Saturday, March 9, 2019


Release date:
March 8, 2019
Sujoy Ghosh

Taapsee Pannu, Amitabh Bachchan, Tony Luke Kocherry, Amrita Singh, Tanvir Ghani, Manav Kaul

Two people are found by the police in a hotel room in the European countryside. One of them, a photographer called Arjun Joseph (Tony Luke Kocherry, credited here as Tony Luke), is lying dead, while the other, the renowned businessperson Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu) is injured. The woman claims that there was an unidentified third party within those four walls with them, although no one was seen leaving and all possible exits were in any case secured from inside.

Her guilt as a murderer is therefore assumed, but Ms Sethi will have none of that. She hires an expensive lawyer called Badal Gupta whose expertise in ‘preparing’ witnesses is legendary in legal circles since he has not lost a single case in a 40 year career. His mantra: “Kanoon wahi sach maanta hai jo saabith kiya ja sakta hai.” (The law believes to be the truth that which can be proved.) Badla begins with this tall, bearded man (Amitabh Bachchan) arriving for a meeting with Sethi to hear her account of events. The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks as she tells him what transpired between her and Joseph. 

Writer-director Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla (Revenge) is the Hindi remake of the Spanish crime thriller Contratiempo a.k.a. The Invisible Guest, written and directed by Oriol Paulo, and currently streaming on Netflix. The adapted screenplay – replete with references to the Mahabharat – has been attributed to Ghosh while Paulo has been duly acknowledged as the writer of the original story in the Hindi film’s credits.

Contratiempo and Badla belong to the sub-genre of thrillers where the viewer hears several versions of the truth narrated by various people, some who have credibility because they were present at the site and some who may not necessarily have been there. If you are listening and watching carefully enough, you may spot at least two gaping loopholes much before the big reveal. This is a fault of the written material by Paulo, not Ghosh’s direction or the acting. For instance, the story is pivoted on the extreme and uncharacteristic inefficiency of one of the individuals involved, and calls for considerable suspension of disbelief from anyone who notices this flaw.

Ghosh’s direction is, in fact, efficient as is Monisha R. Baldawa’s editing while they aim at having us guess who is to be believed and who not. Badla’s DoP is Avik Mukhopadhayay whose work on Shoojit Sircar’s October last year was sheer genius. Here he gives us elegant shots of Scotland’s natural beauty along with cleverly chosen frames featuring the various players in this psychological cat and mouse game between the storyteller and the audience.

The end result is a satisfying whodunit which, while certainly not brilliant, is suspenseful enough and occasionally eerie enough, especially when outdoors, to be entertaining while it lasts.

Pannu, like the film, is effective but not great. So is Bachchan.

The handsome model turned Malayalam film actor Tony Luke (Oozham, Sakhavu) makes his Hindi debut with Badla, and delivers the most impressive performance of the lead trio. As is expected in such films, with each retelling of the goings-on between Sethi and Joseph their characters change, sometimes marginally, sometimes dramatically. This good-looking young star lends subtlety even to the dramatic transformation in Joseph in one of the versions. I also love the fact that he does not camouflage his Malayalam accent when he speaks Hindi here – an interesting choice by the actor and his director. 

Amrita Singh has a crucial role in the film. Playing a distraught mother, she gives her character a convincing emotional graph as demanded by the screenplay without once devolving into Bollywood’s stereotypical over-wrought Maaaaaa.

Sujoy Ghosh is a leading light among thriller makers in Bollywood. His Kahaani (2012) starring Vidya Balan set new standards for the industry in this area. The pressure to live up to expectations raised by that film did show in the writing of the climax for Kahaani 2 (2016), but he reminded us of his unmistakable talent for mystery with director Ribhu Dasgupta’s unfortunately underrated Te3n (2016) starring Balan, Bachchan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, which he produced. Maybe some day he will replicate the brilliance of Kahaani, but today what he has given us is Badla: if you are not in too demanding a mood, this is an enjoyable film.

Rating (out of five stars): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
120 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy:

Friday, March 1, 2019


Release date:
March 1, 2019
Abhishek Chaubey

Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Manoj Bajpayee, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana, Sampa Mandal, V.K. Sharma, Khushiya

“You haven’t got it?” one woman tells another, castes “are all meant to categorise men. Women are a different caste altogether, below all of them.”

