Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Release date:
November 20, 2015
Abhinav Shiv Tiwari, Anu Menon, Nalan Kumarasamy, Hemant Gaba, Pratim D. Gupta, Q, Raja Sen, Rajshree Ojha, Sandeep Mohan, Sudhish Kamath, Suparn Verma

Rajat Kapoor, Anshuman Jha, Huma Qureshi, Radhika Apte, Swara Bhaskar, Aditi Chengappa, Usha Uthup, Bidita Bag, Gabriella Schmidt, Neha Mahajan, Parno Mitra, Pia Bajpai, Pooja Ruparel, Richa Shukla, Rii
Hindi, English, Tamil, Bengali


Have you ever been bored and angry with a film at the same time? It’s an awkward mix of feelings because one robs you of the energy to express the other.

Boredom dies down once the film in question is over though. The anger I felt against X: Past Is Present, however, is still very much there.

Remember that spoiler mentioned at the start? It is in the next paragraph.

X made me furious because beyond that lethargic pace and pretentious storytelling style (barring two segments), this is a film that takes sexual violence lightly. To use rape as the suspense element and nothing more in a purportedly thought-provoking film is no better than cracking a rape joke in a stupid comedy. Actually, the former is worse, because when you position yourself as something to be taken seriously, you had bloody well not trivialise such a grave issue.

The problem is not that this film uses sexual assault as the big revelation behind why a character behaves the way he does throughout the story. The problem is that the assault has no role other than being that big revelation, a rabbit pulled out of a hat by a too-clever-by-half team of filmmakers and writers in what appears to be an effort to elicit awe and admiration from us for them rather than shock, disgust, revulsion against the act and empathy for the victim.

The lack of compassion is not in the scene of the attack itself, but in the run-up to it. The build-up is so filled with an effort to impress us with technique, that by the time the depiction of the violence rolled around, I was left cold by it because I did not care for the character.

This is a pity because on its own, this part of the film – directed by Nalan Kumarasamy who earlier made the acclaimed Tamil film Soodhu Kavvum – could have yielded so much. Placed within X though, it seems like a post-script written on second thoughts.

That said, the film has emerged from a concept that clearly had potential. X has been put together by 11 directors. It is not an anthology. Each director has handled a different segment in the same story. On paper, that sounds intriguing. Now that I’ve watched the film though, I can tell you that except for Nalan and Q (who earlier made Gandu), the rest are similar in their storytelling style here, including the ones who have been vastly stylistically different in their previous work.

For instance, if the credits had not told me so, I would not have guessed that Anu Menon and Rajshree Ojha were among the group of 11. Anu earlier made the sweetly romantic London Paris New York starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Ali Zafar. Rajshree made the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Aisha, a breezy retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. In X, their approach to their segments is indistinguishable from the rest, complete with shadowy spaces and pointless camerawork. What purpose then was achieved by assembling so many directors for one project?

Incidentally, X is the story of a director called K (Rajat Kapoor) who we first meet at a film fest party where he bumps into a much younger woman (Aditi Chengappa) with evidently amorous intentions towards him. Soon they discover that K might have been involved with her mother. As they chat, K is disturbed by visions of the many lovers he has had over the years, through a series of flashbacks to 10 ladies either with Rajat or with Anshuman Jha playing a younger K.

Except for Nalan’s segment, in the rest of the flashbacks we barely see K. What we’re given instead are his voice or over-the-shoulder and other partial shots of him while the women are in focus. Perhaps the point being made is that in those moments of his life, he was not the central character, they were.

This cinematographic choice makes little sense though, since K seems to be focused on himself for the most part. It particularly works only in Q’s segment where a frenzied, alcohol/drug-ridden K discusses writer’s block with his housemaid. 

Since the camerawork does not match the script, it is distracting and comes across as being pompous. It’s as if the filmmakers were keener on style than substance.

Then in a village in Tamil Nadu the camera gives us a complete view of Anshuman when K meets a sexually adventurous local woman (Swara Bhaskar). This segment is like visual sunshine compared to the rest of X, but it should not have been part of this film because the subject it deals with is too crucial to have been given a mere passing mention. This is Nalan’s story.

In terms of acting, Swara, Rii (as K’s household help) and Radhika Apte (K’s feisty wife Rija) are the only ones who somewhat make a mark. The rest, including the otherwise dependable Huma Qureshi, are either done in by the stilted writing or consumed by the film’s pretentions to being something it is not.  

Among other things, X should spark off discussions about film reviewing since four of the project’s directors are or were film critics. Critics are influencers in ways that even big commercial producers do occasionally acknowledge. This translates into clout. If at some point in your career as a critic you realise your true calling is filmmaking, is it ethical to continue reviewing films by people you may simultaneously be approaching with your script/s?

Irrespective of the precise route taken by the gentlemen critics involved in X, this is a debate we must have. Because their career move gives fuel to film industry folk who assume that reviewing is usually a stop-gap arrangement for aspiring filmmakers; and allege that film critics misuse their power.

As for another point made by some filmmakers, that making a film is the ultimate test for a critic, I humbly submit that that’s a silly contention. A critic is a consumer of cinema and a creator of literature on cinema, not a creator of cinema. The two jobs require different skills that a single individual need not possess. If I write about problems I experience on a flight, would the airline be justified in telling me to shut up unless I am capable of running an airline myself? Filmmakers often try to discredit film critics by claiming that those who do not make films are not qualified to comment on them. Don’t fall for that line.

These are matters worth discussing whether or not you have seen this film. Before that let’s wrap up this review: X emerges from an interesting experimental concept that comes to naught.

