Mee Raqsam

Mee Raqsam is a rather sentimental film by Husain Mir and Safdar Mir about a young Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam in the face of community opposition. Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi directs, and the opening credits explain that the film is a tribute to his father, Kaifi Azmi, who always wanted a film to be made in his home village. Perhaps as a result, the story leans heavily on sentiment and is light on depth, but for those who don’t mind a dash of schmaltz with their melodrama it’s a reasonable time-pass, especially for fans of dance.

The film opens with the sudden death of Maryam’s mother Sakina as she is showing off her dancing skills to her daughter. It’s a bit of an odd start to the film to immediately kill off one of the characters and there is also no context to why Maryam’s mother is dancing on the terrace of their home. Subsequent scenes with her family make it unlikely that she ever had any encouragement from them to learn dance, although it’s suggested by Maryam that she copied dance steps after watching them on TV. Sakina’s dancing seems to be purely a device to link Maryam’s wish to learn dance with memories of her mother, but it feels somewhat contrived without any backstory or explanation. 

Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is understandably devastated by her mother’s death but decides that she will go to classes to learn Bharatanatyam since this reminds her of her mother. Her father Salim (Danish Husain) is supportive, mainly because he just wants his daughter to be happy again, and he can’t see any harm in letting her learn how to dance. The simplistic nature of this part of the story is rather frustrating as it all happens so easily. Maryam wants to learn Bharatanatyam., there is a class nearby, and her father is fine with the idea. There is no explanation of how a poor tailor is paying for the classes, or why Salim doesn’t think through the consequences a little more before agreeing to Maryam’s request. However, everything runs smoothly, at least to begin with, and Maryam begins classes under the aegis of dance teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh). Of course, it turns out that Maryam is a natural, and despite her lack of experience is selected to perform at a local event for the dance school sponsors. One of these is local Hindu bigwig Jai Prakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om), who is unimpressed by the inclusion of a Muslin girl in the classes, dismissively calling her Sultana and later, actively campaigning against her inclusion in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s maternal relatives are equally horrified by the thought of her dance lessons and complain vociferously to Salim. Her aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) is loud and bossy, but despite her dictatorial ways it is clear that she genuinely wants the best for Maryam It’s just that it has to be her idea of what is best. She drags Maryam out of classes and instead gets her to join a sewing circle, but Salim manages to allow Maryam to continue classes and still appear to be compliant with her aunt’s demands. However, the local Muslim community is also opposed to Maryam’s dance lessons and community leader Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) organises a boycott of Salim’s store. Poor to start with, Salim and Maryam face even more poverty and even violence, with stones thrown through their windows and threats made directly to Salim when he attempts to attend the local mosque. Everything culminates in Maryam’s performance at a local dance competition where talent scouts from Delhi will be in attendance. With both the Hindu and Muslim communities against her, the question is will Maryam manage to dance at all, let alone make her mark at the competition.

The story is kept simple, and all the characters apart from Maryam and her father are essentially one-dimensional. On one side are the people who are good – Uma who is thrilled to have a ‘natural dancer’ in her classes and doesn’t care who she is or what her family does. Maryam’s cousin (Juhaina Ahsan) is supportive while local auto driver Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla) persuades his fellow drivers to buy their ‘designer’ shirts from Salim when he sees how the family is being shunned by their regular customers. There is a vague love story between Ashfaque and Maryam’s cousin, but despite initial promise this doesn’t go anywhere, and adds little to the story. A track involving Jai Prakash’s ‘modern’ daughter Anjali (Shivani Gautam) is also a little odd and appears forced into the story partly to show a modern viewpoint but mainly so that Anjali can save the day at the end. On the other side are the bad guys – Zehra is traditional and narrow-minded, Jai Prakash and Hashim Seth are as prejudiced as each other, and the local communities follow their lead blindly. 

