Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

February 9, 2020

Cut above the Best

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 3:15 pm

Why would a documentary on the legendary shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho be titled 78/52? Well, because Hitchcock shot the chilling murder sequence using 78 camera angles and 52 editing splices. Want another bit of trivia? To capture the sound of a knife stabbing a body, Hitchcock listened to different kinds of melons being pierced, finally settling on a casaba, intercut with the sound of a piece of steak being knifed.

That’s just some facts amongst the hundreds crammed into this fascinating docu on one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. Directed by Alexandre O Philippe, 78/52 meticulously collates so many details about the scene, narrated by a host of voices.

There’s Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of actress Janet Leigh who played the murdered secretary Marion Crane. Anthony Perkins played the ‘psycho’ Norman Bates, and his son Osgood is interviewed here, as is Hitchcock’s own granddaughter Tere Carruba.  There’s also an account by Marli Renfro, who, as a 21-year-old model at the time, stood in as Leigh’s naked body double for seven days while Hitchcock filmed the shower scene. These interviews add insights along with those from a multitude of Psycho admirers like master editor Walter Murch and director Guillermo Del Toro.

The documentary is packed to the gills with details, but at 90 minutes it can sometimes get tedious. The true-blue cinephile, however, is unlikely to complain as one is treated to a thorough deconstruction of the edit and the score. Why, for example, that cut from the blood swirling in the drain, to Marion’s lifeless eye? Or the logic behind the haunting screeching violins echoing her screams.

78/52 is a tribute to the genius of Hitchcock – the director who killed off his leading lady in the first third of Psycho. Just listen to how critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich describes it in the documentary. Recounting how it felt to come out of the theatre after watching Psycho in 1960 when it released, he says, “I felt like I had been raped.”

78/52 brings alive that terrifying and voyeuristic shower scene, and this documentary is a worthy watch for every film lover.

(78/52 is currently streaming on Netflix)


January 21, 2019

Brute force

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 2:53 pm

The 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure might have been snubbed by the Oscars, but that was a poor call by the Academy. This is an intelligent film that treats you intelligently, asking you to decide how you feel about its characters and their actions.

The film is about a middle-class couple Tomas and Ebba who’re on a skiing holiday with their two young children at a luxury resort in the French Alps. Tomas is a workaholic, and the vacation is an opportunity for the family to spend quality time together. On the second day, while enjoying lunch on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche goes a little out of control.

What happens next is crucial. No one is hurt, but in that moment something changes fundamentally. When the snow comes down in a massive force, threatening to engulf the terrace, Tomas panics, grabs his mobile phone and makes a run for it, leaving his family behind.

Understandably, Ebba is disturbed by the implications of his actions and becomes consumed with resentment. Tomas, who denies any wrongdoing, must nevertheless confront his cowardice, even as his wife begins telling people about his callous behaviour in the face of danger. The whole episode creates cracks in the relationship of another holidaying couple who is forced to take sides.

It’s a delicious little firecracker of a film that casts a sharp, unforgiving gaze on a marriage at its most fragile. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund urges us to confront notions of masculinity and pride, and puts these characters under a microscope to show us things about human nature – and ourselves – that we’d rather not see.

I should warn you that the film is excessively ‘talkie’ and requires both your attention patience. It unfolds at an unhurried pace, but stick with it and I promise you’ll be rewarded.

(Force Majeure is currently streaming on Hotstar)


December 14, 2018

Life itself

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:50 pm

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a film of great beauty and genuine feeling.

It couldn’t be more dissimilar to his other films, and yet, like some of his best work it has that incredible, immersive quality that transports the viewer to another world. Previously he’s taken us to space (Gravity), to a magical school for wizards (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), we’ve even spent some time in a post-apocalyptic future (Children of Men). But Roma, inspired by memories of Cuarón’s own growing up years, is an authentic, evocative portrait of Mexico City life in the early 70s.

Shot in stunning black and white, and much of it in long single takes, the film is essentially a domestic drama about an upper middle-class family living in a spacious home in the Roma neighbourhood that’s thrown into upheaval when the father leaves. Cuarón’s focus though is on the family’s live-in maid Cleo, a character who the filmmaker has revealed is based on his own childhood nanny and housekeeper.

