THE 2018 TABLEAU PART 4

In this last entry for Indian films that made an impact in the past twelve months, I write about the one that put to the spotlight curdled dynamics of patriotism and is particularly important given India’s annual Republic Day falling on 26th January. The stakes are high in RAAZI ( AGREEABLE) as it’s based on the real life tale of one among many unsung heroes of the national intelligence apparatus vis a vis the book CALLING SEHMAT written by HARINDER SIKKA.

*****

RAAZI

We operate on friendly, extremely civilized lines on a one on one basis so where does the demarcated line of control end? Cross border hate, thus, is a complex undertaking and within civilized exchanges, simmering angst boils to the surface in RAAZI.

So the space of patriotism vis a vis blood bonds and adopted ones is negotiated by a young Sehmat ( Alia Bhatt) and in her steely resolve, the gossamer fabric of vulnerability plays its part as well. Naturally so. A twenty year old cannot expectedly be invincible, gender no bar and this practical diving point steers the cinematic traction of this screenplay.

Stakes of love and her mission as a covert spy in her marital home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in the pre 1971 India – Pak epoch set the stage for an internecine battle of wits, secretive and simultaneously brittle as it is, from which nobody emerges unscathed. This 20 year old is the loser even if infiltrating her army husband’s unit finds her indulging in skulduggery, cunning and triumphing with blood on her hands.

It’s all the more complicated as her adopted family dotes on her while the father in law, an army general, operates along lines of hate for the other side and still expresses fidelity to Sehmat as an equal as to her father, his dear friend from pre Partition days when India was one subcontinental entity. There’s malice in the ideologies, not individuals per se. Yes RAAZI does appear by the numbers in few espionage beats sometimes but the appeal is in the moral weightlifting it evinces, never in your face or jingoistic.

** Alia shares the screen here with her real life mother, actor Soni Razdan.

The pressures of upholding the integrity of watan (nation) is not for the faint hearted. In this recreation of a life lived in real time, the cast, comprising of Vicky Kaushal, Shishir Sharma, Amruta Khanwilkar, Rajit Kapur, Jaydeep Ahlawat among others, bring a layered undertone of humanity mingling with danger and unpredictability. Civility and fierce loyalty to one’s nation are rubbed against each other by Meghna Gulzar’s direction, stoking a power play deep and propulsive. Haunting is the word.

There is something admirably raw and unspoilt about Alia as a performer and subtlety is key in Meghna Gulzar’s direction.

*****

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THE 2018 TABLEAU PART 3

Here I continue with the streak of Indian cinematic gems that decorated 2018 and the consensus is that they were as versatile as the nation they represent, weaving together a mosaic of cultural heritage and personal histories lasting beyond a particular era of setting, with issues lingering in the here and now. Once again, social mobility in the name of truth was recognized in each. So here they are.

*****

PADMAN

There are many draws for R. Balki’s latest, in a line of hits that tend to deviate from status quo : so if it was the 30 year age difference refusing to hamper an interesting bond in Cheeni Kum(2007), a progeria afflicted kid’s wonder years ( Paa, 2009) or a husband as homemaker ( Ki and Ka, 2016), the man has never settled for tried and tested formulas, mining dollops of humour and a different narrative style from each venture. In PADMAN, he fictionalises the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the trailblazer from Coimbatore who revolutionized a movement for gender parity in rural India by making low cost sanitary pads for women.

It tends to obviate the hush hush, wink wink attitudes reserved for menstrual health in general. There is a message for entrepreneurship, self dependency and a frank foundation among spouses so sorely missing in the mainstream. Here, culture chauvinism is offset by the dynamism of the protagonist and as played by king of the masses Akshay Kumar, the crusade for change is not all about token earnestness. His hope enlivens the proceedings along with an ever smiling rapport.

Challenges then obviously come, including a long period of separation from his beloved wife( Radhika Apte, the poster child for 2018) Nobody actually trusts his vision. Blame it on rural fiats. Or on centuries of cloistered thinking. As a film focused on such a personal topic pertaining to women and society at large, Apte and Sonam Kapoor represent two poles.

Apte is pure alchemy as the traditionally schooled woman, with her conservatism no fault of her own, who is unable to make sense of her husband’s concern for her during ‘those days of the month’ but knows his heart is in the right place. This screen avatar could not be more diametrically different from the uninhibited, socially aware risk taker she is and it’s here when her talent for impersonating another life comes to the fore.

But Padman’s true soul is none other than Sonam as the educated, enlightened Delhi girl, daughter of an equally enlightened single father, who is proficient in the classical arts ( she’s a star tabla player) and later spreads the word about menstrual hygiene across the countryside with Akshay’s Lakshmi. Adding a personal touch to his mission and ensuring his voice eventually reaches a forum like the U.N as well, tips of gender equality are brought together. The most intimate aspects of women’s woes are addressed and her door to door canvassing works, as a man propagating it will be simply out of place, given the stigma and circumstances in an unequal order.