Although the story follows a predictable path, what really makes the film stand out are the performances from Danish Husain and Aditi Subedi. Danish excels in the role of an understanding and sympathetic father who is completely supportive of his daughter’s decisions. He’s kind, resigned to dealing with his wife’s family, but also stubborn when it comes down to doing what is right. Aditi Subedi is charming as Maryam and she nicely blends together conformity with her rebellious desire to learn Bharatanatyam. She gets the emotional scenes just right and does look lovely when she dances. Deepali Salil’s choreography suits her well, and my only complaint about the dancing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Disappointingly, the final dance competition is spoiled by some erratic camera angles, but the dance scenes in Uma’s classes are simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the music here; the background score by George Joseph and Ripul Sharma is excellent and suits the atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The idea of the story is interesting, and I must admit I hadn’t ever thought about the difficulties of learning Bharatanatyam aside from how complex and physically challenging it appears to be. I’ve always thought of it as a quintessentially Indian dance and it’s fascinating to see it through the lens of religion rather than simply as an art form. The prejudices and conservative mindset of both the Hindu and Muslim communities are well portrayed, although it would have been even better if there had been some more shading of the characters rather than leaving everything quite so black and white. However, the scenes of family disagreement are better and give more of an insight into the difficulties facing Maryam and her cousins as modern attitudes clash with traditional values. Mee Raqsam may not be as ground-breaking a film as it could have been, but it’s a different take on the clash between cultures and that makes it well worth a look. 3 ½ stars.

Raat Akeli Hai (2020)

Raat Akeli Hai is a noir detective tale that puts Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) at the centre of an investigation into the death of rich patriarch Raghuveer Singh (Khalid Tyabji). The film follows a classic whodunnit format, but within the tale director Honey Trehan tackles a number of prejudices and societal woes that make the film more than a simple murder mystery. Despite a slow start, the film slowly builds and apart from one or two small slips, Raat Akeli Hai is an excellent addition to the Hindi detective genre.

The film starts with a murder on a lonely road at night. A truck crashes into a car carrying a single female passenger, and when the crash isn’t enough to kill her and her driver, the truck driver delivers the final blow himself. Fast forward a few years and Inspector Jatil Yadav is called to the house of Raghuveer Singh when the family find him dead on his wedding day. The prime suspect is his new wife, Radha (Radhika Apte) who was Singh’s mistress and who is resented by the rest of the family. Each has their own reason for wanting Raghuveer out of the way, and as the story unfolds most are shown to be fairly unpleasant people. Even Radha has personality quirks, but she’s easily the most sympathetic of the bunch.

Raghuveer’s first wife was the victim in the opening scenes, and her brother Ramesh Chauhan (Swanand Kirkire) is amongst the suspects at the wedding. He seems resigned to his sister’s fate, but there is the possibility that he’s harbouring a grudge against his brother-in-law. Singh’s daughter Karuna (Shweta Tripathi) is pregnant with her first child and her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi) is violently aggressive towards Radha and seems nasty enough to commit a murder. But then, it’s also more likely that he would kill Radha, rather than his father-in-law. Also included in the suspects are Raghuveer’s apparently drug-addled son(Nitesh Tiwari), his sister Pramila (Padmavati Rao) and her two children Vikram (Nishant Dahiya) and Vasudha (Shivani Raghuvanshi).

The family are rich and despise Radha for being from a poor family. That she was sold into the position of Raghuveer’s mistress doesn’t seem to bother any of them, neither do they seem particularly concerned that he abused her regularly. However, they are at least fair in their general disregard for each other, and most seem to have disliked Raghuveer in equal measure. The more Jatil investigates, the more depraved and dislikeable Raghuveer appears, from his lavishly decorated bedroom with pictures of semi-clad women on the walls to revelations about his preferences for young girls, there seems little to like about the man. What makes the story so intriguing is that there is little to like about the other characters either, and even Jatil has idiosyncrasies that make him appear fussy and unpleasant.

As the investigation unfolds, Jatil finds an unlikely witness in the family’s servant Chunni (Riya Shukla), but when she too is found murdered, it seems as if Jatil may never find the answer. All the clues point to Radha, and perhaps it’s simply Jatil’s developing infatuation that makes him refuse to believe that she could be guilty of the crime.

