In times of social-distancing and lockdown, a visit to dark cinema halls for two hours or more feels like an apocalyptic nightmare.
Or, perhaps, a distant dream. Sitting at home there’s not much to do except, it seems, build your abs and put that daily video on Instagram to irritate those of us who listlessly browse through one streaming site after another, only to realise that we have pretty much seen every serial dedicated to putting together the limbs and stories of dismembered bodies.
Luckily, there are enough desi and angrezi OTT (over-the-top, so named as they literally go “over” the cable box) platforms, and they do have some movies and shows worth watching.
But given the number of mini and seasonal series dedicated to serial killers, serial rapists and the noble pursuit of them by men, and a few women, who are dogged, quite dashing but also dysfunctional solitary reapers, it would seem that overzealous detectives hovering over dead bodies is a common human obsession.
I am not a big fan, though. The sanctimony of these truth chasers frosts my TV screen.
Take Luther (Prime Video), for example. I tried watching it and while the first two seasons were interesting, mostly because of the mummy-daddy killer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) who stalks him, Luther got boring and repetitive pretty soon, especially after a tragedy makes a personal visit.
This despite the fact that I can watch Idris Elba all day, on a loop. He’s primordial, key to the circle of life.
The Australian TV series Rake (Netflix), on the other hand, is light and fun.
Rake — “a man habituated to immoral conduct” — is Cleaver Greene (played by Richard Roxburgh), a Sydney-based defence lawyer who is an addict, doesn’t have an office and is mostly broke.
He has a very-centred yogini ex-wife who lives with their son in a sun-licked bungalow, and he has a resourceful secretary who draws whatever-I-feel-like salary from his account.
Cleaver lives alone in a shabby apartment and on some evenings visits a sex den where he likes to play some board game with a rather bright sex worker. This love story takes off briefly, before settling into a strangely functional friendship.
Cleaver is funny, resourceful, cuts corners, lies and doesn’t mind sleeping with his best friend’s wife. Obviously, I recommend it.
The other day I “rented” the movie Bombshell on Apple TV, and quite enjoyed it. Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow, it’s based on the real-life story of Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, and the women he sexually abused. Unlike the series, The Loudest Voice (Amazon Prime)
Bombshell is not powered by the showy histrionics of one actor (Russell Crowe, who plays Roger Ailes in Loudest Voice). It just tells the story without much fuss, but with lots of prosthetics and botox. But, Apple TV. Hmmm. It made a grand entry and then went phusss.
Though I am not a huge fan of their first big, starry series, The Morning Show, which is inspired by a book — Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, it is a worthy attempt. Set in the very competitive world of network news, The Morning Show is a very interesting take on workplace sexual abuse and MeToo.
I didn’t enjoy it because the two women — Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — holding the show are strangely incompetent despite being marquee names.
- The Morning Show
While Jennifer Aniston plays an interesting character — Alex Levy, an entitled TV diva who is devoted only to her divadom, Reese’s character, Bradley Jackson, with her 'I want to change the world one angry story at a time', bored me to death.
The problem is that though the show is devoted to righting the wrongs done to women, men inhabit better written, sharply-conceived characters and are assigned to stronger actors.
Mitch Kessler, played by Steve Carell, is excellent, and so is Billy Crudup whose Cory Ellison is a sexually ambiguous capitalist wet-dream. But there is one series on Apple TV that I found riveting — Servant, a psychological horror show directed by M. Night Shyamalan and Daniel Sackheim.
It’s a broody, moody, creepy show set in a Brownstone in Philadelphia where a couple, Dorothy and Sean, live.
Dorothy is a mother stunned into catatonic depression by a tragedy, and Sean, the husband, reluctantly but lovingly plays along so as to not prick the make-believe world she has concocted and inhabits. Dorothy is a day-time TV anchor and Sean is a chef who works from home. They hire a nanny to take care of Baby Jericho.
There is some creepy supernatural mumbo jumbo that is very worrying and makes for compulsive watching, but Servant stands out because of its high production value, excellent cinematography and incredibly intelligent sound design that plays with silence. I can still hear some scenes.
The other reason why the show is quite fabulous is the side-track of food — Sean only makes exotic dishes, and the process is sometimes teasing and seductive, but also, at times, violent. Food and fear make for very scary twins.