The film actually finds its frank, idiosyncratic rationale when she is on screen and Sonam is as natural as it comes. Both women act in the only way they know as per their characteristics. A great nugget regarding the nature of working relationships intertwining with mutual attraction and the vast gulf between urban and rural is uttered by her and is one of the highlights.

This is an enterprise aimed at bringing the sexes together and bridging cultural gaps. Suffice to say, the deed is done successfully here. We salute Mr. Arunachalam’s original seed of progress even more. I also marveled at how our own kin fail to stand for the truth sometimes and then revel in our success perhaps without grasping the ramifications of our personal vision for the future ,as is demonstrated by Lakshmi’s family of women and larger village folk.

******

SANJU

Indian film personality Sanjay Dutt’s extraordinary life of monumental highs and lows was destined to grace celluloid screens, outsized as it is in the epic failures and tragic pit stops. For here is the living individual who saw it all, exposing the cracked ends of several Achilles’ heels at once and never pretending to be anything other than the sum of his human foibles.

Sanju is essentially a Rajkumar Hirani feature – entertaining, humorous and emotionally engaging. It’s a biography but not the atypical one as the seemingly melodramatic elements are nothing compared to his public presence that showed more intimately the manner in which life engulfed him and he fell prey to its whims and fancies. What the screenplay reveals is the casual misogyny, bad company and fragile ego that really undoes young men, ultimately snowballing into the kind of trainwreck Sanjay Dutt eventually became.

His courage at facing those, down to multiple jail terms, is a testament to his personality as is his stature as bona fide movie star. I also know that being a man, his bigger star status has subsumed his legend. Would a woman be given a similar story if she crossed out a conventional life?

Sanju benefits gloriously from a once in a lifetime work from Ranbir Kapoor, who minutely channels Dutt to a t, and an ensemble of gifted performers all pulling out aces. On the directorial front, Hirani maintains his trademark style which is rarely subtle. However, it elicits the kind of heartfelt moments he masters so effortlessly in each work.

The man had seen too much for us to brush off his on screen iteration as a grand celebration of ‘a man’s life’ He claims to be no role model. But a survivor he is despite his acolytes and by now legendary status. It keeps us guessing as to where complicity ends and societal hypocrisy begins to affect an individual life. Ranbir hits every note to cement his alchemy.

*****

ANDHADHUN

This Sriram Raghavan thriller is deliciously unpredictable and it made me jostle with the limits of storytelling within the format as crime is such a distant construct, unpeeling one part of it is out of the ordinary for a layman.

I believe the truth is stranger than fiction hence the twisted dynamics of Andhadhun, an absurdist, realistically pegged production of human vice, murder begetting lies and more body counts. At another level, it’s an existential refraction of our preoccupations with crimes and misdemeanors that utilizes its welcome conceit of a blind piano player to sift fact from fiction, the seen from the unseen.

Piano notes punctuating sinister motives and the flush of love coincide with micro moments that examine ways of the world across class chasms, from the urbane rich, thriving middle class down to the poor, all surviving amidst moral corruptions and medical malfeasance.

As for the leads, Tabu, well she’s our femme fatale of the hour while Ayushman has another tune to go gung-ho about. Ditto the entire cast. I feel Andhadhun ( Blind Tune) will age well, as a standalone best and a generic exemplar. Finally, it’s another exploration of the heightened sensory attributes that visual impairment unwittingly bestows on artists ala Ship of Theseus. Here the agenda is absolutely, alluringly different.

*****

PADMAAVAT

I cannot write anything new about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s – my favourite filmmaker – mass appeal and with Padmaavat, he rejuvenates a historic triangle consigned to history books that we have grown up consuming for its mythic tragedy and simmering valour. Cinema enables us to transmute the distant past and for that purpose alone, Bhansali rises to the occasion, keeping his traditional motifs intact. His artistic subsumption reveals the epical tragedies that line these lives and the mounting stead of evil, when it amasses a maniacal sway, is unleashed on the other hand.

Deepika Padukone is appropriately feisty and enduring even with little to say sometimes and her eyes emit a fire of survival that thousand fists or any battle royale cannot. She has, in my opinion, raised herself to echelons of classical performances belonging to the golden era with her turn here. As for Shahid Kapoor, he has grip on the martial code of fealty to honour and is appropriately appealing. The trumpcard is pulled by Ranveer Singh, evil incarnate and hardly excessive owing to the historical figure he portrays.

Padmaavat’s screenplay is stirring, the visuals top notch and the final stretch of the film a recreation of the lengths to which even royal women had to go to escape clutches of patriarchy, with the slow motion movement towards an inferno of faith haunting us and pulled out from girdles of a contentious, cyclical, patriarchal history.

******

In the next post, I will write about the last significant entry in my 2018 tableau of Indian films, especially given its value in the run up to Republic Day of India, celebrated every 26th January.

THE 2018 TABLEAU PART 2

Without much ado, I launch headlong into writings on some of the most interesting Indian cinematic choices of the past year. They all prevailed in more ways than one, resisting convention and compounding their assets to engage viewers. Real life issues then appropriately took centrestage and proved why cinema is a veritable mirror of the times.

