Anurag Kashyap's Ugly premiered at Cannes in 2013, Sundance in 2014, and just hit Indian cinema screens on December 26th. At every turn, the film has impressed global critics and further cemented Kashyap's place as the most unique contemporary voice coming out of India.
Ugly is the story of a little girl lost, well, more appropriately, it is the story of all of the assholes fighting each other to be her savior. If you follow the national news in India with any kind of regularity, you'll see that the nation is inundated with depressing stories of humanity rotting. Gang rapes, terrorist attacks, religious tensions, and most of all, the insidious corruption that has crippled the nation at every turn.
Kashyap has made movie miracles with his ability to walk the fine line between Indian cinema and world cinema. Unlike many other independent filmmakers in India whose eyes are planted firmly outside of their country, Anurag Kashyap understands and embraces his cinematic antecedents and uses their tools to his own advantage to make films that feel fresh and familiar to both Indian viewers and foreigners. It's a tightrope from which pretty much every other Indian filmmaker has fallen, but Ugly shows that Kashyap is a master just coming into his prime.
His upcoming film, Bombay Velvet, features two of Bollywood's biggest stars in Ranbir Kapoor (Barfi) and Anushka Sharma (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, PK) and is planning one of the widest openings ever for an Indian film in the US. The film is being edited for an international audience by Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's longtime partner, and promises to be something else.
Qaushik Mukherjee, or Q, is India's answer to Gaspar Noe/David Lynch/Kenneth Anger. His convoluted stories and breathtaking visuals are only matched by the glorious music of his films. His latest narrative feature, Tasher Desh, released in India in 2013, is an adaptation of Bengali playwright Rabindranath Tagore's spin on Alice in Wonderland. I reviewed it as it played South Asian International Film Festival 2013:
Much like Gandu, Tasher Desh follows its own rhythm, abandoning the traditional three act structure and all rules of dialogue. Rather than telling us a story, Q is putting us through an experience. A beautifully shot, impeccably scored, and at times completely infuriating experience. If you can make it through the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film you're in for a treat, but I warn you, some people will be just as adverse to Q's non-linear storytelling style as they are to his occasionally avant-garde approach to everything he does.
The film is a challenging one, however, it is not without great rewards. Too artsy for the mainstream crowd, the film has yet to find a home in the west. PVR Cinemas in India bravely took to distributing Tasher Desh in its cinemas over the summer to relative critical success, even though it is clearly not the kind of film that would make any money. Such an oddball, unexploitable feature is unlikely to gain traction outside of the hardcore arthouse crowd, but it's well worth seeking out for fans of the avant-garde, fans of Tagore, and fans of having one's melting brain served up a plate by one of the most experimental films I've seen in a while.
Commando: A One Man Army
A supporting character in big Indian films in three different languages, Vidyut Jamwal finally got his moment to shine in Commando: A One Man Army, and boy did he ever take advantage. The film never made landfall on US shores, but was played in a couple of big festivals over here and left dropped jaws in its wake.
Jamwal is a force to be reckoned with, a martial arts master with ridiculously good looks and charisma to spare. He moves like Tony Jaa, but has muscles like Michael Jai White, he's going to be a huge star if he can make the most of this moment. I was unable to review the film for Fantastic Fest, but James Marsh did, and he was thoroughly impressed:
Production values across the board are strong, with first-time director Dilip Ghosh making fantastic use of the woodland locations (as well as some spectacular desert and temple settings during the musical numbers). There is perhaps too much time given over to the romantic subplot or repetitive machinations of AK and his cohorts, but when Ghosh does allow his new leading man to take centre stage, the film really delivers. During the opening credits the audience is informed that Jamwal performed all his stunts without the use of doubles or wires, which only whets our appetites all the more for the displays of skill and agility to come. And while there are occasional moments when Ghosh could have benefitted from moving his camera back a few more feet and letting the fights play out in a single take, it is impossible to hide Jamwal's obvious talents.
