Dear Lijo,

Like many other viewers, I’ve been an admirer of your tendency to make a film against the grain of the previous one; the way you swapped the fevered cutting of Angamaly Diaries with the long-shot aesthetic of Ee.Ma.Yau, whose scathing social portraiture devolved into the harrowing metaphysical nightmare of Jallikattu, sustained and upended by Churuli. The word I’m thinking of is perversity, that bent of mind which allows you to employ a macho, vein-popping style to meditate on masculinity, to use the event of death to reflect on a community’s self-sustaining reactions to death.

I should’ve therefore already expected a curveball walking into Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, especially given its ‘U’ certification; but nothing prepared me to be blown down by the tenderness of your new film. I’m not sure how to describe the anti-climactic gut punch that watching Nanpakal was. It was perhaps like the muscular reflex you feel when you try to pick up a bottle full of water and discover that it is empty and light, or when you expect a step at the end of a steep staircase only to have your foot land on level surface.

Your story, developed into a scenario by S. Hareesh, is comically simple: on their way back from the Velankanni church in Tamil Nadu, a group of Malayali pilgrims fall asleep on the bus. When he wakes up, James (Mammootty) gets off the bus in the middle of nowhere, walks into a house in a Tamil village nearby, and fully assumes the assumes the role of Sundaram, a man long gone. The dark comedy that ensues involves the pilgrim party’s bumbling attempts at getting James/Sundaram back onto the bus.

Your film revolves around a miracle, but it’s equally miraculous that it exists: a Malayalam movie that develops mostly in Tamil. Or is it a Tamil movie that features Malayalam actors and dialogue? Doesn’t matter, you don’t seem to have patience for language chauvinism and if Nanpakal has anything to say on the matter, it may be that Malayalis are wannabe Tamils or that Tamils are hallucinating Malayalis stuck in time.

And the height of perversity is to win the cooperation of a star the stature of Mammootty and strip him of all aura, dissolve him into the image. I’m referring not just to Mammootty’s brutally casual entry in profile, rubbing pain balm on his wife’s knee (!), or his utterly unremarkable costume and hair. I’m talking about the way you lock him into the master shot, refuse to give him close-ups, minimize him with landscape and architecture, block his body with décor elements, drown his voice in ambient music, film him from the back, at a distance, among the crowd or in the shadows. Half of Nanpakal is, after all, about Mammootty vanishing, leaving the frame.

I would call Mammootty daring, broadminded for choosing to do your film, but that would not do justice to the statistical improbability of what you two have pulled off. Stars participating in auteur projects are rare enough, but I’m hard put to recall a film that has treated its main star so offhandedly or subject him to such aesthetic violence (Even internationally, such glorious cross-connections of the seventies as Jane Fonda in Godard’s Tout Va Bien or Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger seem impossible to imagine today.) Not only have you made real what sounds like an implausible concept project, but also answered such pointless cinephile hypotheticals as “How would Mammootty do a Sivaji Ganesan movie?”

Yet what you offer us is an extremely modern work that benefits from an extremely modern performance. Like Mohan Lal in Drishyam, Mammootty here plays a middle-aged man who wills his way into a starring role as an act of existential negation, an attempt at escape from his life through performance—a metatextual resonance that would have been lost had your film featured a lesser star. You place Mammootty in an overwhelmingly melodramatic soundscape, contrasting the actor’s underplaying with the expressionist acting the music suggests, distancing us from his emotions only to have him wallop us in a climactic moment of dissociation from his role.

But there’s so much more happening on the formal level. Unlike your previous films, you narrate Nanpakal largely through master shots, filmed with a static camera, without building scenes through tighter setups and thus keeping the emotional temperature of your film in control. (A pair of cavorting canines get a pan shot that your star doesn’t.) A strong rectilinearity marks both your visual composition and the way you position your actors in the frame and have them move across it. Your arresting manner of composing in deep space, using all the picture planes, means that there is always something interestingly off-key happening in the foreground or the background for us to linger on: a seasoned parotta master at work, a foreboding lorry at the back, elderly ladies laughing at a private joke or an amorous couple bickering over a mysterious object.

I’m familiar with your serialized style, where actors engage in similar actions one after the other or do one action incrementally, such as when Muthu, Sundaram’s teenage daughter, changes clothes amid bursts of temper (what a magnificent sequence!). But never have I ever seen so much dramatic negative space or so much action thrust offscreen in a star-led film. It is one thing to construct your film symmetrically, or have visual parallels as between a lateral shot of a bus cutting through a corn field and an overhead view of milk washing down the drain. But it is something else when the movie suspends the story to have the star wander across a picturesque village for minutes on end or slip into his afternoon reverie in a montage of loosely related, densely scored, out-of-focus shots. (Nasir did it too, but it didn’t have Mammootty.)

Most of all, I was struck by your insistence on the Z-axis of the image. From the first to the last shot of the film, you have actors and objects relentlessly heading straight towards the camera or away from it. This frontal composition of movement strikes me as deliciously quaint—like echoes from silent comedy calling out to be bookended by irises—in the way they eliminate dramatic diagonals from your film almost completely. (The few shots that are composed along the diagonal are as ravishing as any in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s work.)

I want to ask you if this emphasis on the Z-axis has a religious dimension, but it certainly serves here to heighten the theatricality of your film. Theatre is, of course, the central theme of your work, which elegantly introduces its three acts with three sequences of collective slumber. The world is indeed a stage, but Nanpakal’s reflexivity became most evident to me in the big scene where Mammootty finally gets to chew scenery. As he continuously asks the villagers if he truly doesn’t belong there, as though finding himself in an old Tamil potboiler, the villagers gather around and in front of him in silence that recalls both street theatre and old-timey film staging.

Redoubling the theatricality is your film’s unremitting sound design, which is filled wall-to-wall with song and dialogue excerpts from classical Tamil cinema, rendering Nanpakal almost a found-footage work in terms of audio. I wish to felicitate you especially on this aspect. Your voracious sampling of archival sound is a testament to the Malayali love for Tamil music, but it also goes directly against the nostalgic button-pushing that so much of Tamil cinema intertextuality has become. Pointedly, your audio largely consists of works from before your growing-up years, sound bites that are not always easy to recall. Instead of finding common ground with the viewers through shared cultural consumption, you seem to be confronting us with an uncanny soundscape that is neither ear candy nor entirely alien.

I confess that I was exhausted by the sound palette at a few places, and there were moments where it embraces the prevalent Tamil cinema practice of ironic commentary. But for the most part, it offers us a total, inescapable sound atmosphere that the characters inhabit, to which they mime or against which they act. A good deal of the sound samples, I will add, is appropriately maudlin, melodramatic. But given you open the film with images of faith at the Velankanni church mixed with shots of religious knickknacks sold around the premise, it seems that kitsch for you is inextricable from belief.

Belief seems to be an important aspect of your work, but not so much, it seems to me, of your personal life. If I were to guess based on your films, you probably aren’t very religious, notwithstanding the Biblical imagery you mobilize. I would’ve invoked Luis Buñuel, but your attitude to religion seems much too ambivalent for radical subversion. I find it interesting, even so, that in Nanpakal you place a group of pilgrims in a situation that obliges them to disbelieve, suspend their faith. The only character who is able to believe without doubt is Sundaram’s blind mother, a TV addict living in the world of sounds. (Talk about perversity! John 20:29.)

To be fascinated by belief without believing oneself is the plight of many a modern artist. And I can’t help but feel that your film gives a certain form to this tension. Without belabouring the point, you offer us a “movie-movie” that creates a space where disbelief can morph into belief (and vice versa); it is telling that the agnostic James turns devout when he becomes Sundaram. This permeability feels crucial to your film; unfolding between dream and waking life, along state borders, it deals with liminal faiths, liminal languages, liminal mind-states and liminal places. Likewise, the time period of the film isn’t very clear, the sound bites spanning fifty years, and this sedimentation of timelines hints at the time machines that movies are.

Seeing may not be believing in Nanpakal, but it is in cinema. Just as the Velankanni church attracts common people of all religious persuasions, movies reflect our indomitable need for transcendent belief, allowing us to lower our rational incredulousness and accept the bizarre, the far-fetched and the inconceivable. In offering the possibility of belief, of return to innocence, cinema trumps reality.

I have a personal reason to thank you for your tremendous film. The last several movies I had seen in the theatres—widely acclaimed projects to boot—had been uniformly uninspiring, whereas I found myself liking those I saw on streaming. I had begun to think that the theatrical medium was somehow affecting my capacity to enjoy films. But Nanpakal has shown me that the fault was indeed in the stars and not in myself. At a time when movies are determined to bludgeon you into submission, your film sharpens our sensibilities. All of Nanpakal’s choices, the theatrical space of action, the frontality and the rectilinearity of composition, the self-reflexivity of the story send our gaze back at us, asking us to consider our spectatorship as we are watching your film. It is a work that invites a conversation, one that takes little and gives back much more.

