Shuddh Desi Romance - Hunterrr

Two recent Hindi films – Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), directed by Maneesh Sharma and written by Jaideep Sahni, and Hunterrr (2015), directed and written by Harshavardhan Kulkarni – try to trace the different contours of modern Indian romance with interesting results. The first film is produced by Yash Raj Films – not just a pillar of the Bollywood establishment, but the very face of the brand of idealist romanticism generally associated with the industry – in a spirit of keeping up with changing social norms. The latter is partly produced by Phantom Films, the self-styled outsider institution that’s building an impressive repertoire primarily targeting cosmopolitan audiences. Varied though they might be in their origin and temperament, they converse well with each other and, I believe, together provide a very good window into the evolution of both culture and the Hindi film industry.

Hunterrr, the more provocative of the two and understandably so, follows Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah), a handsome, middle-class urban man in his 30s. Mandar is a ‘player’, constantly in pursuit of flings, who dreads being tied down by marriage but who acknowledges nonetheless that he isn’t getting any younger (which means not that he needs to get married, but that his chances of scoring are diminishing). In Shuddh Desi Romance, Sushant Singh plays Raghu, a street smart man-child working odd jobs, who gets cold feet every time he tries to get hitched. Raghu’s aversion to marriage could only be taken at face value – a fear of the finality of the institution and its increased stakes – because it finds its exact echo in the female protagonist Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose failed pregnancy seems to have made her skeptical of all long-term relationships. Mandar’s marriage-phobia, in contrast, stems for a multiplicity of polarizing forces he is caught amidst. For one, he juggles in vain modern and traditional belief systems, trading in libertarian values while shouldering the weight of tradition in the form of societal expectations of ‘settling down’.

In other words, Mandar leads a double life – one of a socially atomized womanizer and the other of a member of a family with specific duties towards father, mother and fiancée; one driven by testosterone and the other by conscious suppression of it. This, of course, is the Madonna-whore complex turned inside out, to show that such a dual perspective demands role-playing from the person who holds it as well. These two parallel words come crashing into each other in the airport sequence of the film, where Mandar tries to move in on a family member by mistake and gets caught. And this collapse is what the entire film is structured around, cuts as it does between Mandar’s imminent present-day crisis and his formative years. (More on this cross-cutting later.)

Furthermore, the film presents his refusal to get married as his inability to accept the responsibilities that a patriarchal setup requires of him (to earn, to drive, to support a family) while enjoying the privileges that it offers (of unproblematic mobility, of freedom from moral judgment, of unquestioned predation). It is as though he realizes his status as a gendered-being only when standing at the gates of matrimony. To be sure, Mandar’s conquests aren’t as much fodder for male ego-polishing as responses to genuine carnal urge, free of social-programming (as is evidenced by the freedom of the men surrounding him from such a perennial urge). But the ease with which he can go about these making these conquests is what I think is invoked here as privilege.


This privilege, in Hunterrr, manifests in Mandar’s relationship with the space he moves in. He sexualizes the zone around him wherever he goes. The hunter, one might say, examines his space carefully and prowls before making his move. Quotidian gestures by women become triggers for him, while the same gestures retain their banality when the men do it. The film partakes in this sexualization in such a way that we always know when we are to share Mandar’s perspective (and, at times, when we are to break away from it). On the other hand, he senses his mastery of space thwarted in the closely knit residential complex he lives in during his university days in Pune. He finds himself always under scrutiny, continuously challenged to carve out a judgment-free space where he can maintain his love life. The anonymity offered by city life is undone by the closed nature of the residential complex.

Space in Shuddh Desi Romance, on the contrary, is more clearly demarcated. The two leads who refuse marriage almost literally live in an ivory tower. They occupy a penthouse on one of the tallest buildings in a mixed-use neighbourhood in Jaipur. This apartment of non-marital coupledom, cloistered from the prying eyes on the ground and free from traces of the characters’ past, stands in direct contrast to the horizontal sprawl and constant scrutiny of the wedding parties the two attend frequently. The bathroom, which figures prominently throughout the film, is a transitional zone of no-morality that links these two kinds of spaces that function according to their own value systems. But these separate spaces, in themselves, are free of gender hierarchy, unlike the masculine spaces of Hunterrr. Shuddh Desi Romance keeps emphasizing the equivalence between its characters, who physically and figuratively take each others’ positions throughout the film. Raghu, moreover, is only too glad to share responsibility with Gayatri.

But then all is not egalitarian in the film’s trajectory. Early in the movie, Raghu runs away from his wedding, leaving his fiancée Tara (Vaani Kapoor) stranded. Later, Gayatri deserts him in their wedding. Tara tells Raghu that Gayatri left him because she just wouldn’t have been able to imagine life with a man who fled his wedding. Raghu is, by this logic, guilty not just for what he did to Tara, but also for what happened to himself. Raghu buys into this twisted rationale and carries the double-guilt for the rest of the film, not knowing really how to comprehend his status as a victim-aggressor. This, in other words, is the famous blame-the-victim manoeuvre used on a man for his failure to ‘man up’. It is no wonder that Raghu is passively held hostage by both women in the end where he ends up the guilty party no matter what he does.

