonham-Carter. Big Eyes is one of his more restrained films — but the fact that he's reigned himself in just means that the ersatz Burton touches that keep surfacing sit awkwardly with the more straightforward biopic approach he adopts for the most part.

Burton emerged in the late '80s seemingly fully formed: a former animator whose visual style had the rude energy and wackiness of a cartoon. Lately, however, his work has taken on the quality of a meal comprising solely of dessert: beautiful to look at, fun in small doses, but hardly sustaining. Working with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Burton creates an eye-popping vision of Frisco in the '60s, but there's surprising little weight behind the emotions. Instead of delving deeper into why Margaret — timid but capable of standing up for herself — lives a lie for 10 years, Burton teases us with the possibility that Margaret is going insane when she starts seeing people with big eyes in the department store. She isn't crazy, and the film doesn't really believe she is either — it's just that Burton can't help himself.

Big Eyes is further harmed by the casting of Waltz, who gives one of the hammiest performances by a two-time Oscar-winner ever. The script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, doesn't liberate Waltz's German-accented English the way Quentin Tarantino's lines do, but that's only part of the problem. Waltz preens, puffs, lunges, gurgles and almost salivates in his effort to convey the mendaciousness of Walter Keane. The courtroom scene at the end should be all about the protagonist, but is instead taken over by Walter's buffoonery. Would that Burton have thought of Danny Huston, seen in the small role of a muckraking journalist, as Walter: he has right mixture of menace and charm for this character.

In recent years, Adams has played fiery, take-charge women in films like The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle. Here, she's withdrawn but still compelling. When she says early on she draws the eyes large because they're a window to the soul, Adams' own searching look lend credibility to the cliché. Whenever Walter's rants became unbearable — which was often — I found myself scanning the room for Margaret, hoping to see a spark of rebellion in her eyes. It arrives, too late to save the film — but thankfully, not too late for the real-life Margaret, who escaped to Hawaii, remarried, and got the long-overdue credit she'd been denied.

Unbroken: Review

Unbroken opens high up in the sky. At first, all we see are clouds and the distant horizon. Then, we begin to make out a bomber plane flying slowly towards us. Almost immediately, a dozen or so more planes materialise. Though there are no opening credits, it's no surprise to learn that the architect of this lovely shot is the great Roger Deakins. What is more surprising is that two of the four writers on this film are his most frequent collaborators, the Coen brothers. It's difficult to imagine the misanthropic, sardonic brothers penning this ode to the triumph of the spirit.

One of the planes in the opening fleet has a bombardier named Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell). En route to a tricky landing after their plane is attacked – a sequence which second-time director Jolie handles admirably – we're whisked into an extended flashback. We see Louis as a scrawny American school kid who's picked on because of his Italian ancestry. His life changes when his brother recognises his talent for track and field. After some pro-forma training sequences, we switch back to the older Louis, off to represent America in the 5000 metres at the Olympics. "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory," his brother says as he's leaving. What follows seems like a brief moment of glory and a lifetime of pain.

Sent on another mission over Japanese waters, Louis and his fellow airmen crash land in the sea after one of the plane's engines fails. Three of them – Louis, Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) survive – and float around on lifeboats for 47 days, fighting off sharks, hunger, thirst and delirium. It's a harrowing passage, lasting for what seems like half an hour, and it's almost a relief when Louis and Phil (Mac succumbs on day 33) finally float into the hands of the Japanese. Unfortunately, our hero's troubles are nowhere near ending.

We know, from half a century of Hollywood films, if nothing else, that Japanese POW camps were hell. Yet, I see no reason to believe why camps anywhere else in the world would be much nicer. The cultural hegemony of Hollywood has drilled the image of the sadistic "Jap" into our heads. Jolie perpetuates this stereotype by introducing a guard named Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, an antagonist so brutal that after a while, the viewer is numb to the pain and hoping the same for Louis. Watanabe, played by the baby-faced Japanese pop star Miyavi, subjects Louis to unbearable levels of physical punishment. In one scene, he forces the emaciated prisoner to lift a huge boulder above his head. The way the scene is framed, Jolie is clearly trying to conjure an image of Christ on the cross. But if Louis is Jesus, whose sins is he suffering for?

