THE DARK KNIGHT: Ledger-Joker All The Way!

Heath LedgerThe Dark Knight is doubtlessly a cinematic masterpiece and the Joker is by all means one of the most intriguing negative characters to have ever come to life on the silver screen. The movie is remarkable not only in terms of characterization, but also because it deals with eternal human struggles once again without looking, feeling or sounding stale.

The plot has Batman — the masked vigilante of Gotham City — called upon to reveal himself by an eccentric villain who calls himself ‘Joker’ and wears a fitting make-up. The Joker holds the city to ransom and squeezes it in order to force Batman to take the mask off and step into the light. Joker’s single-point agenda is to destroy Batman’s cover. But the plot of the movie is not as simplistic as to have Batman pitched against a formidable villain with several clashes sprinkled throughout and a major showdown arranged towards the end with sparks flying to wrap things up in a well-rounded, emotionally satisfying denouement.

The fight is not so much between Batman and the Joker as it is between the strength and vulnerability of human spirit itself. Director Christopher Nolan introduces District Attorney, Harvey Dent, who is more than willing to take the mantle from Batman in defence of Gotham, for he believes that it is high time public authorities took upon themselves to protect the citizens of Gotham and wage war against crime instead of leaving crime fighting to Batman alone. Dent surmises that even Batman himself must be looking for someone to give it over to because he could not continue battling crime forever, and Dent is not wrong there, which is clarified when Bruce Wayne (Batman) says, referring to Dent, that Gotham needs its ‘true hero’.

The cold, calculative, eccentric and reckless Joker is the dark force Dent is given to fight apart from the massive organized crime cartel. Dent represents Gotham’s common man and also the spirit of the people of Gotham to collectively stand against organized crime. The Joker, on the other hand, banks upon the selfish cowardice of the fundamentally weak people. The violent and greedy gangsters presiding over organized crime figure just a notch down from the common people of Gotham on Joker’s moral barometer.

The Joker was first enlivened on cinema screen by none other than a masterly Jack Nicholson performing at the height of his craft in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The Dark Knight brings Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker to the celluloid under Nolan’s direction. Ledger kept himself in seclusion at a hotel for over a month as he tried to get under the skin of the legendary Joker working on his personality, posture and voice. Reportedly, Ledger also kept a journal to record the random reflections and feelings of the Joker while he tried to step into the character’s shoes and try thinking and acting like the Joker would in any set of given circumstances. After all, he had the much celebrated Jack Nicholson to match, which he certainly managed to do and sometimes even outdo quite convincingly. Joker’s make-up was also Ledger’s own, and in the Gotham Hospital scene, the Joker is shown to have some of his make-up on his hands suggesting that the Joker puts on his make-up all by himself.

However, it is unfair to compare Nicholson’s performance with Ledger’s, for Nicholson did not have much to base his rendering of the Joker upon whereas Ledger had Nicholson’s to start with. However, suffice it to say that Ledger’s performance as Joker is one of the finest ever in Hollywood, for which he also received an abundantly deserved Academy Award posthumously. The sinister villainy that Ledger brings to the Joker not only puts him in the league of the world’s finest actors, but also sets a benchmark that would be hard to match for the actors essaying villainous characters for a long, long time.

The most perplexing and perhaps also the darkest aspect of the Joker is his nebulous motivations. What drives his single-minded pursuit of chaos remains an enigma. He doesn’t seem to be pursuing a cause or an objective or an ideological end, but appears to be acting out his nature. So, he is not really doing anything, but is simply being himself. There is no dichotomy, no paradox that could be the source of any self-doubt in him.

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? I am a dog chasing cars,” says the Joker in the well-known and much admired Gotham Hospital sequence. “I just do things,” he adds. Therefore, while at one level he appears to be pursuing a certain goal, howsoever vague, at another he is simply following his instinctive drive.

However, the Joker has his own understanding of human nature, which is far from flattering. “When the chips are down… these civilized people… they’ll eat each other,” the Joker tells Batman in the Interrogation Room sequence. The Joker is not an ordinary thug looking to steal, rob and kill. He has a sophisticated belief system founded on the assumption that human beings are selfish, greedy, mean, cruel and indifferent creatures, who would do anything for their individual gain even if it results in a disproportionately severe damage to someone else.

District Attorney Harvey Dent is hope, which is well reflected in his courageous willingness to take up the cudgels for Gotham against organized crime, and his aspiration to take over from Batman in fighting crime so that Gotham has its public authorities and elected representatives fighting the evil instead of the masked vigilantes. Harvey believes, and Batman (Bruce Wayne) agrees in principle, that keeping Gotham City crime free is primarily the responsibility of the public authorities, and the existence of a crime fighter masked vigilante in Batman is indicative of the failure of the law enforcement machinery. Dent wants to reinstate the faith of the people in the rule of law, and the law enforcement machinery of the State, and Batman is more than willing to let the Gotham City take care of itself. So, Bruce Wayne as the businessman he is, and also as Batman, does his best to support Dent’s endeavours in that respect. On the other hand, to the Joker Dent is that white spark of goodness that he doesn’t believe people have. His primary project, therefore, is to take the White Knight of Gotham and “bring him down” to his level turning him into the ‘Dark Knight’ to show that “madness is like gravity; all it takes is a little push”.

