Friday, August 06, 2021

NAVARASA: Bolstered by some Brilliant Performances and Little Else

 

Navarasa now streaming on Netflix

Edhiri: Karuna

I like what the Bard wrote about mercy in The Merchant of Venice– “It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” One of the nicest things about being human is the capacity for forgiveness, especially when it is extended to those who are deemed undeserving of it by a spiteful society. Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri tells the tale of Dheena, played by a superb Vijay Sethupathi who finds a vent for years of suppressed emotions in an unplanned act of violence and he is left broken to pieces by the crushing burden of remorse. Interestingly enough, the short focuses on Revathi’s character as well, who is directly affected by his actions and the climactic portion reveals that she too is traumatized by the albatross she bears around her neck.

The storyline is engaging and boasts some excellent performances from Sethupathi, Revathi and Prakash Raj and yet, it doesn’t add up to an entirely satisfying whole. The gradual unraveling of multiple layers of angst and agony feels a tad rushed, like the characters would have liked a little more room to breathe…

Summer of 92: Haasya

Priyadharshan’s Summer of 92 has the dubious distinction of being the worst of the lot. Based on an incident from Malayalam actor, Innocent Vareed Thekkethala’s life, it is supposed to be hilarious but it is anything but. Velusamy (Yogi Babu), a successful comedian returns to his native village, is feted in his school and delivers a speech that is supposed to inspire and tickle the funny bone. There are stinky poopy jokes, lame attempts to pass off cruelty to animals as humor, scribbling scandalous gossip on loo walls, and increasingly desperate attempts to make the viewer laugh. Needless to say, none of it works and you venture a tentative smile in relief only when the credits roll.

Project Agni: Adbhuta

Project Agni reveals that director Karthick Naren is a huge fan of Christopher Nolan and his film is what you get, when you get your geek on and spend way too much time poring over the auteur’s work and fan fiction churned out in his honor. The result is a poor man’s Nolan film which is much ado about nothing in particular. Aravind Swamy is a genius type named Vishnu who calls his pal, Krishna (Prasanna) who is with ISRO to tell him about a major scientific breakthrough. Incidentally his assistant is named Kalki. Clearly no grey cells were severely taxed when these names were thought up and the same can be said about the script though there is a lot of talk about the ancient Sumerian civilization, aliens, the laws of time, conscious, subconscious, dream states, etc. It is supposed to come together with an explosive twist but it all fizzles out with a weak pop.

It is too bad because Arvind Swami and Prasanna are remarkable actors who elevate this material to a level of respectability it does not earn.

Payasam: Bhibatsa

Vasanth’s entry is Payasam which is an interesting title since the sweet treat does not normally incite disgust or revulsion. So every time the camera zoomed in on the delicacy bubbling away even as guests who have arrived at a wedding are already drooling in anticipation as they wait for the festivities to be concluded so they can savor it, I expected someone to throw up into it…

It couldn’t have been the easiest rasa to work with but given that one of the characters portrayed by Aditi Balan is a widow who is looked at askance by some of the guests for her “inauspicious” presence at an auspicious event, one can be forgiven for thinking the film might zero in on the disgraceful treatment meted out to widows. However, the story places the spotlight on one man’s (Delhi Ganesh) jealousy over the good fortune of his nephew and his subsequent actions. It is a weird interpretation that never quite sits right.

Peace: Shanthi

Karthik Subburaj takes another stab at making a film about the Eezham conflict after the unmitigated disaster that was Jagame Thanthiram. This time around the results are much better though it is doubtful that a rebel would spend so much time waxing eloquent about the “mannu” they are fighting for. A small rebel faction with Master (Gautham Menon), Nilavan (Simha) and a couple of others are in the hot zone when a little boy crosses their path. He is determined to head into no man’s land in his quest to find his little brother Velaiyan.

It is a dangerous mission but Nilavan risks his life to help him. The twist here is touching and Subburaj should have left well enough alone. Instead he tacks on a climax that is supposed to tug your heartstrings but merely has you rolling your eyes.

Rowthiram: Raudra

Arvind Swami makes an impressive debut as a director with Rowthiram, which is the pick of the lot. Arul (Sreeraam) is an aspiring football player who lives with his down on her luck mum, Chitrama and sister, Anbu. In the opening stretch a bullying boor is attacked with vicious intent by Arul and the film tries to understand the boiling rage that drives this young man. Of all the films, in the anthology this is the one with the most emotional resonance. These are likeable characters who are doing all they possibly can with the wretchedness of their situation. I only wish that the actions of a desperate woman who is willing to do anything for her offspring had not been so harshly judged by the film or said offspring.

Young Sree Raam (you might remember him from Pasanga) does exceptional work here and deserves special mention for more than holding his own against a roster of towering talent.

Inmai: Bhaya

Rathindran Prasad deserves credit for not taking the easy route to conventional horror in depicting Bhaya. Inmai is more ambitious in scope and gently explores the terrifying tendrils of fear that takes shape from guilt, trauma and monsters that lurk in the deepest caverns of memory. A moody, slow – burn of a short that has some truly rousing and effective moments.

Siddharth sinks his teeth into a meaty character and is in fine fettle. Parvathy is not bad but it is Ammu Abhirami (formerly seen in Asuran) who nearly steals the thunder with her electrifying performance and those evocative eyes.

Thunindha Pin: Veera

After all the emotional wattage which prompts you to take a breather between the shorts, Thunindha Pin directed by Sarjun has some high voltage action against the backdrop of a magnificent forest. Vetri (the intense and immensely talented Atharva) is an idealistic rookie who is gung ho about finding himself in the middle of the fighting against the Naxalites. Needless to say he is in for a rude awakening. The conversation between the beleaguered soldier and his captive who refers to himself only as Comrade (Kishore) who is a kingpin among the Naxalites is interesting and Kishore is brilliant. But in terms of portraying conflicting ideologies and the men who are driven by their passionate beliefs the film falls hopelessly short of anything close to satisfying.

Guitar Kambi Mela Nindru: Shringara

Contrary to what a lot of men seem to think, few women would take it as a compliment when an aspiring suitor constantly likens them to their mommas. I wish somebody would tell that to Gautam Vasudev Menon. And I would suggest he read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Freud’s fascinating insights on boys who are fixated on their mothers. Romance is supposed to be his strength and there are a few surprisingly sweet moments here which harken back to his best work but overall this film is a misfire.

Suriya is miscast as a gifted musician who is all set to explode on the international stage. So is Prayaga Martin who plays his love interest, Nethra and simply cannot manage the reaction shots required to sustain a close – up. Karthik’s music with its riffs on Beethoven and Ilaiyaraja is charming but it does not quite manage the feat of conjuring the magic Harris Jayaraj’s did for GVM’s earlier work.

