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.

Article 15

Article 15

As the opening scenes scrolled across the screen, my first thought was that Anubhav Sinha’s drama was a period piece, but it didn’t take long to realise that the shocking events portrayed are straight out of today’s newspapers. The old-fashioned cars and equally archaic attitudes seem to be a blast from the past, but the reality is that the attitudes and events portrayed in the film are occurring every day, and not just in India either. The film follows new IPA officer Ayan Ranjan as he investigates the disappearance of three girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. The police are disinterested, largely because the girls are from a lower caste and there is little incentive for them to solve the crime. On the contrary, once two of the girls are found hanging from a tree, there appears to be more gain in framing the girls’ fathers rather than risking their corrupt allies in a full-blown investigation. With an excellent cast, insightful dialogue and an uncomfortable and confronting storyline, Article 15 is a challenging depiction of the problems faced by a large number of people every day of their lives.

Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a young IPA officer posted to Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, where he is taking over from the retiring long-term incumbent. The film opens with Ayan in his sleek car travelling smoothly towards Lalgaon while he chats on the phone to his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar). He mentions the clean air and how beautiful the countryside is while his driver relates tales from folklore, but his arrival at the village quickly plunges Ayan back into real life. Outside of the cocoon of his car, Lalgaon is far outside Ayan’s previous experience. This is an area where Ayan’s privileged upbringing works against him, where he doesn’t understand the social hierarchy or how deeply local prejudice is entrenched, and where his principles that probably seemed so straight forward in the city, suddenly have to deal with the day-to-day reality of life in rural India. The soundtrack over Ayan’s arrival is Bob Dylan’s blowing in the wind – the words make sense once you realise that this experience will either be the making of Ayan, or it will leave him disillusioned and broken. Either way, he will understand what kind of a man he really is.

Ayan is at loggerheads with the senior police officer Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) almost immediately as the police brush off the families of the missing girls. Gaura’s (Sayani Gupta) sister is one of those the missing and she is able to convince Ayan of the seriousness of the situation, explaining that the missing teenagers had gone to ask for a wage rise of 3 rupees. Ayan is sure that something sinister has happened, but he is hindered by his lack of understanding of the caste system and of how it affects everything in the small community. For him it’s simple: the girls are missing – register the case. But for the police who have to live in the community while senior officers come and go, it’s more about balancing the different factions and appeasing those who are willing and able to pay their bribes. The girls are simply too low in the social order to warrant any notice and worse still, their lives are considered disposable and therefore of no value. The situation gets worse when the bodies of two of the girls are found the next morning and the autopsy shows they had both been raped. Bhramadatt tries to intimidate the doctor (Ronjini Chakraborty) but Ayan gets to her first and manages to secure her support for an investigation which becomes ever more dangerous, eventually leading to Ayan’s suspension and own investigation by CBA officer Panikar (Nassar).

Ayan’s gradual realisation of the true consequences of casteism and the deeply ingrained prejudices is one of the key points of the film. He arrives in Lalgaon aware that issues of caste and inequality exist as abstract injustices that he has read about but which have never touched him personally. But being drawn into the hunt for the men who have raped and murdered the girls, leads Ayan to new realisations and opens his eyes to the hierarchical squabbles all around. Gaura provides Ayan with the information that he needs to begin to understand the deep social divide, while conversations with Jatav (Kumud Mishra), a police officer who himself is a Dalit, and Gaura’s partner, revolutionary leader Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), provide further insights. Nishad is the villagers champion, well-educated and articulate, but unable to gain any ground with the authorities dues to his low caste status. Jatav on the other hand believes in working with the system but is hampered by his colleagues’ inability to see past his low social status.