Unlike Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), The Dark Knight brings to us a fully-formed Joker without any reference to his background, with nothing to hint at the reasons that went into the making of this absolute villain. Why is he after Batman and what motivates him in his pursuit of Batman’s destruction is also kept unclear giving the Joker his much admired, mysterious darkness. Pennyworth (Michael Caine) is absolutely right when he tells Bruce Wayne (Batman) that neither Wayne, nor the gangsters who took shelter with the Joker against Batman fully understand the monster. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Pennyworth observes. When, during the interrogation sequence, Batman asks why he wants to kill him, the Joker bursts laughing. “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you?!” The public authorities and the gangsters, much like the audience, do not understand the Joker simply because his motivations are not just uncommon but almost unique, his method a little too drastic and his ideas bordering on crazy. But at the bottom of it, there is the belief that human beings are a hypocritical and easily corruptible species with a phony moral code that they pretend to honour. On the other hand, Batman believes in the fundamental goodness of human beings and their ability to stand against all odds in selfless defence of others even at the cost of their own welfare. And when the innocent civilians in one ferry and the convicted criminals on the other make independent, unilateral decisions to not blow up the other ferry to save themselves without knowing if the other one would also do the same, they prove that, contrary to the beliefs of the Joker, human beings are capable of selfless sacrifice of the supreme kind. Batman wins, but the Joker does not lose either, for he does manage to turn Gotham’s white knight dark.

“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object,” says the Joker hanging upside from a skyscraper. “You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you,” he adds. Except when speaking to Batman, the Joker is either pushing an agenda, entertaining himself and telling another untrue story about how he got those scars but is never really talking or telling anything substantial about himself or about his real objectives. He only reveals himself to Batman, for he understands that apart from the masked vigilante, who is his chief opponent, there is nobody who can understand any of it. Besides, he sees no point in revealing his real self and objectives to anybody else, for, to him, an absolute villain, which he certainly is, can only be understood by an absolute hero, which he understands Batman to be. He considers himself an unfailing corrupter and Batman as absolutely incorruptible. So, his fight with Batman is not aimed at killing Batman but at defeating him by breaking the spirit of the people of Gotham City and pushing them into doing monstrous acts thereby displaying the evil the Joker thinks they carry within themselves under the deceptive veneer of civility.

The regular good-versus-evil-and-the-good-wins routine gets a minor but significant spin at Nolan’s hand, and the triumph of good over evil is not quite as comprehensive as one might expect going by the past tellings of such tales. Batman and Commissioner Gordon arrange a hero’s farewell to Harvey Dent, who actually doesn’t die a hero, so that the people of Gotham continue to believe in the goodness of human beings. But this also suggests how, for the very noble purposes of preserving the good, the real tales of ‘good men’ are carefully tweaked to keep popular faith in the conventional ethical norms. But then, every now and then, there is always an absolutely incorruptible Batman. And hope lives on.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER (Classics) in LAWYERS UPDATE [March, 2015 Issue; Vol. XXI, Part 3].



NISHANT: A Tale of Violent Re-ordering

nishantThose with means and influence tend to be adamant and oppressive apart from being almost completely indifferent to the miseries of the less-privileged. Feudal India with its notorious landlords was a society in which power and money were concentrated in those few hands that did not hesitate in brutally squeezing the poor and the weak with or without reason. The excesses were tolerated solely because individuals and even state institutions were powerless against the mighty zamindars . But then, one didn’t necessarily have to be dirt-poor to suffer at their hands. To invite violence and oppression from their side one only had to have something that they wanted, and that ‘thing’ could be someone’s wife to whom one of them took fancy, which is precisely what happens in Nishant . However, the oppressor, drunk on his might, might fail to note when and where the threshold was breached, in which case the backlash might sometimes be a little too strong to stand. Huge fires, many a time, begin with an innocuous spark. Nishant or ‘end of night’ is the story of one such spark and its blowing into an unforgiving, violent uprising.

Directed by Shyam Benegal and cinematographed by today’s much admired film director, Govind Nihalani, Nishant — released in 1975 — was the first movie featuring Naseeruddin Shah, who went on to become India’s finest actors, in a widely lauded performance alongside the equally impressive Girish Karnad, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Amrish Puri. This was Smita Patil’s second movie after her debut in Benegal’s Charandas Chor , which was also released in early 1975.

The film is set in the times around Indian independence when India was taking its unsure baby-steps in the post-war world of sovereign nations. The feudal system was still well-entrenched and nobody believed that anything in terms of social structure was going to change anytime soon. A schoolteacher, in such a setting, might not be the weakest soul to shatter or the ideal human rock to test one’s raw strength against, but, with a pretty wife at home, he might be among the unluckiest. So, when Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah), the youngest and the most gentle brother of the powerful zamindar , sets his eyes on the school teacher’s wife, his brothers make a gift of her and present it to him. Being married already, of course, doesn’t come in the way of his accepting the affectionate ‘gift’ by his caring brothers.

Despite being the brother of a landlord who wields unlimited raw power and crushing control over the lives of the people of the village, Vishwam, unlike his brothers, is not overbearing or drunk on power. He is an ordinary man in an extraordinary family. And for the most part he is quite happy with his wife and whatever else he has. He never comes across as ambitious on any front whatsoever. The only thing he does that falls in the league of the everyday misdeeds committed by his kind is covet another man’s wife. He never really asks his brothers to do anything to get the woman in his arms; neither does he look inclined to try anything adventurous on that front. But when begotten for him, Vishwam does not hesitate in taking the schoolteacher’s wife, Sushila, as his mistress. However, he is still not the kind of animalistic rapist that his brothers are perfectly capable of being at any hour of any day. On the contrary, he displays a certain amount of care and emotions for Sushila, which gives the impression that he either genuinely loves her or feels something for her that very closely resembles romantic sentiments. Benegal spends a good amount of run time on building Vishwam’s character as a good guy trying hard to fit into the accepted mould of bad, and Benegal makes it very probable that in part Vishwam accepts Sushila as his mistress just to prove that he was also just as bad as his brothers.

The helpless schoolteacher is left with his insufferable agony, barren rage and a deep sense of injustice apart from his motherless little child much in need of the mother. He runs to everyone from the villagers to the police seeking assistance against the powerful landlord, but nobody is willing to risk inviting the displeasure of the zamindar . Even the police looks the other way for the same reason. They try being helpful by gently advising him to reconcile to the fact that his wife was never coming back to him, for she now belonged to the zamindar family. Her grand elevation from being the wife of a schoolteacher to the mistress-hood of the landlord’s youngest brother is somehow tolerable, if not perfectly alright, with the villagers. They quickly get into the what-happened-happened mode of consolation that people generally reserve for untimely deaths, and the typical ‘wish-of-god’ part stands conveniently modified to ‘wish-of-the- zamindar ‘.

