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2021 in Review: 5 Female Debutant Directors Who Hit The Ball  Out Of The  Park



Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi

Though 2021 was  an awful  year for  new actors,  the  year was surprisingly  fecund for fresh female  filmmakers. A  look at  the 5  female  filmmakers who  flew across the finishing line.

Seema Pahwa In  Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi: What a wonderful way for  Indian cinema to  begin the year!  Let me say straightaway  that Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi  was a very fine film, and a spectacular start  not just to this year,  but also to veteran actress Seema Pahwa’s career as a  director. Her understanding of  the basically selfish selfserving nature of humankind is so deep, and so bang-on that five minutes into the film I  felt I  was  sitting awkwardly as part  of  Ramprasad’s grieving  family, their  sickening squabbles over tea  and  bathroom time, and  later on, their  bickering over  their father’s property, all so lived-in so  real it is hurtful even while it is  amusing to the extreme.Some  critics have commented on  the large number of  characters  , and how difficult it is to figure  out who’s who. Nonsense! We are for too long inured in spoonfeeding tactics. It is  our  duty and  obligation to  give a  film our complete attention when it deserves it, to surrender  to  the  cast of characters  unquestioningly.Seema Pahwa’s writing is razor-sharp and  crystal-clear. Even the smallest  of characters have a  life  of their own.The  domestic politics is  never over-punctuated.  It emerges from the  deep creases and crevices  of  bereavement  like pebbles from the bottom  of  a  tranquil stream.

Most of the time, Ms Pahwa knows when to draw the line.The  narrative pulls out of  an argument, no matter how heated,  before its gets too hot to handle. This is  not to say that she leaves the characters and their  grievances stranded or unfinished. The wise and  articulate  construct  of  the  dynamics of  bereavement  makes plenty of room for mood shifts and yet there is a consistency and a continuity to the ‘family tragedy’, as defined once by Tolstoy. Lucknow where  the  rites of passage are held is treated not as  a city of  marvelous experiences  but a mere tool  in the hands of the people who  live there.The director threads her way through the characters, Ramprasad’s genuinely grieving wife(Supriya Pathak, so  stately and supremely  immersed  in the tragedy) and his six children: four sons and two daughters each played with unsurpassable  scrupulosity  by  Manoj Pahwa, Ninad Kamath, Vinay Pathak, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Anubha  Fatehpuri and Sarika  Singh. Each of these characters plunges into his or her part wholeheartedly unconditionally and  non-judgementally. Since I haven’t seen much of Ms Fatehpuri’s work before she is a special  revelation. The  mercurial changes in mood are  recorded with  a casual grace that comes naturally to a director who knows her milieu  only to well.Other stand-out performances come from Konkona Sen Sharma as the youngest son’s disgruntled  wife  and Vikrant Massey as the eldest son’s son. The two share a dangerous  complicated relationship that could snowball into  a sequel. I wouldn’t mind , as  long Naseeruddin Shah  returns from the dead. His strong presence is felt throughout this spirited  vivacious  gentle  and occasionally vicious film(the drunken eldest son telling his brothers  that he had seen his parents  “doing  it”  will make you squirm)  on death and  its aftermath when every bereaved  sits down to do the math.

