Sardar Udham to 83; here are the best films of 2021.
Going by the gorgeous gallery of big-screen beauties that I savoured, it seems the movie business had nothing to worry about in 2021.
Topping my list was Sardar Udham. Released on Amazon Prime video, this was history, in more ways than one. Where were you on 13 April 1919 when the Jalianwala Bagh massacre happened? And where were you on 16 October 2021 when Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s remarkably mordant film about the Massacre, was released? Note the two historic dates. One when the historic event happened. And the other when the event that created history was recreated in a film that’s at once a comprehensive bio-pic and a sharp thriller about an assassination of a dubious political figure, a la The Day Of The Jackal. Indeed Frederick Forsyth meets Richard Attenborough in this astute if over-long cinematic replication of an assassination that shook the world.
The film is punctuated by bouts of indefinable pathos and yet Sircar, a master when it comes to temperate storytelling, exercises an incredible restrain over his potentially unwieldy narration that takes its protagonist here there, and everywhere. From Sunam, a village in Punjab to Russia, to finally London where General O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott, well played) is now busy giving lectures on the glorious days of the British Raj and what a brave and noble deed he performed by ordering the Massacre… “to teach them a lesson.” For all its anti-British tone, Sardar Udham bravely refuses to demonize the Britishers. One of the British interrogators of Udham, played by Stephen Hogan I so sympathetic to Udham’s crime that he almost ends up looking like a token of reconciliation. Also, I sometimes caught O’Dwyer looking stricken with guilt(or was I just imagining it) before he is assassinated, as he ought to be. True to its mercurial mood, Sardar Udham follows a capricious timeline.
It starts with Udham Singh journeying from his village to London via Russia, then moves through early years where we are told rather airily that he was in love with a mute girl named Resham (Binita Sandhu). It ends with the recreation of the Jallianwala massacre. And this is where Shoojit Sircar’s film goes from being an admirable bio-pic to a certifiable masterpiece. The last 45-50 minutes of the lengthy(almost 2 ½ ours) film shows the carnage in all its sanguinary splendour. Sircar and his Udham, Vicky Kaushal, pull out all stops as bloodied wounded survivors of the massacre are carted to hospitals. The Massacre makes for a harrowing watch. But you can’t take your eyes off the orange-and-red fire and blood, splattered screen. Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, director Sircar’s long-term collaborator is the second hero of the film. Avik’s lenses capture the London of the 1920s with understated grace. Sircar neither overdoes the pungency nor undermines the immediacy of period details. Every period detail looks just right. How did he do it? We will never know. The director himself would be hard put to explain the film’s pitch-perfect tone, the absolute eschewal of melodrama, the sparing scintillating use of Shantanu Moitra’s background score, and the remarkable regard for preserving and yet liberating history’s mysteries with a visionary’s flourish as deft and delicate as the notes of Vande Mataram and just as affecting.
Then there is Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Toofaan. On July 16 Amazon Prime had a lot to be proud of. Two outstanding feature films are Malik in Malayalam and Toofaan in Hindi, although the language in both cases is the least vital component in its vibrant validity and renewable vitality. Toofaan, I have to admit, starts sluggishly. As the triumphant underdog’s saga of a goon from Dongri who becomes a national box-office champ, Toofaan takes on all the typical tropes of the sports genre: gruff coach, elitist decision-makers, supportive girlfriend, and what-have-you. But then suddenly Toofan changes tracks to become something much more than a sports drama, something far more relevant moving, and vital. It becomes a testament to the power and pain of love in a growingly intolerant society powered by toxic levels of prejudice and suspicion. Following the intercaste marriage of the boxer, Aziz Ali and the love of his life Ananya Prabhu, the screenplay(Anjum Rajabali, Vijay Maurya) speaks to us in a language that’s at once ineradicably topical and deeply moving. On many occasions, I found myself teary-eyed as we follow the craggy cruel path of the love story. Akhtar and Thakur bring a lot of warmth and empathy to their screen relationship. They understand love. More importantly, they know what lies in store for their forbidden liaison. To our relief director, Mehra doesn’t dwell on the ugly underbelly of communal anxieties. But yes, we do see the couple facing the hardships that arise when they cross into another community through marriage. Some of the familial interactions in the second half are so translucently dramatic I was completely bowled over by the sheer sincerity and, yes, the innocence of vision revealed in the unalloyed emotions. There is not a disingenuous bone in the body of the storytelling.
