18 April 2014
Tigmanshu Dhulia is a man of many talents. Over the years Dhulia has written screenplays, acted in supporting roles and most prominently directed a number of genre films. With Bullet Raja, his latest film, he certainly is one of the few Hindi directors who has refused to play it safe, jumping from one genre to the next in quick succession. Although Bullet Raja was met with mixed reviews, I am still convinced of Dhulia’s talents since on the surface this action thriller feels connected to the ongoing love affair with neo masala cinema. If Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Shergill) in their tacky, colourful attire recall the imagery of the Tapori then this 1970s vibe is vividly brought to life with a contemporary, if somewhat, superficial exploration of the unsavoury relationship between politics and violence. Bullet Raja is a star vehicle for Saif Ali Khan but he is out performed by an underrated Shergill, Gulshan Grover and Raj Babbar to name a few. Dhulia clearly seems to have wanted to make a political thriller in a mainstream context but finds himself having to compromise with one too many action set pieces; narrative strands are seemingly introduced every so often while the song and dance sequences are nervously integrated into the story.
The buddy film genre is often associated with Hollywood cinema but popular Hindi cinema has had its fair share of male bromances stretching back to the 1960s. Dhulia uses the buddy film conventions for some vagaries in terms of sexuality, queering the male friendship between Saif and Jimmy so that it becomes a film about homoerotic frissons. It is only with the entry of the female love interest Mitali (Sonaskshi Sinha) does the extent of Raja and Rudra's inseparable bond of love become more noticeable. What is implied in terms of homoeroticism is later explicitly stated after Rudra's death. In a song that sees Raja serenade Sonakshi, his point of view is disrupted with shots of Rudra that not only challenges Raja's attempts at a heteronormative state but also visualises a struggle to repress homoerotic desires. Further still, Raja's need to reclaim his homoerotic identity is a reaction to the void left by Rudra's death, and he does in the final act when he befriends a hard body male police officer, establishing a new friendship. Another point of eroticism is the way Dhulia fetishises guns especially in the way Raja and Rudra seem connected by such phallic objects. Even more interesting is the transgender construction of Sumer Yadav (Ravi Kisan), a hitman who dresses as a woman so to evade capture from the police. Bullet Raja, as a film about sexuality, male identity and eroticism reiterates the ways in which Dhulia uses genre as a vehicle to subvert mainstream frameworks while exploring more complex ideologies, in this case gender politics. Critics were quick to dismiss the insignificance of Bullet Raja but even as a genre piece it is still a respectable and enjoyable mainstream film.
The close up on director Yoshitarô Nomura deserves high praise indeed. Japanese scholar Alexander Jacoby offered an informed intro to the work of Nomura, positioning him as a director who had his fair share of box office hits while carving out specific genre interests in film noir, thrillers and melodrama. In the words of Jacoby, Zero Focus is very typical of Nomura as a director as it depicts characters in transit, noir idioms and social issues of the time. What struck me immediately was Nomura’s use of the widescreen space, composing bold shots, organising characters in the landscapes, and choosing to frame from an aesthetic and thematic sensibility. The melodrama emerges from the perspective of the wife who goes on a journey to find her missing husband but this becomes a perfunctory plot device, allowing Nomura to use genre as a vehicle to explore gender issues especially feminine sensibilities. An underlying quality of directors who worked in the confines of a studio system, be it in America or Japan, was their capacity to master the art of narrative economy, something that seems to have gone amiss in today’s contemporary cinema. Unfortunately I never got round to seeing any of the other Nomura films playing at the festival but Roy Stafford's coverage makes for essential reading.