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Film review: ‘Hidden Figures’ adds up to an uplifting drama about space and race

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated drama highlights the early contributions of black female mathematicians to the American space programme.

The best sequences in the superbly written Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, involve washroom behaviour. Every time she needs to relieve herself, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) must skedaddle from her desk at the National Space Aeronautics Administrations office, sprint across the driveway, rush into another building some distance away and dive into its basement.

Katherine is a gifted mathematician, whose work on the space programme at NASA will eventually prove to be ground-breaking. But she is also black, NASA is in the segregated state Virginia, and there are separate bathrooms, workplaces and canteens for whites and blacks. When future astronauts come for a visit, the NASA employees are arranged into colour-coded queues, with Katherine and the other black women working as human computers at the end of the line.

The repeated motif of Katherine’s toilet visits is a shorthand for the contradictions of American society in 1961. Even as the country tries to catch up with the former Soviet Union and send astronauts into space, its black citizens continue to be held back by deeply embedded racial discrimination on the ground. Are the Russians the real enemy, asks a movie greenlit during the Obama era but most apt for the Age of Trump.

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Hidden Figures.

In tracing the contributions of black mathematicians to the space programme, Hidden Figures throws another element into the mix – gender. The triumphs of Katherine, fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are double-edged, best captured in a dialogue exchange after the successful launch of the first American human spaceflight Friendship 7. Now for the Moon, says space programme head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). We’re already there, replies the moist-eyed Katherine.

The screenplay, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, draws a crossweave through the domestic lives of its three female characters, their rise out of the coloured section into spaces that are not ready for them, and the drama at NASA, which is under pressure to prove itself. Costner’s nicely underplayed character recognises Katherine’s worth, and briefly has a white saviour moment over the toilet break issue. For Harrison, the deadline, rather than an acknowledgement of the civil rights movement that is beginning to gather force beyond NASA’s walls, is more important than black empowerment. But even he recognises that integration, not segregation, is what will truly make America great.

Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.
Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.

The depiction of the private lives of Katherine and Mary are rose-tinted, but they are also a tribute to female solidarity and a reminder of the struggles that black women face on the home front. A sub-plot of Katherine’s romance with Lieutenant Colonel Johnson (Masherala Ali) is a charming distraction from the ugliness she faces at work, best expressed in the thump of the files dumped daily on her desk by an openly contemptuous colleague.

Even though the intertwined upward trajectories of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary never waver, their victories are hard-won. Dorothy’s campaign to be made a supervisor is opposed by her superior, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), while Mary fights to be admitted to an engineering college and earn the degree that will allow her to be employed full-time by NASA. The solid writing, accomplished performances, with Henson and Spencer topping the list, the faithful period reconstruction of the early years of the Space Race (including a reminder of the time when humans were called computers) and Peter Teschner’s skillful editing elevate the drama into something more than an attempt to make an Oscar-baiting and uplifting movie about black empowerment. Just like NASA is feeling its way around space, one rocket at a time, the women in Hidden Figures are launching minor revolutions on the ground, one mathematical formula at a time.

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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.