Why the need to identify the Hathras rape victim as Dalit?

In the wake of the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, many of us have found ourselves feeling embarrassed at the society we live in; wondering how low humanity can stoop; raging over the unscrupulous and unethical conduct of the authorities in handling the case; and taking to social media to rant or simply protest against this heinous act. These reactions are a natural response to such a horrifying crime and the least we can do — reactions of intensity any lower than this would border on inhumanity. However, even as people on social media flinch at the crime and demand for a swift and brutal justice, many of them seem to show almost a similar degree of aversion to identifying the victim as a Dalit, squirming at the very mention of the word.

If you have been following the news coverage of the case or engaging with the story on social media for even a day or two, I am sure you must have come across a few media outlets, anti-caste activists, and other individuals calling the gang-rape an instance of caste-based violence, with the word Dalit making the headlines. Liberal Savarnas (and many non-Hindu liberals) engaging with the news question the need to mention the Dalit identity of the victim. A rape is a rape, right? It is a crime against humanity. If anything the word Dalit does is create rift among Hindus in an attempt to keep casteism alive, so they say.

The idea that caste has nothing to do with rape (and other atrocities) is incorrect and is deeply rooted in liberal Savarnas’ attempt to breakaway from a shameful “past” but without giving up their own identity as upper caste Hindus. In their peddling of the caste-is-dead narrative, they forget (I hope unintentionally and for lack of knowledge) that merely calling caste a thing of the past does little for the people who are still suffering from caste-based violence and discrimination, which is their present reality. It is hypocritical to enjoy the benefits of privileges, including education, social mobility and not having to deal with discrimination on a daily basis, ensured by being born into an upper caste and yet deny the existence of caste. This denial not only continues the facade of meritocracy and sham offerings of equal opportunity (to the benefit of the Savarnas), but also dilutes the chances of bringing the issue of caste-based atrocities to the mainstream.

Years ago, in my English Literature class, we were introduced to Alexander Pope via his mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock. Prior to having read the poem and explained to by my teachers, I thought rape involved the act of forcing of a man’s genitalia into a woman’s driven by lust. I was wrong. Lust/carnal desire is not the only factor behind rapes. If this comes as news to you, you are not alone: former SC judge Markandey Katju shares the burden of ignorance with you. Although the IPC definition of rape has been amended with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, after the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder in 2012, there is still a lot of room to expand the definition, and remarks like Mr. Katju’s do not help in ensuring a sound awareness of rape among the lay people. (Refer to Section 375 to have a clear understanding of what constitutes rape per the IPC.)

To understand why in cases of rape against Dalits and Adivasis mentioning the caste and tribal identity is important, you need to take into account the fact that Dalits and Adivasis have been and are the most vulnerable population of the society — vulnerable to hate crimes and the most likely ones to face impediments to seeking justice as most of the people in charge of safeguarding rights and ensuring justice are caste Hindus or non-ST/SCs who have adapted to the idea of caste hierarchy. And more often than not they carry their biases and never leave an opportunity to show their superiority.

Rape of a Dalit or Adivasi by non-ST/SCs cannot be judged independent of the 2,000 years of systemic oppression that the people of these communities have been put through by the practitioners of the caste system.The stench of a 2,000-year-old rot cannot be masked by perfumed call-to-actions for humanity when you have documented instances of caste-based and racially-motivated crimes throughout the course of Indian history.

