The Devil is in the Details

I watched a film and read a book this weekend, both of which raised the same question in my mind. Yes, I know of the widespread tendency to dismiss such questions in the contexts of cinema or literature of these particular genres: I mean, when you are watching an unabashedly commercial Bollywood film or reading an Agatha Christie novel, a suspension of concerns about feminism or patriarchy is automatically asked for. But even after reminding myself of this disclaimer (“This content is not to be taken seriously”), I could not help being bothered.

Because those who think that there are contexts where these questions don’t matter may be making a dangerous mistake. Certain questions always matter. And even if there are a very few exceptions, a mainstream film or a popular novel is most certainly not among them.

I’ll begin with Dame Christie. A successful, independent, good-looking and intelligent woman is finally about to marry the worthy (reserved, chivalrous and so on) guy she has loved for a long time. The guy, suddenly not sounding very worthy any more, says, “…and you’re going to give up that damned dress-making business of yours.”

I wait before I curse him. Let’s hear how she’ll take it.

“You realise that that damned dress-making business is my venture, that I have built it up myself with hard work and made it into a success, don’t you” she says.

(That’s right, girl. You drive some sense into this misguided man.)

“And you have the nerve to say that I must give it up?”

“Yes, I do. You’ll give it all up and come and live in the country with me.”

“Oh, X, but that is what I have always dreamt of! Of course I will!”

You’re kidding me, right?

I mean, it’s not even incompatible—running the successful business and having a happy family life. And no, even at that time and that place it was not incompatible. It would not even have been difficult.

What I don’t understand is, why would Christie, who not only equalled men when it came to success, but outshone many, many of them, would write about this as perfectly normal. Or was she being supremely ironic and I missed her point? I rather hope so.

And now, the Bolly fare. Of course, if I sat down to list the instances of misogyny in Bollywood, I’ll be writing for a long long time to come. This, however, should serve as a good enough and random enough example.

I won’t name the film. It was funny, fast-paced, incredibly absurd and quite enjoyable on the whole. But how these came to be included—thought of, written, shot, directed, acted, edited, included in the final cut, passed by the censor board and then no doubt enjoyed by a fair number of people who do not share my concerns—baffles me.

  1. The two heroes have gone to meet a girl. She comes up slo-mo from a pool, clad in a deliciously tiny bikini. Regular enough. While one of the men talks to her, the other ogles at her chest. Till she raises her eyebrows. This is supposed to be funny.
  2. The heroine appears. She is a thief because she is bored and lonely, don’t you know. Our tougher hero insults her at every word and even handles her roughly. So of course she falls in love with him. And spends the rest of the film drooling at his rudeness. Wow.
  3. Our heroes are chasing an assistant villain and turn up at an underground den of sorts, where the most famous/notorious/popular (I forget how it was advertised) game of the city is held: a beautiful girl dances in front of a basement full of roaring men. After her performance, the toughest arm-wrestle to decide who gets to take her. At this point, you should be calling the human rights-wallahs already, except that if you do, you are taking this too seriously. For it’s all just mildly exciting. And our heroine, the same one who loves it when the hero snaps at her, has followed him here and starts gyrating in a micro-mini dress. Of course he will arm-wrestle-rescue her at the end. So why not have a bit of fun meanwhile with about a hundred would-be (or actual) rapists? Go, Bollywood.
  4. While our heroes were entering this dump, they met with a disturbing sight. It even made them, busy and preoccupied as they were, shocked and serious for all of a moment. Inside a chamber with a glass wall were trapped two women, clad in harem-like costumes, standing/sitting in calf-high water. One of the women seemed to be unconscious (or resigned to her fate). The other pleaded with folded hands to our heroes to save her.

Did they? They did, right? After beating the villain and rescuing the heroine and singing the song and dancing the dance, they did rescue these women, right?

So wrong.

The poor, beautiful, scantily-clad women about to be tortured were just details in the set-up. Adding colour, you know.

Not very funny, this. And really, really, not OK.

 

 

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Batman vs Superman: Dawn of a new series?

batman

 

Batman’s got the best lines, but Superman’s still got the best hair product.