*****

OCTOBER

The whole paradigm of unexpected serendipity courtesy a near death experience and the fangs it spreads around youth finds its most central, sombre representation, ever, in OCTOBER.

The tale of Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) who asks for her colleague Dan( Varun Dhawan) before falling off a balcony at the five star hotel where they both train in unfurls the humane magic of silent communication, the one found in everyday gestures and selfless insights. It gifts us with an unique platonic bond built around care and concern and this alone makes it one of the most essential narratives brought to cinematic consciousness, far from male – female binaries and transcending the sheer breadth of the four letter word.

The irony of the hospitality field is there as a thrust where insiders either get too inured to courtesies and protocol learnt by rote or strictly adhere to detachment with the routine. OCTOBER beautifully creates an original middle path that ultimately winds down one of sheer integrity. What it establishes in the wake of Shiuli’s physical stasis is that comatose / specially abled people are not part of some statistic. Compassion is the need of the hour and this film’s communal spirit is truly a benchmark, so utterly realistic and life affirming it is even if there’s certain darkness at the end of the tunnel.

In Dan, we find the everyman we must aspire to. One who puts others first and there are plenty others like him I know of, including and not limited to my parents. Here, he departs from prototypes of a young, reckless male as well. Writer Juhi Chaturvedi, a true auteur of the Indian screenwriting pantheon, tells us softly, sensitively that we don’t necessarily have to be of a certain, advanced middle age to be alert to others’ pain. That age specific stereotype is broken here and I believe it is so fitting as the facts are culled from life.

In fact, there are no water tight compartments in Shoojit Sircar’s worldview, which is ultimately like a stream of free flowing consciousness. Every drop of each effort counts.

Kudos to Banita Sandhu for conveying the immobility, resignation of her helpless condition so well and to Gitanjali Rao, a maternal figure overseeing the slow passage towards her daughter’s truth, in a stark portrayal of receding hope. As for Varun Dhawan, he’s sweet, a natural at essaying the innocence of a young heart and the curdled melancholy that gnaws at us when we leave behind conventional wisdom. God bless this team.

*****

MANTO

A mentally challenged old man transported across the border as part of an exchange programme, who falls dead on no man’s land when he realizes his native village falls on neither sides (TOBA TEK SINGH) ; A restless father finding his daughter in an evanescent state in a hospital bed, watching over as she unties the knots on her pants when the doctor asks him to open the window, implying the cyclic violation that has befallen her ilk (KHOL DO/ OPEN UP) ; a woman who pushes her pimp to death, only to observe sustained sleep denied to her (BOOH/STENCH) and that extant touch of unintentional necrophilia and tragedy as a man kills and indulges in anarchy post riots, realizing that the woman he had violated was a dead corpse, confessing the same to a shocked better half (THANDA GOSHT / COLD FLESH)

The fugue like awakening of a post Partition Indian subcontinent was so earth shatteringly wretched and humanity had reached such a lowly stoop that only a writer with the guts to spare like Saadat Hasan Manto could write those tales. His stirring writings, penned with a first person exposure to a society’s beastly nerve, will always be upheld by me as the ultimate form of uncompromising expression. His salvation in holding a mirror to the world made him court liberals’ admiration and notoriety on the part of pea minded intellects. Like every true artist, personal propagandas of others threatened to break his back.

MANTO marks a timely passage, circa 2018, of how stark realities always get arrested in time warps where truth, like naked flesh, is dismissed as some concept drummed up for controversy, especially when the writer dares to harp on sexual /physical mores.

Saadat Manto was divided by shifting loyalties of a bifurcated people who had perhaps divorced themselves from the ideal of a free land long time ago. It emerges that nothing was ideal even back then, so what if from posterity’s lenses, older times expressed allegiances to a simpler, purer form of living. If so then horrors of Partition had never even materialized.

*****

Manto, as played by the profoundly accessible Nawazuddin Siddiqui, relays the fears and in turn fearless irony that every writer as individual and vice versa strives for. Through the golden years in the Bombay film world, the friendships with leading lights of Progressive Writers’ Association, a bond unlike any other with wife Safiya (au natural Rasika Duggal, one of my favourites) to a friendship with rising star Shyam Chaddha ( Tahir Raj Bhasin), it’s juxtaposed with the naturally endowed transitions of his written tales. They emerge from the silently roiling interior space of the nation and the man, monologues of a contentious time that didn’t shy away from the brash, brusque deteoriations of the mind.

Director Nandita Das, one of India’s renaissance figures, showcases the man behind the many exhortations of freedom who’s graceful, broken, respectful of his wife and peers and is so struck by his best friend’s words, uttered in a fit of rage post the 1947 pogrom, that he decides to leave his beloved Bombay. Hence, the journey into the other side and search for identity in a nation wrought by two burnt hands. As is revealed later, Shyam too passed away early, probably from pangs of heartbreak.