Renuka Shahane in  Tribhanga Walking that  lonely path  of  going against conventions, the  women in Tribhanga  are no cardboard  feminists. These are people who are real  with real problems, not afraid to  bare their soul when the director calls ‘action’.Debutante director Renuka Shahane gets more than she had bargained for. Just like life, Tribhanga is  somewhat off-kilter, a  little askew, at times  uneven and even patchy. But the story of three generations of  women from one family,spirited, unorthodox, unfettered,  holds together,  moles warts  and all. Tribhanga is  a fiercely original film, though  cinephiles would like to see distinct shades  of Ingmar Bergman’s  imperishable classic  Autumn Sonata in Renuka Shahane’s striking debut film. But that,  like  much in life, is only an illusion. The fierce  mother-daughter battle  so indelibly  passionate  in  Bergman’s film,  is  ignited here by the  presence of Kajol .The fiercest actress on this side  of  Fearless Nadia and Geeta Bali, Kajol brings to Tribhanga  a kind of  unrehearsed  ferocity that is  at once intimidating intriguing and  irresistible.Strangely there aren’t that many confrontation  scenes  between mother Tanve Azmi and  daughter  Kajol as there were between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman in Autumn Sonata.  Maybe Ms Shahane  in  her  bid  to  escape  a conventional conflict, went the  other way in search of  the deathly stillness under the drama of disengagement  that  defines  the fiery Anu(Kajol)’s relationship with  her celebrity  mother Nayantara(Tanve Azmi), an author who  couldn’t write a happy ending for her own  life.

There  is  one  major confrontational mother-daughter sequence where  after being  abused by  her Russian husband(why Russian?) Anu bodily pushes her  mother out of the door when she pays a sympathy visit.  It’s a devastatingly PHYSICAL  moment because when Kajol gets physical  she really gets  physical. Pulling  out all stops, she gives one of her best performances in recent years.In contrast  kid brother(Vaibhav  Tatawaadi)  a  Krishna bhakt is a quiet gentle soul always trying to  calm down his hyper-ventilating sister. It’s  a study in contrasts that  avoids  looking doctored  into the  plot.More than her  complex tangled  relationship with  her mother, it is Anu’s  ongoing fencing with her mother’s biographer  that had me fascinated. Anu hurls  the choicest  Hindi and angrezi abuses at the  saintly  biographer Milan, played with an aching sincerity  by Kunaal Roy Kapur(who according to me is  the most talented soul in the family). Kunaal plays the king gentle alpha male that is essential in all films  about women protagonists who are  victims of patriarchal  abuse.Milan speaks shuddh Hindi and never uses strong language, no matter what the provocation. Anu(being  Kajol) lets  the  expletives roll out like rotis  at a roadside dhaba. I would like to see a whole film devoted to these two characters. Not that this one is  short of  lamb-like males. Maaniv Govil plays  Kajol’s  incredibly  gentle partner who makes coffee for her(have you seen even one film about a supportive male where he doesn’t offer to make  coffee for his beloved?)  while her dances her Oddissi  and hurls  abuses at  everyone who has the misfortune to be in her life.The  most admirable part of Tribhanga is that the women are no saints or victims. They are flawed and therefore fabulous.At least two  of them Tanve Azmi and Kajol are. The third Mithila Palkar as Kajol’s daughter hardly has breathing space in the plot with two older women shouting down all other  voices. But Mithila too  manages to leave a  strong impact.

Manjari  Makijani in Skater  Girl 10 minutes   into the  film,and I was convinced  this was Slumdog Millionaire on a skating board in Rajasthan.Then  45 minutes later something magical happened. She is called Waheeda Rehman. I don’t know  how or where this enchantress, now  in the winter  of her life, showed  up as a doppelganger  of Gayatri  Devi,telling us  why  she would fund a  skatepark in  Rajasthan.We  appreciate.I was  half-way converted, though  acutely embarrassed by the turgid  benign-gora-log-inspiring-and-enlightening-brownfaced-kids subtext  of  the drama. There is  a village in Rajashthan called Khempur where  the  scruffy kids in torn shorts and  fading school uniforms  get a chance  to dream , when a pretty half-British-half-Indian  full-on Mother Teresa reincarnation shows up, all muddy  and  weather beaten  but full of beans.

