Tag: Indian films

Heat and Dust (1983)

Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi in a love across the divide in Heat and Dust

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Julie Christie (Anne), Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers), Shashi Kapoor (The Nawab), Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers), Nickolas Grace (Harry Hamilton-Paul), Zakir Hussain (Inder Lal), Julian Glover (Crawford), Susan Fleetwood (Mrs Crawford), Patrick Godfrey (Dr Saunders), Jennifer Kendal (Mrs Saunders), Charles McCaughan (Chid), Madhur Jaffrey (Begum Mussarat Jahan), Barry Foster (Major Minnies)

Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker-prize winning novel, Ivory-Merchant’s production of Heat and Dust is much like the source: precise, admirable and both faintly enigmatic and intriguingly slight. In 1982 Anne (Julie Christie) travels to India to discover more about the life of her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi). In 1923, Olivia lived in Satipur as wife to local official Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove). The Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) is the local Indian prince, a charismatic man who may or may not be in league with local bandits. Enthralled by India, bored by British India but deeply in love with Douglas, Olivia still finds herself drawn to the Nawab. Scandal is round the corner.

Heat and Dust is a delicate, well-mounted adaptation, but it never quite engages as much as it should. Perhaps this is because its central plot – a white woman is fascinated by India – is a familiar trope in both novels and films of the Raj. It does take a different approach by intercutting between the present and the 1920s. This presents intriguing opportunities to show ways India has changed physically (the homes of the British Raj have become offices) but also ways it has remained the same culturally.

This carries across in the contrasting stories of two women, both of whom become intrigued by their surroundings and romantically entangled with Indian men. While Olivia is (eventually) disgraced and ostracised by her community, Anne has the freedom to make her own choices. Both women find themselves drifting into life-changes through male seduction. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film in the end – that women, no matter the timeline, are people that things (or men) happen to, rather than being the true owners of their own lives?

It seems the case with Olivia, who never feels in full control her own life, but instead moves inexorably towards a destiny she can’t really influence. Charmingly played, with a sparkle and playful innocence by Greta Scacchi in her film debut, Olivia’s motivations are almost deliberately obscured. Although Ivory uses a device at first of Olivia’s letters being dramatised by Scacchi addressing the camera, this device is swiftly dropped. The letters remain a presence, but we never hear from them. Instead most of Olivia’s actions are narrated by her friend Harry (Nickolas Grace), now an old man. It places a distance between the viewer and Olivia, making her actions harder to understand.

But then that is part of the enigma. India is a land of heat and dust, where normal rules don’t apply and people (particularly those from the West) find themselves reformed by. Olivia has no time for the stuffy, racist British population (especially the frightful woman). But she’s drawn to the Nawab partly because he’s a fusion of East and West, an Indian exotic with the charm of an English gentleman. For his part the Nawab, very well played by Shashi Kapoor, plans a seduction but his motives are as hard to read as Olivia. Is it attraction or revenge on the British for their contempt?

Perhaps it’s a film where we look for deep meaning and motivations, but it is in fact about how we don’t necessarily make grand decisions about our lives, but make a series of in-the-moment decisions. Both Anne and Olivia never seem to proactively make decisions, but instead events largely occur to them. Although this can make for a film sometimes lacking in energy, it does avoid making things obvious for the audience. Even if that can be frustrating when characters remain almost deliberately oblique.

What’s also oddly frustrating about the film is its more modern section. The commentary comparing the present and the past promises much but actually adds little. Anne is a curiously uninvolving character, played with a sweet tenderness by Julie Christie. Anne is hardly proactive and there is very little narrative drive behind her exploration of the past. Strangely the issues the more modern section deals with – including digs at Western cultural tourists – end up feeling less relevant than the issues of race and empire in the 1920s.

And its unfortunate that the 1920s plot line, although well staged and managed, seems extremely familiar – with echoes of A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown for starters. While it’s well acted (as well as those mentioned, Christopher Cazenove is very good) and creates an enigmatic atmosphere, you often feel you’re seeing something done better elsewhere. It starts as an investigation into the past, but becomes something more freeform, as if in the heat and dust of India, plans come to nothing. But its air of enigma and portrayal of characters buffeted by small events doesn’t come together into a compelling story or a rich insight into India.

The White Tiger (2020)

Adarsh Gourav is a willing servant (or is he?) in The White Tiger

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Cast: Adarsh Gourav (Balram Halwai), Priyanka Chopra Jones (Pinky), Rajkummar Rao (Ashok), Mahesh Manjreker (The Stork), Vijay Maurya (Mukesh “The Mongoose”), Kamlesh Gill (Granny), Swaroop Sampat (The Great Socialist)

“India is two countries in one: an India of light, and an India of Darkness”. It’s an idea that’s at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-prize winning novel, adapted here as a dynamic (if slightly overlong) film by Ramin Bahrani. Those two India’s are rooted in the country’s deeply ingrained class differences, the new caste system being simple: the haves and the have nots.

Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is very much one of the have nots. A poor young man, who missed out on his chance of a scholarship because his family needed the income he could bring them from breaking up coal. Balram sees his way out through becoming a driver for the son of the local landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-Indian wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jones). With the story being recounted by an older Balram, now a successful businessman, we know he finds a way to improve his life. But at what cost? And how many lives have been sacrificed to get him there?

Bahrani’s adaptation is a sharp, cinematic, electric piece of film-making, that makes superb use of montage and dynamic camerawork, particularly in its scene setting opening acts. Bahrani also engages brilliantly with the central themes of the novel, the all-pervading corruption of modern India (financial and spiritual) and the gulf in class and mindset that exists between the rich and poor. The wealthy upper classes see themselves as nothing less than masters of the rest of the population, who they hire and fire at will and frequently mistreat. Meanwhile, Balram argues, many of the poor cannot escape the mindset of servitude (the “chicken coop” as he puts it), unable to imagine any life other than living on the bottom rung.

It’s an idea Bahrani’s film brilliantly reinforces visually. The westernised wealth of the upper classes – living in gated communities and luxurious hotels, driving western cars with no contact with anyone outside other than servants – is contrasted with the slums and poverty of the rest of the population. Their parts of the city are run-down and crumbling. Many live on the streets. Balram himself lives on a mattress in the basement of his master’s hotel – while Ashok resides in a penthouse. You can’t escape the radical inequality – nor the violence (from slapping of servants to the implied threat of murder of your family if you step out of line) that keeps the system in place.

Part of the fascination of this film is wondering half the time, how much Balram is a willing participant in this system and how much he is longing to cast off its shackles. Sure we know, from the framing device of his later life, where he is heading. But is it his aim from the start? How genuine is his humbleness? As he schemes to have a rival driver dismissed, he talks in voiceover of his sadness – but on screen he merely shrugs and downs some sweetmeats. Does his resentment develop over the film, or is it there from the start – or does he only understand it as he realises he lives in a “chicken coop”?

As in the book its rife for interpretation – and Bahrani doesn’t lay on too think the unreliable narration element of Balram. It’s also helped immensely by Adarsh Gourav’s superb, BAFTA nominated performance in the lead role. He seems genuinely naïve and innocent – the very country pumpkin the other drivers at the hotel mock – but there is always an unknowable quality to him under the affable surface Gourav presents, a ruthlessness and also an anger. Watching both these qualities develop across the film – and questioning how well we know him – is a brilliant tight-rope walk, with Gourav maintaining our sympathies even as his actions become ever more ruthless.

He becomes an embodiment of the divide in India itself, between the mindset of being nothing more than a servant and the developing entrepreneurism in the country (represented both by the side jobs the rest of the drivers carry out as well as Balram’s later business success). It’s also fascinating to see the contrasts in his employers. Rajkummar Rao creates a character who is decent enough to know he’s treating people selfishly, while being lazy and immature enough to not bother to change. His wife, very well played by producer Priyanka Chopra Jones, speaks the language of a free America but is perfectly happy to force others to take the rap for her mistakes.

The film’s energy tails off in its second half as the plot catches up with the traffic accident that opens the film. The second half of the film tends to circle around the same issues of rich vs poor and the abuse of power that the first film explores with greater energy and wit. To be honest, you can tell an act of violence or betrayal is on the way – and the film takes too long to get there. A tighter film at an hour and 45 minutes would have been more effective and maintained the drive of the first half (even if it would have meant sacrificing some good individual scenes here and there).

But when the film is on song it works very well. The ideas it tackles around modern India feel very real and vital – and still carry plenty of relevance today. Bahrani balances the dark humour very well with the moral outrage and has a brilliant lead performance from Adarsh Gourav. It would have been better tighter which would have helped keep its pace and energy up, but this is still inventive and urgent film-making, a fine adaptation of an excellent novel.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Dev Patel is the Chaiwala living the dream in Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Dev Patel (Jamal Malik), Freida Pinto (Latika), Madhur Mittal (Salim), Anil Kapoor (Prem Kumar), Irrfan Khan (Inspector), Ayush Mahesh Khedehar (Jamal [Child]), Tanay Chheda (Jamal [Teenager]), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Salim [Child]), Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (Salim [Teenager]), Runbina Ali (Latika [Child]), Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar (Latika [Teenager]), Saurabh Shukla (Constable Srinivsas), Mahesh Manjrekar (Javred), Ankur Vikal (Maman)

Re-watching Slumdog Millionaire, it’s surprising to think that back in 2008 this film was so garlanded with awards (EIGHT Oscars!) and heralded so quickly as a classic. While it’s a well-made and at times rather sweet (with a hard-edge) fable, it’s also seems slightly less unique and genre-defying than first appeared. Never mind a list of the greatest Best Picture winners, I’m not even sure it’s the greatest Danny Boyle movie. But saying this, it’s still a fine movie – and one I arguably enjoyed more re-watching it almost ten years on then when I saw it in the cinema.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an eighteen year-old Muslim, a chaiwala working in a Mumbai call centre. He enters the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, hosted by egotistical Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), and to the astonishment of everyone is one question away from the ultimate prize of 20 million rubles. Arrested by the police and questioned before his final show, he explains via flashbacks how his experiences allowed him to answer each question. His life-story is one of danger and conflict in the slums and criminal underworld of India, tied closely to his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their childhood friend Latika (Frieda Pinto), whom Jamal has loved his whole life.

