Skyfall, Kahaani, and tiredness


So, Skyfall.

First, the good: it’s not a bad movie, per se. By which I mean that you can go to the cinema and spend an enjoyable 2 hours and a half (even though arguably it drags on a bit). It’s… entertaining, I guess? Solid and action-packed, and the actors certainly do give a great performance (props to Judi Dench, who’s impeccable as always, and I also really loved the new Q).

(Mild spoilers for the ending, though nothing you wouldn’t have expected)

However, the more the movie progressed, and the more ill at ease I felt. There’s the big picture stuff, for starters. Sexism is ripe: it’s not only the Bond girl Severine (I’ll come back to her in a moment), but also the death of M and the inexplicable choice of Moneypenny to become a secretary instead of a field agent (seriously, secretary. Couldn’t she pick analyst or one of the hundred non-field jobs MI6 must hold?). There’s gay-bashing (the scene between Bond and Silva, which is played for laughs and serves mostly to reinforce the idea of Silva as a sick man–I really do wish it had been better handled). And, of course, free Orientalism on top of that: Severine is our stereotypical Exotic Asian Prostitute (ironically, the Eurasian actress who plays her wears so much make-up it underscores rather than highlights her Asian features); she sleeps with Bond (in a creepy borderline assault scene: quite frankly, I’d scream if a naked man came in while I was showering), and she dies for it. Great.

But it wasn’t only the conservative overtones–which, after all, are hardly a surprise coming from the Bond franchise–that made me uneasy. Rather, it was the sheer tiredness of it, the feeling I’d seen it all before and better done. That first scene in the Turkish market could have been a dozen other Bond movies in markets; the (overblown) finale was also drearily familiar; in fact, for most of the movie, I could tell exactly how it was all going to play out, and I was seldom surprised or enthralled by what happened.
Now, I’m not saying I go to movies exclusively to be surprised; but, as with books, I expect something to hold my attention, whether it’s character work, plot twists or visually stunning scenes. Skyfall, by and large, delivered neither: as I said, the plot felt tired; the scenery was admittedly striking, but it was all shot and highlighted in predictable ways; and the character work struggled against an onslaught of unpleasant clichés inherited from the Cold War era that it never managed to shrug off. It’s telling, I think, that, for all that the Craig movies set out to reboot the franchise, in the end Skyfall comes back full circle: M is an ex-army male, Moneypenny has abandoned field work and become a secretary, and Bond is back in business. It could be Sean Connery in the suit, and it wouldn’t change much–save that 50 years have passed since Dr. No, and that as a movie goer I expect my entertainment to have kept up with the times, and not to be telling me the same story over and over again.

It’s not the only time I had this problem recently: I remember watching the trailer for Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It’s only a handful of minutes, and yet I was bored–because the very rhythm and logic of it were copy-paste from a dozen other trailers. By and large, it’s a problem I increasingly have with Hollywood movies. Everything feels stale and recycled (and if you don’t believe me, count the number of reboots that have gone on screens in the past few years); everything tries to follow tried and tested formulas that date from ten years or more, and can’t quite break the carcan of “rules” that they’ve created for themselves. And part of the problem, I’m quite sure, is that Hollywood is only in dialogue with itself; that it creates and perpetuates its own tropes without input from abroad, and has managed to freeze itself into a law of ever-diminishing returns, never daring to take risks or encourage creativity.

(Youtube trailer for Kahaani. Here’s a direct link in case the embedding doesn’t work for you)

By way of contrast, let me offer Kahaani, one of the movies I saw on my way to Canada. Kahaani is an Indian thriller made on a shoestring budget [1], telling the story of Vidya Bagchi, a heavily pregnant software engineer who comes to Kolkata searching for her husband, Arnab Bagchi. Arnab Bagchi was meant to come on a short mission to the National Data Centre–not only did he never come back, but now it seems as no one in Kolkata has ever heard of him; and the more Vidya digs, the more it seems that very powerful people are determined to stop her…

As you can see, the plot has a lot of familiar elements; but it ends up putting them together in entirely unexpected and delightful ways. You keep expecting, for instance, that it’ll become some sort of conspiracy movie where its two main characters will have to run away from government hit-men, but nothing like that ever happens. The one Intelligence Bureau official, Khan, is complex and well-depicted; I also kept expecting him to degenerate into either a “let’s cover everything up” creepy official or into a total incompetent, but his flaws are more complex and more subtle than that.

The movie’s final twist in particular is great (I won’t spoil it for you, but I was going “OMG OMG yes” on the plane); but so is the performance of its actors, particularly Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi and Parambrata Chatterjee as the police officer who assists her; and part of the reason that performance is strong because the script is also very strong and takes time to build their respective characters before turning Hell loose on them. Kahaani also has lots of action sequences that are nowhere as flashy as Skyfall; but it’s the living proof that a chase sequence on foot through a market can be more nerve-wracking than one involving two trains and multiple cars. It helps, of course, that there is no exoticism and little sexism (though probably I’m missing Indian-specific issues), but it’s not only that. It’s a different movie; a breath of fresh air in a context that’s increasingly feeling annoying and stale to me. It’s the proof that you can still have familiar elements, and put them together in a way that is surprising and deep and delightful.

We need more movies like this, and I hope to God we get them (and we also need movies that don’t follow Western tropes or Western storytelling modes, too, but that’s a subject for a whole other article…).

[1]I’m aware Kahaani is far from a standard Bollywood production, but it was still a widely successful movie in its home country, to the point where they’re making a sequel.


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