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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.

(more…)

[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.

(more…)

[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

Photo courtesy NL Balakrishnan Archive/Film Heritage Foundation

The month of May has brought not one, but two notable developments in the field of film restoration in India. On the 5th of this month, the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (MIB) announced that it will grant the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) Rs. 363 Crores to restore about 2200 films over an unspecified time period. On a more human scale, the 75th Cannes Film Festival revealed that it will show two restored Indian films in its Classics section: Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), restored by the NFAI, and Aravindan’s Thamp̄ (1978), restored by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) under the direction of founder-filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, in collaboration with the Prasad Corporation (India), The Film Foundation (USA) and Cineteca di Bologna (Italy).

Born in Kottayam, Kerala, in 1935, Aravindan is often classified under the loosely defined, pan-Indian Parallel Cinema movement. But he was a poet in that assembly of prose stylists, a genius primitivist in a world of professionals. Aravindan’s third feature, Thampu rechristened Thamp̄, is an observational portrait of a traveling circus setting up shop at a riverside hamlet in Kerala. The filmmaker initially planned Thamp̄ as a documentary around the circus troupe, and large sections of the final film attest to this original intention. The story is skeletal, there is no plot and very little dialogue or musical score. Aravindan instead devotes the better part of the film to capturing the quotidian rhythm of the village, its landscape and buildings, its people and places, as well as the troupe’s performances.

These improvised vignettes are organized into a symmetric, cyclical day-night structure anchored by recurring figures: a bourgeois repatriate, his rebellious son, the manager of the circus, its muscleman and clown, two young lovers, a prostitute, a truck driver. Discursive elements surface late in the film in the form of sabotage, worker unrest and familial discord, but these sparse incidents are only hinted at, relegated to the margins of the whatever narrative there is.

Thamp̄ is a circus movie and Aravindan’s view of the troupe is coloured not by nostalgia or lament for the circus, but by a bitter fatalism. The performers are a hopeless lot, trapped in the circus since childhood and subject to its waning fortunes, who are likened to their animal colleagues. Their promotional parade through the village is accompanied by upbeat music, but their solemn, downcast attitude turns the procession funereal. A birthday party for a troupe member looks like a wake, until someone is instructed to sing. Resigned to abuse and abjection, the artistes form a lumpen mass whose rootless existence outside the class system is contrasted with the politicized factory workers that constitute their audience.

The performance of the troupe, though accomplished, is marked by a certain weariness that the 43-year-old Aravindan seems to share. The filmmaker appears to be more interested in life at the periphery of the circus, in the fleeting connections that its members forge outside the tent and in the village. This disenchantment with spectacle results in the most extraordinary passages of the film in which Aravindan cuts between the audience and the performers.

While the circus routines are perfunctorily photographed, these candid reaction shots — the first that Aravindan filmed for the project — register a gamut of primal emotions: men and women, babies and toddlers, all staring agape in fear and wonderment at the dangerous, graceful stunts unfolding before them. The performance becomes little more than an occasion to film the villagers, whose virginal reaction contrasts with the camera-aware presence of the handful of professional actors. Like Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older, made the same year, Thamp̄ is fascinated by the possibility of innocence, of belief in the spectacle.

The film’s restoration journey began in early 2020, when Dungarpur travelled to Kollam, Kerala, to meet the film’s producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. A cashew baron, Nair had artistic aspirations and financed several canonical works of Malayalam ‘New Wave’ cinema, including films by Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Dungarpur notes that the producer was forthcoming in giving his approval for the restoration. The real hurdle, though, lay ahead.

Since the master negatives of Aravindan’s films had all decomposed, the FHF had to work from a surviving print of the film that it obtained from the NFAI. This posed a triple challenge. “Prints don’t have a great degree of latitude,” says Dungarpur, describing how positives can inherit only a part of the tonal range of the original negative. To begin the restoration process from a duplicate negative generated from the NFAI print, then, already entailed a loss.

Moreover, budget demanding, Thamp̄ was shot on the locally manufactured Indu film stock, which wasn’t as sensitive or fast as the better monochrome stocks of the time. Shot by regular cinematographer Shaji N. Karun, it was Aravindan’s second work in black-and-white (and bookended by two films in colour, Kanchana Sita (1977) and Kummatty (1979, restored by the same team in 2021). Shaji worked mostly with available light, which produces images of harsh contrast and imposes visible limitations in the outdoor scenes, where figures tend to meld into the background.

The NFAI print, finally, had already been projected a number of times, accumulating significant amount of wear and tear in the process. This copy had to be first physically repaired at the FHF facility in Mumbai before being sent to co-sponsor Prasad Corporation in Chennai for 4K scanning and digital clean-up. The restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, which oversaw the high-resolution transfer, also did the sound restoration and colour grading.

“When it comes to challenges in film restoration,” declares Dungarpur, “you have to be a purist.” Fundamental to FHF’s work is the conviction that the intent of the original creator and the artistic integrity of the film must be the guiding factors in a restoration project. To this end, Dungarpur collaborated with Shaji and Ramu Aravindan, the filmmaker’s son and photographer, on getting the grading and the sound right. This painstaking process of shepherding a single film over many months seems to run counter to the MIB’s monumental ambitions, but the conscientiousness stems from an attitude of respect towards the work under consideration.

Would the FHF’s restoration bring back Thamp̄ in the form Aravindan conceived it? Best intentions notwithstanding, perhaps not. “A film and its restoration are ultimately different works,” says Dungarpur. One would hope, even so, that the restored version comes as close as possible to the vision of the singular cine-poet that was Aravindan.

 

[Originally published in Mint Lounge]

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