In a film filled with more movement than conversations, words are used sparingly, but when they come they are on point. Women too are present in limited numbers, but the ones we encounter are prime movers in the battles being chronicled here. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya is a lyrical account of a gang of dacoits wandering the Chambal ravines, some of them anxious for a way out. 

Dreary, poetic and desperately sad, it is about unwritten codes of honour among society’s outliers,  about the cruelty of caste and patriarchy, and about the endlessness of violence once unleashed. “Dacoits too can be good,” says a character more than once. But this is not an effort to romanticise the outlaws in the frame so much as to highlight the self-defeating nature of social inequity in a world where men think patriarchy benefits them though it can pull them down mercilessly too. 

Deaths are the bookends between which unfolds this tale of a band of male dacoits led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) in Madhya Pradesh of the 1970s. Just once does one of these men refer to them as daaku. Otherwise, in their vocabulary they are baaghis (rebels) on the run. As they are hunted unrelentingly by the police, it becomes clear that at least some of them are trying much harder to escape their own demons than the long arm of the law.

We know nothing about their background beyond the fact that they are Thakurs, and that Man Singh and his younger associate Lakhan/Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) are haunted by a sorrow that they seem unable to and unwilling to shrug off. Elsewhere in these arid lands, we hear that (the now legendary) Phoolan Devi (called Phuliya in the film and played by Sampa Mandal) is thirsting for the blood of Thakurs – but not all of them. Lakhna, it is clear, is fighting a fight he no longer believes in or takes pride in. Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey), for his part, does not trust Lakhna. Rounding off the primary players is the policeman Virender Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) whose determination to clean up the Chambal seems to be as personal as it is professional.

Sonchiriya, which is written by Chaubey and Sudip Sharma, rarely misses a step. Like Chaubey’s three previous directorial ventures – Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab – it is rooted in the soil from which it emerges. This rootedness is reflected in every element of the film, from the dialect the characters speak (accompanied by subtitles which will hopefully give it the pan-India audience it deserves) to their clothing and concerns. This film has more depth than the more widely promoted, far flashier Udta Punjab though. And like the two Ishqiyas, it is uncompromising and unapologetic about what it has to say.

His direction of Sonchiriya is steeped in conviction. Except for perhaps three brief scenes in which the momentum is intentionally slowed down to needlessly heighten the melodrama – when a group of men realise that they have killed the wrong person/s, while a mother is telling her son his truth, and in the end between Lakhna and the titular character – not a single moment of this narrative feels out of place or unnecessary.

Chaubey’s canvas is enriched by production designer Rita Ghosh, fresh from her superb work on Nandita Das’ Manto last year, and by DoP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s ability to turn dust bowls into visual gold. Dhawan does not give us pretty frames here. His unsparing cinematography does nothing to lighten the impact of the harsh landscapes these characters traverse on their way to what seems like nowhere. Even the river is not prettified although it does provide some relief to the eyes. The audience is shown a lot of the violence that occurs, but not in a lascivious fashion.

The most bloody murder of the story, however, takes place off camera as one human being vents a long-burning rage against another, and sound designer Kunal Sharma, while not resorting to sensationalism, ensures that we know exactly what is going on without seeing any of it.

The ensemble cast is brimming with talent.

Bhumi Pednekar is flawless as the beleaguered woman who intrudes on the gang’s existence. With just four feature films under her belt (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and now this one), Pednekar has already emerged as one of the most versatile young actors on the Hindi film horizon.

All the grime and misery on the planet cannot camouflage Sushant Singh Rajput’s handsomeness, yet the actor ensures that what stands out is his character’s bruised and broken spirit. There are a couple of seconds here and there when Manoj Bajpayee’s facial expressions come across as exaggerated, but for the most part he is as fabulous as Man Singh as he usually is.

Commercial Hindi filmdom is either indifferent to, ignorant about or afraid of caste as a subject, as we were reminded most recently by the shameful manner in which it remade the Marathi film Sairat as Dhadak. The industry is also largely a patriarchal space, usually telling stories of men or portraying women through a restricted male gaze. Abhishek Chaubey’s new film, on the other hand, is a commentary on how, while oppressive systems crush the marginalised, the cycles of violence unleashed by dominant communities end up sweeping away everyone including the oppressors and in particular the few who wish to surrender their inherited privilege. Sonchiriya is unafraid, it is aware and it cares.