Farhan Akhtar and Paresh Rawail deliver knock-out performances in this pugilistic drama. Rawail’s journey from rabid communalism to compassion and acceptance is convincing because, well, he is that kind of an actor. And given the integrity of the director’s vision, no actor can afford to go wrong. The interactive scenes between Paresh Rawal and his little granddaughter are moving in a very old-fashioned way. More than anything else, Toofaan reminds us how far our cinema has moved away from its roots. Why are we so shy of crying, singing, and dancing in our films? Toofaan is an unabashed tearjerker. But the emotions are never manipulated, never insincere. I wish some of the brilliant supporting cast had more to do: Mohan Agashe(who as Paresh’s lifelong friend just fills the frames with a fund of fond emotions), Vijay Raaz(whose role begins and ends abruptly), Supriya Pathak(so charming but so little to do) and Hussain Dalal(playing Farhan’s bestie, watch him in the full-on lip-sync song—a first in a Rakeysh Mehra film—dancing with Farhan imitating all the celluloid greats). But no one is shortchanged in this heartfelt melodrama filled with a kind of aching nostalgic yearning that I thought I would never see in mainstream Hindi cinema again. And yes, Mrunal Thakur the only important female character, holds her own in a film that is really about the men, their egos and their defeats, their conflicts, and their inability to come to terms with socio-political changes individually and societally. Put this film on your-must see list this weekend. It is Rakeysh Mehra’s best since Rang De Basanti. And that’s saying a lot.
Then there was Kabir Khan’s ’83: By the time the climactic photo-finish match at the posh Lords stadium unravels in all its historically astute glory, the audience is so invested in the film it feels like the entire slab of sports history has been effortlessly converted into the crisp currency of cinematic history. You don’t have to be a cricket fanatic to understand how important the 1983 World cup victory was for India and Indians. Even Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then the ruling country with iron hands, realized how vital it was for our boys to bring that Cup back. Somewhere in the course of the undulating through well-balanced and authentic storytelling (script by Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Vasan Bala), the formidable Mrs. G is heard telling her cowering cabinet, “Let there be a television set in every home to watch the World Cup so that the nation’s attention can be diverted from political issues.”I don’t know how accurate these assumptions so nimbly knitted into Kabir Khan’s gamely yarn of the World Cup’s power and reach are. But the film makes you want to believe in its strikingly nationalist assumptions.
There is a sense of imminent urgency and unquestionable credibility cutting through the sports drama, as though to celebrate and mock the sports tropes at the same time. We don’t know if all the events so charmingly described in the film, leading up to the victory, actually happened. Even if some of this is conjectural creativity, there is absolutely no way one can question the narrative’s right to interpret sports history as it thinks right, as long as the final triumph is not diluted or compromised. Unflinching propriety manned by masterstrokes of effortless candor and underscored by Julius Packium’s crowd-friendly background score, run through the saga bringing back to us the great 1983 victory with a vividness we have not experienced before in any sports drama. Of course, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan and Shimit Amin’s Chak De were great films delineating the complex relationship between sports and politics in a nation where every citizen is a potential scorekeeper if not a game player.
Kabir Khan cleverly kicks into India’s obsession with cricket and eventually turns an underdog saga into a triumphant tale of unforeseen heroism. The casting of the cricketers, so crucial to the efficacy of the end-product, is almost impeccable. Jiva as Srikkant and Amy Virk as Balwinder Sandhu are notably effective. Some of the other players especially Sunny Gavaskar and Sandeep Patil are not so well-played. Pankaj Tripathi as the team’s manager manages to be characteristically spot-on. But Deepika Padukone as Romi Kapil Dev is quite unnecessary. What works wonderfully in the film’s favour is the team’s commitment to getting it right. The matches look authentic. Cameo appearances by Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath do not appear gimmicky. No one is in this for attention. There is a sense of profound commitment underlining even the most crowd-wooing moments, such as that recurring visual of a little boy with his father rooting for Kapil, or Boman Irani as a radio commentator sobbing at the end. This is not a film to be taken lightly. It is relevant and historic and yet it succeeds in not being self-important. Standing tall at the apex of the drama is Kapil Dev, the affable desi captain of the team, so kind and yet a born leader. I looked for Ranveer Singh in 83. But I couldn’t find him.
