The Manoj Bajpayee Interview

In a career sprawling 27 years, Manoj Bajpayee has essayed iconic characters—from his breakout performance as the violent yet humane gangster, Bhiku Mhatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, to the murderous Sardar Khan from Gangs of Wasseypur, to the intelligence officer, Srikant Tiwari, who grapples with national security threats and familial conflicts in The Family Man. The actor has donned the khaki in a handful of films—including Shool, in which he played an aggressive, yet vulnerable inspector, and Satyamev Jayate, in which he played the gloriously dramatic Shivansh Rathod—and always succeeded in creating a humane impression. In fact, it was his performance as a retired cop—as the reticent, weary constable Ganpath Bhonsle in Devashish Makhija’s wonderful film, Bhonsle—that fetched him his second National Award for acting.

My personal favourite, however, remains DCP Aravind from the 2006 Telugu film, Happy. Aravind was stern and furious, yet the joke was always on him. “All my experiences with Telugu cinema have been wonderful,” says Manoj. “Allu Aravind (the father of Allu Arjun), the producer of my Hindi film, Kaun, convinced me to be a part of Happy after the director (Karunakaran) wanted me to play the part. I have great memories of my Telugu projects like Prema Katha, Vedam, and Puli (2010). It’s quite a task to learn the Telugu dialogues though,” he says, laughing.

Read the full interview here.

When Baddies Brawl: I Care a Lot

A collision of two individuals – one explicitly criminal and one lawfully right yet morally wrong – shapes the captivating narrative of I Care a Lot, the new film by J Blakeson. Marla Grayson’s desire to reign supremacy in a man’s world keeps the ball rolling from the word go. A con-woman who uses the judiciary to make her the legal guardian of the elderly on the pretext of their health, Marla sends them to a care home post which she alienates them from their family and auctions their property for her personal gain. The elders’ deteriorating health is her bounty, their life and existence are mere pictures on her wall, and their death is another opportunity to further her growth and inflate her bank balance. When one of her wards dies, she substitutes Jennifer Peterson in her fruitful formula of money-minting, deeming her to be a cherry on the cake as the old Jennifer has no living family. Jennifer’s words “I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make” turn out to be true, but a fiercely business-minded Marla gives no hint of taking a backstep, upturning her mistakes and their repercussions into opportunities to climb the money ladder.

The most delightful aspect of the writing here is how it puts Marla, someone who uses her wicked mind to pull off court-approved immoral acts, against Roman Lunyov, a crime-boss. It’s two bad people at war and both of them have to go out of their league to get what they want. For instance, Marla confronts Lunyov to face her the right way – in court – instead of using his brawny ways to get things done. Early in the film, Marla questions a man who just legally lost to her, whether it hurts so much more to be beaten by a woman. This is her worldview and when she is faced head-on with another man, it’s a full-steam ‘woman vs wild world’ game that knows very little about the boundaries of morality, from both sides. Every time you think Marla is hitting the bottom, she sways upwards, and how! It’s comedic that Marla brings down Roman, someone who can get people killed with a snap, on his toes. A con-artist, who purely built herself using her mind, becoming a fitting rival to the mascular mafia is amusing. Between Roman and Marla, it’s very hard to decide who’s the lesser of the two evils. That is the best state of uncertainty a film can push you into and each one of us has to make a choice for ourselves.

I Care a Lot is streaming on Netflix.

Spyder: A Wickedly Comforting Guilty-pleasure

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

I vividly remember watching Spyder on its opening day in the September of 2017. My parents flew down to Chennai, where I was studying, for the Dussehra weekend. For the festive movie-watching ritual, we picked Spyder, the most anticipated film of the year. One of the biggest stars of the south, Mahesh Babu, was collaborating with one of the most successful filmmakers of the south, A.R. Murugadoss. In an interview, while promoting the film, Mahesh Babu called the film the next Bahubali, stating that the film was a visual spectacle for all ages.

For the lack of a better word, I have to say that the trailer looked cool, both visually and conceptually. It had Mahesh Babu, playing an intelligence officer named Shiva, accessing cool gadgets, sharply looking at computers, and doing things that action heroes in Hollywood films do. The expectations were skyrocketing, and it just couldn’t go wrong. Finally, we are giving a fitting answer to the dumb American action extravaganza, I believed. Baradwaj Rangan’s review, headlined ‘one of the best things AR Murugadoss has written and directed’ coupled with a 3-star rating, reaffirmed my belief. I did not read the whole review, which if I had would have helped me prepare for the bizarre ride that film was going to be. I did not have the slightest idea how different the film would turn out to be from what we were promised.