Rating (out of five stars): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
146 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy:

Monday, February 25, 2019


Sexy Durga Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Unmadiyude Maranam Is Wacky Irreverence In Search Of A Platform

“Thank God”

Vande Mataram

In another place, at another time, say in a Hindi film starring Manoj Kumar, these words might have been taken at their face value. In India of 2018, in maverick Malayalam director, certified rebel and avowed atheist Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s latest film though, in a socio-political scenario where religion and nationalism are being aggressively stuffed down the throats of the citizenry, I find myself laughing as they appear on screen right at the start.

“Thank God”

Vande Mataram

Both expressions are flashed – separately, in succession – on a black, otherwise blank sheet as a preface to Sasidharan’s so-far-unreleased Unmadiyude Maranam (Death of Insane). Coming as they do from an iconoclast, these seemingly innocuous words take on a whole new meaning that serves as an indicator of the irreverence to follow. Context, after all, is everything.

Unmadiyude Maranam is set in a dystopian world where dreams dreamt without permission are declared illegal and anti-national, and an Emergency-like situation leads to under-the-counter sales of these forbidden visions. It is not a conventional feature film – it has barely any dialogues, instead a monologue in Mollywood star Murali Gopy’s voice is juxtaposed against a montage of seemingly unconnected visuals including scenes played out by actors, shots of idyllic landscapes and archaeological sites, and actual archival news footage.

The videos sourced from news channels include the nationwide anti-rape protests that followed the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the Kiss Of Love campaign in Kerala, sloganeering in favour of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, coverage of Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, and Sasidharan’s own high-profile battle with the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa a year back when his Sexy Durga was dropped from the programme – along with the Marathi film Nude – despite being picked for a screening by the festival’s selection committee.

Sasidharan describes Unmadiyude Maranam as a very personal reaction to his traumatic experience with Sexy Durga, as a result of which he “was undergoing a kind of depression”, a feeling “that there is no way out”. This explains the ruminative tone of Gopy’s narration. The text is purportedly fictional, essay-like and heavily abstract when heard in isolation and interpreted literally, but when seen in the context of the visuals, it mirrors today’s India to an unnerving extent. The film’s clever impertinence lies in the fact that it does not name any political party or specific ideological group, so if anyone were to claim that it is a criticism of their particular party or ideology, their accusation would amount to an admission of guilt.

The choice of Murali Gopy is interesting, since he is perceived in some quarters as being pro-RSS/BJP. The fact that his late father, the legendary actor Bharat Gopy, joined BJP no doubt contributes to this assumption, as does the actor-writer’s gritty 2013 Malayalam film Left Right Left, which faced heat for exposing the rot in Kerala’s Communist party. Yet, as Khaleej Times’ Deepa Gauri puts it, with Left Right Left he “annoyed partisan left and right-wing parties in equal measure”. Besides, he was vocal and unequivocal in his support for Sexy Durga when the BJP government embarked on a witchhunt against the film. (Gopy’s recurrent good-man-as-victim-of-scheming-woman line, evidenced in Left Right Left and this year’s Kammara Sambhavam, requires a separate discussion.) Zeroing in on him as the voice of Unmadiyude Maranam may be Sasidharan’s resistance against the mindless slotting of all unbracketable individuals as compulsorily “Communist”, “Congressi” or “Sanghi” in the current public discourse if and when they are critical of one or the other of these ideological/political streams/organisations.

In short, Unmadiyude Maranam is fascinating, surreal, frightening, hilariously cheeky, deeply philosophical and political, and while it will most certainly be labelled artsy by those whose tastes don’t lie in the direction of experimental cinema, it is hard to pin down in terms of genre, content or even ideology. It is documentary-like but flirts with fantasy, it is fantasy that reflects reality only because our current reality is so bizarre that no writer of the past could have guessed that an imagined hell would ever become the truth we live in.

It is also, frankly, uncensorable. Although the news footage used in the film covers episodes spanning several years and states governed by various parties, the present BJP government at the Centre is likely to view Unmadiyude Maranam as being aimed at this establishment, if not in the same way that they have interpreted any exhortation to “vote for secularism” since 2014 to mean “vote against BJP” then because Sasidharan’s spirited defence of Sexy Durga (in contrast with the Nude team’s virtual silence at IFFI) embarrassed the sarkar. In that sense, there is no point in submitting Unmadiyude Maranam for Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) clearance.