During the flashback, there's a brief recreation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the one held under Nazi rule. Jolie must have enjoyed paying tribute to Leni Riefenstahl, arguably the first great female director, whose Olympia documented these very games. I'd argue that Jolie's own approach in the second half of this film borders on a kind of fascism. By presenting the Japanese as unrelentingly evil and sadistic – less than human – and the Allied prisoners as loyal, polite and brave, she's essentially saying, this is why we had to drop the bomb on them. (There's a brief disclaimer at the end, saying Louis preferred forgiveness to revenge, but it's too late by then.)

Unbroken marks the start of Oscar release season here in India – and it's certainly an Academy-friendly film. One wishes it were a little bit black and white in in characterisation, and a little more willing to play around with its source material, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. None of the film's faults, however, can diminish the considerable screen presence of the young British actor Jack O'Connell, who gives Zamperini a doggedness and enthusiasm that audiences will have no difficult in rooting for. Let's hope they don't put him in a superhero movie next.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

PK: Review

It begins as all good movies do, with a spaceship hovering over a desert and a naked man clutching a transistor radio. The man, or rather, the alien, will go on to assume the name PK; he's played by Aamir Khan, whose protruding, otherworldly ears must regard this as destiny fulfilled. By the time TV news reporter Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) comes across him, he's acquired clothing and a Bhojpuri accent. He tells her his story, and she shelves her skepticism about his interplanetary origins quicker than one might have thought possible. From then on, it's a search for the locket that'll allow him to contact his home planet. Oh, and along the way, Rajkumar Hirani solves religion.

In his last film, 3 Idiots, Hirani used Aamir Khan's character Rancho to point out the soullessness of our education system. PK is more of the same: Rancho has been replaced by another outsider, and education by organised faith. Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi would have you know that religion, especially in its enterprise form, is based on fear, that it's exploitative and drives a wedge between regular people (presumably the film's audience). Few sane minds will argue with this, and that's the problem: the film's main thrust really isn't news. But it's breaking news in the movie, which just makes its makers look naïve.

Unfortunately (for me, not for Hirani), this seemed to be a minority view. The audience I saw the film with chuckled when PK attached stickers of gods to his cheeks to avoid getting slapped. They roared when he told godman Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) that his messages weren't getting through to God because he has a "wrong number". And they looked visibly moved when he staggered around an idol shop, praying to be sent home. After a while, I began to feel like I, not PK, was the alien — removed from the populace, observing them, taking notes.

Hirani is one of the smartest filmmakers in the country, and it's killing his films. No director has a better grip on the viewer's jugular, or a better sense of when to go for the kill. A flagrant example is the scene where he stages one of the most unnecessary bomb blasts in recent Hindi film. Nine out of 10 directors would have milked the shock by adding voices on the soundtrack. Hirani, instead, opts for a Mukesh number, and it's mesmeric. In its programmatic brilliance, the scene reminded me of the suicide in 3 Idiots — so manipulative, yet so well-executed.

Hirani's eye for colour and eccentricity is intact. There are sequences that work precisely because they're so strange, like the one where PK accosts a terrified blue-skinned Shiva in a public toilet. But Hirani's tendency to explain things that really don't require explication is a drag; only his first film, the blithe Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, was free from this. It's a high-wire act — his films, with all their debunking, make the audience feel smart, but he's really treating them like children, telling them how they ought to feel. The soundtrack does much the same, pouring syrup over anything faintly emotional.

It's staggering how well this film fits into the ongoing reality show that is Aamir Khan. When he's on Jaggu's show, tears streaming down his face, he might as well be hosting his own Satyamev Jayate. He's beyond acting now, he's into righting wrongs (as, quite sadly, is Hirani). His performance here is something for sure — but is it something worth commending? With his shuffling walk, flailing limbs and perpetual bug-eyed expression, he offers up a tour de force of mugging for the camera. There was an audible sigh from my friend when Khan said "Sarat manjur hai"; he'd uttered the same words all those years ago in Lagaan. The Aamir of today may as well be an alien for all the resemblance he bears to the Aamir of Lagaan.