Your film comes a week after Tamil filmmakers organized a meet to congratulate themselves for their radicalism, to marvel at default setting. Nanpakal will not make a fraction of the money their films make—heck, it will likely be out of theatres this Friday—but in a single stroke, it makes all their pontifications sound like empty hand-wringing.

So thank you, really.

Just Another Film Buff

PS: Your film, I hear, is titled Like an Afternoon Dream in English, but given its theme, might it be more fitting to call it Matinee Madness?

2022 witnessed the demise of several towering figures of cinematic modernism, none more iconic than Jean-Luc Godard. With their passing, it really feels like the end of a chapter in the story of film, one in which cinema was the privileged artform to interrogate history and the world. But their death also registers as strangely liberating in a way, like a clearing in the woods produced by fallen trees that allows us a new, privileged view. Let us hope that the work of these giants will continue to guide filmmakers and critics in their thought and practice.

In August this year, I was lucky to attend the 75th Locarno Film Festival, my first fest outside India. Basking in the gorgeous summertime scenery of Ticino and soaking up the equally sumptuous Douglas Sirk retrospective was an experience to remember, but I’m most grateful for the chance to get to know some terrific people from around the globe, among them cinephiles, curators and critics I’d known online for years but had never met. I’m truly grateful for their insight and company. Mistake: not reaching out to Luc Moullet when I was in Paris after the festival.

In a year that saw the world return to some semblance of normalcy,[citation needed] my own moviegoing habits seemed to have changed for good. The Locarno festival notwithstanding, I went to the theatres, I think, no more than four times this year (Vikram, Ponniyin Selvan: I, Kantara (all 2022) and the 50th anniversary re-release of The Godfather (1972)), which is four more than the last year. Ominous signs. That said, I was fortunate to watch three silent films on 35mm with mesmerizing live piano accompaniment at a King Vidor retrospective at the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation in Paris in September: The Sky Pilot (1921), Wine of Youth (1924) and The Crowd (1928), the latter screening a highlight of my cinephile life.

Although I saw more films this year than any other in my memory, I didn’t watch as many new productions as I normally would, especially from India. Despite the absurd overvaluation it has been subject to in the West, I haven’t see a finer action movie in the recent past than RRR, which felt like a masterclass on how to imbue action with emotional-moral stakes, the missing soul of so many contemporary blockbusters. For all its saturated spectacle, RRR is a minimal film in the way it weaves the fewest of narrative elements in different combinations to emphatic, expressive ends. Gehraaiyaan was a compelling piece of slick, professional filmmaking, as was Jalsa. I’ve always admired the streak of self-sabotage in the career of Gautam Menon, and his superb gangster epic Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu harnesses that impulse productively, channelling it through screenwriter Jeyamohan’s touching, tragic vision.

A good part of my viewing this year consisted of a dive into Iranian cinema, which, I can say for certain now, is my single favourite national cinema. Among the 200-odd auteur and genre films (from native as well as expatriate Iranian directors) that I watched, there was very little that I disliked, scores of great works and at least two dozen masterpieces. I hope to publish a list soon. In the meantime, check out Another Screen‘s formidable programme dedicated to Iranian/Iranian-origin women filmmakers, which ends on the 4th of January.

Other personal discoveries this year were the films of Costa-Gavras (Picks: Family Business (1986) and Music Box (1989)), the mid-tier features of Boris Barnet (on whose Lyana (1955) I wrote a text for the amazing Outskirts magazine) and the astounding, hyper-caffeinated anime of Masaaki Yuasa (essay coming up). Without further ado, my favourite films of 2022:

 

1. Matter Out of Place (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria)

If researchers a few hundred years from now were to try and understand how humankind lived in the year 2022 AD, they would do well to turn to Geyrhalter’s spellbinding Matter Out of Place, an expansive survey of foreign objects littering the remotest nooks of the earth. Filmed in a dozen locations on different continents, the film traces the planetary movement of human-generated waste, the great paradoxes shaping its production and the massive efforts needed to manage its proliferation. Garbage doesn’t just cover the landscape in Geyrhalter’s film, it becomes the landscape. With cheeky visual rhymes, astute sound design, proto-Lubitschian humour and a subtly psychoanalytic approach to the physical world, Matter unearths the repressed material unconscious underlying the enticements of consumer society and international tourism. But the film offers no easy answers, presenting instead a universe whose horrors and beauties are inextricably linked, one which evokes awe and terror at humanity’s godlike capacity to create and destroy. In its firm belief that the secrets of the world reveal themselves to the questioning camera eye, Geyrhalter’s work possesses a spiritual dimension directly sdescending from the writings of André Bazin, and his new film elevates the sight of rubbish into a religious epiphany.

 

2. Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, Canada)

Somewhere in the dematerialized wastelands of Cosmopolis (2012), overrun now by the vacuous celebrity culture of Maps to the Stars (2014), lives Saul Tenser, an “artist of the inner landscape” who grows new organs that are surgically removed by his partner Caprice during their feted public performances. Saul is a conservative in denial of the rapid transformation the human body is undergoing—a Clint Eastwood of the New Flesh—who would rather excise his new organs than embrace his true, deviant self. As governments and corporates look to quell the insurrection triggered by a cult of anti-Luddite ecoterrorists who sabotage not technology but the human body, Saul must decide whether to remain at the mercy of the algorithms or take the evolutionary leap. The most rewarding way to approach Cronenberg’s stellar, career-capping new work is to take it not as an allegory of current political debates, but literally. In Crimes of the Future, the body is indeed the final frontier, the last repository of all meaning, the sole means to spiritual edification or revolutionary change—a truism already in our Age of the Body. Filled wall-to-wall with dad jokes and dumb exposition, Cronenberg’s silly, sublime, supremely stylish treatise on corporeal capitalism is the most thought-provoking film since Pain and Gain (2013).

 

3. A German Party (Simon Brückner, Germany)

Politics is dirty, and electoral politics doubly so. Few filmmakers possess the curiosity, intellectual mettle and good faith—leave alone the necessary access—to examine the unglamorous negotiations and compromises that are fundamental to the democratic process. Made over three years, Simon Brückner’s magnificent fly-on-the-wall documentary about the workings of the far-right German outfit Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) immerses us into the party’s operations, ranging from cool deliberations of executive meetings to high-temperature grassroots confrontations. The result is a markedly composite picture that offers a sense of the heterogeneity of an organization popularly considered an ideological monolith. Over six illuminating chapters, A German Party presents a political body fully caught up in the dialectical process of self-definition, an organization trying to identify itself through differentiation. The need for the AfD to go mainstream, to form alliances and influence policy runs up against the image that it has built for itself, namely that it represents a force outside the establishment. The most intriguing suggestion of Brückner’s film may be that rightward shift of the party, far from signalling the formation of a coherent ideology, may actually be the fruit of a lack of clear identity. Whether the AfD is the elephant in the room or a paper tiger, A German Party leaves it to the viewer to judge.

 

4. Stomp (Sajas & Shinos Rahman, India)

The Rahman brothers’ boundary-smashing formalist work is nominally a documentary about a theatre group named the Little Earth School of Theatre. For the most part, the film showcases the troupe’s preparations for an upcoming performance at the annual function of a middle-class housing association in Kerala. We see the company’s rehearsal in considerable detail, their work on gesture, movement, voice and cadence, but the nature of their play is sketchy and elusive, like pieces of a puzzle that never fit. Rejecting literary and psychological explanations, Chavittu subverts the conventional artist profile, supplying no commentary on the meaning or significance of the rehearsal and complicating it with absurd interludes. What the filmmakers offer instead is a bracing procedural work intently focused on the physicality of its subjects, emptied of emotional life and operating together as a consummate professional unit. The sensuality that the film radiates comes not through dramatic or formal devices, but from the raw presence of young, athletic bodies populating the frame. Even when it places this performance within a satirical, self-reflexive social context, the film remains gentle, focused on the troupe’s single-minded artistry in the face of indifference and marginalization. Chavittu is all grace.