The film’s view of marriage is decidedly reductive, compares as it does the institution to a house locked from outside. In Shuddh Desi Romance, weddings are literally simulacrums – Goyal saab’s (Rishi Kapoor) firm provides fake invitees for hire for brides or grooms whose parents have deserted them because of their choice of partners – in which, we are told, the double standards of Indian culture come to the fore. The film, it needs to be said, pats itself on the back now and then for its radical stance and there is some amount of vain posturing at work here. Nevertheless, Jaideep Sahni, who is growing from strength to strength with every movie he writes, populates the film with sharp observations about the role of ego in non-committal romance and with characters capable of casual cruelty.

Shuddh Desi Romance

Shuddh Desi Romance is, without question, the more accomplished of the two films. Its fine-grained structuring that relies on repetitions, doublings, mirroring and minor variations on major motifs – reminiscent of the work of Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo – renders the film very robust. Its use of extra-diegetic talking heads, where characters tell the viewers in direct address what’s going through their head, is never too clever, as it typically is when the device is employed. Actors are capable and personal enough to hold interest even in long takes. More importantly, the film unfolds as a string of fully fleshed-out scenes, instead of vignettes or impressions as is too common nowadays, and this greatly cuts down the possibility of narrative flab.

This, unfortunately, cannot be said of Hunterrr, whose scattershot structuring and juvenile inserts of fake scenes cry frivolity. It’s a film that wears its wide-ranged cinephilia on its sleeve and belongs alongside the movies of Anurag Kashyap (who must hold some sort of record for the amount of second-unit material he uses in his films). The early sequences portraying Mandar’s childhood are vivid and refreshing, but its shuffling of narrative timeline tries to build a dramatic causality where none exists. Few films swing so wildly between honesty and disingenuousness as Hunterrr. A spate of genuine notes lie scattered amidst false ones. The conversations, evidently, have the frankness of lived experience. So does Mandar’s conflicted view of himself as an everyman to be treated ordinarily and a pathological exception to be specially understood. On the other hand, there is a completely unwarranted death that is thrown in simply to add gravity to the flighty proceedings and which is immediately undermined by a cut back to flippancy.

That said, the film also contains what must count as one of the most graceful portrayals of romance in all of Hindi cinema, in the affair between Mandar and Jyotsna (Sai Tamhankar), the housewife next door. There is a nobility and tenderness in this segment that is very, very rare to come by in movies. The liaison is, of course, transgressive but is devoid of the cynicism and sleaze that it usually accompanies it. In their relationship, Hunterrr captures an intimacy that can be evident to no one in the world but the two involved. The scene where Jyotsna tries out the saree that Mandar buys for her radiates an image all too familiar of a personality rubbed down and dissolved by the weight of the mundane. When she confronts him for the last time and he tries to convince her, a little too forcefully, that something can be worked out, she tells him “You ran away, but where will I run?”. It’s the one point where Mandar realizes, despite looking eye-to-eye with Jyotsna, the insuperable gulf of tradition and culture that separates the two; a moment so personal that, as Baradwaj Rangan put it once, that you want to look away.

Pain and Gain

After gods, after revolutions, after financial markets, the body is becoming our truth system. It alone endures, it alone remains. In it we place all our hopes, from it we expect a reality which elsewhere is leaking away. It has become the centre of all powers, the object of all expectations, even those of salvation. We are those strange, hitherto unknown humans: the people of the body.

–The Coming of the Body (Hervé Juvin)


When we first see Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain (2013), he is pumping away outside a gym facility in Miami. Dwarfed by an image of physical perfection better than him, he heaves out short phrases of self-motivation with every crunch: “I’m big… I’m strong… I’m hot”. It’s the summer of 1995, we are told, six months after Lugo’s fate-sealing detour from ordinary life, and it’s time he paid for his transgression. Cut to the past. “My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness”, go the first words of the voiceover, channeling the opening lines of The Godfather (1972), where a man declares that he believes in America. The two sentiments are not too far off for, according to Lugo, to be fit is to be American. To not groom your body is then to be unpatriotic: “If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the US of A great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet.” The body in Pain & Gain is not simply a metaphor for America, its promises and its cult of the self; it’s the very incarnation of these things, of the Great American Dream.

