27 July 2014

MISS LOVELY (Dir. Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012, India) - Tales of Desperation [Spoilers ahead]

Defying categorisation certainly testifies to the originality of director Ashim Ahluwalia’s latest feature Miss Lovely. Most of the reviews to the film particularly the ones from America and Europe find it difficult to position the film within the context of Indian cinema (past or present) and inevitably fall into the trap of unfairly comparing the film to Boogie Nights. This smacks of a eurocentric attitude when it comes to reviewing Indian films especially from Bollywood. Slant reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. argues ‘the women of Miss Lovely certainly deserve better’ but this is a point that goes unfounded (the review is challenged by a comment left by an eloquently enraged fan of the film) if one compares the female representations to mainstream Hindi cinema and even Indian independent films. This point levied at gender politics seems particularly unfair if one goes about comparing the representation of women in Indian films to those in Hollywood since differing cultural, institutional and political contexts are in operation. Besides, by using Boogie Nights as a point of excellence when discussing cinematic representations of the porn industry is flawed in that Anderson’s female characters are not entirely absolved of the male gaze. Respectively, the misreading of a film can usually be detected in the way a reviewer relinquishes original interpretation for an unhealthy postmodern dependency on filmic intertexts as this not only gives the reviewer more to write about but also situates the film within populist signifiers that we can all identify with. 

Miss Lovely has to be situated in the context of an ongoing and significant new wave of Indian ‘indie’ films that continue to challenge in radically iconoclastic forms the politics of gender, class and power. If Miss Lovely had been made ten years ago one could have easily dismissed the film as a singular anomaly. However, to say this kind of daring cinema would never have got funding ten years ago rings false as one of the main supporters of Miss Lovely is NFDC, a key player in parallel cinema, which has continually financed edgy, esoteric cinema. On the surface Ahluwalia’s film is about two brothers working in the illegal world of C grade porn/horror cinema. However, Ahluwalia uses this narrative trope of brothers in conflict (the mother figure is absent who typically acts as mediator) as a means of filtering the melodrama through a self reflexive study of his own gaze as a director and the film industry as a whole. Last year, Kaushik Ganguly’s Shabdo, delved into the life of a foley artist with an atmospheric brilliance, offering a telling insight into the often overlooked department of sound and its contribution to cinema. Similarly, Miss Lovely succeeds in building an evocative atmosphere of sleaze and desperation through a quasi documentary aesthetic sensibility. At the same time, Ahluwalia remaps the Mumbai filmic terrain, filming in new spaces in the way Parinda and Satya did so to not only reconfigure the cinematic geography of Mumbai but also construct the city as an urban prison, thereby invoking noir like allusions. 

Sonu’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) dream of raising money to make a ‘real’ film titled eponymously ‘Miss Lovely’ could just easily be construed as an allegory for the filmmaking business itself. Both Sonu and his older brother Vicky (Anil George) find themselves at the mercy of vindictive financiers who are seen to use the industry as basis for exploiting the girls entering the business. Whereas the first half sees Ahluwalia interested in the sordid machinations of the industry, the second half, is more ideologically pronounced detailing the Indian government’s inability to reconcile with the C grade sex industry. Here questions concerning censorship, exploitation and violence are raised directly in a pre-internet age of the 1980s. Having seen Nazia Hassan credited at the start I was anticipating how exactly Ahluwalia would use her music and which song. Unsurprisingly, he savours this musical opportunity for the final moments of the film, which are also the most audacious and cinematic. The end shot sees Sonu, covered in blood from having killed his brother for betraying him, enter a studio filming a sequence with Pinky, a new star. Pinky is an actress who has eluded Sonu throughout the film, refusing to have anything to do with his line of business. Nonetheless, this final moment reverses everything. Not only is Pinky now a sex star of the C grade film world but the confidence with which she performs for the camera to the music of Nazia Hassan’s ‘Dum Dum Dee Dee’ makes for the ultimate spectacle of desperation. What has driven Sonu to this point in the film stems from his brother’s betrayal whom he discovers coerced Pinky into the sex industry, the girl of his dreams and film. As Sonu looks on he realises that although Pinky is now part of a world from which she can never return, her performance for the camera is characterised by an honesty, the desire for fame. In this fleeting moment, a strained half smile appears on Sonu’s face as a sign of acknowledgment of a shared desperation at the need to be someone else in a world of hypocrisy. 