Jamwal has a follow-up solo feature in the works directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, who also directed Irrfan Khan in Paan Tomar Singh and starred in Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur. The film, Yaara, sounds like a winner and will feature plenty of martial arts action from plenty of new blood, including the director of micro-budget wonder Local Kung Fu, Kenny Basumatry. Get excited for that!
If there is anything that India cinema lacks, it is commitment to quality films for children. They don't make many of these films, and the ones they do make are usually shit, which is what makes Devashish Makhija's Oonga so special. Oonga is a film about children and their view of the world that doesn't talk down to them, but doesn't alienate adults either. I saw this film in conjunction with NY Indian Film Festival in 2013 and it blew me away. The film got a few screenings in the US thanks to upstart IndieMeme, but really deserves more notice. Here are a few words from my review:
Oonga's strengths are many, there is a strong cast, strong emotional anchors in the characters of Oonga and his mother who doesn't know where the boy has run off to, clear and concise storytelling, and gorgeous cinematography to remind us just what it is that these villagers are afraid of losing. The beauty of the film is non-stop, the landscape of rural India is breathtaking, the journey to the nearest town for Oonga is gorgeous, and even the eventual scenes of big city madness as personified by the whiz-bang lights and sounds of a carnival are engrossing. Of all of these strengths, though, it is little Oonga who holds the film together even as the grown-up world seeks to destroy this precious natural beauty.
The film's final act is an amazingly precious extended sequence in which Oonga, freshly painted and dressed as Rama upon receiving inspiration from the play, returns to his village and is praised and worshiped by strangers all along the way. Oonga, believing that he has become Rama in the way that only young children have the capacity to do, is determined to protect his village and his family when the Naxalite/Army conflict comes to a head. What happens next is tragic and redemptive, a conclusion that is all too real coming from the mind of a child, and it serves as a cautionary tale that will likely go unheard by those who need it most.
Oonga is very much a reflection of that dichotomy between the New India and the Old India, and why they struggle so much to speak the same language, both literally and figuratively.
I love Filmistaan. This little movie about the power of cinema to bring together people from warring cultures made me smile over and over again when I screened it for NY Indian Film Festival 2013. Here's a bit of what I wrote then:
It seems unbelievable, even to me, that it could take something as simple as cinema to reunite two nations so bitterly at one another's throats. However, a movie like Filmistaan makes you want to believe that it could be that easy. These are two nations with more in common than in difference from one another, and perhaps opening the channels of dialogue in this small way would be a big step in what seems like an insurmountable struggle. The rhetoric is so toxic between the two nations that there are times that is seems nothing can cut through it, but movies like Filmistaan help so soften that disconnect between what the government says and what the people want. If there was justice in the world, the film would be shown in Pakistan, with Muslims sitting next to Hindus laughing at all the same jokes. Sadly, there is not, and we are left to imagine what could be. Thankfully, Filmistaan at least gives us an idea of could/should be and what violent silliness keeps it from happening. This is a fantastic film that consistently made me laugh while keeping me angry at the whole situation that exists. Kudos to first time feature director Kakkar for a debut worth seeing.
Anybody Can Dance 3D
India's 1st 3D dance film? Prabhu Deva, the Indian Michael Jackson, in the lead? HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN AWESOME?? Well, it was awesome:
Anybody Can Dance 3D is a big winner and a huge success for everyone involved. I can see this film launching a few careers and perhaps igniting a new genre in Bollywood. While most big budget films feature plenty of dancing, relatively few make it the dramatic focus of the film, and future projects would do well to study ABCD to see how to do this right. While I'm still not sure that anybody can dance (I have two left feet), I'm damned sure that anybody with a yen for dance films will enjoy the hell out of Anybody Can Dance 3D!
The Ship Of Theseus
Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus is one of the most jaw-dropping works of cinematic art I've seen in the last decade. A film that is as beautiful as it is complex, and yet addresses the paradox of Theseus with a deep understanding that can find foothold within each of us. This film, also shown in the US by IndieMeme definitely deserves more attention. Here's a piece of my review from Indian Film Festival LA 2013:
The Ship of Theseus is a biological exploration of the concepts of ownership, identity, self, life, death, and all of the rest that goes with it. How much can be given up before it is too much? How much can one sacrifice before those sacrifices rob one of his true, complete self?