Lugo believes in this dream more sincerely than anyone else. He takes pride in being self-made. He reads biographies – embodiments of the myth of self-sufficiency – of men whose “reach exceeds their grasp”. He borrows his world view from the movies and takes at face value the successes of Rocky Balboa, Tony Montana and Michael Corleone – various manifestations of the American way to the top. Lugo’s eventual failure is not because he hasn’t imbibed well the value of individual enterprise; it is because he has imbibed it too well. Like all his well-meaning compatriots with social ambitions, he believes that you can get whatever you want in life if you worked hard enough. No pain, no gain. But then he also assimilates the dark corollary of that ideology: if you don’t have what you wanted, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. He attends self-improvement classes and convinces himself that he just needs to be a “doer” to transcend his rickety financial situation. ‘Do’ becomes an intransitive verb for Lugo. He does things to get what he wants. It doesn’t matter whether or not he does the right things.  He thinks he can improve himself and also make America a better place by simply acting out of free will. He becomes blind to any effect the external world can have on him, to any invisible boundaries that might thwart his endeavours. The more hopeless his circumstance, the more he seems oblivious to it. And every time a situation gets out of hand, he regresses back to the one thing he has control over: his body.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

The acute observations that Pain & Gain makes helps foreground the body-centrism that marks postmodern ethos. It recognizes that the body is today both the most-prized capital for the individual as well as the most-productive domain of his investment, that, instead of being a means to a transcendental end (religious mortification, ideological sacrifice), it is the end in itself. While it might be true that, in a post-historical cultural climate, the body becomes the site of resistance to all homogenizing, subjectivizng ideologies, only the most fiercely individualistic and socially-isolated among us can succeed in rejecting the corporeal norms that the images around impose on us. What doesn’t overtly instruct us in the name of beauty instructs us under the guise of health. But then, within a fractured food system, even health becomes a luxury of the affluent. A few centuries ago, the body presented a sort of contradiction to the seeming omnipotence of wealth. Not just in its eventual mortality but also in its essential intolerance of alimentary richness. Now, the wealthy buy their way to better food while the rest sustain themselves on industrially-manufactured junk. (One of Lugo’s clients expresses his distaste for salads, pointing out that it was invented by the poor. He’s right, but it is today the preeminent rich man’s food.) If good health, longevity and comfort be the prerogatives of the well-off, it also gives rise to a curious desire for physical exertion. Millionaires tending their own garden in order to dirty their hands, artists taking up projects that make them feel closer to the working class, enthusiasm for expensive extreme sports, increasing population of premium gymnasiums – the examples of  this sublimated death drive are numerous. I am reminded of the protagonist of Cosmopolis (2012), whose alienation from all tangible reality provokes a search for physically destructive experience.

Lugo identifies with the idea of body as the locus of economic activity instinctively. He thinks that physique is an initial capital given to everyone of us whose full potential needs to be realized through constant self-improvement, and that to squander these “gifts” is un-American. (Even the arm candy he hires, an east-European stripper, is convinced that her body is a passport to the American Dream.) He puts to use this theory of body-as-capital without reflection or qualification. He promises his boss, the gym owner, that he will triple the institution’s membership in a short span of time. He tells him that his facility has no chance of surviving if it continues to concentrate on its elderly members, the reasons being (a) that the old are more at risk of injury and hence are bad publicity and (b) that the aged have lesser motivation and time left to invest on their bodies compared to the young. The gym, Lugo says, needs new blood: “you cannot build a muscle Mecca without muscle”. He entices younger customers with free body waxing service. He gives free membership to strippers to attract newer clients. His Sun Gym is a veritable meat market where muscle needs to be invested to get more muscle.

Pain and Gain

Lugo’s rise on the social ladder is predicated on a similar maximization of his body potential. He ropes his fellow gym instructors Adrian and Paul (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) into his kidnapping scheme on the conviction that the trio, with their superior athletic ability, can do the job better than even Delta Force. Adrian needs money for the expensive injections that he must take for his sexual dysfunction and for his dinners with chubby dates. Even the pious but dimwitted Paul, whose religiosity and its demands of material transcendence must counterpoint the bodily preoccupations of his comrades, believes that God has given him the power to knock people out if needed. The trio’s morbid crimes continuously run against the intractability of the corporeal. Pain & Gain is one of the few films that I can recall which underlines how difficult it is to kill someone, while acknowledging how easily modern culture enables it. The gang tries to knock off their captive; they torture him, crash him, burn him and run him over twice, in vain. At a later point, they struggle to get rid of two corpses by chopping them up. (The breast implants of one of the two victims go on to become incriminating evidence.) Their whole rigmarole of detention, torture and extortion takes place in a gonzo warehouse for sex toys – a cross between industrialized commerce and body idealism; corporal capitalism, so to speak.

There is no ostensible moral compass within the film and all the characters fall under the critical hammer. There are neither uncompromised heroes nor unblemished victims here. Even the respectable private investigator (Ed Harris) who finally nails Lugo’s racket seems to get a gentle rap on the knuckles. As he comes back to his chic villa by the shore after wrapping up the case, his wife remarks, lamenting the murders: “Some people just don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.” The seeming sincerity of her words is undermined as it’s immediately juxtaposed with Lugo’s desire to be like everyone else. It’s a stark reminder that this law enforcer, who can’t simply sit in his posh home and enjoy his retired life, is not exactly cut from a different existential fabric compared to Lugo. None of this is to say that the film is blithely cynical, for as much as we recognize the depravity of all its characters, we also impart our sympathy to each of them in turns. Like in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the film’s moral position is sufficiently evidenced by its aesthetic choices and doesn’t need to be elucidated through a literary mouthpiece. Both Daniel Lugo and Jordan Belfort are self-appointed Nietzscheans who put to full use their physical and mental prowess to cheat and beat the system. Their success is the grotesque form of the aspirations of those around them, but unimpeded by dubious moral compunctions.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