All in all, Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan’s Navarasa is not quite a delicious, nine – course repast but it does deserve props for effort directed towards a worthy cause and some memorable performances.

Abolish the Curse that is Caste

 


Not a day goes by when the news headlines fail to report something about the troubles associated with caste – based discrimination which has forced members of the lower castes to live in poverty, restricted to low – paying menial jobs that are considered undignified and unclean. In 1947, having won freedom from the white sahibs who incidentally considered all the brown chaps to be inferior without exception, India framed a brand new constitution which formally banned the practice of untouchability and other caste – related evils. It was a noble sentiment, even if it did next to no good.

Over seven decades later, not much has changed. The caste system compounded by the class divide remains a pernicious, malignant presence, tainting every single aspect of society. We read about atrocities committed against Dalits, shake our heads dispiritedly over something that happens with unfailing regularity, condemn such diabolical deeds on twitter every time the topic is trending while remarking in private that nothing is ever going to change because caste is too deeply entrenched in our country. Everybody knows a couple or two who married out of their own caste and talk about how their folks were cool about it, which points to a brighter future but even in the Puranic age, these things happened - the exceptions which never changed the status quo.

We must abolish the caste system if there is to be the faintest chance of our great - grandchildren not having to listen to holograms informing them that a Dalit woman was raped and murdered, while her protesting relatives were burnt alive to silence their screams. Again. To rip out such an ancient evil by the roots, we can start by doing away with the community certificate entirely, even if it is there for the ostensible purpose of doing the right thing by the downtrodden via affirmative action programs in educational institutions and the employment sector. The quota system doesn’t really seem to have helped the people it was supposed to. Rather, it has perpetuated the very evil it was designed to prevent.

By ensuring that the caste identity we cling to is eliminated, we may just manage to secure equal rights for all. Future generations will grow up not knowing or caring which caste their ancestors belonged to. And if we can provide quality education for all our youngsters especially the ones who can’t afford it, perhaps in the future, everyone will be guaranteed a fair share of the pie. Or payasam. An added bonus is that the politicians will no longer be able to manipulate the vote banks on the basis of caste. Isn’t that reason enough to burn up those community certificates immediately if not sooner?

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sarpatta Parambarai A Helluva Fight

 


I like sports flicks even if they are not game – changers in that rousing genre. The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans, Rush, Dodgeball, the entire Rocky franchise and Creed are films I have watched more times than I care to remember. Million – Dollar Baby is one of my all-time fave films and it never fails to reduce me to a miserable puddle of tears. In short, I love sports films, unless they are made in India. Here people do weird things like cast Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom, give Farhan Akhtar a chance to log in a whole lot of gym time to play Milkha Singh unconvincingly or whoever it was he played in Toofan, etc. Even the critically acclaimed Irudhi Suttru was a disappointment because I felt it was about a lot of things but the boxing itself which it was purportedly all about wound up somewhere at the bottom. Which is why Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai was a refreshing change.

After the promise Ranjith showed with the excellent Madras, he went on to make the awful Kabali and Kaala which prompted me to set the bar really low for Sarpatta Parambarai but the film, while not lacking in the ideology he cares so much about and which yields mixed results cinematically speaking, treats the material with a certain dignity and has such innate respect for the sport of boxing, you can’t help but be charmed.

Set in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the emergency, Sarpatta Parambarai tells an oft told tale of an underdog, Kabilan (Arya), who rises from the dumps only to fall so that he can rise again. None of this is groundbreaking, but Ranjith can be counted upon to freshen this stuff up. It helps that Ranjith always opts to work with a powerhouse cast. Pasupathy, who plays coach Rangan is just pure dynamite! He conveys so much with his eyes and subtle use of body language, that it is impossible to take your eyes off him. The man is a study in understatement! John Vijay who is an Anglo – Indian father figure to Kabilan is excellent. The supporting cast of boxers - Santhosh Prathap as Raman, John Kokken as Vembuli and Shabeer Kallarakkal as Dancing Rose are so good, they easily eclipse Arya who is in his element in the training montages and inside the ring where he does a decent job of conveying intensity and aggression but in all the other scenes it is obvious that he is the lightweight among an impressive array of heavyweights. He is particularly horrendous in a scene where he has an emotional meltdown and wallows in self-pity. But the good thing about his character is that he is no saint, and despite his sins, you do root for him.

Kabilan’s journey is an impressive one although I found it hard to swallow that a rookie could take out pros in successive rounds with next to no training. Why do we keep showing this in our films? It doesn’t happen that way folks. Excellence in sports takes so much more than talent, aggression or inspiration. Boring things like endless training, hard work and dedication are called for. A couple of training montages before a big match is just not going to cut it. Just once, I would like to see a protagonist who lives, eats, sleeps, breathe his chosen sport allowing for no distractions. I doubt a project like that would be green – lit but I daresay it takes just that kind of maniacal commitment to achieve sporting glory!

Be that as it may, of course we have to talk about the caste as well as class divide that is always present felt in Ranjith’s films. There are characters like Thanigan (Vettai Muthukumar) who would prefer the likes of Kabilan to beg for alms in front of their homes, shovel up cow dung or slave for them but draw the line at him going on to represent and win for their Sarpattai clan. His devilry to stop the progress of Kabilan is reprehensible, unpalatable and in the climatic stretch, somewhat unconvincing. One wishes Ranjith would temper his passionate beliefs with just a touch of balanced perspective because ironically, while he has raised his voice against those who would trod upon the rights of lower caste members and blue – collar workers, he seems to endorse those boxing clans like ‘Sarpatta parambarai’, ‘Idiyappa parambarai’ etc. though it is almost a given that it must be a struggle for aspiring boxers to gain acceptance to these clans with the inordinate pride some of them take in their identity and their reluctance to let outsiders in. Sounds familiar? I have always wondered at the bias displayed by people who raise their voice against bias.

That aside, critics always rave about the ‘powerful’ women characters in Ranjith’s films but I beg to differ. Bakkiyam (Anupama Kumar) as Kabilan’s mum, Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan) his wife and even, Sanchana Natrajan who plays another character’s wife while solid performers are given nothing to do but scream and berate the men in their lives in an endless litany. The interminable shrieking is at the shrillest pitch possible and really grates on the nerves. It is commendable that these women make the men earn their respect, but I would have appreciated them more had they gone about it in a less hysterical manner. And I really wish, that a woman who repeatedly whacks her son with a broomstick isn’t applauded as ‘feisty’. Abuse is abuse whether it is a man or woman meting it out and I wish folks would stop treating it like a perfectly acceptable thing.