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui was quite simply the film everyone must-see. It tells us about tolerance, and acceptance without getting preachy and screechy. Director Abhishek Kapoor manages the near-miraculous feat of keeping the tone blithe and buoyant even when the going between the couple gets rough. There is a disarmingly fine-tuned moment of pathos running into humour without collision when the film’s lead pair has a showdown on the street of Chandigarh. Two cops, concerned about ‘Bahenji’ stop to inquire. You have to see the rest of the sequence to know what fluent screenwriting is all about. Director Abhishek Kapoor has in the past shown us his brilliant side in fits and starts in Rock On(the film that introduced Farhan Akhtar as an actor and singer), Kai Po Che (the one that made Sushant Singh Rajput a movie star), and in Kedarnath ( a smart ingenious idea felled by a clumsy climax).In the mistitled Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui the writing (by Supratik Sen, Tushar Paranjpe) is clearly on the roll. It flows freely and fluently making space for chuckles and sobs without seeming to be doing anyone a favour.
It is no coincidence that the film’s hero is a beefy brawny Big Moose, Manu a gym instructor who doesn’t think twice before making a fool of himself in public. Manu’s relationship with Maanvi begins with a fart. It cannot go anywhere but up from there. The dizzying romance is filled with clasps cuddles kisses and fucks…And oh yes, the songs which are not particularly likable. But then who is listening? We have eyes and ears only for the work in progress. Director Abhishek Kapoor captures the rhapsodic turmoil of the electrically attracted couple with a purpose. When Maanvi’s big revelation about her gender comes, we know this clunky oafish walking-talking muscle machine will take time to come around. The aching sweetness and the numbing wait for the apology acceptance and reunion are filmed with a furious fluency. Except for a few overdone sequences of Manu’s two nosy sisters prying into his love life, the narration’s momentum never flags. I have always believed that a film with a strong social message can only work when the tools of storytelling are well oiled and fully alert and alive to the job on hand. Using the language of conventional storytelling director Abhishek Kapoor tells us all about accepting the unconventional.
Netflix’s Dhamaka is a stinging slap in the face of sponsored journalism where money and not the conscience, and certainly not the welfare of humanity, guides the television anchor to scream blatant lies. All is well as long as the lies sell. And sell everything for TRPs. There is a defining moment in this tense tale of the teacher and the ‘taut’ where our conscience-stricken journalist-hero blurts out to his boss, “Yeh sach nahin hai.” Haan , yeh news hai,” the boss reminds Arjun. The boss(fed into Arjun’s phone as ‘Ankita Boss’) is a hardnosed ruthless media vulture played with characteristic spunk by Amruta Subhash. She will do anything to get the TRPs rolling. Arjun Pathak, lately disgraced and demoted, is willing to play along when a vigilante/terrorist/reformer( we can label him what we want depending on which side of the blown-up bridge we standing on) named Raghuvir Mahata calls in at the news channel Bharosa 24/7 with information that could be a game-changer in the media’s relationship with the newsmaker, not to mention Arjun’s relationship with his conscience and also with his wife (Mrunal Thakur). It all seems too compactly packaged initially, with all the ingredients of Arjun Pathak’s downfall lined in one line of vision.
But then Ram Madhvani decides to turn it all around. And as Pathak’s world falls apart(like the bridge blown up by the faceless aam aadmi on the phone) we realize, nothing is as it screams behind every voice of protest is unacknowledged unread mythology of pain suffering and humiliation. As I heard Raghuvir Mahata’s rage vent itself viscerally into threats of unmitigated violence I thought of the innocent tribal who was tortured to death in police custody in the recent Tamil film Jai Bhim. What if Rajakannu in Jai Bhim had survived? Wouldn’t he be that voice threatening to blow up the city in Dhamaka? Taking off as a terrorist-negotiator thriller, Ram Madhvani’s film moves into areas of storytelling where terrorism merges into opportunism and good intentions are regurgitated in a mess. It is a powerful parable on injustice and discrimination delivered with brute force that spares us none of the violence that a situation of social inequality breeds and bleeds into a compromised nation. Besides Kartik Aaryan the other heroes of this tactile thriller are Monisha Baldawa-Amita Karia’s editing and Manu Anand’s cinematography. These master-technicians put a dizzying spin to the out-of-control lives of neurotic characters, playing live on television. The supporting performances especially by Amruta Subhash as the Boss and Soham Majumdar as the Voice, are bitch-perfect and pitch-perfect, respectively.