Pain & Gain is directed with a verve and nerviness comparable to Scorsese, whose influence is palpable in the film’s relayed voiceovers, sound bridges, gliding camerawork, rapid shifts in timeline, economy of exposition and high-key performances. While the on-screen texts seem too clever by half, director Michael Bay’s other stylistic excesses – his flamboyant, market-friendly colour palette, his sporadic submission to vulgarity and echoing of adolescent attitudes – are all fruitfully absorbed by the polemic edge of the material. The best sequences of the film, in fact, display an elegant classicism rare in the post-continuity cinema of Hollywood. (Note how laconic and sharp the sequence composition is when the trio meets at the gym for the first time: trust, suspicion and solidarity transmitted in a few shots of tightly controlled actor gestures and cuts.) It’s a small wonder that a much-derided director and largely-undistinguished pair of screenwriters could come together to produce a work of tremendous cultural insight and expressiveness. It may be that Pain & Gain is a fluke masterpiece, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Uttama Villain

“People tell me I’m narcissistic but I disagree; if I were to identify with a figure from Greek mythology it wouldn’t be Narcissus, it would be Zeus.”

-Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories)

“If it’s a wedding, I must be the groom. If it’s a mourning, I must be the corpse.”

-Vallavarayan (Ejamaan)

Prometheus, punished for his transgression of the divine laws of Creation, must be one of the most crucial symbols of modernity and is certainly something of a patron saint for modernist art. In this proto-democrat is incarnated the secular myth of the artist as creator, as opposed to the artist as messenger. The legend that looms over Uttama Villain is that of Hiranyakashipu, the illicit child of Prometheus and Narcissus, in whom the actor-writer of the film, Kamal Haasan, sees an alter ego. Now Hiranya was – or rather is – a special one. He is not only in love with himself, but wants the entire world to worship him. But then, in Kamal’s inverted version of the myth, Hinranya is a hero, the artist figure who cheats death and achieves immortality, the implication being that a profound narcissism must lie at the heart of all artistic enterprise. This is as close to a self-defense from Kamal Haasan as we are going to get.

The film opens with a mirrored image – a reverse shot of a projector in a movie hall – signaling its strictly behind-the-scenes ambition. Kamal plays Manoranjan, a popular star churning out vacuous movies who is jolted out of his passivity by the news of imminent death. He wants to make one last film with his estranged mentor Margadarsi (K Balachander) – the one he wants to be remembered by. There is hardly anything that needs unveiling here. Here’s the sixty-year old actor, contemplating aging, death, fame, relevance and legacy, placing his self squarely in the foreground, without really sliding it behind a curtain of impersonal entertainment like he usually does. This is part of the reason why Uttama Villain falls more in line with European auteur cinema than with the multi-authorial, generic cinema of movie industries.

The other, more surprising trait that situates the film in the arthouse tradition is its narrative construction. Unlike any of Kamal’s recent pictures, the three-hour long Uttama Villain takes its own time to unfold – ironic enough for a film about the lack of time. Scenes breathe easy. Transitions between public and private spaces take place like clockwork. There are no twists, no revelations, no withheld pleasures. In other words: no poisonous vials, no ticking bombs, no safely-guarded secrets. Throughout the film, there is no additional information that the characters know which the audience doesn’t. This atypical lack of any narrative legerdemain is amazing, for it means that there are no big emotional payoffs that await the audience. This is probably Kamal’s riskiest script to date. On the other hand, there are redundant scenes, those whose objectives have been already either established or well understood. For instance, the earliest bits with Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram) or those featuring Manoranjan’s manager (M S Bhaskar).

At a late point in the film, Manoranjan points at a tree of life chart hanging on the wall in his cabin containing the photographs of those close to him. He says it would help him not forget these people. This, of course, appears to be the very intention behind Uttama Villain: a tree of life project of its own that brings together important individuals close to Kamal personally and professionally (barely an actor here who hasn’t worked with Kamal before). More importantly, this is an attempt by the actor to narrativize his own life and to place himself in a personal and professional continuum. When his daughter (Parvathy Menon) hints that he is the villain in her life, Manoranjan quips that he is trying to be a hero in his own. This film is a veritable response to the question “Who is Kamal Haasan?” posed by those around him, sure, but also himself.