Jessica(Amy/Amrita Maghera)  shows up like a dimestore Florid Florence Nightingale.“Tooom yeh karrrr saakta hai,” she eggs  on spirited teen-going-on-middleage  Prerna(Rachel Sanchita Gupta, a natural, though the brown coloring  could have been avoided  as kids belonging to the lower castes are not always tanned). Prerna is well played by the debutante .But little  Shafin Patel as her kidbrother  Ankush is the real discovery of  the  film. The boy conveys all the  acquired maturity and ingrained impishness of  a male heir in an impoverished family who  understands more of his sister’s  pain than he should at his age.Many portions  of the film are so touristy  I  felt I  was watching  a sponsored  propaganda  film on colonial superiority. What  would we do  if  foreigners like Jessica and her  friend  Eric(Jonathan Readwin, Angel’s  sidekick) did not show up to  change the lives of disadvantaged rural  kids?But then  I have to admit by the  end  of it all , I was cheering and sobbing in a climax  certainly inspired  by  Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It  Like Beckham ,  when Prerna flees from her  marriage mandap to participate in a skating championship  where, hallelujah,the ethereal Waheeda Rehman shows up again. Now if she’s supporting the  film, I am in.Besides the  two main  child actors  the film has some really likeable actors like the chap who plays Jessica’s affable  local guide and host Vikram(Ankit Rao).Ambrish Saxena and Swati Das are  excellent as  Prerna’s  harried parents . But what was the need for a romantic  side-plot where (low caste) Prerna is wooed by  a Brahmin boy Subodh(Vinayak Gupta) who has the shiniest teeth since God  invented Colgate.Skater  Girl is  effective when it avoids being schmaltzy and over-cute. When Prerna tells  her mother  that Jessica Madamji is from London the  mother replies, “Yeh  kaun sa goan hain?”Really? At the  end we are told that the skatepark built in the Rajasthan village to shoot this film now stands  permanently  as  a recreational   nirvana for  children in  and around  the venue.For this  alone, I  forgive the film its excessive  cuteness. Besides,  Waheedaji  mentions that some day she will tell  us her character’s back  story.So  I  am looking forward  to  the sequel. But now I  have to go. The skating board beckons.

Kaashvie Nair  In Sardar  Ka Grandson With Neena Gupta  and Arjun Kapoor playing the  eponymous  parts  Sardar Ka Grandson  promised  to  at least  regale us with one of  those  endlessly endearing  sagas of family ties… you know, like Prem Kishen and  ‘Dadaji’ Madan  Puri in the Rajshri  classic Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye or  Salman and his grandfather Shammi Kapoor in Jab Pyar Kissise Hota HaiSadly—and I say this with  a heavy heart—Sardar Ka Grandson generates  as much chemistry  between the  Daadi-Grandson   pair as fire and  ice. Ms Gupta,otherwise such  an accomplished  actress gives one of her career’s hammiest performances  as a sullen sulky  Sadarni  Rupinder Kaur (was  the role written for  Sushma Seth)  who wants  her dying wish to be  fulfilled by her beloved grandson: she wants to see her ancestral home in  Lahore.Yes, this is one  of those steeped-in-nostalgia films about cross-border amity that  drowns into its own pool  of  sweetened  tears.It also  revels in a plot that threatens to  collapse under the  double weight of coincidences and  improbabilities.As far as improbabilities go try this :  when Daadi can’t  go to Lahore(she apparently insulted  the Mayor  of Lahore  once at an Indo-Pak cricket match) her ancestral  home  is brought to  Amritsar  by  a process known as  structure relocation.    No one said a building can be  moved 50 kms by this cumbersome near-impossible  process.  But the brainwave  hit this film’s  team so hard that they just decided to go for it,  disregarding the basic  logistics and  practical problems(we are talking about moving a two-storey building  from not just one  city to another but also from a country  completely hostile to  the other) hoping that the emotional sway  of the  idea would be so  powerful that all skepticism about the sheer logistics   of the main  premise . would be swept aside.Regrettably no such miracle happens.  For most of its 2 ½ hour length(way tooooo  long!)    the  film remains more  admirable  for  trying to implement   a near-impossible  idea rather than  arriving at any  satisfying closureAlong with   the ‘grand’ Daadi-Pota   idea with  ailing Daadi and wailing  Family  plodding along from one saccharine  absurdity to  another, with the characters in ‘Lahore’ speaking to one another with every sentence prefixed with ‘Janaab’,  grandson  Amreek Singh has his own heart problems.As  Arjun  Kapoor’s love interest all Rakul Preet Singh  has to do is  be there for her man. So much for  the empowered female  protagonist. While one female heroine in this  film thinks emotional manipulation  at an autumnal age is  cute, the  other thinks following her  man around after he has  repeatedly taken her for granted is some kind of  a salvation for the post-feminist modern woman.The  performances range from the hammy to the clammy . Redoubtable actors  like Kumud Mishra(playing the aforementioned mayor), Soni Razdan(wearing one sourpuss expression  throughout  the  prolonged narrative) and Divya Seth(reduced to playing a pumped up nostril-flaring  prop) seem  lost in the  fumes  of  bonhomie that swirl  in this dreary fairytale confection.Aditi Rao and John Abraham   play  the  younger  versions  of  Neena Gupta and her  husband in Lahore.As absurd as that may sound,this is  easier to believe than the whole idea  of  a home being translocated  from Lahore to Amritsar.For a  first-time director  Kaashvie Nair  has some fresh  ideas.All she has to do next time is to make sure the ideas are rooted  to at least a semblance of  credibility . We know  faith  can move mountains. But this is  ridiculous.