After a generic but watchable 25 minutes composed of the hero-introduction, a customary song dedicated to the man, and a spark-less boy-meets-girl (more of the hero stalking heroine after overhearing on her talk on the phone to her friend about pornography), we get a true shocker where Spyder takes a 180-degree turn. Two women are butchered and their remains are mixed, and women from both families are requested to identify the body parts, as Shiva and we watch in shock and disgust, digesting the grotesque tragedy. The scene is disturbing on multiple levels. Firstly, the obvious gore that is left to our imagination. Secondly, this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of film! We were just there to watch Mahesh Babu effortlessly take on thugs in slow motion and walk away without a scratch. The theatre had never been more silent, especially for a mainstream entertainer of this scale on the first day, even by multiplex standards.https://www.youtube.com/embed/iN30TjyEVTU?feature=oembed

This level of threat within the first 30 minutes of the films is unheard of in the Telugu masala zone. My mom was visibly appalled and she still holds a grudge against A.R. Murugadoss for ruining a perfect family outing; she refused to watch his latest film Darbar, fearing it might leave a bad aftertaste during Pongal this year. Her anger is valid: a film about a chilling psychotic serial killer on the loose certainly doesn’t make for a family viewing, and most importantly, it doesn’t make for a masala film either, and that’s where Spyder goes haywire. It blends sinister ideas that would thrive in a horror film with a masala treatment, and the result is far from both. It is too nasty and chilling to make for an entertaining watch and lacks the necessary power to make for a gut-punching psychological thriller.

Continue reading here.

The Fragility of Unbreakable

Originally appeared in Crooked Marquee.

The year was 2000. The Sixth Sense, an original psychological thriller by a then 28-year old M. Night Shyamalan, was the second-highest grosser the previous year, only to be surpassed by the fourth entry in one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Star Wars. Shyamalan – hailed as the next-Spielberg following  the thumping critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense – arrived with Unbreakable, opening a day before ThanksgivingHowever, neither the audience nor the studio could precisely categorize Unbreakable, owing to the restrained action, which held it back from promoted as an action spectacle, and sparse horror, which refrained it from being the film the audience expected to see – a confluence of horror and psychological facets, akin to The Sixth Sense. In its true sense, Unbreakable is a superhero film, but not many knew it at the time of its release.

In an interview with the Rotten Tomatoes, while promoting Glass in 2019, Shayamalan recalled that comic books and superheroes were considered niche in 2000, restricting the appeal to a cult that celebrated them, and consequently prompting the studio to market the film as a psychological thriller to capitalize on the success of The Sixth Sense. Labeling the superhero genre niche and superhero fans a sect now seems far from accurate, but Tim Burton’s Batman, the zenith of the superhero genre at the box-office,was 11 years in the past. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was two  years away from hitting screens, and two films that would eventually catapult the genre to box office glory – The Dark Knight and Iron Man – were eight summers away.

Unbreakable, although not based on one, is a comic book movie by every sense. It’s profoundly meta, and its beauty emanates from the very fact that the story weaves character motivation and perspectives using comic books, and doesn’t desist from ostentatiously expressing its love for them. The film respects comic books, like Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who strongly believes them to be  an extension of historical documentation. As a film, too, from its color palate to symbolism, the film simultaneously abides by and breaks its comic nature and superhero conception. For instance, the main characters – David Dunn and Elijah Price – are distinguished using green and purple, respectively.

Continue reading in Crooked Marquee.

EUFF 2020: Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles: Surprisingly Simplistic Portrayal of an Intricate Mind

Originally appeared in Film Inquiry.

Surrealism and realism, regardless of the complementary nature of the words, are two broadly contrasting concepts in art. While realism urges for art’s compliance and accuracy with the real world, surrealism, on the other hand, ignores the precision, dwells into the subconscious, and emphasizes the depths of human imagination arising from reality. In a similar vein, the objective of documentaries is to depict the world and its realness. Imagine the resultant emerging from the confluence of these two concepts – documentary filmmaking and surrealism – that do not go hand-in-glove, and one of the earliest upshot of this marriage in the history of film is Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land without Bread) made in 1933 by Luis Buñuel.

DISTINGUISHING THE PURPOSE OF ART

Luis Buñuel, one of the most influential names in the surrealist movement, has directed some of the most famous avant-garde films, with his debut Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) being hailed as the most famous short film ever by film critic Roger Ebert. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles by Salvador Simó is part biography, part making-of doc, and part social critique on the pre-WWII era, that offers a peek into the mind of one of the most intricate artists whose contribution to cinema continues to guide new-age filmmakers.

Continue reading in Film Inquiry.

EUFF 2020: BEYOND THE HORIZON: Observation over Dictation

Originally appeared in Film Inquiry.

