Friday, January 27, 2012

Putting the "act" in action: Black Friday, Sword of Doom

When we think of master-classes in film acting, we usually envision performers firing sharply written lines at each other in intense dramatic confrontations or (less often) comic setpieces. Or scenes that have little dialogue but where the silences are soaked in meaning; where each pause, each glance, is somehow significant; where “understatement” rules the moment. For a good sense of what is commonly thought of as a performance highlight, look at the short clips chosen when the acting nominations are read out at the Oscars. Watch enough of them and you'll see definite patterns emerging (and that’s without taking into account the Motion Picture Academy’s fondness for certain types of roles – physically or mentally disadvantaged characters, for instance – rather than the performances in them).

One thing that is usually not associated with acting chops is the high-voltage action sequence: fight scenes or chases are usually perceived as fillers or tempo-raisers, and that's what they often are (and in many of them, stuntmen substitute for the actors anyway). But every once in a while, an action scene does afford opportunities for fine performances as well as for character development within a narrative.

Recently I watched the Extras on a DVD of Anurag Kashyap’s masterful film Black Friday, about the investigation that followed the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. Among the movie’s highlights is the superbly choreographed and shot sequence where a group of cops pursue a suspect, Imtiaz Ghavate, through a slum area. “Anurag told me he wanted a performance from me in this chase scene,” says the actor Pranay Narayan – who plays Ghavate – in the “Making of” documentary, and a performance it certainly is. Over the course of this long scene, Imtiaz goes from being a menacing bhai figure (the first time we see him he is shot from a low camera angle, looming above us, looking blasé and in control) to a snivelling wreck being bullied around by the police; by the end it’s almost possible to feel sorry for him.

The scene begins on a purposefully energetic note, as you’d expect, but gradually becomes something of a comic routine, as the policemen and their quarry move in circles and get worn out. One hysterically funny shot has an unfit cop calling out “Imtiaz, ruk ja” as both men pant breathlessly – by this point they are lurching rather than running, and the effect is that of two quarrelling lovers trying half-heartedly to make up. It’s a fine depiction of the banality of police-work, humanising both cop and criminal – a considerable achievement given that this is a story about terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of people. It’s also a significant step away from the traditional depiction of cops and robbers in Hindi cinema. And the performances help make it compulsively believable.

Good acting is even rarer in full-blooded fight sequences. In her book Looking for the Big B: Bollywood, Bachchan and Me (which I reviewed here), Jessica Hines observes that in Bombay to Goa, made before he settled into the Angry Young Man image, Amitabh Bachchan seemed awkward during much of the film and then came alive in the fight sequences at the end. I’m not sure about this specific example (the fights in Bombay to Goa aren’t so much properly worked out action scenes as vignettes of various people knocking each other about in speeded-up motion), but not many people would disagree that Bachchan was extremely convincing in his really well-staged fight sequences in films like Sholay and Kaala Patthar.

One of my favourite “action performances” in this vein is by the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai in the climactic scene of the 1966 film Sword of Doom. Nakadai plays a sadistic swordsman named Ryunosuke who spends much of the story killing and plundering. At the end, as he sits alone in a geisha-house, he is visited by the ghosts of his victims as well as by real people who want him dead; turning completely psychotic, he slashes wildly at these phantoms over the course of an extraordinary, bloody 10-minute sequence.

Jaw-dropping in its length and persistence, this scene is the perfect apocalyptic finish to a story about a cruel and violent man facing his demons - it’s almost Shakespearean in its suggestion of the past haunting the present, and Nakadai (who would play King Lear for Kurosawa years later) is outstanding in the way he seems to be simultaneously a sentient person and a zombie. At times his movements become so mechanical one gets the impression that his arm is being driven by his “evil” sword. His eyes are hollow and lifeless, he flails unthinkingly at the air, but then he comes alive again and seems briefly conscious of what is going on around him; and then again he retreats into his own private world, while his arm continues slashing away.

Nothing in this sequence (or in the Black Friday one) would make it to those smooth Oscar acting clips, but these performances are integral to the films’ effectiveness. They are reminders that some action scenes require a little more from a performer than a grunted, expressionless “I’ll be back.”

[Did a version of this for my Business Standard film column]


  1. perceptive article about an unusual and rather overlooked aspect of movies.set me thinking,and I remembered(hazily) a scene from the movie'sehar',about a cop who's abducted and then tortured by criminals.the scene is minimal-no gore,no screams-it's just an exchange of expressions between the tormented and his cuts to a pile of the cop's clothes left at a railway station,with his sunglasses perched jauntily on top,and you realise they've killed recollection of the scene may be inexact,but it really is an economical and effective one.

  2. Thank you so much sir. I also did a film that did not do good at box office. 'Madholal Keep Walking'. I would like to hear about it too, whenever you happen to see it. Regards.

  3. lovely piece.. I for one can never forget that final moment in Sword of Doom, Nakadai's face, a frozen mask of hate and paranoia.