What I’ve Been Watching: Four Indian Movies

by on June 26, 2017 at 7:23 am in Economics, Law, The Arts | Permalink

In honor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States here are four Indian movies, not movies about India, but Indian movies, that are well worth watching. Most are available on Netflix.

Kahaani is a Hindi mystery-thriller starring Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi (there is a funny scene involving the pronunciation of Vidya, I wonder if she gets that a lot?) a pregnant software engineer who arrives in Calcutta from London in search of her missing husband. A police officer offers to help her and they start following the clues. It soon appears that her husband was not the man she thought he was. The further they explore the more mysterious and dangerous the situation becomes. Calcutta is featured in a lovely way–many of the scenes were shot guerilla style on the street, during the festival for Durga. There are allusions to the films of Satyajit Ray. The tension between Vidya and the police officer, who grows to like and become attracted to her, even as they search for her husband, is nicely handled. The ending brings plot, theme and location together in a way that is cleverly foreshadowed. The director knew what he was doing.

Drishyam is a Hindi film starring Ajay Devgn as Vijay Salgaonkar, a successful family man and businessperson who runs a small cable TV service in Pondolem, Goa. Vijay hasn’t had more than a 4th grade education but he’s smart and he picks up things by watching people and movies. He’s respected in his town but he butts heads with Gaitonde, a corrupt police officer. At this point Drishyam seems like it is going to be a straightforward morality tale about a good man caught in a corrupt system but the story goes in a very different direction when his wife (the beautiful Shriya Saran) and daughter kill a young man. The young man is the son of the police inspector general, a tough as nails woman, played by the stunning Tabu. How is Vijay going to extricate his family from this awful situation? His love of movies will come in useful. Devgn drives the film forward with an excellent performance that reminds me of Gary Cooper. Tabu is superb as the police inspector who must be stronger than the men in her life but who is also the mother of the victim.

Drishyam has been remade four times, this is the fourth. I hope to convince my brother to make it a fifth time!

Court is a Marathi-language courtroom drama. It won the Best Film award in the Horizons category at the 2014 Venice International film festival and the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion Of The Future) award for it’s first-time director Chaitanya Tamhane. It has won many other awards since, including a 100% positive tomatometer. But can I recommend it? Courtroom drama brings to mind Henry Fonda as the one person who turns around the jury of 12 Angry Men or Tom Cruise as the lawyer who pushes Jack “you can’t handle the truth” Nicholson to confess.

Court is not that. There are no great speeches, no climax, no triumph of justice. The great virtue of Court is that it shows you how ordinary people participate in the boring, tedious, and mundane production of injustice.  But that is also its vice. How do you show such a system? By being boring, tedious and mundane. Indeed, Court not only shows the mundane production of injustice it structures itself around that theme. Scenes drift on for longer than expected. The movie builds tension like a conversation with uncomfortable pauses. The audience begins to fidget and think “when will this be over.” That’s intentional. In a two-hour movie Tamhane makes you feel a little like what the people in Indian court must feel, trapped.

The nominal plot is about a people’s poet who is charged with encouraging, through one of his performances, a suicide by a sewer worker. I enjoyed the poetry slams performed by the defendant (the way these lively performances contrast with the other scenes is part of the message). This long piece on India’s sewer workers is good background that underlines the absurdity of the charges.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I watched Court, it has a lot to say about the Indian courts, caste discrimination, the strange carryover of British law (it’s notable that much of the movie is in English because courts operate in English, even when defendants do not) and the mundane production of injustice, the latter of which applies well beyond India. But I confess that I watched it on Youtube at 1.5 speed.

What makes Court interesting is not what happens when you watch it but how you think about it later.

Ok, Lion isn’t Indian cinema, it’s actually an Australian movie starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman but much of it takes places in India and it’s excellent. The movie is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley who as a five year old got separated from his brother and accidentally ended up on train that transported him from his small village to Calcutta, nearly 1000 miles away. Unable to find his way back home, Saroo ends up on the streets fending for himself until he is adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later and using every scrap of memory he has left, Saroo manages to deduce the location of his hometown using Google Earth.

With Nicole Kidman’s star power, Lion could easily have fallen into the trap of the white woman saving the brown boy but it rises above that and keeps its attention on Saroo and real emotion. It’s hard not to tear up more than once.

1 RD June 26, 2017 at 9:38 am

I think that 3 of the 4 movies you mentioned here are excellent choices – even if Lion isn’t an Indian production. I have to however suggest the Malayalam (original) version of Drishyam over the Hindi version. It is available with subtitles (I don’t understand much Malayalam myself), and I think it is far superior to the Hindi one. It will also bring some (more) linguistic diversity to this list!

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2 Hazel Meade June 26, 2017 at 9:51 am

I loved Lion, it was my favorite film of the past year.
Personally, I thought the way it portrayed Saroo’s returning memories and his emotional reaction to them was dead on. Not just the way the taste of an Indian food sparked the flood of remembrance of his early childhood, but the way it become overwhelmingly disorienting, throwing him off to the point that he drops out of school and becomes obsessed with locating his hometown and his mother and brother. He goes from barely remembering anything, having lived most of his life in Australia with a white family, to remembering a completely different life as a 5 year old in India – just scraps of memory at that point.

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3 Ray Lopez June 26, 2017 at 11:59 pm

Sounds good, but keep in mind “based on a true story” in Hollywood is close to fiction. It could well be in real life Saroo is just gaming his adopted parents, and knew all along where he lived. Not uncommon with adopted kids in the USA too (the parents show up, after years in jail, to reclaim their kid from the adoptive parents).

This film by AlexT looks boring: “That’s intentional. In a two-hour movie Tamhane makes you feel a little like what the people in Indian court must feel, trapped. The nominal plot is about a people’s poet who is charged with encouraging, through one of his performances, a suicide by a sewer worker”. Two things: in the USA justice is slow too (overbooked courts, too expensive, as we know from landlord-tenant court) and encouraging suicide, from the commuters who tell a suicidal person to jump at the Golden Gate bridge, to a girl who texts her crazy boyfriend, both actual cases, is actionable. But performance art encouraging suicide is too tenuous for the USA, but probably not for India, which is still medieval in many ways.

Bonus trivia: Dash, Mike (2005). Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult is an interesting book, albeit a bit dry (Dash is a professional historian so he ignores anything not proven in the written record, which makes for dry storytelling, for example he does not claim Thugs were much different than ordinary highway robbers in the 19th century).

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4 Just Another MR Commentor June 26, 2017 at 11:20 am

What’s with the whole “in honor of Modi” bit?

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5 Raag June 26, 2017 at 12:01 pm

I’ve the same question – What’s with the whole “in honor of Modi” bit?

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6 Ray Lopez June 27, 2017 at 12:01 am

Stockholm Syndrome, it’s understandable if you ever live outside the USA. For example, by law, as of around 2015, I as a foreigner living in the Philippines am forbidden to publically comment on any political matter, good or bad (even pro-government) on pain of deportation in the extreme. I don’t think India has this yet, but there could be some self-policing in play.

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7 Virginia Postrel June 27, 2017 at 6:33 pm

It’s known in the trade as a “news peg.”

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8 Ian Matthews June 26, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Would add Piku to this list if you want a heartwarming comedy. Also on netflix at last glance.

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9 Cornflour June 26, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Outside of a few classic titles, I’ve seen no Indian movies, so I’d like to thank Mr. Tabarrok for provoking my interest. Thanks also to Ian Matthews for recommending “Piku.” Anybody else want to pitch in?

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10 ALB June 26, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Adding Haider to this list. It’s an adaptation of Hamlet, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, set in Kashmir in the mid-1990s. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a VCR rental store.

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11 rahul June 26, 2017 at 11:04 pm

You must watch Black Friday. It is based on the 1993 Bombay (Mumbai) bomb blasts and is a superb movie.

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12 Moo cow June 27, 2017 at 12:32 am

Kahaani – just watched it on Netflix. Really good!

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13 Ankur June 27, 2017 at 1:03 am

Masaan is excellent – loving and losing in small town India…

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