Some of the country’s finest performers coral their creative juices, some of them being Rajshri Deshpande as the great progressive feminist and Manto’s soul sister Ismat Chugtai( who received higher education from my hometown Lucknow) , poet laureate Javed Akhtar as a defendant in court, theatre thespian and my city’s very own Salim Arif as the judge presiding over the obscenity charge in Lahore, to Chandan Roy Sanyal and even the eternally versatile Rishi Kapoor as a sleazy producer ( yes there were Weinsteins in the classic movie epoch too)

They shine as most of them are well versed in intricacies of the man, of the Urdu / Hindustani language in which Manto wrote and hail mostly from the rich theatrical backdrop of post independent India.

****

The heart is an isolated island and so the alienation of a writer with one foot in a society that prescribes his pros and cons and a family life enriched by the sometimes silent strength of spouses find a voice here. I have to say without Safia, there can be no Manto just like his championing of even perverse, distorted truths is a lesson a modern world needs to preserve with acute loyalty.

Manto, hence, marshalls all of the team’s collective sensibilities to craft a series of images, words and internalizations that attest to the power of storytelling sans frontiers.

NOTE : IN DEFENCE OF FREEDOM, Das’ prelude to this final work, a short film, is a great companion piece. As a writer and a person, I could share his concerns and the sensitivity of Das’ recreation is a feat in itself.

*****

HICHKI

This is the rare feel good feature in a long time that fires us up emotionally while addressing an unknown condition called Tourette’s Syndrome. Which begs the question, ‘does it unintentionally make us chuckle owing to the grunting sound the protagonist makes, the definitive symptom of the said condition?’ No it doesn’t, rather it sensitises us about how to approach every different personality and quirks of fate as modern enlightened human beings.

Rani Mukherjee is her usual natural self as a teacher with the backlog of multiple rejections over the years and a determination that rivals her many degrees. She overcomes the first beat of the ‘individual with a condition’ to posit the world of difference teachers and principals can actually make. Her eye of the tiger descriptor is effective and unique here.
HICHKI also scores as it attempts to implement a judicious sense of learning vis a vis chances for the marginalized within elite educational institutions beyond mere lip service.
The kids are all spot on and so is the social scrutiny on molding enterprising young minds, in the vein of our former President Kalam’s kid friendly outlooks.

It’s a crowd pleaser with a conscience and culled from ground efforts of some truly remarkable leaders. The real hiccup is in not making inroads for progressive change. HICHKI turns outcasts into survivors in the mold of real life achievers.
The burning question is, do such inspirational showcases as these really only get concentrated in discussions and appreciation or do positive actions see the light of day by those who are motivated by the agency portrayed on screen?

*****

ONCE AGAIN

It’s soothing to hear classical instruments and musical numbers beautify the sublime backdrop of this gem that, to my relief, found a limited theatrical release in December. Its protagonists dress traditionally, talk in muted tones and observe dignified stoicism in difficult patches. But this Indo – German co- production takes many steps further in its lyrical approximation of everyday life scripts and middle age love, rooting it in its Indian ethos completely, oblivious to any pretentious influences.

In Once Again, Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi embody the quiet heartbeats of individuals who strive to find their footing in the greatest urban jungle of them all- Bombay. The city, as we all know, is a microcosm of the people and these two more than make the cut through small moments rife with a lifetime of experiences.

ONCE AGAIN tells us how to lend credence to life at every stage. It’s universal in the best sense. Yes, it also casts Rasika Duggal, one of this era’s beacons of excellence, in a supporting arc.

*****

FOR NOW, I will be limiting my list to these four. The others will follow in upcoming posts.

THE 2018 TABLEAU PART 1

2018 was the year when cultural phenomenon Netflix spread its wings in its biggest overseas market by releasing original Indian content, select offerings grasping internal cum universal ethos of a multicultural society that didn’t have to dare to be different as they changed the course of filmmaking patterns, actually drawing on the strengths of both cinema and television to immerse us in the durability of a homogeneous medium.

The following, hence, are the four major works that were released and they imitated ground realities in engrossing multiplicities, casting some of the finest minds and performers. Comprising of limited series, films and an ongoing, critically acclaimed series, the works defined versatility by the minute in each case .

*****

SELECTION DAY

Born in a cricket crazy nation and to a father who runs one of the most recognized cricket academies here (albeit I have never played the ubiquitous sport and have zilch technical knowledge), I knew my attention will automatically veer towards this six part, half hour series on Netflix. The thing with cricket or any popular culture specimen is that an universal attuning to its presence far outlasts your limited knowledge of its ins and outs.

So while I served the purpose of making my father watch it via the flexible streaming format, I settled down to its brisk paced journey with equal enthusiasm. With an half an hour format, six episodes went by in a breeze and the build up was necessary for upcoming seasons, given it’s based on Aravind Adiga’s novel. It’s akin to the head rush and emotional toll of a game of cricket, with those on the field and following the action outside turfs.
After all, it has one of the most potent premises in the dual / joint tale of two brothers who chase their individual dreams while being ruled by the diktats of a helicopter parent. I mean, who doesn’t want to follow two siblings as they battle the crests and troughs of an uber competitive, unpredictable terrain?