The word rape comes from the Latin word rapio,which means “to seize”. In the poem The Rape of the Lock, an admirer of Belinda (the protagonist) snips off a lock of hair without her consent as a token of affection. Through this seemingly trivial “crime of passion,” Pope highlights the power relation between men and women, which allows men to get away with far serious crimes as long as they invoked love (replace it with honour, morality, justice, etc.) as the force driving there actions. When you do not restrict the idea of rape as a sexual crime, it becomes clear that the problem is not lust alone, it is the idea that a woman’s body is a powerless passive site on which men can play out their depraved fantasies or warped idea of justice and honour. In this light, rape cannot be separated from patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

Rapists take as much pleasure in defiling the body as much as they enjoy exploiting vulnerability and powerlessness to stoke their ego. And what better prey than Dalit and Adivasi women who are doubly vulnerable as not just women but Dalit and Adivasi women. Rape has been used as a tool to make example out of, to mock the men of raped women, to exact revenge, to silence voices. It is for these reasons why women and their bodies feature in so many of our expletives, why army men rape women in war zones and militarised areas (because these are vulnerable women, with no one to hear their demand for justice), and why caste Hindu men have been preying on Dalits and Adivasis. It is not to satiate carnal desire, but to teach lesson, to take revenge, to show us where we belong, to establish and reiterate that they are gods and we cannot go against them. This is the reason why these caste-based rapes are so gruesome in nature. The caste men intend it to be a spectacle.

Not identifying victims as Dalits, Adivasis or from other minority communities only prevents these marginalised communities from making it to the mainstream, thereby effectively taking away any opportunity to present our stories to the world. This is akin to treating us like rubbish on your floors; you cannot shove us under the carpet and talk in your drawing room over a cup of coffee about how far you have come from the days of caste system. Caste is not dead, and as long as it lives, atrocities are committed against Dalits, Adivasis and other minorities, and we are not allowed equal representation to bring our stories of atrocities to light, there will be a need to identify the victims as such. Don’t choke over your sweet talk of equality every time you hear the words Dalit or Adivasi. Get used to it. Or better still, move over and let us speak.

Fandom justice: Is the fight against nepotism as righteous as people think it is?

As I write this post, the new Dharma Productions film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl sits at a rather unfair 5.2/10 score on IMDB and a trailer for another Bollywood mainstream film Sadak 2 creates a record in garnering the most dislikes on YouTube within days of it being posted. Right now the number of dislike impressions on the trailer are at 12 million. Why are people and the media so angry with the two films? Do they deserve to be so angry? And, do these questions even deserve a write-up?

To understand the anger, one would need to go about two months back to the fateful day when Sushant Singh Rajput, an actor in the Hindi film industry, died. His demise has lead to a number of speculations as to whether he was driven to suicide or was it a cold-blooded murder and who the perpetrators are: the “Bollywood Mafia” as the self-appointed gatekeepers of the film industry are being called or Sushant’s girlfriend. While the speculations haven’t settled on any one party, the incident has set the age-old debate on nepotism in the film industry rolling, and has clearly found a villain in the big names of Bollywood and their “star kids”, whom the netizens have been bashing ever since.

The anger among hardcore Sushant fans and others, who may or may not have been fans, has set off a campaign of hate and abuse against the star kids, the aforementioned movies and one particular filmmaker Karan Johar, who is also known as the mai-baab (godfather) of these so-called star kids. The internet and the news media are, it seems so, in a non-stop war with the Hindi film industry “insiders” for not allowing easy entry to talented “outsiders” in the business and even, in some cases, sabotaging the careers of self-made “stars” in the industry so that the less-talented and undeserving insiders continue to thrive in an industry they have claimed as a gated enterprise.

Quite a noble task the fans have taken up, haven’t they?

Fandom isn’t as menacing and toxic as some people suggest it is.

Not quite, on both accounts.

To begin with, most of us have a skewed idea and superficial understanding of merit, talent, discrimination and justice, and none of us can escape bias (I, as an independent thinker, have my own biases, too). The people who are trying to take down the Bollywood establishment are not any different. The idea of challenging an unjust organisation that thrives on hierarchical exploitation, allows and defends wage discrimination, and is only a less-structured version of corporations has my support, but the way people are going about it, does not.