The jury was divided on Atrangi Re. In my opinion, this is the best film Aanand Rai has made since Tanu Weds Manu. It left me in a swirl of feelings at the end. The one certainty that I came away with is this: we have never seen anything like this before. Writer Himanshu Sharma has penned a paean to that weird thing called love. There is pleasure and pain in that paean and there are a couple of startling twists in the tale of twisted love which made me thankful for the certainty that art offers. No complication cannot be fixed. Original hai, boss! Ekdum original. Akshay Kumar plays Sajjad a hero like never before. He is hero-worshipped by Sara Ali Khan’s feisty Bihari avatar Rinku in a way we’ve never seen before. Rinku’s love for Sajjad re-defines that whole commodious place where the Indian rom-com loves to bask, but hardly ever gets it right. This one does, and how! Every time Sara’s Rinku runs to hurl herself into Sajjad’s warm embrace a thousand unseen flowers bloom on the horizon. But sorry, the real hero of the film is not Sajjad. It is Vishu, the Tamilian softhearted doctor(who I suspect is Tamilian only because he’s played by the director’s favourite actor the Tamilian Dhanush).
He is a kidnapped groom who learns only too soon that coercion is the steppingstone to acceptance. Early in the plot Vishu shows himself to be heroic beyond the cinematic definition of the word. There is a botched-up engagement ceremony where Rinku is abused by the hosts. Vishu takes her hand and says, ‘Shaadi zabardasti hui hai lekin biwi hai.’ It is one of the most heroic moments I’ve seen in any recent film. Towards the end when one lie could have solved a very complex psychological situation, Vishu sticks to the truth. But it’s a very strange truth about a lie that Rinku has been living with since her childhood. Atrangi Re is a wondrous unpredictable journey into the heart of love. It is skillfully written and delicately directed by a man who recognizes the nobility in every human being. This is a story of enormous sacrifices. There are episodes where we the audience don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is also a deep dive into mental trauma and illness brought on by events in the past that leave a deep scar. This is eventually a film about healing, filled with hope sunshine, and laughter, Atrangi Re is a terrific way to end the year.
Paglaitt did the near-impossible. It’s not easy to laugh in the face of death. But what to do when the newly-widowed Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra, in a career-changing performance) asks for an aerated drink when she should be grieving copiously and ostentatiously? Sandhya knows the ‘mourning’ shows the day. Sandhya has a problem. And a very disturbing one at that. She doesn’t feel a thing for her dead husband. Instead of grieving over his loss, as the teeming household of parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, nephews and nieces seem to be doing, Sandhya sneaks out of the house with her best friend Nazia(Shruti Sharma) pretending she needs a doctor, to have gol gappas. Pagglait is a striking provocative often poignant and amusing meditation about what is expected from the bereaved and what the bereaved feel. We had a very likable film on this theme Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi a few months ago. Pagglait may outwardly look similar(after all, mourners cannot be any different in two different households, or can they?). But the core of the film, its heart, and its spirit is fiercely individualistic. This is a film on its trip, wilful and wonderful and teeming with characters made memorable by some of our best actors. When a young girl talks about her periods in front of the family, the ever-dependable Raghuvir Yadav (a past master at playing grumpy old men) retorts, “Aur dikhayo inko Padman.” To show the middle finger to tradition and convention especially in a house filled with mourners is not easy.
Pagglait gets right the mood of suspended regret and unrepentant defiance as Sandhya sets off on a journey, first emotional then physical, to know herself. This self-searching is done with such scrambled ambiguity that we can’t help feeling protective about Sandhya. Throughout her 13-day journey, Old Lucknow remains a distant ally. A sleeping accomplice, if you will. Rafey Mahmood’s camera doesn’t miss a single smirk or frown on those familial faces. At the centre of the bustling jostling melee of mindless mourners is the question of Sandhya’s aborted marriage. Did Sandhya not ‘know’ her husband when he was alive because of her intellectual shallowness? Sandhya’s interaction with her dead husband Astik’s girlfriend Akansha(Sayani Gupta) suggests Sandhya never made an effort to get close to her husband. This “getting to know” process(blue being her dead husband’s favourite colour, Sandhya unaware of this vital fact, names blue as HER favourite at the end when she’s on her way to self-actualization) reminded me of Rituparno Ghosh’s Shob Charitro Kalponik. At times the plot seems top-heavy. Too many life-changing events follow in a rapid progression during just the 13 days of mourning.
