Tanhaji and field notes on Indian politics

I’ve noticed a pattern at the movies. Every year seems to be ushered with a particular ‘type’ of content that seems to elicit a similar kind of response from the audience during the harvest season. It’s Tanhaji-the unsung warrior this year, Uri-the surgical strike, last year and Padmaavat, the year before, almost, like a ricochet from the parliament. You see the pattern now, don’t you? Of rebellion of a historical personality or a nation against a particular ilk based out of a particular mulk. Anyways going back to Tanhaji, it’s a cinematic retelling of an episode of great sacrifice and valour involving the eponymous Marathi warrior who held fort against a tyrant from the Mughal camp. I personally loved the movie. It had a certain kinetic-earnestness about it, be it the well staged set-pieces, the economies of performances that kept hitting the emotional sweet-spot without over-dwelling and the overarching sense of doom stemming from the lopsided affair that lends a tragic gravitas to the heroism and of course the tik-tok immediacy of the proceedings. Uri isn’t very different. It’s like the contemporary soul-cousin of Tanhaji from across the LOC. If the latter is rooted in history, the former is a pulsating account of the army’s recent strategic strike on a Pakistani militant outfit, after their barbaric misadventures on this side of the border. These are mainstream, blow-by-blow onscreen recreations that you walk in to, with little expectations of finer aspects like nuance or arcs. They’re the cinematic equivalents of an adrenaline shot, where onscreen victories coincide with wolf whistles, depending on which of an Arnab debate you find yourself. To cut to the chase, these are bloody-good mainstream movies, quite literally if you’re in the habit of enjoying them.

Life imitates art, national climate at times. Vice versa. Why wouldn’t it, for the mimesis-meets-money nexus is what keeps the movie business afloat, even more than the others.
And it’s not like right and wrong are predisposed on being right and left only now. It was here that a bunch of elder statesmen led a mob that brought down a religious monument, Gods were paraded naked in a religious pageantry while an entire nation stood mum when “emergency” was the finger on an autocrat’s lips. So it’s not like there weren’t murmurs of disagreement or dirty laundry to wash before. It’s just that there weren’t as many mediums to broadcast them.

A stroll on any social media platform feels like skating on a frying pan. It’s a scalding, hyper-opinionated place that prefers dissent over discussion, name-calling over nay-saying and absolutism over subjectivity. Which is to not to say that we were a docile nation of hand raisers, who waited their turns to partake in a debate, decades before. Tea shops, saloons and parapets were as much about beverage, grooming and fencing as much as they were about gossiping. venting and political dissection. Just that the smart-phone wielding not-so-smart hoi-polloi is endowed with the tools to scale up the dissent to a global level. And thanks to a culture of novices hyper-ventilating about every thing under the sun, there are a lot more opinions than solutions at any given point in time. Sportsmen, film people, politicians and even scientists; literally anyone worth their salt has to be wary of not putting a wrong foot forward, for it would open them up to an avalanche of trolls, whose very identities are founded on this.
And no movie can merely look to tell a story, entertain or engage, It has to be overtly careful about coming across politically correct and reverential about any kind of depiction, be it in terms of gender, sexuality, orientation, religion, community, cast or a political/historical figure.

And to add to this is the majoritarian appeal of the current ruling dispensation that seems to have irked a few and intimidated some others, who earlier felt in charge of shaping the mainstream-narrative from their ivory towers. And after towing a certain ideology all their lives and building an equity  in the process, the present socio-political developments from another affiliation seems to have made them queasy. Which probably explains why they constantly go after low hanging punching bags while on the lookout for inconspicuous places to vent out, like in, say a literary fest or while critiquing a widely accepted mainstream movie like Tanhaji or a Uri, which seem to be in sync with the masses, with which they kind of seem to be out-of-sync.

Which brings me back to this one particular review by a renown critic. She had great things to say about most aspects of the movie in general. Then the “but” came with a sullen expression about the politics of the film being “problematic”. I know better than that to know that the “but” isn’t as innocuous as it looks. It is in fact the battle cry of the disenchanted. While it’s assumed to be a modest stand-in at the end of any positive assertion or appreciation, one needs to look again, carefully, to know that the assertion at the beginning was mere artifice to soften the blow of the “but” as a conduit of constructive criticism, when it was the pin from under the balloon, all along.