One of my primary issues with this whole campaign against nepotism is that people are making it only about Bollywood. They are forgetting that they are not on the committee that sends the Best Foreign Film nominations to the Oscars. Nepotism is but only a tip of the capitalist, casteist, racist iceberg that has sunk a lot many smaller boats than a celebrity ship. Before I lose you with the metaphors, allow me to get back to the point: we forget that many of us (at least, the ones who are fortunate enough to be able to voice their opinion) enjoy the privileges of nepotism or other similar privileges that we are born with and have done nothing to achieve or be proud of.

But we wouldn’t question our claim to the life we are enjoying, would we? Because certainly we have worked hard for it. And anyone who does not enjoy a better position has only their lack of merit, sincerity and determination to blame. And as we are so meritorious, just and talented, we have the right to call out the ones who aren’t and are enjoying a position they clearly don’t deserve.

It doesn’t matter how righteous our anger is or how incompetent and undeserving the celebrities are because we are the ones who turned actors into stars. As with god, we created the celebrity cult and personality cult. The people who enjoy this status are merely good at exploiting it. We cannot simply put the blame on them and absolve ourselves of all the prejudices, biases and injustices we support to make it happen. We are a part of the machinery.

Ask yourself, who decided that all the top box-office-friendly “stars” are light-skinned and/or male. Or, why aren’t transgenders allowed to play themselves on screen and tell their own stories? Why is sexism and racism so prevalent in comedies? Why are celebrities afraid of expressing their political beliefs, especially when that belief does not agree with the majority’s? Why isn’t there more representation of indigenous tribes and Dalits? Think about it. All these aspects that we have readily accepted to be not good enough for space on screen and popular culture go on to make make the kind of entertainment we consume and the celebrities we idolise.

We can’t keep fooling ourselves that we are any better than the celebrities we love/hate. We can’t slight them for leading lavish, pompous lives when we ourselves aspire to it. And how do we claim to be fighting for justice when we scoff at stories of discrimination against gender, sexuality and minorities and are quick to accusing victims of pulling the victim card?

We are the internet generation: we fall in love online, our idea of relaxation is governed by a slogan from a video streaming giant, we get our next fix in virtual crates and carts and our obsessions are accompanied by hashtags. The collective consciousness of people has never been so easy to manipulate. But people have always been manipulated. Remember, there was a time when the only source of truth was the religious text. Things have changed, our sources of truth have diversified. But the one thing that has not changed is our love for spectacle. The grander the narrative, the more willing we are to believe. And what gets grander than Bollywood (after religion and cricket)?

Mainstream Bollywood continues to simplify or whitewash the issues faced by people who are at the margins of society as we continue to ignore them by downplaying their need for and right to justice and life of respect. It is not just Sushant’s family who needs justice, there are millions who need that prime-time slot to tell their stories, people who need us to raise our voices in their support. Boycotting movies and actors does not make us powerful consumers. We are still at the mercy of the media that exploits our obsession, weakness for jingoism and spectacle and the free time at our hands to continue peddling a tragic incident with new genre twists that range from suspense thriller, police procedural, family drama to the supernatural (so filmy). Ask yourself, wouldn’t a share of such coverage do wonders for people and issues that desperately need our attention?

The Lovebirds (2020) — Review

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The Lovebirds is a run-all-night crime caper romantic comedy that may not quite have the lungs to run a marathon, but it is really effective in short sprints. Having two likable leads, a few tricks up its sleeve and a runtime of under 90 minutes do help.

Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) play a couple who find themselves at each other’s throat after having fallen in love in the span of a short but sweet montage and then been abruptly yanked to the present in a matter of a scene transition that (in caps) says FOUR YEARS LATER. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t be muttering sweet nothings into my partner’s ears either. Jokes apart, I am sure you must have seen similar openings in rom-coms, and you know how the rest of the story goes — a couple on the verge of a break-up is caught in an adventure or misadventure, during the course of which they relearn to trust and appreciate each other. This basic structure has been and is common to most stories, irrespective of the genre, where two protagonists with a largely common goal are involved. Stories with the ability to make the audience care about the characters and the outcome of their undertaking or suck the audience into the adventure are able to distinguish themselves. The Lovebirds has most of that going for it, for the most part. However, at times it becomes too obvious that the movie is trying hard to get things right, the way it shows in a performance when you can see the preparation distractingly visible on the face of the performer. 