Beyond the Horizon (Le milieu de l’horizon) is the kind of film in which nothing major happens but everything is happening in plain sight. Also, the script observes the characters instead of dictating their moves. It’s laid back, from the setting to the filmmaking technique, nothing is extrinsic. Neither does it try to adhere to the minimalistic story-telling techniques. The primitiveness is rather glued in the atmosphere it creates. The film is set in an unspecified rural European territory in the summer of 1976 which, I just discovered, was considered one of the most sweltering summers in Europe, consequentially resulting in a drought. Not an ideal summer for a 13-year old Gus (Luc Bruchez, in his acting debut), who is starting to experience sexual urges, to spend.

MICRO CONFLICTS AMIDST MACRO CHALLENGES

There is a recurring line in the film, telling how the temperatures are much higher in the interiors, thereby making Gus spend the majority of his day outside. This is a hint at the tensions inside the house between family members due to external factors. Gus’ father, Jean, has invested a substantial part of his savings in a chicken farm and the summer hasn’t been kind to them either. As the number of chickens dying each day continues to soar in proportion with rising levels of temperatures, the financial burden only adds to the existing unease in the family.

Continue reading in Film Inquiry.

EUFF 2020: EXILE: Portrayal of Xenophobia, Deceived

Originally appeared in Film Inquiry.

Exile, filmmaker Visar Morina‘s sophomore effort, is what I’d call a truly deceiving film. Bear in mind that there aren’t mind-boggling twists here. For that matter, considering the minuscule drama or action in it, I wonder what the script of the film might have looked like. There were multiple instances when I felt chopping off the long walks in office corridors, the silences in conversations, and stares between characters would have reduced the run time by a quarter. That was petty of me. Perhaps, you will feel the same as well. However, it’s all in the waiting, the outwards taciturnity, the emptiness, and the mundanity of everyday life. These are the determinants that foster your perspective of the story.

PROVOCATIONS OF TRIVIAL YET NEVER-ENDING RACISM:
We are put in the shoes of Xhafer (played by an equally deceiving, pitiful Mišel Matičević) a Kosovar working in Germany. The trouble starts with his name. Some pronounce it as Jafar while others go by Xavar. Despite spending years in Germany, Xhafer feels he is branded an outcast by his colleagues at the chemical firm he is employed in. In one of the team meetings, the boss speaks of the vitality of integrity among members of the organization – standard emotionless corporate uplift – citing that they spend more time surrounded by colleagues than their family members. This is Xhafer’s biggest challenge. He is convinced that he is an outsider in his firm, and we cannot disagree either. His colleagues are… cold, indifferent, and ignorant of Xhafer.

Continue reading in in Film Inquiry.

EUFF 2020: SMUGGLING HENDRIX: Geopolitical Conflicts Make for an Amusing Dramedy

Originally appeared in Film Inquiry

To enjoy Smuggling Hendrix, a film that’s deeply rooted in the political tensions in Nicosia – the capital city of Cyprus – one doesn’t necessarily need to be abreast of the geopolitical conflicts surrounding the nation. The film’s smart writing by Marios Piperides, who directed his script, seamlessly feeds information to the viewer throughout the film, ensuring that by the end of it, the viewer will grasp the prevailing tensions in the city.

It’s not bland exposure, though. The opening scene of the film has a news channel reporting the current standpoint of Nicosia, the world’s largest divided capital where Greek and Turkish sectors are separated.

BUILDS PREMISE ON POLITICAL HISTORY

Yiannis (an effortless Adam Bousdoukos), a nugatory musician with little rigor and hefty debt, from the Greek sector of the city is all set to evade to the Netherlands in three days, we are told at the beginning of the movie. All seems to be on track until he goes on a casual walk accompanied by his dog Jimi (named after Jimi Hendrix, obviously) and as fate would have it, Jimi runs away into the Turkish sector – which the officials refer to as occupied territory, not otherwise. Yiannis manages to easily enter the other side and eventually finds Jimi.

Continue reading here.

A Reading Of Three Shots From Vetri Maaran’s Dhanush-Starrer Asuran

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

When you have a filmmaker as passionate about cinema as Vetri Maaran, even three seconds from a feature-length film of his can provide more room for reading than entire films that celebrate mediocrity. Asuran (streaming on Amazon Prime Video) is far from a perfect film, but quite important in terms of social criticism and how seamlessly the narrative blends commentary and craft. 

We often hear viewers say, “It’s an average film, but has an important message”. For instance, films such as RaatchasiHero and Samuthirakani’s entire directorial filmography are modern-examples of message-over-craft. Not every important film can be great on cinematic terms, but with Asuran, Vetri Maaran surmounts this task with ease, crafting a film that’s important but which also scores high on cinematic merit.

Here are three shots from Asuran that elucidate how a filmmaker can masterfully set up a frame to talk in-depth about characters and narrative, while also using it to serve the message.

Continue reading here.