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.

Sulemani Keeda: Review

Amit Masurkar's Sulemani Keeda, a film about two fledgling screenwriters schlepping their script across Mumbai, was good enough to get me thinking about what it was not. It's a decade and a half too late to be Hyderabad Blues. It isn't insightful enough about Bollywood to be Luck By Chance. It's got the dirty mouth of Delhi Belly, but lacks its relentless forward momentum. What we're left with, then, is something that's part buddy movie, part romantic comedy, part indie satire. It doesn't exactly add up, but it's smart — and small — enough to make its audience feel superior to the objects of its derision.

Dulal (Naveen Kasturia) and Mainak (Mayank Tewari) are trying to get their screenplay, tentatively titled "Sulemani Keeda", to the upper echelons of Bollywood. We watch them pitch to Mahesh Bhatt ("It's a mix of LSD and Hukumat, with shades of Dev. D And the costumes will be like Gadar") and Anil Sharma, and try and land meetings with Farah Khan and Karan Johar. No details about the film they're writing are divulged, but we instinctively know that it's unlikely to be very good — neither sad-sack Dulal nor his unchained id of a writing partner seem especially bright. They look down on their TV serial-writing brethren, but the one line they quote from their script — "Gaanja maangoge Coke denge, rishwat maangoge thok denge" — suggests that there's a reason they're strugglers. They may think they're Salim-Javed, but they're actually Farhad-Sajid.

The in-joke at the heart of Sulemani Keeda is that the producer, Tulsea Pictures, is a firm which hooks young writers up with film projects. One wishes, though, that the satire had a little more bite — that it hewed closer to the struggles of Tulsea's actual clientele. Instead, we get a series of pro-forma jabs at Bollywood, and a couple at the pretensions of indie cinema. Most of these are supplied by Gonzo (Karan Mirchandani), the delusional coke-snorting son of a famous producer, who hires the duo to write his "launch film". Mainak the hustler goes along with his ridiculous demands ("I want lustless orgies"), while Dulal just keeps getting more and more depressed. It's not that the scenes with Gonzo aren't funny, just that this sort of loony indie director character seems somewhat old hat. And his turnaround is one the film's more predictable jokes: the same Gonzo who starts off wanting to make a film with no story and no hero has given up his dreams of Tarkovsky and is starring in a Shetty-esque (now that's an unfortunate adjective) action comedy.

The film finds its rhythm — and its heart — in the scenes with Ruma, a girl Dulal meets at a party. Ruma is played by Aditi Vasudev, Rishi Kapoor's willful daughter in Do Dooni Chaar. She's just as self-possessed here, cutting through Mainak's constant stream of bullshit and recognising something like potential in mopey Dulal. The scenes where they're getting to know each other are beautifully written and played; the Sewri sequence, especially, is as effortless an example of young people walking the line between talking and flirting as any in recent Hindi cinema. You can see why Dulal is attracted to Ruma — she's everything he and his cartoonish, skirt-chasing partner are not: witty, driven and in total control. "I never thought you could speak so much," she tells Dulal, just when he begins to open up to her at the party. Followed by: "I like men who are not that good-looking." In boxing, it's called a one-two punch.

Sulemani Keeda is visibly indie, both in terms of its spartan style (shot on digital, using actual locations) and its ethos (building scenes around long, rambling conversations). The film is generating a reasonable amount of advance buzz, and hopefully it'll attract a large enough audience to encourage others to take up small, specific projects instead of large, predictable ones. This is a very likeable film: the writing (by Masurkar) is unstrained, the performances by and large amusing. If I expected a little more from it, the fault might lie more in me than in the film.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Craig Ferguson will be missed

I remember the exact moment I became a Craig Ferguson nut. It was an episode from February 2007, in which the host of the Late Late Show said at the top of his monologue: "I'm going to do something a little bit different tonight." In the language of late night, this sort of statement is often just a set-up for a joke, and when Craig mentions Britney Spears — who'd recently been in the news for shaving her head — you can hear the audience titter in anticipation. What follows is extraordinary. Craig proceeds to recount, over the course of nine minutes, his own protracted troubles with alcohol. The best line is when he's explaining how he came close to committing suicide, but was saved when someone offered him a glass of sherry. "One thing led to another, and I forgot to kill myself that day," he says ruefully.