There are numerous precedents to this type of confessional cinema – Wild Strawberries (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), 8 ½ (1963), Startdust Memories (1980), Deconstructing Harry (1997), and more pertinently here, All That Jazz (1979), of which a great writer once wrote: “There is something convenient and self-pitying about artists using their works as confessionals, where a modicum of inbuilt repentance tries to fish for unwarranted redemption, but there’s also something irresistibly human and disarming about it.” And there lies the rub. For a work that seeks to bare it all, Uttama Villain is astonishingly anodyne and unblemished. There is nothing about it that portrays Manoranjan/Kamal (there is little reason to doubt the congruity between these two personalities) as anything other than a nice bloke caught in wrong circumstances, none of the honesty and messiness that comes with this type of personal cinema. This is not as much Kamal Haasan opening himself up to us as it is him telling himself the story of his own life. There is certainly a lot of intimately personal material in here, whose truth can only be judged by those very close to the actor, but, for the outsider, the overwhelming impression is that of a martyred saint. One always senses a remove, a separating wall between his true self and the sort of self-portrait he paints here. It is as though Kamal can’t stop acting even in his real life, as though he can’t step out of the character of Kamal Haasan that he is playing every day and kill it, at least a bit. Immortality is indeed tragic.


PS: I realize that I have not even mentioned the elephant in the room: the film within the film. I liked this segment, with its pleasant use of traditional forms and their innate expositional superfluity, and wondered what a full-length children’s movie from Kamal would look like today. The segues into and out of this track, in particular, are fantastic in the way they bridge narratives of vastly varied visual and emotional textures. More interestingly, it presents us a Kamal Haasan we rarely see these days: vulnerable, self-deprecating, less than perfect, pawn of nature and fate. I take it that the story of this section forms a counterpoint to that of Manoranjan in oblique ways and helps posit the various dualities that underpin this project, specifically, and Kamal’s filmography, in general. I find it unrewarding, not to mention to be complicit in stoking the Kamal Haasan cult, to go into the specifics, but let me just say this: The final, downbeat shot of the film – a zoom into the actor’s grainy face on screen strongly echoing for me the last shot of Altman’s Buffalo Bill (1976) – is something I never expected from Kamal Haasan at this point in his career. It is a moment that throws into question both my view of the man and all the sureties that the film has been hitherto standing on. It is the only truly equivocal image of in film in which everything else is set on a platter for academic interpretation. Has Manoranjan indeed conquered death through his art? Is immortality a product of individual enterprise? Is having your image projected on a screen for eternity immortality at all? What does it mean to live on as a shadow without body? Hell if I know.

OK Kanmani
Mani Ratnam’s new film, OK Kanmani, opens rather atypically, with a bloody in-game sequence cut to the track Kaara Attakaara (“player”): a strange mix of irony and foreboding that contrasts the unheroic nature of the romance in the film while announcing the fantastical quality of the narrative that we are about to find ourselves in. To be sure, there are no villains here to be vanquished, no great external hurdles for the lead couple to surmount. Unlike in the metaphysically structured Kadal (2013), there is no place for abstract Good and Evil in this universe of nuanced morals. At the same time, this world is not entirely congruent with our own, as is evident from its barely suppressed romantic idealism composed of separate but complementing male and female fantasies. We, the audience, want to love like they love; we want to suffer, if at all, like they suffer.

OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam returning to his beloved city of Bombay. Mumbai, this time around, actually. The summer showers are around the corner when Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) arrives in town from Chennai by train. Right away, he sees Tara (Nithya Menen), through a series of speeding trains, attempting to jump off from the platform across his. This emblematic coupling of arrival and departure would become a defining element in the six months that the couple would live together for. One of purposes for making this film seems to me to be to give a sort of cultural sanction to live-in relationships, which have of late come under attack by nationalist outfits, by bringing them into the mainstream in however comprised a form. This is Mani Ratnam being topical without puffing his chest and critical without throwing leftist journalism at us.

It is also from this point of view that the countless echoes of Alaipayuthey (2000) in this film become productive. While the earlier film centered on youngsters marrying without parents’ consent, OK Kanmani is about them living-in without the idea of marriage or long-term commitment. In the new film, caste and class differences are not even important, as long as the institution of marriage is respected. This shift between what is socially acceptable and what is not within a span of 15 years demonstrates in its own way how Mani Ratnam’s cinema has been both a response to cultural changes as well as a symptom of it.

OK Kanmani’s problems are predominantly formal. As much as the director-screenwriter avoids flab by cutting down the number of principal characters, the material here is too scanty to justify its feature length. Given that it’s only the two leads that have any other dimension than the archetype assigned to them, we have a challenging situation where most part of the film needs to be written around these two. The result is, at times, monotonous and structurally unsound. Consider the scene in which Tara leaves for Jaipur for two days. We see Tara packing her bags and leaving. The film cuts to the number Sinamika, at the end of which Tara returns home. Where a better script would have cut to an outdoor scene with secondary characters, OK Kanmani finds itself compelled to insert a song to avoid the disorientation and airlessness caused by Tara’s otherwise immediate return. What’s more, it uses this unjustified outing to initiate a subplot whose purpose is inexplicably elided for a while.

