SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

Baahubali: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

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S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (dutifully reviewed here at SSS) was a work of grand spectacle, visual wonder and narrative simplicity. It found Rajamouli delivering a shot across the bow, if you will, announcing his intent to deliver a film worthy of the epics which drive the mechanics of the plot, and could stand side by side with Hollywood. But it is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which truly delivers on that promise.

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SIFF 2016 Report #3: Disintegration (The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag)

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Proving once again that no film festival should ever last longer than an Olympic Games, the 2016 SIFF limped to its conclusion this weekend after a soul-crushing 25 days. While the festival had run impressively well over its first two weeks, organized and on time and with nothing in particular for a picky festival-goer like me to complain about, the last week saw an inexplicable series of outrages.

This began on Sunday night, when the programmer tasked with introducing the Johnnie To-produced film Trivisa managed to be both disrespectful, mildly offense and factually inaccurate when he claimed To was the “Roger Corman of Hong Kong”, a producer who would make any movie you had in mind as long as it had “guns or titties”. That same presenter ran the Q&A with actor/producer Chapman To the next night, which was largely unobjectionable (To was the one who mentioned “titties” at least), but the programmer did at one point refer to Mr. To as “Chapman Ho” and later, “Herman”.

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SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond

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The Seattle International Film Festival races into it’s third week (has it really only been fifteen days? With only a mere ten to go?) and here we have some titles you won’t want to miss. We’ll link to our reviews of the titles listed here as we write them, as we’ve been doing with our Week One and Week Two Previews. We previewed the festival back on Frances Farmer Show #6 and discussed it at its midway point on Frances Farmer #7. We’ll have a complete wrap-up of the SIFF just as soon as it ends.

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SIFF 2016: Rainbow (Nakesh Kukunoor, 2015)

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Dhanak (English title Rainbow), the latest film from director Nagesh Kukunoor, concerns a pair of siblings traveling the deserts of Rajasthan in order to meet Shah Rukh Khan. The reason is sentimental: older sister Pari (the wonderful Hetal Gadda) wishes to help her blind little brother Chotu (Krrish Chhabria) get his eyesight back. Inspired by a poster in her village that has SRK asking for eye donations, and learning that he’s shooting a film 300 km away, she takes her brother and hits the road.

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SIFF 2016: Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015)

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Contemporary Hindi cinema is not the most hospitable place for women’s stories. Bollywood largely casts them as doting mothers or arm candy for buff heroes. Angry Indian Goddesses begins with an actress (Amrit Maghera) being told by a director to make sure her hips and butt are shaking while she’s struggling against her captors. She blows up at him, declares Bollywood to be fake, and storms off. So, the film explicitly positions itself as a realistic alternative to this brand of escapist cinema which sees women only as sex objects, and a society that mistreats them at every turn. The other opening vignettes show the other main characters lashing out at their oppressors as well.

Billed as India’s first all-out female buddy film, Angry Indian Goddesses concerns the relationship between a group of friends gathering at a bungalow in Goa in order to celebrate the wedding of Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias) to a mystery suitor. This allows for director Pan Nalin to let a host of personalities bounce off each other and let things flow from there. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see these talented actresses inhabit the screen together, free of the pressures of the roles they might have in a normal Bollywood production. It’s a shame that this is such a rare sight.

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Fan (Maneesh Sharma, 2016)

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One of the interesting things about actors who have worked for a long time (and have a recognizable on-screen persona) is that when they get older, they begin to interrogate those personae, and what they mean. Clint Eastwood has been doing this since the 70s. In Fan, the latest film by director Maneesh Sharma, the subject is Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the most famous Indian actor of the last 25 years.

Shah Rukh Khan is a great ham. He’s a shameless entertainer, doing anything to ensure that the films he’s in work. SRK is great because you can see the effort behind his work, the flop sweat. It’s been that way since the beginning. SRK began acting in films in the early 90s in a series of villainous roles (BaazigarAanjam) before becoming more of a romantic hero. His iconic role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge  paved the way for a new type of hero (and film) that directly addressed the Indian diaspora. The films in this period with SRK in the Swiss alps, his arms outstretched waiting for his love, often fell into cliched territory, but SRK always gave everything to the role. He’s branched out from these roles to become an action hero, a comedian, all while finding time to work with prestigious directors (Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hasaan). While the last few films have seen him make a few lazy choices (his work with Rohit Shetty is pretty uninspired), Fan acts as something of a rejuvenation for him. He hasn’t been this engaged in quite a while.

Fan stars Shah Rukh Khan in a dual role. He plays Aryan Khanna, the biggest Bollywood star in the world, as essentially himself. He also plays Gaurav Chandna, Aryan’s biggest fan, in a performance aided by visual effects that transforms him into a slightly askew version of his younger self. Gaurav moonlights as an Aryan impersonator, and it’s his dream to one day meet him. So, one day he sets out to the big city in order to accomplish this. Things get complicated from there.

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Tamasha (Imtiaz Ali, 2015)

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The opening stretch of Imtiaz Ali’s latest film, Tamasha, takes some of the biggest risks of any film I’ve seen all year. Opening with a metaphorical gambit that’s downright bizarre (Ranbir Kapoor as a tin man on a treadmill?!) that announces the film’s “all the world’s a stage” conceit, Tamasha then segues into an extended stay in Corsica where the film introduces its two main characters.

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Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Kabir Khan, 2015)

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This guest review comes from Jhon Hernandez of the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.

When discussing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the first instinct might be to solely view it as a Salman Khan vehicle. After all, Khan is one of the biggest stars in all of Indian cinema, and this is but another in a string of hits that he’s had over the last 20 years. His recent films have all been formulaic action thrillers that mostly rely on his charisma and the relationship he has with his adoring fans to make them work, if they work at all. And, while a lot of what’s pleasurable about the new film has to do with Salman Khan’s film persona and how this film uses it to its own ends, a look at the director, Kabir Khan, might be worthwhile. I’m an auteurist. What can you do?

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Baahubali (SS Rajamouli, 2015)

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One of the biggest movie events of the year happened this past weekend, but you wouldn’t know about it if you read any of the biggest English language film publications around. Baahubali: The Beginning, the latest film from SS Rajamouli, was just released. The New York Times didn’t deem it worthy of a review. Variety publishes stories of its box office success and gigantic marketing push, but can’t throw a freelancer at it. A cursory search reveals a couple of reviews from English-language publications at best. It’s a rather sad state of affairs for one of the modern cinema’s best mainstream filmmakers.

SS Rajamouli has, over the last few years, steadily upped his scope and ambition. No longer content to tuck his most lavish and improbable images into narrative side trips or flashbacks (Yamadonga‘s trip to hell, Magadheera‘s flashback structure), Rajamouli in his last two films has focused his attention on utilizing his considerable gifts to giving shape to impossible images. His preferred tool is the CGI image, and he’s possibly one of the only filmmakers currently working not bound to traditional ideas of realism – for Rajamouli, each image is fantastic. So Eega, his fly revenge film, becomes not just about its technological advances (Rajamouli is proud of his special effects and wants to show them off – his Zemeckis or Cameron side, if you will), but about how the technology can enhance the film’s devilish sense of humor (the film shares DNA with Tex Avery and Joe Dante all while successfully invoking and playing around with the idea of the Telugu film hero). Baahubali successfully creates a world and aims for a sense of realism in its battle scenes, but will often drop an image of such iconic and mythic stature that any thought that realism is the end game here is quickly dispelled. Rajamouli demands more.

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