Dangal has made almost 600 crore from worldwide collections. So last weekend when we made a trip to the movie hall  we were probably among the few remaining Hindi speaking people who were yet to catch it. As we left the theatre three hours later, we could see why. What a movie! For a standard issue sports underdog story, this was a smashingly original telling. And some stories need to be told this way. At this pitch and this volume. I haven’t watched a movie in recent times that was so exhilarating, so feel good uplifting. When the National Anthem played near the end, everyone was on their feet – no watchdog needed at all.

Dangal hits the ground running. The first scene is a lesson in economical storytelling. In about five minutes you are:

  1. Introduced to the protagonist
  2. Given a very clear idea of his motivations
  3. Given a clear and depressing picture of the state of sportspeople in India
  4. Forget all that! You are pulled into the movie. My kids had not wanted to come to watch the film. But even though they did not get much of the Haryanvi dialect, they already knew they were going to love it.

The performances are all stellar – especially the children who are top notch! And the decision to use humour to build the characters probably earned them a huge fan-base among the kids. My boys laughed right through the first half. They had absolutely no sympathy to spare for the poor girls and their five am training sessions upto the point when their head was shorn. Then they both reacted with shock and sympathy. Dangal is a truthful movie that way. They don’t sugarcoat bitter facts. They let you see the shame when the two modestly dressed girls are forced to leave their house to jog in shorts for the first time. They let you see the tyranny even though they allow you to laugh through it.

And most stories of sporting heroes do involve some childhood tyranny. Many children have natural talent. Only a few find someone who pushes them to fulfil their potential.

Which is why it was a shock to me when outside the theatre,  my mother in law turned to me and said – ‘We need more such movies in India. To show people that girls can do more than manage the choolah-chokha‘. I was brought up short. Could this movie be seen as a message of empowerment? Not till the very end of the movie did I ever get a sense that the girls were playing to win – for themselves. Not even in the early dangals when Geeta beat boys bigger than herself and marched proudly into school. In fact one of the most moving sections of the film was when Geeta finally breaks free from her father. At the sports academy where she finds herself, grows her hair, paints her nails, watches movies, does a bunch of normal girl stuff and loses her mojo. She wasn’t wrestling well but she seemed to be being herself. So when Mahavir Phogat berated the coach for not letting Geeta play her natural game, it sounded a bit rich to me.

I do totally get that this is a real life story, set in Haryana. A state that has 879 females per 1000 males because baby girls are killed or not allowed to be born. No one is going to sit and applaud two girls who, I don’t know, become master chefs here. I get that. But pushing at a barrier to prove a point is still not ultimately empowering. Being in an environment where you can make your own decisions is. I understand that it is a long road to get there, and these two girls did great work taking people there. But my mother in law’s remark still threw me. This is a woman who has spent her whole life minding choolah and chokha. Raising kids. Not going out to work. I think that’s ok. If that’s what someone wants to do, it is an empowered choice. There is nothing inherently superior in going to work versus choosing to stay at home. I should not need to do a man’s job to feel good about myself. What bothered me then, and on reading some of the discourse around Dangal was this style of empowerment message. In seeking to empower women, we should be careful to not demean those duties that have traditionally been considered womanly. To mark them as somehow inferior to those duties that have traditionally been performed by men.

However, this is still a great film. With amazing and truthful performances by the kids, the lovely Sakshi Tanwar and zero hamming by Aamir Khan. In fact the only very Aamir thing he did at all was to choose to play the younger version of Mahavir Phogat after he gained a paunch to play the old guy. I loved this video of how he managed the transformation.


And then I loved this analysis.


I also loved Aamir’s cauliflower ear in the movie!


Fantastic Beasts

Many Spoilers ahead

The kids and I went with a bunch of their friends to watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. My younger one and his friend embarrassed us completely by talking loudly, eating their popcorn super messily, asking for water every five minutes and finally rushing to the washroom before intermission. But when they fell asleep, I was able to focus on what was on the screen.