The zamindar family ignores, to their own detriment, that the discontent born of injustice does not die an easy death, and a helpless acceptance is not the same thing as approval or endorsement. It remains in public memory like a deep, burning scar, and no matter how weak, timid and poor the people be, the sense of injustice is a hugely uniting force. The bonds of hatred are sometimes stronger than ties of blood. So, while the injustice is not overtly resisted despite passionate appeals from the schoolteacher, the outrage remains simmering under the surface, which eventually boils over and produces a violent backlash.

Although Nishant is primarily a story of a schoolteacher’s struggle against the tyranny of a powerful landlord, it is also a tale of class divide and a comment on the nature of all revolutions. Longstanding discontent has always been the most effective fuel for an uprising. Benegal does not shy away from recognizing the unforgiving nature of such backlash. This is not a fire of justice, for it exercises no discretion. It does not right the wrongs, but cleans the slate for a fresh start. So, all that is good about the bad is also wiped out, which is why when the villagers set out to kill, they do not spare the wife of the schoolteacher either. She is part of the household that invited the ire. She must suffer the onslaught just as much as any other belonging to the same household.

At personal level, the schoolteacher is thrown in the situation where his wife has been abducted and he is helpless. He can do nothing except come to terms with his humiliating circumstances and accept brutal injustice as a way of the world, as an undeniable, inescapable reality. His wife’s position is even more difficult because she has to adjust not only with the absence of her husband and the child but also with her new surroundings, which are innately oppressive on account of having been forced upon her. Ironically, she finds solace in the wife of the person whose mistress she ends up becoming. Eventually, hopelessness sets in to make her accept her fate, and she becomes an unwilling part of the zamindar family. In giving up and giving in she is very unlike her husband, who never really gives up on the fight and never accepts the feudal oppression he faces as his unavoidable fate. In presenting this contrast Benegal brings to us these two ways in which people respond to the tragedies they face at the hands of other human beings.

Benegal’s Nishant carries a message that needs no re-affirmation and yet it needs to be re-affirmed over and over again simply because we tend to overlook the obvious for short-term gains. Perception of injustice is the greatest and the most viable threat to established order, and much of the large scale unrest anywhere is caused by the sense of oppression. The principle of Rule of Law is fundamentally aimed at preventing arbitrariness so as to prevent discontent from taking roots.

The movie ends with the lynching of Sushila and Vishwam by the mob after they try to run away and hide, but are spotted. Sushila thinks of her son in the last moments of her life. The final scene shows the son of Sushila and the schoolteacher waiting in a classroom with other students for his schoolteacher father to step in and begin teaching. Clean slate. New beginning.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER (Classics) in LAWYERS UPDATE [February, 2015 Issue; Vol. XXI, Part 2].

SPARSH: Paranjpye’s Deft Touch

sparsh1907In the dark world of the blind, touch is the only true guide — Sparsh (Hindi for ‘touch’). But whether the blindness shuts the world out and makes the blind incapable of engaging with the world visually, or makes the blind stay in touch with their own alternative world running parallel to the world of the sighted without losing touch with either of the two, or whether they have a combination of the two worlds to savour are certainly not the easiest questions to answer.

Sparsh deals with all the issues that a blind person encounters while interacting with the people in the world of light and sight. But, interestingly and ironically, in addressing a person of sight, it is the blind who shoots the question or the statement in the dark, and not the other way round. If light opens the world of colours for the sighted, what makes us think that darkness does not hold just as rich an alternative world for the blind? However, Sparshbrushes past but does not grapple with the creative side of blindness as much as it does with the finer aspects of the rather delicate bridge between the sighted and the blind, and the realities of their lived world that sometimes run into real or imagined conflicts with each other.

In a speech for the American Foundation for the Blind delivered at Washington, D.C. in 1925, the famous blind writer Helen Keller said, “The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them.” Sparsh deals with the same issue, but brings new insight into it from the perspective of the individual characters because blindness is not a dry idea, it’s the lived truth of the blind, and the blind have more ways of ‘seeing’ their blindness than the sighted can ever even imagine. To some very self-respecting blind people, nothing is as hurtfully demeaning as the display of sympathy. Anirudh Parmar (played brilliantly by Naseeruddin Shah) is one such person.

Released on January 30, 1980, Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh is not only among her best but is also one of the finest movies to emerge from the Hindi film industry. The movie won three Filmfare Awards in 1985 in the categories of ‘Best Movie’ (Basu Bhattacharya), ‘Best Director’ (Sai Paranjpye) and ‘Best Dialogue’ (Sai Paranjpaye), and also won three National Film Awards in 1980 in the categories of ‘Best Feature Film in Hindi’, ‘Best Actor’ (Naseeruddin Shah) and ‘Best Screenplay’ (Sai Paranjpye).

When Anirudh Parmar, led by the melodious voice of Kavita Prasad (Shabana Azmi), lands at her doorsteps instead of his doctor’s, where he had started out to be, the two meet for the first time, and Anirudh does not fail to compliment Kavita on her singing before taking her leave. Kavita, a recent widow after a three-year long marriage, lives a secluded life and has just one friend, Manju (Sudha Chopra), and it is at a party thrown by Manju that the two meet once again.

Anirudh tells her that he runs a school for the blind children and the one thing that they need more than the donations is the time of the people, which most of the people are a little too stingy about. He requests Kavita to come over to his school to spend some time with the blind children teaching them to sing, to which she remains non-committal initially, but eventually turns up at Anirudh’s school to lend a helping hand. Anirudh makes it clear right at the outset that he and the children were looking for help and not pity when Kavita inadvertently uses the term ‘ bechaara ‘ (Hindi for ‘pitiable’) in connection with the blind children. The reaction to being treated with sympathy evolves into the central theme of the movie as the story unfolds.