Having been a film buff all my life and appreciative in general of the movie-watching experience, I can assuredly put down the 10 am show of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice on Good Friday 2016 as one of the most enjoyable in recent times. Yes, it’s a blockbuster franchise and yes, it’s a three-day weekend, yes also that competition is practically zero at the box-office right now. That does not always ensure, however, that in any given show out of the few daily dozen, it will be a full house. Well, it was, to the beginning of my pleasant surprise. Full of teenagers, comic-addicts, so-called nerds and even a kid chaperoned by his big brother, who sat behind me and behaved himself very well, except to push my seat every now and then, which I forgave him.

The film, you ask? Lots of violence, punches, explosions, pretensions of finality… I mean, you watch a fight and you think this must be it; it can’t get tougher, but there are many more to follow. Just as the trailer may have sounded as if the face-off between Batman and Superman would be the ultimate, but no prizes for guessing it is just the ‘dawn’: worse guys are coming, so let’s bring together the good ones – like the Avengers are doing.

I was sceptical about Ben Affleck; Christian Bale has been rather awesome, I think. Even during this movie, I kept thinking of the valet complimenting him on his car when he arrives at a party and his cool reply: “You should see my other car.” But then, after Gone Girl, I knew Ben Affleck is not an actor I should feel hopeless about. With glimpses of grey in his hair (the best hair product was going to the other, remember?), and a wooden scepticism pasted on his face, only to give way to a ‘You’re making me really angry now’ frown, I think he has done quite a decent job.

And he has really got the best lines. On my second watch of Dark Knight Rises, in the brilliant climax where Bruce Wayne nods to Alfred and they exchange a smile such as none other, someone from the audience shouted, “Awesome!” and I mentally seconded it. I am very amused, if not pleased, by such spontaneous exclamations and ovations from a rapt audience. During this show, there were quite a few of them. “Tell me, do you bleed?” “I’m a friend of your son.” “I’d rather do the breaking in person.” The ageing sceptic’s got them.

He has also got a hood, which Superman doesn’t. Yet hardly a hair out of place no matter the scale of the mayhem. Is it a Kryptonian thing?

Then there are the other lines. No, not just the dubious grammar, like “on my world” or “unkillable”. I mean the oh-so-typical ********isms. Shit all over the place. Make a show of cleaning it. Claim to save the world. Question your own heroes. Repeat. Someone said, “The American conscience is dead.” Is that supposed to be ironic, I wonder.

Talking of *s, I see that ‘damn’s are also censored nowadays, though letter by letter, so that one may be sure that *** ** * ***** must be ‘son of a _____’. Seemed to me a bit like the statutory warnings against smoking in a scene where weapons of mass destruction are also being hurled. ‘Cause, you know, smoking kills and cussing’s bad, but tremendous violence – that’s harmless entertainment.

Two more things. I did not foresee saying this before watching the movie, but in places, it can be a pro-feminist’s joy. Too bad superheroines still have a really low budget for costume so that their dresses have to be super-skimpy, but man is it good to see a woman kick arse! After Ilsa Faust saving Ethan Hunt and even Ms Chopra doing her humbler bit as the honest cop in the unfortunately forgettable Jai Gangaajal, it was a very very good surprise to see a woman save Batman and Superman’s skin.

“Is she with you?”

“I thought she was with you.”

She is not with any of the men, you see? She’s on her own.

The ending’s reminiscent of Inception. Although, here you can go ahead and make a really good guess at the answer. Still, so good was the timing of the cut that I stopped on my way to the exit to see if there are any further surprises in store once the credit roll is over. Apparently, the rest of the audience was also struck by the same thought, or at least half of them were, and they made the other half wait as well, so that for the first time in quite some time, almost the whole house watched the end credits for a good few minutes, just to see if there’s a postscript.

Is there?

I won’t spoil that surprise.

 

No claim to image copyright.