The story is cleverly developed with small snippets of information gradually building to form the larger picture. I liked how unpleasant everyone is and how they each seem a plausible suspect, even Radha, despite her being the focus of the plot. Her behaviour during the investigation is obstructionist and she refuses to tell her side of the story, presumably from a knowledge that it has never helped her in the past. But even beyond that there is a slyness to her personality that made it difficult to fully empathise with her character. However, Radhika Apte still manages to capture vulnerability and desperation within her portrayal and the mix is simply brilliantly done. Despite not liking Radha, I still felt sorry for her and her situation, while simultaneously wanting to slap her and tell her to stand up for herself! That mix of clever writing and inspired performance makes Radha an intriguing and memorable character, no less because for the most part she is negatively portrayed.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is also excellent as the investigator, bringing a tough, hard-bitten attitude but still displaying compassion when required. His personal fussiness adds depth and a realness to the character that ground his firm focus on the truth and make it seem more reasonable that he would decline to succumb to the family’s desire for a cover-up. The only downside was a developing romance between Jatil and Radha which was uncomfortable and out of step with the rest of the story. After condemning Raghuveer for his treatment of Radha, any relationship between Jatil and Radha seems just as wrong given the power imbalance between the two characters. Writer Smita Singh seems to have tried to mitigate this by introducing Jatil and Radha earlier, but the romance still feels unnecessary.

What I appreciated more was how the story took the darker sides of society and carefully mixed slavery, child abuse and incest with domestic and family violence. Issues that seem to be kept under cover and not spoken about, are dragged into the open, and the horror and anguish caused by abuse of power is suddenly clearly visible. Karuna’s howl of anguish when she finds out the truth resonates as a cry for justice for all abused and tortured individuals, as well as an effective means to demonstrate her own feelings of powerlessness with her own situation. The secrecy and selective blindness by family members is used powerfully to illustrate just how prevalent such treatment of women is throughout all levels of society.  This even extends to Radha’s father, who was the one who initially sold her, and to the family’s treatment of Chunni, who is the only likeable person in the whole film.

I’m a fan of detective films generally and the story and execution here is sophisticated and smooth. The film is perhaps a little slow to get going, but once it does, there are plenty of clues and suspects to keep it interesting. The characterisations are well done, and all the performers seem a natural fit for their roles. This is just different enough to stand out from the crowd of whodunnit’s that have been released recently and I thoroughly recommend it as both social commentary and intriguing detective tale. 4 stars.

Tumbbad

Horror films are not usually my first, or even second choice, but I’m so glad I listened to a friend’s recommendation and watched Tumbbad. The film is exquisitely made and the story is much better than I expected – more Pan’s Labyrinth than The Shining although quite definitely Indian in feel. Here there are myths, metaphors and monsters that are frightening on a number of levels while the underlying story explores the theme of greed and how it warps and twists those it touches. The story is told in three separate chapters that span the years from 1918 to 1947 and adds glimpses of the social issues of the time, ranging from the harsh treatment of widows to Indian Independence and the opium trade. Against this backdrop, Vinayak Rao grows from a young child to become a father himself as he seeks out the treasure that lies within Tumbbad.

The film opens with an animation and voice-over where a father tells his son the legend of the god Hastar and his imprisonment in the womb of the goddess of prosperity. It’s an effective way to quickly explain the background story and introduce the idea of treasure and the consequences of unrestricted greed before moving to 1918 and a rain-soaked village somewhere near Pune. Tumbbad is where young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni) live with their mother (Jyoti Malshe) in a strange stone house on the top of a hill. The boy’s mother is housekeeper and mistress to the ageing Sarkar (Madhav Hari Joshi) who lives in a crumbling palace and who is apparently also the boys’ father. Vinayak’s mother also takes care of the Sarkar’s great grandmother (Piyush Kaushik), who is chained and locked in a room at the end of a long, narrow corridor in their small house. She sleeps as long as she is fed regularly and the family live in dread of her waking with her snores added to the ever-present sound of the rain.