When Leilani and Jibran accidentally get mixed up in a murder, they decide to take it upon themselves to prove their innocence because being people of color, they conclude they wouldn’t have much luck with taking the matter up with the police. As they solve one puzzle after another, they find themselves falling out of the frying pan and into the fire, with each situation being more or less funny than the previous one.

This inconsistency in delivering funny scenes is one of the main problems of the movie. Some of the scenes are genuinely funny, while some seem a bit forced (thankfully, the latter kind are few). The effectiveness of humor aside, the jokes, from dorky to droll to dark, at times feel a bit random but not entirely inconsistent, with dark and dorky mostly confined to situations involving threats and other characters and the droll humor largely making up the arguments between Leilani and Jibran. While on the topic of humor, I must say that one of the major winners in the movie is its “woke jokes”. Consider this example: a young couple mistake Leilani and Jibran for murderers and call 911; the girl almost apologetically tells the operator that the suspects also happen to be “colored” individuals.

Every time the humor seems to start to lose its bite, the screenwriter and the director turn in a sweet moment between the two characters. That is another positive about the movie. These moments are staged and acted with sincerity, and I found them more believable than anything else happening in the movie. Even if the movie didn’t suck me completely into the adventure like Game Night (2018) did (I could not help the comparison), these tender moments told me more about the characters than the hasty, tactless exposition and foreshadowing could.

Even though subtlety isn’t a strong suit of the script, I would like to commend the screenwriters for not being too overt with the self-awareness the movie undeniably has. It helped the movie focus more on the relationship of the characters (Issa and Kumail do a really good job, and they share great chemistry) as they come to terms with their insecurities, overcome miscommunication and understand each other a little more — it is called The Lovebirds, after all. To sum it up, the movie is inconsistently funny, thoroughly sweet, a little short of delightful but definitely worth a watch. In fact, I think I might like it more on the second viewing.   

Let us know your thoughts on the movie in comments.

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Ema (2019) — Review

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There are two ways to approach Ema: 1. a horror movie, in which a pansexual reggaeton dancer, impulsive anarchist, compulsive incendiary sets out to win her adoptive son back from his new adoptive parents, and she will stop at nothing even if it means disrupting the family structure as we know it and hold so sacred; 2. an erotic drama about a reggaeton dancer trying to cope up with the aftermath of a rash decision that turned her family upside down, and now she is trying to take control of her life and sexuality in the process of finding redemption.

And oh it is a dance movie too.

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Chilean director Pablo Larrain does not impose any of those ideas on the audience. In fact, he lets the character of the protagonist take the center stage, and it is by exploring the dichotomies, impulses, desires of the character that he builds the case for both the approaches to the movie. Ema’s character drives the story. Her actions, reckless, dangerous, liberating and unpredictable as they are, lend and justify the movie its airs. I cannot remember any scene in the movie where Ema is not present. That is perhaps because Mariana di Girolamo is a force to reckon with, and if she wasn’t in a scene, I cannot remember it. Her portrayal of Ema sits on the character’s skin like a leotard — she takes the shape of the character. She does not miss a single beat. Her performance is as much evinced from her face as from the rest of her body, and that is exactly what an actor is supposed to do when playing a performer who is solely reliant on her body to express emotions as well as someone who is on a sexual journey to find herself. And boy does she use her physicality to dominate every single frame she is in. The confidence and lucidity with which she moves, although it eludes her speech earlier in the movie, gradually becomes her persona even when she is off stage.