What makes Miss Lovely such a remarkable work in the context of contemporary Indian cinema is that it lifts the lid on a hidden world, breaking many taboos. Most importantly, it presents a counter hegemonic view of the Indian film industry, shining a light on the impossible dreams and desires of the good, the bad and the ugly who populate such a bygone world.

23 June 2014

KING OF NEW YORK (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 1990, US) - Socialist Gangsterism

The pale, anaemic skin tone of Walken’s Frank White bleeds through the chiaroscuro urban nightscapes of New York. We first see Frank, a capitalist vampire, in prison which acts as his tomb, and in exile from a kingdom from which he has become disconnected. Frank’s return to a city which he calls home is undermined by a sensibility brought on by institutionalisation, suggesting he is no longer part of the living. ‘Back from the dead’ he remarks to his friends. This is one of the many lies Frank is beholden to, perpetuating an illusion of insanity that terrifies those around him. The gangster figure draped in black, a conventional iconographic idiom clashes with the jaunt paleness of Frank’s face, projecting a vampirish image that becomes immortalised in a sordid milieu of hypocritical middle class parasites. Frank’s world is populated by an individualism typifying the American crime film and its propensity to insidiously forge a twisted sympathy for the devil. Conflated with the image of dread is the fatalism of noir, mapping out a trajectory of doom that is debilitating for Frank. Although in the words of Warshow, Frank is a man of the city, he also drifts through spaces and places leaving a ghostly residue, positing an asynchronous attitude that he masks with a terrifying pathos. Frank White may in fact be the only socialist gangster in the American crime film yet this is strictly not a crime film, it is Ferrara’s uniquely capitalist vampire fable. If the vampire is immortal then it is not surprising Frank envisions he will be remembered for a late socialist cause to save the local hospital from closing. The desire to be seen legitimately in the eyes of society is recognisably connected to the gangster’s image in the genre. King of New York is a signature film for Ferrara and the fusion of crime with horror produces a singularly unique genre film that is more vampire than gangster, perhaps finding an iconographic connection with films like The Addiction.

9 June 2014

MATRU KI BIJLEE KA MANDOLA (Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, 2013, India) - Drunken Imaginings

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM), labelled a ‘Bollywood political satire’, is a googly of a film traversing classical Hindi cinema (particularly agrarian pastoral films like Do Bigha Zamin) and the spirit of parallel cinema (a feudal revolt forms part of the narrative) with a postmodern satirical sensibility that squarely has neo-colonial capitalism as a target for critique and denunciation. Bhardwaj has in the past shown adeptness at integrating songs into his films so they become part of the thematic and narrative content but MKBKM is a film into two states of mind. It is both Bollywood and Indian art cinema, schizophrenically clawing at each other so it becomes a film about Bhardwaj the auteur trying desperately to explore very political themes in the guise of Bollywood cinema. Bhardwaj is arguably one of the more interesting filmmakers of his generation and MKBKM’s average commercial business clearly suggests the quirky and edgy marketing for the film was too smart for audiences. In many ways if one was to discount the songs and the love story then MKBKM could be classed as a film that harks back to parallel cinema. Some of the visible intertexts include the casting of Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi, iconographic markers of parallel cinema. Perhaps the most striking link is to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, an influential political satire and key film of parallel cinema which also features Pankaj Kapoor in the role of an exploitative housing contractor. In MKBKM Kapoor plays the role of an ambivalent zamindar seemingly in cahoots with the state minister to sell of land owned by peasants to make way for a shopping and apartment complex. In the past, the zamindar has been constructed monolithically as stereotypically despotic, remorseless and morally corrupt. Nonetheless, MKBKM might be a first for the zamindar as we see a buffoonish redemption that takes hold at the end, forging an alliance with the oppressed peasant farmers. This could be interpreted as ideological fantasy though which is as brilliantly audacious as the Gulabi Bhains (pink buffalo) that haunts the drunken imaginings of the zamindar. MKBKM shares much in common with Peepli Live but cleverly filters ideology through the prism of populist Hindi filmic tropes.