Category Archives: Indian Cinema

How Old Are You? (India 2014)

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Here is a Malayalam film released in UK cinemas without English subtitles. I was surprised and slightly worried at the prospect of 141 minutes of incomprehension. But I shouldn’t have worried. This is a popular drama (but not a Bollywood-style film) and although I missed a couple of key plot points at the time, I’ve since read the Indian reviews and answered most of my own questions.

How Old Are You? asks that simple question of its female lead and then proceeds to show her first being humiliated and then recovering and ending triumphant. It has been promoted as a film of ‘female empowerment’. It is also the ‘comeback film’ of Malayali star Manju Warrier after 14 years away from the industry she conquered in the 1990s. (It somehow seems to be appropriate that what kept her away was marriage and home-making but now she is divorcing and returning to the big screen.)

Bored at  work . . .

Bored at work . . .

Nirupama is a civil servant in a typical revenue office in Kochi-Ernakulam, the largest urban area in Kerala. She has become bored by her work, the stresses of looking after her household and dealing with her school-age daughter and husband who works as a radio announcer. She is sometimes rude or offhand and she becomes egotistical when her daughter somehow ‘wins’ her the chance to meet the President of India as an ‘ordinary Indian woman’. But she embarrasses herself at the meeting and is humiliated when the incident is picked up on social media, going viral very quickly. Out of this disaster comes the chance for redemption when she is recognised by Susan (Kerala has a large Christian community), an old classmate from university who has become an important person (in business or government – I couldn’t work this out). Nirupama was an inspirational student back in 1996, leading a strike and achieving much for her classmates and Susan reminds her of what she did. Gradually she gets her confidence back and achieves something again – leading to an inevitable ending that most audiences will spot coming. The age question comes when Nirupama learns that her husband and daughter plan to migrate to Ireland, but she can only join them if she can get a job and the Irish recruiters have an age cut-off at 35 (surely illegal in the EU?). She is 36. This scene actually starts the film but I think this must be a flashforward – it’s quite difficult to pin down the chronology of events without dialogue to anchor meanings. The move to Ireland for the father and daughter is both a contributing factor to the change in Nirupama’s outlook on life and a possible obstacle when she becomes successful.

. . . and with her daughter

. . . and with her daughter

How Old Are You? has been very successful in Kerala, being seen as both a comeback for a popular and respected female star and a film about female empowerment. It has been well-received by the English language press in India but I’m not sure how widely it has been seen across the country. (If it hasn’t been dubbed/subbed in English or Hindi, I wonder how accessible it is?). In the UK the film is imported by Indian Movies UK, a Malayali distributor in India bringing films to the diaspora in the UK and Europe. I didn’t realise that there were so many Keralites in the UK. There are stories of full houses in some screenings (there were only five of us in Bradford). Malayalis have also formed important diaspora communities in the Gulf and this Facebook page details screenings of the film in Singapore as well as Dubai, US and Australia. The irony of this success is that from an outsider’s perspective Kerala is in many ways the least likely Indian state to suffer from male chauvinism or repression of women. Kerala has the highest levels of education in India and the highest rating on the ‘Human Development Index’ (HDI). The theme of the second part of the film, when Nirupama accidentally discovers the merits of organic horticulture, is however an important local issue because despite success in new technologies, Kerala is still dependent on agriculture and production of primary goods as well as tourism (with some of India’s areas of outstanding beauty).

Directed by Rosshan Andrrews and written by Bobby and Sanjay, a trio associated with three previously successful films, How Old Are You? is a good example of contemporary Malayalam filmmaking. The film looks good as lensed by R. Diwakaran but the music by Gopi Sunder was too dominant for my taste. One of the advantages of not knowing the language is that it focuses attention on the actors in terms of body language, facial gestures etc. I thought the cast was very good all round and it’s clear that Manju Warrier is the star. One of the strengths of South Indian cinema generally is that the leading actors look like ‘real people’. Malayalam cinema has historically been known for art films as well as popular genre films and I wasn’t surprised to find a conventional genre film with a serious message. How Old Are You? is a drama with only two songs, one played during the closing credits and the other as accompaniment to a montage. I can say that I was never bored over 140 minutes in which I understood only the occasional lines of English (mostly a few words inserted into the Malayalam dialogue). That must say something, although I must confess that the few weeks I spent in Kerala convinced me that it is one of my favourite regions – so I’m biased!

