Dangal [2016] – A Triumphant, Feel-Good Sports Biopic

A Bulletin-point review:

  • Aamir Khan is one of the few so-called ‘Stars’ of Indian cinema who allows us to recite the director’s name before mentioning the film. I mean he is an actor, who isn’t intent to imprint his star signature all over the movie. So, Nitesh Tawari’s Dangal was pure joy to watch on that front. 
  •  As we know, Dangal is based on the strenuous effort of real-life individuals (Mr. Mahavir Singh and his two wrestling champion daughters – Geeta and Babita) which boasts immense possibility to turn it into crisp, Bollywood entertainment. 
  •  Dangal forces us to use words like ‘a film with strong message’, ‘a film about women empowerment’, ‘testament to human spirit’, etc. Most of the ‘messages’ (in Indian films) are forced upon viewers, while the film-makers and actors totally failing to flesh out the characters’ inner life.
  • But it doesn’t happen with Dangal, at least in the brilliant 40 or so minutes in the first-half. 

  • The film’s opening scene gives the instant emotional engagement: we see two men who ought to have fought in a big arena for gold medals are wrestling in a decrepit bureaucratic building. 
  •  Mahavir Singh is kind of an authoritarian father who thinks his child is a vessel to realize his failed dreams. Director Nitesh Tiwari definitely wants us to root for the central character. But, he doesn’t neglect this dictatorial mindset. 
  •  The plot device used to make teenagers Geeta and Babita realize the importance of their father’s dream isn’t very convincing. Of course, we can’t just expect for a more in-depth look at Mahvir’s intentions, at the risk of turning him into an apathetic individual. 
  •  The first-half was like watching a good amateur marathon runner. We know the runner doesn’t have enough stamina to run for the finishing line. Yet, we get amazed by the indomitable spirit displayed by the person. Similarly, we know Dangal at some point of time is going to jump into cliched narrative shifts, but still I was elated and so engaged to witness those playful moments of the first-half.  

  •  May be the visual frames aren’t so good to be called as an cinematic achievement, but the way it’s all sewn together alongside the graceful, overshadowing performances of Zaira Wasim & Suhani Bhatnagar (played younger Geetha and Babita) kept me glued to the screen. 
  •  I liked the choice of person for voice-over. The person is detached from events, although he is closer to the characters. It leads to little glorification of ‘hero’ figure. Of course, the voice-over at times tries to tastelessly lay out all of characters’ inner emotions. 
  •  Dangal’s first-half is about Mr. Mahavir’s struggle to push his daughters inside the wrestling arena. The second-half is about the daughter’s struggle in keeping their place within the arena. And, since Mahavir is played by Aamir Khan there’s a necessity to find some action for him to do. Alas, this is where the narrative falters a bit. 
  •  The intention to include Mahavir into the ‘NSA’ scenario provokes a lot of manufactured drama as opposed to the organic development in the pre-interval portions.
  • Despite the clich├ęs of sneering foreign opponents & cunning, arrogant coach, the filming of the wrestling sequences awakens us from post-interval lull. We definitely know the outcome of the fights and how some random ‘technique’ will be used as life-saver at the last minute. Yet, there’s a good, palpable intensity. We get the feeling of watching a real wrestling championship game. 
  •   The visuals for the songs elevate the inherent cordial nature of it. The Background music was surprisingly good (when compared with other Indian sports genre films).
  • As expected, the performances are phenomenal. I loved how Aamir Khan quickly and convincingly transforms himself into Mahavir Singh Phogat. It’s kind of a great achievement, considering the ludicrous projections made by ‘star’ actors. But, still I truly hope Mr. Aamir does complex roles in the future in a thematically heavy narrative. 
  •  If wrestling is all about bringing some one down by depleting the person’s strength, then Dangal does the opposite: it invigorates us. A flawed, yet an essential feel-good movie. 