Rating (out of five): *

Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/XTheFilm/

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Release date:
November 20, 2015
Sam Mendes

Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Naomie Harris

Is this the life you always wanted? Always in the shadows? Always looking behind you? These questions are gently tossed at James Bond by Dr Madeleine Swann during a brief conversation on a train in the latest Bond film Spectre.

“I never stop to think about it,” he replies.

“What will happen if you do?”

“Stop?” he asks.

“Yes,” she replies.

James does not know the answer.

It’s a quietly ruminative exchange that should have set the tone for a quietly ruminative new-age Bond flick, as hormonally charged as the series has been in the past, yet thoughtful too as it has been in recent years. The old Bond elements are all also on offer in this scene: he is sexy, she is gorgeous, the music is effective and they are travelling through stunning locations.

Unfortunately, although Spectre ticks off many of the boxes on the list of Bond essentials, the writing does little to lift it beyond being an enjoyable yet generic franchise film: not bad while it lasts, but the memory does not last much after the end, quite like James’ numerous love affairs.

Spectre starts with an unauthorised shooting in Mexico City involving James. He is making out with a beautiful woman when he takes off to fire at a man in the shadows in a hotel room. There follows an explosion, a collapsed building, a spot of wry humour in the middle of a high-adrenaline stunt sequence, a chase involving a helicopter and a stadium full of people. All this set to pulsating music. When the world’s most famous British secret agent gets back to the MI-6 office in London, he is suspended, but goes ahead with what is up his sleeve anyway.

This is vintage Bond fare so far, everything that fans have come to expect, including a haunting opening song in Sam Smith’s voice (lovely yet not great like the Academy Award-winning title track sung by Adele for Skyfall in 2012). What could have made Spectre special is a deeper exploration of the issue of surveillance that it brings up in the context of terror attacks – particularly relevant as we debate government intrusiveness in our own lives – and the unnerving personal bond James shares with the pivotal bad guy of the story. Regrettably though, director Sam Mendes and the writing team don’t dig deep into any of the plot elements, using them primarily to stitch together a bunch of fabulously shot even if not remarkably original action scenes. A pity since Sam earlier helmed the excellent Skyfall.

“You are a kite dancing around in a hurricane, Mr Bond,” says a character to James at one point. This line somehow seems apt for Spectre too, as the film struggles to strike a balance between the old-school Bond and the new.

Casino Royale knew precisely what it wanted to be, as it upped the IQ level and lowered the MCP-ism of the series without cutting down on its testosterone. In the pre-Casino Royale era, I wouldn’t have bothered to point out the silliness of a scene in which an aeroplane, smashed from all sides, races down a road but does not burst into flames because, well you know, our hero is piloting it. I wouldn’t have bothered to notice that James attacks a convoy of vehicles to rescue an abducted woman, without considering that she too could have been killed in his attack. I would not have bothered to ask why he did not tell a woman that she had no reason to be scared as he jumped down a building with her in his arms since he was aware there was a massive net below. I would not have asked, because those earlier films were unapologetic about their audacious stupidity. In the more intelligent post-Casino phase though, these questions do arise.

Spectre also sinfully wastes its talented cast. Ralph Fiennes is one of Britain’s finest actors and such a worthy successor to Dame Judi Dench as James’ boss M, but he is barely around in the story. And the amazing Monica Bellucci’s appearance as a grieving widow in Rome pushes Halle Berry down to the No. 2 spot on the roster of talented and acclaimed star actresses who have played much-hyped, impactless, inconsequential characters in Bond films.

Why did one of Europe’s most respected actresses accept this bit part? Why, after making such a big deal about the fact that at 50 she’s the oldest woman ever to be a female Bond appendage, did the producers squander away her presence? These are questions to ponder for those of us labouring under the mistaken notion that gender discrimination in cinema is limited to India.

To make matters worse, India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) seems to have shaved her role down further with a very abrupt chop right at the start of a love-making scene.

Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds and Blue Is The Warmest Colour is more fortunate as Madeleine Swann (read: she fares better at the hands of the filmmaker, though the CBFC does not spare her either). Bond is a traditionally macho franchise – under the circumstances, hers is a substantial role. That being said, her chemistry with Daniel Craig’s James is limited.

Daniel himself chooses to play his character with the same expression on his face throughout. We get that he is hot and capable of a lot, but that knowledge cannot compensate for his low-energy performance in this film despite the alluring, trademark intense stare.

Spectre does have two stars though: Christoph Waltz as the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, earlier known as Franz Oberhauser; and the music. Christoph sinks his teeth into the film’s best written part with lip-smacking, salivating delight to deliver a deliciously cheeky, unrepentantly evil character. And Thomas Newman’s background score beats at our skulls like a persistent drummer, contributing as much to the adrenaline rush from the action scenes as the action itself.

Also interesting is the young British actor Ben Whishaw playing MI-6’s gadget-producing wizard Q. These elements combined with the film’s delectable locations, lavish cinematography, fisticuffs and chases are what makes Spectre worth a single viewing.  

But no more than that. At one point, the film makes an unexpected bow to an old Hollywood classic when Madeleine and James visit a Café L’Americain in Tangier. The place is as pretty as that other famous Moroccan city, Casablanca, where Rick’s Café Americain was located. Individually and in other films, Lea and Daniel have been wonderful. They ain’t no Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart though, at least not yet, and Spectre is unworthy of tying the shoelaces of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.  
Still, I enjoyed the deathly surface calm that pervades Spectre even in its most charged-up scenes. What the film needed was richer writing. Without that, even Christoph Waltz and a fantastic background score can’t make it stand out.

Rating (out of five): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
147 minutes
PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language)
Release date in US:
November 6