Rajesh Tailang is excellent as the kind of disciplinarian, one dimensional bully that fathers more often are than we would like to admit. So intent is he on making stars out of his rigorously trained boys that he admits at one point that he even selected their mother based on her sporting genes. But that’s no ruse to hide the ballast of their own unfulfilled dreams that they heap on their ‘child prodigies’ Here the village to city beat is a smokescreen for all we know and parse about sudden transformations.
It lets us in on the class structures within the universal metropolis of Mumbai, from the rich businessman (Karan Oberoi) displaying a flair for spineless business practices and only English language endemic in the upper echelons in India to the principal of a St. Xavier like school( the prized Ratna Pathak Shah) who still promotes equal opportunity even if her funds are drying up. Legacy of integrity is what she stands for while the cricket coach ( Mahesh Manjrekar) has the predictable beat of familial burdens and some past slight to go concurrently with his reputation as an expert in the gentleman’s game. The idea of burgeoning sexuality has been teased too in the script. The boys’ father’s toxic masochism has also been left in the residue for what’s to come in the next season.

SELECTION DAY has a novelistic breakdown, down to the use of magic realism as when the younger brother converses with the God figure. For the duration of the show in its back to back run, it interested me and handled a kaleidoscope of emotions without being overt. A coming of age tale with class and gender politics thrown in, it looks at the game through the prism of youth and some fine, realistic performances.

*****

GHOUL

A gun toting army officer in a hijab is an interesting conceit that can easily get lost in scattershot execution. In GHOUL, an internationally endowed Indian Netflix original, the three part structure holds the horror template firm, replenishing its tropes of silences pregnant with doom and mystical beasts manifesting in antisocial human behavior. An allegory for our intolerant times where the majoritarian government holds reins of freedom of expression and the very principles of sedition are dictated by vested interests, it takes place in a covert army base.

Prisoners charged with sedition and other crimes are locked in this perpetually wet, dank, claustrophobic space and religion too enters the fray. It’s topical and the interpersonal interactions sustain the tension and dread put on display.

Radhika Apte, a towering talent, is the glue to this atmospheric enterprise while others like Ratnabali Bhattacharji, last seen in WAITING (2016) as Kalki Koechlin’s friend and agony aunt, and Manav Kaul are competent.
The most interesting aspect of GHOUL is in how it upends authority that basically brainwashes even the righteous and turns them against their own, as reflected in the patriotic protagonist, played by Apte, as she gets riled up against her own professor father, who it seems, is propagating anti national decrees. The moral grey zone uplifts the horror here. It’s predictable but executed well and its topicality and open ended, ambiguous ending is propulsive enough.

Also it’s a treat to watch veteran actor Sajjad Zaheer in a pivotal part. Apte is left, right and center in GHOUL and ensures we are riveted. This miniseries is a change in pace from the laughable creature features we have been led to watch so far.

*****

SACRED GAMES

Boasting one of the most robust ensembles of all times, this on screen recreation of Vikram Chandra’s sprawling Mumbai saga has fallen in right hands. The versatile, gritty and uncompromisingly say it as it is approach is the first time Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane’s joint talents have opened up the wealth of storytelling, narrative equilibrium and verisimilitude to my discerning mind. They never rise above the setting and fractured humanity of the people portrayed here who are centralized in their lowest nadirs ; hence the roster of memorable characters who cross each other’s paths against extreme yet compulsively complex tracks of the law.

Real life is the crowned king in this eight part series’ first season and has single handedly blurred the limits of artistic freedom between mediums.

I also appreciated the way faith / religion is integrated seamlessly at several junctures, exposing its futility and omnipresence, such as an instance of chicken appearing in a staunchly vegetarian restaurant, extending the idea of cold revenge and the lead gangster hailing from the Brahmin faith right down to the 1993 Hindu / Muslim conflagration to an actress appearing as a deity in a popular mythological and getting enmeshed in a larger network of amorality in real life.
SACRED GAMES may be too brash to some but I found its individuality and place in the filmmaking pantheon to be exemplary.

*****

LUST STORIES

Don’t be fooled by the title. The internalization of the titular emotion is dignified on a larger platform to reflect forbidden desires in a matter of fact unfolding, over half an hour vignettes alloted to each tale. In this Netflix original, a four part collection of modern day heterosexual relationships, the central character of lust isn’t spelled out explicitly and it’s the most humane course of storytelling.

The viewpoints are relayed, women are revealed to be independent yet privy to self analysis, mute witnesses and given to hateful judgements by others when liberation is sought. In essence, each tale looks at a lop – sided heirarchy that finds ways in the modern era to set a leash on fundamental desires. Right or wrong, human interaction is always fraught with double edged polarities.