The film’s entire drama is predicated on the dynamic between the couple wherein one of them starts emotionally investing too much in the relationship just when the other is moving away; that is, on the fuzzy line around which one is either too far or too close. This tension between the need for commitment and recognition and the fear of responsibility, between individual liberty and the search for meaning, between career and relationship, between arrival and departure is what gives the film its thrust. As in many Mani Ratnam films, OK Kanmani is suffuse with shots of the hero following the heroine – through shopping malls, roads, markets, hospitals – like some twisted Orpheus myth. (This seems to be a cherished image in Mani Ratnam’s romantic imagination: men following women out of frustration, attraction, guilt but never domination – always as a powerless agent.) The dynamic is also reflected in the relationship between the couple’s elderly hosts (Prakash Raj and Leela Samson), one of whom has Alzheimer’s which takes her slowly away from her loving husband. (The two actors interpret their roles with a quiet dignity that prevents them from becoming frigid symbols). Lest this rather palpable tension elude us, the script verbalizes it for us regularly. “Don’t shout at him as if you were his wife”, reminds a friend of Tara’s. “How must Tara feel about your departure?” asks Adi’s colleague. The verbosity is startling for a director notorious for his brevity.

The individual scenes, in themselves, are a mixed bag. At its best, OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam doing a Mani Ratnam. Scenes like the one at the church wedding and those set in public transport are clear examples of the director flexing old muscles. On the other hand, those that treat the two leads separately in their workplaces raise eyebrow. The segment where Adi pitches his video game idea derives from a movie maker’s idea of video game development. Same is to be said of the long montages of Adi and Tara having fun in the city. It is a bit disappointing that one of our most creative directors’ idea of fun is limited to shopping, partying and wandering on vehicles. There is no indication, aesthetic or otherwise, that this image of romantic fun is being held at a distance by the director. This is not the evidence of a director abstaining moral judgment, but one who seems to be working on the ‘ídea’ of fun than fun itself. While there is much to be enjoyed from seeing a veteran filmmaker – and one fully capable of exercising mastery over his material, as this film exemplifies in parts – responding to changing times, there is also that residual feeling that the times may have left him behind in some respects.


Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems  with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.

The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma


The Attacks Of 26-11Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.

Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Baradwaj Rangan
Penguin/Viking, 2012


Conversations with Mani RatnamSomewhere near the midpoint of noted Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam lies a startling, self-referential moment, a moment so out of step with the rest of the book that it becomes a poetic aside in itself. In the middle of a dialogue about one of Ratnam’s movies, Rangan, with his characteristically keen eye for minor details of the mise en scène, makes a comment about the director clutching a bunch of pencils. Ratnam, perhaps as startled as the reader, asks Rangan if he’s found some deeper meaning to this gesture as well. He goes on to note that the problem with critics is that they try to find a hidden meaning when none exists. This confrontational exchange, the only moment in the entire book when the critic and director aren’t separated by the screen that is Ratnam’s body of work, embodies the central dialectic of Conversations, between a critic who sees an authorial presence, a motivation, an intention behind distinctive film elements binding a filmography and a filmmaker who considers them merely the product of logistical necessity or an instinctive thought, at best, between a professional who relies on bringing to surface structures and mechanics of films and another whose job is to conceal them.

Rangan’s book consists of a set of 17 conversations between him and Ratnam that takes us through the latter’s twenty-odd films in chronological order. This conversational format, as opposed to a paraphrased version¸ has the benefit of retaining the director’s voice, with all its conceptual blind spots (this book is perhaps the best source to understand my reservations with late-period Mani Ratnam’s naïve humanism, where personal dramas are planted obliquely on topical issues, almost like an afterthought, essentially making them, despite his refusal, “message movies”) and anecdotal digressions intact, instead of glossing over gaps and presenting a smooth, monolithic view of Ratnam’s oeuvre as a fully-formed, theoretically integral body of work. It also saves the reader a lot of time since he/she can read the simple, pragmatically-worded conversations quickly instead of having to stop regularly to admire the elegance of Rangan’s typically graceful prose. On the other hand, it results in passages where the two participants aren’t on the same page, where Ratnam, neither complementing nor contradicting, unhelpfully goes off on a tangent in response to certain questions.

It doesn’t help when a convincing critic opens his book with a review of his own and Rangan’s introduction to Conversations serves both as a sharp review of the material that follows as well as an autobiographical piece that details the author’s personal journey with Ratnam’s cinema and his motivations for taking up this project. In it, Rangan characterizes Ratnam as being specifically a “Madras” filmmaker – a term with both geographical and historical connotations – who, he believes, captured the sensibilities of a generation of Madras-dwelling urbanites and the rhythms of the city like no other filmmaker of the time. He also goes on to bifurcate Ratnam’s filmography into his Madras films – movies where the city and its inhabitants became the focal point – and his non-Madras films – ones where his concerns diffused and his field of vision widened. Intriguingly, on a lighter note, he points out two personal tendencies that he traces in this project: a desire as a man of science to document the thoughts of a filmmaker he considers very important in the national film scene and as a man of faith to channel the words of an artist who was a veritable god to his generation.

