Call My Agent: Bollywood, Sardar Udham, Scenes From A Marriage, Tabbar: Best streaming picks from October
October brought us a far more eclectic and stimulating mélange of content than recent months, including the award-winning Malayalam film Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam on SonyLIV and Leena Yadav's docuseries The House of Secrets on Netflix India.
Ex-Stream Benefits is a column where senior journalist Subhash K Jha picks the best streaming platforms had to offer across the previous month.
October brought us a far more eclectic and stimulating mélange of content than recent months. Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham, Hagai Levi’s Scenes From A Marriage , Ajit Pal Singh’s Tabbar, and Leena Yadav-Anubhav Chopra’s House Of Secrets were experiences that gave the home-viewing medium a reputable image.
But hang on. There are more which you might have missed because the reviews did not catch your attention. A look at the best content on OTT in October (in no particular order of merit).
During the last two years, I have seen enough masterpieces in Malayalam to believe that the best films in India are being made in Kerala. Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is not quite the topnotch cream-of-the-crop product on par with the Fahadh Faasil films this year, Jijo and the overrated Malik, or that Jayasurya lockdown gem Sunny, which came out in September.
But Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is a sparkling, vivacious, robust, and bitingly funny look at a village wedding where everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Yet the film never loses its blithe spirit. The actors are so natural, you will never catch them 'acting.' And the interweaving of family relationships with a wider socio-political perspective is bang-on. This is the serio-comic family film that Sooraj Barjatya could never dream of making.
Scenes From A Marriage (HBO)
For my money and time, Jessica Chastain is one of the finest dramatic actresses of contemporary cinema, right up there with Liv Ullman, Meryl Streep, Juliette Binoche, and Shabana Azmi. So is Chastain as good as Ullman was in Ingmar Bergman’s original series in 1972? She smashes the screen, and jumps out at you with a feral ferocity that we witness on screen only once in a while. Of course, Oscar Isaac (one of contemporary American cinema’s rising phenomena) is also a revelation. But somehow, this version of Scenes From A Marriage is owned by Chastain.
As Mira, she is a volcano about to erupt: Tempestuous, tactile, volatile. When she is on the screen (which is 90 percent of the playing time), we cannot take our eyes off her. The series is not instantly likable. Neither Chastain nor Isaac play their parts for empathy. I have yet to come across a more disagreeable couple on screen, barring perhaps Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Unlike Dick and Liz, there is minimal physical violence between this couple. This is a couple that cannot live together, but cannot live apart either. They love each other, but they do not like each other any more. What do we do with Mira and Jonathan? Forty-eight years ago, Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage had triggered a divorce spree in Sweden. I do not see the remake making any difference to modern marriages. Contemporary couples need no impetus to separate.
Sardar Udham (Amazon Prime Video India)
So much dust has been raised over Sardar Udham not getting to go to the Oscars. Thanks to a jury member who thinks this biopic propagates hatred, people have loved Shoojit Sircar’s film even more. Here is a film that is at once a comprehensive biopic and a sharp thriller about an assassination of a dubious political figure, a la The Day Of The Jackal. Indeed, Frederick Forsyth meets Richard Attenborough in this astute, if overlong, cinematic replication of an assassination that shook the world.
The film is punctuated by bouts of indefinable pathos, and yet Sircar, a master when it comes to temperate storytelling, exercises an incredible restrain over his potentially unwieldy narration that takes its protagonist here, there, and everywhere. From Sunam, a village in Punjab to Russia, to finally London, where General O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott, well played) is now busy giving lectures on the glorious days of the British Raj, and what a brave and noble deed he performed by ordering the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre… “to teach them a lesson.” These gora log, I tell you.
The House Of Secrets (Netflix India)
Leena Yadav and her co-director Anubhav Chopra have constructed what can be called a 'whydunnit,' one that leaves us with the question of why the Burari family chose to end its life so suddenly. What was the impetus for this self-inflicted brutality? To the docu-series’ credit, it attempts to cut through the hysteria hype to try and get close to the doomed family by talking to neighbours, relatives, and friends. What we get to know of the snuffed-out family when they were alive is frightening in how “normal” they were in their everyday conduct. What this illuminating, if necessarily fragmented three-part docu-series tells us is this: the enemy is not the neighbour. It is in our homes. That is the ultimate horror show.
Set in the curiously vivacious bustle of Jalandhar, this web show has the extraordinary Pawan Malhotra as Omkar, a petty entrepreneur and patriarch with a wife and two sons. Once we accept the deep flaw in Omkar Singh’s skewed morality and messy modus operandi, it all makes a kind of blindsided sense. The writing (Harman Wadala and Sandeep Jain) grows exponentially hazy, as the relationships, so lovingly adumbrated in the initial episodes, begin to crumble under pressure. Director Ajit Pal Singh exercises a tight control over the proceedings that prod the drama from the poignant to the perverse (the murder of an old family friend is particularly unfortunate). There are no loose ends in the narrative. Although bits of it may seem oddly incongruous to the outsider, it is finally about plotting ways to keep the family from falling apart. Given the growing absurdity of the crime-leaden family’s predicament, Tabbar carries the weight of overstatement well on its shoulders. Malhotra and Supriya Pathak bring nuance to their stereotypical roles (strong obdurate father, frail devoted mother) that are hard to pinpoint. Sahil Mehta and Gagan Arora, as their two sons, frequently look lost in the maze of crime. But Paramvir Singh Cheema as their Sikh cousin-cop positions his character’s dilemma well into a storm of strongly handled crises. Cheema is a find.
Rathnam Prapanchna (Amazon Prime Video India)
The archetypal Cine Ma, the oft-abused mother figure gets a startling makeover in this warm, intimate, well-meaning but rambling meandering tale in Kannada, of a harried but unmarried son Rathnakar (Dhananjay), who first finds his domineering mother (a delightfully over-the-top Umashree) a big turn-off, only to discover after two-and-a-half hours (yes, that is how long it takes to journey from annoyance to obeisance) that there is no place on earth as peaceful as the mother’s lap. Rathnakar’s journey into self-realisation is not without interest. There are some passages in this jalopy travelogue that are actually quite brilliant. Things could have gone downhill for Rathnan Prapancha as it sinks deeper and deeper into its own concept of social ties and family obligations. But the film has its heart in the right place, and never minds if it tends to derail more often than once.
You do not have to know Bollywood inside-out to love this show. You just have to know a bit about human nature. The series takes care of the rest. This adorable adaptation of the 2015 French series is the picture-perfect post-pandemic panacea with a heart that beats and loins that throb. It is everything that an adaptation should be: respectful to the original but not slavishly so. The series is littered with luscious inhouse jokes about Bollywood’s tantrums, whims, and tragedies. Playing professionals in an on-the-skids talent-management agency, the actors are so good at their jobs, they make their onscreen jobs look real. You do not have to be a film Public Relations person to recognise them and their constant coping with star tantrums. Specially cogent are Rajat Kapoor as the quietly manipulative Monty, a senior at the agency who must accept his illegitimate daughter Nia (played by social influencer Radhika Seth) before the show is done, and Aahana Kumra, the fearless feisty firefighter of an actress who does not mind looking ridiculous if the need arises.
Aahana plays Amaal, a kamaal ki lesbian with temper tantrums, who more than meets her match in Jasleen (Anuschka Sawhney), a tax assessor who has the hots for Amaal. Their romance plays out like a rippling riff in a buxom musical refrain that is warm, intimate, relatable, and sometimes sad. I loved almost every character, specially the Agency’s North-eastern receptionist Nancy (Merenla Imsong), who nurses a secret desire to be an actress. There are some exceptional actors at work here. The discovery of the series is Ayush Mehra as Meher, a Parsi boy who is ambitious but not heartless, who walks around at home in his traditional night outfit, and is quite a ladies’ man at work. Come to think of it, every actor gets to play a real fleshed-out character with desires so tangible, they seem desirable even in their worst moments.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.
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