I’d like to watch more Malayalam films and kudos to Cineworld for showing this in Bradford. But it would be nice to know in advance if there are no English subs. Since all the Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in the same cinema have had subs, I think it was reasonable to expect them for this screening. The next release from Indian Movies UK, Bangalore Days, is in cinemas this week.

 

That Girl in Yellow Boots (India 2010)

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.

Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.

The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).

Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.

As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.

2 States (India 2014)

Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt as the lovers trying to cross the North-South divide in India

Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt as the lovers trying to cross the North-South divide in India

Throughout its long general election campaign India presented itself as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’, consolidating the sense of the Union of India – and that’s how most of us outside the country recognise its identity. But in reality India is not only a physical area the size of 20 European states with three times the population, but also with the same sense of diversity. There are more languages in India than in 20 European states and just as much cultural diversity. 2 States joins a long list of Indian films that use the ‘difference’ between those Indian cultures as a narrative device to add heft to the familiar Hindi romantic melodrama.

The main problem with 2 States is that it is a Karan Johar-produced mainstream film that leaves no convention unused in its assault on its audience. Nevertheless it is interesting as the fourth adaptation of an English language Indian novel by Chetan Bhagat. Two of those films have been hits – the monster hit 3 Idiots (and its Tamil remake Nanban) and the more modest hit of Kai Po Che (the most critically successful). The earlier Hello was deemed a flop. Bhagat is a phenomenon – a graduate of India’s top graduate schools who became a banker but then turned to writing. He has chosen to write in English, the English of the new young professional class rather than the literary English of those writers lauded in the West. His world is not the English public school/Oxbridge of Salman Rushdie, rather the world of the Indian middle-class (not the same as the UK ‘middle-class’) who are at least connected to the mass of the Indian population.

Bollywood star Vidya Balan (from Kerala) at the launch of Chetan Bhagat''s new book 2 STATES at Oberoi Mall, Goregaon in 2009

Bollywood star Vidya Balan (from Kerala) at the launch of Chetan Bhagat”s new book 2 STATES at Oberoi Mall, Goregaon in 2009

2 States is the most directly autobiographical of Bhagat’s novels and is presented as a version of Bhagat’s own struggle to marry the woman he loves. The problem is that in India (the book argues) you don’t just have to find someone you love, you have to convince your in-laws and then persuade your parents and your in-laws to get on with each other as well. This is a much greater problem when a Punjabi wants to marry a Tamilian. To be more precise, the problems intensify when the Punjabi boy’s family includes a hard-drinking father estranged from his wife (though still living in the home) and a mother struggling to keep up the lifestyle she thinks the family should have given her husband’s struggling business. Contrast this with the conservative and highly cultured Tamil family of vegetarians and teetotallers whose views on vulgar Punjabis could be seen as condescending. To make matters worse, like many other Punjabi families, this one is based in Delhi – losing roots in a strong community, whereas the Tamilians feel confident in their identity. Elsewhere in this blog we discuss other similar examples of Punjabi-Bengali relationships in Vicky Donor and Bengali-Tamil in Mr and Mrs Iyer. In the different context of a sports film Chak De India! manages to explore a wide range of prejudices against minority Indian cultures.