One of the problems with Ema being such a hypnotic character is that every other character in the movie gravitates towards her, like a moth towards a flame. After a point, it becomes really difficult for the audience to feel concerned about anyone else besides Ema. When we follow Ema as she executes her seemingly sinister plan to infiltrate the lives of the couple and pry back her son, there is a sense of horror, but it is the kind of horror that does not give us the creeps because we are not looking through the eyes of the victims here. It is the kind of fear we identify subconsciously with as we egg on Ema to see the end of this machiavellian plan and descend further into darkness. Even the fear that we should be feeling for the couple is highjacked by Ema. To see it positively, Ema’s magnetism affects beyond the screen.

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The only character that stands up to Ema is her partner and choreographer Gaston, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. He is snobbish, controlling but also loving and when needed reasonable. They are the perfect match, not remotely because they have things in common, but because they can both get under the other’s skin and go deeper to touch the soul. They complement each other. Bernal plays Ema’s other half perfectly. However, when it comes to Gaston being a choreographer, I just can seem to buy it. Maybe Bernal can dance in real life, but in the movie, I don’t get that dancer vibe from Gaston as I do from Ema. That is perhaps my one major complaint.

I am not a fan of reggaeton (I prefer reggae) and I did sort of feel like a snob watching the movie and thinking how I consciously avoid listening to not just reggaeton but a lot of other music that I consider “inferior” to or “less sophisticated” than the kind on my playlist (however, Ema’s soundtrack has made it to my palylist — baby steps). I felt like Garcia’s character. I felt a bit uncomfortable of this divide I have created. This brings us to another aspect of Ema. The movie isn’t just a character study of this enigmatic person, it is about Chile, its culture, its economic and social divide (the snobs and the snubbed, if you may), and to a large extent, it also works as a commentary on the immigration policy (the adoption of an immigrant boy serves as a metaphor, I think) of the Chilean government. I think, Ema stands for Chile. With the portrayal of the flamethrower-weilding, fiercely progressive, anarchist, sexually liberated, polyamorous dancer — yes, a woman can be all that — and a mother Ema, Larrain draws a blueprint for a new Chile. It is a dream for a country that is more open to the LGBTQ rights (Chile already seems to be doing great on that front) and reorganizing social and economic structures that are more liberating, and one that shows restraint on using state coercion on protestors (notice the lack of police on screen despite the frequent acts of arson). It is a blueprint for a new order that a lot of countries can use, including mine. On being represented thus, Ema becomes the fire that cleanses and forges the new and not that brings destruction. This is the second approach to the movie.

Time to Hunt (2020) — Review

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A small-time hustler gets out of prison after serving a three-year sentence for robbery and he has a new plan to make a ton of money and leave South Korea for the sunny beaches of Taiwan. He ropes in two of his friends and another who owes him money to rob a local gambling house. Not everything goes as planned.

That is the basic outline of Time to Hunt. If one were to judge movies by their story outlines, one would never want to watch another after watching maybe the first two or three of its kind. But thankfully, there are elements to story such as characters, motivations, situations, themes and storytelling that make them different. The above outline could be fleshed out into anything from a crime drama, a dark comedy, a horror movie to a wall-to-wall action flick. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

So, what kind of movie is Time to Hunt? Well, the title does not leave a lot of room for guesswork — it is a crime thriller. And does it work? Yes, it does. A lot of credit for that goes to the movie’s ability to shift gears and morph into a different beast altogether almost seamlessly.

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The movie opens with a shot of two friends — Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi-Woo-shik) bickering over clothes — branded or designer — in a grocery store. The banter continues even as the transaction ends and they step out of the store. The camera follows them and reveals a dystopian South Korean city. What was just a normal conversation between two friends a moment ago gets a different context with smog in the air and the homeless on the street. This opening shot establishes at the outset that these young boys, no matter how street-smart, aren’t really prepared for the world out there. When their friend Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), somewhat hardened by three years of jail time, joins them, we get to know that the present condition of the country and its people is not so because of any war or outbreak of disease, it was caused by economic meltdown. As the movie gradually starts painting the picture of a failed economy and the impact it has had on the people, especially the young, for whom escaping this bleak reality is the only way to move forward, even if it means taking great risks.