Part social-realist tale, romance, family drama and fairy-tale, Slumdog’s main triumph is probably its ability to juggle half a dozen tones and genres so successfully. This is most strikingly demonstrated by fact that so many came out of a film that opens with its lead character being waterboarded and tortured by policemen, saying it was a brilliant feel-good movie! In fact, Boyle’s film is far more complex, touching on themes ranging from child exploitation and prostitution to gangland politics to social corruption, via murder, betrayal and mutilation. How does this a film crammed with this sort of material make you feel rather positive at the end?

Boyle’s, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s, trick is to follow in the footsteps of that other great juggler of urban social comment and larger-than-life characters – Charles Dickens. Dickensian is perhaps the best word to describe Slumdog – it throws the viewer into the slums of Mumbai, glancing at this world with all the keen social commentary Dickens used to bring to Victorian London. As young children, Jamal and Salim are thrown in with a Fagin-like gang boss, while Latika develops an (admittedly much more gentle) Estelle-like connection with them both. Like David Copperfield, our hero moves from place to place (or frying pan to fire!), with an episodic charm, each event adding to the spectrum of his life. It works really well as it taps into a reassuringly familiar story structure that makes us feel narratively safe, no matter how much peril our heroes undergo.

What’s fascinating is placing this familiar material into (for us) a more exotic location. I suspect many American viewers watching were even less familiar with India as such a mixture of extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side so naturally (and again how Dickensian does that sound?). Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is astounding for its energetic immersion in the streets of Mumbai –it’s like an explosion of Boyle’s high-octane, camera-shaking style seen in so many of his other films. It not only makes the film feel fresh and vital, it also manages to present India as something very different for those only familiar with the country as a Taj Mahal postcard.

The most compelling parts of the film are those in the first half that throw us into the Mumbai of Jamal and Salim’s childhood. Helped immensely by six terrific performances from the child and teenager versions of our three leads, these sequences (just over the first half of the movie) immediately involve the viewer in the fates and feelings of these characters. Perhaps because the film is shot in such an immersive style, you feel as if you have experienced the dangers (and occasional joys) alongside them, and developed a close bond with them. 

Despite the romantic plot of the movie, the true story is the jagged relationship, with its loyalties and betrayals, between the innocent, gentle dreamer Jamal and the more ruthless, realist Salim. The film charts the lengths they will go to protect and help each other – or sometimes in Salim’s case not. Salim is a fascinating character – easily the deepest, most conflicted of the three – who even as a child has a moral flexibility, happy to gain the benefits of a ruthless criminal lifestyle, while still having enough conscience to know what he has done with his life is wrong.

In contrast, the relationship between Latika and Jamal is far less complex. Frieda Pinto doesn’t actually appear until almost two thirds of the way into the movie – and she and Patel have only really one dialogue scene together to establish a romantic link. The romance between them is in fact the standard fairy-tale – two young friends as children who become unknowing sweethearts. The film relies on us being invested in their fates as children to want to be together, rather than building a link between two grown adults. This is the structure of a Prince Charming and a Princess in distress rather than grown-up storytelling – but it clearly works because it taps into our own fundamental first experiences of how stories work.

Dev Patel is a very sweet and highly engaging lead – and how could we not be immediately on the side of a pleasant, gentle young man whom we first see hanging from a ceiling with electrodes on his feet? Patel has a low-key decency about him that becomes more engaging the more you watch the film. Since most of his narrative function is to offer linking scenes to the far more dynamic and exciting flashbacks – and since the character of Jamal has very little real depth to him beyond “he’s a good guy” (again like a fairytale his innocence is untouched by events) – it’s quite a testament to his performance that you end up feeling as close to him as you do.

But it’s clear to me second time around the framing device of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire contest is the most disposable, and least interesting part of the movie. It does have the film’s most outright enjoyable adult performance, a swaggering, ego-filled turn from Amil Kapoor, but it’s still all much more predictable, obvious and functional than the adventures we see as our characters grow up. We know Jamal is going to keep getting things right (and thank goodness each question he answers, he learned the answers consecutively through his life! What a mess that might have been otherwise narratively!), so the fact that Boyle keeps what is essentially the same scene each time seeming interesting is quite something.


The gameshow however is the “quest” of this romantic fairy-tale. And fairy-tale is really what the film is: Jamal is there to try and find and save Latika. So in the end it doesn’t really matter that Latika hardly feels like a character, or that we’ve been given no real reason to think she and Jamal are in love other than the film telling us that they are, or that the plot of the film is really as flimsy as tissue paper. The film is a dream, a romantic fable. The genius of Boyle is to use a whole load of familiar, Dickenisan-style tropes to place this into a social-realist travelogue, a dynamite dance of flamboyant film-making techniques. So perhaps that is the point about Slumdog: on repeated viewings, like fairy-tales, its plot tricks and narrative sleight-of-hand become more obvious. But you get more of a respect for the confidence with which the trick is played.