After Sarkar dies, Vinayak wants to look for the treasure, supposedly located somewhere in the palace, but after a tragic accident his mother is intent on leaving Tumbbad. She forces Vinayak to promise not to return, but fifteen years later Vinayak (Sohum Shah) breaks his vow and returns to the palace to claim his birthright. But as his great, great grandmother tells him, not everything you inherit should be claimed. The final chapter in the story relates what happens when Vinayak brings his own son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) to Tumbbad and initiates him into the mystery of Hastar and the family treasure.

The film was written by Rahil Anil Barve, along with Anand Gandhi, Mitest Shah and Adesh Prasad, and went through a number of producers and re-writes before finally releasing at film festivals last year. Perhaps as a consequence of the long development, Tumbbad is full of sumptuous detail that mostly serves to enhance the story. To start with, the village of Tumbbad seems practically non-existent since the only places seen through the veil of rain are the crumbling palace and the family’s stone house set amongst a bleak and desolate landscape. Adding to the misery of the landscape, inside the house there are dark passageways lit only by lamplight, while the palace is a bewildering warren of rooms and buildings which are gradually overtaken by trees and greenery as time passes. The whole place reeks of decay and corruption and is the perfect setting for a horror film. Pankaj Kumar is in charge of cinematography and his previous experience with films such as Haider and Ship of Theseus seems to have influenced his almost surreal treatment of the landscape here.

The path to the treasure is via a well and as Vinayak descends the passageway becomes red with oozing walls that seem to pulsate, making it seem as if he has indeed crawled into the womb of the goddess in his search for Hastar. The monsters are well thought out too and with clever use of CGI and dim lighting the effects are frightening without being overly gruesome or theatrical. The film relies on suggestion and atmosphere rather than all-out horror or gore, but there are several excellent jump-scares and plenty of creepy moments that are quite scary enough for me.

Throughout the film there are several reoccurring themes that lock the cycle of greed in place. The rain is constant, while a woman wearing red and the image of a boy covered in flour reoccur in different chapters of the story. Best of all are the wonderfully intricate and complex locks that secure the various entrances – to the stone house, the palace, and even to the entrance to the treasure.

Sohum Shah is fantastic here as a man so obsessed by gold that he values it above all other relationships. His face is cold and emotionless until it comes to the matter of money, and then his infatuation with treasure is plain to see. He even trains Pandurang in the skills needed to reach the treasure, but has no real emotional connection with his son at all. The two child actors in the beginning are superb and are instrumental is setting up the initial claustrophobic fear that permeates their home.

It’s the evolution of the main characters here and how they become monstrous in their greed that works best, which Mohammad Samad manages well as Pandurang. His change from initial innocence to scheming for more gold is beautifully handled and perfectly summed up in his attitude to his mother and to Vinayak’s mistress (Ronjini Chakraborty). It’s an impressive performance from the young actor and he handles the various emotions of the role incredibly well. Anita Date is also good in a small but important role as Vinayak’s wife, while Deepak Damle and the rest of the support cast are all effective and add layers to the complexity of the film.

The most impressive thing about Tumbbad is the story, which grabs attention right from the start and just doesn’t let go. The stunning sets and clever use of light and shade are amazingly effective, while the whole world of the film is resonant with detail and rich in imagination. Despite the story being all about the evil of greed, it doesn’t ever feel moralistic, but rather simply describes the consequence of succumbing to the desire for more and more gold. It’s also an interesting take to have the protagonist approach and take advantage of the monster rather than the other way around. All up, Tumbbad is an excellent directorial début from Rahi Anil Barve and creative director Anand Gandhi. It’s simply an awesome film that deserves a wide audience outside of fans of the horror genre, and is well worth catching online if (like me) you missed it at the cinema. 4½ stars.