Among my two personal favourites, the agency of illicit alliances is handled with maturity and careful consideration in the segment directed by Dibakar Banerjee ( starring Manisha Koirala, Jaydeep Ahlawat and Sanjay Kapoor) while Bhumi Pednekar utters nary a dialogue and still bravely plays against type as the domestic help engaged in a clandestine sexual union with a smoldering middle class executive soon to get married, her employer, in the portion helmed by Zoya Akhtar. You can clearly understand their predicaments, the internal contexts of these people and a class difference dictating their choices. These are tales consigned to nooks of Chinese whispers or anonymity in real life and here they are looked at with a little light on buried facts that persist between two people.

On the other hand, Karan Johar’s final stretch with Kiara Advani and Vicky Kaushal is a satire on the kind of awkward beginnings for arranged marriages fueled by conservatism and the flip side emerges in a shocking u-turn while the first tale (by Anurag Kashyap) has our favourite Radhika Apte launching into interior monologues and breaking the fourth wall as she navigates a long distance relationship with an overseas based husband (an off screen presence) and unspooling complexities galore.

LUST STORIES focuses on words, actions and passive aggressions tailing book ends of relationships across stratas and mindsets hence the untitled stories. After Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and Bombay Talkies (2013), it launches the varied stakes of a quartet or ensemble piece with clarity of vision.

As another strong suit, one of my favourites Rasika Duggal too makes an appearance with Bhumi and she is such a delightful presence.

*****

## the upcoming posts will address both films and television series that were the best of a 2018 tableau.

THE 2018 TABLEAU : all the artistic creations that mattered to this writer

Variety can be a double edged sword : it can create benchmarks that surpass the old order, yield to finer craftsmanship, reimburse fresh outlooks of discerning viewers or create, quite simply, a tradition of art that takes nothing for granted. But one shuffle on the wrong side of creative thinking and the prototype of repetitive content, no matter how noble, technically superior or earnest, can feel like rummaging through hay in a stack.

In contemporary times, the explosion of meritorious works comes with the standard, patented idea that the same successful formula can be emulated again and again. There lies the tightrope walk that creators and frontrunners – in terms of writers, actors, directors, producers, cinematographers and the whole crew per se- have to steadfastly commit to. In the past twelve months, they managed to rise above the herd in many ways and narratives of change were part of the mainstream.

*****

The shows and films that I write about here as part of the 2018 tableau are not restricted strictly to those released in the signature year but the many which I had the privilege to watch for the first time. Hence, the mishmash of genres and distinct moods pointed to one thing, really : that approximations of real life are the most sustained and dynamic in these two omnipotent mediums.

The following, hence, are my written encapsulations of works across mediums, nations and possibilities that graced my viewing experiences in 2018 besides the one I have already written about earlier on this blog. Variety and a commitment to changing the scenario prevailed in all cases and the universality of the works presented appealed to a more enlightened viewer who drew parallels with the world around and was informed by greater social churnings.

*****

This will be a series so I will accommodate the vast array of the filmmaking spectrum in lists.

For sceptics who may be asking how I found the time to watch so much on offer, well I utilized the lean period post my M Phil semesters to ring in the true spirit of a cinephile and thanks to streaming platforms, I could juggle my writing, academics and other varied interests with the one that has always stood out for me. Watching creatively ripe minds tune into the panorama of human endeavours and bring them to fruition on the two prominent mediums of television and cinema is the most humbling and enlightening enterprise. For me, it was like a gateway had opened. Hence from the next post, I will write about the works that greatly mattered to me.

OUTLAW KING(2018) : THE ONE WHOSE FIGHT PAVED A NATION

These are my views on one of 2018’s most effective pieces of cinematic recreation that retrieved Scotland’s tale of tales from the dustbowls of history and put it on our laps via its distribution by global giant Netflix.

OUTLAW KING (2018)
*****

We often ascribe everything bad happening in the modern world to one person, one group, a single government or one particular nation. But it’s practical to see that the tentacles of nation building or society as a whole reach somewhere deep within the barrels of history, contemporary or older. The synthesis of human interaction is responsible for half of an era’s grandstanding ethics and the more we reflect, the better we realize that a distant light from the past has illuminated the definition of our civilization’s future and immediate present.

We say “that’s how it was back then” . Agreed. But isn’t it a cyclical iteration when it comes to the brutality of war, revenge tropes and armies against formidable armies? It would be safe to say that amorality has laid the foundation of our world over successive generations altogether and a work like OUTLAW KING lets us access our medieval past and find its footprints in the civilized here and now. Not a very different picture emerges when hordes have to raise weapons against another. Even if it’s in the name of absolute honour. Every sincere badge of patriotism is tinged with blood and this is the order we have been following in a man’s world. A grey, amoral zone then accommodates that understanding.
*****

That said, unraveling of contentious history is often treated as some kind of a grandiloquent opera in filmmaking. In OUTLAW KING, its rhythms are fundamentally attuned to the many gradations of lives at stake and especially those of the aristocracy which come into their own. It’s the tale of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s true heir to the throne who is made to reel from the dominance of England and is less than a regent, a nominal leader in his own land whose father and countrymen have somehow knelt to England’s King Edward. It’s a kingdom in tatters and the idea of confrontation is out of the picture. Maybe for the continuum of peace for common citizens. Or for preserving the kingdom of Scotland from an early extinction.

