Sunday, February 16, 2020

Staircases In Films

In Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, there is a supporting character that marks its presence throughout the film. This particular character accentuates the theme of class differences in the Oscar-winning drama. In fact, Bong and his crew constantly referred to Parasite by this character while they were making it. As one can easily guess, this character is the staircase. Parasite uses staircases to depict the inequalities between the rich and the poor. Hindi films have also used staircases in a similar effect. Old films would have huge mansions, often with double spiraling staircases, to depict the lives of the rich. The lairs of the villains would also have stunning staircases. The other common depiction of staircases was as a cause of death, especially, for pregnant women. An evil character would make them slip often leading to miscarriage. While watching Parasite, I kept thinking of some of the memorable scenes related to staircases in more recent films. 
As a villain
The first film that comes to mind while thinking about stairs, especially for those who have grown up in the nineties, is Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!. The saccharine drama about a large extended family of sweet-natured people has no villains except a staircase that brings a major upheaval in the film. The elder sister Pooja falls down the stairs in her parents' house and dies leaving behind a few-weeks-old child. Her death makes the family members ask the younger sister Nisha to marry her sister's husband. Due to a misunderstanding, Nisha agrees for the match sacrificing her love. It is left to Tuffy, their Indian Spitz pet dog, to sort out all the confusion. 
As a state of indecision 
In Tamasha, the stairs play another starring role in one of my favorite scenes from the film. Tara often comes to read at Social café, secretly hoping for Don, the man whom she met in Corsica, to show up there. One fine day, Don turns up, and Tara cannot believe it for a minute. Her four-year wait has finally ended but she cannot share this moment with anyone. She immediately goes downstairs, trying to pretend as if nothing has happened. She pauses downstairs, then, comes back up, and again, rushes downstairs. She lets out an even bigger smile now and that smile has a feeling of contentment as if some long desire is finally fulfilled. She rushes up back again and composes herself to show that everything is normal. The musical beats of Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai play in the background accentuating Tara's emotions splendidly. Deepika Padukone is terrific in this scene. Interestingly, there is another similar scene early in the film. When Tara is leaving Corsica, she surreptitiously goes downstairs without saying goodbye to Ved, but again comes back up. She goes to Ved's room, and they sleep together, and then, she comes back downstairs again. The song Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai starts playing. Something similar happens again in the final scenes of the film at the tea conference in Japan. When Tara sees the ring on a teacup, she rushes to the elevator, but it closes, and then she takes the stairs. She goes out and sees no one, and comes back up. This time, she meets Ved, and they finally spoke like they did in Corsica. In a deleted scene that follows this, Tara and Ved come back down. Immediately, before this scene, the beats of Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai had played, when the storyteller baba told the young Ved the story about Ranjha going to meet Heer. In all the three cases of rushing up and down, Tara finds Ved in some way or the other and meets him. Tamasha is full of scenes of Tara near the stairs that can be seen throughout. Even in Matargashti, Ved and Tara are found near the stairs. I had written about this earlier here as well.
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Anjali, dressed in all her bridal finery, stops at the stairs of her house, unable to take the last few steps to reach the mandap where her groom Aman is waiting for her. She cannot look at anyone else except the love of her life Rahul, crying over what could have been. It is only left to Aman to drag her down the stairs and do what Rahul and Anjali have not been able to do for themselves all this while.
As an image of sisterhood
In Lipstick Under My Burkha, there is a lovely moment at the mall when Bua Ji, the owner of a hundred-year-old dilapidated building takes her first trip to a newly constructed mall to buy a swimming costume. She feels a bit intimidated by the moving stairs there standing by herself until a little girl from a group of girls offers her hand to Bua Ji. All of them go up the escalator with hand in hand giving a perfect scrapbook image of sisterhood. 
As a means of a journey to heaven and hell
In No Smoking, K visits the Prayogshala located in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai. When K reaches the spot, the man at the counter directs him to an underground bunker through which K has to pass to reach the Prayogshala. He descends into the manhole, and thereafter, he has to take more stairs to go further down. There is nothing at the same level and he has to keep going down. This descent of the stairs is nothing but the representation of K going to hell.
In Ship of Theseus, a young stockbroker, Navin, receives a kidney transplant. He learns of a case of organ theft involving a poor bricklayer, Shankar, and fears that his new kidney was the one stolen from Shankar. Navin wants to find Sankar to help him get back his kidney. In a particular sequence, Navin goes to the locality where Sankar stays and walks up a path of endless stairs as if he is going towards heaven to find 'Sankar'. Stairs that take K to hell also take Navin to heaven.
As a romantic spot
In Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Rianna takes Rahul back to her school when they are in Mumbai. She shows him the stairs which were the secret kissing spot where all the couples used to come. Rahul takes it as a signal that Rianna likes him and leans forward to kiss her. Rianna backs off making him realize that she had no such intention. Rahul is embarrassed to the core and walks away leading to a crisis in their friendship. Towards the end, Rahul realizes his mistake and meets Rianna. They sort it out while sitting at the stairs again. He does not get a kiss this time but he gets a hug from her.
In Tere Ghar Ke Samne, Rakesh and Sulekha climb up the narrow stairs of Qutub Minar to reach its top floor. During their ascent, Sulekha says that she can hear the sound of the bumblebees. Rakesh replies that he can only hear the sound of his heart. He keeps flirting with her asking if her heart is making the sound of love. They spend a few moments at the top admiring the view. While descending, Rakesh serenades her by singing the lilting Dil Ka Bhanwar. The narrow stairs with its turns provide them the opportunity to be physically close. By the end of the song, Sulekha falls in love with Rakesh. It is a beautifully choreographed song that remains memorable even now. 
In Sairat, the first time Aarchi and Parshya see each other in the film is during the Yad Lagla song sequence that is shot at a stepwell. Parshya jumps into the well without realizing that Aarchi and her friends are there as well. Aarchi asks him to leave. He walks upon the narrow stairs where Aarchi is standing coming physically to her and the song plays in the background that means, "I have gone insane." 
As a depiction of the struggle to reach the top
In Queen, Rani goes to Paris alone on her honeymoon after she is jilted at the altar by her fiancĂ©. When she reaches the hotel, she struggles to carry the luggage on the stairs while the song with the lyrics, "Kaandhe yeh bhari se din ko, dho nahi pate", plays in the background reflecting the internal baggage that she is carrying with her, reminiscent of the scene from Dil Chahta Hai where Tara, too, struggles to carry her stuff inside. Both women bring with them a lot of emotional baggage. In contrast, there was Mehak in Phobia who is finally able to overcome the demons of her past and leave her apartment to walk down the stairs in the film's climax.
As a test of love
In Chennai Express, Meenamma and Rahul run away to a village where they pretend to be a newly-married couple. One of the traditions in the village is that the husband has to carry his wife over three hundred steps of a temple as it was believed that this test makes the marriage strong. Although they are not married, Rahul carries Meenamma all the way up making everyone bless them for their future. It is at the precise moment when Rahul has Meenamma in his arms over the stairs she realizes that she has fallen in love with him. He is physically carrying her in his arms and she is emotionally carrying him in his heart.
As a site of meeting ghosts
In Paheli, there is a beautiful scene shot at the stunning stepwell at Chand Baori where Lachchi sees a bluebird following her when she goes down the stairs for ablutions. She is stunned by the chirping of the bird. Moments later, the bird disappears and footprints of an apparition coming out of the well can be seen. Lachchi is visibly perplexed by the same and runs away. The architectural marvel of the site just adds to the beauty of the scene. 
As a signature motif
A staircase is another signature motif in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The houses in his films usually have sprawling staircases. In his films, there is also a scene usually where someone runs down the stairs. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Nandini walks down the stairs leaving Sameer mesmerized by her beauty. In Devdas, Paro runs down the sprawling stairs in her house when she learns Dev is breathing his last at her doorstep. Bhansali's other films, such as Black, SaawariyaGuzaarish, and Bajirao Mastani have similar scenes. In his last film Padmaavat, Rani Padmavati walks into the fire with all the other women of the kingdom while descending the stairs among the chants of Jai Bhavani. 
As a power center
The staircase, like in the older films, often shows the differences in the power of the people. In Udaan, Rohan and his father have a confrontation at the stairs outside their apartment where his father burns and throws away the diary of Rohan's poems as if trying to burn his dreams. The scene is shot in a way that depicts the more powerful man at the top in the relationship. I am also reminded of the scene in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna when Rhea and Dev fight after she informs him that she refused a job offer to move to London. In this marriage, Rhea is the more successful one, hence, she seems to be standing at the top. In another beautiful staircase scene from the same film, Dev stands over the staircase sandwiched between Rhea (his wife) and Maya (his girlfriend), where his wife asks his girlfriend to return him to her.
There are many more scenes from films which I am obviously missing out here. It is never-ending. But I want to also add one of my favorite childhood memories from the world of television which also involves a staircase. In the hilarious Dekh Bhai Dekh, Sameer, played by the amazing Shekar Suman, always slips over the stairs of his house while coming down from his room. He thinks something is wrong with them and waits for his wife Sunita, the awesome Bhavna Balsavar, to trip when she walks down. But nothing happens to her and she walks down without even noticing the stairs. So, he tries one more time to walk down and slips yet again. It is such a funny scene and I still laugh thinking about it. It can be watched here. I miss such shows.
I would be writing on some other aspects of Parasite soon.