Luckily writer-director Umesh Bist balances out the spiral of domestic revelations in a calm cogent flow. Even when the characters overlap in their desires and disaffection, they somehow seem to never lose their identity. Some of the people who populate this drama of liberating disenchantment may be hard to place in the family hierarchy. But we all know how it is in a house of mourning. No one knows everybody. And most mourners are not there for any other reason but to gossip. As genuine mourners, Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chadha, playing the dead man’s parents, and Chetan Sharma as his sibling is bang-on. The rest of the cast isn’t far behind. Just a little lost in their moral grounding.
In Haseen Dillruba it was interesting to see how an avant-garde writer like Kanika Dhillon is pushing the Hindi Film Heroine over the edge. She can now crave things like non-vegetarian food and satisfying sex without being slut-shamed. It’s okay to be a slut now. The new post-‘Covet’ guidelines are deliciously applicable to the heroine in . Rani Tripathi, nee Kashyap, is the kind of hormonal heroine who gives the smalltown slut a bad name. In a sequence straight out of a pulp novel written by her favourite author Dinesh Pandit, Rani walks up to a girl who’s (innocently?) talking to her husband and confides that they(Rani and her husband) have had sex only once since their marriage a month back and it ended in a squishy fiasco.“Lady to lady main aapko bataa rahi hoon,” Rani tells the disgusted girl(whoever she might be). This crass attempt at being brutally frank about her appetites, be it for sex food or later murder, makes Rani a counter-deified oddity, an anomaly, a square among circles. She certainly doesn’t fit in as Rishu’s husband. Rishu! He is a problem. You see, he is not a wife-beater or a sleazebag. He loves his wife to death, which in the context of the way the plot pans out, is quite an ironic description of Rishu’s …Errr..undying passion for his unfaithful, untrustworthy, despicably unwifely wife. While the set -up is intriguing and seductive in its sleazy undertones, the detailing in the art direction of a riverbank fictionalized smalltown named Jwalapur(Allahabad? Varanasi?) is unsubtle: the wife’s two suitcases from her recent wedding are strategically placed next to the bed in the couple’s bedroom. The neatness mocks the mess that Rani and eventually her cornered husband make of their marriage. Jayakrishna Gummadi’s cinematography maneuvers through the cramped space of a smalltown home stealthily searching out the sleaze. Rishu, the husband is problematic to the plot. His innate decency and his determination to be a good husband to his truant errant and eventually unfaithful wife put the marital moral alignment into a fix. How to justify Rani’s lustful betrayal when her hormones start to act up? Or her earlier description of her husband as ‘phuski’ is a two-minute-noodle insult that Rishu overhears. It is here that Rishu’s decency caves in.
In the most savagely Noire-comic passage of the narration, Rishu is seen growing murderous towards his wife. As he tries to cause her grievous bodily harm, their marriage is self-healing. You know the one about hurting the most the one you love the most? Hold on to that thought as the Rani-Rishi marriage burns and crashes and repairs in a mode that is at once pulp-fictional and consciously sloppy. The plot is fraught with dangerous curves, as dangerous as Taapsee Pannu’s swinging walk as she defiantly steps out of her smalltown housewife’s orbit to fancy-cut her father-in-law(Daya Shankar Pandey) ’s hair, show the middle-finger to her bullying mother-in-law(Yamini Das) and fuck her husband’s beefy cousin(Harsvardhan Rane). Cop Aditya Shrivastava tries to make sense of the crime of passion, which outwardly seems as lurid as the novels of Rani’s favourite Dinesh Pundit. He is the voice of reason in an echo chamber of treason. Like those pulp Hindi novels that were a staple part of train journeys in the 1970-the 80s, Haseen Dillruba entails an acquired taste to be enjoyed. Rani’s hormonal crimes are not easy to accept. She is fatal and flawed. But damn sexy. Taapsee delivers yet another titillating tongue—and-taang-in-cheek performance, rendering Rani a slut hard to slot. Vikrant Massey as her dutiful husband is outstanding. He is his wife’s little lamb who turns into a man-eating lion when pushed to the wall. With a twitch of his mouth and a flicker of an eye, Massey makes Rishu a nice reliable man who can transform into a creature of caprice. Harshavardhan Rane’s immoral hunk is a well-played stereotype. But the film belongs to writer Kanika Dhillon and director Vinil Mathew who create a universe so denuded of a moral centre you fear it will topple over the edge under the weight of its giddy hormonal urges.