 

5. Nazarbazi (Maryam Tafakory, Iran-UK)

The problem with film censorship, as Judith Williamson pointed out, isn’t that it rids movies of objectionable matter, but that it makes everything else seem dirty. Drawing images and sounds from almost a hundred Iranian films made since the 1979 revolution, overlaying them with evocative fragments of citations and original text, Maryam Tafakory’s ambitious, enrapturing video collage Nazarbazi illuminates how the Islamic regime’s censorship codes, specifically its restriction on showing men and women touching each other on screen, displaced this repressed sexuality onto other sensations, objects and aesthetic elements. An astonishing example of film criticism as an artwork in itself, Tafakory’s exhilarating, tactile montage locates the erotics of cinematic art in fluttering fabric, clinking bangles, slashed wrists, breaking glass, aromatic food, sweeping camera movements and, of course, the play of glances. Supressed desire finds a way to manifest not just in filmmakers’ cunning paraphrase of taboo actions, but simply in the ontology of the medium; sensuality in cinema is revealed not just as what artists express, but as what they can’t help but express, thanks to the inherent voluptuousness of moving bodies, caressing textures and resonating sounds. Watching Iranian films after Nazarbazi, you might find yourself asking the same question as Diane Keaton in Love and Death (1975): can we not talk about sex so much?

 

6. Footnote (Zhengfan Yang, USA-China)

Terror floats in the air in Footnote, not just due to the pandemic, but also because the film’s soundtrack consists entirely of police radio communication from Chicago city. The incoming complaints are by turns petty and serious, ranging from minor disagreements with neighbours to drive-by shootings, and officers are tasked with everything from delivering a lost pet home to checking on isolated senior citizens. Seemingly gathered over a year, these excerpts reveal an extremely busy, probably understaffed police force grappling with the tensions of a diverse, multicultural city. The image, meanwhile, comprises wide-angle shots of open spaces filmed from a higher vantage point— intersections, highways, beaches, parking lots, rooftops—almost always featuring ant-like, solitary human figures animating the frame. Thanks to the thrillingly dialectical relation that Footnote sets up between sound and image, these calming panoramas become vehicles of anxiety, with human bodies turning into agents of both biological and criminal threat. Widening the chasm between the home and the world, the radio chatter colours the images with a feeling of alienation and paranoia. In the way the airwaves convert ordinary window views into something akin to CCTV footage, pregnant with dramatic incident, Footnote might be tapping into a fundamental psychological condition of life in America. Also, the finest Hitchcock remake in ages?

 

7. The Plains (David Easteal, Australia)

The Plains channels the spirit of Jeanne Dielman into Andrew Rakowski, a middle-aged lawyer who leaves office every evening just past 5 P.M. to drive home to suburban Melbourne. Easteal’s cyclical road movie formalizes this routine, filming Andrew’s commute over eleven different days of the year with a fixed camera from the back seat of his car. On some days, Andrew offers a lift to his colleague David (Easteal himself), probing the reticent young man on his private life while also generously talking about his own: relatives, career, romance, wealth, mental health. Literally compartmentalizing work and life, the commute creates a transitional zone where Andrew can view each as an escape from the grind of the other. It provides a moment of unwinding, freedom from roleplay that both life and work demand. Yet, for all the me-time the drive home affords, there is an eerie silence whenever Andrew isn’t chatting away or the radio isn’t on, as though this non-place, non-time were forcing him to reflect on Important Things. Despite the apparent sameness, every day brings small deviations that threaten Andrew’s reassuring routine, all accumulating into a powerful meditation on aging and the passing of time, a view of life’s parade from the wheel of his car.

 

8. Red Africa (Alexander Markov, Russia)

Rivalling the best work of Sergei Loznitsa, Alexander Markov’s resplendent found-footage project samples propaganda and reportage films that the USSR made during the Cold War to strengthen its ties with newly liberated African states. In this gorgeous Sovcolor assemblage, we see Soviet Premiers and African heads of state visit each other amidst ceremony and pomp, exhibitions showcase the latest in Soviet culture and technology to the African public and students use the knowledge they have gained in Moscow for the betterment of their countries, whose exported resources return as value-added products from behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a poignant glimpse into a nascent utopia, a world that could have been, which hides as much as it reveals. With cunning visual associations, Red Africa recasts decolonisation as a formal process that concealed fundamental continuities between the departing Western powers and the Eastern hegemon. Uplifting notions of bilateral ties between Africa and the USSR are belied by the strictly unilateral flow of influence and ideology. In its attempts at creating a new world order, Markov’s sharp film demonstrates, the Soviet Union espoused anti-colonial struggles in fraught areas of the globe even as it held sway over its diverse republics—a tragic irony made apparent when the chickens came home to roost in 1991.

 

9. The DNA of Dignity (Jan Baumgartner, Switzerland)

Jan Baumgartner’s moving, loosely fictionalized documentary The DNA of Dignity follows the patient, heroic work of individuals and organizations involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Yugoslav wars. Along with bones, volunteers retrieve articles of clothing, toiletries and other knickknacks, all hinting at stories to be told of those they have outlived. With witnesses passing away each year and new structures waiting to be erected over these burial sites, the excavations are truly a race against time, fighting both political amnesia and nature’s complicity in the oblivion. In their quest to rescue war victims from anonymity, forensic scientists assemble excavated bones into skeletons, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families, who haven’t had closure despite the end of the war and who confess to no longer being able to enjoy landscape without being reminded of what it hides. Baumgartner’s film obscures political and institutional details to focus on the scientific process, offering a fascinating, inspiring picture of the how the abstractions of science eventually coalesce into human stories. Its success lies in finding the right tone and distance necessary for a subject as grave and delicate.

 

10. Animal Eye (Maxime Martinot, France-Portugal)

Martinot’s funny, free-spirited, quietly radical Animal Eye features a 30-year-old Breton filmmaker discussing his next project with his producer in Lisbon. He isn’t very articulate, but knows that the film will be an “autobiographic animal diary” about his dog Boy. “Films are filled with humans,” he says, “all liars.” Animals, in contrast, are not aware of the camera—or don’t care about it—and as chaotic beings of “pure present,” they evade the signifying operations of the image, emptying it of meaning and intention. As the muddled filmmaker slowly “hands over” the project to his smart, wry producer, the film’s central theme crystallizes: in neither owing anything to imagemakers nor expecting anything from them, the filmed animal offers a way out of the crippling egocentrism of artistic creation. In being just an image, the filmed animal becomes a just image. Animal Eye takes the first tentative steps towards the faint understanding that a “cinema of animals” shouldn’t consist of simply filming the world from their eyes, but filming as them, whatever that might entail. Chaining together clips of dogs from across movie history—subject to sadistic torture, sentimentalism and signification, locked out of the human realm—Martinot’s film embodies a rousing rallying cry on behalf of a “deanthropocentrized” cinema. In its own modest way, Animal Eye marks a milestone in anti-speciesist filmmaking.

 

Special Mention: Saturn Bowling (Patricia Mazuy, France)

 

Favourite Films of

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Rishab Shetty’s action drama Kantara has turned out to be quite the sleeper hit. Released on 30 September 2022, the Kannada film gained in popularity over the first week of its run, prompting the filmmakers to distribute it in several other languages. At the end of a month, Kantara had become the most profitable Kannada-language film of all time, with the exception of K.G.F: Chapter 2, which set the box-office on fire earlier this year. That this astonishing success was made possible by word-of-mouth is reassuring in an era of colossal marketing budgets, and it is also oddly appropriate for a work that foregrounds oral modes of knowledge transmission.

But word-of-mouth is only part of the reason for the film’s reputation. Like any work today with high visibility, Kantara quickly became an object of culture wars and significantly benefitted from the ensuing controversy. The bone of contention, specifically, was the film’s emphatic use of the Bhoota Kola, a performative ritual prevalent among ‘Adivasi’ or indigenous communities in the coastal region of Southern Karnataka. In this form of invocation, a designated medium, decked up in expressive makeup and elaborate costume, works himself into a trance, channelling a guardian spirit that addresses the concerns of the community.

Champions of Kantara on the right of the political spectrum have seen in Shetty’s film—and its nationwide acceptance—the expression of a pan-Indian Hindu identity, a native metaphysics that allows Hindu audiences across the country to connect with the themes of the story despite its cultural specificity. Critics fault the film precisely for this conflation of indigenous practices with Hindu mythology. In particular, Shetty’s overlaying of Bhoota Kola performances with the Sanskrit hymn “Varaha Roopam,” whose lines invoke the third avatar of Lord Vishnu, has been seen as an ‘appropriation’ of ‘Adivasi’ rituals by the homogenizing forces of Hindutva. It is not the goal of the article to pass judgment on the debate—to determine whether Bhoota Kola is part of Hinduism or not—but only to retrieve a work buried, within weeks, under the debris of political discourse.

Kantara carries the subtitle “a legend” and opens like a fable. An off-screen narrator tells the tale of a king who, in the mid-nineteenth century, trades vast stretches of his wooded demesne for a tribal deity. It is a pact not just between the raja and the forest-dwelling tribe who worship the deity, but with the deity itself, who speaks through one of the tribesmen, warning against violating the covenant. We see the dire consequences of such a transgression soon enough, when a contemptuous descendant of the king challenges divine law by mocking a Bhoota Kola performer and dies after he tries to retrieve the gifted land through legal means.