While the socio-political angst still simmers underneath, the movie continues to explore the three characters, their fears and their dreams and what they would not do to preserve the sanctity of the bond they share. And before you even get to say, “Hmm. A coming-of-age crime drama! I like where it is going,” it becomes a game of cat and mouse with a hint of a slasher.

The performances are on point, with the three leads bringing the just about the right mix of innocence, anxiety and boyish charm and ably complemented by the sinister, although underdeveloped, villain (they did try to flesh him out through his actions, which lead to some really tense moments). Although the movie begins to become predictable as it moves closer to the climax, director Yoon Sung-Hyun’s ability to create tense scences, which are ample in the movie, keeps the eyes glued to the screen. Even when you know how a scene will play out, you want to watch it for the sheer craft on display, supported by really good cinematography and sharp editing, which help bring out the director’s vision of this bleak world the protagonists must escape for a better future. This little crime thriller scores big over Netflix’s bigger release Extraction.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) — Review

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma is a period romance set in France in the 1770s and it is destined to be a classic. The movie tells a tale of love, desire, art, and memory through the eyes of two women, who find each other through art, challenge their roles as artist and muse, and choose to perpetuate their love through art.

At a time when history was reserved for the rich, grand, and male, the personal history of the marginalized and women in love could survive only in memories that occasionally cropped up in grand exhibitions through a sleight of hand, meant only for the pleasure of that one person. Unlike men, our protagonists cannot freely express their love through art, and unlike Shakespeare, cannot hope to perpetuate their love or immortalize the beloved — “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” They do not have the luxury of such ambitions. Art for them is not a vanity project to be exhibited or collected, it is deeply personal, existing in personal spaces such as on an unprinted page of a book — artifacts that they would probably take with them to their grave — meant only to stoke the memory of a happy moment. Art is intimate.

In fact, it is the titular painting that triggers a memory and takes us down Marianne’s memory lane. Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young French painter, is commissioned to paint a rather elusive subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), a woman of an aristocratic French family. Upon reaching the estate of the family located on an isolated island, Marianne learns that Heloise had previously foiled an attempt to be painted by another painter. The painting is for a Milanese nobleman whom Heloise is betrothed to. Heloise’s mother suggests that Marianne pretend to be Heloise’s walking companion, memorize her features, and paint her without her knowledge. Marianne agrees. Soon, between furtive glances and guarded conversations, they begin to develop an attraction towards each other. However, what begins as furtive attempts to capture the physical features of the subject soon ends up being an act of deception not just toward the subject but to the artist herself. It is then the story becomes a meditation on the artist and the muse.

Historically, the relationship between the artist and the muse has heavily been in favor of the artist — the creator — with the muse being marginalized as merely an object. The great works of art that have stood the test of time are hardly ever recognized for their muses, except perhaps for a few, although the paintings are supposed to be collaborations between the two parties. Even before the movie hits the half-time mark, this tradition is challenged by Heloise, which eventually sets in motion a collaboration destined to become something more, as both the women find the liberation they sought for in love.

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The movie is strikingly minimalist, and it is so by design. A film that is set in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the extravagant grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo styles had given way to a bit more austere, but in no way less majestic, Neoclassicist style, feels more Romantic in spirit (it also has a touch of the gothic in some scenes). It is more focused on exploring the emotions of the characters as individuals without imposing classical archetypes on them. Even when it does relate to mythology, the characters choose to mold it according to their own impulse, instead of accepting the traditional narrative. For instance, towards the end of the movie, a person at an art exhibition thus expresses his surprise at a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Usually, he’s [Orpheus] portrayed before he turns or after, as Eurydice dies. Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.” The Orpheus story becomes analogous to their love’s fate, but its reinterpretation as presented in the painting becomes an act of defiance of the traditional order.