As for the international films, 2021 was one of the best years in my living memory. Topping my list of firangi favourites is Annette. Hate or love it, Annette will affect you deeply, profoundly in ways that cinema seldom does(but it should and would if only filmmakers treated the medium with the respect it deserves). Annette is a full-blown musical, not just a musical where the protagonists are singers like A Star Is Born or Abhimaan, but a musical in the sense that the lead pair speaks in the musical form. And what a joy to hear the magnetic Adam Driver sing! Is there no end to what this maverick actor can do? Within no time, Driver has become one of the most relevant actors of American cinema. We’ve seen him deal with a troubled marriage recently in Marriage Story with savage scrupulosity. Here in Annette, the marriage is in far more troubled waters than can be imagined. I mention waters because the film’s most crucial dramatic episode eventuates mid-ocean, creating further cracks in an already-damaged marriage. Like the two films I mentioned earlier about musical marriages where the wife Anne out-sings the jealous husband, Henry, in Annette the stunningly beautiful French actress Marion Cotillard plays an infinitely accomplished opera singer while Adam Driver plays a crass stand-up comedian, the kind that calls the audience dumb if they don’t laugh at his jokes. In a career-destroying performance(in which Driver gives a career-defining performance) Henry tells an insensitive cruel joke about killing his wife which the audiences reject.
Career over, Henry spends his time sulking seething raging against Anne’s blossoming career. All of this is in a musical form with the songs expressing a tormenting uncertainty about the present and future. The music by a band called Sparks is mind-numbing in its intensity. Every song complements the theme of a marriage destroyed by the ego. A lot of the dramatic tension in the Driver-Cotillard marriage is defined by a purposely stagey ambiance. It’s either Driver doing his stand-up act in a green bathing gown(always green) or Cotillard getting killed on stage while she sings in a voice so angelic you wonder how any harm can come to it. A baby is conceived and born to save the marriage. But it only makes things worse.
Because you see, the baby is a wooden puppet. This is the most problematic plot point and the one that has enraged furious critical debates across the world. Why is baby Annette a wooden puppet? Here is my two-bit on it: could it be a manifestation of Henry’s perception of people close to him, that he sees them as means to an and, his end? If you’ve seen director Leos Carax’s earlier work Holy Motors you would know he perceives human relationships as intrinsically dishonest. In Annette Adam Driver’s Henry never tells the truth, on stage or off it, he is always playing a role. Hence Adam Driver must play a character who is always playing characters. Driver’s portrayal is primeval in its evil designs, especially when contrasted against the sublime sincerity of his friend(Simon Helberg) and the heartbreaking innocence of his puppet-daughter Annette. Strangely the songs never get in the way of the emotions. In the end Annette(now taking human form) sing-tells her self-driven self-loathing father, “You have no one to love”. And there it was: the core truth of this enchanting eccentric eclectic musical excursion into love and trust. Finally, the man who cannot stop playing roles is nothing but a lifeless puppet. Annette challenges our perception as a movie audience like no other motion picture in living memory. It is fated to be counted among the greatest film of all time, as soon as critics stop hating it.
And what about Will Smith and King Richard? At what point in one’s parental duties does push come to shove? This is the larger question that this biopic tracing the phenomenal rise to the world championship of the Williams sisters, addresses. And this is where this engrossing real-life film acquires an extra dimension. The exploration of the arching relationship between child and parent, and in this case between protégée and mentor, is explored with surprising meticulousness. I say, surprising because this is palpably massy production, aimed at the maximum viewership. If King Richard was a Bollywood production there would be songs. Sassy and insouciant, King Richard, as the title suggests, portrays the Williams’ sisters Venus and Serena’s father as a despotic doer. As Will Smith, in the role and performance of his lifetime, keeps saying, he knows that both the sisters are born champ material. From that moment of realization, he doesn’t spare his daughters a single moment for recreational activities such as boys. Conveniently the neighbourhood boys are shown as predatory layabouts with nothing to do except ogle at girls who probably have higher aims in life, aspirations that are largely lacking in a community that has risen the social scale the hard way. While the two actresses playing Venus and Serena, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, are pick-perfect, this is Will Smith’s show all the way: make no mistake about that. Smith is so brilliant in portraying an indefatigable vicarious achiever, he not only knocks the ball out of the court he also makes the court his stage for a grand slam performance. A bully and an insufferably arrogant father, Smith’s Richard Williams is a borderline megalomaniac. Somewhere in the self-serving daughters-pushing achiever, there is also a concerned father who dreams big for his daughters.
