18 April 2014

BULLET RAJA (Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) - Homoerotic Encounters

Tigmanshu Dhulia is a man of many talents. Over the years Dhulia has written screenplays, acted in supporting roles and most prominently directed a number of genre films. With Bullet Raja, his latest film, he certainly is one of the few Hindi directors who has refused to play it safe, jumping from one genre to the next in quick succession. Although Bullet Raja was met with mixed reviews, I am still convinced of Dhulia’s talents since on the surface this action thriller feels connected to the ongoing love affair with neo masala cinema. If Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Shergill) in their tacky, colourful attire recall the imagery of the Tapori then this 1970s vibe is vividly brought to life with a contemporary, if somewhat, superficial exploration of the unsavoury relationship between politics and violence. Bullet Raja is a star vehicle for Saif Ali Khan but he is out performed by an underrated Shergill, Gulshan Grover and Raj Babbar to name a few. Dhulia clearly seems to have wanted to make a political thriller in a mainstream context but finds himself having to compromise with one too many action set pieces; narrative strands are seemingly introduced every so often while the song and dance sequences are nervously integrated into the story. 

The buddy film genre is often associated with Hollywood cinema but popular Hindi cinema has had its fair share of male bromances stretching back to the 1960s. Dhulia uses the buddy film conventions for some vagaries in terms of sexuality, queering the male friendship between Saif and Jimmy so that it becomes a film about homoerotic frissons. It is only with the entry of the female love interest Mitali (Sonaskshi Sinha) does the extent of Raja and Rudra's inseparable bond of love become more noticeable. What is implied in terms of homoeroticism is later explicitly stated after Rudra's death. In a song that sees Raja serenade Sonakshi, his point of view is disrupted with shots of Rudra that not only challenges Raja's attempts at a heteronormative state but also visualises a struggle to repress homoerotic desires. Further still, Raja's need to reclaim his homoerotic identity is a reaction to the void left by Rudra's death, and he does in the final act when he befriends a hard body male police officer, establishing a new friendship. Another point of eroticism is the way Dhulia fetishises guns especially in the way Raja and Rudra seem connected by such phallic objects. Even more interesting is the transgender construction of Sumer Yadav (Ravi Kisan), a hitman who dresses as a woman so to evade capture from the police. Bullet Raja, as a film about sexuality, male identity and eroticism reiterates the ways in which Dhulia uses genre as a vehicle to subvert mainstream frameworks while exploring more complex ideologies, in this case gender politics. Critics were quick to dismiss the insignificance of Bullet Raja but even as a genre piece it is still a respectable and enjoyable mainstream film.

BIFF 2014 #4: ZERO NO SHOTEN / ZERO FOCUS (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1961, Japan)

The close up on director YoshitarĂ´ Nomura deserves high praise indeed. Japanese scholar Alexander Jacoby offered an informed intro to the work of Nomura, positioning him as a director who had his fair share of box office hits while carving out specific genre interests in film noir, thrillers and melodrama. In the words of Jacoby, Zero Focus is very typical of Nomura as a director as it depicts characters in transit, noir idioms and social issues of the time. What struck me immediately was Nomura’s use of the widescreen space, composing bold shots, organising characters in the landscapes, and choosing to frame from an aesthetic and thematic sensibility. The melodrama emerges from the perspective of the wife who goes on a journey to find her missing husband but this becomes a perfunctory plot device, allowing Nomura to use genre as a vehicle to explore gender issues especially feminine sensibilities. An underlying quality of directors who worked in the confines of a studio system, be it in America or Japan, was their capacity to master the art of narrative economy, something that seems to have gone amiss in today’s contemporary cinema. Unfortunately I never got round to seeing any of the other Nomura films playing at the festival but Roy Stafford's coverage makes for essential reading. 

30 March 2014

BIFF 2014 #3: MANHUNTER (Michael Mann, 1986, US)

Manhunter was Mann’s third feature and followed the critical and commercial failure of The Keep. Given Mann’s current status as a director of considerable pre-eminence, Manhunter continues to grow in critical stature and could even be claimed as a cult film today. While all the typical Mann obsessions are evident, this is very much a film about ‘seeing’. Both Will Graham and Dollarhyde are parallel figures and seeing is refracted through video, photos and a voyeuristic gaze, but what they are trying to ‘see’ is invisible as it resides in a metaphysical void. Like many of Mann’s films, Manhunter visualises space and particularly architecture as an integral component of the mise-en-scene so that the metaphor of the double becomes projected into a postmodern space of anxiety. When released in 1986, Manhunter may have been ahead of its time. It is a work that cultivated an influential neo noir visual style through the use of blue filters, ambient new age music and crime idioms, all of which act as authorial signifiers. The idea of seeing and the refusal to starts almost in the first scene on the beach. Crawford places a photo of a family upside down on a piece of driftwood they are both sitting on. At first, Graham refuses to see in fear of his family but he is compelled to do so by the secret pleasures he finds in seeing, watching and gazing. As a genre piece, Manhunter is a superior neo noir thriller but it transcends such attempts to pin it down through an intellectualism in terms of form, style and ideology. Perhaps certain elements of the new age soundtrack fail to click today, reminding us of Manhunter’s 1980s context. It is hard to comprehend but Manhunter was the last film Mann directed in the 1980s, taking a hiatus (six long years to be exact) that would see him return to feature filmmaking in the early 1990s with The Last of the Mohicans (1992). I do feel it is time that Mann’s much maligned The Keep (1983) be resurrected and restored to its original three hour cut envisioned by the director. Only then can a reassessment be undertaken to fairly situate Mann’s cinema in the 1980s. I should mention the stellar cast, another Mann authorial intuition; William Petersen, Kim Griest, Dennis Farina, Brian Cox, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan are all perfectly cast and deliver terrific work. Finally, the ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot the film, marking the first of many collaborations with Mann.