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Film review: ‘Moonlight’ is a quiet knockout

Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-nominated feature is a triptych of a gay black boy’s emotional journey.

In Barry Jenkins’s debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), a man and woman who have had a one-night stand spend the next day assessing each other over food, art gallery visits, and debates on race, gentrification and fidelity. Jenkins strips the frames of nearly all colour but keeps the camera close to the temporary lovers, travelling all over their faces and bodies as they merge their individual selves for a few moments of shared passion.

Jenkins’s second feature Moonlight is just as intimate, but far more carefully constructed. The near monochrome of Medicine for Melancholy has been replaced by the blazing hot pastels of Florida and expressionist blacks and blues. The handheld camerawork that previously signalled tentativeness makes way for an equal part fluid and static style that includes sweeping shots and bold close-ups. Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot the first film) swirls his camera round in smooth waves, but he often halts to regard the vivid faces of the cast and register their thoughts. Cinema is overflowing with coming-of-age narratives, but in Moonlight, the journey of a gay black man, which unfolds across three chapters, has freshness, imagination and control that are the marks of true accomplishment.

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Moonlight.

The triptych signals its boldness in the opening sequence, in which a whirling take introduces small-time crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Little (Alex Hibbert). Juan is taken by the grave-looking child, who is struggling with burdens too heavy for his scrawny shoulders. Little’s single shambolic mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug user, and the boy regularly gravitates towards Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janella Monae) for meals and a clean bed. Juan’s love for the boy, beautifully explored in the sequence in which a swimming lesson resembles a baptism, emboldens Little to ask him the meaning of the word “faggot”.

Little has fallen in love with his classmate Kevin, and after an encounter on a moonlit night on a beach, the shy and mumbling teenager tentatively approaches manhood. As Little grows up into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), he takes Juan’s place on the street corner. Chiron’s body has filled out and he has the outward manner of a neighbourhood tough, but the gold grills on his healthy teeth indicate that the boy on the beach is still hiding his true self. The opportunity to liberate the tied tongue comes when Kevin (Andre Holland) invites Chiron for dinner – and a possible date.

Jenkins pays tribute in several scenes to a stated inspiration – the films of Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai. A sequence in which Chiron drives in a car to meet Kevin, which has Caetano Veloso’s version of the Spanish song Cucurrucucu Paloma in the background, is a faithful reconstruction of Wong’s gay-themed Happy Together (1997). Frames and moments from Wong’s other films show up in other places too. What Jenkins is unable to do, and it is not for want of trying, is recreate the suppressed crackle of the encounters between the leads of Wong’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000). Chiron’s date with Kevin has its share of leading conversations and meaningful close-ups, but in this segment, Jenkins’s hold over his material is less supple than in the previous chapters.

Nestled within the grand themes of homophobia in the black community, alternate sexuality, and limited employment opportunities for black men in America is a deeply subjective, intensely felt and at time oneiric exploration of the state of Chiron’s heart. Chiron’s experiences, especially with Kevin, have the quality of a dream in a waking state. Chiron’s personal struggle carries through the remarkably unified performances of the three actors who play the character over the years. The actors share more than body language – the forward-shoulder walk and the hard stare – they vividly depict the boy-to-adult journey into the inner self.

Two other performances add their heft to the saga of self-discovery. Mahershala Ali is marvellous as Juan, the father whom Little never knew, and Naomie Harris is equally stunning as the tragic Paula, whose inability to comprehend her son’s complex feelings results in memorable moments of self-harm.

Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'.
Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'.
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In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

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The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

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Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.