Eviscerating — it’s one of the many wounding words thrown around with rage in the riveting talkathon that leaves you both emotionally exhausted and intellectually excited. It happens one night in a film replete with film references, where names of iconic film-makers and classic movies are thrown into a conversation that veers off course, and critics are derided for their unconscious racism and conscious political correctness. Malcolm & Marie (Netflix) engages in a duel to death, and only pauses for breath, and music that acts like a complementary track.
Malcolm and Marie of the film’s title are a couple who come home after the premier of Malcolm’s new film where this young black director (John David Washington, son of the great Denzel) is compared to Spike Lee and John Singleton. Malcolm is in a cautiously celebratory mood because he doesn’t know what the critics will write the next day. He is particularly mean about the white woman at LA Times: he is sure she will see a racist angle in his film about a young black woman trying to come clean from her drug habit. The stunningly beautiful Marie (Zendaya) answers in monosyllables, ambushing to deflate Malcolm’s swagger: you thanked everyone but left me out.
Marie’s experience is what Malcolm’s film is based on, but no, this creative genius doesn’t bother to thank her, at least for her support. Legit complaint. And now, anger spirals out of control. Malcolm has gone to college, his mother is a therapist and his father a professor, his sister works in a think tank: so how is he entitled to interpret the ghetto girl’s life? From then on, a fusillade of words is let loose, on each other, and us. Underneath the anger and frustration, of crude jibes and hurtful recounting of Malcolm’s sexual encounters with other women, there is passion that binds them in a love-hate relationship.
Sam Levinson reportedly wrote and directed this film during the pandemic over two weeks, with just two actors, and a crew of 22. Washington and Zendaya have a stake in the film that depends on their performance to pour life into the raging words that could have remained a tired rhetoric. A modern recycling of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The actors are part producers. Sometimes, the very constraints of shooting during a pandemic can trigger imaginative film-making. The Malibu house, where all the action takes place, is an architectural delight, a glass house (literally and metaphorically) where no words-barred verbal warfare takes place. The large windows, from which we can see the sculpted trees in the backyard, provide framing from within and without. The mood-enhancing B&W cinematography dispels any hint of claustrophobia.
As I said at the beginning, the emotional rollercoaster is draining, but our engagement with the film holds. Most of all by Malcolm’s ruthless tearing down of the white girl at LA Times’ review that is posted online. Yes, as he suspected, she points out how the health system fails the African American, while also hailing the film as tour de force. Malcolm — and Sam Levinson too — ask: does a film have to be judged through the skin colour of its director? And not just as a film? To which Marie points out that a woman director would not have shown her protagonist topless in a scene that did not required nudity. Impasse? Yes, but an important one. Questions of the film-maker’s race and gender are not restricted to Hollywood. It applies to all film cultures. Recently, a Dalit scholar and filmmaker, Suryakant Waghmore, pointed out that right from Achhut Kanya (YouTube) to Sujata (Zee5, YouTube), they needed a Brahmin saviour. We can also ask if anyone other than Manjule could have made Fandry (ZEE5) and Sairat (Youtube, Google Play)? We all know what happened to the Hindi remake of Sairat.
Another film about a film-maker — a film-maker at the zenith of his creativity, but his personal life is a royal mess. Fodder for the gossip mills of Dhaka. It is also the film Irrfan Khan made in 2016/17, but we can see it now online. Doob – No Bed of Roses (Netflix) is an Indo-Bangladesh collaboration that has done the festival circuit to much acclaim for its quiet and layered narrative. The theme of a much acclaimed film-maker getting involved with a young actress, a friend of his daughter, is ripe for our subcontinental penchant for melodrama and mudslinging.
Director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki surprises and enchants you with the contemplative mood he brings to the unravelling of relationships. Of loss and regret, of death not being final. Farooki is non-judgemental, and yet conveys the anguish of his first wife and their two children without hysterical outbursts and indulging in the usual blame game. Doob is more like a distillation of Ozu for contemporary times.