Played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who was working as a schoolteacher when Cuarón cast her in the film, Cleo spends her days busy with household chores. She’s constantly pottering about, preparing meals, doing the laundry, cleaning dogshit from the driveway, or tending to every need of the four kids who are clearly attached to her.

If you ever had a loving nanny in your childhood that you remember fondly, chances are that you’ll recognise the relationship immediately. Cleo is very much a part of the family, and yet always the help. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the family gathered in the living room watching television. Cleo is among them too, one of the kids nestled in her lap as she partakes in this simple pleasure…that is until she’s told to clear away the plates.

Cuarón also gives us a glimpse of Cleo’s life outside the home. She endures her own upheavals including an unreliable boyfriend and a devastating personal tragedy. The events of the film unfold against larger events in Mexico’s social and political history to give the film heft.

But that’s too much information already. What you must know about Roma is that asks us to contemplate themes of class and dignity of work, while pointedly asking us to introspect on what makes a family, and what is love after all?

In both the performances of his actors, and the look and feel of the film, Cuarón aspires for – and successfully achieves – absolute realism. From its very opening shot of a tiled floor being washed to its deeply moving final moments, watching Roma feels like watching life unfold. There’s never a false moment.

You’ll be surprised by how another family’s life can feel so personal to you.


(Roma is now streaming on Netflix)

May 25, 2018

Love letter to cinema

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:21 pm

Ask any purist and he or she will tell you that classics ought not to be fooled around with; they’re best left as they are. But that’s not what you’ll come away thinking when you watch Bioscopewala, a smart, moving adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala. The film is a tribute to the beloved short story about Rehmat Khan, an Afghani pathan, who forms a tender bond with a five-year-old in Kolkata who reminds him of his own daughter back home.

Director Deb Medhekar uses that through-line to pole vault into this contemporary version, turning the Kabuliwala into a Bioscopewala (played by Danny Dezongpa), who befriends the young Mini, even while introducing her to the magic of cinema through his bioscope.

There are layers within this film that we peel one by one as the story unfolds. It begins as a grown-up Mini (Geetanjali Thapa) is grappling with a sudden tragedy. Her father, famous photographer Robi Basu (Adil Hussain), has died in a plane crash, on his way to Kabul. Mini, now a filmmaker in France, is struggling to get his last remains and do the last rites, even as she works her own demons over the estranged relationship she shared with him. In the midst of all this, she finds that she now has custody of Rehmat Khan, released from prison and suffering memory loss. Mini is determined to get to the bottom of Khan’s story – where he came from, how he landed in jail, and the family he left behind.

Medhekar, who has co-written the film with Sunil Doshi and Radhika Anand, encourages us to piece together the story like a jigsaw puzzle, much like Mini does. Like in the classic, the overarching theme in Bioscopewala is a father’s love for his daughter, and it’s one that tugs at your heart.

But the film is also a love letter to cinema and a powerful statement against fundamentalism, as revealed in flashbacks to Rehmat Khan’s run-ins with the Taliban back home in Aghanistan. There is a hat-tip to feminism too in a plot-point involving Tisca Chopra’s character Waheeda, and her brush with ‘burkha boxing’. It might seem like a lot to pack into a film that runs only a little over 90 minutes, but Bioscopewala is tight and nicely holds these elements together.

Then there are the extraordinary performances from Geetanjali Thapa, Adil Hussain, and especially Danny Denzongpa who returns to the screen, playing Rehmat Khan with both heart and heft. After all these years, he still commands your attention with those intense, piercing eyes, even when he isn’t saying a word.

Make time for Bioscopewala, it’s a deeply affecting film, imbued with a lingering love for cinema.



February 9, 2018

Eyes on the prize

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 4:32 pm

Boy and the World, a charming animation film from Brazil that was nominated for an Academy Award two years ago, takes us inside the head of a small child; it gives us a view of the world through his innocent eyes.

This simple, mostly hand-drawn feature directed by Alè Abreu looks nothing like the slick, sophisticated films from Disney and Pixar, but you’ll be happy to know it’s as emotionally engaging as the best of those films.

It tells the story of a pint-sized boy, living happily on a farm, which is as much of the world he knows. When his father leaves for the big city, the boy decides to follow him, thus beginning an adventure in which he finds his view of the world expanding rapidly.

The film’s anti-capitalism message, its critique of environmental damage, and its theme – the loss of innocence – aren’t new to the animation genre, yet Abreu reaches for a purity and simplicity that makes the tale genuinely affecting. The animation is lovely: clean, basic, and filled with aching, gorgeous color. It’s set to a pulsating soundtrack that more than makes up for the practically wordless script.