Abluka aka Frenzy [2015] – A Gripping Study of a Polarized Society

A big chunk of Turkish cinema with a ridiculously high rating in IMDb turns out to be rigidly conservative soap operas. It reminds me of our mainstream Indian films, where mediocrity is often hailed as masterpiece.  When it comes to making political films, the majority of works from both these nations offer a very two-dimensional, dim perspective. So, it’s always exciting to see a singular film-making talent who demonstrates level of nuance and skill in execution. Emin Alper is one such exceptional Turkish film-maker. The unique film-making style and deft construction of political parables witnessed in his two feature-films gives me hope that he is going to be next prominent Turkish director, in the vein of Nure Bilge Ceylan and Zeki Dermirkubuz. Mr. Alper has a degree in economics and received PhD in modern Turkish history. His debut feature Beyond the Hill (2012) is set in remote foothills. He deftly handled a story about Turkish family’s internalized and externalized conflicts, which doubled up as an allegory for his nation’s transition to be a closed society. In the sophomore directorial effort, Abluka aka Frenzy (2015), Mr. Alper goes to restless, claustrophobic streets of Istanbul. The director’s rich political insights turn the predicament of individuals into a subtle critique on current Turkish political scenario. It’s also works as a universal story about repressed, unstable societies.

Loud explosions open the narrative. A tall, middle-aged prisoner is transferred to a crumbling room. Sirens are heard everywhere. Terror and paranoia pervades. This isn’t a dystopian society; this is contemporary Istanbul minus the azure skies and post-card beauty. Nation-wide protests commenced in the year 2013 against the alleged authoritarianism of former Prime Minister and current President Erdogan. The protests were answered with police crackdown, consuming 22 lives. From then on, the bridging nation between Europe and Middle East has witnessed escalating series of internal and external conflicts.  Kurdistan militants have resumed their insurgency plus the Islamist militant violence spreading from Syria is eroding the country’s stability. The Turkish judicial independence is on shaky terms, press & social media are repressed, and human rights violations are on the rise. Violent clashes in and around Istanbul has made countries like UK, France, USA, etc to warn their citizens traveling to the city. The events in the movie Abluka happen in the pre-coup d’etat attempt days (on July15th, 2016 -- quelled by the Turkish government and followed it with bloody purges). The situation in Istanbul has only gotten worse in the second-half of 2016.

The unrest in the streets actually gives the tall prisoner of the story his alleged freedom. The man named Kadir (Mehmet Ozgur) is released on parole, on the condition that he has to work as an informant for Turkish intelligence services. Kadir, who is in a constant state of distress, goes to a low-income neighborhood near Istanbul to have a reunion with his younger brother Ahmet (Berkay Ates) – in his late 20s. Kadir now works as a garbage man, sorting through rubbish bins to gather evidence about home-made bombs. He and his group of paroled prisoners were trained to smell & identify the chemicals used to make compact bombs. As Kadir secretly works to get rid of rebellious elements of the society, his brother Ahmet literally disposes the alleged diseased creatures. Ahmet is employed by the state to shoot stray dogs. The official version is that the dogs are tranquilized and homed at a facility. In reality, the dogs are killed and buried under a hole.

Although the brothers have had their re-union, they still lead an isolated life. Ahmet has last seen Kadir when he was seven. He’s closer to the middle brother Veli, who has mysteriously disappeared 10 years before. Kadir is more or less like a stranger to him. Ahmet sets up his elder brother in a flat above the house of his friend Ali (Ozan Akbaba). The brothers, Ali and his wife Meral (Tullin Ozen) sit for the dinner. The ensuing conversation at the dinner table reveals the fact that Ahmet’s wife has left him, taking their two children with her. Kadir feels the need to be closer with his brother in these desperate times. But, Ahmet isolates himself inside the house, answering the door to no one. The killing of dogs has taken a strain on Ahmet alongside other personal conflicts. At work, he misses a shot and the bullet grazes past a stray dog’s leg. Later, we see Ahmet secretly taking care of this injured dog. Inside the house, he does strange renovations at odd hours. He hopes that the dog’s company will eradicate his loneliness. But the constant threat over the safety of stray dog plunges Ahmet into web of paranoia. Kadir’s garbage sniffing activities yields nothing good, which strains his relationship with the intelligence officer. The terrorist bombing keeps on escalating in the city. The authorities retaliate with more roadblocks, checkpoints and mass imprisonment. The societal disintegration affects Kadir’s mental health too. The brothers’ cursed fate is eventually interlinked by this internalized and externalized unrest.