Manipulation of an audience's emotions is an integral part of cinema. The trick is to somehow keep them from seeing the wheels turn. If you can figure out how the magician achieved the illusion, it isn't magic at all. PK professes to expose manipulators, but its own visible efforts at manipulation undercut its authority.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

2014: Year of the Woman

Did this year-end wrap-up column for GQ's December issue. 

“Don’t worry, tum mere saath safe hai.” This is a line from Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom, spoken when a bike carrying a guy and a girl breaks down on a deserted road at night. The speaker, surprisingly, is the girl. Only, by the time the film released, in early September, it wasn’t so surprising. 2014 was an anomaly of a year, one in which Bollywood offered up film after film that questioned prevalent gender attitudes and placed the heroine front and centre, rather than off to the side and in a frilly dress. The titles should have tipped everyone off: Gulaab Gang, Queen, Revolver Rani, Mary Kom, Finding Fanny

It began with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. The balance in that sly film shifted on the word ‘lihaf’, a nod to a controversial 1942 short story by Ismat Chughtai. This hint towards possible Sapphic longings in the Madhuri Dixit-Huma Qureshi relationship is underlined by an ingenious bit of shadow play; yet even before this revelation lands with a thud, Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah must have felt the film slipping away from them. Faced with the prospect that the heroine might not require a hero at the end, all the boys can do is play with their guns, while the girls make off with the money and each other.

In hidebound Bollywood, you can break new ground simply by allowing your female protagonist the choice to be single at the end. In Vikas Bahl’s Queen, Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut, makes choices that wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be made by past Hindi film heroines: to go on her European honeymoon alone after her fiancé dumps her; to room with three boys in an Amsterdam hostel; to develop a crush on (but not an attachment to) an Italian chef. Her final act of self-validation occurs at the end, when she returns her now-contrite fiancé’s ring. What was doubly touching about Queen was the way Ranaut too seemed to be rediscovering herself. In a remarkably candid TV interview around the time of the film’s release, the actress recalled without bitterness how her accent used to made fun of, and how she could never get critics to take her seriously. When host Anupama Chopra asked her what spurred her on, she replied, “Strong criticism. About everything.”

Ranaut wasn’t the only star who chose to address her own public image with humour and self-awareness. Alia Bhatt turned the ridicule her faux pas on Koffee with Karan (‘Prithviraj Chauhan’, in reply to ‘Who’s the president of India?’) had generated on its head by appearing in a YouTube video with the AIB comedy collective. The short showed Bhatt attending a general knowledge boot camp after the fallout of the Karan Johar episode. A few weeks after that, Deepika Padukone fired off an exasperated salvo in response to an ogling Times of India photograph of her, tweeting “Supposedly India’s ‘LEADING’ newspaper and this is ‘NEWS’!!??”

Most of the year’s better films turned and twisted on the choices made by female characters. Hasee Toh Phasee takes a hairpin turn every time Parineeti Chopra is struck by a new bad idea. Highway begins with man metaphorically on top as Randeep Hooda kidnaps Alia Bhatt, but as soon as she decides to make the best of a bad situation – much like Rani in Queen – she becomes the film’s motive force. Like Rani, Bhatt’s Veera refuses to agree to an unexciting arranged marriage, and ends the film on her own, and happy. Deepika Padukone instigates both the road trip and the first, second and third move on Arjun Kapoor in Finding Fanny. And Tabu’s Ghazala is the wilful, bruised heart of Haider.