Before this episode, I knew Craig as the creepy English boss from The Drew Carey Show and from his stand-up. He must have seemed an unlikely choice for an American late night show host when he started in 2005 — a Scotsman with a pronounced accent, and very far from a household name. And some of those early shows (which can be seen on YouTube) do look stiff and rehearsed, with Craig seemingly trying to fit some popular idea of what a talk show host should be like. I suspect that something clicked inside him in 2008, when he started to tear up, in full view of the camera, the question cards that his staff would leave for him. This freedom to go off-script loosened him up, and he began to introduce a series of outlandish tropes — offering his guests the choice between a big cash prize and an awkward pause — many of which would become part of the show's DNA.

The Late Late Show, which airs at 11.35 p.m. and 12.35 a.m. on the two American coasts, is the hip, broke younger brother of the shows in earlier time slots, the ones with Leno, Letterman, Conan. This has its obvious drawbacks — there's no announcer, no band, less money for fancy gags, and a lower profile of guests. Craig's masterstroke lay in calling attention to these limitations and turning them into a series of good-hearted jabs. Once, when scheduled guest Sean William Scott got stuck in traffic, he interviewed the coordinator in charge of that segment. There's little that's gone wrong on the show that Craig hasn't called attention to — a leak in the roof, non-functioning lights. Many of the barbs are aimed at the long-suffering producer, Michael Naidus, whose beatific resignation just makes Craig's fake indignation funnier.

In 2010, after five years without a sidekick that CBS couldn't afford, Craig introduced Geoff Peterson, a "gay robot skeleton". Geoff (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson) bantered with Craig like Andy Richter with Conan or Paul Shaffer with Letterman, but more importantly, he gave Craig a chance to poke fun at one of the most sacred of late night gimmicks — that of the straight man. That he began to be treated, over time, as a regular sidekick, was an intriguing commentary on talk show formulae and the audience's need for familiar tropes. (The layers of meta-narrative increased when Larry King voiced Geoff in one episode and told Craig, "You didn't want a robot who thinks, you didn't want someone who creates of his own mind...")

The best episodes were the ones where things seemed to spin rapidly out of control. Few TV hosts laugh as much as Ferguson does onscreen, or with such abandon. Anything can trigger off these episodes — a particularly dirty wisecrack by Geoff, or a bad piece of writing by his own staff (Johnny Carson would also riff on jokes that flopped, but his would invariably be a reaction to the audience reacting). And when Craig really starts to laugh, he can't stop. In one episode, Geoff reveals that he has homes in New Orleans, Edinburgh and New Hampshire, and invites Craig to come over and "throw beads". It's hardly a joke at all, but something about a blue-eyed robot saying all this tickles Craig. Soon, he's doubled over, clutching his face and thumping the desk.

The high point of absurdist comedy on the show is almost certainly the Icarus episode. It all began when Josh, who was indulging in a spot of self-promotion, was tweeted at with the words, "Careful, Icarus". Craig and Geoff spend the entire show riffing on Icarus (who flew too close to the sun), his father Daedalus and a hapless audience member who happened to have a chin beard ("I love that upside-down head look"). Off-kilter material like this, which suits Craig so well, would likely have defeated most other late night hosts. Letterman would have given a dry chuckle and returned to his regular monologue. Leno would probably have made fun of the sender for referencing Greek legends and trying to be superior. Fallon, Kimmel, Myers — they'd just reject it out of hand.

Perhaps because Craig is such a high-energy host, the episodes in which he dials it down are especially memorable. His 2009 interview of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu won him a Peabody and, by his own admission, "freed him up" as a host. There were long, moving epitaphs for his father and his mother. And there was the "no audience" episode in which he and Stephen Fry sat in an empty studio and talked about Fry's bipolar disorder and the history of late night. To steal a phrase Kenneth Tynan used in his terrific 1978 New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, this was Craig doing the "salto mortale" — acrobat-speak for a somersault performed on a tightrope.

Craig, like all his contemporaries, regards Carson as something of a god. In a way, his own career has been built on huffing and puffing at the house that Johnny built. Yet, his deconstruction of the genre is never without affection; unlike Jack Paar, he tempers his edginess with self-deprecation. It would be nice to say that his daring and boundless invention was appreciated, that it changed late night TV in some visible way, but the sad truth is that the scene is still hide-bound and formulaic; the domain of middle-aged white men, as Ferguson often reminded his audience. If a Scotsman with a talking robot and a fake horse called Secretariat couldn't shake things up, it might be time for a more symbolic gesture, like having a woman or an African-American host one of the late night shows. (Executives would do well to remember that until three years ago, daytime talk TV was ruled by an African-American woman.) But in the meanwhile, tune in on 19 December for one last jig with Secretariat and one final awkward pause with Craig Ferguson.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boyhood: Review