And there is Irrfan Khan as Javed Hasan, speaking to us with his eyes, a voice soaked in self-reflexive melancholy with occasional bursts of anger at the media frenzy, and accepting the loss of his children with resignation. Irrfan Khan is credited as co-producer. No wonder he got so involved with a story and milieu that is familiar, yet foreign. He found a cinematic soulmate in Farooki, who is so full of grace, unafraid of a non-chronological narrative, of leaving things unsaid, trusting the audience to read between the frames, and savour the beauty of the lush landscape.
The prelude draws you in unobtrusively, yet intimately. An assured young woman, Saberi (Nusrat Imrose Tisha) is at the college reunion, dressed in a festive white sari with red border, loads of jasmine in her hair, waiting with unruffled poise for the arrival of Nitu (Parno Mittra) — a childhood friend for whom her father left them. The narrative moves to an enchantingly beautiful hill resort where Javed Hasan remarks to his wife, Maya, (Rokeya Prachy) that they seem to be performing like people appointed to play husband and wife as they walk along the winding trail. “When did our life become such a drab art house movie?” Away from the city, they can reconnect again, and rekindle the youthful passion that made them elope. There is humour in the way Maya’s apoplectic father tries to bully the police officer to nab the young man. His wife, on the other hand, is quietly supportive of her daughter, and knows all about Hasan’s background. This scene sets the tone for the unfolding events. Saberi, the teenaged daughter affectionately bullies her father, and he indulges her. Farooki doesn’t detail the tumultuous entry of Nitu into his life. He has cast her in his film, but she barges into his office, and then into his life, even though Hasan shouts at her to leave. This is how you wrote the scene in one of your films, the unfazed and determined Nitu tells him. The film doesn’t flesh out Nitu or her motives. She goes to the media about their affair that Hasan denies vehemently to Maya.
What Doob explores with subtlety is Hasan’s aching need to talk to his children, while Saberi is the driving force behind rebuilding their life. The painfully silent scene between Hasan and his son Ahir, the tentative, awkward way he hugs the boy, is heartrending. The bonding between Saberi and the withdrawn Maya, whose birthday the daughter celebrates with such affection, cheering her on as the most beautiful woman in the world for her courage, is effortlessly uplifting. These scenes, contrasting in mood and style of narration, are the key to unlock Doob’s delights.
Doob makes you cherish its little moments of poignancy. Equally remarkable is how the cinematography captures the architectural lines of the family home, and juxtaposes it with the landscape, magnificent in its varied shades of green. And you can’t overlook the passing homage to Ray. The production office, all exposed brick clean lines, has a poster of Pather Panchali in the corridor, caught in passing by the camera. The waving grasses again remind you of the shared glory of Bengal’s abundant natural beauty.
Here is a question that I often ask myself: why has there never been a revolution in a country so ripe for one? We have inequities of every conceivable kind known to human society — the stranglehold of caste hierarchies, feudalism bred into the sinews of the entitled as is servitude into the cowering cells of those condemned to be servants, religious divisions and class oppression, lack of opportunity in an economy where only crony capitalists and unscrupulous opportunists thrive. In any other country where there is a more homogeneous population, people would have revolted. But we accept it as our karma.
The White Tiger (Netflix) answers this obliquely, with a western-educated sardonic eye. Only the exceptional, once-in-a-generation White Tiger will break this cycle of ingrained servitude, adopting the means of his masters. If the youngest American educated scion of the Dhanbad feudal family bribes his way trying to become an entrepreneur in the new digital economy, Balram Halwai will opt for the more decisive way of killing the employer and making off with the bribe money to become an entrepreneur himself.
Ramin Bahrani, counted among the most talented new directors, has a detached view of India, unlike a Desi American. He sees that an American education doesn’t make an entitled rich Indian a true democrat, while a woman like Pinky raised in the US can have a more egalitarian attitude, but she, too, prefers to run away from the compromises forced on her in India. All relationships are transactional when the servant is exposed to the new economy in cut-throat Delhi. Bengaluru, the start-up haven, doesn’t ask too many inconvenient questions when an outsider comes to the city with ready cash and a new business idea. This thesis isn’t fleshed out in the hurried denouement.
The director underlines how Balram (Adarsh Gourav) can change his unkempt person to a suave look. Swept back hair into a ponytail and the scraggly moustache groomed with a small upward twirl at the ends. That is a statement.