This supernatural prelude, which concludes with the withdrawal of “god” from the world, frames a largely secular story set in the 1990s. The king’s next-generation descendant is now a landlord by the name Devendra Suttur (played by Achyut Kumar), who lives in guarded harmony with the tribe while profiting from the produce of their land. A hired hand at Suttur’s timber factory, Shiva (Rishab Shetty himself) comes from a family entrusted with the hallowed Bhoota Kola ritual, but lives a profane life dominated by liquor and boar hunting. His provocative ways run up against Murali (Kishore), a newly appointed forest officer who wants to stop Shiva’s poaching, nationalize forest lands and relocate its inhabitants.

Kantara thus turns around this symbolic three-way conflict between the secular state (represented by the unbelieving forest officer), the faithful majority (the descendants of the tribe) and the transitional remnant of the old order (the extractive landlord who nonetheless abides by community rules). Each of these forces comes with its own perception of the land; if the officer is armed with the objectivity of maps and the landlord with acreage information, the villagers have a more empirical, corporeal relation to their dwelling place. The expanse of land gifted to them in the prelude is determined simply by the reaches of a primal scream that the deity emits and which becomes a recurring formal element in the film.

But subtextual analysis will only take us so far. Shetty is not an intellectual or an ideologue. To treat Kantara as the expression of a comprehensive worldview is to mischaracterize the work, which relies significantly on narrative convention and melodramatic abstraction for effect. For most of its runtime, the film chugs along on lines familiar to an Indian audience, recounting the story of a lovable rural rascal who finds his cause. Secondary characters are defined by a single trait—the intransigent forest officer, the crafty landlord—with no dialectical streak to soften them. When they are not romantic props, women are either absent (the officer’s deserting wife), mute (the landlord’s silently suffering spouse) or reduced to a neurotic wreck (Shiva’s mother).

Such simplifications come with the territory, and for a film unfolding like a myth, they are defensible. Kantara’s shortcomings, on the other hand, are dramaturgical and stylistic. With character motivations weakly sketched, the film progresses through a series of coarse contrivances to arrive at its conflict and resolution, especially around the figure of the forest officer. This lack of dramatic cogency is aggravated by a restless style of rapid edits and strident score that doesn’t allow the film to linger on a moment or an image. Whether portraying the forest officer, or the landlord’s lawyer, or Shiva’s friends, almost every actor operates on a uniformly higher pitch, constraining the film to an unvarying emotional profile.

This agitated, exaggerated style undermines the film’s climactic passage, when a done-and-dusted Shiva is resurrected by the deity and animated into a murderous frenzy. Because Shiva has been larger-than-life throughout the narrative, capable of taking down hordes of henchmen singlehandedly, this godly intervention proves moot, scarcely different from the influence of alcohol or cannabis that so far gave our hero his preternatural fighting abilities. Instead of an epistemological shift in our perception, what we get in Shiva’s final transition is a literal deus ex machina, a banalization of the divine.

Notwithstanding the novelty ascribed to this heavenly visitation, Indian audiences are not alien to such irruptions of the irrational in their cinema, where stories of rewarded devotion held sway at one point in time. Kantara, in fact, inherits from the last wave of these ‘mythologicals,’ the beloved Amman/Ammoru films of the 1990s and the early 2000s that flourished and faded with India’s economic liberalization. Where these movies put their pious protagonists through trials by domestic injustice, Kantara takes its agnostic hero through a worldly tale of social injustice. The viewer has, even so, no trouble suspending disbelief and never doubts for a moment that a man could really die vomiting blood as punishment for defying the gods.

Yet something does transform in Kantara’s quarter-hour home stretch. As Shiva’s battered body is visited by the deity, speech, psychology and plot recede to make way for the pure spectacle of a manic performance. Bare-chested and ash-faced, Rishab Shetty takes a leap into the void, carried away in religious transport. He crawls, jiggles, rolls and dances, his limbs splayed in all directions, tongue out, head thrown back in convulsions. Words yield to full-throated howls as he taunts his adversaries, breaks their bones and converts their lethal torches into ceremonial aarti. At one point, he gorges on puffed rice offered in pacification. In the midst of this vortex of gestures, this sublime silliness, the audience is suspended in a mixture of fright, admiration and nervous laughter.

At the peak of this sacred rage, Shetty cuts to a tender scene of peace and reconciliation. Having at last owned up to his heritage, Shiva now performs the Bhoota Kola ritual, his individuality wholly subsumed by the role. Scored to the “Varaha Roopam” hymn, and shot seductively in slow motion, this moving coda finds a fully costumed Shiva directing a series of gestures at the forest officer, gestures that are defiant, authoritative, affectionate, trustful and submissive all at once. He draws the officer’s hand to his chest, inviting other onlookers to follow suit and uniting them into a single mass around him. As he leans back, the swirl of emotions on his face gives way to serenity, like a rogue tune that has finally found its home note. Shortly after, he withdraws into the forest upon hearing the call of his forbearer, and when he does meet him, the serenity blossoms into joy. Shiva, who has always been running away from this call, and his calling, heeds to it at long last. The circle closes.

It’s a potent sequence that tugs at the traditionalist fibre in the viewer. Little wonder, then, that conservatives has embraced the film with vehemence and turned it into an emblem, one more mallet with which to bash Bollywood, which to their eyes has lost connection with the customs of the land. The formal risk of the ending should not be understated. For nearly its last ten minutes, Kantara suspends all exposition to surrender to its lead actor’s unexplained, idiolectic gestural work. The scene’s success is that, despite its relative abstraction, it has made the audience go into raptures.

Even so, very little in the film supports or leads up to this powerful closing episode. The Bhoota Kola ritual, which opens and closes the film, is employed for its spectacular and dramatic potential, its exotic value played up in symmetric framing and a beguiling soundtrack. Whether or not Bhoota Kola was assimilated “upwards” into mainstream Hinduism by the Sanskrit verse of “Varaha Roopam,” the verse and the Carnatic tune themselves have been upsold, rendered cool in a heavy metal garb palatable to “deracinated” ears.

On the other hand, critics and commentators have Kantara’s triumph to its “rooted” storytelling, that is one bound to a particular place, its culture and its people. In interviews, Rishab Shetty has expressed that his desire was to depict and celebrate his native region of Tulu Nadu in Southern Karnataka. To this end, he saturates his film with sights and sounds from the area, including his hometown of Keradi in Udupi district, all of it enhanced in post-production. Shetty’s introduction scene has him participating in the famed Kambala race. We see impressionistic glimpses from village fairs, men in banyans and lungis engaging in cockfights, imbibing toddy served in frond cups, downing chicken sukka, wearing kadas, wielding licensed rifles, hunting boars and cursing generously in local dialect.

This recourse to local colour is not new in South Indian cinema. The Tamil film industry, for instance, is still reeling from the “neo-native” wave of rural, Madurai-centred movies that emerged in the mid-2000s with blockbusters like Paruthiveeran (2007) and Subramaniapuram (2008). The continued commercial success of these films, particularly in metropolitan areas, suggests that their geographical specificity, far from being deterrent to enjoyment or ‘relatability,’ has perhaps a special appeal to urban viewers displaced from their native habitat through economic migration.

Cultural anchoring, however, is neither necessary nor sufficient for a film to be accepted by the wider public. Neither has, say, Bhojpuri cinema captivated South India in any significant way, nor has the fuzzy universalism of Hollywood’s superhero movies come in the way of its worldwide adoration. Deciphering a film’s success is ultimately a fool’s errand, doomed to yield only glib generalizations, since the canonization of any given work is result of a long, sedimentary process determined by a multitude of interrelated factors, sociological, industrial, political, technological and above all aesthetic.

To be sure, Kantara’s forceful marriage of mainstream moviemaking tropes and vivid mythical elements plays an important role in cementing its reputation. But the fulgurant popularity of recent South Indian films, including Shetty’s, cannot be explained without taking into account the domestication of mainstream South Indian cinema through years of dubbed television broadcast in the North, the country’s telecom boom that turned every smartphone user into a precise target of digital marketing, the concomitant dissolution of the “family audience” into ephemeral interest groups, and often the culture wars that turn these works into ideological footballs to be possessed and kicked around. In this sense and others, rather than as an aesthetic object in itself, Kantara proves more interesting as a symptom of our times.