Not that the film would stand a chance if another party were heading the Central Government. India’s prevailing Censor practices and continuum of social conservatism place curbs on CBFC officials across ideological divides, making it impossible, as of now, for even a liberal to okay a film such as this that repeatedly uses the naked human body (all sides displayed) both as a metaphor and in enacted scenes of harassment and assault. At the very least, massive cuts or pixellation would be demanded, which would amount to slaughtering the film on the outside chance that Sasidharan were to agree.

For his part, the director does not want to waste his time submitting Unmadiyude Maranam to the CBFC, having burnt his fingers severely with Sexy Durga. His point is not merely that he sees it as a purposeless exercise since the outcome is predictable. He admits that if Unmadiyude Maranam is rejected by the Board “there can be a huge news on that:  ‘Sanal’s fourth film also ended up in a Censor problem’,” which could translate into audience curiosity, but the lesson Sexy Durga taught him, he says, is that a controversy diverts attention from the substance of a film.

“In India at least people could not find the essence of Sexy Durga and remained stuck on the title,” is his lament. “People know the film and me only due to the controversy, and what I was trying to convey was not conveyed at all.” He recalls with regret that at parallel screenings of Sexy Durga, before and after its mainstream theatrical release, all viewers’ questions were related to the brouhaha over it, not the issues it deals with. Contrary to conventional wisdom in PR circles, Sasidharan feels “the controversy was actually killing the film.” This attitude reflects his desire for something beyond the spotlight and box-office returns, a desire to get to people “who I can ignite” to generate a conversation.

This is why he wants Unmadiyude Maranam to reach audiences “without any unwanted noises” so that they “just watch, understand and discuss it without any kind of burden or baggage”. 

How he can make that happen is the big concern now. Without a CBFC certificate, a theatrical release is ruled out. The filmmaker’s current predicament arises from knowing that Unmadiyude Maranam is unlikely to be showcased even on India’s festival circuit where at least one major fest has already rejected it.

As permitted by a provision of the Cinematograph Act 1952, the country’s Central governments have, over the years, by and large given festivals an exemption from CBFC clearance for films to be screened at these events. The present government’s I&B Ministry denied this exemption to Sexy Durga for Mumbai’s MAMI fest last year. Following the subsequent noisy imbroglio at IFFI 2017 over Sexy Durga (changed to S. Durga by then by a CBFC directive) and Nude, India’s festivals have become cautious –self censorship by organisers over general fears of greater government monitoring and mob violence combined specifically with their awareness of Sasidharan’s already strained relationship with the powers that be, leaves Unmadiyude Maranam in the position of being perhaps a domestic festival outcaste.

Festivals abroad that he has approached so far have found the film too personal or beyond the understanding of non-Indian viewers. Yet, the personal is most often universal too, and cultural nuances notwithstanding, Unmadiyude Maranam has global relevance in an age that has seen the simultaneous rise of divisive right-wing leaders across the world, from Donald J. Trump in the far West to Rodrigo Duterte in the far East.

The film was completed this summer. E-platforms Sasidharan has approached so far have not bought into the concept either – not surprising since Unmadiyude Maranam is more wacky and wacko than anything these websites have sourced from India so far. Besides, orthodox voices in the country have already been raised against uncensored works being available for viewing online.

Be that as it may, Sasidharan is determined to get Unmadiyude Maranam to audiences before the 2019 general elections in India, because “I feel now everything is, like, concentrating towards a kind of Emergency situation.” He is no longer in a state of despair though, as he was during the Sexy Durga affair. He has almost finished work on his next film, Chola, which is unlike all his previous starless projects since it features marquee names Joju George and Nimisha Sajayan. Once that is done, he intends to shift his focus back to Unmadiyude Maranam a.k.a. Death of Insane. “If it is not in theatres, okay, then let people watch on their own personal computers,” he says.

The fact that a film on thought control requires intricate planning to escape the thought police proves the very point it set out to make. QED.

This article was published on Firstpost on December 13, 2018:

Photographs courtesy: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan