Sunday, June 26, 2016


What Viewers Want

A slow but steady trickle of low-budget, high-quality independent films is finding a space in mainstream theatres across India against all odds – and making money

By Anna MM Vetticad

In the midst of the hype surrounding big-budget Hindi ventures such as Airlift, Fan and Housefull 3, you may not have noticed that little Nil Battey Sannata just completed a nine-week run in some cities. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s directorial debut starring Swara Bhaskar, Pankaj Tripathi and Ratna Pathak Shah survived this long despite virtually no marketing. This story about a housemaid who is determined to give her daughter an education and ambition, triumphed almost entirely on the strength of rave reviews from professional critics and positive word of mouth from the audience since its release on April 22.

Several worlds away from the Agra setting of Nil Battey Sannata is the village where Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat unfolds. A Marathi film on love across caste barriers in rural Maharashtra, it was made, reportedly, on a budget of Rs 4 crore, released all India on April 29, is still going strong in theatres and with over Rs 80 crore already in its kitty from domestic turnstiles according to press reports, is among the year’s highest earning Indian films so far.

As Sairat forges ahead, the Kannada film Thithi – directed by debutant Raam Reddy – has completed seven weeks in Karnataka theatres and has been wending its way across the country. Thithi released in its home state in early May, and hit major urban centres in the rest of India on June 3 armed with strong social-media endorsements from non-Kannada film stalwarts such as Aamir Khan and Anurag Kashyap.

The availability of halls for these films and their box-office fortunes spell happy news for independent and/or small filmmakers. Clearly, a sufficiently significant pan-India viewership is interested in languages other than their own mother tongues and in the experimental winds blowing through the indie circuit across states.

Take Thithi, for instance. Who would have thought that a chronicle of the 11 days following an impoverished, senile villager’s death could result in a whimsical, tragi-comic, sensitively handled social satire? Yet, that is what Reddy’s film turns out to be, as it follows the old man’s family in the run-up to the expensive post-cremation ceremony they are compelled to perform despite the dire economic straits they are in.

This is not the kind of film that invites raucous laughter of the sort evoked by British filmmaker Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral. Such a comedic tone would in all likelihood have been out of place considering the circumstances of the Kannada film’s protagonists. It makes sense then that Thithi is a quieter, slower film. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it does not fall into the lazy trap of romanticising poverty to evoke sympathy or being condescending towards rural India and caricaturing its inhabitants to tickle the funny bone. The other allure of the gently amusing narrative comes from the cast of non-professional actors who look and perform as if they have walked out of their real-life stories and on to the screen to simply be who they are.

Come to think of it, that is precisely what they have done. Reddy has told the press he cast his three leads – real-life residents of the Karnataka village Nodekoppalu in which the story is set – before he co-wrote the story with his colleague Eregowda who happens to belong to the place; that they observed the trio and life in Nodekoppalu prior to devising the script.

The result of his desire to dip into the real world is a smorgasbord of delightful actors – all from Nodekoppalu – and acutely observed characters. The starting block of this bitter-sweet tale is the cranky Century Gowda (played by Singrigowda), who dies at the age of 101. His uncaring, unworldly offspring Gadappa (Channegowda) wanders aimlessly around the village, showering affection on no one and nothing but his brandy and beedis. Gadappa’s financially desperate son Thamanna (Thammegowda S) wants the family property transferred in his name. The fourth generation in the picture is Thamanna’s horny son Abhi (Abhishek SN) lusting after a pretty and strong-willed shepherdess.

Despite its rootedness in Nodekoppalu, Thithi is blessed with a universality that has won hearts across the world through its seemingly simple yet complex plot and unexpected sense of humour. Last year Thithi won awards at the Locarno International Film Festival, Mumbai, Marrakech and Palm Springs. It scooped up awards in India and abroad this year too, topping it off with the National Award for 2015’s Best Kannada Film.