Abluka is about a family which chooses paranoia over trust. If we replace the word ‘family’ with ‘nation’, it would reflect the situation Turkey finds itself in (“This country is weird. We all live in holes and do secret things” laments Kadir, sitting at a secluded tavern). And, it’s not just Turkey; the political conflicts of 20th & 21st century often gets entangled in such atmosphere. On one hand, Kadir and Ahmet are threatened by outside forces, while on the other hand they don’t get united because of the lack of trust. Director Emin Alper once again demonstrates great eye for framing the unsettling beauty of the topography. The brighter color palettes couldn’t be found as most of the shooting takes place in confined places and claustrophobic streets (cinematographer Adam Jandrup). The atmosphere in the initial sequence is filmed with gloomy realism. But, when the narrative gradually slips into paranoid mood, Almer and his DoP choose over an expressionistic style, extracting immense tension from the atmosphere. The production design is impeccable, especially the exterior locations, squirming with looming anarchy.

The script unfurls from the subjective viewpoint of Kadir and Ahmet, interlinked at key moments of the narrative. The problem with the script is that it has two unreliable narrators, which may cause more confusion for the viewers. Both of them are afflicted with delusions. The events in the second-half works well as pointed political allegories, but there’s not much emotional engagement with the characters. As Kadir and Ahmet withdraw themselves from reality, we too get a little alienated from them, instead of being empathetic about their situation. Of course, director Alper keeps on fascinating us with his visual choices. The crack on window glass and the march of thundering armored vehicles suggest the fraying mental health of Ahmet. Nevertheless, there’s more political bite than emotional resonance in the later scenes. The inclusion of a third, middle brother provides an intrigue with an unsatisfying pay off. Once again, brother Veli is invented more for symbolical reasons than to deepen the narrative’s complexity. As I previously mentioned, the biggest strength of Abluka is its robust audiovisual choices. In some sequences, Mr. Alper elegantly blurs the line separating reality and delusion. The two central performances are top-notch. Ozgur is brilliant as the world-weary Kadir who also remains desperate to appease his boss. The supporting performances are solid, especially the man who played Kadir’s equally paranoid intelligence officer. 


Abluka aka Frenzy (119 minutes) is a skilfully crafted examination of paranoia and isolation in a conflict-ridden landscape as well as mindscape. Despite the slightly frustrating script, it is worth watching for the impeccable construction of an ominous atmosphere. 


Abluka (2015) -- IMDb 


 Emin Alper Interview -- Cineeuropa

Take Me to the River [2015] – A Peculiar & Challenging Drama

American Independent film-maker Matt Sobel who has made his feature-film debut with Take Me to the River (2015) said in an interview that the story for his film came from a ‘nightmare’. That rings true when we immerse ourselves within the narrative’s setting.  Sobel’s frame resonate the visceral sensation of getting trapped inside a nightmare. Each scene is brimming with an anticipation of terror, tightening our stomach and chest, although you don’t see any visible violence. Of course, Take Me to the River isn’t a horror movie. Nevertheless, we all know how a simple family gathering exercise could turn out to be the most horrific experience, as hate might seep through the smiling facade. Sobel includes a nasty twist into the familiar trope of family gathering. Middle-aged Cindy (Robin Weigert) returns to her family farm in Nebraska from California for a weekend with her husband Don (Richard Schiff) and teenage son Ryder (Logan Miller). In the car, Ryder says he wants to be open about his sexuality (his homosexuality), but Cindy requests him to avoid those subjects with his relatives.

At barbecue, all of the relatives are present, including her elderly mother and Brother Keith (Josh Hamilton). Keith’s daughters like Ryder’s drawings and each of them demand a picture for him to draw. The precocious one among the girls named Molly (Ursula Parker) gets attached with Ryder. The nine year old girl asks Ryder to take her to the nearby barn. She is warned not to climb up the hay bales, but she does it anyway, claiming ‘I do it all the time’.  Molly wants to climb on the hay bales to reach for the birds’ nest and she calls for her Californian cousin Ryder to climb up too. The shot is then cut to large family having lunch and few minutes later we hear Molly screaming. The frightened girl runs back to the house with bloodstain on the lower part of her dress. Ryder is perplexed, insisting that he didn’t harm her. He is also baffled when questioned what caused the bleeding. Cindy suggests premature menstruation, but Keith’s angry looks & outraged words towards Ryder spread the web of suspicion among all the relatives. 