But at the heart of the film, is the boy himself. Our protagonist, the little guy in the striped shirt, whose face resembles a button with two long, slit-like holes for eyes. It’s through those eyes – full of awe, surprise, and horror – that we witness the harshness of the modern world.

It’s likely that the film’s socioeconomic subtext will go above the heads of very young viewers, but there’s a lot to enjoy in this kaleidoscopic odyssey that somehow manages to pierce its way into your heart and make you care.

The Boy and the World is wonderfully strange, and yet has so much to say of such great value. Make time for this little gem. I think you’ll enjoy it.


February 2, 2018

A life in pictures

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 12:20 pm

Few filmmakers have married artistic ambition with commercial success in the way that Steven Spielberg has. He is both an Oscar-winning director, and the man credited with inventing the modern blockbuster. He has given us beautiful, deeply affecting tales about the innocence of childhood, and handled stories about serious world events with equal ease. Such is the influence he wields on the cinematic landscape that the words, “a Steven Spielberg film” have come to represent a genre unto itself.

Titled, quite simply, Spielberg, this 2017 HBO documentary directed by Susan Lacy is as much a celebration of the filmmaker’s career as it is an intensely personal portrait of the man. There are interviews with his colleagues, his family, and critics that help understand how he’s gone on to leave such an enormous footprint on popular culture. But it’s the refreshingly candid conversations with Spielberg himself that are key to recognizing how much of his childhood and early life he poured into his movies.

From channeling his memories of being bullied on the schoolyard into his first TV movie Duel, to drawing on his feelings towards his parents’ messy divorce for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg is surprisingly forthcoming on private matters. He admits he was a scared child, but also shares the memory of trapping his sisters in a closet with a fake skull and chuckling as they begged to be let out.

For the cinephiles it’s a virtual trip down memory lane as Spielberg identifies Lawrence of Arabia as one of the earliest films that stoked his love for the movies, then discusses in some detail the experience of making his initial films…including the troubled production of Jaws, navigating nascent special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the devastating failure of 1941.

If you’re s Spielberg nut, you already know some of these stories but there’s a thrill in listening to him tell them. He admits he just didn’t have what it needed to deep-dive into the lesbian relationship in The Color Purple, and discusses why Schindler’s List meant so much to him, before ruminating on themes of democracy and moral integrity that drove his desire to make Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the documentary begins to drag a little as it hits the halfway mark, and some of Spielberg’s later films become the casualty as a result. I know I’d have loved to hear more about some of his lesser films and the criticism they received, but there’s not a lot of that to be found here.

Nevertheless there’s a lot to take in, but with Spielberg continuing to make movies, the documentary does feel a tad incomplete. (Naturally there’s no mention of The Post, which came out after the documentary had been produced.) Still it’s a very worthy reference guide for fans of American cinema as it attempts to unravel the mind and the heart of one of its most popular filmmakers.

(Spielberg is currently available to stream on Hotstar)



January 25, 2018

Let’s talk about sex, doctor!

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 6:02 pm

Could you discuss sex with your grandfather? Perhaps you could, perhaps not. And yet, millions of Indians have anonymously asked Dr Mahindra Watsa, 93-year-old sexologist, confused, explicit, and often absurd questions about sex in his popular newspaper column Ask The Sexpert.

That’s also the title of a beguiling documentary about Dr Watsa, directed by Vaishali Sinha and currently streaming on Netflix. In the film, the sensible doctor reveals that he has worked on propagating sex education in India for more than 40 years. But it was his Mumbai Mirror column and, these questions on sex that he answers every day with a rare combination of wisdom and wit that catapulted him to fame.

The film observes Dr Watsa closely – how he reads questions with a magnifying glass in hand, peering at the computer screen in his sea-facing apartment in Mumbai. But it’s his non-judgmental personality that endears him most to the viewer; the fact that very little actually shocks him. Questions, both odd and agonized, are tackled by him gently. It’s an attitude the therapist carries forward to the patients he sometimes attends to at home. The film captures these sessions without revealing the faces or the identity of his patients. Yet you can feel their emotions and sense the issues tangled up in this one act – the act of sex.

Through its protagonist, this film – Ask The Sexpert – also shows the urgent need to discuss a subject that many still consider taboo. It’s especially heartening to watch Dr Watsa dispense advice that is respectful of women’s rights. The film also gives a personal glimpse of the doctor, through his relationships with his family, friends and colleagues. It’s an enjoyable documentary that’s totally worth your time — here’s a man devoted to helping India comprehend sex. And in doing that, he’s quietly nudging us into a more progressive, empathetic society.



June 3, 2016

Life, or something like it

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:40 pm

One is repeatedly told that blood runs thicker than water, but that theory is put to test in the wickedly funny Kannada film Thithi, from first-time director Raam Reddy. The film’s powerful opening and closing shots are trained on a father and a son respectively – two men related by blood but who could not be more different from each other.

The father is the cantankerous Century Gowda (Singri Gowda), so named because he lives past 100. As he drops dead in the film’s opening sequence, the narrative revolves around his ‘thithi’ ceremony, the 11th day feast held to mourn his death. Century Gowda’s son is octogenarian Gadappa (Channegowda), a free spirit who roams the fields, sleeps under the skies and is addicted to Tiger Brandy. His reaction to his father’s death? “No big deal,” he shrugs.

Clearly there is no love lost between the two – a fact explained later in the film when Gadappa narrates a scandalous story that led to his estrangement from Century Gowda. Gadappa tells the story in flickering firelight to a spellbound audience, his matter-of-fact tone in contrast to his tragic tale. It’s one of the best scenes in a film that celebrates life and death in equal measure.

But Thithi isn’t just the tale of these two men. It also involves Gadappa’s materialistic son Thamanna (Thammegowda), who now wants to inherit Century Gowda’s agricultural land. Thamanna is willing to lie and cheat and bribe his way to get his inheritance, even if it means faking his own father’s death. Thithi is also the story of Thamanna’s son Abhi (Abhishek MN), a girl-crazy gallivant, determined to seduce a headstrong shepherdess. How the three generations of Gowdas – Gadappa, Thamanna and Abhi – fare in the 11 days leading up to Century Gowda’s thithi forms the basic story.

Bit by bit, Raam Reddy and his writer Eregowda, involve the entire village of Novekoppalu and its inhabitants, setting up this slice of life film with strong characters – like the firecracker female owner of a toddy shop, a henpecked good-for-nothing local, even the snow-haired village loon who dances in front of funeral processions.

Look carefully and you’ll notice the points Reddy wants to make – about family, materialism, desire, individuality, and the all-pervasive humor that laces life if we only look a little closely. Did I mention that the cast is full of non-actors, all locals from Novekoppalu village? You won’t guess from the way they emote…their casual, earthy language and their idiosyncrasies suck you right in.

I recommend that you do not miss Thithi. Raam Reddy’s debut is searingly honest, and yet so charming that its characters stay with you long after the lights come back on.



July 10, 2015

Chasing Amy

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

The name Amy Winehouse evokes myriad images: the beehive hair, the multiple tattoos, the bold eye make-up, those paparazzi shots of drug-fueled hangovers. British director Asif Kapadia’s captivating documentary on the singer-songwriter goes beyond the clichés to provide an intimate, layered portrait of the troubled artiste who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of just 27. Even if – like me – you haven’t been a fan of her music, this film will break your heart.

Drawing you in from its very opening moments, the film establishes her blazing talent through home-video footage recorded in 1998, of Amy as an impish teenager, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a friend, impersonating Marilyn Monroe’s famous performance. These bits, along with a wealth of private videos provided by her family and close friends, allow us a glimpse of the talented, intelligent, charismatic young woman before she hit the big-time.

The film’s narrative is a familiar one: her stratospheric rise to fame at a young age, exploited by those closest to her, a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, a life played out in full public view courtesy the relentless tabloid press, and then her death. One of the great strengths of this film is that Kapadia never forces his viewpoint; he mixes archival footage, home videos, and interviews skillfully to present the most wholesome view of Amy’s life and its unraveling. Sure some people come out looking bad – her husband Blake Fielder who reveals it was him who got her addicted to heroin and smuggled drugs to her when she was in rehab, her father Mitch Winehouse who is seen bringing along a camera crew to a private vacation that was meant to help her recuperate, her manager who allowed her to go on stage while she was high for a concert in Belgrade that naturally ended disastrously.