Getting an actor to age convincingly on film is a tricky business. Something always gets in the way – imperfect makeup, or a too-perfect performance. Some directors have tried to tackle the problem by revisiting the same characters over the course of several films — Francois Truffaut in his Antoine Doinel series, or Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries. But as far as showing the passage of time over the course of a single film is concerned, there's never been anything like Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

You have to wonder what kind of crystal-ball-gazing Linklater was doing in the summer of 2002. He was still a year away from the box-office smash of School of Rock, and two years from the first time-jump sequel to Before Sunrise. His last three releases were The Newton Boys, Waking Life and Tape — films that many Linklater fans haven't seen. Yet, somehow he had the vision (and the nerve) to pitch a project to IFC: a film that would be shot over 12 years with the same actors. Amazingly, they agreed, and gave him an annual budget of $200,000. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were cast as the boy's parents, and Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Mason Evans.

We first see Mason as a six-year-old, lying on the grass and looking up at the blue sky. His reverie is interrupted by his mother, but it's an early clue as to the dreamy, detached attitude he'll carry into his teens. It's through his largely passive eyes that we see his parent's separation (which takes place before the movie begins), his mother's relationships with — as he later puts it — a "parade of drunken assholes", and multiple changes of homestead and hometown. We see him bicker with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). We watch them fight with their mother, lose their puppy fat, grow their hair short and long. More imperceptibly, we watch as they develop personalities. They're different every time we see them, yet they're the same people. It's like watching a family album come to life.

With this film and 2013's Before Midnight, it feels like Linklater's gravitating towards a kind of spiky naturalism (as opposed to the more easygoing naturalism of his earlier films). Yet, Boyhood also serves as a summation of the director's stellar career. You have the continuing preoccupation with time and memory that's at the heart of most of his films, but especially the Before trilogy and Waking Life; and the long conversation scenes that have been such an integral of his directorial style since his 1991 debut Slackers. A decade after School of Rock, it's a reminder of how comfortable this director is working with kids. But the film Boyhood most fondly (though obliquely) references is his 1993 breakthrough feature Dazed and Confused, also about schoolkids in Texas. Both films feature a cameo by David Blackwell as a kindly convenience store clerk, and both have scenes in which the protagonist's mother asks him if he's been drinking.

There's very little I can tell you about the plot of Boyhood that'll convince you to see this film. In fact, for the first 45 minutes or so, you might wonder why a film this normal need have been made at all. But the thing to remember is that these are young kids: giving them sparkling, snappy lines would be a betrayal of what Linklater has set out to achieve. As they inch their way towards a rough eloquence, so does the film. I don't know if you'll be as moved as I was by the faintest hint of the six-year-old Mason's face in that of the young man going off to college. But even if you aren't, I hope we can agree that this — and not some Dylan Thomas-quoting space opera — is what true cinematic ambition looks like.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rang Rasiya: Review

When it works at all, the Indian Censor Board works in mysterious ways. Just last week, I was left gritting my teeth when two absolutely crucial scenes in Gone Girl were altered beyond recognition because they contained a little nudity. Then, just to mess with everyone's minds, they let a nude scene slip through — in a Hindi film! It's alarming that this is something that merits reporting, let alone celebration. After all, it's barely five seconds of skin (presented quite matter-of-factly) in a two-hour film. But just like Omakara and Ishqiya pushed the door open for swearing in commercial Hindi cinema, maybe Rang Rasiya will usher in other censorship policies that belong to this century.

There's another reason why I started this review by talking of this briefest of nude scenes. It is, sadly, the most interesting thing about Ketan Mehta's film. Not the scene itself, mind you, but the fact that the censors let it go through after five years. Rang Rasiya, about the great 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma, was actually made in 2008, but was stayed by the censors. Over the years, it acquired a reputation as a suppressed masterpiece. I'm glad it's finally in theatres, untarnished. Rang Rasiya deserves to be rejected on its own terms.

The movie is constructed as a series of nested flashbacks — which sounds more interesting than it actually is. We start off in the present, with a violent mob protesting an auction of Varma's paintings, several featuring Hindu mythological figures in various stages of undress. We're then taken back in time and shown Varma's journey, from a precocious child in 1850s Kerala to the brash young genius who fused Indian and European art traditions. Later, at a temple in Bombay, he meets the woman who'll become his muse. Her name is Sugandha, and even though the film treats it like a big reveal, it's no surprise when she turns out be a prostitute (the irony of devotional portraits being modelled on a veshya is too much for even an old hand like Mehta to turn down).