There were also several films that tweaked gender roles in fascinating ways. Normally, heroines in films like Mardaani or Bobby Jasoos would have to spend half the running time explaining why they’re encroaching upon male territory. But Rani Mukerji’s police inspector and Vidya Balan’s private eye seem so at ease in their own skin that no one bothers to point out that they’re doing a ‘man’s job’. (Contrast this with No One Killed Jessica three years ago, in which Mukerji’s character was a walking, cussing lesson in gender equality.) Female characters fought and won big battles this year – for instance, Mary Kom arguing that career ambitions should never end with motherhood – but maybe the smaller victories will prove just as significant in years to come. I’d be perfectly happy if 2014 was remembered as the year when female characters worked out onscreen while the men pottered around and made tea, something that happens in both Mary Kom and Mardaani.

Of course, it takes just one ridiculous action movie or a shocker like Raanjhanaa to remind us that this is Bollywood (and India). It’s also worth noting that for all the progressiveness displayed by female characters in 2014, only a small handful of the films were by women directors. It was, however, a productive year for women documentary filmmakers: Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her and Deepti Kakkar’s Katiyabaaz (co-directed with Fahad Mustafa) all managed theatrical releases. Geetu Mohandas, meanwhile, made it to Sundance with Liar’s Dice; her film was also selected as India’s entry for the Oscars. It might all come crashing down next year, but if some of the gains of 2014 are built on, we might have taken a couple of significant steps towards a more equal cinema.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida: A Jewish nun and a Stalinist judge walk into a bar…

The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, organised by the Polish Institute at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, will feature such heavy-hitters as Andrzej Jakimowski's Imagine and the first four episodes of Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue. Still, the attention of the city's cinephiles will most likely be focussed on Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida. The film, shot in wintry black-and-white, tells the story of Ida, a nun who learns she's actually Jewish from her aunt, Wanda, a former hanging judge fallen on bad days. The two women set off on a road trip to recover fragments of their family's past. The film made a substantial splash on the arthouse circuit this year, landing a spot on Sight & Sound's "Best Films of 2014" list and becoming Poland's official entry to the Oscars.

This is the first time you've made a film in Poland. Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
The time was right to go back to Poland — to make a film there. It's something to do with where you are in life; right now, I'm looking back in time, and looking at essential things — life and death and roots and faith. I don't think I was ready to make that film earlier. When you look at films I've made, they tend to be about whatever's on my mind at that time, so it's not that I have a career plan that I'm going to shoot a film in Poland or go shoot a film in Hollywood, God forbid.

You've written about how you tend to prefer an outline to a detailed screenplay.
A. Yes, but also, I just don’t think screenplays are any good. I read screenplays, I write them, and I always have the feeling that this isn’t cinema, that this is just a rough roadmap, and a lot of scenes are just there to explain stuff and get me from A to B. I’m the opposite of Hitchcock in that way. It’s not that some magic happens on set. You have to prepare the film really, really well, and for years. And you have to write some kind of screenplay. The more you write, the deeper you get into things, the more you eliminate weak things – literary things – the better.

I find the groundwork is key, not just the screenplay but immersing yourself in that world. Researching, spending time gives you a sense of depth and roots in your subject — living with the thing for years, that's important. So when the filming starts, you're armed, with some stuff that's on the page, and some stuff that's in your subconscious. Everything should feel organic, and the only way you can get that is when you don't feel the manipulation, no matter how manipulated the whole thing is. And the only way to achieve that is if you have the freedom and talent for shaping things: not panicking and not shooting something just because it's in the script — just having the attitude of a sculptor who keeps sculpting away till the thing is finished.

Was it an aesthetic decision to shoot in black-and-white? 
The decision now seems straightforward but at the time there were many reasons for it. It just felt right to do a film that was set in the early '60s in black-and-white and in the 4:3 format, because that's how I remember films from that time — and how I remember the world even, because I only remember the world from films. But also, our family albums of that time were also black-and-white, so my idea of that time was certainly black-and-white, and framed strangely. But when I was doing it, I realised that it was also something to do with the desire to make that world a little more removed from reality, make it a little more abstract. I wanted the viewer to experience the film as a kind of meditation, and the less stimuli you have — colour, movement — the more it becomes a meditation.