None of this should in any way suggest that the trials of small-budget independent cinematic ventures in India are over. Far from it. Most still struggle to make the journey from the film festival circuit to a theatrical release. Those that manage to come to theatres have a tough time getting good time slots in prime venues. Big corporates that sometimes pick them up for distribution barely promote them. And barring some individuals, the supposedly ‘national’ mainstream news media based in Delhi and Mumbai – read: the English language media headquartered in these cities – are notoriously indifferent to all Indian cinemas other than Hindi, which serves as a double whammy for non-Hindi indies.

The simultaneous success of the likes of Sairat, Thithi and Nil Battey Sannata this year is a pointed reminder to the media, distributors and theatre owners that they have completely underestimated audience interest in small and/or indie films across languages. Moral of the story: never assume – without checking – what readers and viewers (do not) want.

 (This article was first published in The Hindu Businessline on June 25, 2016)

Original link:

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: The Diary of a Frustrated Indian Film Buff

Related article by Anna M.M. Vetticad:

Interview with Pankaj Tripathi: “Modi is the traditional Hindustani hero, Kejriwal is the common man”

Photo captions: Stills/posters from (1) Thithi (2) Sairat (3) Nil Battey Sannata

Photographs courtesy:

Friday, June 24, 2016


Release date:
June 24, 2016
Anurag Kashyap

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal, Sobhita Dhulipala, Amruta Subhash, Ashok Lokhande, Saksham Sudhija, Mukesh Chhabra, Vipin Sharma, Anuschka Sawhney

In one of the most telling scenes in writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, a man assaults his girlfriend in the presence of two policemen. The cops have been assigned as her personal security guards, to protect her from a notorious serial killer, yet they watch wordlessly when her own boyfriend roughs her up.

It is a powerful cinematic moment in a nation that has socially (and in some instances, legally) divided violence against women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. Gangrape by slum dwellers: unacceptable. Marital rape: acceptable. Domestic abuse: acceptable. Stalking by a senior politician with the help of state machinery: acceptable. Digital rape of a subordinate by a senior editor in a five-star hotel lift: acceptable (even by Kashyap’s own yardstick, in a sense, as evidenced by one of his troubling quotes in the media). Rape of an intoxicated woman who fell off to sleep in the back seat of a cab after a late-night party: acceptable. Rape of a hard-partying drug addict who went home with a stranger at a club: acceptable.

There are many such moments in Raman Raghav 2.0, a film that purportedly tells the story of two maniacal individuals but is in fact a distressing portrait of society’s attitudes and responses to violence. This is not, as viewers would be expecting, a biopic of the notorious Mumbai serial killer Raman Raghav who was caught after a string of murders in the 1960s. This is the story of two deeply disturbed brutes, one a poor man called Ramanna, the other a policeman called Raghavendra Singh Ubbi, set in the present decade – hence the “2.0” in the title.

Each is kinky in his own way, yet one has a veneer of sophistication that helps him to move around in glamorous circles while the other is obviously crude but blends unnoticed into the streets. As the film progresses, we see how they are no different from each other and how – much as snooty wealthy folk would be repulsed by this mirror – one completes the other.

Many of Kashyap’s films so far have been about the pointlessness of violence and the manner in which our actions inevitably catch up with us. But what about the ones who get away? What about people who do not kill with communal, sexual or other motivations, but for the pleasure of it. Is every member of a rioting mob genuinely committed to the religious group they are supposedly fighting for, or truly angry about the harassment of a woman in their community by someone from the other, or paid to be there? What about those who join in for the heck of it?

Murder for the sake of murder. Murder sometimes committed in the moment. Murder committed to make way for another murder. Raman Raghav 2.0 is not, therefore, about pointlessness, but about the mindlessness in so much of the bloodshed around us.

Kashyap’s latest film may appear to resort to certain devices popular in the genre: the ominous sound of a metal pipe being dragged over a hard surface, for instance. Yet none of them is used in a clichéd, predictable fashion.

