Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Shree Krishnaparunthu aka The Holy Kite [dir. A. Vincent]

The "Krishna Eagle" referred to in the title of A. Vincent's horror drama Shree Krishnaparunthu (SKP) is a Brahminy Kite. The bird is seen as the representative of GarudaVishnu's celestial mount  in Hindu mythology. In the film it is the guardian deity for a family of respected shamans / white magic practitioners that use it for the benefit of the common people, curing them of possessions, snake-bites and other ills. The knowledge of the family is passed on to its male heirs. When the film begins, the old practitioner Padmanabhan (Jagannatha Varma) gets a premonition of his own death and decides to pass on the heritage to his nephew Kumaran (Mohanlal). The trouble is, Kumaran has till then led a wayward hedonistic life indulging in opium and women. Can he be trusted to take on the family mantle and continue with their righteous tradition?

Vincent was a rarity in Indian cinema, a film-maker that took the horror genre seriously. The stories he made were culturally rooted and given the sensibility of a Gothic melodrama, not reliant on jump scares or sleaze quotient to garner attention. In 1964 Vincent made his directorial debut with Bhargavi Nilayam (Bhargavi's House), in which a tenant encounters the spirit of a woman in the house he is occupying, and learns of how she was killed. In 1978 he helmed Vayanadan Thamban, an ambitious romantic horror. In that one the warlock Thamban (played by Kamalahaasan) turns to devil worship for eternal youth, in return for which he must periodically provide his master with virgin sacrifice. The narrative spans several generations, visually indicated by the changes in social and cultural milieu. Thamban is both a vampiric predator that honey-traps women for sacrifice while repeatedly escaping capture, and a man that battles with his own conscience over his actions.*

SKP is a sort of spiritual successor to Vayanadan Thamban, in that it is also a culturally rooted story in which the horror elements are tied in with the protagonist's moral compass. After Kumaran accepts the uncle's teaching he transforms into an austere, celibate priest with the power to heal the needy. He is powerful enough to tackle the menace of vengeful spirits like Lakshmikutty, who bears a deadly grudge against him, and the insidious attacks of a competing black magician who wishes to destroy the influence of the Garuda clan. Kumaran's powers hold sway so long as he is able to control his baser instincts.

Alas, that state of affirs does not remain. He starts to desire a young woman Bhanumathi, and when unable to contain his lust, visits the local prostitute. This marks the beginning of Kumaran's fall from grace. Over time, his righteousness is replaced by ego. Even after having failed to keep the mandatory celibacy, he refuses to relinquish the position of priest to any successor. The forces invoked by the white magic practiced in his clan become diminished, and to counter his failings, he turns to the practice of a darker sorcery with the worship of the boar-headed goddess Varthali/Varahi. While it initially serves his purpose, aiding him to do his miracles and protect the family from rivals, this has its own set of consequences. The film does not explicitly pit the various schools of magic as one-note good and evil (Varahi is a female offshoot of one of Vishnu's avatars) - but they represent different schools of thought with conflicting philosophies that cannot coexist. There is a strong grounding of polytheist mythology here, a refreshing contrast from the more simplistic God vs The Devil narrative of western horror films.

Kumaran's shaky moral core continues to blindside him, leading to both personal tragedy as well as the destruction of his entire clan. At the end there is a moment of redemption when Kumaran, burned in a fire after trying to make away with the sacred texts from the family shrine, expends his dying breaths initiating his innocent nephew into the original clan tradition.

SKP is trademark Vincent in both its virtues and its flaws. Its biggest triumph is the serious exploration of a specific folklore. Thanks to a combination of effective writing and a young Mohanlal's thespian talent, the grey shades of the protagonist are superbly layered, rendering him a credible character than a good/evil archetype. Vincent's creative eye is also able to give a distinct identity to his deities, demons and spirits, wholly away from the hackneyed spooks of hack horror-makers. But there are the issues of pacing and visual continuity as in his other films. Those expecting the spit and polish of Western horror ventures will find these flaws jarring (anyone familiar with low-budget genre Indian films will not).