The film touches on the persecution of the Polish Jews during the Second World War, but there are no explicit history lessons. Do you prefer to suggest rather than underline themes?
That's absolutely crucial. For me, all good art is about creating characters and landscapes rich in themes, but which don't just stand for any one theme. And I like dialogues from life — people don't always say what they mean, they don't always explain stuff, just for the sake of some dumb audience; they talk the way they talk, full of ambiguity and paradoxes and incoherence. And if you can find poetry in that, great, because it will resonate much more, whereas films where the very shape of the story tells you what to think, where people's dialogues are explaining what they feel, where the music tells you what they feel — that's the majority of cinema, let's face it, but for me, that's not interesting. I watch it, and it washes over me. I watch it with pleasure sometimes, but I won't remember it half an hour later. The film that gets under my skin has to be a little bit more indirect and make me imagine things and experience the world in all its complication and reality.

You employed the 4:3 "Academy ratio". As a result, there's an unusual amount of space above the characters' heads...
It started quite innocently. I realised in rehearsals that this square format is really good for faces and portraits, but it's not great for landscapes. So then, for argument's sake, I just tilted the camera up to see what would happen if we didn't frame it a normal way. And it works, it felt intuitively right. Later, I realised it felt right because there's a vertical dimension to this film — and since then, a lot of critics have written about the presence of God or the absence of God or the absence of millions of people who disappeared in the war. Critics do what they do, but it started with: "How can we make this shot more interesting?"

You worked with a new cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, on this instead of your regular DoP, Ryszard Lynzewski.
[Lynzewski] didn't agree with where this film was going. He dropped out very early on, so I had to shoot with a camera operator who'd never shot a film in his life. Lukasz started as the operator, and after practically the first day, he became the DoP. Of course, the framing and everything is very much my conception, but he got it, and he liked the risk involved — he had no reputation to lose, and he went as far as we wanted, so it was a pleasure working with him.

It's remarkable, especially in the context of today's cinema, to note the stillness of so many of the scenes in Ida. And yet, there's a tension within this stillness...
There's a lot of tension anyway in the film, so you can afford to be understated and still. I hope that there was tension and mystery and some kind of beauty — that it wasn't like watching paint dry. In a way, the film was kind of dictating what was right. If the framing is wrong, if the lighting is over-elaborate, if the sound is too much, the film will reject it. All you have to do is listen to your own film.

It is also, given the subject matter, a strangely funny film.
Poland is a strangely funny country. People are quite acerbic and witty in Poland. Also, the very situation is kind of bonkers, a nun and a Stalinist judge going on the road together is really quite funny. So yes, there's a sense of the absurd. And Wanda has a sharp tongue — her sense of humour is inherited from my father. Some of the lines I gave her are directly from my father.

Jazz was crucial to several Polish "youth films" in the '60s. Did that guide your use of it here?
All the music in the film is music I love, so it wasn't an intellectual choice, really. There's a mixture of lively music — some of it was the pop music of the early '60s, hillbilly rock and Italian-style kitsch music, which Poland was full of then. That was the music you'd hear on the radio then.

The jazz was more ambitious music — it started in the mid-to-late '50s. Poland became the capital of jazz in Europe. Jazz was banned in other countries, but in Poland it was allowed. Komeda, Namyslowski, Przybielski, Stańko — a lot of really, really great musicians came through. Coltrane was a huge influence, and "Naima" is one of my favourites, and in the scene [with Ida and a saxophone player who fancies her] it's a way of making her fall in love with him, not as an individual but as a cloud of associations.

What led to you to cast Agata Trzebuchowska, who'd never shot a film before, as Ida?
I am usually very open-minded about casting anyway. In My Summer of Love, I cast two young girls, Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, and Emily went on to be a well-known actress. [Agata] was just a girl, you know, she just felt right for the part. It wasn't like a big design, it's just that I couldn't find a good Ida for a long time among professional actors, so I ended up using a girl who we found at a café, who didn't want to act and still doesn't want to act, and whose refusal to act was just perfect. She doesn't believe in God at all, but in her atheism she's so coherent and calm and principled that it just felt like she's much closer to somebody who's deeply religious than girls who were telling me, "Ah, we always wanted to play nuns all our life."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.