The abusive terms used (at least as translated in the English subs) are quite interesting. Ananya (Alia Bhatt) when she first meets Krish (Arjun Kapoor) insists that she is a ‘Tamilian’ and bridles at the suggestion she is a ‘Madrasan’. But Krish’s mother uses this term to abuse her. The ever-fascinating Urban Dictionary suggests that the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ goes back hundreds of years in India and the ‘angry Madrasan’ is a modern equivalent of this ancient prejudice referring to the ‘demon women’ of the South. The script for 2 States includes the terms Madrasan and Madrasi and also includes representations of the racism of skin colour that is prevalent in India. South Indians are assumed to be darker as Dravidians and North Indian forms of beauty for women assume lighter skin. The irony in 2 States is that Alia Bhatt who is cast as Ananya is light-skinned – which again is worked into the script. Hindi films of the 1970s up to the 1990s sometimes made ‘Madrasis’ into villains. The term was also used to cover all South Indians (it would once have referred to the Madras Presidency in colonial times). The renaming of Chennai has put this prejudicial observation more into focus.

Since the 1990s, Hindi films have travelled to the South for its ‘exotic’ locations, tending to treat Southern India like a tourist destination. 2 States does at least represent Tamil Nadu as a place of work, as well as spectacular settings for romance. I found most of the music for the film to be instantly forgettable but the song which worked for me is ‘Mast Magan’ which includes some of the best images of the Tamil Nadu shoot.

It’s a surprise that this high profile film was assigned to a novice director. As far as I can see Abhishek Varman had only assistant director experience before he worked on the script for 2 States and then directed it. In some ways it doesn’t matter too much that he does not have that much experience. The story is strong and the performances generally very good from all the leading cast members. There is a ‘bracketing’ narrative in which Krish is seemingly talking to a psychiatrist about the problems with his relationships and the suggestion is that at this point he has already written the draft of 2 States as a novel. This narrative trick features in several of Chetan Bhagat’s novels but I’m not sure it serves much purpose in the film. At other times it did feel that the commercial impetus of a Karan Johar production was painfully visible and without the acting talent on view the story would have sagged. Interestingly the next Bhagat adaptation – Revolution 2020 – looks like it is going to be in the hands of Rajkumar Gupta who made the excellent No One Killed Jessica. I hope that the new adaptation turns out more like Kai Po Che.

2 States is now a ‘super hit’ in India with over 100 crore (1 billion) rupees at the Indian box office and $4.5 million overseas

Song promo for ‘Mast Magan’ sung by Arijit Singh:

The Lunchbox (India/Germany/France/US 2013)

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.

The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.

Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.

Shaikh (Nawuzuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former's wedding

Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former’s wedding

My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).

There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.

The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.

So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from  MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.

The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!

I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.

Biriyani (India 2013)

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

In the last couple of years the UK exhibitor Cineworld has expanded its releases of Tamil films beyond London, showing them in areas like Bradford where the local South Asian languages are more likely to be Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla. Previously I have had to watch major Tamil films in Hindi dubs in local multiplexes but now there are Tamil releases – but usually only showing once nightly and too late for public transport. Biriyani therefore marks a change – a major Tamil release which has matched the screening schedules of Hindi releases, showing several times a day for the first couple of weeks. Since much of my experience of Tamil cinema has been with the acclaimed films of Mani Ratnam/Rajiv Menon or Shankar, I was keen to see something more solidly mainstream.

Biriyani is a major production directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Karthi. Like blockbuster productions in other industries, the film has been trailed for over a year and then subject to various changes of release date (releases are often timed for religious holidays). Shooting was extended over many weeks in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hyderabad. The film was finally released in December 2013 on over 1,000 screens ‘worldwide’ in both Tamil and Telugu versions.

Outline

The two central characters are Sugan (Karthi) and Parasu, two bright graduates in Chennai. One is very successful with women, the other is not. Their actual employment details are unclear but the plot sees them helping to launch a new motor dealership (lots of product placement for Mahindra).  This involves Sugan upstaging his on-off girlfriend, a local TV reporter and impressing a local business tycoon with the help of Parasu’s IT skills. Later, the two men, who are fond of a drink, find themselves at a biriyani food outlet on the highway where they meet a femme fatale, Maya. They awake the next morning to find a corpse in their car. How did it get there? What have they done? Why are they being chased by the police?