But with all its flaws, SKP is a compelling moral fable that provides rich rewards to those seeking a genuine horror experience in a unique cultural setting. While I wish I could recommend it unreservedly to serious horror fans across the world, one barrier is that the film does not so far appear to be available in subtitled form, and while you can get a cursory idea from the visuals alone, viewers really need to have a working knowledge of Malayalam to grasp the intricacies of the plot. I was lucky in having a Malayalee friend who generously spared his time, and we paused the film multiple times to discuss both the dialog as well as the context of the cultural practices depicted, making it a truly enlightening experience for me. I do hope others get as lucky, because these films have too niche an audience to entertain the idea of any international label presenting them in translated form. That said, the full feature in the original language is available on Youtube, so you can try your luck:

* While Vincent's original version of Vayanadan Thamban is a classy Gothic, it was however heavily mutilated for its Hindi dubbed version titled Pyaasa Shaitan (Thirsty Devil) by camp icon Joginder Shelly, who has been described as India's answer to Ed Wood. After bagging the rights to Vincent's film Shelly randomly rammed  in inserts of himself as the devil, making faces at the camera, and tasteless sleaze material that only made for an incomprehensible experience.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Vikram [dir. Lokesh Kanagaraj]

Lokesh Kanagaraj’s 2019 adventure Kaithi (Prisoner), in which an ex-convict on the way to meet the daughter he hasn't seen for years is lassoed willy-nilly into rescuing a truckload of poisoned policemen while a battalion of armed thugs (hah!) assault a nearly empty police station, was an entertaining masala film. Despite its length it had focus and an organic build-up of scale. It made you empathize with the main characters so much even the exaggerations towards the end of the film could be taken in stride.

Vikram, while it has tenuous links to the former, is the other way round, so labored and top-heavy it is a disappointing follow-up. The natural flow and interlocking of scenes in Kaithi is replaced by a wobbly narrative struggling to do justice to the star lineup. It launches with full swagger, starting with a ‘mass’ song by ‘Ulaga NayaganKamalahaasan and then killing him off before the twist that everyone saw coming. There are very few Kamal scenes in which, unless you are a die-hard fan, he doesn’t come across as a twat (some, like the one where he is arguing his ideology are beyond insufferable). 

As a drug lord happily popping his own pills with a gang composed entirely of family members, ‘Makkal SelvanVijay Sethupati brings a certain wild energy and humor, but even he seems to be playing a set of Sethupati mannerisms than a consistent character. Fahad Faasil (no title for him yet) as a youngblood covert agent tracking Kamal is reduced to a mostly stereotype Dirty Harry mold. Truth be told, the lead performances are in the main a lot of posturing against obnoxious techno or guitar music. Don't even get me started on a much-hyped cameo appearance that's such rubbish, it made me want to punch the people that thought this was a good idea.

Believability has rarely been the strength of the masala genre, but the flow of the film did not carry me with enough verve to stop the questions coming to mind. Why do the foot soldiers of a multi-billion-rupee drug racket carry only kaththi-koduval (melee) weapons and basic shotguns that are easily neutralized by our heroes? How did Sethupati’s gang become the top drug mafia in the country while being gullible enough to let someone install several kilos of RDX across their entire lair, anyway?

Even the action, Kanagaraj’s strong point in Kaithi, has the same jerky quality as the writing - If a director can't raise tension in a scene where our hero must get past a legion of baddies without disturbing a baby with a weak heart, there are some serious issues in the execution. The lone exception is a bike and car chase sequence somewhere near the mid-point which doles out some thrilling night-time action. The brandishing of the big guns in the climax seems like a rehash of Kaithi's Gatling gun sequence; it's flashier and louder, but still delivers diminishing returns. 

If anything, Vikram is proof that all this recent talk about Bollywood films failing compared to Southern ventures because people want "better content" is just BS. Put enough number of marquee names together, add a truckload of fan service, and you can still get away with it. If you want my advice, just watch Kaithi and chuck all this nonsense about a shared universe out the window.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

I Start Counting [dir. David Greene]

I Start Counting (1970) is basically a Hitchcockian plot by way of kitchen sink realism. Specifically Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which a young girl suspects her charming uncle of being a murderer, seems to have been in the mind of novelist Audrey Lindop when she wrote the 1966 book that became this movie.

Early teen Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a adopted Catholic girl in a working class family who have just shifted home, because their old neighborhood is slated to be razed. Despite the mother's warnings she repeatedly visits the abandoned old homestead, finding comfort in old memories. Wynne also has a huge crush on her almost 20-years older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). She fantasizes romantic scenes with George and follows him about like an attention-seeking puppy. Her attempts to please him are rewarded by remarks like "You're a funny little biscuit". Wynne's ardor is so dominant that when she becomes suspicious of George being the dreaded serial murderer of young women in the neighborhood, she works to destroy the evidence she finds. This causes some conflict with her Catholic conscience. The other major characters in Wynne's life include her rebellious drug-taking second brother (Gregory Philips) whose collection of newspaper clippings of the killings may be more than idle hobby, and the saucy best friend (Claire Sutcliffe) who may be competition for her crush's attentions.