However, grouses notwithstanding, Sarpatta Parambarai has some beautiful moments. I loved that Dancing Rose berates his buddy’s less than honourable conduct while later bolstering the same fallen comrade by telling him that there is no shame in a loss if you have fought with honor and given the best you have got. I misted up at that. Incidentally, he is the only character who is a decent sport. Everyone else with their mulish clannishness including the hero would have done better to exalt the sport of boxing more than their petty rivalries.

Another aside worthy of a mention is when coach Rangan returns from jail and has a private moment with his wife, where they exchange a look of heart melting fondness though they are in the middle of a crowd… Ranjith does his best work when he brings out these small, intimate moments that establish the bonds shared by his characters and these triumph over the more epic stretches he stages though they are effective too. Ultimately, Sarpatta Parambarai may not quite deliver a knockout punch but it is definitely a helluva fight!

 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Equal Parts Brilliant and Problematic

 


I’ll start by admitting to being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I have watched and rewatched his films so often, I can probably write a thesis on his work in my sleep. I’ll also confess that with The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seemed to me like the auteur was losing his touch. Especially since his work was never characterized by emotional range or soul – stirring substance and with these two duds, no amount of his quirkiness and trademark flamboyance seemed adequate for the task of making amends for the overriding superficiality smothered in swagger and style.

Even so, when Tarantino announced that he was making the transition from auteur to author, I was intrigued, for obvious reasons. And the man, didn’t disappoint. The book is impossible to put down and the novel format is perfectly suited to Tarantino’s love for lavish detail, verbose asides to meditate on the minutiae and making of films, tendency to digress from the main narrative for long detours into Hollywood by lanes for some shop talk and celeb worship. Unlike the movie, with its leisurely to the point of lethargic pace, he cranks it up a notch while drawing his readers by hand into the inner lives of his characters. There is Rick Dalton, the actor whose career is headed towards the rocks, Cliff Booth, the stuntman and Dalton’s sympathetic sidekick who may be a little too good at killing and Trudi Fraser, the memorable child actor who schools Dalton on method acting and expresses her aversion to being referred to as ‘Pumpkin Puss’. All of them make for intriguing companions.

Tarantino’s pen lingers on the real life figures as well – Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and his ‘lost girls’, although the attempt is less heartening. Manson, for instance he dismisses as a hack who would have sold his immortal soul, existential philosophy which was supposed to herald a new order and his adoring followers for a record deal he does not have the talent to secure. All this makes for riveting reading and turns out to be an incredibly visual experience comparable to watching and having your mind blown by the best of his films.

Tarantino has long reveled in being a provocateur, and his unapologetic audacity is his biggest strength, giving his work a raw honesty that is shorn of anything remotely resembling wokeness or political correctness. After all, he is the guy who saw fit to rewrite the history of World War II as an outrageous revenge fantasy but every once in a while, his penchant for lowbrow cinephilia and consequent creative decisions can be in surpassingly poor taste. Never has it been more apparent than in his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film version of OUATIH which had the departed superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee up in arms against Tarantino for the disrespect and blatant mockery of a bona fide legend who battled impossible odds to achieve his cult status but unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his efforts pay off. As always, Tarantino stuck to his guns, and has doubled down in his book to make a case for Bruce Lee suffering from an inflated ego and insisting he was disrespectful to American stuntmen, who he claims refused to work with Lee because he would purposely tag them in fight scenes (landing real blows with his fist and feet).

Tarantino claims he has plenty of evidence to support his claims regarding Lee but be that as it may, one can’t help but think this is unfair to Bruce Lee. The glam factory, like the rest of society has always been hard on those belonging to minority groups, failing to recognize their talent or giving them opportunities to shine and holding them to ridiculous standards while conversely, their white counterparts are literally allowed to get away with murder. This is exactly the sort of systemic racism, actors with the ‘wrong’ skin color have battled for eons now. And the decision to have Mike Moh portray Lee and his trademark mannerisms with exaggerated excess to achieve a certain caricaturist effect sticks in the craw especially if you are a rabid fan of the great martial artist (like me) even if it is to establish that Cliff Booth as a war veteran with medals of valor to prove his prowess as a killer can easily take the Dragon out. In light of the tragic fate that overcame Bruce Lee and later, his son, Brandon Lee, this whole arc is insensitive, to say the least.

It is particularly galling given how unabashedly sympathetic Tarantino is to Cliff Booth himself, who definitely murdered his wife (this scene is mined for romance and it is an outrageous flourish that is wildly entertaining and surprisingly sweet) and has killed three civilians and managed to escape the law every single time. Worse, is Tarantino’s near slavish devotion to Hollywood’s golden couple of the 60s – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. He clearly has nothing but respect for the former and love for the latter (who is never less than a beautiful, blonde angel), evident in his treatment of both which is disconcerting with regard to Polanski. Tarantino takes great pains to pay suitable tribute to a fellow auteur (I confess to being an admirer of Polanski’s brilliant body of work myself) and establish his undeniable genius but in a departure from his garrulous style keeps mum about the Polish director’s conviction for the rape of a minor which resulted in him absconding from the USA.

Naturally, this makes one wonder why Polanski merits such adoration while Lee was hauled over the coals for allegedly being disrespectful to American stuntmen who in all fairness are more than likely to have treated him with less than the respect that was his due, since at the time Lee was a ‘Chinaman’ working as the Green Hornet’s sidekick. It just smacks of racist and exploitative overtones, given that Tarantino famously trotted out Uma Thurman clad in the iconic yellow jumpsuit Lee wore in The Game of Death, for his smash hit, Kill Bill, which was marketed as a homage to the martial arts legend.

Even more disturbing is Tarantino’s cavalier treatment of the pedophilia rampant in Hollywood. He asserts that Charles Manson used his underage girls as ‘catnip’, pimping them out to those who may serve his ends. Naturally, since he is the villain of the piece, none of this is glorified but the entire thing becomes a shade off - putting when an underage character insists on being called ‘Pussycat’. She offers sexual favors to Booth, who in an uncharacteristic move demands that she show him proof of her age before turning her down. This character then goes on to reveal that she had a sexual relationship with Charles Manson at the age of 14 and proceeded to marry someone (at the cult leader’s suggestion) and dump him shortly after, because the move would ‘free’ her to escape her parents and join him and his hippie followers. At no point, is it suggested that she is a victim on account of her age, susceptible to the machinations of smarmy cult leaders. Instead she is portrayed as a poster girl of the degenerate hippie culture Tarantino clearly despises.

