Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Movie Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

I'm not much of a regionalist, but Detective Byomkesh Bakshy depressed the Bengali in me. It reminded me that the best live-action version of the quintessential Bengali detective till date was in Hindi. Rajat Kapoor played the dhuti clad Byomkesh with suavity and charm so many years ago, and he remains THE onscreen Byomkesh for a lot of people even today. I count myself among those people. No, Sushant Singh Rajput has not usurped that position, but after Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, it makes me more than a little sad that the TWO best live-action versions of the quintessential Bengali detective has been in Hindi.

Now I will admit, the character is not one I am overly emotional about - not the way I am with the other Bengali sleuth. I have never much cared for the 'sanctity' of Byomkesh, instead demanding filmmakers offer me a well-acted, tightly scripted, engaging story that isn't an insult to my intelligence, or to my senses. I have been disappointed every time. Whether it's the shoddy Anjan Dutta version featuring a Byomkesh who mispronounces his 'ra' every time, or the molasses-slow Rituparno movie, or the current TV show whose only purpose seems to be to make every other version look halfway competent in comparison - Byomkesh in Bengali has fallen flat every time. Satyajit Ray's "Chiriakhana" is probably the best one in this sorry lot, and THAT had Uttam Kumar pretending to be Japanese.


Which brings us back to Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. Post Satyajit Ray, Dibakar Banerjee is probably the most talented director to get his hands on the license, and instead of adapting one of the existing stories, he has crafted his own. It has elements from three Byomkesh stories - Satyanweshi, Pother Kanta and Arthamanartham, but is wholly original in plot, with much higher stakes and intrigue that involves heavy noir elements - including a femme fatale and an unhinged, psychotic villain. Banerjee's Kolkata is straight out of Bengali nostalgia - vibrant, colourful, vivid, but with dark alleyways and looming shadows just around the corner. There's no sign of the famine of 1943, but the time and place are rooted in imagination, more than reality, so unless you are incredibly anal about history, that doesn't intrude.

Byomkesh himself is a little bit like the Kolkata of the time - brash and angry. Playing carrom in college, he tells Ajit, who has come to ask for help in finding his missing father "He's probably run off with a woman". Ajit slaps his lights out and signals that this won't be the Byomkesh - Ajit relationship we are used to. After he recovers, Byomkesh changes his mind and almost thrusts himself into the investigation - one that follows a serpentine path to murder, conspiracy, and war.

Speaking of Ajit, Anand Tiwari is a joy. He has a far more central role to play here than he does in most Byomkesh stories - it's from him that the mystery begins, after all, and he handles Ajit's strength and vulnerability with elan. He is an incredible foil to the more energetic and excitable Byomkesh, and you can believe the friendship that grows between these two men, both directionless, in their own way. If a sequel to this movie gets made, I can't wait to watch the chemistry between the two develop. Which is crucial, because there's so little chemistry between Byomkesh and Satyabati. Rookie Divya Menon plays Satyavati with a quiet confidence and is suitably deglammed, but enough time isn't given to let the relationship between Byomkesh and Satyabati build and the romance feels forced.

As for Byomkesh himself, Sushant Singh Rajput is fine, and a little more than fine in parts. However, whether it's due to his fault or the fault of the script, the Byomkesh character remains a little underwhelming. Vulnerability is all well and good, but Byomkesh is supposed to be smarter than the average bear, so to speak, and shouldn't be missing stuff the audience can see from a mile off. On occasion, he seems to lose the confidence he displays otherwise, making one wonder exactly how smart and in control he really is. But those occasions are few, and can be chalked up to his youth, something the more mature Byomkesh would grow out of.

Truth is, Rajput seems a tad weak only because the film is peppered with such phenomenal performances, and none more than the big bad. While the story goes straight up into Sin City territory in the last 15 minutes or so (and it's not like the noir graphic novel influences aren't obvious - hell, the poster is a comic book panel), what saves it is the brilliance of the actor playing the villain, which I am not spoiling here. Suffice to say what could have been ridiculously over the top is menacing, chilling and scary due to the sheer power of the performance.