Sciamma’s direction and Claire Mathon’s cinematography convey the uneasiness of the protagonists’ budding attraction for each other through long stares, often interrupted by Marriane and Heloise catching each other stealing glances. The two leads ensure that every emotion their characters are going through comes out clearly. As so much of the acting is done through the eyes, it is impossible to hide any insincerity or lack of commitment. Their eyes become the windows to the souls of the characters they play, which is to say they become the characters. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel do a phenomenal job.

On a field at night during a festival when the attraction does overpower their inhibitions, they share an unbroken gaze. Mathon’s camera captures the moment with such brilliant use of perspective, which is intensified by a folk song. Sciamma chooses to show the gradual progression of the song as it catches on from one vocalist to another, quite like a fire, until we see its effect on Heloise through Marianne’s eyes. At this moment, Heloise is both literally and figuratively touched by fire. The moment is engraved in Marianne’s mind and it becomes the Portrait of the Lady on Fire.

Let us know how you felt about the movie.

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Extraction (2020) — Review

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This is a spoiler-free review.

The second action set piece in the movie is a nearly 12-minute long chase-fight sequence made to look like a single unbroken shot. Director Sam Hargrave seems to have either pitched his vision for the movie based on this 12-minute scene or decided to direct the whole movie because he wanted to shoot the particular scene. And boy does it deliver! It is clearly the movie’s highest point, after which it is mostly downhill, although it is not altogether unimpressive.

Extraction is based on a graphic novel named Ciudad by Ande Parks, although a lot of it has been altered in the screenplay by Joe Russo, including the setting from Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) to Dakha (Bangladesh) and the gender of one of the protagonists. The plot is pretty basic — a druglord in Dhaka gets his Mumbai-based rival druglord’s son kidnapped and a battle-hardened, grieving mercenary is hired to rescue and extract the boy. However, props to Joe Russo for trying to inject a bit of thematic heft into the story by introducing the theme of parenthood, which in ways becomes both an albatross around the neck and a welcome relief for the movie.

Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, the mercenary hired for the job. It is pleasant to watch Hemsworth, who has grown into such a big movie star over the years, show so much sincerity and bring believability to a character type that every action hero in Hollywood must have played at least once. In case you are wondering what that is, it is this: a white male looking for some sort of redemption takes on a dangerous mission in a foreign land (which is mostly exoticized the heck out) and ultimately finds it. This is fairly common in western literature and movies, portrayed with varying levels of artistry and success. Getting back to Hemsworth’s performance, the fight scenes sure looked excruciating. Even with a body double and a ton of amazing stunt performers there to make him look believable, Hemsworth had to perform a lot of choreography himself. And that is impressive, especially because the on-screen commitment is much more demanding here than anything he has done before, including the superhero stuff.

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The other thing the movie does right is introducing a South Asian character that stands as an antithesis to Tyler Rake’s westerner in the East. Played by Randeep Hooda, the character Saju is surprisingly organic to the plot and the theme and is definitely not there just to attract the Indian audience, unlike the barely-there cameo of Pankaj Tripathi. Unsurprisingly, Hooda holds his own alongside Chris Hemsworth.

In fact, Saju is the only character that I felt like rooting for in the movie. Both Tyler and Saju have the same objective but are pitted against each other because of their different motivations. And here it got really interesting for me — while Tyler is on the mission because of the money and redemption and because he wants to, for Saju, it is about survival (I won’t disclose more to avoid spoilers). It is like accepting that the first-world countries have the luxury to dream of and fight for the future (the boy represents future/hope), while for a third-world country, surviving in the present is more than enough. Perhaps I am reading more into it than I should, but it seems the script is aware that without such an antithesis, it would just be another white savior narrative, which it largely becomes, especially because of its representation of Dhaka, which I am sure the people of Dhaka will not be too excited about.