Secret Music

labour-of-love

A Bengali film that has won awards at international film festivals? Pseudo-intellectual alert! Right? Wrong. Yes, Labour of Love has a Bengali title (Asha Jaoar Majhe); yes, it is based in Calcutta; yes, the actors are Bengali; and yes, it uses a few old Bengali songs in the background. Even then, can you really classify a film into any one language when it has no dialogues?
And as for the pseudo-intellectualism, no, you’d be hard pressed to find any of it in this strange and beautiful film. The premise: In a city where recession and unemployment has reached alarming levels, a woman and a man – a wife and a husband – spend a typical day with clockwork precision. Their work hours are such that they get only a few minutes in a day to spend with each other – to even be in the same place.
As usual, instead of a structured review, I want to write about the things that struck me.
1. The story kept reminding me of ‘The Gift of the Magi’. Young couple? Check. Straightened means? Check. Working for each other? Check. In love? Check. Oh. And. It reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu.
2. The complete lack of self-pity or sentimentalism shown by either of the characters.
3. This, for some reason, seemed very wonderful to me: there are a couple of scenes where the husband takes a shower and washes clothes. But when the wife comes home, the camera does not follow the lady into the bathroom. Yes, this is a big deal! How many directors, I wonder, could have resisted showing at least one shot of the woman taking a shower, even if they restricted the skin show to her bare shoulders or back? Well done for steering so clear of voyeurism. It was quite gentlemanly, I thought.
4. They have one mobile phone in the house (the back is missing), and they use it as an alarm clock. Fine. The first time, when the husband woke up to it, I wondered vaguely why the tone sounded like a ringtone rather than an alarm tone. The next time, when it woke up the wife, we see that the husband was calling her from his workplace so that the ring would wake her up. Now I get it. In that case, she must have been calling him from her office for the same purpose. And to think they never pick up that wake-up call, not even to say ‘Yes, I’m up’, but simply ‘reject’ it. And they do it with a matter-of-factness that almost hides how sweet and warm the simple habit is.
5. Look at the smiles when they finally get to see each other. She has showered and eaten and is performing her little puja before leaving for work. He has just come home from his work. He enters the room, she turns around, and they smile at each other. Not politely, because the gladness is genuine. Not too eagerly, for, after all, this happens every day. But how simple and how real the smiles. And of course, the moment they are in the same room, the place becomes a place of dreams – inside a wood in a misty dawn (see image). Oh, it may be predictable or sentimental, that trope, but I loved it. And the great moment of their romance is sitting on the bed (Thank you, for once again showing wonderful restraint and sensibility. Couples need not jump into the bed.) beside each other. And then she has to go, and they perform one tiny, ridiculously simple act of intimacy: he fastens her brooch for her. End of togetherness, back to the daily clockwork grind.
6. The use of music. Wow. The shehnai, the songs, especially Tumi Je Amar.
7. The cats. There are two of them.
8. Standard reviews will tell you that the sound and the cinematography are also remarkable.
9. I was wondering which one is true: A.that this is such a film which does not really require actors and could have been pulled off by non(professional)-actors as well, and so it is difficult to judge the acting, or B.that the acting was so superior that it never felt like acting? Of course, the actor has always been very good, and the actress, who is comparatively new, caught my fancy. Turns out, even in the TV serial where she works, she looks dignifiedly pretty and non-affected. Please stay that way!

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Not a Review

Spoiler alert: certain interesting turns in the film will be mentioned in the following lines. Also, do not read if you didn’t know that the Avengers will ultimately triumph over the bad guy(s).

This version of Avengers was fun, although, as Hawk-Eye says somewhere, they have lost the element of surprise somewhat. But this is not a review, no. Just a few things that struck me.

1. America saves mankind. Again. ‘Nuff said.

2. Hawk-Eye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has a secret, and a nice one. He has a “safehouse” tucked away in a countryside where live his pregnant wife and two children. Whoa. By the time the film ends, the third child has been born, and is very cute. This, in fact, was an element of surprise, especially for me, who assumed that if there was a part 2, then Clint and Natasha would pair up in it. But no, apparently, Natasha and Bruce are the ones who are struggling with their feelings for each other; Clint and Nat are just best friends. Alright. But a wife and children? Wonder how many people saw that coming. The other Avengers didn’t. And many of their surprise was mixed with envious awe. Clint had clearly got the best of the better world. Which brings me to my observation: no matter how far into the space you venture or how many sons of Odin you fight, a cosy home, a pretty and understanding wife, and cute little children remain the ultimate Desirables. Interesting.