Other Reading:
1. On the stairs in TamashaLink
2. On Elevators in Films—Link
3. On Autorickshaws in Films—Link
4. On Gifts in Films—Link
5. On Diaries in Films—Link

Dialogue of the Day:
"Yeh toh saabit ho gaya ki basement ki yeh seediyan upar se neeche aati hain, lekin yeh kaise saabit karoge ki yahi seediyan neeche se upar jaati hain."
—Vanraj, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Noblemen—An Eye For An Eye

In Noblemen, debutante director Vandana Kataria reimagines Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice by setting it in a boarding school in India. Her film tells the story of Shay (Ali Haji) who is selected to play the part of Bassanio from the aforementioned play in the annual function at his school. He is bullied by his senior Baaadal (Shaan Grover) as he wants to play the part of Bassanio as well. In connivance with the school captain Arjun (Mohommad Ali Mir), Baaadal tries to force Shay to withdraw from the play using violence and torture. The only support system Shay has in school is his friends Gonzo (Hardik Thakkar) and Pia (Muskkaan Jaferi) and his kind teacher Murali (Kunal Kapoor).
The Merchant of Venice is an important part of Noblemen, therefore, it is worthwhile to revisit its story. The play is the story of Antonio, a merchant, who owns ships in Venice. His friend Bassanio asks him for a loan to travel to Belmont to woo a girl named Portia. Antonio agrees but is unable to grant the loan himself as his money is invested in ships that were at sea. However, Antonio asks Bassanio to secure the loan from other moneylenders and promises to make a bond on his behalf. Thus, Bassanio approaches Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the loan. Shylock nurses a grudge against Antonio for his antisemitic behavior in the past. Even then, he agrees to lend money to Bassanio but adds a condition that if the loan goes unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio's own flesh.
After some events, it was revealed Antonio's ships were lost at sea, and he won't be able to repay Bassanio's loan for which he had signed a bond. Shylock, thus, insists on fulfilling his condition that he be given the pound of Antonio's flesh and gets him arrested. The lawyer in the court (who is Portia in disguise) pleads to Shylock to have mercy on Antonio. Bassanio also offers his wife's money to Shylock which would more than pay the debt, but he refuses to accept it. Using some clever statements, the lawyer eventually stops Antonio's death by arguing that Shylock asked for flesh but not for his blood. Shylock gets trapped in his own logic. In a reversal of events, the court then asks Shylock to forfeit his goods to Antonio and Bassanio as he threatened the life of a Venetian by his condition. Antonio refuses to take Shylock's goods but requests that it be put in a trust for Shylock's daughter who eloped with a Christian. Antonio also demands that Shylock becomes a Christian. Left with no options, Shylock agrees and leaves the court.
Coming back to Noblemen, early in the film, Murali explains to his students that the premise of The Merchant of Venice is revenge. The play is primarily about Shylock who wants to avenge himself against those who have wronged him. "Theater imitates life," he adds. And, then, life imitates theater in the film where Shay (Shylock) goes onto avenge himself against Arjun (Antonio) and Baaadal (Bassanio). The film takes quotes from the play and adapts them to the situation in school. In the original play, Shylock confronts Christians by talking about the discrimination he faced by them as he is a Jew. He had said,

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?

Doesn’t a Jew have eyes? Doesn’t a Jew have hands, bodily organs, a human shape, five senses, feelings, and passions? Doesn’t a Jew eat the same food, get hurt with the same weapons, get sick with the same diseases, get healed by the same medicine, and warm up in summer and cool off in winter just like a Christian?

Noblemen uses these same lines by changing the ethnic identities of Christian and Jew to the context of homosexuality. Shay is gay and is bullied by Arjun's gang for not following the traditional rules of masculinity. The film uses the above passage to bring out the discrimination and the violent assault faced by Shay. Do not gay people have the same hands, the same organs, the same senses?
Later, Shay asks his mother how to come out of a situation when someone is being attacked from both sides. Shay's mother Shruti (Soni Razdan) is a former airforce officer suffering from paralysis. The film never explicitly mentions this but Shay has frequent Skype conversations with her and her display picture conveys these details. His mother told him that the strategy that one should follow in the circumstances that Shay mentioned is focus and distract so that the attackers get tangled up with each other that they forget about the attack. Shay follows her mother's advice and uses the same strategy to avenge him. He carefully distracts his enemies near the pool. After the call with his mother, Shay again refers to a passage from the play convincing himself that to do a great right, it is alright to do a little wrong. Alas, he goes on to something hugely wrong. The original play ended with Shylock going out of the court unable to avenge himself; however, in Noblemen, Shylock is able to exact his revenge. The film adds many other passages from the play and uses them in situations suited for its story.
And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will. 

I beg you, just this once, 
Use your authority to bend the law. 
Do a great right by doing a little wrong. 
Don’t let this devil have his way.
As revenge is the central theme of the film, it is, therefore, not surprising that the hostel where the students is named after Gandhi who is believed to have said an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. On being asked about how will they take their revenge if someone hurt them, the students gave different options. Pia, in fact, mentioned that she will hurt them, like an eye for an eye. Shay mentions that he will do nothing as he believed those who hurt you will eventually end up hurting themselves so he will tire them out. Murali replied that for him forgiveness is the sweetest revenge. The same theme comes out in the characters' decisions later in the film.
Early on, Shay finds a finch and names it Phoenix. The finch has the same color as his school uniform, he says. The finch is later killed by Arjun and his gang members. In the sense, Shay is the finch where his innocence is killed; and then, like a phoenix, he rises up to become a monster. This also harks back to the film's opening credits that begin with the quote—"A monster when left unchecked, creates an even bigger monster." We also see something similar in the opening and ending of the film. Noblemen begins with a bunch of boys chasing Shay in a pool almost trying to make him drown. The film ends with the same scene but something changes this time. Now Shay seems to be the perpetrator where he seems to be drowning his teacher. Interestingly, the film's poster also shows this but it kind of inverts the climax of the film.
At one point, Pia, Gonzo, and Shay are chatting about how the three of them are misfits in the school in different ways leading them to be bullied by the others. Pia is a girl in a boys' school, Ganesh is fat, and Shay is more interested in drama and literature but sucks at sports and is also gay. In a few scenes in the film, Shay and Pia seem to be close to each other and it seemed that they had feelings for each other. The film never touches this aspect of their relationship again as it is revealed that Shay is gay when he gets an erection after seeing Murali taking off his clothes in front of the class. The school principal and Murali discuss homosexuality in students where they fear that coming out is difficult for gay students as the world treats them harshly. Arjun and his gang represent the extreme end of masculinity where to go to the extent of assaulting Shay and Gonzo. The headteacher of the Gandhi house also supports harsh treatment meted out to students because it will make them men. If anyone has been a misfit of any kind in their growing up years, they would relate with them. We have all seen how vile can some students can be to someone who is different from them.
I would add that the one film that kept coming to me while watching Noblemen was Sonam Nair's charming Gippi. There was Booboo in the film who was a bit of both Ganesh and Shay. Booboo was fat and had no interest in sports but knew the latest trends in makeup. He gets delighted when he speaks with boys, showing subtle hints of homosexuality. Booboo was ridiculed by everyone including his own elder sister. Characters, such as Sudo in Student of The Year or Mehul from Hip Hip Hurray, were mocked for being fat. But, being fat and gay adds another dimension to life. In a country that is still largely conservative, it is a tough life ahead for characters, such as Shay and Booboo. Perhaps, that is why one empathizes and feels more for such characters.
Overall, I really liked Noblemen. The film shows that there is always an opportunity to adapt and reimagine classic literature in contemporary times with contemporary themes to create something unique and different. Vandana Kataria has also focused on the little details to truly make an interesting film. I will be waiting to see what she comes up with next. 

1. Ali Haji, who plays Shay, was the child actor in films, such as Fanaa, Partner, and Tara Rum Pum.
2. Muskkaan Jaferi, who plays Pia, is the daughter of Jagdeep and the stepsister of Javed Jaffrey.
3. Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe and Ai Ai Ya Suku Suku from Junglee are mentioned in the film.
4. Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Jaye from Pyaasa is recreated in the film.

Books in Movies:
1. Shay reads The Return of the Young Prince by A. G. Roemmers.
2. A copy of The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare in Murali's room.
Other Reading:
1. On Gippi—Link
2. On Student of the YearLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge."
—Murali, Noblemen

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

What Makes An Imtiaz Ali Movie on Film Companion

The post on all things Imtiaz Ali on Film Companion.

Dialogue of the Day:
"Ab toh mera haath chhod do, itni bhi sundar nahin hoon main."
—Geet, Jab We Met