While Ayan conducts his investigation, events in the background echo real events and provide further evidence of prejudice and discrimination. One of the local politicians is attempting increase his supporter base and gain the Dalit vote by supporting a Brahmin-Dalit alliance. But there is no real benefit for the villagers in his proposed plans and Nishad and his supporters see the alliance as a betrayal of the community rights, leading to clashes and a Dalit strike. This gives one of the most memorable and effective scenes in the film that drives home the truly terrible working conditions for these people. As the strike takes hold the sewage in the police station starts to back up and overflow into the streets. As Ayan arrives one morning, there is a geyser of foul brown water fountaining up into the police yard, which resolves into a man surfacing from the drain with a load of the sewage material that has been blocking drainage. After dumping this he resubmerges. I just couldn’t believe that someone would have to do such a dangerous job without a protective suit, breathing apparatus and a safety line. Honestly, for me this is the most horrific and confronting scene in the film – even more shocking that the hanging bodies of the girls and the later revelations about their murder – mostly because no-one even seems to notice that this man is risking his life in such terrible conditions just to clean out a drain. With this one scene Anubhav Sinha seems to have captured everything that is wrong with the current system, and the murders are simply the extra dressing on the top.

What I like is that Ayan isn’t the all-conquering hero who storms in and solves the issue while the locals watch on dumb-founded. He makes mistakes and at times seems completely clueless about what is happening. It’s the local people who have the knowledge and impetus to find out what happened, Ayan just provides them with an authority to work under and a framework for the investigation. I also like that no-one is pictured as being all good or all bad, but simply as normal people who have their own share of faults (although perhaps Bhramadatt really is just evil!). With Article 15, Anubhav Sinha seems intent on educating his audience, pointing out just how the atrocities we read about can happen when human life is held so cheaply. But at the same time he’s not accusatory nor is he preaching, but rather simply pointing out what is, and then letting us judge these problems for ourselves. Ewan Mulligan’s excellent cinematography adds atmosphere and although Mangesh Dhakde’s background score is at times overly intrusive, for the most part the music is effective.

As someone who has only ever seen India’s caste system from the outside and who has no real understanding of the societal problems, this film is a real eye opener. The everyday situations I have seen when working in medical camps are explained so clearly here, and perhaps this film should be required viewing for anyone planning to travel to India. There is mysticism here along with the undeniable beauty of the countryside that sits uneasily beside filth, corruption and pollution. But the real triumph is in the depiction of the different characters who represent the broad spectrum of society and illustrate that there is some good and some bad in us all. A powerful and well-made film, Article 15 is not easy viewing but it is memorable and incredibly effective in getting its point across. Highly recommended for excellent performances and for shining a light on real social problems that have no easy answers.

Sameer (2017)

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Sameer is an interesting attempt to make a political thriller that delves into the reasons for radicalisation and subsequent acts of terrorism carried out by young Muslim men in India to-day. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver, mostly due to a surfeit of clichés in the characterisations but there are also some major flaws with the plot that derail the political agenda. Where Sameer does work however is as a thriller, and Dakxin Chhara does a good job with keeping the tension high in the second half as the ATS try to stop the terrorists and their bombing campaign. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is excellent and despite the rather flawed reasoning behind his involvement in the bomb plot, it’s his performance as a mole within the terrorist group that makes Sameer worth a watch.

The film starts in Hyderabad with a series of bomb blasts around the city, including in the area around the Charminar and Mecca Masjid. That seems an odd choice of location given the perpetrator is supposed to be Muslim, but it works in terms of shock value. The prime suspect is a young student from Ahmedabad called Yaseen Darji, and the ATS are quick to send in a team to track him down. However, the only person they find in the deserted accommodation block is Yaseen’s roommate Sameer (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and the ATS Deputy Chief Desai (Subrat Dutta) decides to arrest him as an accomplice. Sameer is brought back to the ATS headquarters in Ahmedabad, and Desai threatens his prisoner with torture if Sameer doesn’t attempt to find Yaseen and turn him over to the authorities.