This attitude of the auteur turned author becomes even more troubling when Mirabella Lancer aka Trudi Fraser, an eight-year-old actor gets her flirt on (in the book) with the much older Dalton, her co - star. She talks to him of love and marriage while going off script in an exercise to understand their characters better and later, calls him at an unearthly hour for the ostensible purpose of reading their lines together so they can kill it on the next day’s shoot. Dalton protests very weakly about the inappropriateness of it all before indulging her request. While it is apropos that the inappropriateness of it all has been stressed, it also makes the reader wonder if Booth was not speaking for Tarantino himself when he admits to liking a fictional character, who is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynist”. After all, at the end of the day, Tarantino can really be an INGLOURIOUS BASTERD of the highest order, even when he is at his dazzling best.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

 


Was there ever a horror movie prequel/sequel that was ever worth a damn? Fear Street Part Two tries hard, it really does, but nothing really sticks. The axe-swinging murderous puppet type controlled by the witch, Sarah Fier whose curse has haunted Shadyside for centuries supplies the gruesome thrills and chills in Camp Nightwing which was alluded to in Part One. Ruby Lane (who sings a sweet little song while wielding her knife) and Billy Barker (A little boy who bashes heads in with a baseball bat) make an appearance too. This set – up harkens back to Camp Crystal Lake and the terrifying Jason of Friday the 13th fame so one mentally prepares oneself for happy little campers getting slaughtered and also wonders how parents still send their kids to these places were the counselors are either high or preoccupied with getting laid with their young charges being the last things on their minds!

There is a little more backstory about the witch and the emotional beats are supposed to be supplied via a soured relationship between two sisters who have diametrically opposing views about how best to handle being stuck in an accursed place and yet another messed up relationship between former friends. They resolve their differences while being hunted by one of the witch’s minions, watching their friends and charges hastened to horrendous ends and screaming fit to bust their lungs. None of it works though. This time around, the director Leigh Janiak, ramps up the bleakness and darkness which seeks to drive the horror quotient through the roof but since the film is nothing but a set up for a major reveal in part three, most of it is repetitive and the schtick gets old.

And a pet peeve is the continued tendency to portray witches in the worst possible light never mind that the infamous witch hunts which spanned centuries and claimed the lives of thousands of innocent women whose only crime was that they didn’t stand and pee was one of the darkest chapters in history. It is so tiresome that this tired old trope of the wicked witch is still being mined to create loathsome women characters. But hopefully, in the spirit of wokeness which seems to be the driving force behind art these days, part three will turn things on its head and reveal that the witch is not the real villain of the piece but a victim who has slaved across the centuries to save Shadysiders from the same malevolent creature that claimed her life and unleashed a brood of mass murderers. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Fear Street Part One: 1994

 


It was only a matter of time before the back storied world – building and myth - making that powered one too many money – minting superhero franchise seeped into the horror genre. We saw glimpses of it in the Conjuring and Insidious universe which has been yielding increasingly diminished returns to begin with and now, Leigh Janiak has upped the ante with her offering of three movies based on R.L Stine’s series, “Fear Street”, spanning centuries, to be dropped in installments over the course of a month on Netflix. The film is not a faithful adaptation and is a much darker take on R.L. Stine’s work which was written for children and therefore does not feature the body count, blood and gore that are prerequisites for a slasher flick. In fact, his books were once famously described as a ‘literary training bra’ for Stephen King.

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is set in Shadyside aka Shittyside. The town has an unfortunate history of ordinary people suddenly losing all their marbles and going on killing sprees. This is exactly the sort of thing that can give a place a bad rap and lead to plummeting property value, plunging the citizenry into poverty.  Their problems are compounded when the film opens with yet another Shittyside massacre in a mall and the people have to cope with the scale of the tragedy even as the media highlights similar gruesome incidents from the past contrasting the town with the neighboring Sunnyvale, which is picture perfect and prosperous to boot. Naturally, they tend to look down on Shadysiders, going so far as to blame them for their perpetual wretchedness.

Deena (Kiana Madeira) has just put together a bitter mixed tape for her ex, Sam (Olivia Welch) who has moved to Sunnyvale and is not inclined to buy into theories that a witch named Sarah Fier has placed a curse on the town making it a breeding ground for serial killers who go about the business of slaughter in wildly creative and surpassingly gruesome ways. Deena’s brother (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is a bit of a nerd who has made it his business to study the legend of the witch. Her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) are selling pills to their school mates in a determined effort to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and better their lives. On an eventful night, Sam accidentally disturbs the grave of the witch and paints a bullseye on her back, dragging this oddball group of friends into a night of mayhem and murder.

Janiak treats these characters with respect and it is why we come to care for them though they can be abrasive and unlikeable on occasion. They make a lot of bad decisions but they are not blamed or shamed for it, because the film understands the brashness and desperation of youngsters who are heartily sick of adults, unwilling to take the time to listen to their fantastical claims, wrapped up as they are in their own worlds. Fittingly enough, the adults barring a few exceptions are mostly absent. Even the burgeoning sexuality of these characters is not treated as something to be used for purposes of titillation or as a cautionary tale. This sensitivity is not common in this particular genre and makes for a refreshing change of pace.

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is high on nostalgia, the occasional jump scare and boasts of a rousing score but it is hardly the most frightening film out there even though parts of it are truly disturbing and make you feel a little queasy. Even so, it is interesting enough to make you want to come back for the second installment.

 

Authenticity Versus Perceived Authenticity

 


The events of the past year and a half have encouraged us to reprioritize because there is a limit to how many times one can bake, cat – cow on the yoga mat or yearn for the days when we took travelling and eating out for granted. We pay slightly more attention to societal issues and are shaken out of our customary complacence when there are back to back dowry – related deaths in Kerala which has long been considered relatively more progressive than the rest of India. We are less inclined to swallow crap about how the Covid crisis in India is nothing more than a conspiracy peddled by Western propagandists and fake news disseminated by anti – nationals than before. Some of us even take the time to figure out the difference between Rafael Nadal and the Rafale deal that the PM is going on about. Nobody really has the patience to handle celebrity shenanigans whether it is Kangana’s shrill spouting of perpetual nonsense or getting worked up because Aamir Khan divorced his wife.

Having ingested all the content, we possibly can on OTT platforms to the point of indigestion, we want to do better with our lives and care more about others because everybody seems dangerously close to hitting rock bottom and plummeting to further depths of despondence. But despite our best intentions we gravitate to social media because time won’t kill itself.  We tell ourselves that our attitudes have changed though – from following influencers we love we now follow those we love to hate.

Of course, the greatest success stories on Instagram or YouTube are those who insist that it is all about keeping it real. They force their brand of quasi – optimism upon us by allowing their followers to eye - ball their carefully curated lives artfully shot by professional photographers. We are told that it is perfectly okay to be imperfect even as they flaunt tousled bedheads carefully arranged by a hairstylist and au natural make – up applied by a beautician while reclining on a tasteful couch and showing off the latest goodies they have received from some high – end brand. They assure us that it is fine to be messy while looking anything but and reveal close – ups of acne scars before urging us to buy a concealer. Mumfluencers post adorable pics with their infant revealing that they stay up nights crying before recommending a breast pump.

We know that perceived ‘authenticity’ is being highly compensated and used to make us buy stuff we don’t need. And all the performative pyrotechnics has made us heartily sick of artifice, even at its most aesthetical. But the question is whether we can ever accept authenticity again without filters.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Time Slows to a Crawl in Chris Pratt’s Tedious Time Travel Trudge



The Tomorrow War  (Amazon Prime) is a wearisome trudge across some seriously unappealing sludge, that makes you want to examine your own lack of judgement when it comes to making decent viewing choices. Director Chris McKay has laboriously put together a film about time travel, vicious, ungainly looking killer aliens who aspire towards nothing more elevating than devouring humans for food and breeding which thoughtless approach on their part puts the future of the human race in jeopardy. This sort of thing has the potential to be entertaining but McKay does not bring anything that is remotely original, fun, or quirky to the table. The film gives the impression of material that has been regurgitated after multiple trips up and down Hollywood’s alimentary canal.

Chris Pratt’s Dan Forester is ex – military, who is presently working as a high school teacher and like every character in every movie or show nowadays, he is extremely angst – ridden with his lot in life and all set to endanger his happy family life comprising a sweet wife and adorable daughter by hurtling down a dark path he has always sought to avoid thanks to a father (JK Simmons) who left him with abandonment issues, when troops show up from the future with dire tidings. They are fighting an unequal war with the aliens and their ranks are so depleted that they have no choice but to enlist troops from the past.

Forester is drafted and finds himself plunged into violent conflict 30 years in the future with a motley crew of fellow soldiers, none of whom are remotely memorable. But the most arresting of the lot is the commanding female officer played by Yvonne Strahovski (Of Chuck and The Handmaid’s Tale fame) and thanks to the nature of the relationship they share, there is a lot of maudlin emotional fare to wade through. Strahovski acquits herself decently but Pratt is ill – suited for this kind of thing which does not allow him room for his customary swagger and roguish charm that was more gainfully employed in The Guardians of the Galaxy and The Jurassic World franchises. Here his lugubrious expressions are meme – worthy but little else. As for the brilliant JK Simmons he is given precious little to do, though he excels in every frame he is in and of all this movie’s many offenses, this lapse has to be the worst.

The Tomorrow War trundles along to a ho – hum climax and there is lot of gruesome, alien gore for those who enjoyed films like the Alien with squishy stuff, gross bodily fluids, and lots of ear – drum shattering shrieking but for the rest of us all that is left, is regret over wasted time, that could have been better spent scrolling for something better to watch.


Friday, July 02, 2021

The Females in The Family Man

 

Raji

Suchi

Dyuti



Indian Productions on Netflix and Amazon barring the odd exception, have been disappointing. The Family Man, however boasts of slick, high – octane action, authentic characters and most importantly, really good writing. Srikant Tiwari, played by the always marvelous Manoj Bajpayee is an antiterrorism agent who is overworked, underpaid, and bent over with the burden of unrelenting personal and professional pressures. His best friend JD helps him cope with delightful doses of humor and wisdom doled out over vada pav. Sharib Hashmi is superb in this role. Much has already been written about The Family Man, particularly its culpability in portraying one too many Muslims as minions of unmitigated evil, oversimplifying the Eezham issue and its unwieldy portrayal of love jihad, and I will concede that these are valid concerns but The Family Man, warts and all has a lot of good things going for it. 

It is so immensely satisfying to see the Malayalis and Tamilians on the show portrayed with accuracy and realism. And of course, Manoj Bajpayee’s Srikant, who comes across as a regular guy dealing with extraordinary situations is at once steely in his determination to do his duty, achingly vulnerable when he tries to keep things together on the home front and hilarious when he is ribbing his buddy, being confounded by his daughter’s propensity for getting into trouble and getting blackmailed by his son. He alone, is reason enough to watch The Family Man.

While the show itself has been at the receiving end of more love than criticism, the same cannot to be said about its female characters who have come in for more than a fair share of vitriol. These are regular characters who are not perfect and yet given the amount of scathing condemnation directed their way, it makes you wonder why the female of the species are always reviled for not being perfect and why it is so hard for so many to forgive women for minor errors in judgement while of course, traditionally men are allowed to get away with murder.

Wife is not Synonymous with Saint

Take Suchitra Tiwari (Priya Mani) for instance. She is the long – suffering wife who is sick of picking up the slack for her husband who is always off saving the nation and can barely make time to take his kids to school or his wife, to the hospital when her water breaks. It is a thankless task to play the petulant, dissatisfied spouse of a national hero, but Priya Mani does a good job with what she is given. Her Suchi is a complicated character who wants more out of life (surely, there is nothing wrong with that as it is a woman’s prerogative to choose satisfaction over sacrifice!) and seems to have developed feelings for a colleague (Cue loud gasp!). Naturally, the denizens of social media have taken to slut – shaming her, never mind that she is just a frustrated human being who is doing the best she can for her family as well as herself. Is that such a terrible thing? This is not an endorsement of extra – marital relationships but why are there so many out there who are so hard on feminine desire and unconventional choices made by women for their own personal reasons? It is a troubling mindset and I await the day when we are as forgiving of female foibles as we are of toxic male misconduct.

An Imperfect Daughter is not the Devil Incarnate

Dyuti Tiwari (Ashlesha Thakur) is an interesting character and not the typical sweet Daddy’s little girl. Smart as a whip, rebellious and impatient with both her parents, Dyuti is determined to do her own thing even if it is stupid and reckless (as demanded by the script which insists on making life complicated for its protagonist). The teen falls for a guy she meets over the internet and it turns out to be a stupid idea since the entire ill – advised romance has been masterminded by her father’s nefarious nemesis. Dyuti is forever sneaking off to meet this dude and making out with him. Folks have been registering their outrage over her actions which have been deemed as unworthy of our culture and traditions.

This again begs the question as to why we insist on pretending that childhood is a time of unsullied innocence which should be preserved even at the cost of knowledge and development. Teenagers are restless, hormonal creatures with a natural curiosity about their bodies and are keen to explore the adult world. Surely we need to educate them about sexuality and safety, encourage communication of their doubts and feelings, instead of judging and shaming them over the assorted foolishness of youth? I have no doubt that it is the adults who need an attitude transplant in order to ensure that children grow up with a proper understanding of all things pertaining to their bodies, become adept at expressing themselves and form healthy attachments.

Feminine Rage, Righteous or Otherwise is not always the Answer

Raji (Samantha Akkineni) is one of the most divisive characters on The Family Man. Let us talk about the brown face first. I am all for creative liberty, but it is hard to get why the makers insist on doing ridiculous things like apply dark make – up on an originally dusky actor who became suspiciously light – skinned over the years simply to adhere to existing audience perceptions of what a terrorist hailing from the Dravidian South might look like. It is impossible to get over this, despite a gutsy performance from Samantha who does an impressive job of selling her character’s prowess as a trained Commando capable of killing with her bare fists.

Leaving the brown face aside, let us talk about some of the other issues with this character. Raji has been through a lot having lost loved ones to the depredations of the Sri Lankan army and is herself a victim of gang – rape. Rescued by Bhaskaran, the leader of the rebels, she reinvents herself and emerges as a killing machine who has weaponized even her sexuality and body for a cause she fanatically believes in. Her rage is understandable but it is also a cautionary tale, for anger can be addictive and empowering but this emotion is corrosive and it burns everything within indiscriminately till there is nothing left but the destructiveness of righteous rage. Worse, it can always be manipulated by others for personal or political gain.

The script does not have anything good in store for Raji, but it is interesting to note that she appears heroic and villainous in turns, which again is such a typically problematic way of portraying women – If you are not the Madonna then it means you are a whore. And it boggles the mind, that the many faces of the feminine remain unacknowledged by most.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Tigress Tigress, Burning Bright

 

Amit Masurkar’s Sherni is an understated gem of a film. Unlike what the title suggests, this flick is not exactly an adrenaline junkie’s wet dream with thrills and chills to spare, though it does have moments of tension. DFO Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan) has her task cut out for her when she finds herself in the unenviable position of somehow saving T12, a man – eating Tigress who is actually more sinned against since she has been forced out of her natural habitat thanks to corporate greed, corruption, greed and dried – up watering holes. It doesn’t help that Vidya is up against entrenched patriarchy, self – serving bosses, blood – thirsty hunters, and smarmy politicians who are keen to use any crisis to their advantage and shore up their vote banks.

My favorite Vidya Balan performances are the ones that are pitched at a lower register (Kahaani, Parineeta) as opposed to her OTT turns in films like The Dirty Picture. She performs with admirable restraint here and has seldom been more effective. Her character has a demanding job where the fact that she is extremely good at what she does counts for beans when she is repeatedly thwarted by chest – thumping goons, hopped up on testosterone or lazy, ineffectual, nightmarish bureaucratic types. In Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz who turns in a fine performance) who is also ridiculed as a ‘butterfly hunter’ by others of his gender for not being in a tearing hurry to pick up a gun and join the hunt, she finds an ally who like her does his job well under difficult circumstances.

Masurkar has a light touch when it comes to traversing a host of sensitive subjects like patriarchy, ecology, and politics. For instance, he subtly draws attention to the difficulties faced by working women through various aspects of Vidya’s situation. For instance, she is expected to entertain her husband (Mukul Chadda), his mother and her own in the middle of a high – pressure hunt and is pulled up for not wanting to have children and scolded for not adorning herself with jewelry to look attractive for her husband. Having hurriedly added a few accessories to her plain – Jane ensemble she is presented with the sight of her husband who is wearing shorts and a tee. The fact that he showers her with compliments does little to allay her annoyance.

There are many points when Vidya is tempted to quit, because all her efforts seem to be amounting to nothing. But there is a dogged determination to this character which is proof that sometimes a little dedication and an unwillingness to give up can make a big difference. There is a beautiful stretch where Jyoti (Sampal Mandal) who is one of the dwellers on the fringe of the forest draws Vidya’s attention to the impoverished circumstances of her community as well as the struggle to make a decent living and educate their children. The DFO not only listens but actually offers a viable solution to help the women make some money and empower themselves. Her good deed is rewarded when Jyoti in turn helps her at a particularly soul – sapping low point. Poignant moments like this one and Masurkar’s refusal to take the easy way out and offer manufactured feel – good answers to the questions raised by his film ensure that Sherni will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Little Things is a Gargantuan Fail

 


Sometimes, it is hard to decide what to watch on Netflix/Amazon Prime/Disney – Hotstar etc. because there seem to be way too many choices but nothing that is really worth your while. So you are happy when a film like The Little Things comes along because Denzel Washington plays the lead. And if that were not enough, Rami Malek who was brilliant in Bohemian Rhapsody and Jared Leto (you hope he is chomping at the bit to make amends for his horrendous turn as the Joker) round out the trio of luminous Academy Award winners. Naturally, you have to watch the film and hope that your expectations aren’t doomed to damnation and it is not a criminal waste of time.

Unfortunately, The Little Things disappoints at every turn. Joe Deacon (Washington) who was a bit of a legend back in the day as an L.A cop is caught in a downward spiral after getting divorced from his wife, botching a major case and suffering a heart attack. Currently, he is out in the boondocks at a place called Bakersfield stuck in a dead end job for a man of his supposedly superior talents. But when a serial killer on the loose, is making merry and racking up a body count, Deacon finds himself in the thick of things. Naturally, he is haunted by his past and sees victims from his cases at his cheap lodgings. It has gotten to a point where it seems there is no lead character be it in a movie or series who is not weighed down by a horde of demons from the past.

Jim Baxter (Malek) meanwhile, is a star on the rise but though wary at first, he is drawn to Deacon whom he has very effectively replaced and they form a partnership. Before long, the duo zero in on the prime suspect, a creepy dude with the required crazy eyes and serial killer vibe named Albert (Leto). What follows is supposed to be a thrilling cat and mouse chase with applause worthy gravitas but it is largely a drab and dour snooze fest that goes nowhere.

The Director John Lee Hancock has trouble finding his footing from the get go. He seems intent on striking a self – important note, trying to prove that the material is above the usual stuff in this genre, offering something more substantial than the cheap thrills and guilty pleasures afforded by standard slasher fare by modeling it along the lines of Seven. However, the somberness and tacked on solemnity notwithstanding, the film is nowhere near as smart as it wants to be. Neither is it remotely satisfying since it lands with an ungainly thud in the no – man’s land between highbrow and trashy entertainment.

As for the triple threat match between the three Academy award winners, it is Denzel for the win. The man is incapable of turning in a lousy performance and were it not for him, this film would be unwatchable. He has a certain flair for elevating the most unpromising of material and making every frame he is in, shine. There is a scene where he is the recipient of an unexpected kiss from a sweet little girl and the unguarded tenderness and delight he effortlessly evinces convinces you that few actors can simply be in the moment and respond organically like a real person would the way he can.

Malek and Leto would do well to learn from the master. The former is so mannered it is painful to watch him and one shudders at the prospect of him taking up the challenge of playing an effective Bond villain. Leto’s exaggerated manner and desperation to prove that he is deserving of another Academy award is even more excruciating.

The trio plod to a problematic climax that would have raised a lot of disturbing questions about acceptable behavior from cops with compromised moral compasses had it been effective. But since it is a crash and burn, there is nothing to do but walk away from The Little Things without a backward glance and smack yourself on the head for not choosing better.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Mare of Easttown: A Morbid Murder Melodrama that Mostly Works

 


Mare of Easttown (Disnay Hotstar) may be described as a murder mystery but it works more as a drama, or more accurately, a melodrama. Marianne (only her mother calls her that) Sheehan played by Kate Winslet is quite a character, holding on to more pain than she can bear after losing her son to drugs, depression and suicide, going through a divorce, raising a grandson whose drug addict mom wants him back and handling a demanding career which comes with crushing pressure to deliver while shouldering the grief and trauma of others. She has been dealing with mounting public fury over the case of a girl who has been missing for over a year, led by the victim’s mother. If all that were not enough, Mare is called in when a teenager and single mom is found dead. The suspects include Dylan, the father of her child, his girlfriend Biranna who assaulted her hours before her death, a Priest with a suspicious past who gave her a ride to the scene of her death, and Mare’s ex – husband who was buying things for the victim’s baby and is suspected of being the actual father.

Kate Winslet is extraordinary. It is refreshing to see a lead actress who has not lived on celery stalks all her life or been botoxed to within an inch of her life to give the failed impression of reluctantly imprisoned youth. She looks like her character – an exhausted woman who does not have the strength to bother with her appearance or even run a comb through her hair which is mostly scrunched up into a messy pony tail. The crows’s feet, wrinkles, and excess pounds are allowed to show and yet, Winslet is resplendent like only she can be as she delivers a powerhouse of a performance, making the viewer empathize and root for Mare, even when she is at her most intractable or unlikeable.

Thanks to Winslet and a wonderful supporting cast which includes the likes of Evan Peters (you will remember him as the delightful Quicksilver from X –Men), who plays Detective Colin Zabel, brought in because the powers that be feel Mare needs more than a little help and Jean Smart, Mare’s mum, Helen ensure that the seven – part series is never less than engrossing. Both these characters bring in some much needed humor to lighten the proceedings which is otherwise a bleak, unsparing look at small – town America devastated by drug troubles, poverty, crime and other horrors which will always be beyond anybody’s ability to fix.

Yet, for all its pluses, Mare of Easttown leaves the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied and flat. The big reveal in the end is also not as devastating as it might have been. Perhaps it was overkill with all the concentrated angst that was packed into every one of the subplots… So many characters with a drug habit and suicidal tendencies. So much poverty and unremitting hardship. So many broken relationships. Such overwhelming pain, rage, grief and bitterness. With young girls driven to prostitution by desperation and murderers who kill because they are simply evil and also for reasons that are profoundly moving, it gets to be a little too much. Buffeted with a relentless stream of distress, the viewer switches off after a point and a key character’s sudden demise does not have the impact it ought to have.

With the tragedies getting piled on, one is hard – pressed to believe that every character on the show has to deal with so much destructive crap on a daily basis. After all, one of the biggest issues with life is that too many have to deal with boring monotony and the sameness of a humdrum existence for too long to the point where the prospect of sordid drama actually sounds enticing. In Mare of Easttown though, one character is dealing not just with the trauma of a missing daughter but is simultaneously battling cancer. Another has to deal with family trouble brought on by a junkie brother who is stealing from her and scamming her friend whose daughter is missing etc. Mare’s best friend has to cope with a cheating spouse, a daughter who has Down’s syndrome and is being bullied in school and a son who is acting up because he is privy to a very adult secret. You would think that the writers couldn’t possibly add to her cup of suffering but they do! The hits just keep coming for Mare and everyone in her life and after a point it is one too many.

This is definitely the golden age of television, but I am afraid that a recent trend is that a lot of purportedly good shows suffer from way too much writing and the result is a certain gassiness that is hard to take. Character arcs suffer too because so much mandatory care – laden baggage is crammed into their backstories. But despite the bloat, Mare of Easttown is worth watching. Because, if I haven’t mentioned it already, Kate Winslet is in it.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Treasured Trifles

 

During the course of the pandemic, some have had it better than others. And they are reminded of it constantly. The loss and bereavement left in the wake of Covid and its mutant strains has been chronicled with punctilious effort across the digital network, making it impossible to remain unscathed by the volcanic eruption of collective grief over the passing of loved ones, lost opportunities, reduced circumstances and dead dreams. It is a harrowing time marked by a voluminous outpouring of sorrow. Most try to do what they can to offer comfort or a kind word. The more empathetic absorb the sadness into their own hearts to lighten the burden of others. Subsequently, there is a miasmic heaviness of spirit that affects all and an overwhelming buildup of compassion fatigue that afflicts not just those who are in the line of fire and committed to helping victims of the pandemic but even among those who are stuck at home with loaded pantries and unlimited screen time.

There is mounting pressure to be positive at all times and count thy blessings which are usually manifold, when taken by themselves and particularly so in light of the tragedy suffered by others. Which is why the so – called trivial losses which might include a cancelled vacation, dancing at a relative’s wedding, a chance to avail of a scholarship to study abroad, even the disruption of a routine life which included regular trips to the mall or shooting the breeze with friends tends to be dismissed. If folks are inclined to dwell on all the fun they missed out on over the course of the past year and a half, there are attendant feelings of guilt and a proclivity not to acknowledge private regret for all the things one might have looked forward to or lost out on. Because the paltry even if precious is not supposed to matter when weighted against the big picture. 