In some ways, Will Smith reminded me of Aamir Khan in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal. Of course, Smith’s performance is far superior to Khan’s. Watch him in the lengthy sequence where he tells his daughter Venus about the ravages of racism that he faced as a child when his father left him unprotected during a racial attack. Smith’s face is filled with pain and determination. He will see his daughters conquer the world, no matter what it takes. Where the film flounders is in delineates Richard’s relationship with his wife, played well by Aunjanue Ellis. The husband and wife’s big confrontation sequence is so clumsily written, going from recrimination to reconciliation with no connecting dots, that I ended up wondering what was the need to show the fissures in the marriage when the entire focus of the plot is to accentuate the father’s determination to see his daughter’s at the summit. King Richard is not without its quota of flaws. The Daddy-knows-best mantra that runs through the narrative must have taken its toll on Venus and Serena’s self-worth. We always see the girls as obedient except once when Venus insists on a career decision suggested by her coach, played brilliantly by Jon Bernthal. Otherwise, Will Smith enjoys playing the bossy daddy as much as we enjoy watching him play lord of the offspring.
The Last Duel, though problematic, is ultimately worth our while. There is probably a greater film submerged in this good film. We will never know. Just as we will never know if Marguerite de Carrouges, the noblewoman who is played with a seductive sublimity by the underrated British actress Jodie Comer, was raped by her husband’s former friend and soldier colleague. Was she brutally raped, as she claims, or was there some kind of a come-hither invitation, some sort of pleasurable plug-point during the plunder as we saw in Paul Verhoeven’s disturbing French film Elle where Isabelle Rupert looks forward to a revisit from her masked marauder? In The Last Duel, the great Ridley Scott has constructed a slippery edifice teetering dangerously on the border between truth and conjecture. Recalling one of the earliest reported cases of rape, it examines the sensitivities of the issue and the intricacies of the court hearing in a tone that is sometimes luminous, sometimes labored. It is as though director Ridley Scott WANTS to believe in his heroine’s truth. But is not fully convinced. A part of the problem is Matt Damon’s flabby interpretation of the husband Sir Jean de Carrouges who is righteous but dull, agile but frumpy, and most inept in bed. His friend turned foe as played by Adam Driver is a complete ladies’ man who is known to seduce a woman like other men behead their enemies on the battlefield. You can’t cast Driver against Damon and expect the audience to pitch for the latter. So what happened between Marguerite and Jacques Le Gris? Did he fuck her against her will? She says he did, He says he did not. Three different interpretations of the truth are compiled into a compelling drama of amorous ambivalence. Jacques goes to his eventual death swearing on God there was no rape while Marguerite remains steadfast in her accusation. Based on the 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager and set in medieval France, The Last Duel is a wannabe masterpiece that stops short of attaining its full power and glory by dint of its ambivalence.
Does rape become consent if the woman obtains sexual pleasure in the violent act? These are not questions that could be asked, let alone answered, in any civilized society. To his credit, Ridley Scott takes no shortcuts, offers no easy solution to the problem which plagues the plot both organically and extrinsically. While the three main characters grapple with the issue in their conscience and the court of King Charles V1(played with infantile imperiousness by Alex Lawther) the three protagonists fight their own private battles. A shroud of uncertainty covers this remarkable but fatally flawed film. Can a film on a historic rape case from the 14th century be put on screen without the writers (Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon) and director taking sides? It can. The Last Duel gets away with a far-from-conclusive projection of the alleged rape. It doesn’t bother to be politically correct. It looks at male predator nets as a routine act, and hence excusable. There is a strangely supine tug ‘o’ war played out between Marguerite and her mother-in-law(played by the brilliant veteran British actress Harriet Walter). In it, we see what is the problem with women: it is not the men but the women themselves who can’t support one another.