So is Byomkesh Bakshy a good time? On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a "Hell Yeah". If you like your noir gory and over the top, this is a great way to spend a couple of hours. If, however, you are walking in with preconceived notions of a lot of armchair detecting (Which Byomkesh rarely did BTW), and is the kind of person who complains about directors "changing the story" (except when Satyajit Ray does it for Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen), stay far away. If the alt rock soundtrack in the trailer didnt tip you off (yes it's in the movie, and yes, it fits the ambiance to a tee), here's your warning. This isn't the Bakshy you are used to, and that's a great thing. Because THAT Bakshy works best between the covers of a book, and this movie is smart enough not to even try to go up against it.

PS: There's a reason why I didn't mention Swastika Mukherjee, or her character. It's because I have discovered that the secret to a happy healthy existence is a complete lack of Swastika Mukherjee in one's life. I have scrubbed her existence in the movie from my memory, and would advise you to do the same. The film is better for it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Necessity of Choice (or, Shitty videos can still make good points)

I'm pretty sure you have seen the video. Shot like a cross between Schindler's List 2: Schindler Zombies and an epileptic's nightmare, it's titled My Choice and it's pissed a lot of people off. Strangely, the overall rage not about the migraine-inducing jump cuts (seriously, it's like someone did a mashup of the action scenes in Batman Begins and all the Bourne movies. Well, the good ones), nor the so-pretentious-it's-barely-English script relayed in the monotone voice of Deepika Padukone, which, while it does serve as a narcolepsy inducing counterpoint to the frenzied video, is too flat to even be enjoyed ironically.

No, what people are pissed at seems to be the fact that a woman is saying it's her choice to do certain things. Naughty, naughty things. The mouth-frothers largely fall into two camps. 1)Enraged men and women, but mostly men, going "Oh Yeah! Well it's HIS choice to do those things too!", and 2) Enraged men and women, but mostly women, going "How dare you promote naughty things, you bad, bad, anti-Indian-culture role model, you".

Well cool your heels, boys and girls. First of all, the video is called "My Choice". Not "My Smart Choice". Or "My Moral Choice". Or "My Culturally Appropriate Choice". No, that's not a dig at the video. I mean it. The video is called, "My Choice" for a reason. It means having the choice to fuck up. It means having the choice to move in directions in which other people, and even common sense tells you not to. Choice doesn't mean you are protected from the consequences of your choices, it means being free to make them without being physically and emotionally restrained from doing so.

"But what about the MEN!!! Oh won't someone think of the helpless men who don't have any of these CHOICES!". Oh boo fucking hoo. Far more men than women have been making those choices for centuries. Men have been having sex before marriage, and after marriage, and outside marriage, and inside marriage, and on top of marriage and standing on the goal-line of marriage and from the 50-yard line of marriage from time immemorial. "But I/my daddy/my grandpa/my maternal uncle twice removed has always been faithful! And my neighbor Mr.Chatterjee's wife sleeps around all the time! Clearly that proves there is NO gender bias all over India, right?" Well son, you have here what is called an 'anecdotal argument', - a logical fallacy. Your dinky little argument does not prove women have it better than men, or equal to men, and no, you having a female boss/landlord/domineering wife does not magically make it so. It just means you are a special snowflake.

As long as most victims of rape, or dowry death, or acid attacks, or forced prostitution, or domestic violence in India continue to be women, your special status means jack and shit. You're still the privilaged one. "Oh, but what about the evil, evil women registering false 498A cases". Well, what did you THINK would happen if you made a lopsided law like this? You think the women who need this the most, the ones in the remotest villages, have the balls to go to their local police stations and register cases against their husbands? No! It's the women who want to misuse the law who have easiest access to it. That DOESN'T mean men in India are not privileged.

Coming back to the second argument against the video. The whole "Indian culture" deal. Yeah, so the video is against Indian culture. You know what was part of Indian culture? Burning widows to death. Or segregating people based on the situation of their birth. Or keeping women as second-class citizens. No, you don't get to cherry-pick the parts of Indian culture you like, so if you admit that there were aspects of Indian culture needed to change, well then, even now, there are aspects of it that need to change. (Of course, if you believe the aforementioned aspects didn't need to change, you are a psychopath and I would request you to hit your head with a hammer and continue hitting until you can't feel things anymore).Second, who died and made Deepika fucking Padukone a role model? "Ah, but little girls look up to her!". Well, then the parents of those little girls need to take some responsibility and teach them that mediocre actresses with expressionless voices shouldn't be role models. Remember taking responsibility for your child? For his or her tastes and choices? So she said eternal lust and temporary love or something like that (I refuse to watch it again. Seriously, fuck that voice.). If that makes your little princess break off her marriage and jump the bones of the nearest guy she sees, I'm guessing there are more issues here than a schizophrenic, shitty, pretentious video.