Director David Mckenzie chooses to focus on the resurrection of the crown prince and without waxing poetic, he charts the rise of a nation’s conscience under its newly awakened king who scuttles his own deference to England to see it for the corrupting force it is. There is a time and place to court change. The gradual plan for change emerges in this screenplay and it is replete with the acrid smell of bloodshed and death.

The progression is handsomely mounted by Mckenzie in terms of imagery and an internalized charge of the slumbering spirit. It’s epic yet finds a cumulation of intimate, individual moments to reach the final stage of battle. Intrigue is promising when it joins hands with vulnerability and OUTLAW KING knows when to offset one with the other. It would not be wrong to say that the storytelling attempts to present a vantage point overlooking a place’s future vis a vis Robert overlooking Scotland as its king. The title refers to his status as one in the eyes of his opponents. On top of it all, like every great leader, he has formidable allies supplementing his mission for justice who end up uplifting the film’s bearings as they did the original era’s history.

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The trinity of Chris Pine as the titular historical figure, Florence Pugh as his wife Elizabeth and Aaron Taylor Johnson as James Douglas, one of Bruce’s greatest allies, is definitive of this dramatic presentation. It finds the flame of a post William Wallace Scotland in its quest for liberation from the all pervading British crown. In Mel Gibson’s highly definitive epic BRAVEHEART (1995), which I rate as one of the true life legends recreated on screen that totally gripped me, the Oscar winning actor- director essayed William Wallace as a Scottish hero daring the greater force. Outlaw King picks up the pieces from there, portraying Scotland as a country still on its path to realizing its fledgling destiny after he is executed, with his head impaled on a stake and put on display in the public square, in one of the most gruesome images from the screenplay . In the Brexit era, it holds water as a lesson from the past up for knocks in the modern world. The idea of independence on all basic fronts threatened by one block.

On the performative part, Pine is a natural presence, not overtly sensitive or exercising unnecessary bravado but is dignified and an unifier. A risk taker, he takes his time, with full preparedness to launch his crusade with his loyal supporters and this gradual metamorphosis is reflected in his arc. This approach is practical given the unpredictable stakes he was up against. An all out glorified king would be simply out of place in this scenario and would betray historical facts. The characterisation and impersonation of Robert by Pine stands in good stead then.

Florence Pugh, a phoenix of the contemporary cinematic stage, makes the most of an otherwise thankless part in a male dominated scenario and given the opportunities that were accorded to females back in the age. She imbues conventional beats afforded to her, as an appendage, with courage, dedication and fearless stoicism. As goddaughter of King Edward of England, her marriage of convenience to Robert and role as a nominal figure is solemnized but the sensitivity of the couple and a mutual passion for each other, also in terms of the uprising, is established in earnest. Elizabeth is an individual unto herself and the fact that Edward is not her biological parent gives her the neutrality to see him as the oppressor plaguing her overall domain. In a later patch, her social mobility and position as the queen is naturally integrated even in an extremely adverse condition as she raises her voice against the hegemony and which pardons her on account of her noble breeding from the horrors that commoners had to face, at the command of a whip or gang of brutal handymen of the English crown. This works in the favor of her progression.
She is unbending even when vulnerable.

Aaron Taylor Johnson, on the other hand, so good and realistic as prime antagonist in the richly textured NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), splays open the beastly violence of the mind here that he adapts after being denuded of his high ranking family and possession of land. As James Douglas, he vows to avenge his family’s death and becomes Robert’s right hand man. His gleeful laugh when vanquishing his opponents is an effective study in contrast with that of his leader. He is, in fact, Robert’s trumpcard in the campaign to reclaim his country.
So if Robert is the heart, Elizabeth the soul, James is the feral spirit possessed by the desire to redress ills in the fashion he knows best. As the opening scene from the trailer shows, he knows the ins and outs of exacting revenge and understands the complexity of the matter, sharing it with the king.

The other formidable ally being Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), who too leads from the front. His experience and unshaking fealty to the crown and country is a true measure of the powerful leadership of Scotland that is minimal compared to English armies of thousands yet prevails. Their performances are, of course, honed by Mckenzie to suit the part of authenticity.

On the other side of the spectrum, one can’t help but notice that the English king’s son, the Prince of Wales- Edward as vividly played by Billy Howle, is also a victim of his father’s overbearing attitude and hauteur. The image of the final battle featuring him has stayed with me. He struggles to get up after conceding defeat to Scotland, as if he’s almost blind, staggering literally to find his destiny, forever under the thumb of a dynasty he has to stake claim to. Nobody from his side comes to his aid. Our empathy is with him. Spurred on by his father to exercise aggression and berated even as the old man is on his deathbed, we realize how lonely and tragically wrought he has been all his life and the road ahead too is bleak. The epilogue tells us he was killed by his own courtiers later on as he received the mantle of King of England. It is a life dictated by tides of kingship, the toxic masculinity of monarchy and every brute effort by him is like a sideways glance to have his father’s approval, failing which he is made to feel inferior all the way through. Billy Howle gives an extra dimension to Prince Edward with his own touch. I responded to his dilemma. This is how male aggression is propagated in our world and again it’s a strain that is relevant to this day.

