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.