Mysterious harassment and incidents to alienate the Californian family happens soon. The unsettling atmosphere takes a more sinister turn when next day, Keith sends his daughter Abbey to invite Ryder for lunch. Abbey conveys her father’s apologies for his rude behavior the previous day. What follows is a brilliant cat-and-mouse game as Ryder takes up Keith’s offer. He rides a horse alongside Abbey and there’s a beautiful shot of sunflower field. As the horses glide past the field, we get the feeling that Ryder is traveling into a different world and about to learn some harsh lessons, despite his unassailable demeanor. What unfurls is more unnerving than a violent outburst. It all ends with a stark untangling of the past secrets, which when contemplated in a relaxed manner seems unbelievably depraved (and in turn lacks credibility). Even though I felt there’s something amiss with the denouement, it took some time for me to get out of this expertly constructed rattling atmosphere. 

Matt Sobel asserts that his film is an ‘inverted coming-of-age tale’. While adolescent protagonists in those films discover self-confidence to pass through this tough rite-of-passage, Ryder’s character only ends up confused compared to the earlier confident-self. Ryder is not comfortable to go back into the closet and so wears the very short red-shorts, v-neck t-shirt and yellow sunglasses to put forth a distinct identity. His mother and dad state that his attire is inappropriate because the gathering is about being together as a family; it’s not about making a statement. Writer/director Matt Sobel circumvents our expectations of Ryder becoming a scapegoat for his sexuality. As the narrative maneuvers through tight corners, Ryder learns what happens isn’t about him. The dark familial past is referenced (Cindy’s casual statement ‘it’s all about family’ resonates in Keith’s dubious plan for a revenge). Like in the regular coming-of-age movies, the central teenage character learns that the world doesn’t revolve around him, but in the nastiest way possible. 

Credibility issues plague Take me to the River as we wonder why Keith wouldn’t allow even Molly’s mother to examine her or why everybody immediately arrive at the worst conclusion of sexual assault while the girl could have fallen down and I finally wonder why Ryder’s parents who fully believe in their son’s words allow him to take a unsafe journey. But, since Matt Sobel credits the story’s origination to a ‘nightmare where he was wrongfully accused’, the narrative too pretty much works with dream logic. You can either get frustrated by some of the decisions taken by the characters or just lose yourselves in the distressing atmosphere to take in the uneven logic. What’s insinuated in the hard-to-watch ‘chicken fighting’ scene and in the final revelation are depravities of the highest order. It is wise that director Sobel has opted to not spell out the exact answers. I feel uncertainty in piecing out the answers and couldn’t fully recognize some of the moral ambiguities. Ryder after the defining incident of the story utters ‘I don’t know’ many times. He is not the same guy who wants to rebel against the family. The viewers (including myself) are also kind of rendered mute like Ryder (or left in ‘i-don’t-know mode’). 

Matt Sobel constructs aura of dread and paranoia solely through performances and layered camerawork. The moody atmospherics he creates are so robust that even a shot of beautiful fields and trees (cinematography by Scott Stanton) circulates a feeling of trepidation. Even if the bracing visuals don’t have the bite of Michael Haneke’s, it is up there with the brooding imagery of Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Women) and Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure). The fantastic performance, among the great cast, belongs to character artist Josh Hamilton. As an intense redneck dad Keith, he creates an ever-lasting impression through his sharp confrontations. Hamilton keeps us on the edge, waiting for that explosion of temper. Newcomer Logan Miller excels in the role of bewildered Ryder. He effortlessly makes the transformation from being irritating, self-loving youngster to a sympathetic hero. 



Take Me to the River (85 minutes) will surely frustrate and disturb a lot of viewers. It has a very slight premise to append the entire narrative and it is not always convincing. But, the adept directorial approach makes this one of the significant American indie films of recent years. Finally, it’s not the kind of film you would exactly recommend to a friend, unless he/she demands to experience the sensation of something clenching their heart.