Cast: Takehiro Hira, Kelly Macdonald, Yusuke Kubozuka, Will Sharpe, Charlie Creed-Miles
Created & written by Joe Barton
Direction: Julian Farino, Ben Chessell
- Giri Haji
I suspect that like me many Indians have a mild crush on England and a huge crush on Japan. Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame), co-produced by BBC and Netflix, is set in London and Tokyo, and while its Japanese bit is all about yakuza, rogue assassins, loyalty and a lonesome, fatigued cop (a la Beat Takeshi, but not a patch on him), in England there is an earnest detective fighting snakes in her letter box, a flamboyant rent boy, and a club owner who seems to have walked over from the set of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
There is also a family of three women in Tokyo trying to rescue another woman and child, and a romance in London that’s all too predictable and filmy — the sort that always happens on screen but never, ever in real life.
The eight-part series drags in the beginning and gets a bit boring, but then it picks up. Giri/Haji is lifted from its droopy, elongated-shadows pace by the witty and emotionally raw Rodney Yamaguchi (Will Sharpe), a half-Japanese, half-British sex worker and drug addict who is stalked by guilt and chases a mother who just won’t see what he is going through.
Cast: Jameel Khan, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Harsh Mayar, Shivankit Singh Parihar
Direction: Amrit Raj Gupta
Gullak is a 2019 series that didn’t get the love it deserved. Set in a small town in North India, it’s a family drama about the Mishras — a lower middle class family of mother, father and two sons — and their roz marrah ki problems.
If there is a plot, it’s about meagre means and small dreams. In the Mishra parivaar there’s daily bickering over the same dish mummyji, Shanti, makes over and over (aloo-daal waale peele chawal), and the eldest son’s continuous pestering for a scooty. He gets the same response everytime he brings it up — “Pehle try and clear your SSC...”
Gullak is about being frustrated with power-cut and resolving to buy an inverter for the house, but realising the next instant that you need to build a proper house first. It’s about a water pump that keeps collapsing, and neighbours whose children are doing better than your own.
In the Mishra house, many afternoons and evenings are spent planning what will be built where, and these sessions often end with a special treat of ice-cream.
If there is an antithesis to Made in Heaven (Amazon Prime), the expensive, good-looking, amir logon ki problems wala serial, then it’s Gullak and its love for the ordinariness of life, its daily joys and frustrations.
If you are of my vintage and go all nostalgic at the mention of Pakistani serials like Tanhaiyaan, Dhoop Kinare, you will love the Mishras. For starters, the series has one of India’s most talented and unrecognised actresses, Geetanjali Kulkarni.
The Valhalla Murders (Netflix)
Cast: Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Bjorn Thors
Creator: Thordur Palsson
It’s Nordic, it’s set in Iceland, and it’s about chilling murders and deteremined detectives.
- The Valhalla Murders
The Valhalla Murders, an eight-part series, is inspired by a real life incident in the 1940s and opens with some dead-end murders where the killer slashes the eyes of the victims.
As the body count mounts, Kata, the officer investigating the murders, is overlooked for a promotion and then told that she has to work with Arnar, an officer being called from Oslo to take charge of the investigation.
The Valhalla Murders doesn’t compare with Trapped (Netflix), but it’s engaging — because of the setting, aerial shots of long, grey roads cutting through snow, and because all these roads lead, yet again, to sexual perversion and childhood scars that won’t heal.
Cast: Alli Willow, Antonio Saboia, Barbara Colen, Brian Townes, Carlos Francisco, Chris Doubek, Jonny Mars, Udo Kier, Julia Marie Peterson, Karine Teles, Luciana Souza, Rubens Santos, Silvero Pereira, Sonia Braga
Direction: Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles
Brazilian auteur director Kleber Mendonça Filho and his co-director Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau (Nighthawk) opens with a truck load of coffins spilling on to a road en route to a small Brazilian town which, soon after, disappears from the map, quite literally, after its matriarch Carmelita dies.
Local mayor elections are underway and when the villagers don’t pay much attention to the candidate’s spiel and promises, a group of sharp shooters arrive to take out the villagers.
With militia-on-hire on the prowl, drones in the sky and orders over walkie-talkies, Bacurau tells the bizarre, bloody story of a village rising to protect itself in the style of a modern western.
The film has a lot of blood and gore that doesn’t make much sense because the dots of the plot exist as islands in themselves and it’s for us to join them, or not.
Bacurau is an allegorical satire on far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. And while the story may or may not come together for you, what will stay with you is the wacky whimsy of the director as well as his astute take on life under a despotic, megalomaniacal head of state.
Bacurau was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and it won the jury prize.
Asur: Welcome To your Dark Side (Voot)
Cast: Arshad Warsi, Barun Sobti, Anupriya Goenka, Riddhi Dogra, Sharib Hashmi, Amey Wagh
Direction: Oni Sen
It’s been a while since I saw Arshad Warsi and I was really looking forward to spending some time with him. But the joy of Asur doesn’t lie in his company. It lies in a plot that is smarter than us and keeps coiling around its main characters.
Asur is a serial about serial murders and a team of CBI officers who are focused on cracking it.
Dhananjay Rajpoot (Arshad Warsi) is a forensics guy who has a bit of troubled history with another forensics guy, Nikhil Nair (Barun Sobti). They were once partners but now Nikhil lives in the US and works for the FBI.
But a murderer in India keeps sending Nikhil locations of his murders, and soon Nikhil is requested to rejoin CBI.
He returns, despite his sexy but perpetually sulking wife’s objections. And then, nothing goes as per plan.
One investigating officer gets framed in a murder and is sent to jail, while another is kidnapped by the killer and made to choose between plotting murders or watching his own family die.
Dhananjay Rajpoot’s story and character carries more than a whiff of Idris Elba’s Luther, but Warsi gives it lots of gloom without the swag. Barun Sobti is good but his Nikhil needed a bath and a nicotine patch.
The series is riveting not because of the investigation or the police procedural, but because of the killer’s back story. Set in Varanasi and drenched in creepy mythology about Kali and Kalki (the 10th and final avatar of Vishnu), this flashback, which the series keeps going back to, is haunting and very nicely done. It also has the best actors in the series.
Especially Vishesh Bansal, who plays young Shubh. His dead gaze still stalks me.
Yeh Ballet (Netflix)
Feature film: English/Hindi
Cast: Achintya Bose, Manish Chauhan, Julian Sands, Danish Hussain, Heeba Shah, Vijay Mauryaould no
Direction: Sooni Taraporevala
- Yeh Ballet
Yeh Ballet, set in Mumbai, is a foot-tapping, shoulder-popping prance to tapori land.
Based on a true story, it is directed by Sooni Taraporevala, an accomplished photographer and writer, and tells the story of two boys, Asif and Nishu, excellent street dancers who seek a life out of their suffocating, meagre existence.
In Saul Iron (Julian Sands), an Israeli-American ballet teacher, they find a mentor and some hope.
Though both the boys skip in and out of maze-like narrow lanes to settle into homes where intimacy is involuntary, they could not be more different, and yet similar.
Asif, a blustering boy with his curly hair on fire, is into some doggy courier business and is always itching for a fight. Nishu, on the other hand, is a seedha-sadha, serious boy who is proud of winning a special prize on a TV talent show.
Both of them forget their claustrophobic lives when they dance on concrete patches by the beach before women carrying fish to dry shoo them away.
Nishu and Asif join the Mumbai Dance Academy despite the lack of money and opposition from their homes.
Their capricious lives and tempestuous attitude leads to tension and suspense, as well as some poignant moments. Shot on location, Yeh Ballet brings to life that sliver of Mumbai which sits by the sea and is repeatedly stroked by gusts of fresh air.
The film is at its best when the kids are dancing, outside — challenging and taunting each other with their intimidating and free-association moves.
The ballet sessions at the academy, where young boys and girls tip-toe in “butt shorts”, were dull because the ballet wasn’t as great as we are constantly told it is.
Yeh Ballet is uplifting in the way all stories about young prodigies chasing a dream are.
But it’s the boys’ relationship with their perpetually angry teacher, their funny cross talk which gives the film a heart. There is also a subtle but powerful comment on Indians’ attitude to gods that makes Yeh Ballet and the lanes of Mumbai glow and pulse....