The answers are complex and different for everyone. You may find yourself identifying with a character who made me uncomfortable, but I'd wager that no matter who you are, you'll find yourself somewhere in these stories. This film is a rare treat that deserves attention, a film that will make you think, maybe even make you angry, but I can almost guarantee that it will at least make you feel, and that's why I go to the movies.
One of my top ten films of 2014 is one of the hardest to see. Karthik Subbaraj's Jigarthanda is a both a diabolical satire of the nature of the Tamil film industry in India and one of its greatest accomplishments. While the film opened in the US with English subtitles, it has been released on DVD in India without them. There is no legitimate way to see the film unless you speak Tamil, and that's a damned shame.
I practically wrote a book when I reviewed the film over the summer, here's an excerpt:
There is a magic to popular Indian regional cinema that I cannot really explain, but it comes with complete submission to the form that not many people, and certainly not film festival programmers, are often willing to make. I lay prostrate at the temple of Indian regional cinema, and allow it to wash over me, coarse through me, and permeate my being in a way that finds me glued to cinema screens as often as possible, indulging in fantasties that no one would believe, for the sake of this magic that very few people seem interested in.
Jigarthanda is a worldy film that takes influences from within its own very small cinematic orb and transforms them into something that the discerning film fan can meditate on and enjoy. Will the general non-Tamil film fiend miss a few jokes? Yes, quite a lot actually. However, Jigarthanda manages to make universal that which is culturally specific; it's really quite an accomplishment.
Unfortunately, due mostly to its length, I can't see Jigarthanda making a run at the film festivals of the world. It's hard to convince programmers, a community that I now find myself to be a part of in some ways, to block off that much time for a single film. However, I really hope that this film manages to find some kind of audience beyond ethnic Tamils, because it deserves one.
X Past Is Present
Sudhish Kamath (Good Night | Good Morning), Q (Tasher Desh, Gandu), Nalan Kumarasamy (Soodhu Kavvum), Hemant Gaba, (Shuttlecock Boys), Sandeep Mohan (Hola Venky), Raja Sen, Suparn Verma (Aatma), Abhinav Shiv Tiwari (Oass), Pratim D. Gupta (Paanch Adhyay), Anu Menon (London Paris New York), Rajshree Ojha (Aisha), and Gautham Menon (Ye Maaya Chesave) made a movie with a single story, and it's awesome.
Rather than wax philosophical on the merits of one segment over another, an exercise that would almost certainly defeat the purpose of the film, the real joy in X is realizing that the segments and their tonal distance from one another accurately reflects the tonal and emotional distance from one relationship to another. No two are ever quite the same, and as a result, no person is exactly the same from one relationship to the next. It is the variety of experiences from passionate, to painful, to sweet, to traumatic, to tragic, that makes life worth living and this film work checking out.
If you remain unchanged from one failed romance to the next, it could be said that you just aren't learning anything and the inability to change and adapt to the conditions presented will condemn you to perpetual failure. Similarly, if a romance tells a story of a man who fails in love repeatedly without changing his tactics, his focus, his overall approach to life and the people he loves, where is the hook? X focuses on the elusive qualities of love and its effects on people as they grow up and grow old, seeing this change through eleven different pairs of eyes is startling, charming, shocking, and panic inducing, but overall the experience is mesmerizing and the kind of experiment I would love to see more of.
As Seen By The Rest
I just love it when I am surprised, and Rakshit Shetty's Ulidavaru Kandanthe (As Seen By the Rest), surprised the hell out of me. Impeccably stylish, self-aware, sharply written, and beautifully scored, the film deserved a better reception than it received outside of India. I adored it and helped program it for Fantastic Fest 2014, I hope that some of the people who saw it there felt the magic that I did when they saw it. Here's a little piece from my LIFF review:
Rakshit Shetty wears his influences on his sleeve, often naming them aloud within the film, and does more than simply write his own stereotypes into the script, he puts his money where his mouth is and shows us what he's thinking. With tributes to everything from Frank Miller's Sin City, to Pulp Fiction, to Scarface, to Bollywood hit Agneepath, and ultimately to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, As Seen By the Rest isn't content to be just another film, it is a groundbreaking work in a rapidly maturing new cinema of Karnataka.