What was problematic to her were the suggestive ‘hyper-Hindutva’ tropes employed by the film, where Mughals are depicted as the unanimous philandering, plundering, barbaric, kohl-eyed enemy. This is the aspect I found the most troubling about her review, that of letting her politics colour her opinion of a film.
There are a few things to be kept in mind while trying to deconstruct a movie beyond the surface level. What is the film set out to do or achieve. This gives it a point of view, which lends the film its context, direction, protagonist-antagonist demarcation and the resultant disputes. Run time is another bottleneck that decides what is said and unsaid, what is told and left, the anecdotes to be included and excluded in the flow of a screenplay. So you can’t blanket yardstick a film willy-nilly, in isolation. For instance, you can’t compare Tanhaji to a Jodha Akbar despite them appearing to be in the similar genre. The latter’s a loving hagiography which aims to shine light on its protagonist’s(Akbar) romance with Jodha. The movie unfurls from his perspective, letting each anecdote brew and linger. We see the rights and wrongs, good and bad through his lenses. And given the space, it moves in a languorous fashion as the stakes are more personal, with no major conflict in sight. We walk out with a proximity beyond the CBSE textbooks with the Mughal ruler. This can, unlike Tanhaji afford nuance, character arcs to assume shape and form as its primary goal prerequisites that. But Tanhaji can’t or more importantly needn’t operate at this level of detail, for its eyes are set on a different target. It intentions are to take us through the travails of its protagonist to achieve his goal. So, we get the the why, what and how from his shoes, that imbue the proceedings with a sense of sweaty-urgency. And it is through his vantage, that we also get to participate in the strategems, carnages, losses and the eventual victory. And like how Jodha… wasn’t a Islam propaganda, Tanhaji isn’t about Hindutva or xenophobia.

Going by the current trends at Ayodhya, Kashmir, the ongoing NRC-CAA circus and the upcoming colonoscopic legislation looking to get passed, it would really be interesting to see what is going to be the first release next year. Is it going to pander to the sentiments of the nation, make our chests swell up in pride, tow the pattern at the cinemas or is going to break it? And should it carry the pattern forward, how are the critics going to respond to it then? Throw a hissy fit about it not being in line with their political ideology or just review it as a film alone? We’ll know in the coming months. But it is fascinating to observe a personality, who has been gone for a little over three centuries, polarising the nation, on the same lines as he did when he had a pulse. History does repeat itself, after all.

Roast of Sarileru Neekevvaru

Sarileru Neekevaru(No one can match you) is a one of its kind movie. Being matchless is both, good and bad depending on the context. A few paras later, I’ll let you figure that out. SN is one of those movies where the hero, an army officer, keeps staring at a waving flag from a picturesque river bank. It’s an expression of brimming patriotism apparently. Yeah, it’s that kind of a broad-stroked generic affair. Later, when pushed to a corner, he stares intently at distance…destiny maybe. So staring is a motif.  So is randomness. Then he goes on to clean a dirt-addled archaic tractor. When the thing that really could use a clean up, the script, keeps springing up such imaginative sequences. So Mahesh Babu plays this all-rounder army officer who defuses bombs nonchalantly, conducts covert operations singing yesteryear songs, woos hordes of women by his sheer vanilla presence, travels to break bad news to a fellow officer’s family while doubling up as a grim reaper cum conscience keeper to the corrupt political ecosystem there. All of this is another way of telling there are songs, dances, romantic escapades, fights and endless platitudes.

The movie really tries; by tries I mean shits bricks to work as an action-comedy and position MB as a saviour with a sense of humour. Having watched a wide array of movies, I’m fairly abreast with most kinds of comic outcomes onscreen- conversational, political incorrectness, hare-brained, screw-ups, set-pieces, mistaken identities, body shaming and even scatological. But the “suspension of disbelief” genre the movie pedals is a first time. Picture this, a dad handing out daughters to outright ugly fuckers only to make knock-knock marriage jokes. A mother pimping out her daughter to a random stranger on train while leching at him. The said girl using rape as a pick-up technique. Drop in a bunch bizarre catch phrases to this mix with some hefty animated acting. If your idea of wholesome entertainment is this, then two things. One, you need to be straight-jacketed right away. And two, you may actually find this funny, you deviant.

But the funny does come pretty unintentionally, albeit excruciatingly at that.  The funniest part is the movie thinks it’s serious enough to warrant a separate comedy track. Take the stunt sequences for instance. It’s a very literal movie, SN. “Falling like a pack of cards”, ever heard the idiom? There’s one fight where twenty odd men after being touched by the fingertip of the hero’s wrath, literally arrange themselves in ascending order of height like a pack of card to only fall. Basketball, know the sport right? Now imagine, every two hundred pound hoodlum bounced off the ground like one, to only be kicked away to sweet oblivion like a football.The ball is dropped on the stunt sequences. And gravity is that ball.

The movie basically exists to service the legend of MB. A gander at MB’s twitter handle, one might think MB’s the movie’s PR. But the truth is you need to have seen the movie to know that it in fact is an elaborate PR campaign to MB. What else can explain a new tertiary character introduced, every twenty minutes into the run-time, to only sing praises of devotion and surrender to Babu. Eyeballs diluted, a hint of treble in the voice and dramatic gesticulations, their expressions while elevating him, range from a saint taking the lord’s name to a honest perv beating off.
A special mention to DSP, whose music is the insult to our injury. His music exists squarely to remind us that the end of world isn’t necessarily through calamities and plagues. Only if the jihadis knew the power of bad lyrics and dalda dabba rhythms.