The bottomline is, choice is important. Even the right to make the wrong choices. Especially the right to make the wrong choices. To find out whether they were really wrong, or whether it's society that's been wrong all this time. Bring up your girls, and boys to be intelligent, to be good, to be wise and kind and joyful. But don't teach them to fear choices. Don't teach them to recoil in horror if they feel lust forever, and love for a short time. You can't force anyone to feel anything, so don't make themselves feel like something is wrong with them if they don't feel what you want them to. if you do, you will be hurting them far more than the video ever could.

Friday, February 20, 2015

On AIB, Censorship and the Freedom of Trashy Speech

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now, but the words haven’t been coming, or they have been coming way after someone already said it. It’s not like I have much to add to the conversation, but there seems to be a culture of extremism creeping in on both the pro and anti-AIB advocates, that’s missing the point entirely.

I haven’t seen the AIB roast, because I never found them that funny. I have seen enough roasts to know that without truly insightful and brilliant roasters, it gets monotonous very quickly, and nothing I have seen from AIB indicates that they are insightful or brilliant. Witty yes, but little else.
So why am I commenting on something I haven’t seen? I’m not. I am commenting on what I have seen, which is a wave of frothing-at-the-mouth guardians of “Indian Culture” (The same culture that burnt widows at the stake and decided a person’s worth depended entirely on his or her profession. No, you don’t get to pick and choose the parts of the culture that don’t embarrass you) going on and on about how AIB should be incarcerated for what they said. That’s scary. That’s dangerous. And if these people are allowed to win, it’s a slippery fucking slope.

They sold tickets that people willingly bought; making it clear it was a show for adults. They got up on stage. And they told jokes. Poor jokes, maybe. Trashy, crass, classless, clueless, disgusting, perverted, sick, debauched, decadent, unwholesome jokes. Maybe. If your tastes don’t swing that way.  But at the end of the day they told jokes, and now they have been slapped with legal action for it. They can go to jail for it. And that’s very, very wrong.

It’s wrong, because there is truly no accounting for taste. Those who are champing to see them taken down today certainly do things that some other group, somewhere believe goes against “Indian Culture”. Of that, I am certain of, because if there is one thing human nature excels at, it’s in being offended. Those former moral guardians of taste, or at least some of them, would bristle when the other group comes to take THEIR freedoms away. “But there’s nothing wrong in what I did! I am not a bad person”, they would say, and they would be right. I am sure the good people of AIB believe the same thing today. But if those moral guardians turned victims are in the minority, those very reasonable rights would be taken away from them, because they didn’t fit the majority’s idea of what’s good and pure. Suddenly, “standing up for good taste” would turn into “oppressive censorship”, because not enough people believed in the freedom to tell jokes without the threat of prison.

“Taste” has been used throughout history to quell dissenting voices. To destroy freedom of speech. The defenders of the Charlie Hebdo killers point to the fact the cartoons were in poor taste. Perhaps they were, but no one deserved to be killed for them. Speaking out for people like them are not political correctness – forcing them to be silent because they don’t fit your idea of what “good taste” is, is. Moral policing and political correctness are old friends, and it’s the politically incorrect, brash, tasteless assholes that drag society ahead, inch, by agonizing inch. It was politically correct to say that race mixing was not right. It was the done thing. Until some assholes came in and changed the equation. It was politically correct to say that women shouldn’t vote, long before it was a controversial opinion, and then, a ridiculously archaic one. Until some asshole women wouldn’t hear of it.