 

[First published in Frontline]

 

Ponniyin Selvan: I, or PS1, the first installment in Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s two-part historical epic, has reportedly become the highest-grossing Tamil-language movie of all time in the United States. This success follows the dithyrambic stateside reception of S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu picture RRR (2022), and together they seem to have unveiled, to many cinephiles, a whole new realm in the cinemas of Southern India. Besides their geographical origin, RRR and PS1 have the commonality of being works of their time—projects whose colossal ambitions were made material by the availability of bigger budgets, affordable VFX, simultaneous international distribution, and digital marketing riding on India’s telecom boom.

PS1 is Mani Ratnam’s first literary adaptation and his third period picture, following Nayakan (1987) and Iruvar (1997), which are arguably his two finest films. A reverent retelling of “Kalki” Krishnamurthy’s beloved 1955 novel of the same name, PS1 zeroes in on a moment of political crisis in the medieval Chola empire, which ruled over South India from c. 848 AD to 1279 AD. Here, as dissident ministers plot to overthrow the ailing 10th-century Emperor Sundara Chozhar, Princess Kundavai (Trisha) seeks to alert her brothers, Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and the younger Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), both waging expansionist wars far from the throne. These royal scions, seemingly modeled on the three levels of the psyche, are linked by the ethereal, enigmatic Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), Karikalan’s former lover and the wife of one of the conspirators, and Vanthiyathevan (Karthi), the chivalrous messenger through whose eyes we discover the story.

Though RRR and PS1 are both opulent period pieces featuring multiple stars, the two films diverge starkly in tone and texture. Where Rajamouli’s film worked a simple, trope-driven narrative—two men on separate espionage missions during the Indian independence movement—into an expressive, crowd-pleasing tale of unified struggle in the face of colonial rule, PS1 is a knotty affair that ties its five leads to each other in every combination, enmeshing them in a thick web of spies, conspirators, assassins, and allies. Fevered plot mechanics take precedence over both eye-popping action sequences and character development. Even so, DP Ravi Varman’s camera is able to linger on telling details such as Nandini’s disarming bare nape or a twinkle of liberated ambition in the eyes of Vanthiyathevan.

While recent historical productions in India—like Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) or Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020), or even RRR, to name a few—have been occasions to construct a glorious national lineage or project present-day communal anxieties onto the past, PS1 refuses to stoke identitarian claims of any kind. The film doesn’t play up its characters’ linguistic or religious affiliations, and it eschews broad, historiographic context in favor of the Byzantine machinations of court intrigue. Ratnam has never been one to play to the political gallery: his Renoir-like humanism trumps polemics or partisanship. All this makes PS1 something of an exception in a movie industry and culture currently gripped by demagoguery and opportunism.

In its verbosity and narrative density, PS1 is an unusual work for Mani Ratnam. But it is characteristic of this filmmaker to ground material that lends itself to every kind of extravagance in a plausible, could-have-been reality. Verisimilitude is a value he often invokes in his interviews, and the gestures, behaviors, actions, and emotions of his films are all shaped to ring true in the internal logic of their worlds. The sense of irony one might expect to bring to other popular Indian fare such as RRR is unneeded here.

For almost 40 years now, Ratnam has been making “respectable” commercial films that, in public opinion, have distinguished themselves from the formulaic “silliness” of contemporary mainstream productions. Part of the reputation of these works derives from their sophisticated polish, flawlessly wrought by a team of top technical talent, many of whom are recurrent collaborators, like composer A.R. Rahman (on 17 films) and editor A. Sreekar Prasad (12). This synergy has also ensured the allegiance of leading acting talents such as Vikram and Rai Bachchan, who attach a high value to appearing in the films of “Mani sir,” even when they have to play second fiddle or share screen space with other stars.

But the renown is equally a matter of a distinct directorial sensibility. Whether crime sagas or tortured romances, family dramas or political fables, Ratnam’s films are marked by an understated realism in their writing and acting, an intimacy in relationships, and an absence of glib moralism. There are barely any villains in his cinema, only conflicting perspectives; even the terrorists of the kidnapping drama Roja (1992) or the henchman antihero of the political thriller Yuva (2004) are given believable, if not condonable, reasons for what they do. A Mani Ratnam feature is also recognizable in its cosmopolitanism, complex female characters, sardonic domestic interactions, unexpected casting, individuation of crowds, subtly shifting focal points, and sarcastic lovers exchanging teasing witticisms in loud voices.

To overstate his singularity, however, runs the risk of misunderstanding his work, which is firmly rooted in the mainstream filmmaking traditions of his country. Ratnam is not a radical or an independent; he has never felt the need to break away completely from the precepts of popular film practice. Such derided elements as the song sequence, the comic track, and the mid-film interval are to him aesthetic givens to be creatively handled, not hindrances to be done away with. His works are preeminent sites for tracing the dialectic between convention and innovation that characterizes the evolution of Indian cinema at large; for instance, where an emphatic victory ballad like “Chola Chola” would have served as an escapist break from the narrative in a more standard film, in PS1, the song is used to shift emotional gears, segueing from a bitter lament of lost love to a revelation of a repressed trauma.

Throughout his four-decade career, Ratnam has been gnawing away at the boundaries of Indian mainstream filmmaking from within, his innovations having been adopted by subsequent directors and, in turn, rendered into conventions. It is hard to watch a movie meet-cute without being reminded of similar scenes from Ratnam’s Alai Payuthey (2000), where would-be valentines trade one-upping wisecracks at a friend’s wedding, or from Mouna Ragam (1986) or Bombay (1995). Certainly, one source of this astounding longevity is the filmmaker’s constant effort to be in tune with his times. Be it cross-border terrorism or communal riots, civil wars or insurgency, the hot-button topics of Indian politics have regularly made their way into his films. But it is in the modest facets of everyday life that Ratnam’s cinema has remained most contemporary, even occasionally showing signs of things to come. From the interrogation of arranged marriages in Mouna Ragam to the normalization of live-in relationships in O Kadhal Kanmani (2015); from a career-long dedication to portraying nontraditional models of masculinity and casting striking faces in bit parts, to the use of real public transport and everyday locations, Ratnam’s films have long been characterized by an insistence on responding to the world and the times that engender them.

In his book Conversations with Mani Ratnam (2012), Baradwaj Rangan recalls how, with the arrival of this young rebel in the ’80s, the rest of Tamil cinema suddenly seemed to have gotten older. “Most filmmakers, then, were adults who’d left their youth far behind, and their portrayals of the young harked back to their times,” writes the critic. “Mani Ratnam, on the other hand, seemed to be one of us… he seemed to completely get us.” Whether young viewers of today feel the same about this director remains to be seen, but even PS1, for all its period stylings, registers as a contemporary work: in the gestures of a medieval swordsman making a pass at a boatwoman on a catamaran, one cannot but sense the everyday passions of an urban lad trying his luck with a young woman on a train in 2022.

 

[First published in Film Comment]

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard chose to end his life on 13 September at the age of 91 in his home in Rolle, Switzerland. Many of the tributes from around the world have likened his passing to no less than the death of cinema itself. The comparison has to do as much with the outsized influence that Godard has in film history as with the filmmaker’s own melancholy pronouncements about the end of the medium that he had shaped in his image for almost six decades.

Born in 1930 to a French doctor father and a Franco-Swiss mother of high-bourgeois extraction, young Jean-Luc had a childhood split between Paris and Nyon. Summers were spent in Haute-Savoie at the estate of his maternal grandparents, the Monods, in a culture of literature, sport and religion. This protestant upbringing, notes biographer Antoine de Baecque, had a marked influence on “Godard’s relation to spirituality, but also to modesty, to money, to Switzerland, to nature, to isolation and withdrawal from the world and to irreverence and iconoclasm…”

Relationship between parents soured after the war, owing partly to class difference, and the resulting tensions bore down on Jean-Luc. The boy, in the meantime, turned out to be a kleptomaniac, and his increasingly serious exploits led the Monods to cut off ties with him. (He would later be behind bars in Zurich.) This disavowal evidently left a deep scar on the teenager, who composed a passionate screed against the family, portraying them as hypocritical snakes that can never get along. Much of Godard’s subsequent life comes into relief in light of this primal domestic rupture.

As an adolescent, Godard harboured ambitions of publishing a novel with Gallimard, born of a desire to emulate the poet Paul Valéry, a close friend of his maternal grandfather’s. Literature, however, came with centuries worth of history, not to mention the approbation of the clan that had disowned him. The young man thus abandoned the idea, frequenting instead the film clubs of post-war Paris, cinema offering an illicit passion and education disapproved by his family.

It is at these screenings that Godard struck up friendships with other young cinephiles who would constitute the posterchildren of the French New Wave: François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol. Despite great difference in tastes and temperaments, the group was united in its impatience for literary-minded French cinema and a penchant for Hollywood films, which were being dumped en masse into Parisian theatres after years of wartime hiatus.

Godard and his cohort gorged on these transatlantic works, as well as on silent classics at the Cinémathèque française curated by Henri Langlois. At the renowned film magazine Cahiers du cinema, where all of them soon found a place, they defended popular Hollywood movie directors as authors worthy of not just their literary counterparts, but the pantheon of Western literature. Indeed, Godard’s first review for Cahiers, on an American melodrama called No Sad Songs for Me (1950), invoked no less than Plato and Stendhal to make its case.

Unlike with literature, though, Godard found in cinema a young form of expression not yet ossified into Art, without the baggage of legacy or the anxiety of influence. “With writing,” the filmmaker would later remark, “I have a pointed sense of inferiority, which I don’t have at all with cinema.” Films spoke through and to reality; as a medium coming into being, cinema was the privileged witness to the century it was coterminous with. It could show, as Godard put it, “boys and girls as we see them in the real world.”

Boys and girls, not men and women. The importance of youth to Godard’s early work, and to the New Wave in general, cannot be overstated. Cinema was a young art, but it was also an art of the young. In Masculine Feminine (1966), Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is at a movie theatre with his girlfriend Madeline (Chantal Goya). As he sees an older couple on screen involved in miserable rituals of submission and domination, Paul muses: “At movies, the screen would light up, and we’d shiver. But more often, we’d be disappointed, Madeline and I. The images seemed old and flickery. Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly. We were sad. This wasn’t the film we’d imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would like to have made, or perhaps even to have lived.”

In contrast, Masculine Feminine, and Godard’s other features set in Paris, capture the precise textures and moods of being young in the City of Lights. Cafés, bars, dance halls, pool clubs, parking lots, publicity hoardings, laundries, photo booths and theatres dominate the imagery and the soundtrack, to the point that the films become documentaries about the city at a particular point in time. This tendency to be in unceasing communion with the world around him remained intact all through Godard’s professional life. “There is in him the constant, almost diehard and touching wish to be contemporary,” writes de Baecque, “He has a sometimes unhappy, but always sensitive relation to the present of his time.”

This wish is manifest most directly in the filmmaker’s turn to radical politics at the end of the sixties. With its ambivalent if sympathetic portrayal of the fledgling Maoist movement, La Chinoise (1967) captured the foreshock of the historical events of 1968. But the film was, excoriated by the far-left for its hesitations and Godard deemed “the stupidest of all the pro-Chinese Swiss.” The director recanted, pulled down the shutters on filmmaking and embarked on a process of re-education. He dissolved his individual identity in filmmaking collectives and let himself be guided by the voices of the next generation. For the second time in his life, he burnt all his bridges to begin anew. In her memoirs Un an après (2015), actress Anne Wiazemsky tenderly describes this acute spiritual crisis that drove her then husband onto the streets to jump barricades or exchange blows with the police.

The Maoist experiment, however, came undone along with the dreams of a generation. Following a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1971, Godard was forced to reassess his priorities. The time of collectives officially over, he moved from Paris to Grenoble with his third partner Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he lived in Rolle until his death. In the new city, Godard began again from zero, as he often did, finding new inspiration in video technology. The period also marked his ‘return’ to fiction filmmaking, resulting in a series of sumptuously photographed films that are nevertheless coloured with a bitterness about the end of utopian aspirations.

The crowning achievement of this period, though, was the eight-part video work, Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98). Pillaging from hundreds of films, paintings and literary texts, and expanding on the lectures he had given in Montréal, Godard offers a dizzying personal meditation on the history of cinema and its relation to the world. While the global film fraternity was celebrating the centenary of the medium with consumerist cheeriness, Godard’s project mourned its death, its missed opportunities and its tortured relationship with the horrors of the twentieth century. In its philosophical scope, in the erudite, far-reaching associations it draws from its juxtaposition of image, text and sound, Histoire(s) remains unmatched in the annals of the seventh art.

Cinema, to be sure, hasn’t died with Godard, but it would be hard to deny that it has become significantly poorer. Not only did Godard’s work span the whole spectrum of filmmaking practice — commercial, experimental, documentary, amateur — but it also helped place cinema at the forefront of the story of art. Even in his final years, the filmmaker never ceased to interrogate the world through images. He was working on two new films when he decided to end his life by assisted suicide. “He was not ill,” reported someone close to him, “he was simply exhausted.”

The last minutes of his last feature film, The Image Book (2018), thus constitute a fitting coda. In the film’s final words, uttered over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance (2005): “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” This is followed by a long, mute excerpt from Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952), which Godard once called the greatest post-war French film: a masked old man dances himself into exhaustion and collapses on the ballroom floor. Let us hope that the music goes on.

 

[First published in Frontline]

How does one begin to speak about Jean-Luc Godard, the Swiss filmmaker who chose to end his life on Wednesday at the age of 91? Or more precisely, which Godard does one speak of? The renegade critic at the iconic film magazine Cahiers du cinéma who championed directors working at the lower depths of the Hollywood studio system? The young independent filmmaker who inspired, and continues to inspire, generations of movie brats with an astounding series of insouciant, dynamic and self-aware works, starting with Breathless (1960)? The angry Maoist who quit filmmaking in the late sixties to work in anonymity within various political collectives, most notably the Dziga Vertov Group? The melancholy recluse who, alongside his partner and filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, experimented with video and made one of the greatest cinematic works of all time, Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998)? Or the Old Master who continued to shake up the film form in the first two decades of our century, with a series of mournful, caustic digital essays?

If Godard has taught us anything, it is that we can begin anywhere. Beginning anew, restarting at zero, is a theme that had characterized Godard’s entire professional life. His films from the 1990s onwards are shot through with a lamentation about the premature death of cinema, the snuffing out of its possibilities by commerce and art. Yet, Godard was never a purist and he embraced most every technological development — lightweight handheld cameras, television, analogue and digital videos, 3D stereoscopy, smartphones and even Instagram — at a time that these were seen as inimical to cinematic practice. Godard’s body of work is defined by such ruptures and recommencements, so much so that they become its defining elements.

It may be odd to talk about the body of work of a filmmaker who hated careerism and couldn’t perhaps be bothered less about his legacy; he was, after all, working on new films at the time of his death by assisted suicide. Yet as a colossus of twentieth-century art, he casts a tall shadow. Godard’s legacy would be secure even if he hadn’t made a single film; his passionate, typically epigrammatic film criticism, published in English as the book Godard on Godard (1986), has countless imitators, but few equals. Filmmaking, he famously remarked, was criticism by other means. His reflexive and densely allusive films are shining instances on the medium’s capacity to reflect not just on itself, but on its relation to history and the world. In Breathless, a celebrity writer is asked by the journalist-heroine what his ambition is. He replies, “To become immortal, and then to die.” Has Godard achieved that? As a lifelong contrarian and a master of cryptic aphorisms, Godard would have no doubt had a zinger in response.

 

[First published on Cinema Express]

The word on the street is that the Ticinese town of Locarno, Switzerland, comes to life only during the international film festival before returning to general cultural dormancy. The high-profile event appears in August like a planetary body, absorbing the local infrastructure and economy into its orbit; businesses are decked in the festival’s trademark yellow-black leopard patterns, gymnasiums are turned into movie halls and publicity hoardings look to cinema for inspiration. It’s indeed hard to divine the nature of the town underneath this two-week masque.

The town, however, has its own ways of asserting its identity. If the festival dominates the visual landscape of Locarno, the soundtrack remains very much of the place. Motorbikes with infernal exhausts, Sisyphean workers dragging heavy trolleys up cobbled pathways and helicopters and ambulances zooming in and out of local hospitals are constant reminders of the presence of a thriving and often abrasive local life.

The helicopters and ambulances are also reminders of health and sickness, which Locarno, despite its paradisiacal landscape ashore the Lake Maggiore, seems animated by. It isn’t just in the fact of the pandemic, which belies the unmasked crowds in the town and the nation’s now-lenient health regulations. It is also in that Ticino is a pharmaceutical hub, a detail reflected in the proliferation of hoardings for drugs and health insurance.

Medicine, disease and death, as it happens, are also recurring elements in the films of Douglas Sirk, who received a monumental 43-film retrospective at the festival. Once an accomplished theatre director at the heart of the modernist movement in Germany, Sirk left for the United States in 1937 for a chequered career in Hollywood. It was in the 1950s, when he collaborated with Universal Pictures, that Sirk made the series of lush melodramas that he is most known today for.

Curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto, the retrospective allowed audiences to not just observe the evolution of Sirk as a film artist, but also find underexplored cross-currents between different phases of his career. As a result, the hard-edged mystery movies he made in the 1940s come across as containing the seeds of the later melodramas, just as the melodramas pick up disturbing undercurrents from the crime pictures. At the very least, the retrospective should prove instrumental in nuancing the existing critical line around Sirk as a maker of Technicolor weepies.

“As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy,” Sirk once said. In Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale, the marquee entry of the competition section of the festival, four political figures from the twentieth century try to see if they can get an entry into heaven. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill find themselves in a purgatory in this hypnotic if elusive work. They make petty quips about each other, encounter doppelgängers and reflect on the tragedies they have presided over. Drawing from both classical painting and AI-based imaging technology, Sokurov’s digital chamber drama is designed like a historical fever dream, only that the twentieth-century slumber isn’t over yet.

Fairytale beholds the world’s horrors from a melancholy, even amused distance, but the wounds are still raw in Jan Baumgartner’s The DNA of Dignity, a moving documentary about the work of forensic scientists involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Balkan War. They excavate bones, assemble what remains of them into a skeleton, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families, who haven’t had closure despite the end of the war. Baumgartner’s film is a fascinating picture of the how the abstractions of science eventually take form as human stories. Its success in finding the right tone and distance for a subject as grave and delicate.

“The war was first fought with bombs, since then it has become silent,” recalls one bereaving mother in The DNA of Dignity. The notion of war as a permanent condition, a state of mind courses through Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon to the Fish. A traumatized young soldier returns to his village after the war to see it empty and desolate. Baydarov weaves this premise into a spare landscape film in which spectacular vistas of barren countryside are punctuated by human figures prostrating or scrunched up, rarely showing their faces. The film’s greatest idea involves a photobombing dog.

Locarno’s own landscape is more modest. Hemmed in by mountains, the town comes across as intimate, almost claustrophobic. The festival venues are located a few minutes from each other, a fact that makes encounters with acquaintances and friends pleasurably inevitable. The steep, narrow lanes of the town that house countless restaurants all flow into the Piazza Grande, the massive open-air screen at the heart of the festival.

Film festivals like Locarno are, however, paradoxical things. As beacons of film culture, they are supposed to allow audiences to get a sense of cinema’s future and past. Yet the ideals of a festival often come crashing against everyday realities of participating in it. Subject to unending screenings and conversations, the mind wanders, the films bleed into one another, frequently losing context. The movies seek to take the viewer on journeys to far-flung worlds, existing and imagined, but the physical reality of spectatorship resists this easy transportation. The sweat on your back as you settle down into your seat, the fight to get a half-decent meal between screenings, the inexorable gravity of undone laundry all never fail to remind you of the here and the now.

Moreover, the glut of films can result in an audio-visual bulimia at loggerheads with the goals of a festival. The state of confused reflection that challenging films leave you in are, unfortunately, washed away in the stream of thoughts that the next work provokes.

And the Locarno film festival is known for its mix of traditional and challenging programming. If the films playing at the Piazza Grande draw non-cinephilic audiences from across the region, the works premiering in competition tend to be at the vanguard of cinematic innovation. Last year, the festival, in fact, dissolved “Moving Ahead”, a sidebar devoted to more experimental fare – a bold decision that may yet prove controversial. The result of the move was that this year’s Cineasti del Presenti, a section showcasing work from early-career filmmakers, was dominated by features that may have otherwise been relegated to the experimental segment.

As part of its Green Project, Locarno also designated a Green Leopard award in 2022, intending to honour one feature that “best reflects an environmental theme.” The recipient of the inaugural edition of this award was Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out of Place, a remarkable work tracing the journey of objects not native to the environment they are found in. Shot in about ten locations from around the world including Nepal and the Maldives, the film looks at the human-generated waste at various corners of the planet. Like much of Geyrhalter’s work, Matter has neither voiceover or interviews, with the viewer trusted with the task of navigating through the film’s implications.

Matter juxtaposes the work of waste management personnel from around the world, but it does not offer glib answers about their relationship. Geyrhalter insists that his films are not activist, rather documents for future archives about how humans lived in this particular point in history. Indeed, the images in his new film are clear and sharp, but they are productively ambivalent, suspending the viewer in both amazement and repulsion at mankind’s capacity to generate and manage vast amounts of garbage in the remotest stretches of the earth. Beauty and ugliness coexist in Matter Out of Place, which has the capacity to sharpen our ecological consciousness more thoroughly than most cine-pamphlets can. It’s an essential work.

 

[First published in Mint Lounge]

 

The home is a sanctum of peace in Abbas Fahdel’s new work Tales of the Purple House (“Hikayat elbeit elorjowani”). It is here, in this independent house in the south of Lebanon, that Nour Ballouk, Lebanese visual artist and the filmmaker’s wife, spends her days surrounded by canvasses, films and her four cats – Sukker, Antar, Kiwi and Panda. The sun shines down on this quiet haven, the gardens are bountiful and Nour devotes herself to painting nature.

Yet the world is too much with the Fahdels. The Edenic stillness is interrupted by news reports about the 2019 anti-government protests, the 2020 Beirut explosion, the COVID-19 pandemic and, later in the film, the Russian incursion into Ukraine. Moussa, a young Syrian immigrant who visits the Fahdels regularly, is a reminder of the unrest outside, as is the bevy of sanitary workers spraying daily disinfectants in the Fahdel compound.

Like Fahdel’s monumental work Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), Tales pits the intimate against the historical, whittling down the world to the size of individuals but also examining the individual as a creature of history. Yet in the new film, the distance between the two is more strained. While the imminent “war” had already become a fact of everyday life in Homeland, the domestic space in Tales is eerily insulated from the tumult outside. Fahdel’s film is about chasm between the here and the elsewhere, the need to carve out a personal space and the desire for political action.

At the heart of Tales is the question of the role of art and artists in the face of existential and political threat. What does it mean to paint trees and flowers and hills and beaches at a time when humankind possibly stands at the brink of extinction? Nour’s paintings may reveal a hidden desire to bask in the permanence of nature – outside time, outside history – a tendency equally found in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky that the Fahdels watch. But as her feline friends demonstrate over and over in the film, there is no escape from the violence in nature.

Tales overflows with shots of domestic animals, and interspersed with footage from protests or warfare, they evoke a different perception of history. The linear timeline of the protests, pandemic and wars come crashing against the seemingly timeless nature of the film’s non-human characters. Seasons come and go, city squares fill up and go empty, but the cats – as though in cosmic indifference – continue to huddle or hunt smaller critters for fun and food.

Nour, however, is not a cat, and her relationship to her home and herself is necessarily mediated by history. Bombarded by the horrors besieging her town, she is doomed to lean back on memories, to wait evermore for the bird of her childhood. “The wars have created an attachment to the land,” she reflects as she paints a landscape. Death hangs heavily over the film, dedicated to “Those Who Have Left and Those Who Stayed,” and Nour’s musings are shot through with a melancholy about people vanishing, migrants and refugees, the killed and the deceased.

What does it mean, though, to watch Tarkovsky at the time of the Russian offensive in Ukraine? A screening of Solaris (1972) was, after all, cancelled in Spain in March this year in response to the invasion. A cinephile and an erstwhile film critic, Abbas Fahdel regularly shows clips from arthouse classics playing on his TV in Tales, inserted in rhyme with preceding shots. At one point, a sequence from a Tarkovsky film is jarringly spliced with an infographic about the war. Fahdel, whose production house is named after Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), seems to be reminding us of art’s subordination to history. Like Nour’s personal, mental images of Beirut, our perception of the films we love are necessarily coloured by the circumstances of their (re-)viewing. Our original, magical encounters with them are obscured, if not downright violated. There is, alas, no purple house of the cinema.

 

[First published at Locarno Film Festival ]

Mahesh Narayanan continues to gain reputation as a filmmaker who tells stories about ordinary people in situations of extreme distress. If Take Off (2017) chronicled the rescue of Indian nurses stranded in war-torn Iraq, C U Soon (2020) dealt with the issue of human trafficking from a computer desktop. His new film, Ariyippu (“Declaration”), premiering at the Locarno Film Festival, revolves around a blue-collar couple that finds itself at the centre of a video clip scandal.

Kunchako Boban, who also co-produced the film, plays Hareesh, a truck driver at a glove-making factory in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He and his wife Reshmi (Divya Prabha), a line worker at the same factory, are trying to move abroad and have spent considerable sums of money to obtain a visa. Their best-laid plans go awry when a video of Reshmi at work, spliced with a sex clip featuring a masked woman from the factory, is leaked into the company chat group. Hareesh tries to take on a corrupt police establishment for justice, but his bigger adversary seems to be residing within.