*****

Technically, I appreciated its period feel and eye for authenticity.

The indoors open to the outer spaces and the tracking shots along with many panoramic angles are well designed courtesy the cinematography.

It opens with the image of a burning candle. It becomes a symbol of the time for change that is fast approaching for Robert and his compatriots. It is reflective of a passage of introspection too, used as the only source of light in several night scenes where intense emotions rule the roost.

The parallelism with Robert’s coronation ceremony and Prince Edward being annointed as army commander and in the solitary moments centered on Robert and Elizabeth works well.

The same goes for the battle scenes and one particular instance of brutal execution meted out to one of Robert’s brothers.

**so the composite whole is etched out with burning agency and the thought hangs at the back of our heads that civilization has prospered by dint of conquests, blasphemy and cold blooded pursuits, as I had said earlier. The ambivalence of empires hence occupies the bigger picture. OUTLAW KING achieves that timely, universal portent of temporal structures and the way History commands Chivalry and Courage by hands of War.

I found it impactful with the salient points being the performances by everyone, landscapes, composition of scenes down to death sequences accorded to the ageing monarchs of both countries ( played memorably by veterans James Cosmos and Stephen Dillane) as coils of mortality wear these two childhood friends and temperamentally different patriarchs down. Ditto the accolades for its musical score and closing moments of mayhem, bedlam and reflection.

*****

The idea of a nation equivalent to its people is attested here. As I have always believed, we can never know the exact truth as historical subjects are no more with us but the creative medium somehow manages to imagine them with fierce agency. OUTLAW KING is a fine example as in two hours, it creates a snapshot of a historical era.

It’s another important milestone for NETFLIX as a premature veteran in the filmmaking sphere, for the director fresh off his HELL OR HIGH WATER success and for the sensible scope of history resuscitated on cinematic platforms as this film released simultaneously in theaters as well and rightfully so.

The medium doesn’t matter here. This is a stirring showcase.

*****

NOTE : This article originally graced my essay collection A LETTERED SOUL on Wattpad.

WE CALLED HER SOUL

The Medley, the online journal of OSTRACA, the literary society of English Department, Hansraj College, Delhi was gracious enough to accept my poem for publication in their second issue. Here I share it with all my readers again.

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Prithvijeet Sinha, a resident of the ever shining cultural beacon Lucknow, has finished his MPhil in English from the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow most recently and has been contributing his works to various publications like Gnosis, Cafe Dissensus, Reader’s Digest, Confluence among others besides publishing his poetry and articles on Wattpad and his blog, An Awadh Boy’s Panorama. The trinity of music, literature and cinema has kept him afloat. He believes that committing to writing and reading is a gift without substitute for the mind.

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We Called Her Soul
2 minute read

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Look down, little baby

there she sleeps in that modest, open casket,
inhaling all her graces and hallelujahs
in her serene passage to the good Lord.

a heaven stirrer.
the virtuous, the excellent was in her name,
know her name was soul.
ARETHA, we called her.

Here she is,
not frail of limbs or disavowed of good health anymore
but an universal chanteuse now, invoking a thousand voices of body and soul.
tell her in spirit to sleep well and relieve one last blessing,
and make you the first supplicant to spread the word,
of the glory of the kingdom that she sang blissfully about.

Her daddy preached,
pearls of wisdom forming a bridge to enfranchisement,
stirring the first twelve notes in her
and a papillon rose.
How glorious her own share in this world then,
to be raised as a hierophant
and unite diverse hearts of a thousand secular congregations.

Blessed be the baby,
for you kissed her forehead and touched her feet
and in this last mass,
call her queen, call her grandma, call her the singer of mortals and anoint her in the order of love and reverence.

What life is bigger than the soul then,
what can death defeat in her?
Hair, face, limbs and adornments all subsumed and consumed by the voice that I made my own,
and passed it down to your mother
and now it rests with you.
The virtuous and excellent one.
ARETHA, daughter of the most high.
She smiles at you and her vocal cords chime in yours.

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Author’s Note: This is a tribute in free verse to the great Aretha Franklin who has influenced the poet like no other. Her name had Arabic origins meaning virtuous, excellent and her father, a famous pastor named C. L Franklin, was her idol. She grew up in the invincible environs of the church and rose from the heights of gospel singing to meld the Lord’s way with secular musical temperaments, eventually being hailed as The Queen of Soul. This poem is imagined as a sort of brief remembrance by one of her backup singers who has seen life and times with Aretha and intends to pass it down to her little grandchild.

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