Kavita finds meaning in contributing towards making the world of the blind kids richer while Anirudh finds an able and willing associate in Kavita. But somehow Anirudh cannot help seeing Kavita’s doing so much for the children as a major favour to him and them, which he appreciates but is also uncomfortable with at the same time, particularly when Kavita starts taking care of him as well. Kavita proposes a simple solution to Anirudh’s discomfort – that they combine their respective darknesses to create a world full of light together. In short, tie the knot. Anirudh gives it a serious thought but he has his own fears, the foremost of which is the fear of her becoming a habit and his losing his hard-gained ability to survive and live independently with and despite his blindness. Anirudh’s obsessive rejection of pity makes his world and the people in it more full of pity than anything else. He manages to read the same in Kavita’s affectionate overtures, too.

Needless to say that Anirudh fails to see that seeing everyone as pitying him is by itself a reflection of self-pity. He accuses Kavita of seeking a sense of sacrifice and martyrdom in marrying him when Kavita’s only friend Manju comes over to make him understand that in doing all that Kavita did for him she was motivated by love alone. She further adds that he doesn’t need her as much as she needs him. Seeing a blind boy read out to his sighted friend from a book trascripted into Braille by Kavita, Anirudh is touched by the role reversal and realizes that all bonds between the sighted and the blind are not founded on pity; some of them are steeped in genuine affection, too. The movie closes with Anirudh walking towards the house of Kavita as her singing voice fills the air.

Sparsh is the story of a self-respecting blind man’s struggle to gather the courage to drop his aggressive defenses. He acknowledges the deficiency, but does not want people to help him out of pity under the mistaken assumption that pity arises out of a sense of superiority, which his pride does not allow him to accept. This is also why Anirudh sounds jarringly egoistic at certain places and tries to prevent his rough and sharp edges from hurting someone. Of course, he doesn’t succeed all that often. One would see the reflection of an angry Anirudh of Sparsh in the Jindal of the typical Bollywoodian Mohra some 14 years later in 1994, where Naseeruddin Shah plays, in part, the same kind of self-respecting, sharp-tongued, easy-to-provoke blind man once again, except that this time the man is neither good, nor blind with no inner battles to fight and no internal conflicts to resolve, unlike Anirudh.

The most important aspect of Sparsh is that while it is the story of a blind man, it deals with the struggles of all human beings to come to terms with their realities and to not be scared of falling. Anirudh’s greatest fear is the fear of not being able to live independently once he starts sharing his life with Kavita, which is just another version of anybody’s fear of opening up for the fear of not being able to walk away when the time comes, if it does. The fear of not being able to live on one’s own is not a fear unique to the blind, in general or to Anirudh, in particular. All human beings are prone to such fears. In Anirudh’s case, it is more pronounced just because he is very aware of his physical limitations. The fear of not being able to deal with somebody’s absence is not his fear alone. We all experience the same fear at different points of time. His blindness is not unique to him or to the blind either. We all are blind to something or the other in our own sighted ways.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER (Classics) in LAWYERS UPDATE [November, 2014 Issue; Vol. XX, Part 11].

BHUMIKA: A Woman’s Quest for Home

bumikaThe roles that human beings play in their lives are not too different from the way an actor essays a character in a movie or a play. One might argue that the difference lies in the ‘reality’ of life and the ‘make believe’ nature of plays and movies. That perhaps is a major perceptual mistake. Most of our real life is founded on the conceptual constructs of our own making. And it is by adjusting into the mould provided by the world that we spend our lives. At many levels our lived life is founded on the ‘make believe’. The question of ‘reality’ is too complex to be discussed at length here, but Benegal’s ‘Bhumika’ puts the real life side by side with the make-believe life of the movies. And in the background Benegal tells the story of an exploited actress, the actress turns out to be only a little more of a victim than the others around her, including her exploiters. That happens not because people are fair or less unfair to her. It happens because the only role that she refuses to play is that of the victim despite being the victim of her circumstance, but being a victim of one’s circumstances is nothing unique. We all are such victims, and the same set of circumstances that turn us into victims also present the opportunities for us to live a satisfying life. The same is true for the protagonist, Usha (Smita Patil), as well. She gets to make her choices, and it is primarily the choices that turn things in her favour and also against, much the same way as it works for the rest of us.

Usha’s husband, Keshav (Amol Palekar), is much older than her, and had lusted after her since she was a little girl. Taking advantage of the family’s circumstances, and in the garb of supporting the family, he manipulates things, gets her into films and then marries her. She has no real feelings for her husband, to start with, but she takes the role of the wife and wants to play it in the conventional fashion. She has no personal ambitions. All that she wants after marriage is to be a homemaker. What surprises her is her husband’s insistence on her continuing her career in films, which is fundamentally because he is not working, and prefers being a parasite. He keeps managing her career by getting her films with stars, and she becomes a star herself, but that is completely unfulfilling for her. Her reluctance and his ambitions with her come in constant clash, especially after she becomes a mother.

The gulf between the couple widens and results in her leaving the matrimonial household, which aggravates her sense of loneliness and isolation. She tries to fight her loneliness by entering into a relationship with a nihilistic director, Sunil Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), who has intense fascination with death, and then with a patriarch, Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri), who has everything for her except freedom. And she carefully avoids getting into a similar relationship with her longstanding co-star and a constant source of support, Rajan (Anant Nag). Rajan remains romantically interested in Usha right from the time she starts working with him in the movies, but she keeps her distance from him for both professional and personal reasons. As the relationship between her and her husband bitters further, she still does not let the romantic overtures from Rajan drive her into a relationship with him and even turns down a marriage proposal from Rajan saying that she does not want to lose him, like she lost everybody else, because he had been the only person who had given her without asking for anything in return.

Usha is not a submissive woman. She is assertive, and does not like being forced into anything. What she demands is a right to make her own choices, right and wrong, good and bad. Much of what happens to her is indeed on account of the choices she makes, but most of her choices are made as reactions to force. Even her decision to marry Keshav is driven by her mother’s insistence on her not seeing Keshav any more, which is unacceptable to her, not because she wants to meet Keshav so much, but because she dislikes being forced. She reacts by not just agreeing to marry Keshav, but actually insisting with Keshav to tie the knot. But her desire to be a housewife and abandon her career in films does not meet the approval of her husband, who cajoles her into continuing, and then keeps suspecting her fidelity, which becomes the cause of frequent fights between the couple.

To conclude that it is her revolt against the emotional manipulations of a possessive, needlessly suspicious and utterly selfish husband that drives her into the arms of other men would be a little too simplistic. What complicates life for her is her reaction against her being made to function against her wish combined with her will to fight for a perfect life with a man pitched against her relentless fight to protect the interests of her daughter. At different times different things take precedence in her life, which makes her a normal, vulnerable human being instead of a steely crusader for a cause.

Keshav, her husband, forces her to abort her second child stating plainly and simply that he has no place in his house for the child fathered by someone else. She tries her best to convince him that the child is his, but to no avail. And from the omniscient perspective of the audience we know that she is not lying. On his side there is no fight, no rage. This is not an angry, possessive, insecure and jealous husband angry over his wife’s infidelity. This is an opportunist man living with a woman under the institutional cover of marriage, which he considers an arrangement for mutual benefit. He has already given up on his marriage and his wife. He is interested only in getting the best out of the bargain.

Right after her second child is aborted, she hastily enters into a relationship with one of her directors, Sunil Verma. Of unconventional and unorthodox mindset, the man seems intellectually stimulating, but the relationship flashes in and dies out in a jiffy. There is not enough depth and commitment in Sunil to sustain the relationship that Usha had been looking for. After the flash-in-the-pan fling with Sunil that comes to nothing, Usha moves quickly to Vinayak Kale in search of a stable relationship, and with Kale she pretty much finds one. She gets a stable, resourceful household with a kid in it and for a while she is happy enough being the de facto second wife of Kale to forget her own daughter, Sushma. But there is a price to be paid, as she realizes later. She does not have the freedom she has been so used to. She can’t even step out of Kale’s palatial estate. She is a prisoner, who rules the insides of the prison, but is condemned to spend her life confined in her palace-prison. Usha is not ready to pay a price that high. She sends a distress letter to Keshav, who brings the police along and Usha is freed. But in the meanwhile a lot has changed, and almost nothing is the same. Keshav’s business is now set; Usha’s daughter, Sushma, is now married, and she and her husband want Usha to live with them. Usha declines. Rajan calls and wants to meet Usha, but she doesn’t respond. Benegal leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. But it’s not very hard to gather Benegal’s unmistakable suggestion that Usha’s quest for a ‘home’ with a man has resulted in the realization that a perfect home is hard – if not impossible – to find because it is very hard to find a perfect ‘husband’. Benegal seems to have summed it up when the paralyzed first wife of Kale tells Usha that masks change, beds change, but men do not. Finally, Usha decides to look beyond men and find a fulfilling life without them. That’s where Benegal sends the curtains down.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER (Classics) in LAWYERS UPDATE [August, 2014 Issue; Vol. XX, Part 8].

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR – II: Neat Finish To A Clumsy Start

Gangs_of_wasseypur_IIWhen Indian heroes, led by Angry Young Man Amitabh Bachchan, turned superhumanly powerful and invincible, the mainstream Indian cinema became the wonderland of all kinds of possibilities with the ever-raging battle between good and evil thrown in, in which the good always triumphed, and the only thing left to be enjoyed was the trajectory it followed to attain the final victory because the ends were always identical. The mainstream Indian cinema thus turned into an escapist fare and the serious filmmakers turned to what they considered the ‘real issues’ and real-life social concerns crying for redress. That was the beginning of realist cinema in India. The reality had to be shown in its actual starkness so that the audience took note of the urban and rural underbelly and could empathize with the suffering humanity. Movies like ‘Mandi’ and ‘ Bazaar’ are the product of such realism. While there was realism, there was art, too. It was not camera-turned-to-the-street kind of realism. It was about recreating the real artistically without losing sight of the purpose.

From then to now, Indian cinema has changed a lot in terms of on-screen realism. The objective itself has changed. It is no longer to bring reality to the audience, but to give the film that ‘arty’ look and feel that the critics and pretentious ‘intellectuals’ dig. Worse, realism has come to be used for its shock value. And amongst the worst instances of such mindlessly unartistic experimentation with realism of the grossest kind ‘Delhi Belly’ stands out. ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ does not overdo realism to that extent and in that manner, but it manipulates realism to strategically plant shock-nuggets in order to create the illusion of new reality. However, Director Anurag Kashyap manages to pull it off thanks to ‘Gangs of Wasseypur – II’and Siddique’s scintillating performance. The second part is by all means a major improvement on the first in nearly all departments, including acting and direction.

The first part ends where Sardar Khan is killed, and the second part picks it from there. Sardar is survived by his wife (convincingly played by Richa Chaddha), four sons from his wife and one from his mistress, Durga (Raima Sen). Danish is the eldest and steps into his father’s shoes right after his father’s murder, beginning by killing on the spot the only one of Sardar Khan’s killers caught on the scene by the people. He reaches the spot and shoots him right there in front of the police before walking away with the policeman watching him kill and leave. Thereafter Danish goes on brutally killing every single person involved in the murder of his father until he is himself killed by Sultan Qureshi at the doorsteps of a courtroom as Danish steps out of the court after a hearing.

Faizal – played admirably by Nawazuddin Siddiqui – is too weak to be expected to do anything worthwhile. He is forever stoned, and shows no sign of the toughness required to run a mafia enterprise. But when Fazlu, his long-time friend, wins the local election and Faizal goes to congratulate him, the audience is given to realize that Faizal has figured out as to how his father was killed. Faizal has a good idea of Fazlu’s role in the killing. And we see Faizal slash Fazlu’s throat against the evening darkness in the backdrop. It’s a remarkable scene in terms of the visuals. Kashyap cans the scene in long shot showing the silhouette of the two men with one slashing the throat of another over and over again. The unmistakable sound of throat-slitting and thick drops of blood – which look a shadowy black from afar – flying around give the scene a damp, dark feel. It is certainly the best shot scene in the movie, both parts included. It marks the beginning of Faizal’s career in crime. Faizal marries his love interest, Mohsina, and settles down. The tale of Faizal’s finding his feet, gaining complete control over the crime syndicate of the family and concluding his love story with marriage, comes to a neat closure early on. The plot gets a bit knotted up thereafter giving one many general ways of looking at what follows in terms of storyline.

Sardar Khan’s primary character flaw was lack of focus with plenty of lust-led digressions going for him. And one of the more serious digressions returns with a lethal sting – Durga. Faizal gets to Fazlu’s betrayal but fails to track the chain of deception further down to Durga, which proves fatal in the end. Faizal inherits his father’s lack of focus. Like his father, he isn’t a thinking gangster. Complacency comes naturally to him, too. His distraction is not women; it’s easy money. And he pursues money with the same mindless fervour as his father pursued women, and quite the same way his passion turns lethal without his ever realizing it. In the end Faizal pays the price for his father’s mistakes worsened by his own. Faizal’s half brother and Durga’s son, Definite, is a clever and focused opportunist, which works well for him in the final reckoning. No lessons – moral or otherwise – can be drawn from the movie, for the only thing that the movie seems to suggest in terms of a lesson is that evil begets evil. But sending a moral message is clearly not on the Director’s list of objectives. Kashyap wants to tell a story, and he manages to do that a lot better in the second part than the first one, or perhaps it so appears because he did a better and neater job of tying up the loose ends than laying out and detailing the plot.

Sardar Khan and Durga’s son, Definite, has more of Durga in him than his father, which makes him a lot fitter to survive the world of deception than his own father and any of his half-brothers, including Faizal, whose lust for quick money makes him prone to deception from multiple sides. Faizal does learn to distrust people, which helps him a great deal for quite some time, but one cannot distrust everybody at all times. With Definite’s assistance Faizal manages to get to Ramadhir Singh, and pumps countless bullets in his body, and then fires a lot many into his dead body. Definite keeps helping Faizal all the way till the end of Ramadhir Singh and keeps gathering his trust, thereby reducing the chances of error like a skilled ambush predator waiting for the prey to come within a sure striking distance. And just when Faizal has no reason to suspect Definite, the latter shoots him dead as part of a larger conspiracy between Definite and Ramadhir’s son, J.P.

Ramadhir Singh survives as long as he does solely on account of his dispassionate, impersonal and calculated approach to crime and politics. His impression of his son, J.P., as good-for-nothing proves fatal when J.P. pulls off a conspiracy with Definite, and the two wipe out both the sides by well-calculated moves to emerge at the top.

The game-changer in Kashyap’s jungle-like Darwinian universe of crime is effective deception and predatory stealth. For a successful deception, trust is indispensable. So, building trust only to shatter it at the most opportune moment is the most useful skill. On the other hand, trusting the wrong person for the wrong reason is life-threatening in this world where even blood doesn’t run quite as thick as it is supposed to. Both Ramadhir Singh and Faizal die on account of misplaced trust. Faizal’s mistake is obviously more glaring than Ramadhir’s. But death doesn’t make such fine distinctions.

Kashyap, for all his lapses in the first part, manages to tell his story and make his point quite well at the end. Let’s just say it didn’t end as bad as it started. Of course, nobody is complaining.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [July, 2014 Issue; Vol. XX, Part 7].

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR – I: Sleaze and Gore for ‘Realism’

Gangs_of_Wasseypur_posterKashyap begins by dropping us in front of the television with ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ playing moments before a bullet shatters the television and over a dozen people let loose their bullets and country-made grenades together with their profanity-spewing tongue. Enter realism. Or the Kashyap version of it.

The gunmen go around bullet-spraying the house liberally from all sides indiscriminately with a clear intention of not leaving anything—walking, slithering, creeping or crawling—alive. They even shoot the walls perhaps to kill the non-living as well. They pump in a thousand rounds or so into a wooden door with their automatic assault rifles, which look so much like the Russian-made Kalashnikovs, and the wooden door manages to hold up.

The leader of the party – Sultan Qureshi – instead of kicking the door open to confirm the casualties – Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) even for SWAT – runs the check electronically in a tech-savvy fashion by calling the cellphone of one of their victims. The phone goes unanswered. All dead, they happily conclude. And the ‘citadel’ is down, Sultan is heard telling his bosses on his way back.

Oddly, the ‘citadel’ they ‘conquered’ without entering was completely unguarded. Sultan’s shock-and-awe meets no resistance. Not a shadow of defence. People with known enemies capable of such firepower do not take the protection of their families as lightly.

That’s Wasseypur of 2004. And when Sultan and his men come across a police barricade and an exchange of fire ensues, the frame freezes and we are pulled out and tossed across decades landing in the ‘Sultana Daaku’ times of the pre-independence era.

Kashyap flings us to pre-1947, then holds us briefly at independence narrating how the end of foreign rule helped Ramadhir Singh, and then drags us forward through decades finally wrapping the first part with the death of Sultan Khan somewhere in early 1990s (the billboard of ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, released in 1989, provides us the time reference). And despite dragging us from this temporal space to that, the movie floats on the same plane completely failing to catch the changing trends across time.

The movie tries putting on a Bihar-tinted solemn tone of a historical docudrama much like Raju Srivastava puts on Bachchan’s baritone. There are black and white shots of real-life coal mining prior to Indian independence and Kashyap tries ‘easing’ us into the same era with complete loss of continuity resulting in a crude crash-landing, which goes temporarily unnoticed against the overwhelming audio-visual impact of the on-screen violence.

The movie presents itself as a revenge drama with Sardar Khan – ably played by Manoj Bajpayi – vowing to not grow his hair until he has avenged his father’s murder arranged by Ramadhir Singh when he gets to know of it. But the ferocious vengefulness, which is a conceptually indispensable part of the revenge sagas, is glaringly conspicuous in its complete absence. But that’s just one of the countless, unpardonable cinematic inconsistencies that the movie is infested with.

On another occasion the voice-over informs us that coming to know how his father died was a life-changing experience for Sardar Khan, who suddenly ‘grows up’ and vows revenge. And instead of a fearsome, bloodthirsty killer out for vengeance we see a lecherous goon, who robs petrol pumps and squats, and divides the rest of his time between bedding prostitutes and lusting after married and unmarried women (“ Saadi ho gaya tumharaa? Itna badi ho gayi ho… lao bojha utha lein tumhara .”).

What does Sardar Khan do to ‘destroy’ Ramadhir Singh except for looting his petrol pumps and openly challenging his dominance once in a while? Where is the plan to undo Ramadhir Singh? How does he plan to make him suffer? His shaven head – unlike Draupadi’s open hair – is not a taunting reminder of his unfulfilled vow. He wears his baldness around like a cult ‘hairdo’. He robs Ramadhir’s petrol pump like any robber would, and does not even burn it down, when he easily could, to make it hurt. Where is the vengefulness? Sardar Khan, for all practical purposes, acts like any ambitious rival of Ramadhir Singh would.

Then we have Sultan Qureshi, a ruthless butcher who personally chopped so many buffaloes as a kid, the voice-over informs, and still chopped quite a handsome number, which made him the most feared one of and by the Qureshis. Shouldn’t he then be more scary to the buffaloes than to men?

Anyway, let’s grant that to the big-butcher Qureshi, human beings are just as much of slaughter-worthy animals as the buffaloes he kills, which is why Kashyap sends a police constable scavenging the waste carcasses to find a human finger and then be threatened by a menacingly grinning Sultan holding a big butcher knife held to the policeman’s throat. Sufficiently scared, the khaki-man is let go of with his proverbial tail between his legs after dropping the human finger where he found it.

During the entire sequence from the constable’s discovery of the finger to his departure from the scene, Kashyap keeps the butchered carcass of a buffalo in the background in nearly every single frame of the sequence with all the blood and flesh scattered around like a flesh-cushioned, crimson carpet. Even the close shots with Sultan speaking tend to maintain the gory background. Bravo Kashyap! Some serious realism there.

But not much later, when the Qureshis decide to marry one of their daughters to Sardar’s eldest son—Danish—and end the long-standing enmity, the mighty, fearsome, big-butcher Qureshi is conveniently locked up with his pistol emptied, and all he is left behind to do is yell his expletive-peppered disagreement through a window, which nobody is bothered to even listen, let alone heed. Dead against the alliance, just before the ‘niqaah’ he whispers to the bride—his sister — that she shouldn’t ‘ qubool ‘ the marriage, and if she did, he would kill her. She listens to the ‘fearsome’ big-butcher, and swallows it all effortlessly. We don’t see any dilemma of any sort anywhere. Next, Kashyap shows us into the bedroom of the newly-wed, where the couple are doing their sugar-talk with no mention of the upset big-butcher brother. She simply brushes the ‘threat’ aside like Sultan was a three-year-old wailing for cookie.

The big-butcher Qureshi meets Ramadhir Singh like a scared sheep in for slaughter and turns unflinchingly loyal to him just because Singh has guns to give to him. Is he thirsty for power? But power he already has, if we go by the voice-over. Singh needs his assistance against Sardar Singh. So, if Qureshi is power hungry, and for that reason loyal to Singh, there is more power against Singh with the Qureshi-Khan alliance founded upon Danish’s marriage to the Qureshi girl.

In the absence of any personal bonding between Sultan Qureshi and Singh, which could have explained Sultan’s loyalty, Sultan’s siding with Singh remains completely unexplained and, thus, unconvincing despite being pivotal to whatever little Kashyap has for a plot. Why do we need a voice-over that feeds into our ears what the screen does not display?

Then, towards the end, we have dozens of rounds fired from all sides into a stationary car with Sardar Khan in it. And one of the shooters fires several rounds through the window on the driver’s side where Khan lies supine in a fruitless attempt to save himself from the volley of bullets. The killers leave and Khan emerges from the car, bleeding and has some three to four bullet wounds on the right side of his back, which is consistent with the angle of fire, and there are no exit wounds.

He also has a bullet wound to his temple. And it’s not a bullet graze. The wound suggests that the bullet is in the skull, as there are no exit wounds visible, again (I checked this very carefully as the camera moves around a dying Khan exposing all sides of his head to the viewers).

The nature of the wound is not only inconsistent with the angle of fire, but also with Khan’s being alive and moving. A gunshot to the temple would cause immediate death almost always unless the bullet is deflected by the skull somehow and thus fails to enter the brain, in which case there has to be an exit wound. There is none in this case. And even in the case of a deflection the impact of the bullet would render the person unconscious quite surely. Only and only if the bullet simply grazes the temple and does not hit the skull at all can a person remain conscious at all, and even then it is doubtful in most cases. So, how is Khan up and about, Mr. Kashyap? Suspension of ‘realism’ for the ‘Bihar-Ke-Lala effect’?

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [June, 2014 Issue; Vol. XX, Part 6].

TRISHAGNI: A Layered Tale Ably Told

118_1_Trishagni 1All religions attempt to marry spiritualism and ethics. One is not supposed to entertain harmful thoughts or harbour ill-will against others, for it hampers one’s own spiritual evolution and is the breeding ground for immoral conduct. Buddhism is no exception to this general approach that all religions subscribe to. However, the teachings have to be clearly understood in the right context. Even the staunchest of adherents sometimes fall for the temptations that have been most clearly and strongly warned against. And sometimes, one fails to see when one slips down the bottomless pit of immorality. Trishagni tells the story of Buddhist monks in a desert struggling to reconcile the realities of life with the teachings of Buddhism, which command one to lead a pristine life with compassion and mindfulness central to it.

A massive sandstorm hits the village, and wipes the entire populace out save two Buddhist monks, one of whom is the disciple of the other (Alok Nath). They find two children, a male child and a female, and take them into their care. Both the children are brought up by the monks in the Buddhist way of life. But when the youth sails in, the equation changes, and romance tugs at the heart of the girl (Pallavi Joshi), who falls in love with the boy (Nitish Bhardwaj). The disciple monk (Nana Patekar) finds romance opposed to Buddhist teachings and starts resisting the couple’s coming close. He teaches the boy to stay clear of such temptations that are sexual in nature, and tells him to keep away from women.

At the heart of the disciple monk’s attempt to keep the two apart is his own failing at keeping his own sexual turmoil in check after he inadvertently happens to see the girl bathing. The girl finds the disciple monk’s resistance unreasonable and rebels against it. The teacher monk is aware that there is something that the disciple monk is not admitting to despite being asked several times. The girl’s rebellion against the disciple monk results in the boy and the girl leaving monastery to walk across the desert in search of a suitable place. The boy is deeply perturbed by what he sees as a violation of the Buddhist teachings, and expresses his frustration and agonizing sense of guilt to the girl, who calms him down and tells him that Buddhism does not only approve of the institution of marriage but also regards it highly, and that part was glossed over by the disciple monk when he was teaching Buddhist thought to the boy because he was fighting his own demons. The boy is greatly relieved to hear that, and feels freed from the suffocating clutches of guilt.

On the other side, the disciple monk finally admits to his sinful thoughts and morally questionable deeds before the teacher monk, who is pleased to see that his disciple has finally owned up to his guilt. And it’s time for another sandstorm, which hits mighty hard levelling everything this time. The unforgiving and unflinching Law of Karma settles everything with a single stroke of apparently punitive destruction.

At this point several questions surge forth. The foremost among them relates to the sin of the disciple monk. The Law of Karma decrees annihilation on the temple and the monks. And the Law of Karma is primarily a moral law in the context of the movie. What was the sin committed? The answer to the question is a little more complicated than it appears at the first instance. What’s even more interesting is how easily we have already concluded sub-consciously as to what the sin was. The image of the disciple monk seeing the bathing girl impacts so deeply that we automatically conclude that it was the gravest of the sins. There can certainly be other interpretations.

The disciple monk sees the girl bathing by accident and not by design. He does not try or want to watch again even though he does find it difficult to dispel the image of the bathing girl despite fighting it hard, which frustrates him a great deal. It’s just a human frailty that emerges in him when he has difficulties fighting. But what’s sinful in any of it? He is resisting as much as he can, and failing. Failure to fight a force as immensely powerful as basic human instinct is no sin even by the loftiest of standards.

Therefore, what appears to be a sin so clearly might not be a sin; only a failure to fight one’s instincts. But there is another way of looking at the same thing. These are the monks who have spent their lives practicing Buddhism through intensive meditation aimed at gaining control of their senses. Is their failure to keep their instincts in check not criminal enough to warrant a Karmic backlash? Then again, is the unbearable agony that the disciple monk writhes under all through not a fitting Karmic consequence of this failure in itself? The sandstorm hits the temple just when the disciple monk admits to his failing. Does it mean that Law of Karma makes no allowances for confessions? If that is so, why does the teacher monk want his pupils to own up to their sins when such admissions make no difference?

The Doctrine of Karma in Buddhism operates by enforcing an unforgiving law of cause and effect, which is free of all divine interferences. So, the confession is not directed to a God who might forgive one’s failings, but is directed to oneself so that one could take measures to correct the course in time to reverse or tone down the ill-effects of one’s bad deeds.

The disciple monk’s sin is not just his failing to rein in his senses; his sin lies in his denial of his failing, and in his not humbly trying to reflect upon it to regain control and set himself back on the right path. Instead of self-correction, he indulges in using harsh measures against the girl by prohibiting her from going near the boy. And he does it with a good deal of violent speech, which is not in keeping with the Buddhist idea of non-violence. He teaches his disciple—the boy–to stay away from women, and warns him against going close to the girl. He is angry and also a bit jealous in keeping the girl and the boy apart. He is not governed by any good intentions. Not even by a mistaken notion of moral or spiritual rightness, and he is fully aware of it, too, and yet he persists with it until the very end. This is the unpardonable sin that the Law of Karma strikes against.

The teacher monk and the Buddhist temple are also buried by the sandstorm together with the disciple monk. One might ask as to what was their fault. The teacher monk, who was the head of the institution, failed to check the sin despite knowing of it. He failed to stand for the boy and the girl when they were subjected to ill-treatment by the disciple monk, particularly the girl. He also failed to teach the boy that the institution of marriage was not against Buddhist teachings. It was the duty of the teacher monk to ensure that the Buddhist traditions were passed on to all his pupils uncorrupted.

The temple bears the brunt because it became the place where the evil had reared its head, and with the boy and the girl already gone, there was no good purpose that the temple could serve. So, in the destruction of temple and the end of both the teacher and the disciple, there is a release from the miseries of the world and a closure.

Trishagni’ is about the struggle of a Buddhist monk against natural temptations, and the consequent frustrations that assail him repeatedly. The path of abstinence is not easy. What is worse is one’s failing to realize one’s mistake, and what is even worse is one’s taking out one’s frustration on others. The Karmic Laws simply stand aside and let one’s deeds determine whether and how much one suffers. Buddhism is indeed about renunciation, but it does not force renunciation or look down upon those who do not renounce the world.

The movie is not all that difficult to understand, but one must watch out for mistaken conclusions, which are so easy to arrive at the moment one applies conventional moral principles without due care.

Originally published as part of my Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER (Classics) in LAWYERS UPDATE [May, 2014 Issue; Vol. XX, Part 5].