Sunday, 12 August 2012

How cheap is human life? - on Gangs of Wasseypur

First of all, the confession: I enjoyed seeing both parts on Gangs of Wasseypur, the second half more than the first. I admire the craft that went into the film - the flawless lighting and cinematography, the uniformly good acting from the cast, how it plays around with music and countless other details. Yet I find it problematic to accept. Or perhaps, because of it.

Kashyap has always been some sort of a prankster: whenever he can, he'll hold up the narrative for a while to deliver a joke, an ironic detail or something to break up dramatic tension (e.g. the haldi gag in Dev D). This works brilliantly for me when it is balanced with a genuine emotional core - as in Dev D - or when the world within the film is sufficiently outre to suspend expectations of reality, as in No Smoking. But with Gangs, he's made the only film in his career where the explicit intention is to blow up narrative continuity with a series of jokes.

I don't find this anarchic tendency problematic in itself. Bunuel did the same thing in his later films with Jean Claude-Carriere (for example in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and I love him precisely for this subtle demolition of audience expectations. The trouble with Kashyap is that he's using humour in the same amoral way as Tarantino, only without the edge.

To elucidate with an example: the murder of Sultan, which recalls something of the Bunuel spirit. Kashyap sets up the scene as a joke - the coordinator of the hit job is having trouble tying his pyjamas while he's on the phone line with three different people - and for a moment we assume that Sultan is going to slip by in all this chaos. But the plan falls into place just in time and Sultan is murdered viciously - a sudden change in tone which ends up implicating the audience for forgetting that we're ultimately laughing about murder. This unease is why Tarantino works in films like Inglourious Basterds, the self-awareness that violence is fantasy.

By contrast, most of the other killings in the film are played out rather routinely without any emotional investment of the audience in what's going on (and Yashpal Sharma is always at hand to suitably play the ironic brass band troubadour). We enjoy the spectacle but don't feel anything at all - something which reaches its apotheosis in Ramadhir Singh's climactic death. The whole thing is pulled off so bloody impressively that you want it a second time. The difference in this and the Sultan scene is that there is nothing in Kashyap's attitude which indicates that he doesn't share the let's-have-fun-shooting-some-more feeling. It's this invitation to witness full-blooded revenge in glorious slow-motion with accompanying hip techno music that repels me (coincidentally Jim Emerson recently wrote on why he doesn't consider revenge a good plot device). A sort of shirking away from taking a moral and emotional ground, as if that's too hip and uncool. Lest anyone forget, this is the director of Gulaal we're talking about - a political film considerably drowned in pathos.

Which brings me to my theory. The only way GoW makes sense to me is as Kashyap's own vengeance saga. It's like he wants to take us on for completely ignoring That Girl in Yellow Boots (his most emotionally honest film) and show that he can make a blockbuster hit - by twisting and playing around with Bollywood's prized conventions - delivering the ultimate abstruse masala film.

So far so good. Now that he's had his field day, will he get back to the Yellow Boots zone again? Or at least the Dev D one?

Friday, 10 August 2012

Circling around the past - Vertigo

In the light of the recently conducted Sight & Sound 2012 poll results, I decided to see Vertigo again. While my original idea was to write something comprehensive on it - the film has been swimming around in my mind for some personal reasons - I've decided against it because I find Chris Marker (a master who recently died) has already said nearly everything I wanted to. In this essay.

Conventionally, the film has always been read from Scottie's perspective. I feel it is as valid from Judy's. Both of them independently think that they can bury the past. Both are consumed in it. The film's just so goddamned fatalistic and cruel. As is life.


Be kind, rewind!


Adam Gopnik also has a wonderful essay that deals indirectly with Vertigo's themes. Many thanks to Jai, from whom I came to know of it.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Escapism in cinema, baa Kaushik keno Q

In the popular consciousness, "serious films" (or "festival films") are always cracked up to be rooted in reality. One tends to divide cinema into two mutually exclusive boxes - that which is meant to provoke thought and that which helps once escape from sordid reality into projected fantasies.

But then Gandu comes trotting along happily and messes things up. All attentions focussed strongly on its taboo-breaking full-frontal scene, few people - next to no one - seems to notice this "paradigm shift". A complete break with our "parallel" film culture: which has always been strongly grounded in faithful depiction of some sort of reality, even in the formalist works of Kaul and Shahani. (Kamal Swaroop's surrealist Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is the only exception.) The most persistent criticism of the film is its haywire narrative structure - most people I know who have seen the film couldn't figure what it was about and proceeded to dismantle it from that point on. 

This inspite of the explicit hallucinogen use in the film - sign enough to resign oneself to the fact the film is supposed to be very much like an drug-trip. In a talk by Q I attended, he revealed that the dhatura scene was shot in a time of deep self-doubt regarding his place as a film-maker. Relying mostly on instinct while shooting (without a script, like most of the film), he shaped the scene largely while editing it - retaining the free-associative sensory overload one experiences in a trip. It might be argued that the sex with the kitten never really happened except in Gandu's drug-addled mind. The use of lurid, vivid colour certainly hints at that - especially when compared to Q's use of black-and-white for the rest of the film (which he calls the film's surviving link to Bengali political films of the past).

Q is open about his post-modern influences and posits that Gandu is in part about the effect of digital technology on our lives. The significance of virtual avatars, proliferation of shit and the increasing difficulty to hold on to traditional notions of good and bad in the context of internet - all of these find a way into his film. One reason why I find it difficult to judge it myself - though I understand something of what it is trying to say - is because the critical apparatus I usually employ is useless here; the film has absorbed its criticism into itself.

The elitist notion brewed in intellectual circles is one of a commercial cinema for the proletariat: meant for them to escape the drudgery of their existence. Bollywood practically thrives on this streamlined notion of what is escapism, an idea it has succeeded in embedding into the popular consciousness. What these intellectuals don't mention - even though they experience it themselves - is how a lot of "committed cinema" functions the same way for them. In a world that forces a certain sort of lifestyle upon urbane educated people, it is hard even for the genuinely caring to get out of their comfort zones and do something. By living a proxy life amongst people who are real, and emotionally connecting with their plight, they (bourgeois intellectuals) seek catharsis. An escape from the routine-ness from their lives. Their stuff of fantasies might not be gauche designer-clad cavorting in exotic locations - perhaps a more sophisticated liberal outrage against the hardships of Iranian women, for example - but it's a fantasy nonetheless. In case I seem to be pointing fingers, I'll admit it applies to me too (hence this post).

I love Calvin and Hobbes for several reasons, but the biggest might be Watterson's realization that the most interesting parts of our lives are lived inside our heads. Hobbes talking, joking and fighting with Calvin isn't a conceit, it's an essential need in Calvin's life (who is essentially lonely and friendless, if you've noticed). One needs an alternative identity to get by.

Like Q does. Imagine a guy named Kaushik Mukherjee gleefully rapping "nada nada Horihor, khada tor bada!" ("shake it, shake it, Horihor!"). Doesn't work. Too much cultural baggage to allow one to be an iconoclast. Q. Non-descript. Enigmatic. Now you can do what you want!

Q performing with Gandu Circus in The Basement, Kolkata. Photo by Shovon Ray.