With two good performances, excellent stunt work, great production design (the movie was not shot in Dhaka, except for a few establishing shots), inventive cinematography (especially in the second set-piece — it is brilliant) and fairly fast pace, you would think this is the action blockbuster you have been waiting for, but it has its fair share of problems, including the few mentioned above. One of the major problems with the movie is that it is pretty weak in the emotional scenes. There were instances where a more nuanced approach could have done wonders. Clearly, Hargrave’s directing ability is not as honed as his skills as a stunt coordinator and his efforts fail to evoke the struggles of parenthood and its coexistence with violence in this bleak world. Moreover, Rudraksh Jaiswal’s (who plays the kidnapped boy) underwhelming performance does not help. The script too loses its steam as the movie progresses, giving way to cliches and contrivances far too common in action movies. Although cliche-ridden, the final shootout is great.

To sum it up, if you can get past the white savior complex (saved partly by Saju), cliches, uneven direction, weak emotional core, and one particularly ordinary performance, it can be worth a watch. Just focus on the three Hs — Hemsworth, Hooda, and high-octane action, and who knows you may end up enjoying the movie more than you thought.

 

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Still Life (2006) by Jia Zhangke — Review

Still Life 17

Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is set during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, and it was released the same year as the dam became operational — in 2006. Among the project’s many achievements, such as being the largest hydropower plant in the world, the China Three Gorges Corporation had then listed down the resettlement of nearly 1.13 million people as a world record.

Still Life focuses on the impact of the construction and the resulting resettlement drive on the socio-economic fabric of the county of Fengjie. It suffices to say that Zhangke’s style of mixing documentary and fiction does not adhere to the state’s narrative of achievement, rather in telling the human side of the story, Zhangke highlights the issues the Chinese government failed to mention while presenting the resettlement figures as a world record. Still Life calls out the resettlement drive for what it is — displacement.

The film follows two characters in their search for their families in Fengjie. The first plotline sees Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi province, arrive at Fengjie on a ferry cruising along the Yangtze river, carrying a motley crew of individuals, mostly migrant workers. Han Sanming has not seen his wife and daughter for over sixteen years, and the only way to find them is an address Sanming’s wife Missy Ma had left him when she ran away from Shanxi. Unable to locate his family, he joins a team of workers assigned with demolishing buildings to support himself during his stay in Fengjie.

In the second story, Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao), a nurse in Shanxi province, comes looking for her husband who she hasn’t seen in the past two years and has only heard from him only once when he called her up to check if she was alive.

Both the characters come from two different economic backgrounds, and the film rightly chooses to show the direct impact of the Three Gorges Dam on Sanming’s quest, rather than on Shen Hong’s. The hydel project plays out more like an exotic backdrop for Shen Hong’s story — it serves a more metaphorical purpose. And, it is not by coincidence that the documentary element is more prominent in Sanming’s story than in Hong’s. However, that does not mean that Hong’s quest for her husband does not give us any insight into the lives of people in Fengjie. In fact, it is through Hong’s interactions with other characters (both those living on the margins on the verge of being displaced and those benefitting from the demolition of settlements) that we get a clear picture of how differently people of different classes are being affected by the project.

Still Life is an evocative presentation of the powerlessness of ordinary human beings at the face of a state’s ambitions and the (consequential) changing economic and social dynamics — after all, how can people expect to build or salvage something in a place crumbling into dust and debris and where a power less arbitrary than fate, but as ruthless, is at work? Despite such bleakness, Still Life is filled with moments utterly humane and, sometimes, humorous. In an early scene, Sanming is duped by a cabbie (a motorbike rider actually) who hides the fact that the address Sanming is looking for has been flooded. However, later in an act of sympathy, he secures Sanming a lodge on discount, to which the lodge owner remarks, “You are siding with the customers.”

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