3. There is a new bad-turned-good guy on the scene. In the long climax, he mocks Barton at one moment and dies saving his life a few minutes later. When Barton realises that he took the bullets for him, this new one’s signature line is also his last words: You didn’t see that coming?
I confess I was moved. Truth be told, all the points I have written about here are cliches, none so more than an initially non-cooperative figure finally proving his worth by sacrificing his life for those whom he began by criticising. But it worked on me. And it got me thinking anew about this strange thing called heroism.
People die all the time. And if it’s war, then it is surprising if they don’t. What is it, then, that is so incredibly moving, so heart-rending, so miraculous about yet another death? Well, he died for someone else! Why would he? How could he? How does one do that? And it is not always a question of dying for a friend, a loved one. It is apparently just a matter of valuing another life more than one’s own.

I enjoyed the witty dialogues, I wonder how long it will be before Bruce emerges again and Clint has to leave his home for another far-fetched adventure. Is Pepper out of the picture for good? I am also interested in what role the new Avengers will be playing in the next part(s), which I have no doubt are in the pipeline. But for some time to come, I am going to ponder mostly on this cliche, this miracle: a million acts of cruelty or baseness shriek for attention, but they pale and fade beside this one act of unfathomable nobility. What is this thing called heroism?

Sleeping with a Stranger

gonegirl

Gone Girl

Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing in the morning of their fifth marriage anniversary. There’s an apparent crime scene in the drawing room, which, on closer inspection, seems to be a tad too neat. And then there are clues left behind by the victim… Treasure hunts used to be Amy’s favourite game, but this time, can they lead to her?

Close to interval, we get to know what really happened to Amy, and the film could have ended there. That the revelation does not make the second half at all superfluous is definitely credit to the storyteller(s). In fact, far from feeling a drag, as the film draws towards its end, the sensation of there being an activated time bomb somewhere on the premises grows stronger. The characters, instead of getting rid of the metaphorical bomb, have, for twisted reasons of their own, decided to keep it at home and are sitting on it, and who knows when will the thing go off and create a mess and of what proportions?

A word on the actors. Ben Affleck underplays Nick very effectively and makes him out to be a credible character. Neil Patrick Harris, in a much smaller but important role, makes a good effort, but the biggest thing holding him back must be the years of playing Barney Stinson. Someone somewhere must have been expecting him to throw off his intensity and exclaim, “Wait for it!”

And then there is the lovely, terrifying Rosamund Pike. It won’t be going too far to say that she owns the film. Her performance is the kind that kindles debates about whether it was the character which was more scarily fascinating or the actress, finally realising that it was both – each doing justice to the other.

But apart from being a gripping psychological thriller that you’ll need some time to get over, Gone Girl is a powerful statement about at least two important contemporary issues, and no, none of them is the fatal risks involved with getting married. One is the disgusting and ever increasing shallowness of media, the insatiable hunger for viewership that will not hesitate to hint at incestuous possibilities between a pair of twins for want of a new angle at any given moment.

And even more important than that is the question of self-image. Few people can be sure, at the end of the film, about how much they really understood of the two main characters, how much of their narratives were lies and how much truth, and even fewer will understand correctly. For in our anxiety to build and sustain a certain image, we are too often perfectly willing to lie not only to the world, not only to our near and dear ones, but also to ourselves. Gone Girl is (or at least, should be) a warning about becoming blind to the difference between what we really are and what we’d rather be, in a drive to become someone or something else – say, for instance, a perfect couple.

When you watch the film, it will not simply be Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike playing two parts, but Nick and Amy Dunne playing different parts as well. How do you decide which is the real them and which images are as carefully constructed as the Amazing Amy created by Amy’s mother based on her daughter – the one who’s always “one step ahead” of the real Amy? Social media demands that we put on a pretty face 24×365. That’s how a stranger, come to offer you condolences about your missing wife, can offer you a casserole and pose and ask you to smile and click a photo and share it with the world all in a few seconds, before you can think cheese and the next thing you know, you are that insensitive son of a whatnot who can’t stop grinning beside a hot chick even when your poor wife’s missing. What the heck am I talking about? If you watch the film, you may have some idea. Or you may become even more confused. But it’s not such a bad idea to think.

(Image borrowed from the internet: no copyright infringement intended.)