Commentary

The film actually starts with a flashback from the point where the central pair are being chased by the police. This takes us to the Intermission (in a film lasting 149 mins) and the second half provides the climax and an explanation of the mystery. This is a mainstream masala movie structured as a ‘buddy movie’ involving a murder mystery, film noir, action, romance and comedy. ‘Romance’ is perhaps the weakest element and more emphasis is placed on action and (black) comedy – the film has had some censorship difficulties because of the violence levels. I was surprised by the extent of the drinking and this was first Indian feature I’ve seen with the frequent on-screen warnings about excessive alcohol use (rather like the warnings on cigarette packets). I was also a little surprised by the more ‘open’ acknowledgement of sexual activity between some of the characters – i.e. in this kind of mainstream blockbuster. Overall, I felt that while the film shared the same ingredients as mainstream Hindi blockbusters, there was a real difference in how these ingredients were used by the filmmakers.

In my limited experience, Tamil films are sometimes more adventurous in their camerawork and use of effects – and, at the same time, somehow more ‘realist’, more ‘connected’ to local culture than their Hindi counterparts. Biriyani demonstrates this with a startling array of devices including motion capture, animation, references to social media technologies etc. The central characters are seemingly more wealthy than most of their audience given their lifestyle, but even so they don’t seem so divorced from mainstream Tamil culture. I was struck in the second half of the film how the plot developed so that a whole network of friends came to the aid of the central character played by Karthi – rather in the way of the group in a ‘new Bollywood’ film like Rang De Basanti.

One scene in particular highlighted the overall difference between Biriyani and many Hindi films. This was a song and dance sequence which appeared in the middle of a chase and involved a flash mob dancing on the platform of a Chennai railway station. I need to see the sequence again but as I understand it, it provided a new clue in unravelling the mystery, a different pleasure in enjoying the song and dance performance and a tribute to a local star (the object of the flash mob). All this gave the impression of being seamlessly shot in a public place with passengers looking on.

Overall, I found the film entertaining even if I didn’t enjoy most of the drinking and sexist jokes. I can see that some audiences would find the film too ‘tricksy’ in the way the plot is handled re the mystery (which also involves a supposed corruption investigation). The script cleverly uses references to the Hollywood hit comedy Hangover and also seeds clues and ‘pre-echoes’ of what might happen later, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.

Karthi and Hansika Motawi in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as 'An American in Paris'

Karthi and Hansika Motwani in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as ‘An American in Paris’

The film has a soundtrack composed by the prolific Yuvan Shankar Raja, youngest son of the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. I’m not in a good position to judge but it seemed good to me.

I’m pleased that Tamil cinema is getting a bigger profile in the UK but because the industry does not yet publish data on budgets, box office etc. in the same way as Hindi cinema, the industry does not have the profile it deserves in the international market. My own calculations suggest that in terms of films produced and audience numbers, Tamil cinema definitely figures in the international Top 10. There are something like 80 million Tamil speakers worldwide and in India the Tamil industry is well supported. Chennai rivals Mumbai as a production centre.

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Actors and filmmakers move frequently between the various South Indian cinemas and also into Hindi and other Northern industries. In Biriyani, the two female leads are both from outside Tamil Nadu. Hansika Motwani is a Sindhi speaker born in Mumbai and Mandy Takhar who plays the femme fatale is ‘Punjabi-British’ and from Wolverhampton. If you haven’t seen a Tamil film, now is your chance to experience a different popular Indian film. I could have gone to see Dhoom 3, but I think I made the right choice.

Official studio trailer: 

Vicky Donor (India 2012)

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of 'Vicky Donor'

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of ‘Vicky Donor’

Vicky Donor is a successful example of the ‘New Bollywood’ trend. With a relatively small budget and an ‘edgy’ theme it pleased both critics and popular audiences and became a hit. Produced by the Bollywood star John Abraham, it is the work of the pairing of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, the latter pair first meeting in the advertising industry. The trio have recently worked on Madras Cafe, a critical success, albeit much more controversial. Since its release was abandoned by my local multiplex chain, I’ll have to wait to see it but on the evidence of Vicky Donor, it should be worth seeking out. Perhaps, like Vicky Donor, it will get an airing on Channel 4 in the UK?