The duality is vital here. In a modest, reverential and otherwise undistinguished foreword, composer and long-time collaborator A. R. Rahman makes a striking contrast between his profound faith and Ratnam’s considered atheism after having elaborated on the symbiosis between him and the director. Dichotomies such as these, besides paralleling the book’s critic-filmmaker split, presage the book’s crystallization of the bipartite structure of Mani Ratnam’s films. The conversations gradually reveal the bed of binaries that the director’s films are founded on and the centrality of the number “2” in them. (Iruvar (“The Duo”, 1997), admittedly the director’s best effort, literalizes the image/text conflict that cinema itself wrestles with). They help trace this preoccupation, though not overtly, to Ratnam’s thought process as a screenwriter, wherein he eschews western scriptwriting models and instead constructs his screenplays around a single conflict involving two persons, geographies, ideologies, time-lines or emotions.

Throughout the conversations, Rangan keeps tracing auteurist strains in Ratnam’s work, deftly pointing out consistencies in plotting, character sketches, filmmaking style and world view across the movies. There appear to be three typical ways in which Ratnam reacts to these critical reflections. At best, Ratnam’s acknowledges these observations with no acknowledgement. Alternately, he would downplay Rangan’s remarks with peripheral comments that replace artistry, voice and authorial intention with accidents, logistical and functional necessities. At worst, like John Ford, he plainly denies the obvious. (Case in point, his denial that Laal Maati (“Red Earth”), the name of the tribal village in Raavan (2010), has no Maoist undertone is so moot that one is tempted to doubt the truthfulness of his other statements).  Ratnam’s modesty here is, in turns, gratingly vehement, as when he extensively uses first person plural or second person for explanation, and gratifying, especially the manner in which he avoids people politics and convenient namedropping.

But the most fascinating and, perhaps, the most important aspect of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is its unequivocal establishment of the director as a mainstream filmmaker. Neither does Rangan picture him as a “middle cinema” auteur straddling arthouse and grindhouse nor is Ratnam apologetic about his status as a popular filmmaker embracing all the conventions of the industry. (The latter uses the word “product” five times in the book to describe finished films). The conversations explore in detail Ratnam’s grafting of personal stories on tried-and-tested screenwriting tropes – familiar character arcs, interpersonal relationships, the mid-movie interval and devices for moral justification – that Rangan characterizes as a flirtation with melodrama and casting tricks (Ratnam’s fine point about casting famous faces for minor parts to do away with the need for building an emotional connection from scratch and to harness their screen legacy warrants further analysis). Most of all, Ratnam’s opinion of songs in Indian cinema as powerful, mood-enhancing trump cards that give the filmmaker the freedom to take to poetry, abstraction, secondary narration and cinematic experimentation makes for a strong counter-argument to the line of thought that advocates abolishing this tradition as the first step towards a better cinema.


[On the two Agneepath films, for The Mubi Notebook]

Camera Lucida
Roland Barthes (Translated by Richard Howard)
Vintage Books, 1993


Camera LucidaAt first glance, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980/1981) appears to be the sort of material the author of Mythologies (1957/1972) will blow a hole through. Part a study of the nature of photographs, part a work of commemoration of the author’s mother, Barthes’s final book hovers frighteningly close to what, in his early years, he had deemed to be an act of bourgeois mythmaking: stripping a decidedly historical phenomenon of its sociopolitical traces and presenting it as an undisputable truth, a ‘nature’, a human essence. True, Camera Lucida finds Barthes’s interest turning away from the historicity of photography to its metaphysics, from the question of how a photograph signifies to what it represents, from a near-scientific system of classifying images to unwieldy pseudo-theory of the photograph, from the idea of signifier and signified to the material referent itself. (This sharply defined arc, in fact, follows closely the trajectory taken by critical theory itself.) Barthes himself makes no effort to underplay this recantation (“…a desperate resistance to any reductive system”) and keeps undermining any approach that could lead to the formation of a totalizing framework like the one proposed in that early book of his.

Camera Lucida, nevertheless, also underscores a significant attitude that illustrates an unassailable continuity between these two books – a continuity that’s most characteristic of Barthes’s thought: a vehement resistance to ‘Naming’. Both Mythologies (“[Astrology] serves to exorcize the real by naming it”) and Camera Lucida (“What I can name cannot really prick me”) work against a culture in which tends to naturalize ideas – dominant and dissenting – and provide immunity against possible threat by naming it and defining its bounds. The crucial difference, however, is that the Barthes of Mythologies, if not a full-fledged, had his sympathies overtly aligned with the Left, whereas in the latter book, written over two decades later, he seems to be holding onto an ideological zero point. Like many critics who are disillusioned by the rigidity of narratives of the Left and the Right and their daunting tendency to pigeonhole people and ideas into stable, tractable categories, Barthes, here, seeks to find the ground for a kind of writing that can not be assimilated, so to speak, by either of these ideologies.

Graham Allen, in his excellent introduction to Barthes’s works, points out that Barthes found the ideal neutral point in the figure of his own body – a site that scandalizes both the rational Left with its individualist inwardness and the moralist Right with its hedonist underpinning. Camera Lucida, perhaps also a result of his mother’s passing and his subsequent mourning, is rife with bodily terms (‘wound’, ‘laceration’ etc.) that are used not only in the evocative passages of the book, but also in association with the various theoretical terms presented. Further, Barthes extends this essential neutrality of the body to the photograph (another commonality between them being the dread of death that both invoke instantly), which, according to him, retains its wholeness, eluding the grasp of dominant forces and ultimately remaining irreducible. For him, the photograph perpetually resists mechanisms that attempt to pin down its meaning and it is in this non-thinking, non-partisan, non-determined nature (“indifferent”, “impotent with regard to general ideas”, “image without code”) of the image that its power rests.

