The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. So on the penultimate day of the year I caved to the clamouring voices online telling me that this was a fun film. I’m hardly resistant to popular Indian films either, but I’d hoped it might get a cinematic screening (then again, I’m in NZ, so of course not). It still works fine on the small screen but you can see it’s made for an audience.
People have been talking up this film all year, and, to be fair, it’s pretty clear why. Watching it is not three hours of your life that you’ll regret, I don’t think. Not that it necessarily does things differently from other big Indian productions I’ve seen (and technically, as an aside, this is not Bollywood but Tollywood as it’s originally in the Telugu language — not that Netflix cares one bit about that kind of fidelity, meaning I had to watch it in Hindi and you probably will too, though it’ll default to English dubbing).
But what it does as a film, it does bigger! And more! And… uh, bigger, have I mentioned that? It is undeniably a lot, and I think towards the end it becomes pretty mired down by some problematic weighting — it has a hard-on for torture like no film since that Mel Gibson one about that guy on a cross, and so I suspect its politics lean rather hard into nationalism. However, at least at the historical level of the film’s plot, we’re dealing with freedom from colonial oppression, and who can’t get behind booing a giddily awful British aristocracy, a group of feckless oppressors delighting in misery, division and bloodshed (except for Jenny; she’s nice).
So, seen as a story about getting out from under the thumb of some bad guys (who are also bad actors), this hits all the buttons and does it with the kind of bold maximalism you come to expect from this kind of production, with gleefully non-naturalistic animal fights (all CGI-rendered), explosions, and some thrilling camerawork. It passes the time quite nicely.
Director S.S. Rajamouli ఎస్. ఎస్. రాజమౌళి; Writers Rajamouli and V. Viyajendra Prasad కె. వి. విజయేంద్ర ప్రసాద్; Cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar కె.కె.సెంథిల్ కుమార్; Starring N.T. Rama Rao Jr. జూనియర్ ఎన్.టి.ఆర్, Ram Charan రాం చరణ్ తేజ, Ajay Devgn अजय देवगन, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 182 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022.
I certainly was not expecting much in revisiting this film by Wes Anderson, not that I have bitter memories of disliking it, but just that it never really stuck out from his other films — though they are very much all of a piece — just that I assumed it would not have aged well. Indeed, as much as you expect something made by a white American guy (a bunch of them indeed) that’s largely set in India to be a little bit tone-deaf — and certainly Adrien Brody hasn’t exactly avoided controversy in his time for, shall we say, culturally inappropriateness — it turns out that this largely train-set movie is actually quite delightful. I’m not sure how it plays to actual Indians, though it doesn’t seem to me that it’s making fun of or trying to ape the culture, so much as it being a different palette for Wes Anderson to utilise in his usual fastidious set designs. So yes there’s a bit of exoticism to it, but under it all, it’s a story of three siblings who have been a bit bruised by their upbringing struggling to move forward. So if this all recalls familiar shades of The Royal Tenenbaums (complete with a small role for Anjelica Huston), that’s not entirely a bad thing.
- The main bonus is the short film Hotel Chevalier, made (and presented here) as essentially a 13-minute prologue to the feature, preceding its action in time. It’s set at the titular hotel in Paris when Jack’s ex (Natalie Portman) comes to visit briefly. It does a good job of setting up these characters within the constraints of the setting with a bit of withering wit as well.
- There is one deleted scene and two alternate takes of scenes, just a small insight into the creative journey. One wonders that there was not a lot more left on the cutting room floor (but perhaps most of that is just shots that needed more exact framing).
- There’s a cute little American Express ad that was clearly made around the same time, and somehow manages to express even more of Anderson’s peculiar aesthetic, except with him as the star rather than Owen Wilson.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 29 May 2021 (and earlier at some point at home, London, late-2000s).
This film is about a wedding, as you might expect from the title, and so it’s hardly bereft of stress, or free from drama — both within the family and beyond it. There are some plotlines that go in quite dark directions, and yet all the time we’re brought back into something regenerative and vibrant, as this Punjabi family prepares to celebrate the arranged marriage of their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). The film is made in a loose manner, at times not unlike a documentary, but still retaining an elegance and most importantly some rich and vibrant colours. The father tells off the unreliable wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) at one point for trying to use white for a marquee, but the film is generous enough to allow even Dubey a romance of his own. But that’s where the film is so good, leaving you with a feeling of warmth and regeneration at the end, never wallowing in the paths not taken.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mira Nair मीरा नायर; Writer Sabrina Dhawan सबरीना धवन; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Naseeruddin Shah नसीरुद्दीन शाह, Vasundhara Das वसुंधरा दास, Shefali Shah शेफ़ाली शाह, Vijay Raaz विजय राज़, Tillotama Shome তিলোত্তমা সোম; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 December 2021.
I’ve already reviewed a number of documentaries screening at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, not because documentaries are suddenly big again but because film festivals are the perfect place to catch films which don’t conform to the usual standards for what gets released. This one is a bit out of the ordinary, and like Mariner of the Mountains, very much defies categorisation, landing somewhere between poetic essay and political drama enfolding students and the nation as a whole under Narendra Modi. It’s not a film I expected to like, not beforehand nor even while watching it for much of its running time, but it wove a sort of magical grip on me by the end.
One thing I love about going to film festivals is seeing a far greater range of documentary expression than gets released to cinemas (where the documentaries tend to be studiously fact-based and talking-head in format). Like many modern works, though, this carefully balances itself between what’s familiar about the format, and something at a higher poetic register. Grainy 16mm footage of students dancing opens and closes the film, and in between this darkened almost clandestine world of university study and protest becomes evident, while on the soundtrack a soft voice narrates (presumably fictional) letters being written from a single-lettered unknown person, providing a glimpse into a turbulent time in Indian history when universities, academic freedoms, intellectual life and freedom in general is under threat from fascist governmental forces. There’s something at once calming and reverential but also incendiary about what the director is doing here. If it at first seems disconcerting, by the end it has conjured up a distinct and impressive mood that makes the usual run of fact-based filmmaking look dull by comparison.
