Sunday, April 26, 2015



Physically challenged, mentally challenged, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, gay, woman… it is possible for a character to be all or any of these, yet be a source of regular stories, not just hagiographies or tearjerkers

By Anna MM Vetticad

After a few minutes, the wheelchair will disappear.
Writer-director Shonali Bose has repeated variations of this line a zillion times while promoting her Hindi-English film Margarita With A Straw, the story of a sexually adventurous college student with cerebral palsy, now running in Indian theatres.
It reminded me of a similar sentence uttered by another filmmaker precisely a decade ago. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal is a small jewel of a film revolving around a deaf-mute boy who becomes a national-level cricketer. A few minutes into Iqbal, you will forget the hero is physically challenged, Kukunoor said in interview after interview in the run-up to the release of his film in 2005.
Is it possible, you ask, to stop noticing that large metal chair bearing a human body? Is it necessary to not notice that the man addressing you is doing so in sign language?
The point both Kukunoor and Bose make is this: Disabilities can be a source of anguish, but they need not define us, and we could acknowledge a distressing aspect of a person’s reality without harping on it. A film could well be about a person with physical or mental challenges, without being about those challenges alone. And if, as a filmmaker, you cannot even consider the likelihood of such a film not being a hagiography or a tearjerker, you might want to ask yourself whether you are constrained by your vision of such a person as ‘the other’ and not ‘one of us’.
A personal example may help illustrate my concerns. My mother has been wheelchair bound for many years. Yes, it is painful to see her decline, but believe me, our conversations are rarely about that. As her family, we are constantly vigilant, but if I were to tell Mum’s story, her physical condition would be only one element in it. For the most part I would tell you about her generation-defying liberalism, her fortitude, the bright smile she still manages to summon up in spite of a cruel disease and the sense of humour that remains undefeated by those wheels.
When I watched Margarita the other day, that wheelchair did disappear after a while. What I remember the most is how the heroine Laila’s smile travelled all the way from her lips to those eyes brimming over with sunshine. And what I remember most about Iqbal today is his sense of mischief, and that classic scene in which his sister and he infuriate a bully by using sign language to discuss the fellow in his presence.
When I see Hollywood actor Michael J Fox on public platforms, I do see his physical struggles because of Parkinson’s disease, but the overwhelming feeling is one of admiration for his strength nearly a quarter century after he was diagnosed. His recurring role as the ruthless lawyer Louis Canning in the multiple-award-winning TV serial The Good Wife is not that of a saint with a physical affliction — he plays a manipulative character who uses his tardive dyskinesia (a rare condition which causes erratic body movements) to gain the sympathy of judges and jurors.
These are regular folk with regular pluses and minuses.
It is only fair to clarify that the ‘them and us’ school of cinema is not confined to India, nor to characters with physical and mental challenges. How often have you seen an Indian film featuring an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) person who is not a source of jokes or whose sexual orientation is not the fulcrum of the story? For many decades, mainstream Hindi cinema in particular would feature Muslim characters only with a specific purpose: either to showcase Muslim culture or as near-flawless creatures whose presence made a point about secularism.
During an interview I recorded with Madhuri Dixit in 2003, I remember her complaining that Bollywood tends to see “women-centric films” as compulsorily being about “issues”. Why must such a film be a rona-dhona story (a weepie), she asked. Why not a light-hearted comedy? No doubt her industry has changed in these 12 years, but her question remains relevant. A large part of the reason could be that, like most film industries in the rest of India, a male-dominated Bollywood too tends to see stories of women through a male gaze, with men being the norm and women the exceptional ‘them’.
It is in this context that Margarita has wrought a miracle beyond the obvious one we have already discussed. Laila is three things that would usually be treated as issues by an Indian filmmaker: she has cerebral palsy, she is bisexual, she is a woman. Hell yes, while watching the film I almost forgot that she’s a woman! And a sexually assertive one at that. Possibly because the director did not turn either element into an ‘issue’?
As for the gorgeous Iqbal, not till many months after watching it did it strike me that the hero was a Muslim. How lovely that Kukunoor did not define him in terms of his religion or his speech-and-hearing impairments. How lovely that Iqbal was presented to us as a human being who just happened to be both deaf-mute and Muslim.
Physically challenged, mentally challenged, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, gay, woman — it is possible for a character to be any or many of the above, yet be seen as a regular person rather than a showpiece in an old curiosity shop.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on April 25, 2015)

Note: This photograph was not published in The Hindu Businessline

Friday, April 24, 2015


Release date:
April 24, 2015
Joss Whedon

Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor and Captain America … Avengers: The Age of Ultron offers the obvious thrill of seeing this superpowered/super-talented sextet from Marvel Comics all together in one film. But we already got that in 2012’s runaway global hit Marvel’s The Avengers. What does Part 2 offer that Part 1 did not? Answer: really not that much more.

For writer-director Joss Whedon – who helmed the first film too – the challenge was to portray an evolving group dynamic in The Age of Ultron, with each member settling down into this formidable assembly, having had some time since the first film to establish friendships and gauge the competition. Incredibly enough for  a bunch of colleagues this diverse and this gifted, they’re completely apolitical amongst themselves. Sure they have their differences of opinion about strategy, but where are the insecurities? Except for a fleeting moment when we see Captain America through Thor’s eyes, everything’s all sweet and honey between them.

How intriguing that a character exemplifying America’s omnipotence should feel threatened by a pre-Christian European mythological deity. Age of Ultron occasionally holds out such flashes of wry humour and depth, and vignettes of budding relationships, but it does nothing to develop them further. Now why on earth couldn’t we have got more of that in this film, Mr Whedon?

Before going further, it’s only fair to introduce the leads to non-comic-book-geeks among you. The Avengers are a superhero squad that first appeared in print in the 1960s in the US. The individual characters have their own separate lives that had been chronicled in several books before they joined hands. Over the years, the membership has varied. In the two film adaptations so far, the team has consisted of:

(a) Iron Man a.k.a Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), the eccentric billionaire industrialist, inventor and wearer of a metallic suit of armour fitted with advanced weapons and other gadgets;

(b) Hulk/Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the genius scientist accidentally exposed to radiation as a result of which, if he gets enraged or agitated, he metamorphoses from a gentle, reticent man into an uncontrollably destructive, green-skinned giant with superhuman strength;

(c) Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), an archer who hits the bull’s eye every time;

(d) Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a skilled warrior and former Soviet agent who defected to the US;

(e) Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the seemingly indestructible hammer-wielding Norse god who can manipulate weather, fly and crush his opposition in ways no human being can; and  

(f) Captain America or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), an ordinary man enhanced through scientific experimentation during World War II, then kept frozen to be revived for future use. His costume is in the colours of the US flag. His weapon: a metal shield.

They’re a league of potentially fascinating characters played by worthy actors. In this, the second Avengers film, the six must save the world from destruction at the hands of the robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader, best known in India as that delightful devil Alan Shore from TV’s The Practice and Boston Legal). Ultron has human cohorts, the twins Wanda the mind-bender and her brother Pietro the speedster a.k.a. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who are the product of experiments on humans. The siblings are played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Add to this mix the beautiful-bodied and morally interesting robot Vision, given form and life by actor Paul Bettany who has so far voiced Stark’s butler/assistant Jarvis in the Iron Man series.

This film though, is less than a sum of its best parts. The reason is simple: Age of Ultron’s plus points are dwarfed by an overwhelming feeling of how generic it is. The ‘scientific’ or pseudo-scientific explanations for sundry developments come off as boring, confusing mumbo-jumbo. And despite the pace and energy of the battle sequences, there are no stand-out moments that take the breath away because of an imaginative concept rather than the SFX involved. Remember Christopher Reeve in his Superman avatar freezing a lake with his breath and flying off with the island of ice in his arms to hold it over a factory fire that in turn melts the ice and is extinguished by the resultant shower? Not a single moment like that in this film.

Age of Ultron is better in some of the personal interactions between individual members in the league. Particularly nice is the arc of the twins’ motivations through the story. My favourite scene in the entire film is a party where all the Avengers turn up looking delicious in civilian clothing. Apart from the visual relief and the fact that several of them are stunners, there is warmth and humour in their conversations and some appealing insights into who they are.

Hulk – with his many internal struggles – remains one of my favourite superheroes of all time. Here is a humanoid who can’t control his transformations from Dr Banner to superhero, and desperately fights his strength because, as Romanoff puts it, when he does get into battle he knows he will win. In this film too, Hulk has the strongest backing of the writers. We delve into his inside story, while Hawkeye gets an entire side story (not a sparkling one, but at least it’s there). Captain America has his moments too that go beyond Chris Evans’ good looks.

Iron Man, on the other hand, is dealt with rather superficially. Yeah yeah, we know he’s cheeky, and of course the charismatic Robert Downey Jr makes him funny, but tell us more.

Thor does not develop in any way in Whedon’s hands, remaining the same dull, seemingly invincible, invulnerable guy through the Thor and Avengers series. And Black Widow is dull because the writers seem not to care enough to flesh her out. So busy were they focusing on Scarlett Johansson’s hot body and how her pretty nose peeps out from behind that curtain of wavy hair, that they did not bother to make her a creature we can invest in.

Perhaps another title for Avengers 2 could be: The League of Extraordinary White Gentlemen (With A Token Woman Carelessly Thrown In For Political Correctness). There are a couple of token black people too uncaringly chucked into the blend – Avengers’ boss Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson and another associate played by Don Cheadle – but in this world of white male dominance, they operate on the sidelines.

And please don’t say the team of the films can’t be blamed, since their base material is the comic series. Heard of evolution, anyone?

The entire cast is efficient, as are the leads whose inability to rise above mere efficiency is a fault of the inconsistent writing and not their acting talent. Ruffalo as Banner, Andy “Gollum” Serkis in a memorable cameo as a criminal in South Africa and Bettany as Vision are the only ones who deliver nuanced performances. To be fair, they are the only ones with characters of substance.

Avengers: Age of Ultron has some good patches. Unfortunately, they have not been stitched well enough together. Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor and Captain America remain as physically strong here as they were in the 2012 film. Cinematically though, they’ve waned with the passage of time. This is a film that takes the committed fan for granted.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
143 minutes
PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)
Release date in US:
May 1, 2015