In many ways, Ariyippu is a companion piece to C U Soon, not the least in how it dwells on the way modern technology mediates interpersonal transactions. The film in fact begins with a vertical-format shot – a smartphone video of Reshmi testing gloves – that was the defining element of the earlier work. Like its predecessor, Ariyippu is interested in the precariat, the migrant worker class who bore the brunt of India’s first lockdown. Hareesh and Reshmi are, specifically, South Indian labourers eking out an existence in the far north, a seemingly odd fact pointed out by the sleazy cop handling their case.

Where the lockdown had inspired Mahesh Narayanan to make the best of his means in C U Soon, the director seems to have had more elbow space in the new film, takes place as it does in populated factories and highways around the national capital. Ariyippu compensates for this geographical thinning out with a keener sense of place, fog, sweaters and headlights evoking a precise image of wintertime Delhi. The apartment that Hareesh and Reshmi live in is covered with the scribble of children, likely younger than their own, perhaps previous tenants with dreams not unlike theirs.

In stark contrast to the digital ether that C U Soon unfolds in, Ariyippu appears to take a special pleasure in the physicality of things. Repeated shots of wooden doors closing and opening, actors slipping their mask up and down their mouths, and details such as Hareesh’s cracked smartphone screen add a coat of lived reality to the story. The film’s finest passages are, in fact, purely documentary; Ariyippu opens and closes with sequences showcasing the manufacture of medical gloves on an automated line, a setting that one imagines inspired the project in the first place.

Increased freedom for an artist is not, however, a necessarily good thing, and Ariyuppu trades the razor-sharp narrative focus of C U Soon for a fuzzier psychological portraiture. If the film succeeds in surveying Hareesh’s fragile, self-flagellating male ego, it doesn’t seem to know what exactly to do with Reshmi, who is now dodgy, now upstanding, now helpless. The film appears to be caught between a desire make us identify with Hareesh by eliding crucial narrative information (and thus suspending the viewer in his doubt) and revealing all its cards to render Hareesh an object of study. The thematic thrust recalls Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2018), but because Ariyippu is reluctant to go beyond its hard-set hypothesis, the corresponding emotional beats are lacking.

Formally, Ariyuppu distinguishes itself from the epic styling of Malik (2021) and the experimental storytelling of C U Soon, employing a hard-edged realistic aesthetic – handheld camera, spare musical score – that is all too familiar in international independent filmmaking. On the other hand, it does a remarkable job in handling potentially sensational material, which is crucial for a work expressly about consent. The audience is not treated to a wound inflicted on Reshmi’s face and her outrageous medical examination at the police station features just the upper part of her face in motion. Even in the film’s most disturbing scene of sexual violence, very little is actually made visible.

Boban gets a substantial, challenging role that he carries off with a convincing mixture of instinct and analysis. He plays Hareesh as a fundamentally decent man forced to confront his uglier side despite himself. He is persuaded that the answer lies in violence, but isn’t sure what direction this violence must take: sometimes it is at the world, sometimes it is at himself. Divya Prabha exhibits some of the cautious gutsiness that Nimisha Sajayan brought to Malik and her other films. But the character, embodying the need to stay vertical in a world willing to bend, lacks the nuance that could have lent her eventual transition more conviction. The second moral dilemma woven around her – also turning around the notions of purity and infection – registers as weakly integrated into the plot, as is the half-hearted social commentary. And no, Fahadh Faasil is not in this picture.

 

(First published in Film Companion)

[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

In the introduction to the collection of your articles, Piges choisies (from Griffith to Ellroy), you state that your best critical texts are the most recent ones, but that for your films the evolution has not been the same: your best period would cover the years 1976-1989, from Anatomy of a Relationship to Les Sièges de l’Alcazar.

I don’t know. Whether my critical writing is good or not is not very important, at least not as important as it is for my films. The quality of my writing has undoubtedly improved over time; for films I don’t know. Those from 1976-1989 are generally held in higher esteem. And I don’t think there has been a step forward since those years. It’s rather up to you to tell me! I don’t care that much, but well… it’s a feeling. Filmmakers whose work extends over a long period of time often experience a setback at the end of their careers.

In a text from the special issue of Cahiers on John Ford, “The Slide of the Admiral,” you suggest on the contrary that the last shot of his last film, Seven Women, is his most beautiful.

Ford is atypical; Americans generally flag at the end: Hawks, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Griffith and many others. There is longevity, circumstances…

Piges choisies also reproduces your unorthodox answer to the Libération survey “Why do you film?”: “To make big bucks, to go on big trips and to meet pretty girls.”

If there is a questionnaire, there necessarily has to be a winner. I wanted to have the best answer. I received a lot of phone calls; my answer made a lot of readers laugh. I think I won. At the time—1987—I was an ascetic figure; I was almost seen as another Straub. I am still seen today as an unadulterated filmmaker who does not compromise. Jansenist, even.

It’s true that I don’t make many complacent films. In order to depress my interlocutors, I often have fun saying that I was forced to make a film to put food on the table. “Ah my poor fellow! What is it called? – Origins of a Meal.” So my reputation for integrity also has a playful side.

I think the answer would have been even funnier had it been given by Straub or Bresson. I had phoned Bresson to suggest it, but he took it badly.

My answer, moreover, corresponds to reality, or at least to certain aspects of reality. It was not for nothing, for example, that my first films always had two actresses in the lead roles. I was single, my chances were multiplied by two. I have to admit that it was a very bad calculation.

Did you put them in competition with each other?

I didn’t go that far, but two chances are better than one, or zero.

When you were writing at Cahiers, Rohmer once made this strange remark, which you also recall in Piges choisies: “Moullet, I know why you love Buñuel. It’s because you’re both slackers.”

This is the most beautiful compliment I have ever received. Rohmer put me in the same boat as Buñuel, without kissing up to him for all that, since he presented his comparison as a kind of insult. He didn’t realize the compliment he was paying me, I thought. I don’t know if he would repeat the compliment today, even if his appreciation of Buñuel has become more positive.

“Slacker” in what sense? The rejection of rhetoric, mannerism, everything that makes cinema?

A certain zero degree, once again. That’s what Rohmer meant, in a sense. Buñuel didn’t have a visual structure like Murnau or Eisenstein. He is therefore a slacker. And so am I…

Do you consider yourself a slacker?

Of course. That is, in any case, the evolution of cinema. In the silent era, everything was structured around the frame. With talkies, filmmaking became more subtle, more composite, less determined on the level of pictorial construction. The composition of a discreet whole, chiselled in the manner of Murnau’s genius, became outdated. Those who want to make films like Eisenstein today are, moreover, admen, or very retrograde directors.

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[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Brigitte and Brigitte (1966)

There are no hard-and-fast rules, only useful guidelines. Every law must be bent, that’s the only obligation—and that’s precisely what can be great in cinema. Nine times out of ten, what is taught in film schools today is in fact the opposite of what was taught sixty years ago.

Two illustrations as a preamble and a warning:

  • It was once forbidden to move directly from a wide shot to a close-up. This rule is palpable in a film I like very much, Children of Paradise: it systematically uses an annoying—and seemingly forced—gradation between the shot sizes. Today, however, the transition from the wide shot to the close-up works magnificently, provided it is well managed, even if some filmmakers abuse it, starting with Sergio Leone.
  • The 180-degree rule prohibits crossing the shot-reverse shot line so that the viewer isn’t disoriented. But the truth is that it all depends on the actor. With Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot or John Wayne, you can blithely cross the 180-degree line, because the actor is known and well placed, like a pillar: he or she serves as a visual reference. It is much more difficult with beginners whom no one knows, lack as they do a stable facial reference in the frame.

Like a majority of the technical rules in use, this is also a strictly western law. The Japanese constantly break the shot-reverse shot line; for them the problem does not arise. Imagine: had Japan won the war, that would have been the end of 180 degrees!

This is true of almost all laws: they are dependent on history or geography. None of them is indisputable or eternal. You just have to be aware of the risk you are taking when you decide to apply them. Or not apply them! Conscious of this risk, I have chosen to include in the vade mecum that follows the objections that have been made or that could be made to me. Also those that will be made, no doubt.

 

Production, Generalities

The plumber principle (choose a title starting with A or B)

Open the phone book, all plumbers have a shop name that starts with A. They all sit at the top of the directory. Being at the top of catalogues is important, because festival catalogues play a big role. All catalogues for that matter. You can’t always do it, but it is recommended, especially for short films. Maybe there will soon be a rush of short films starting with AAA, as with plumbers.

I can already hear the first objection. My first short, Un steack trop cuit (1960), is not exactly at the top of the alphabet: an error of youth, sorry. As for the following ones, Ma première brasse (1981), Essai d’ouverture (1988), Le Ventre de l’Amérique, Le Système Zsygmondy (2000) etc., they are a bit all over; that’s because, with time, I’ve become surer of myself.

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