Fantastic Beasts… is at one level a fun romp for the kids. Slapstick humour involving thieving animals, magic suitcases and flames coming of of anuses can never fail to amuse. But there was a lot of darkness that my older one’s rather more sensitive radar picked up. He was much less bothered by the dark wind and flying bricks than he was by the children of Second Salem. Which was a little surprising considering there was no overt violence there. We were told that the children faced abuse but we never saw it. And yet, it bothered him very much.

The later Harry Potter books tried to do more than tell a mystery/adventure story to children. They had much in them about how easy it is for ordinary people, even very smart people, to get carried away by feelings of racial superiority and general extreme right-wingishness to the point where they cross the line into something far worse. There was a lot of Nazi referencing.

There is no doubt that these are thoughts that need to be reiterated in our world today. But while this new movie kept those ideas in mind, it seemed to be focusing more, once again, on children. Beyond the general themes of inclusiveness, this movie seemed to be about accepting children as they are.

The conflict in the movie comes from a child who is not understood or accepted. Who has to constantly crush his true self. Having no one to understand and too many to condemn, he turns his anger outwards bringing a city to its knees. I wondered very much if Rowling had school shootings on her mind here.

I might be over thinking this. After all, these movies are building up to have Grindelwald as the villain. All this might simply have been working up to the Dumbledore story – his sister Ariana was an Obscurus who accidentally killed two muggle boys and later her mother. But Ariana was also a talented, different child who was growing up around people who didn’t quite get her.

There was another child in this movie who was talented and different too, but the contrast between Newt Scamander and Credence Barebones could not be more stark! Newt mentions that people find him annoying. He also says that he likes Jacob Kowalski and that he seemed like someone who was often liked. There was something in how he said that. An absence of wistfulness. And only mild admiration.

So the thing that struck me the most about this film is that besides being a prequel setup and a story about extending tolerance and acceptance to all species, this is also a story of two similar children who ended up with very different outcomes. Where one child is forced to conform becoming increasingly isolated and angry and eventually making a number of innocent people the target of his anger, the other finding love and acceptance, becomes a person of infinite compassion. Especially towards the weak and vulnerable.

There is a lesson in here if I can say it without shouting it loud. Raising a child is such a tricky and such an important thing to do. So easy to do wrong, so rewarding if done right. And it doesn’t come with a manual or best practices – you have to learn by doing and by making mistakes, owning up and correcting them all the time. My son may have been scared and worried by it, but I liked this movie!

Nine degrees of tragic

When TOI advertised their theatre festival playing at an auditorium near me, I was really depressed. My husband and I don’t do plays anymore. The kids are not old enough to be left alone and plays don’t do night shows. So we watch movies and like them. But my husband was feeling kind and offered to watch the kids so my mother and I made a night of it.  Landing up at the venue we stood in line confidently expecting to find tickets. Bookmyshow said there were many and it was after all a one woman act. With vague memories of Chandler watching “Why don’t you love me?”  I was not really expecting much of a crowd. The law of ‘What the’ dictates that the show in such a scenario run sold out and that was indeed the case! Just as we were turning back wondering if we should console ourselves by visiting the mall, a bunch of college kids who looked like they had been forced to buy tickets if they wanted to pass or something asked us if we wanted to buy. The transaction was quickly completed and we were in!

At this point I should mention that my usual conversational tone – as above – is wildly inappropriate for what follows. Hopefully it will fall in line as I continue. That would be natural, right? Because the play was like being airdropped in a capsule in the middle of somewhere in Iraq. And then picked up and dropped off somewhere else. Different time, different place, different woman. Same actor although that stopped mattering after a point. It was so harrowing and so relentless – the play. The history.

We have all heard about what’s been happening in Iraq. We could hardly have escaped it. But we don’t know the people. We don’t know their names. So none of it is real. They are a different species of human who have got used to the war having been in it for so long. But what do you do when they stand up in front of you and talk and talk and talk? A child who identifies bombs and missiles as confidently as my child of similar age identifies snakes or dinosaurs. And with the same pride. A woman who leads you through the leftover of a bombed out shelter saying  ‘Let me show you the ceiling – or maybe not. It is too much. You will not be able to see.’  The doctor who has come out of a delivery room bringing one more deformed child into the world. ‘One more’, she says.’ Too many this month. Two heads, no head, four arms, no arms – too many this month.’ Chemical weapons?