I Start Counting is not bad as low-key suspense dramas go, and Jenny Agutter shows fine form as the conflicted teen, but I found it underwhelming. Unlike the sensational promise of the posters, there's a tame TV movie feel to it (it's shot on 16mm, I think, and has that grainy diffuse look). The emotions are very on the nose, and it doesn't really grip you or get under your skin the way a Hitchcock film could, when he aimed for that. Helmer David Greene leans on the working class style opting to tamp down the drama. Some visual motifs like the White Rabbit doll on Wynne's bed are interesting (a metaphor for her Alice-like journey through the strange Wonderland of adolescence?), but under-developed. There are no bravura suspense sequences of the level that Hitchcock would have concocted. Basil Kirchin's score is prominent and unusual in its incorporation of sitar and tabla with jazz elements, although sometimes it also distracted me from the on-screen proceedings instead of underlying the action.

A few remarks on the UK blu-ray release from the BFI:

Given the modest production origins, the 2K restoration video on the BFI blu-ray is good. There are, I assume unavoidable, source limitations of brightness and density fluctuations. Audio is generally clear with a bold edge to the score. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided, but they may be on the smaller side for some people. Of the extras, which are plentiful, I have so far only seen the Jenny Agutter interview, in which she talks about her experience of making the film (It was a happy shoot with an enthusiastic director and some very helpful co-actors).

Trivia: Phil Collins has a one-scene appearance as an ice-cream vendor whose entire dialog, when asked if he has Neapolitan Tutti Frutti, is "Eh?"

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

HIT - The First Case [dir. Sailesh Kolanu]

It might seem like I'm doing a bait and switch with the title of the new Rajkummar Rao film, when this is actually my opinion for the Telugu original starring Vishwak Sen, which came out in 2020. But it's not just the name that is carried over. Going by the trailer of the Hindi remake, even the content of the films seems so identical that, slight differences in actors aside, I suspect you would be having a photocopy experience.

Vikram (Sen / Rao), the lead character of HIT (which stands for Homicide Investigation Team), is the investigator you have seen in a thousand modern detective shows. He ticks the columns of being (a) a brilliant but morose anti-social chap with (b) past trauma that gives him nightmares / hallucinations and (c) is is tasked with a case that has personal ramifications and threatens to burst his bubble of sanity. Vikram is so pathologically obsessed with the job he refuses to give it up even when his therapist warns him that his 'vitals' are failing, but the moment he takes a sabbatical on the insistence of his forensic scientist girlfriend Neha (Ruhani Sharma / Sanya Malhotra), she goes missing. Her disappearance seems linked with that of a young girl Preethi, who vanished one day after her car broke down on the highway. To find Neha, Vikram plunges headlong into cracking Preeti's case (for some reason, even though Neha disappears directly after digging up forensic evidence on Preeti's abduction, no one else thinks of connecting the two matters). Meanwhile he repeatedly gets stress-triggering flashbacks of a past trauma in which he is unable to save a girl being killed. I won't spoil it for you, but the reveal of the mystery calls for some serious suspension of disbelief, and characters acting in a manner that far exceeds their motivations.

Even with the cliches and contrivances, HIT has its moments of interest. Vikram gets so caught up in tracking down Neha he doesn't care about risking the lives of suspects. His superior officer (Bhanuchander / Dalip Tahil) uses him like a gifted bloodhound and indulges his eccentricities (though a botched narc test crosses even his line). There is an intriguing sequence of events early in the film showing Preeti's encounter with a disheveled cop Ibrahim (Murali Sharma / Milind Gunaji) who offers to drop her after her vehicle breakdown, and when she goes missing makes some forays towards tracking her, but a chain of circumstances lead to his ignominious suspension and the overlooking of crucial evidence till Vikram picks up on him later. At least in the Telugu version, the writing is solid in this segment and Murali Sharma's under-playing is a joy to watch. I actually wish the film had been more about this guy because...

For me, the lead character was a cold fish. I think a good deal of this has to do with Vishwak Sen's acting so perhaps the Hindi version fares better. True, Vikram is supposed be psychologically fatigued, but there is zero emotional  register in Sen's performance. Even in the writing the relationship between Vikram and Neha is a vacuum. Given that he refuses to share his past trauma with her, and doesn't seem one for cheery small talk, one wonders what apart from their work draws them together. That seems a bigger mystery than the one tackled in the film.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Cabaret aka India Cabaret [dir. Mira Nair]

"No one at home knows that I dance", says Rekha, the main face of Mira Nair's 1985 documentary Cabaret. Rekha is a veteran strip club dancer. She had been once married, but walked away when the husband started to oppress her, even "rent" her out to friends. After her parents refused to take her back, she decided to make her own life and chose the striptease as her career. Outside the club, Rekha is indistinguishable from the typical Indian middle-class hausfrau, adorned demurely in a sari and the traditional bindi as she goes about her household chores or haggles with the vegetable vendor. But when in the crowded anteroom with her co-workers she dons pancake and mascara, and the suggestive outfit that will come off in the course of her performance, she becomes the night's wet dream for the roomful of men around her.

Cabaret has a special resonance for me. In the 80's when I was a kid, there was a restaurant-bar  called Meghraj a stone's throw from my place; many a weekend, we would head there for family dinners. The main restaurant, a well-lighted family-friendly place with (as I recall) teal and white interiors, was on the ground floor. But a set of stairs led to another floor, whence came the sound of music from behind closed doors. While I never had the opportunity to verify, it was known to be a strip bar. Sometime just before the 90's, the place shut down amid rumors of criminal activity. It was never redeveloped as anything else, suggesting that the property remains under a cloud. 

Nair's film enters the Meghraj dance bar when it was still a flourishing concern with a regular strip show. Swaying their hips to live Western music (and trendy Bollywood numbers), the fleshy, heavily made-up dancers slowly cast aside their clothing and shimmy among the clientele, encouraging them to buy more drinks. They walk the tightrope between exuding the come-hither attitude with their movements and expressions, yet keeping a sufficient barrier for their own safety from the not always happy-to-just-stare men. They receive propositions for private encounters that ask for more than dancing; on camera the proprietor declares that he plays no role in such affairs, whether they accept or not is up to the individual women.

Some of the customers are also interviewed: They acknowledge that they enjoy watching the women drop their clothes, and assert that those who protest the loudest are in secret the biggest patrons. One of them says, "Men want to do whatever their heart pleases, but they want their own family women to be Sati-Savitris [pious]" When asked what sort of woman he would prefer to marry, he responds with a grin, "Of course, a Sati-Savitri."

Nair also explores the daytime lives of the women. Some live together in cramped rooms and the neighbors can be unduly curious, even hostile. They are shown as homely people who want to just peacefully get along in society, and to make enough money to better their lives and of their families, many of whom are not aware of their profession. One of them argues that this line is better than being a secretary somewhere because a girl makes far less money in an office and gets groped even there. Some like Rekha are smart enough to buy property and invest their earnings while the going is good, because they know theirs is not a long-term career. Rekha is also interesting in terms of being an independent strong-minded woman that will marry only on her own terms, not out of gratitude to some savior. Towards the end of the docu, she agrees to marry a suitor she has kept hanging for years on end to test the loyalty of his affections.

The film also enters the home of one of the regular customers, a Gujarati businessman with an extended family. His wife with a wry smile deplores her husband's habit of staying long hours in the dance bars, while she must look after his family; he laughs her off patronizingly. Nair and editor Barry Alexander Brown (who later worked for Spike Lee) splice together an interesting mirroring between this 'respectable' housewife discussing her mentally imprisoned state and Rekha's more empowered stance.

The tone of Cabaret is inquisitive, but not sordid. In Rekha's amicable parting of ways with the profession, it ends with an admiring salute to the spirit of at least those women who have learned to survive the ups and downs of the profession and manage to retain control of their self-worth.

The complete documentary is up on Youtube (It is also included as a bonus feature on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD release of Monsoon Wedding and the BFI Blu-ray of Salaam Bombay!):

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Visa to Canton [dir. Michael Carreras]

"The name's Benton...Don Benton." That doesn't really have the same ring, does it? 

I was regarding Visa to Canton (US title Passport to China) as a charming low-rent James Bond knockoff from from Britain's Hammer Studios till I realized it was actually made two years before the first Bond film, Dr. No. Of course, Ian Fleming's famous superspy was already 8 books old in print, after his literary birth in 1953's Casino Royale. The debut novel in turn had an Americanized TV adaptation a year later, featuring a thuggish "Jimmy Bond" (Barry Nelson); incidentally, the suave hero of Visa to Canton (VtC) is an American. 

Our hero Benton (Richard Baseheart, prefiguring Roger Moore's portrayal of 007) is a WW2 flying hero turned travel agency hotshot based in Hong Kong. Of course this being a Hammer production, all principal photography was done at their Bray Studios in Berkshire, and the few glimpses of actual Hong Kong in the film are either second unit work or stock photography. Benton is the "can do" man whose assured manner and silver tongue smooth over all obstacles. Apparently, his PR skills are so good the CIA wants to recruit him for a secret mission involving a downed aircraft on the Chinese mainland. Benton turns them down, but changes his mind once he realizes that the mission involves the rescue of a relative, in fact the pilot grandson of his adopted Chinese family (yep, you read that).

In a Bond film, this infiltration would have been a significant early action set-piece. But Michael Carreras' talent for spectacle and Hammer's budget are modest. There are no difficulties for Benton's crew in the search, and the Chinese soldiers they encounter are so inept and lackadaisical, even in a slow-moving motorized canoe, they easily escape their pursuers.

But there's more in store. The rescued pilot (Burt Kwouk) stands accused of having helped in the capture of a CIA informant who was a passenger on the downed flight. Benton decides to go into China again and find the truth to save the honor of his Chinese family. In this adventure, he comes up against lovely Lola (Lisa Gastoni), the informant who carries in her head vital information about a super-weapon, and the Russian origin smiling viper Ivano Kang (Eric Pohlmann, channeling Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon).

These elements generate the most potent Bond-like atmosphere. Lola's sultry posing in Benton's hotel bedroom is an almost archetype Bond girl appearance. Kang's oily menace is echoed in many of Bond's supervillains and he has a notable Henchman in India-born Milton Reid (who later memorably tangled with Bond himself in The Spy Who Loved Me). Composer Edwin Astley's brassy score is a precursor to Monty Norman and John Barry's work on the Bond movies. This is not to say those films aped VtC; Fleming's novels already dictated their style. But Hammer's film did set a precedent for that spy adventure template on the screen. It even ends with a "possible next mission" coda (but not with a kiss). 

There are some now-cringy bits, like Caucasian actors done up as Chinese speaking pidgin English, but VtC is still more egalitarian than other "exotic East" movies (including Hammer's Terror of the Tongs, which had been constructed around the same time and using the same production material to share costs). At least the film does not uniformly paint Asians as slit-eyed evildoers. Benton is a grateful part of the Chinese family that sheltered him in difficult times and sees them on equal terms. The thrills are modest but the film has a likable smoothness. If VtC had more spectacle, more vim, more chutzpah, it could have made a bigger impact on audiences, perhaps even offset the dominance of Bond as cinema's premier globe trotting spy.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Mumbai Police [dir. Roshan Andrews]

2013's Mumbai Police has, up to a point, a decent mystery plot about a cop who lapses into amnesia in an accident just moments after informing a colleague that he has cracked a murder case. Now without those memories, he has to re-solve the case.

Antony 'Tony' Moses - played by Malayalam cinema's action hero Prithviraj Sukumaran - is the cop. At the beginning of the film, we see him tell someone on the phone "I've got the culprit". Moments later, a falling refrigerator from a van ahead forces him to veer and his car overturns. When Tony awakes, he has no recollection of who he is. Only his senior officer and friend Farhan (Rahman), who was on the other end of that call, is dealing with him. Farhan informs Tony that he was on the trail of the killer of their mutual friend Aryan Jacob (Jayasurya), a cop shot dead on the very stage he received a gallantry award.

Armed with only what information Farhan can share with him and his own instincts, Tony must start again at square one. In a script contrivance, Farhan asks Tony to conceal his amnesia from everyone, including their own colleagues in the force. This leads to some awkward moments for our protagonist. Also, it would seem that there are people bent on thwarting Tony's investigation, even if it means killing him.

Prithviraj is not the most versatile actor, but fits a certain badass hero / arrogant anti-hero niche. In this lead part, he gets a little more depth than the typical masala movie he is known for. A series of flashbacks makes us privy to the events prior to the amnesia loss, and we get an interesting contrast in Tony's nature before and after the accident, almost a different person in several aspects. The bulk of the film is a police procedural in which Privithraj follows up various threads - and associated red herrings - before the solution dawns upon him.

Without spoilers, the resolution of the mystery is where the film completely threw my suspension of disbelief. It makes a mockery of how amnesia affects a person's basic identity and is executed with zero sensitivity, making me want to clout the writers (credited as Bobby and Sanjay) and director that came up with this rubbish. It also relies on an offensively contrived series of circumstances that undo the - rah-rah moments notwithstanding - layered build-up of the investigation that had been depicted till that moment. Put simply, it's a lame and disappointing conclusion that leaves a bad aftertaste after a promising beginning.