Would Princess Diana have approved of Spencer? Was she really, now? Cracking up, I mean. That’s what the royal dresser says about Princess Diana. And the way the usually-fabulous Kristen Stewart plays her it almost seems like Lady Di is indeed cracking up. Fact or fiction, we don’t know. What we get to see in the film is a fidgety and nervous Diana. At the start we see her losing her way in rural England. The first words Stewart’s Diana utters is, ‘Where the fuck am I?’She is lost…get it? Heavily suffused in symbolism, this take on what could have gone wrong with Diana’s troubled marriage has little to do with reality. And I don’t mean the state of Diana’s mind, which if we are to believe this film, was highly precarious. To call Stewart’s Diana highly-strung would be an understatement. Stewart plays Diana with her head tilted to one side, as though trying to balance herself in a world that moves in opposition to her psycho-physical equilibrium. It’s a wonky performance replete with nervous ticks and agonizing silences that scream the lady’s protest against her royal slyness. The royalty is shown as a collection of stuffed shirts(and gowns). Queen Elizabeth(played by Stella Gonet) is completely lacking in dimension. When the desperately unhappy Diana tries to reach out to her starchy mother-in-law she freezes the poor Diana down by changing the topic. Worst of all is Prince Charles, played with such aching humanism by Josh O’Connor in the far-superior The Crown. Here Jack Farthing’s Charles stands on the other side of a large room, lips pursed, while Diana stands on one side, her tilted head threatening to create a crick in the neck. They are separated by a billiards table and they speak to each other with gritted teeth. Spencer (that, for those who came in late, was Diana’s maiden name) is a romp into a theatrical soap opera with all the characters barring Diana appearing to be well-groomed mannequins in a high-end boutique. Timothy Spall as the chief of staff is scarily wizened as if he walked into this soap-on-cinema thinking it to be a horror film. The very talented Sally Hawkins strikes a note of warmth as Diana’s dresser in this coldhearted take on a woman married into the wrong family. As for Kirsten Stewart’s Diana, I expected Stewart(a personal favourite) to humanize Diana, to show her as vulnerable yet strong. Stewart plays her a nervous wreck, a candle in the wind on the verge of being extinguished. Stewart’s Diana seems to come alive only when she is with her children. For the rest, she is as unreal as the ghost of Anne Bolyn that haunts Diana. Yes, there is a ghost too in Spencer. Everything that can go wrong in Diana’s marriage does go wrong. Did Diana deserve to be projected as a woman who is rapidly losing her sense of reality? Does Spencer do anything for Diana except to show us what Kristen Stewart can do with the character when she thinks no one is watching?
Finally, it was time for our invincible 007 to die in No Time To Die: So even Bond is after all a victim of human frailties. Getting down from his high horse of invincibility Daniel Craig’s Bond has never seemed more vulnerable. And that’s what makes this Bond film the best in years. It is fun but somber, sleek but deep, slushy but immersive. No Time To Die gives us no time to breathe. The action, as is the won’t in the James Bond series, is relentless. And very very captivating. The stunts in the
Bond films have always reminded me of carefully choreographed dance performances. If you don’t die because you are in it, you die because you are privy to such unfathomable creative violence. This time Bond begins when he is at peace with his ladylove Madeline(a strangely detached Léa Seydoux) in an idyllic Italian hamlet, where we know from experience silence is only a precursor to prolonged mayhem. The first action sequence doesn’t disappoint. It is heart-in-the-mouth fun. And that’s the mood Bond chooses for most of the rest of the 2 hours 40 minutes of pulsating plot ingredients. While the testosterone level remains high from first to last it is as lucid as the living daylights that James is no longer the same. I’d say he seems fatigued. But I can’t because he’s played by the timeless Daniel Craig. Even if the very talented director Cary Joji Fukunaga he is bound to bring Bond back) must have instructed Craig to “act tired” there is certain agility underlining the exhaustion that makes Bond, this time, more human and yet more heroic than ever before. I can’t say I held my breath through all the action pieces. Some of the majestic mayhem was a mock-tale: they mocked the very existence of the Bond franchise. And yet while Craig’s 007 fades there is a rush of renewability as a new young eager recruit, who is black and female, is ready to take over as 007.
All this leaves No Time To Die with almost no time to give Daniel Craig’s 007 a suitable send-off. Just in the nick of time, the director negotiates through the winding car chases, to slow down the wheels of fortune and bring about the most moving finale we have seen in a Bond film. I was deeply sorrowed by Daniel Craig’s departure. The bond will never be the same again. But isn’t that what life and art are about it? And not even James Bond is exempt from the exigencies of existence. No Time To Die is a great watch. But not a great film. It stumbles at some crucial plot points. There is one particularly odd juncture where a 3-year old girl(who means the world to Bond) is kidnapped by the arch-villain who simply lets her run off when he runs out of ways to keep her with him. Ah, the arch-villain! So much was said about the over-rated Egyptian actor Rami Malek. He comes in late and brings nothing to the table. Malek’s villainy is a huge letdown. But No Time To Die survives Malek. It is the end of 007 as we know him. For many of us, it is the end of an era.RIP, James. We drink to your unvanquished heroism.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.