Diya Annapura Ghosh in Bob Biswas Young debutante Diya Ghosh’s film is  a puzzle of a film. The killings aren’t meant to be  funny(they never are). But some of them are so  incongruous with the mood of the moment that one can’t help laughing at the sheer absurdity  of it.At heart, Bob Biswas is  a  very sad film. It is  about dangerous attention-arresting drugs, second chances,sexual harassment at work ,pesky neighbours , chowmein sellers  with  violent skills  and homeopathic  medicines.  It is  the story of  a middleaged man with  a receding  hairline  and a chance of rehabilitation to match the  hairline, trying hard  to heal old wounds.Abhishek Bachchan with his bewildered  expression and bemused  responses to the world around him, is the pitch-perfect Bob Biswas. Murderously innocent , hopelessly lost in a Kolkata he abandoned many  years ago. Now  he reclaims a  city , a life  and a family that have moved on.With tragic consequences.The family, though, is  not quite  the  hiccup that Bob  can wish away. Chitrangda  Singh as Bob’s wife is mysteriously unobtainable. The tender moments  between Singh  and Bachchan , beautifully subdued and silken, reminded me   of  an old  Prakash Mehra  film Haseena Maan Jayegi where  wife Babita isn’t sure whether her war-returned  husband is her husband or  his twin brother.You wish Bob  would  find his  mojo  again. But  life is never  kind to those with a dark past. Nemesis catches up with  Bob in ways that are most unexpected and brutal. Sujoy  Ghosh’s screenplay owes  its  tone of savage grace  to Korean cinema where  awful things happen to good people whose lives spin out  of control.You want   good things to happen to Bob, partly because he is played by the convivial  Bachchan. More to the point, Bob’s killings are so bereft of malice. He pulls the trigger because…well,he has  to. The  narrative is  nubile in its expressions of  love and violence. Past transgressions and  present atonement.As in Sujoy Ghosh’s  Kahaani, Kolkata in Bob Biswas is  captured in  all its bustling glory. Thankfully no Durga Puja  shows up during the course  of the  plot.The casting, both  big and small, is impeccable. Specially  outstanding are veteran Bengali actor Paran Bandyopadhyay as  a homeopathic medicine  dealer with deadly secrets and Purab Kohli as  a slimy drug dealer who belts out R D Burman’s Duniya mein logon ko in both  RD and Asha Bhosle’s voices. Newcomer  Samara Tijori has an important  role  as Bob’s  stepdaughter.She is  a confident debutant .Bob Biswas  appears deceptively tranquil on the surface.  As the  deep disturbances  bubble to the  surface we know what Bob Biswas doesn’t.  There are no second chances  in life .

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