The central theoretical framework of the book is grounded in a dichotomy between what Barthes calls the studium of a photograph –all its theorizable aspects the engagement with which necessitates the involvement of external baggage such as the observer’s political and historical awareness – and its punctum – that unaccountable, non-conscious, partly-accidental detail or feature – a point of reversibility of text, a Derridean supplement – that defies classification and sets the meaning of the photograph into play. The studium, we are told, is that which cries out to be read and around which discourses are constructed while the punctum remains invisible to precisely these forces. The latter, it appears, keeps changing shape, never becoming a concept or following what could be called an objective pattern across various photographs. Barthes’s own definition of the punctum keeps assuming various forms (“shock”, “idle gesture”, “undevelopable”, “cries out in silence” etc.), abandoning its history and avoiding coagulating into anything might be called a theory. What Barthes leaves, as a result, is the trace of a method, instead of a fleshed-out hermeneutic system, so that the readers never latch onto it, but merely discover newer ways of engaging with the photograph,

In the second part – a split among many others – of the book, Barthes moves from a description of the punctum as a material detail in the referent of the photograph – a definition that could be assimilated into the studium by artful photographers no doubt – to one that is based on an experience of time. His reading of the photograph as an “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life” plants him firmly in the tradition of image-theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer (“Seemingly ripped from death, in reality [the photographed present] has succumbed to it]”). Andre Bazin famously traced photography’s roots to Egyptian mummification process and hence to a desire to transcend mortality and preserve one’s image for eternity. Barthes, in contrast, suggests that in the photograph’s assurance that what it represents is real and has been there before the camera in flesh and blood (unlike painted objects) only invokes utter dread, a sense of “double loss” where the beholder is made aware that not only is the person she is looking at already dead now, but that he is going to die some time after the development of this photograph – a moment that the photograph directly channels. In Eduardo Cadava’s words: “memories of a mourning yet to come”. (One is reminded of Scottie’s predicament when he sees Judy after his first loss in Vertigo (1957); Barthes himself calls this experience a “vertigo of time”.)

In itself, the central idea here is not entirely unheard of. Benjamin (a writer who deeply shares Barthes’s fascination with the visual) works towards a similar relationship in his Little History of Photography (1931, “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”) and Barthes himself touches upon similar notions in his earlier essay on Eisenstein. But Camera Lucida presents it in so many seemingly tautological forms, aided in no small part by the book’s structure (a string of minor theses), which prompt the reader keep shifting perspectives, to undo and redo the mental image of the ideas the book presents. In a way, then, the book itself enacts the duality that it proposes, continuously unsettling its model of the photograph – the studia that most books are – with specific, eccentric punctum-like inflections on the text.

Camera Lucida is self-consciously grounded in on a number of such contradictory thrusts: Science and sentimentality, phenomenology and method (“I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own”), the empirical and the theoretical, the universal and the ungeneralizable, For Barthes, such apparent paradoxes – these twin movements – are not indicators of the fallibility of his approach. Rather, it is a gesture in a direction opposite to the one taken by reductive, structuralist approaches. Instead of applying a universal rule to the specific and deeming the latter a mere variation, Barthes’s approach takes the specific – the present, the undeniable – as the starting point and extrapolates the result for every other instance in the world (“…to extend this individuality to a science of the subject”, to achieve “the impossible science of the unique being”). What he achieves by taking this almost anti-scientific route is a strong resistance to reduction of the individual – in this case, his mother. Barthes treads the precarious line between the necessity to remember his mother and the threat of his mother becoming Mother, a universal truth. (That he does not supply us with the crucial Winter Garden photograph of his mother indicates a refusal to generalize the specific). Camera Lucida is a work that conceals its radiant center, allowing us to only sense its emanations and forces us to become the center of our own image-theories. As Barthes puts it:

I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?

Note: There is surely something to be said about the way Barthes examines photography in opposition to cinema. For instance, his insistence that there is no possibility of a punctum in cinematic imagery, thanks to the forward-thrust of montage. I think I disagree. Going by what I understand when Barthes speaks of it, I would say that the punctum – the wounding arrow that catches one off-guard, the spark of contingency – manifests itself in various shapes and sizes in cinema. See Daniel Kasman’s writings, for instance, for the ways one can find oneself moving away from the zone of general interest – the area where films consciously work – into a field of personal commitment – that point where, perhaps, cinema betrays its photographic roots.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse 
(Image Courtesy: MottoMagazinBlog)

There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.

Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.

The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.

It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.

A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.

The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners.  In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.

This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.

[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]

Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.

Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.

Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.

Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette.  But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.

But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.



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