Interestingly too, though both protagonists are ferocious creatures, the portrayal of violence here is not in your face, gratuitous or exploitative. Aided in no small part by Jay Oza’s discreet camera and Aarti Bajaj’s seamless editing, we know that blood is routinely drawn and skulls are routinely cracked in this film, yet at no point do we actually see it happening. In fact, only once in the film do we get a shot of a murder victim’s face after the murder. In that scene alone is a prone body shown in its entirety post a crime.

The pacey narrative – with an eight-chapter structure – is unrelenting. Though the dialogues are smashingly effective, they do not rely on filmic melodrama or earthiness (the most charming part of Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2) for their appeal. They are hard-hitting because of the situations and settings in which they are set.

Holding it all in place along with Kashyap’s unswerving directorial intentions is one of the best casts put together for a Hindi film in recent times. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s brilliance is now a given. Still, considering the number of gangster and crime flicks in his short filmography, it is amazing that he has managed to reach into himself to serve us something and someone so completely different from Faisal Khan of the Wasseypur films and Liak from Badlapur. His Ramanna is eerie, scary, disgusting and yet almost elicits laughs for the matter-of-fact manner in which he goes about his bloody business.

As chalk is to cheese, so young Vicky Kaushal’s all-Punjabi, all-Mumbaikar, well-heeled, gruesome cop here is to his turn as an impoverished, emotionally vulnerable low-caste boy from Varanasi in 2015’s Masaan. Two superbly written characters, two superb performances.

The leads are all the more striking because they do not get the benefit of repeated extreme close-ups or a repeated focus on their eyes and faces in much of this film. Kaushal, in fact, wears dark glasses almost throughout and many of Siddiqui’s shenanigans are captured in long shots.

With these two in full flow and the story revolving entirely around them, you would think it would be impossible for any other character to make a mark. It is a measure of Vasan Bala and Kashyap’s excellent writing and the wonderful cast that there are others who are memorable too.

Amruta Subhash as Ramanna’s sister is in top form. It would be Hindi cinema’s good fortune if it manages to tap more into this consistently lovely Marathi actress who, among other roles, was so moving as the young, widowed mother and struggling professional in Avinash Arun’s Killa.

In a film peopled with impressive talents – including little Saksham Sudhija’s beautiful, speaking eyes – Sobhita Dhulipala as Raghavendra’s girlfriend Simmy Naidu and Anuschka Sawhney as Ankita, a sexy guest at a party, merit a mention.

Raman Raghav 2.0 does not slip up tonally at any point. From Sona Mohapatra’s velvety voice at a nightclub early in the film to that remarkable overhead shot of Mumbai city’s beautiful ugliness in the twilight, from the impeccable sound design (crucial, since this is a film in which gore is heard but rarely seen) to Ram Sampath’s background score and songs that have been quietly woven into the narrative, it is all a perfect fit.

Anurag Kashyap has been a highly acclaimed writer and director for 13 years now, but I confess I have had issues with quite a few of his films, not just the widely thrashed Bombay Velvet but some that have been showered with reviewer and fan affection. Although he has been a producer of some gems over the years, several of his own directorial ventures have felt stylistically imitative of known international auteurs, rather than being rooted in his own personality and reality. As a result, most have not matched up to the sheer genius of his debut film Paanch (which remains unreleased due to a Censor ban followed by problems with the producer), Black Friday and a darling short called Pramod Bhai 23 that appeared in the omnibus volume Mumbai Cutting. With Raman Raghav 2.0, we once again get to hear and see the son of the soil at work.

Mein tujhe kuchh bhi kar sakta hoon aur mujhe kuchh nahin hoga (I can do anything to you and nothing will happen to me), a murderer tells a potential victim at one point in the film. This is not just one man talking because he has the confidence that the system will close ranks to protect him, this is the system, the government and the elite talking.

Raman Raghav 2.0 is layered, gripping from the word go, unnerving and, in a twisted way, hugely entertaining. It is also a stinging commentary on the times we live in.

He is back, people. Anurag Kashyap is back.

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
140 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy: Phantom Films