An  imprisoned activist who speaks of menstruating women hung upside down and babies thrown to hungry cats. Or a painter talking about her painting secretly being about a woman who was fed to dogs. Enough!!! You want to shout!

Another talks on the phone in her limited English and says the few words she knows “I love you”, over and over again. Sounding at first like the beloved aunt any of us may have spoken to but then slipping off, reciting a litany of names and we don’t know who they are. Or whether they are alive. Any of them. And as her voice breaks and she starts to cry you realize with a shock that you’re crying too!

I do realize as I write this that none of this will mean anything to you. These stories, the people. They can’t! They’d be just another news article. Maybe we can’t feel anything till we feel like it might happen to us. Till someone stands up front and tells us. And that’s probably why none of the reviews I read after spoke about how disturbing (for want of a better word) the whole experience was. Anything you say sounds trite and meaningless so best to stick to the brilliant acting, and it was brilliant, the history, the real stories and move on.

I can’t do that. I can’t stop thinking ‘what a doomed country!’ Last I read about Baghdad and Basra was in Agatha Christie’s hugely entertaining and romantic “They came to Baghdad”. And now this tormented country with no hope, no respite, no redemption. And then there is Syria. I cannot cope with hearing about all this – how do those people cope? I was wrong. They must be a different species. It’s the only way we can deal with knowing this story.

Thoughts on Arth

I always head to Baradwaj Rangan’s review after watching a movie and the comments following the ok review made me think a bit about Shabana Azmi’s rejection of Raj Kiran’s proposal at the end of the movie. I mean their characters of course but for the life of me cannot recall what they were called!

Like pretty much everyone else, I was disappointed by this when I watched the movie years ago. I wanted the happy ending! I wanted the philandering husband to eat his heart out to see his wife with a younger, handsomer and equally talented new partner. Her refusal made no sense.

Watching the movie again though it seemed so obvious. She was just not in love with him! She enjoyed his company and was happy to be friends with him. But just because she was on the rebound did not mean she had to marry the next man who came along. Whoever he might be.

Besides, she was just now starting to discover herself as a person. Just now figuring out what living on her own was all about. Perhaps she was starting to like that person and enjoy those experiences. It was perfectly reasonable to me that as a sensible woman she would not, and really should not be in a hurry to give all of that up.

I do need to discover more such movies though that get better and make more sense with age.

Oh Kadhal Kanmani

I went to watch okk last saturday with my mom, an old friend and her mom. Her mom seemed to enjoy it but by my mum’s huffy expression and all the whispering to my dad the next morning – in retrospect – bad decision. But oh well!

Anyhow – the movie was watched and all parties returned home. My mom of course seems to have woken up bursting with indignation but for my part I liked the movie more having slept over it.

The whole live in thing for one was a red herring. This movie was not about living in at all! What it was about was pretty much the same as alai payuthe. Brand new, sparkling young love meets much older love – holding on desperately to the bitter end. And learns a thing or two.

The first half was extremely annoying btw. Especially to a middle aged person like me. It was SO upbeat I wanted to clobber both the leads. But once they settled down, things were better. And the older couple made the movie. There was a scene where *SPOILER ALERT* Leela Samson’s alzheimers stricken character asks her husband if she will forget his name too someday. For some reason I found that enormously touching. And the proposal! I am really too old to be going all week in the knees but I almost did.

Unlike the Jabong ad that celebrates living in as a middle finger raised to the world, the couple here were just being practical. If you like someone and know there is no future, keep it simple, keep it happy, grab whatever you’ve got and then move on. They really did intend to move on till things happened and different stuff became more important. The movie does not dwell too much on how or why that happens – true. But sometimes it is just the everydayness of things. Big stuff you can always outgrow or change your mind about. But someone who can share the small stuff with you is usually a keeper. Maybe that was it. Maybe being with the older couple who love each other so deeply made their fledgling love story seem like something bigger and worth holding on to. Maybe when push comes to shove, Aadhi will find that he did not really mean what he said and that Ganapathy uncle was a pretty special man after all. But maybe sometimes you just need a nudge to show you what you can be and what you can have and the rest just falls into place.