More than just another pretty face, Rakshit Shetty is something that Indian cinema is lacking these days, a visionary and an auteur. There are a few out there, but most have to suffer through interminable studio interference, turning their films into glorified commercials for CD soundtracks (Ram-Leela), and the ones who do stick to their guns are often forced to find a market beyond their own border, like Bengali cinema's Q. Shetty has struck a delicate and difficult balance, he's made an entertaining film that works on his own terms and has the potential to find an audience beyond his homeland while still satisfying the demands of his own people. Well done, sir. Well done.
Nagraj Manjule's Fandry is one of the most heart-breaking, inspiring films I saw over the past two years. This Marathi film tells the contemporary story of caste discrimination in rural India in a way that rips at the heartstrings without being manipulative.
I'll be honest here. I saw the film this spring in conjunction with Indian Film Festival LA and was so devastated by it that I couldn't even muster the words to review it. Anything I could possibly write would pale in comparison to the film itself, words can only cheapen the thing.
In a just world, Fandry would be India's Academy Award submission for 2014. The film is so good, and so few people will see it that it breaks my heart. The good people at IndieMeme have given it a small theatrical run, but this film should be shown in schools everywhere, just to remind people of what the world is really like. Fandry is amazing.
Soodhu Kavvum is the debut feature from Nalan Kumarasamy, one of the leaders of the new wave of Tamil filmmakers led by him and Karthik Subbaraj. The film stars Tamil indie superstar Vijay Sethupathi and tells the darkly comedic story of a team of desperate kidnappers looking to turn a quick buck. This is another film I didn't get a chance to review because the theatrical print didn't have the promised subtitles, but upon catching up with the film on Blu-ray (the DVD doesn't have subs either), I'm sold.
Kumarasamy and Sethupathi are both miracle workers. The film manages to toe the line between screwball comedy and film noir in a way that American movies, outside of the Coen Brothers, haven't been able to do for years. Yes, there are a few songs, but even those get my feet tapping. Frankly, I can't wait to see more from this team and the production house of CV Kumar, Thiru Kumaran, who is the top company pushing this stuff out into the world.
Hopefully we can get more of them out here, with subtitles, and on home video for outsiders to see. If you can find Soodhu Kavvum, see it, you'll thank me.
Hammad Khan's Anima State is a brilliant, overt act of intellectual aggression toward the medieval state of modern Pakistan. Everything about the film is antagonistic. The story, the characters, even the structure. I saw the film twice this year, and it was that second viewing, in conjunction with London Indian Film Festival 2014, that resulted in my review, excerpted here:
Not too on the nose, but perhaps a bit obtuse for the viewer without more than a passing knowledge of Pakistan's history, Anima State presents us with contradictions and asks the viewer, "could you live like this?" The answer is left up to you. However, Anima State isn't done with its viewers just yet. Not unlike the similarly avant garde Gandu, from Bengali filmmaker Q, Anima State switches gears in the final reel to take a different perspective on the whole mess.
Anima State does a wonderful job, even without a formal structure, of imbuing every scene with a feeling of emotional disconnect. What is happening to the characters, what they are doing to and with each other, doesn't even seem to make sense to them. The dichotomy of a Pakistan pulling in two different directions, one side fighting with guns, and the other with ideas, is ever-present. Hammad Khan has done something special here. Anima State is alternately discomforting, humorous, preachy, illuminating, and abstract, but the whole certainly equals more than the sum of its parts. Pakistanis are people, but as a people, Khan seems to see them as eternally and impossibly conflicted. If you need a story to keep your attention, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you want a film that will make you feel, or more importantly feel empathy, Anima State/b> is a solid choice.