Varma had a singularly interesting life: he travelled the country in an age when few Indians did that, started a printing press, and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind medal by Lord Curzon. The film does try to include a lot of these little details; I was reminded, for instance, that Dadasaheb Phalke worked with Varma in his press before embarking on his pioneering career in cinema. But unlike Harishchandrachi Factory, the 2009 film on Phalke's life, this one never establishes its period setting satisfactorily. Most of the dialogue sounds like it's out of a Bollywood film — did girls in the 1870s really threaten to hit strangers with their chappals?

As Varma, Randeep Hooda is an intriguing mix of stubbornness and charm, ambition and naiveté. Often, he seems to be fighting against the film's silliness, lending it a dignity it desperately needs. The women he's paired with, though, are uniformly awkward — Tripta Parashar as Varma's wife, Feryna Wazheir as a Parsi woman who helps him out in Bombay, and Nandana Sen as Sugandha. Sen is onscreen the most after Hooda, and though she's obviously trying hard, her Tweety Bird voice and perpetual wide-eyed expression make her difficult to take seriously. Only Gaurav Dwivedi, in his scenes as Varma's harried younger brother, suggests a character intriguing enough to merit his own sub-plot.

Is Mehta turning into another Dev Anand — unable to distinguish between a halfway decent lyric and "Tere tan mandir mein mera man khoya"? He's no stranger to bad moviemaking — try as I might, I can't un-watch Maya Memsaab or Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! Yet, this is also the person who made Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, films in which he displayed, at the very least, a unique visual sensibility. Perhaps his next, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will be a return to form. In Rang Rasiya's case, however, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

This review appeared in the Sunday Guardian.

Gone Girl: Review

I'd hate to be inside David Fincher's mind. I picture a waiting room done in blacks and greys, surfaces gleaming. Piped music that sounds like cats being electrocuted. A couple of books stacked in a corner: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, Observations on Bloodletting, A Clockwork Orange. "L'enfer, c'est les autres", the sign over the door reads. "Hell is other people."

Has there ever been a director who has subjected his characters and audience to as much misery as Fincher has? Gwyneth Paltrow's head was handed to Brad Pitt in Se7en, Edward Norton beat himself to a pulp in Fight Club and Rooney Mara had a miserable time as the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And that's just a top tier of malcontents and misanthropes who've wandered through his films. So it's hardly surprising that his latest, Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her 2012 novel, has these words right at the start: "When I think of my wife, I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains."

The skull in question belongs to Amy — Amazing Amy to fans of her parents' children's books. Her husband, Nick, is also a writer, rendered jobless by the recession. It's their fifth wedding anniversary, but Nick's hiding out in a bar. When he does reach home, he finds a broken table and no sign of his wife. Decades of TV procedurals have taught us what happens next: traces of blood, search parties, vigils, press conferences. Then, with no answers forthcoming, people start to wonder why Nick is acting so normal.

At first, there seems to be some justice in Nick finding himself the object of suspicion for his wife's murder. We learn, through flashbacks narrated by Amy, how he became distant and unloving; how he pushed her violently; how he had an affair with a student. Yet, the more we learn about Amy, the more we're reminded that in Fincher's world nobody's nice, everyone's out to get theirs and the sun never shines. Characters are introduced — a pair of stolid detectives, a couple of old boyfriends, one with a history of mental instability — but the focus remains on Nick and his girl, now presumed gone from this world.

It's only when it switches from a straight-ahead mystery to an indictment of 21st century media culture that Gone Girl becomes truly riveting — and surprisingly funny. Once Nick realises that his stoicism is hurting his chances, he begins to perform for the cameras. "First they like me, then they dislike me, then they hate me, and now they love me," he says, half-unbelieving, to his twin sister, the only person who still believes he might be innocent.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike may not have been obvious choices for the leads, but the more the film progresses, the better Fincher's instincts seem. Affleck has always held back as an actor, a tendency that makes Nick seem all the more guilty. Pike, on the other hand, alternates between bottling up her resentment and letting it explode, her deep black eyes burning holes in the scenery. Carrie Coon is terrific as Nick's straight-talking sister, though Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's psycho ex feels a little like stunt casting. The score, like the previous two Fincher films, is by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. It might be their best yet: romantic and warped, chilly and enveloping.

And, of course, there's the man pulling the strings. It's been 22 years since Alien 3, and you have to give the man credit for not softening his worldview after all this time. Like a more commercial Michael Haneke, Fincher uses his formidable skills to turn sadism into art. And in Flynn, he seems to have found his misanthropic ideal: the novelist is set to write a season of the upcoming HBO show Utopia, which he'll direct. "All  we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain," Nick says at one point. "That's marriage," Amy replies. That's Fincher.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.