The ‘taboo’ in Vicky Donor is the subject of sperm donation and infertility treatment – a subject for comedy in many film cultures I think and Vicky Donor has been seen as similar to the Québécois film Starbuck from 2011 (now being remade in Hollywood). However, the Indian cultural context is quite different and what we get here is a ‘romantic comedy-drama’. Vicky is a young unemployed man living quite comfortably off his hard-working mother who runs a beauty parlour in the Punjabi ‘colony’ district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. One day he is spotted by Dr. Chaddha (veteran actor Annu Kapoor) who runs an ailing fertility clinic which needs to find a new donor of high quality sperm as soon as possible. Dr. Chaddha can tell just by looking at his face that Vicky will have a high sperm count. In one of the sensitive themes explored in the film we learn that Chaddha is looking for his ‘Alexander’ – a sperm donor who carries the genes of the Macedonian general who arrived in what is now the Punjab in 326 BC. This ‘Alexander’ represents what the subtitles call the ‘Pure Aryan’ legacy, a tricky concept for European audiences and many Indians I think. In the context, I would let this go but a serious drama around this issue would be interesting.

Vicky takes some persuading to become a donor but eventually the monetary rewards win him over and the next phase of the narrative deals with his meeting and courtship with Ashima, the rather aloof young woman at his local bank. I confess that I found the first part of the narrative rather slow and hard to get into but when the romance begins it picks up markedly. I realise now that it is important to set up the specifics of the Punjabi community. Vicky lives with his mother and his grandmother – a remarkably ‘progressive’ woman by comparison with her daughter. Ashima is a Bengali, so the second ‘sensitive’ issue is the play on the stereotypes of Punjabi and Bengali life. I was reminded of the Chetan Bhagat novel 2 States where the couple comprise Punjabi boy and Tamil girl. My impression is that Punjabis, Bengalis and Tamils are the most circulated regional identities in Indian popular culture. Interestingly writer Chaturvedi and director Sircar are from Punjab and West Bengal, but they have exchanged genders in creating the two lead characters. I was quite taken with the young couple and I think part of the charm of the film is that they were not stars (though the film’s success has now helped them get more lead roles. Ayushmann Khurrana has come out of TV where he has been a presenter and VJ. Yami Gautam similarly began in TV (ads and soaps) and this was her first Hindi film.

The final part of the film deals with the fall-out of the revelation of Vicky’s earlier ‘career’. By this stage I was enjoying the film very much and I thought the ending, though conventional, worked well. Overall, Vicky Donor does confirm the emergence of a new kind of Bollywood film. There is more reference to the realism of the lives depicted (at least in terms of regional culture) and the central issue is handled with some intelligence (although there does appear to be a major plot hole in the resolution). There are eight songs carefully integrated in the action, including this one sung by Ayushmann Khurrana that acts as a promo for the film – enjoy!:

Satyagraha (India 2013)

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in 'Satyagraha'

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in ‘Satyagraha’

I only see the occasional mainstream Bollywood film on release, but I try to keep up with how the industry is changing so I joined four other brave souls for a lunchtime screening of the latest film to star the ‘Big B’, Amitabh Bachchan.  I knew little about the director Prakash Jha except that he is an industry veteran. It was only afterwards that I realised that he had made similar films in the past, including Raajneeti (2010) which has a narrative comprising very similar elements to Satyagraha – and three key stars are common to both films. So, we are dealing here with familiar genre material for mainstream Hindi cinema: corruption in business, politics and the police force and a specific family situation involving possible betrayals of principle etc. My real interest is in whether the material is being presented in a different way, engaging its audiences differently etc. In particular, I’m interested in possible indications that ‘new’ Bollywood or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ is having an impact on the mainstream.