I am not saying AIB to social reformers. More likely, they are brash, edgy kids who saw the comedy central roasts and wondered “hey, if they can swear at their stars, why can’t we swear at ours? Swearing’s funny, right?” They thought they could take the jokes they cracked in the privacy of their living rooms (the tamer ones actually), make them out in the open, and what was the worst things could get? But the same arguments that can be used to silence or incarcerate AIB today can be used to do the same to people who speak up on more serious issues. Who make fun of India’s real problems, not to mock them, but to raise awareness. Comedy has the power to change the world. Not AIB’s roast, certainly, but it does, and it should not be silenced. So I don’t stand up for AIB’s roasts, or the jokes, or the humour. But I certainly stand up for AIB’s right to make them to their hearts content.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Magnetic Ring

The man flew. Not too far, and not too long, but for a moment he flew, his body arcing gracefully, twisting, contorting itself into various shapes in midair until he came crashing down into the body of his victim below. A fleshy *smack* punctuated the visual as the bodies collided and then snapped apart. The prone man convulsed harder, while our recent flier grimaced in pain and dragged himself to his feet, pulling himself up using the bright red cables that surrounded their gladiatorial arena.

It’s exciting, it’s cheap, it’s colourful, it’s crass, it’s bawdy, it’s art...it’s pro wrestling and God help me I love it. I have loved it ever since I saw huge men duking it out in my grandparent’s big colour TV that had cable. I was that age when the quality of a movie was judged simply based on the number and ferocity of fight scenes in it, and here was a show that was all fight scenes! It was nirvana in a bowl and I had the spoon. Of course, my parents hated it. As did their parents. Even the framed picture of my great grandpa that hung in the hall seemed to squint a little extra-sternly since I started watching the “uncouth, vulgar celebration of violence”. Ok, it was uncouth, and vulgar, and violent, but daaaaad, that’s what made it so AWESOME!

It’s difficult to explain the appeal of pro wrestling to someone who doesn’t get it. What do I say? Its predetermined fights punctuated by badly-acted, soap-opera style skits and promos where big hosses go on about how they will pound their next opponent to dust? I mean, yeah, it’s true, but that hardly conveys the magnetic quality it has. It does not explain the appeal of the larger than life characters, like a 7-foot tall mortician with magical lightning powers, a beer-drinking, middle-finger brandishing rebel, a trio of mercenaries in combat boots and jackets who come in through the audience, destroy their opponents and leave, or a small, diminutive man with devastating kicks, whose onscreen persona and real life story melds into one to create a character that the paying audience gets behind simply because of his earnestness, and a single word that becomes a rallying cry for anyone who was told he wasn’t good enough.

The truth is, pro wrestling is an alternate reality. It’s a comic book universe where what constitutes good and evil are clearly defined, but the characters themselves slip from one role to another, brave patriot one moment, insufferable, jingoistic jerk the next. Allegiances change and brothers drift apart into enemy camps, all to fuel the fire of conflict. New rivalries are born from the ashes of old ones, and children take the mantle from their parents, creating generational conflicts that we, the audience know, will never truly be resolved, because that is the nature of the beast. But we watch anyway, because just like every other amazing road trip, it’s never really about the destination.

It taps into something primal within us, these spectacles of athleticism and human drama. Ahhh, and this is where you say “Where’s the drama? It’s all fake?” First, let’s not call it fake. Let’s call it what it is – predetermined. And yes, it’s predetermined. Because it’s predetermined, sometimes the tiny little weakling beats the big, bad champion even though it probably would never happen in real life. Because it’s predetermined, a psychotic cult leader can go toe to toe against a fighting ballroom dancer and we don’t bat an eye, but revel in the incongruity of it all. You know what else is predetermined? Movies. Books. Plays. Oh, and magic. We know there are little trapdoors and pulleys and whatnot, and that the lovely assistant hasn’t really been sliced neatly and bundled into four neat boxes, but we love it anyway. There’s a kind of magic in pro wrestling, a feeling that anything can truly happen BECAUSE it is predetermined. It’s where the favourite has a far greater chance of losing than in real life, if it takes the story forward. And we, in the audience, don’t really see the trapdoors and the pulleys and the writers adjusting the script behind the scenes. We sit there, mesmerized, as the little man climbs the turnbuckle once more, step by agonizing step, until he stands high above his much bigger, much stronger, much tougher opponent who has beaten him so badly that no man should ever have gotten up from that, but the little guy could goddammit, because he has the heart of a lion, and because he never gives up, and now he stands, the prize within reach, moments away from glory, with tens of thousands of voices egging him on, screaming his name, his catchphrase, screaming for him to destroy the big man below not just for himself, but for all of them, for anyone who felt helpless and small and tired and lonely, and the man looks around, he crouches, and in one, single, swift motion…

he flies.