Tag Archives: Kalki Koechlin

Margarita With a Straw (India 2014)

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680(This is one of ten reports on films at the 58th London Film Festival – other reports can be found on The Case for Global Film Blog)

It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.

The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).

The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.

The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.

Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s partner) at this point?

What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.

It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.

Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:

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.

Yeh Jaawani Hai Deewani (India 2013)

The four friends on the trekking holiday – a composition that clearly attempts to resemble a conventional holiday photograph.

The four friends on the trekking holiday – a composition that clearly attempts to resemble a conventional holiday photograph. From left to right: Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapoor.

Here’s India’s biggest film of the year so far, a Karan Johar production no less. The Hindi title translates as ‘This Youth Is Crazy’ – not really very helpful as a title as the film is bang-centre mainstream and conventional. I decided to see it partly because I’ve been impressed by two of the leads, Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin, in previous films and partly because I wanted to try to keep abreast of where mainstream Bollywood is going. I enjoyed the film but the central story is probably not strong enough to sustain the running time of around 150 minutes and the second part of the film seemed less successful than the first.

The first half is told in a flashback to eight years ago when three friends from school each now in their early twenties are about to set off for a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. Aditi (Kalki Koechlin) then meets a fourth acquaintance from school, Naina (Deepika Padukone), who decides at the last minute to join the trip. Studying medicine, Naina is trying to escape from her image of being the school nerd. The two young men Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) and Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor) rather ignored her at school and the trip is Naina’s chance to prove them wrong. After the intermission, the film moves into full-on wedding mode. To be fair, it’s not quite the wedding we were expecting but in narrative terms it’s not really exploited that much. What was also disappointing for me was that whereas in the first half there was some grounding in ‘real India’, albeit for middle-class youth, the second half is typical Bollywood indulgence in glamour with overseas shoots and a beautiful Udaipur palace location. Throughout both halves, the colours are bright, the dancing impressive and the music often deafening (especially in a relatively empty cinema for an early evening show).

Nevertheless I found the film interesting. It does what Bollywood ‘coming of age’/romance/musicals should do and offers mainstream entertainment that is fresh and palatable for most audiences. Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin are wasted because they aren’t asked to be different enough. Deepika Padukone takes her opportunity well but Aditya Roy Kapoor is also not given enough to do. I’m not giving too much away if I say that the film’s resolution is what we expect but that it is undercut by a composition that sees Bunny/Ranbir’s face in close-up gazing towards the audience over Naina/Deepika’s shoulder with an ambivalent expression. The ending (on New Year’s Eve) also sees one of the characters in isolation – with a drink problem and a failing business. This doesn’t seem conventional at all.

Hunting round the reviews I found some interesting comments. Bollywoodtrade pointed to what were claimed as links to 3 Idiots.  Bunny does in fact follow a similar career path to one of the three students and he carries around a letter for the first half of the film that he produces at Intermission time and which changes the narrative. There is also a succesful engineer in the film – a ‘moneybags’ set up to marry someone. I’m not sure that there is much else but the comparison is interesting Chetan Bhagat’s novels seem to offer much more depth in their ideas – even if some of the film adaptations don’t take them too far – and I don’t think that Yeh Jaawani Deewani will prove to be as influential as 3 Idiots. However, the bollywoodtrade review makes some other points. It’s a review drawing on a screening in Indore with ‘real audiences’ and the reviewer quotes the approval of an older man approving of the message that ‘marriage should come before career’. The review also suggests that the film is successful because the ‘wedding season’ is in full swing in India (and it’s true that, much like Monsoon Wedding, there is some focus on what goes into the wedding preparations). On the other hand, the film is seen as in some way ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ in that the younger male and female characters discuss physical relationships quite openly – and that they drink in the manner of Western young people (too many spirits for my taste). This latter isn’t new of course, whisky drinking was a feature of Hindi cinema in the 1960s – but it was usually a sign of a dissolute life.

As a contrast to this, AccessBollywood, a blog by an ‘entertainment writer’ in Chicago, takes the film to task for its sexism. Kathy Gibson suggests that the film switches gear away from Naina in the first half to focus on Bunny in the second half. She thinks he’s a bit of a jerk and that the narrative should remain focused on Naina. I agree with her overall view of the film and as I’ve indicated already, I think that Deepika Padukone has the best-written part and she handles it well. There is a sequence towards the end of the film when Naina persuades Bunny to stay and watch a sunset rather than dashing off (he’s been to lots of places and done lots of things, perhaps he should chill a bit more?). There is a running discussion about following dreams and deciding what to do with your life which I found quite affecting. This was good writing and the actors were capable of building on that but the script overall didn’t seem to know where to take it. One of the failures for me was not using Kalki Koechlin to the full. This woman has got a lot to offer but at the moment it seems to be independent cinema which knows how to exploit her talents to the full.

So, overall a fun night out but perhaps don’t try to read too much into Yeh Jaawani Deewani.  On a technical level, however, it’s clear that Bollywood entertainment is in safe hands.