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Satyagraha is being promoted as a ‘political thriller’ that is ‘torn from the headlines’, enabling some reviewers to claim that this is a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ etc. I think that this is unlikely – but the film kept me entertained for its 152 minutes and early reports suggest that it is a hit in India (on 2,400 to 2,500 screens). The title refers to the practice of non-violent activism or resistance to bad government and specifically to the campaigns led by Gandhi. The Gandhi figure in the film is a retired headmaster played by Amitabh Bachchan who is trying to build a school for the poor children in his part of town in a district of Madhya Pradesh in North Central India – the literal geographical ‘heart of India’ (most of the film seems to have been shot around Bhopal). In one of those beloved Hindi cinema conventions, Daduji has a son, a brilliant civil engineer involved in developing the region with new roads. In a prologue we see the son about to be married and welcoming back his childhood friend, an orphan who has been more or less adopted by Daduji’s family. This is Manav played by Ajay Devgn – a very different ‘young man’ (the actor is in his 40s) who has chosen to become an unscrupulous entrepreneur in the telecoms industry. Manav is not very welcome now in Daduji’s household, but he returns when a tragedy occurs. The tragedy and its aftermath also attracts a crusading TV journalist played by Kareena Kapoor. For the media, the story begins when Daduji, finally snapping after the latest insult to poor people seeking their rights, slaps the local government official and ends up in the local cells. Manav with the help of one of Daduji’s former pupils (Arjun Rampal) organises a local campaign to free the old man.

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Manav’s prowess with mobile phone technology and social media use means that the campaign takes off very rapidly. This aspect of the film can be seen as both a contemporary reference and as an attempt to exploit some of the innovations of earlier similar films that feature social media such as Who Killed Jessica?. It’s also part of the film’s attempt to attract younger viewers with an element of youth rebellion like that in Rang De Basanti. But of course, this is Bollywood – all the technology works instantly on huge screens with perfect pictures etc. In fact there is an enormous amount of product placement which seems rather incongruous when the main thrust of the story at least moves away from the metros and artificiality of most Bollywood towards the poorest part of India. But then, this is billed as a ‘middle-class revolution’, requiring the audience to negotiate that knotty problem around what ‘middle-class’ actually means in modern India. I would say that all the main participants are relatively privileged, but to be fair to the script, the real story is about how this group attempts to take on leadership of the ‘ordinary people’ – and finds it quite difficult to maintain a Gandhian consistency of action. The script brings in questions of communalism as well as corruption and hypocrisy.

This isn’t a masala film if by that term we mean a mixture of romance, action, adventure and comedy. It sticks largely to the central narrative which commentators have suggested draws heavily on the ‘real world’ story of the campaigner Anna Hazare – especially as a hunger strike is included. The songs in the film are mainly integrated into the storyline – in the muted romance moments and as part of the large public events. This means that the traditional appeals to the audience, beyond the central social issue, come from the ‘large’ performances by the film’s stars. Amitabh Bachchan pulls out all the stops and is certainly worth watching. Kareena Kapoor struck me as miscast – but then casting a female Bollywood star as a glamorous reporter is now so clichéd in films like this that the role seems impossible. The most intriguing casting is that of the chief villain, the local politico played by Manoj Bajpai who was so good as the gangster leader in Gangs of Wasseypur. Here he gives a highly coloured performance, complete with what looks like a jet-black wig. He even has a comedy henchman. Having said that, in a mainstream popular feature, the villain needs to be distinctive and he fulfils the role well.

I don’t know whether the film will prove to be an example of how traditional Bollywood can hold on to its ‘all-India’ audience while it tries to please the younger, better-educated metro cinemagoers with more radical stories. Bollywood Trade suggests that its prime audience seems to be in those regions outside the metros – in Central India. Meanwhile Sharukh Khan in Chennai Express cleans up across the Hindi cinema universe. Perhaps I’ll try to catch it.

Here’s the title song for Satyagraha: