Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Shiva ka Insaaf aka The Justice of Shiva [dir. Raj N. Sippy]

Released in cinemas in 1985, Shiva ka Insaaf was touted as the first Hindi 3D movie (since the previous year's Chota Chetan - which remains for most Indians in that era the defining 3D experience - was only dubbed into Hindi from the original Malayalam My Dear Kuttichathan). While I never actually saw it in 3D at the cinemas, I did see it on VHS in that period.

Shiva ka Insaaf is a comic book type movie, with leading man Jackie Shroff playing a masked vigilante hero called Shiva and his Clark Kent inspired mild-mannered alter ego Bhola; of course, in 80's Bollywood, mild-mannered translates to near-retarded (Bhola shows the intellect of a 10-year old schoolboy, yet is immediately hired as a personal assistant to a newspaper editor). The obvious inspirations for Shiva are Batman (After the hero's parents get murdered by a criminal, he trains for a life dedicated to crime-fighting) and Superman (mild-mannered employee at a newspaper).

The script is all about broad strokes - locations are defined as "gaon" (village) and "shahar" (city). Shiva is brought up by a Hindu-Muslim-Christian triumvirate (while he is shown to visit all the religious shrines, the Hindu component appears dominant, given the avatar he dons and the batarang style mini-tridents he hurls at his enemies). Heroine Poonam Dhillon plays an editor that goes by herself to cover stories, which usually involves sneaking into a shady location, then getting caught and having to be rescued by Shiva. The evil mastermind villain (Shakti Kapoor) runs a poorly defined crime empire, and gets his jollies setting off bombs using a TV remote.

For the action scenes, 3D means there's a good bit of pointing guns, swords and sticks towards the screen, and in the climax Shakti Kapoor and his son (Gulshan Grover) inexplicably start firing flaming arrows at the hero. There is some hilarious use of toy cars, dolls/puppets and very obvious miniatures. Apart from one decent romance number, RD Burman's score is wholly forgettable. But for nostalgics of 80's action masala, Shiva ka Insaaf is not a bad way of spending 2 hours.

Full movie with English subtitles below:

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Memories of Underdevelopment [Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea]

I'm not generally interested in political films for their politics alone. I appreciate when they are part of another genre (like with the thriller overtones in  John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate or contain a more personal viewpoint like with Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mukhamukham aka Face to Face). I was primarily interested in Memories of Underdevelopment (MoD) because the stated premise "A Cuban man cycles through his repressed opinions and memories as the threat of foreign invasion intensifies and the rest of his family retreats to Miami" suggested an individual perspective, one that possibly gives an insight into what was happening with the common man in Cuba in the volatile period between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My expectation wasn't directly addressed because the protagonist of MoD, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is far from the average  Cuban. He is an intellectual and a man of comfortable means. When the film begins, Sergio sees off his parents and wife at the airport where they are fleeing towards the United States. Our man has decided to stay back in Havana, because he feels that while he knows his future in the US, it is a time of unknown fate in Cuba and therefore more interesting to him.

The rest of the film sees Sergio carry on his existence (he gets a comfortable living off the rent from his family properties and does not have to earn a living, which puts him at a massive distance from the average citizen). We are privy to his monologues in which he often makes radical criticisms of the post-revolution scenario (He refers to Havana a cardboard cutout city). Middle-aged Sergio is also a hedonist who lives by his fancies. He fantasizes about sleeping with his Catholic housemaid, and has multiple trysts with much younger women.

Sergio's behavior with women appears caddish, even cruel. He pokes fun at his neurotic wife before she leaves him for America. He prefers to break off an entanglement with another woman he claims to truly love, because it would involve moving to the US, and he prefers to stay back with the family business. His most prominent affair in the film is with Elena (Daisy Granados), a 17-year old ingenue he shamelessly pursues, and after she gives herself up, tires of her lack of sophistication and dumps her (The film might be hinting at seeing this as a reflection of the treatment of the Cuban people post-revolution).

All of Sergio's decisions appear to stem from a self-centered comfort zone, his interest in people's movements in politics or literature only the hobby of a dilettante. I personally felt his decision to remain in Cuba comes from a feeling of knowing his position there, unlike the US where he will be a nobody that has to take employment and work his way up the system. While not a villain, Sergio is hard to sympathize with, even when we see the screws being slowly tightened around his like.

Apparently Corriera, who was committed to the cause of the Cuban revolution, hated the character of Sergio. That said, he portrays him brilliantly, carrying the casual charm and self-deprecation of a Marcello Mastroanni. Strong credit is also due Granados, who very convincingly passes for the not-yet adult Elena when she was actually 25 at the time, only 3 years younger than Corriera.

MoD's strongest point is in its brilliant execution, which is never less than worthy of admiration. Inspired by the French New Wave, director Tomás Gutiérrez aka Titón and editor Nelson Rodríguez deftly present a mixture of narrative and archival / documentary footage, often building up a scene as a collage of contrasting images. There are even some clever fourth wall addressing in-jokes with appearances by the director and the writer (Edmundo Desnoes) in wholly appropriate contexts. While I did feel removed from its protagonist, MoD is still recommended for an imaginatively conceived and skillfully executed construction that stands with the best of its ilk.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Virus [dir. Abu Aashiq]

2019's Virus is a movie about the epidemic outbreak of Nipah virus in 2018 that was successfully tackled by the health and administration authorities in Kerala. While it is not identical to the Covid-19 we are facing now, it shares some notable characteristics and is important from the POV of depicting what an administration is made to do in such a crisis situation.

The ominous electronic music at the start of the film signals an impending disaster, which is not long in coming. The Kozhikode Govt Medical College Hospital sees a couple of patients who are suffering from fever and vomiting, and within a short period have massive blood pressure spikes and convulsions, and die. When the possibility of a contagious disease is hinted, the patient samples are sent to the Manipal Institute of Virology where the infection is confirmed to be of Nipah virus, a deadly pathogen with a high mortality (~90% of all infected), previously known to have created havoc in countries like Malaysia and Bangladesh.

The administration meets with health authorities and acts quickly, ordering a wide quarantine. But as more cases come in from different places, it becomes crucial to track the source of the virus and its mode of transmission between these seemingly unrelated people - unless a natural mode of transmission to each of the patients is conclusively established, they will also have to consider the possibility of a biological warfare plot. Thus along with the medical angle, Virus is also a serial killer mystery, only the killer is a germ.

To tackle this tangle of threads, Virus adopts a back-and-forth narrative. Many a time during the course of the emergency, the story winds back to the circumstances under which each of the infected (or the people around them) could have been exposed to the pathogen, thus revealing the links of the chain that connects them. This makes following the story occasionally tricky (if you can't recall all the faces you've seen), but it is essential to encompass the sprawling multi-directional cascade of events.

The cast is a Who's Who of modern sensible Malayalam cinema - Revathi, Tovino Thomas, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Kunchako Boban, Srinath Bhasi, Indrajith Sukumaran, Reema Kallingal, Shoubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan and many others - some of them have big roles while others are in only a few scenes, but each commits to their part. Of course in a non-melodramatic thriller like this, it can mainly be a matter of looking grim and speaking in undertones, but they do what is required without drawing attention to their individual selves, which is laudatory for an ensemble production.

While the editing is in itself tight, some monotony is generated in all the back-and-forth. But this is reflective of the actual situation of the management of an epidemic outbreak; as someone rightly said, it is how well we can manage the gap between "being afraid and "growing tired of being afraid". As an engaging film in itself and as a reminder to all of us, the enormity of the challenge faced daily by the people forming our first line of defense against an insidious, tenacious enemy, Virus is a must-watch.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Ayyappanum Koshiyum [dir. Sachy]

If you've grown up watching mainstream Indian cinema, it's hard to escape the Revenge Drama (RD), a saga in which two or more participants are at constant loggerheads with each other. There are two main categories of RD's:
1. One of the characters is the protagonist, and the other is the villain. Here the conflict is an inevitable consequence of their innate natures and ends in violent comeuppance for the bad guy (after serious losses on the  hero's side).
2. Both are protagonists and their animosity is based on misunderstandings often engineered by a third party villain. Typically these are resolved just before the climax where they team up to lay the beatdown on the baddie.

Writer-director Sachy's Ayyappanum-Koshiyum (AK) is a bit of both. What it also is, through minute attention to detail and a beautifully constructed screenplay that organically builds upon moments instead of just appearing as an episodic series of encounters, is a canny reworking of all the cliches that accompany the archetype RD, giving us characters we feel invested in, sparring in a bout whose each round generates curiosity for the next one.

Round One begins when a vehicle driving through a forest road is stopped by a joint operation task force consisting of police, forest and excise officials. In a declared alcohol-free zone, the vehicle carrying a supply of liquor bottles and a heavily drunk passenger is a travesty, and when said passenger becomes violent, tempers flare on all sides. The situation quickly escalates to an arrest during which the passenger is slapped by the local police Station House Officer (both literally on the spot, and legally at the station). Thus we are introduced to our two opponents, the drunk Koshy (Prithviraj Sukumaran) and the SHO Ayyappan (Biju Menon).

In Round Two, the tables start to turn. One of the station officers, while going through Koshy's phone, realizes that he has big-shot connections. Ayappan is instructed by his superior to make his prisoner comfortable and considerately explain the seriousness of his offense. In one of the few openly contrived bits, Ayappan opens a bottle of the seized liquor to pour a drink for Koshy, surreptitiously captured by the latter on his phone. After serving out his short jail term, a vengeful Koshy supplies the video to the media as an example of the officer's misappropriation, setting fire to an otherwise unblemished career record and igniting an all-out conflagration of enemity between the two.

The rest of the film is a series of encounters between these men (and, in consequence, the people around them). What is interesting about AK is the focus it gives to the supporting cast and the milieu around its leading men. Ayyappan is popular in the town for his sympathy towards the oppressed caste locals and tribals, and they openly make their displeasure known to the mustache-as-status-twirling Koshy. Ayappan's tribal wife is no trembling violet constantly fearing for her family, but a firebrand activist that pushes him to go after his oppressor even at personal risk. On the other side, while Koshy is egoistic and short-tempered, he has his moments of clarity in which he realizes the stakes, and would rather be home with his family. But any attempt to backtrack is stymied by his domineering father, a retired gangster-politician who sees the avenging of his son's insult by Ayappan's destruction as a litmus test of Koshy's manhood. Toxic masculinity, anyone?

Every revenge movie thrives on the suspense generated by the moves and counter-moves of the antagonists. Sachy's script for AK excels in how it takes each such sequence to its limit, teasing out new facets that carry the tension to just short of breaking point. Once the battle begins there are no diversions and nothing is perfunctory. Salim-Javed in their prime would have been proud of turning out such work. Wisely, he keeps the direction low-key, the stylistic flourishes restricted primarily to a ritual costumed dance drama at the beginning and the all-out duel at the end. Propped up by an excellent support cast, Biju Menon and Prithviraj Sukumaran throw themselves into their parts with such gusto as to easily surmount any niggling inconsistencies in the characterization; whenever they face each other the screen is set ablaze. AK is a triumphant example of how even a standard genre can with intelligence and genuine love be transformed into a ferocious new experience.