There are a number of problems with the plot set-up but the most glaring is the assumption that Sameer will be able to infiltrate the terrorist group in Ahmedabad. He has no connection to the city and his only link, that of being Yaseen’s roommate at college, seems a very thin thread to pull. Desai illegally kidnaps Sameer, tortures and threatens him, and then dumps him into an unknown city to try and win the trust of a group of terrorists – it never sounds like a plausible scenario and the film compounds this by adding the stereotypical caricature of a Muslim terrorist to the characterisation of Yaseen’s older brother Shaheed (Chinmay Mandlekar). It just doesn’t seem likely that a government organisation such as the ATS would be given free rein to torture and kill unlimited numbers of citizens in their hunt for potential terrorists, while Desai’s reaction to later events is equally improbable.

Desai’s character is also a mess of contradictions. One minute he’s threatening and intimidating Sameer, while the next he’s trying to charm journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil). He’s fanatical about catching the terrorists and seems happy to commit any number of crimes in his pursuit of justice, but he’s such an unstable persona that it seems highly unlikely that anyone would put him in charge of sensitive operations. His scenes with Alia Irade are also painfully awkward, which may be intentional, but It would seem more probable that Desai would bluster and try to bully Alia rather than try to develop a relationship. Subrat Dutta does his best with each facet of his character’s schizophrenic personality, but Desai seems too flaky a character to be in such a critical role.

Sameer is instructed to find a way to stay with Yasin’s mother Mumtaz Khala (Seema Biswas) and gain the trust of Shaheed. Unsurprisingly Mumtaz doesn’t want anything to do with Sameer and refuses to let him stay, while Shaheed is suspicious of Sameer and doesn’t believe his declarations of support. As Sameer wanders the area he meets a street-theatre group who enact scenes of discrimination and social injustice, just in case the audience hasn’t yet realised that this is a marginalised community with plenty of reasons to be discontent. Mumtaz decries the violence and denies she has a son called Yaseen while Sameer cites the Gujarat riots and his father’s death as the reasons behind his brother’s radicalisation. This is politics drawn with a very broad brush and there is no subtlety in Dakxin Chhara’s description of a society under siege. Just in case anyone was still missing the heavy-handed symbolism, Manto’s (Alok Gagdekar) street theatre includes a young disabled boy, Rocket (Shubham Bajrange) who idolises his ‘grandfather’ Gandhi, and whose simple faith allows him to break up a potential fight between the Muslim and Hindu residents of the colony. You just know it’s not going to be a happy ending.

At the same time, journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil) is investigating the disappearance of 55 children 10 years ago during the riots, which allows her to mention these previous atrocities every time the subject of terrorism is raised. Her character is basically the ‘voice of reason’ who points out that every story has two sides. However, her attempts to humanise the terrorists are generally unsuccessful, mainly because the terrorists’ violence is directed against the local communities.  This has the effect of ensuring the terrorists really are the butchers Desai describes. I did like Alia’s uncompromising attitude and refusal to willingly help Desai in his crusade against Yaseen and his family, and the final twist to her story at the end is clever, although ultimately cynical and sad.

If you can ignore the clichéd political agenda and instead watch Sameer’s story as a straight-forward thriller, then it all becomes somewhat more palatable. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub does an excellent job with his cringing and pleading student being threatened with torture, and his later attempts to wheedle information from Shaheed and his mother are plausibly clumsy. Sameer isn’t a nice person and Ayyub doesn’t try to make him likeable, he just gives him a valid reason for acting the way he does and then gets on with it. His characterisation helps make the race against time to find the information about the bomb plot seem much more urgent than it really is, while his demeanour during the final scenes is chilling.

I wish Dakxin Chhara hadn’t tried to put so much politics into his film and instead left the story to speak for itself. So much of the window-dressing to humanise the terrorists and explain their back-story really wasn’t necessary and it all detracts from the really quite good thriller underneath. And there are good ideas here. The use of a high-pitched whine throughout and then after the bomb blasts works well, and the final scenes deliver a good twist to the story. The performances are good too – Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Anjali Patil both suit their roles and Seema Biswas stands out in her small role. Sameer isn’t a great film but it does have it’s moments, and it’s always good to see something a little bit different, even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark all the time. 2 ½ stars.