To be fair, the film isn’t as gloomy as it sounds. The younger Amy, before the drugs, was charming and unmistakably funny, as one private video reminds us. It’s footage of her pretending to be a Spanish maid as she shows a friend around a holiday apartment in Mallorca. And then there is the music. You’ll be spellbound as she belts out tracks in that big, blessed voice. Kapadia’s masterstroke is to put her lyrics on screen as she sings them, so we can see for ourselves how personal they are, and how reflective of her tumultuous life. The video recording of her duet with her idol Tony Bennett is one of the best bits in the film, also revealing her innate integrity to her craft.

Like the director’s terrific previous documentary Senna, on the life of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, Amy humanizes a fascinating figure that deserved a more thoughtful study than the headlines provided. This is, in fact, an even stronger film – a carefully observed portrait of an abundantly talented but potentially fragile woman singed by the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.


April 17, 2015

Order, order!

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:47 pm

If you haven’t had a brush with the Indian legal system, you may picture courts with lawyers who breathe fire and brimstone, yelling “Milord!”, “Tareeq pe tareeq!” or “This whole trial is out of order!” 28-year-old director Chaitanya Tamhane’s National Award-winning Marathi film Court is the antithesis of the typical Bollywood and Hollywood courtroom dramas that we were raised on.

Here a female prosecution lawyer dryly wishes that a defendant could be thrown into jail for the next 20 years, just because she cannot bear to see the “same boring faces again and again” during the trial.

The case being discussed is of Dalit protest-poet Narayan Kamble (Veera Sathidar) who is accused of inciting a manhole worker to commit suicide through his lyrics. Tamhane, making one of the most assured debuts we’ve seen in recent times, takes an observant approach; it’s obvious that this is an open-and-shut-case. Yet Kamble languishes in prison under trumped up charges while his case is debated before a judge, month after month.

Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), an activist lawyer arguing for Kamble, is often baffled at how ridiculous the charges are. You can almost picture him biting back exasperation at the system, yet he patiently soldiers on to get Kamble out of jail. Meanwhile, prosecution lawyer Sharmila Pawar (Gitanjali Kulkarni) approaches the case propped by outdated law books than by any cool logic. This courtroom troika is completed by Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), more obsessed in court procedure and his supreme power as a decider of fates than in dispensing any real justice.

There is Kafkaesque absurdity and black humor mixed in the proceedings as witnesses fail to show up, or when an archaic Victorian law is delivered by rote by the prosecution lawyer. In the corner of one frame, you see a lawyer catching a nap. So often you wonder, “Is this for real?”

The beauty of Tamhane’s film lies in the fact that it is so real. Court is a biting commentary on society, a wry fly-on-the-wall take on the farcical way in which our judicial system and its antiquated laws decide the fate of our people. The lead performers cease to act, and just let their characters breathe through this subtle script. It is how Tamhane tells his story that we are drawn in – occasionally choosing to strip the characters of their day jobs and taking us into their lives.

Vinay is wealthy by birth, a fact established through scenes of jazz-filled evenings and supermarket outings where he lazily picks up wine and slabs of cheese. Is it then that he can afford to have compassion and fight for the oppressed, because of his privileged background? What of the middle-class Sharmila, who takes a local train, picks up her son from a crèche, cooks dinner that the family consumes before the TV and painstakingly writes out her argument for the next day? Can she afford any compassion, caught in the rigor of her tough life? Tamhane leaves us with uncomfortable questions, compounded through the life of Judge Sadavarte. He’s seen letting his hair down at a picnic in a beach resort, but later he dispenses advice mixed up with the superstition of numerology and lucky stones.

Court is a film that offers a wealth of meaning. The drama unfolds languidly, often taking on the somnolent nature of the lower courts, and the camera observes from afar, holding a scene until we absorb it. Moments stay with you, like that desperately poignant bit where the manhole worker’s widow talks of her dead husband in a monotone, or when she politely refuses to take money from Vora and asks for work instead. There’s the humorous outburst that Vora has with his parents, furious when they casually discuss his single status with a client. Typical – the strange embarrassment that only parents can bring you.

Tamhane’s film excels in revealing these terrific vignettes of life, and in the process it ends up moving you. The film allows us to judge, and yet, suggests that we don’t judge too much – after all, this is life with all its complexities and everyone is human.

Compelling and all-too relevant, Court punches you hard in the gut. No rating can do this film justice. It’s unmissable.



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