However, the truth is every individual is the sun, moon and stars in his/her/insert gender – neutral pronoun world and all else spins around this nucleus of the all - important self. A toothache may attain far more significance than all the starving people on the planet or the sad predicament of children left orphaned by the pandemic. The ennui that sets in from being holed up at home, frustration over thwarted aspirations humble though they may have been, loneliness that creeps in on cat’s paws even when close to loved ones, yearning for a means that currently doesn’t seem available to drink more deeply from the cup of life… these persistent feelings are by no means insignificant and it does not reflect badly on anyone to grieve. For what could have been. What wasn’t. And what might never be.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Jagame Thanthiram: Goofy Gangsters who are not sure if they are into Gore or Gooey Sentiment

 

Karthik Subbaraj is an ideas man. This is evident at the conceptual level of his arresting body of work which abound with some doozies and yet, none of it really amounts to anything in his films. I blame his writing skills (or rather it’s lack) for the failure of his intriguing ideas from cohering into an entirely satisfying movie. It is just too bad because parts of Jagame Thanthiram shine with Subbaraj’s especial brand of flamboyance, whackiness and singular stamp as a director who is almost always worth paying attention to.

Jagame Thanthiram starring Dhanush who has a whale of a time playing the petty gangster Suruli who finds himself working for a white supremacist after a truly asinine sequence of events, has difficulty making up its mind about the kind of film it wants to be. On the one hand you have the murderous gangsters who are stuffed to the gills with coolth (it is a distracting Tarantino hangover, because nowadays even Tarantino seems to find it difficult to pull off what he used to with such inimitable flair) and then you have the sentiment and seriousness surrounding weighty issues like racism, anti – immigration politics and the refugee crisis. The tonal shifts between the two are so jarring it makes it impossible to enjoy the fun parts or take the serious portions seriously.

Suruli is a somewhat unconvincing creation though Dhanush does his best and has some exemplary moments when he is not himself nursing a Rajnikanth hangover. His character is a clever, cruel, callous fellow who is always saying witty stuff moments before blowing a guy’s brains out or making homemade bombs to blast his enemies into oblivion, snorting with laughter after being dumped on the day before his wedding and thinking nothing of betraying someone if the price is right. It is all supposed to be good fun, yet, inexplicably a sob story is all it takes to make him turn over a new leaf while retaining all those savage elements of his earlier persona. At various points in the movie he is referred to as a rat but one character tells him he should try being a fox (or was it a wolf?) and this becomes a mutant metaphor for Suruli as well as Jagame Thanthiram because both fail to come together given the unmixable mix that went into the composition.

Aishwarya Lekshmi, plays the heroine who is named Attila (after the Hun?) and has more to do than is usual in a Tamil film committed to worshipping on the altar of the hero’s star power, but I am tired of being grateful for small mercies. Her role is to propel the narrative forward with a flashback about war – torn Lanka and the ensuing refugee crisis. But it is hard to buy any of her actions. After all she has been through it seems unlikely that she would be in such a tearing hurry to hand over her heart to a trigger – happy, violent gangster with a history of screwing people over just because he professed to being cool with her widowed state and bought her son a gift. Like the others in this film, she has her murderous moments too and they are every bit as convincing as her lovesick state.

Normally, white men in Tamil films are caricatures and the English dialogue is hard on the ears. Despite some effort to amend this sorry state, Peter Sprott who is the big bad racist gangster played by James Cosmo is a bit of a caricature and the dialogue is embarrassing in places and no amount of f – bombs dropped with casual abandon can salvage the situation. And seeing the man wield an ‘aruvaal’ to slay a rival gangster was unintentionally hilarious.  

Subbaraj is obsessed with his twists and they worked in his first film, Pizza but these have been yielding diminishing returns since then in addition to compromising the emotional arcs of his characters. A veteran gangster makes an inexplicable decision to place his trust in one who has just slaughtered some of his best men including his right hand. So when he pays the price for it, you are not moved enough to get worked up on his account even though he makes a powerful point about treachery being the bane of his people just before he croaks. For similar reasons it is hard to respond to the ubiquitous ‘mother sentiment’ when a mother is waxing eloquent about how murder and thievery are forgivable because circumstances drive a man to do these things whereas treason is never justified.

Of course, some of Subbaraj’s messages which have been shoehorned into this unwieldy mess of a movie are laudable. I liked Suruli’s remark in response to a character who tells him that some among the British resent that their beautiful, shiny white country has been ‘blackened and browned’ by immigrants. He points out that the Brits seemed happy enough when they had conquered as well as looted India and attempted to whitewash it. In another instance, Suruli makes an excellent point about how Indians ought to root out their caste bias because outside India so many Indians are treated the way the lower castes are treated here. Some of the dialogue teems with wit and the occasional scene crackle with energy and Subbaraj’s trademark inventiveness. Santhosh Narayanan’s music is a plus and works wonderfully to create mass moments. In places, it even elevates the mediocre material. Overall though, Jagame Thanthiram has too many misses and far fewer hits, making this oddball venture a massive letdown.


Sunday, June 13, 2021

Worthwhile Pursuits



When in lockdown mode, I always promise myself that I am going to make it to the other side having padded up my resume to sizeable proportions in addition to pursuing worthwhile pursuits that don’t include wishing that this is all over. The idea is to eat right, work out diligently, follow it up with yoga and meditation, read as many books as possible, write up a storm and churn out a Booker Prize winner, take a class to learn how to invest my meagre income brilliantly, practice my adavus diligently so that I am not the despair of my dance teacher, spend quality time with family members and reach out to friends for support while the rest of my country deals with an Apocalypse Now type situation.

In the interest of furthering my noble ideals, I swore off social media and WhatsApp because it became increasingly obvious that it is entirely possible to while away all of time while doom scrolling on Twitter or checking WhatsApp forwards for anything that is remotely interesting or true. This precipitous decision was further prompted by the suspicion that I am eventually going to disappear into the digital void leaving only my spectacles behind in the physical realm we occupy. Plus, the fact, that I now consider a day to have been productive if I remember to wash my hair.

It wasn’t too much of an ordeal, especially since I am allowed OTT. I played more with my pups and talked to my daughters about how the pandemic is making us all feel besieged, which is why we all need to remember to be nice to each other, stay calm, blah, blah. It was quite the rousing speech, and I felt the kids had totally imbibed the wisdom I was trying to impart. But that was before they got into a shouting match and swore they were no longer sisters. I would have intervened but I was busy fighting the husband for the last scoop of dark chocolate gelato. 

When one is not vertical scrolling away to ignominy, there is plenty of time to reflect. I realized that I haven’t done any of the things I was supposed to have done by now. There has never been a good time to follow through on my plan to make like Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo to explore the unknown. I am yet to learn French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu or earn a doctorate in Criminal Psychology. I still can’t drive a car to save my life and haven’t rocked a pair of stilettos ever. These things make you question your entire existence. Which is why I decided to write about it in a bid to make today feel like it counted. A little.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.