To be fair, SN would have worked gloriously as a spoof of the commercial-potboiler space, given how farcical it keeps getting. But it’s too tightly-wound for its own good. The screenplay is structured in a way it blows hot and cold. If one scene escalates the conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist, the next shows them playing pranks on each other. If one scene is a sermon on empowering women, it is followed up by a joke on their desperation to get laid. Imagine a belly dancer gyrating to wolf whistles at a dimly-lit ally. To only follow it up with shaming the audience about their collective misogyny. As sweet irony begins to sting, goes on to talk about motherhood with a straight face. SN is that kind of a random cocktail, where the jokes are morbid and the sermons are hilarious. Only if it were a spoof, it would’ve then been a matchless one.

Darbar- Cobwebs on the colossus that is Rajinikanth

Amidst much fanfare, now that Darbar has been watched, where exactly do I begin expressing myself? Hmmm…pass. I’m going to meander for a while, but I’m sure I’ll get going somewhere; eventually, like I did to the restroom twenty minutes before the long drawn out climax played out with the surprise of a giant trampling over a small furniture he was hiding behind.
First, when your pant is torn in the crotch from you trying to overstretch, it’s fine. It’s after all a battle scar of flexibility, albeit an embarrassing one, but still fine. Fine, till you start bending over repeatedly as light is shone upon. Second, due to an irrational amount of love, a toddler’s gibberish endears in the drawing room on a weekend morning. But the mushy feelings quickly wear thin, when the toddler in question climbs up a stage to do a concert, to which you find yourself buying tickets worth a functional kidney, the same weekend to only be held ransom by the perseverance of the said toddler. Third, now imagine the reverence evaporate from a majestic antique vehicle as it decides to leave the precincts of its display area at the museum to drive alongside contemporary vehicles on a Monday morning, while constantly huffing, puffing and choking up the roads to only break down at a signal. Follow my train, that’s the last of the abstract metaphors for now. I guess.

Now think of an ageing superstar who’s been around for twice your age and is sort of closing in on his second childhood onscreen, while trying to do younger things with elder faculties deceiving hard to be more robust than they actually are. Next, think of the compulsive need to buy tickets today as a result of the goodwill from a body of work, that designed zeitgeist around you while serving as a bookmark for episodes in your life. Rajini is many things- doyen, Thalaivar(not Thalaiva you Hindi speaking morons), an emotion in this part of the world, built systematically over decades of image conscious movies. And it is in the service of these run of the mill stories of David vs Goliath, that the super-stardom that he exerts today was given as a license to flex. Like any creative liberty worth its salt, this license was valid as far as it was in the service of a story- either to up the stakes, to volt up the drama or to humanise something out of the ordinary. When outside the film when in service of the star’s image alone, this license becomes vapid vanity. A untrue untruth peddled hard. This was the constant thought bouncing inside  my head while watching Darbar. Instead of the superstar being in service of a film, this was  a film in service of the superstar if the constant aural homage cues in the form of BGMs, the tip-toey reverential meta dialogues of characters around and the sheer unquestioned infallibility in ‘dire’ stretches were anything to go by.

While the warmth of nostalgia makes us go easy on the signature left-feeted steps of the superstar, it begins to frown after the second time. Same applies to the stunt sequences; while the fanboy in you has given a license to levitate for a brief bit intermittently, it’s really pushing things to operate permanently from a seven feet above level and swat hoodlums thrice your size from there with mosquito disdain. Nostalgia or not, why would you pummel dear gravity so much and expect to not be unintentionally funny?

And I understand the monumental task of introducing Thalaivar onscreen. While mere non committal shots of hands, legs, fingers, forehead and eyes are enough to titillate the crowd into a thick orgasm. The idea is to introduce his character in terms of his garden variety facets without giving much else away, like the profession he does(auto driver, milk man, labourer etc), his ability to break a pumpkin with mere head, his fondness to an ilk or an animal or a reptile among other things. Here I was shocked to see a major spoiler handed over in the form of a pivotal character’s death at the very beginning, to only render the introduction massy. The introduction wouldn’t have missed a beat without this this give away, but still precious information is littered for the heck of it. This robs the story of an element of shock at a critical juncture, which we now see coming from a distance.

And don’t even get me started on the bad guys. They are wooden-faced and funeral-serious, each one of them, even in their own birthday parties where they are dressed as Viking merchants in suburban Juhu resorts. They could’ve instead worn t-shirts with prints that read “menacing” and still looked less corny. These are the kind of men, on seeing their faces, one might think they’re in fact conducting a surgical strike when in actuality are waiting for their Uber rides. And also they tend to be unintentionally hilarious, like this time Sunil Shetty with a post coital face is shown performing a hysterectomy with a diabolic looking knife with which he stabs a man in his gut, to only realise that he did not possess an uterus after all. Now that I think about it in hindsight, it is in sync with the spirit of the entire movie, which itself felt like a colonoscopy.

To cut to the chase, Darbar blows. It neither is a holistic socio-commercial pot boiler like Murugadoss’s earlier films nor is it a quintessential Rajni outing like, say a Petta from recent memory.  What it manages looking like in the end, resembles the distant vitamin deficient cousin of Thuppaki.