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.

Choose Hope over Hate and Hurt


Currently, India is on its knees, rocked by a new vicious strain of a virus on a rampage which has led to a national catastrophe and a terrifying spike in the infection and mortality rate. Every time somebody calls, sends a message or puts up a desperate post on social media it is either a plea for help or dire tidings. The worst part is this unmitigated disaster could have been averted with a little advance planning and common sense. They warning signs were there after all, but the government was busy patting itself and sanctioning the building of central vistas to commemorate its successes. The citizenry, convinced that Coronasura had been beaten engaged in reckless, irresponsible behavior. Now the entire nation is besieged by disease and heartbreak.

It is bad enough the response to the renewed threat has been shockingly inept with hospitals and health care personnel hopelessly overwhelmed and the ineffectual vaccine rollout seeing less than two percent of the populace vaccinated. But there is worse. Heartless black marketers are stealing and selling lifesaving drugs and oxygen cylinders at exorbitant prices while all around there are desperate people trying to save their loved ones. Experts are predicting 1 million deaths from Covid -  19 by August while there are others who are insisting that we crossed that figure already.

Yet, it would never do for us to give up and surrender to hopelessness or anger. Because to do so would be to run full tilt into an even greater tragedy. Now more than ever, we need to believe that we can still turn things around. To do that, we need to have faith in ourselves and those around us. We need to pitch in and help in whatever way we can. Share information and resources on social media not vitriol and fake news. If possible help by preparing nutritious meals for the sick and frontline workers, instead of criticizing others. Reach out to the less fortunate with money or timely aid and help them access essentials like food, medicine, a good internet connection or a lifesaving vaccination shot. Amplify the voices of those in need and question those in power when confronted with evidence of incompetence or rampant corruption.

 If you don’t feel like doing any of these things because you are scared senseless and you just want to stay at home and vegetate in front of Netflix for a momentary respite from a world that is crumbling around you, that is fine too. At times like this, we need to support each other. And when it gets to be too much let us remember that the bad thing about good times is they don’t last and the good thing about bad times is they don’t last either.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Battling the Rodent Menace


These are bizarre times. Headlines heavily laden with alarm inform us that India is battling a record Covid surge that makes 2020 look like a dream year. Hospitals are running out of beds, oxygen, and anti – viral drugs like Remdesivir while the infection and death toll is steadily mounting. There are urgent calls for increased vaccine rollouts even as concerns are raised regarding the risk of blood – clots from the AstraZeneca jab (Covishield in India). The situation is dire, but you wouldn’t believe it judging by the widespread participation in innumerable political rallies and religious gatherings held across the length and breadth of the country. Hundreds of thousands congregated on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar to celebrate the Kumbh Mela while large crowds religiously attended super spreader election rallies held in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal, blithely ignoring safety norms. And that is not all.

Most people who were haphazard about using masks and practicing social distancing to start with, seem to have given up completely and go about their business, determined to ignore the menace that is this pandemic. Celebs vacation in Maldives and Goa, ‘inspiring’ their followers to live it up instead of cowering at home, terrified of an allegedly killer virus that has stubbornly and inconveniently refused to disappear in a puff of smoke.

Those godawful pics of naked sadhus and devotees cavorting in the river, the crowds thronging election campaigns and similar displays of folks flagrantly flouting health protocols evincing a blatant disregard for the greater good makes one wonder about India and Indians. Over the past few years, we have taken to bragging about the glories of our culture, heritage and civilization conveniently choosing to ignore the harsh reality. Which is that as a nation and people, we more closely resemble the armies of rats converging en masse on towering garbage dumps given to public defecation, a tendency to mindlessly procreate, a propensity for spreading disease and causing endless pandemonium with reckless disregard for rules. It is a crying shame and a scathing indictment of us, as supremely unworthy citizens.

Perhaps, now that we have taken a good look at ourselves and vomited copiously, we can work towards being a better version of ourselves. Education is key and it is worrying that educational institutions have been shut for over a year now. With digital access lacking for students in impoverished households, most risk being left behind even as the rest of India plods on with callous indifference. And it is not only the young who need educating. We need to give serious thought about ensuring that adults can aspire to become political leaders, parents, devotees and sexually active individuals only after completing requisite courses to minimize their innate capacity for screwing up.

 This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.