Director Payal Kapadia; Writers Kapadia and Himanshu Prajabati; Cinematographer Ranabir Das; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Tuesday 9 November 2021.
A recent release that I saw at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and which is now on Netflix, fits into the very familiar and comfortable patterns of the romcom. It overlays a traditional familial relationship, updating it to the social media age in some pretty heavy-handed ways at times, but I found it likeable all the same.
I was honestly sort of expecting to hate this once the film had set up the premise — which it does very swiftly — as out-of-touch newly-widowed father tries to connect with his moody musician son using social media (specifically Facebook messenger), by impersonating a hot woman whose picture his own mother has found on the internet. These are broad strokes, very very broad, and they are played for the expected laughs (it’s all too easy to laugh at people acting stupidly). However, as the film went on I found myself enjoying it quite in spite of myself, perhaps because of the likeability of all the leads, and the gusto with which they go about their somewhat hackneyed plot, but also because of the filmmaking on show. There’s a really lovely and evocative sequence of the son moving physically through his memories and encountering his mother on the street. I wasn’t entirely sold on the son’s music, and as I said already, it can get quite broad in its humour, but it remains a sweet romcom.
Director Leena Yadav लीना यादव; Writers Vivek Anchalia, Manu Rishi Chadha and Yadav; Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Rishi Kapoor ऋषी कपूर, Anirudh Tanwar, Amyra Dastur अमायरा दस्तूर; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Sunday 21 October 2018.
Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.
India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.
A strange, experimental Indian film that never got a proper release when it was made, but was recently restored and re-released a few years back, where I saw it at the London Film Festival. As you’ll see from my review, I can’t say I understood it.
An Indian film from 1988 only recently restored and screened, as apparently it was too out-there for the original producers and never got much of a release at the time. And I can understand that. It is extremely difficult to follow, though it may help to be familiar with some of the reference points, and as a non-Indian I am very much not. It follows a sort of free-associative dream (or perhaps nightmare) logic, featuring a young man named Om (Aditya Lakhia) and a lot of to-do about frogs, coins, and other imagery that was densely-packed and edited in a very non-linear way, such that I generally didn’t have much of a clue of even who the main characters were, let alone what was happening. I can’t definitely say it’s bad, as a lot of the imagery was compelling, and I like a mystery.
Director Kamal Swaroop; Writer Kuku; Cinematographers Ashwin Kaul and Milind Ranade; Starring Aditya Lakhia आदित्य लाखिया, Anita Kanwar अनीता कंवर; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 7 October 2017.
Clearly low-budget and shot in black-and-white, this feels like a major title in the development of independent Indian filmmaking, part of India’s own New Wave, in which Mani Kaul was a central figure. It’s a small rural village drama between a handful of characters, but has a power to it that draws on contemporary European figures like Bresson.
I’ve not seen a huge deal of Indian cinema, beyond a few big titles and some contemporary commercial movies, so seeing things like this impresses upon me how huge a range there must be in the country. Uski Roti (variously translated as “Our Daily Bread” and “A Day’s Bread”, and which is variously listed as 1969 and 1970 depending where you look) is barely even narrative-driven, being often composed of a series of brief vignettes of almost Bressonian austerity, as a woman, Balo (Garima), makes food for her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), who drives a bus and only seems to show up very irregularly. In the meantime, we see him playing cards, while stories circulate about him having another woman in another village. The wife’s orbit is the home, where she works alongside her sister (Richa Vyas), who is being pestered by the husband’s brother. Aside from Bresson, the images are reminiscent of the stark village scenes in The Cow, a contemporary film from Iran. Slowly we get a sense of these characters and how their lives are, as the film just lays out these images of village life one after another. Clearly the 60s were a fertile time, and the stark simplicity of this film (a debut film, no less) suggests not just a great talent, but just the tip of the iceberg for filmmaking across the continent.
Director Mani Kaul मणि कौल; Writers Mohan Rakesh मोहन राकेश and Kaul; Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ਕੇ ਕੇ ਮਹਾਜਨ; Starring Garima, Gurdeep Singh, Richa Vyas; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 9 June 2020.
This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.
It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.
It’s impossible to cover Indian cinema without at least a few feel-good Bollywood films. This one, directed by Tanuja Chandra — who has had a fairly long career for a woman directing in India (since 1998), though she has family connections to the business — is a likeable romcom with two big name leads. Irrfan Khan, who sadly died recently, is probably the best-known in the West.
I enjoy a good romcom, but they do tend to lean heavily on the personal charm of their leads. Luckily both Irrfan Khan and Parvathy Thiruvothu have that, although Irrfan’s character of Yogi, a wealthy layabout who writes self-published poetry does initially come across as less quirky than creepy in his insistence. Then again, romcoms do often normalise pathological behaviour, and his is comparatively tame by the genre’s standards. Needless to say, some feeling develops between the two as they criss-cross India (mostly in the north I believe, though I’m hardly a geographic expert). The director encourages her heroine to break the fourth wall by addressing the camera directly in what is now I suppose a time-honoured tradition, but it all comes off rather nicely and this is a very likeable film.
Director Tanuja Chandra तनुजा चंद्रा; Writers Chandra, Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Ramashrit Joshi; Cinematographer Eeshit Narain; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Parvathy Thiruvothu പാർവ്വതി ടി.കെ.; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Friday 17 November 2017.