Cinema of India


[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.

(more…)

[For its 45th “anniversary”, I wrote the following article on the Internal Emergency as seen by the short films produced by the state-owned Films Division of India]

It’s obvious today to anyone who watches them that the documentaries and newsreels produced by the Films Division of India (FD) conceal as much as they reveal. Set up as India’s official film production unit under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) in 1948, FD had for mission to inform the people of a new democracy about what their government is doing for them, and what the government in turn expects from them as responsible citizens. In short, propaganda. Even so, as Peter Sutoris illuminates in his book Visions of Development (2016), the various organs involved in the making of the films had a margin of creative autonomy that helped usher in some degree of artistry.

This was especially the case after the protean artist Jean Bhownagary took charge of the organization when Indira Gandhi was heading the MIB. FD works of the late sixties and the early seventies are among the most innovative films ever created in the country. When the Emergency was declared on 25th June 1975, however, FD was forced back into its straitjacket and its resources marshalled to defend the clampdown and to sing praise of the PM and her Twenty Point Programme. To be sure, apolitical work such as documentaries on art and culture were still produced, but the films made during 1975-77 that did deal with the political situation had to toe the official line more strictly than ever.

While a straight-up hagiography like The Prime Minister (1976), which follows the dear leader’s everyday routine, still has currency in our political discourse, many FD films about the Emergency remain odd historical curios. One recurring theme was the futility of violence and militant protest. In shorts such as Kidhar Ja Rahe Ho (1975) and Kaisa Andhera (1975), decontextualized, stock images of violence are cut to a Hindi-movie-like song expressing dismay at the damage to public property being caused. In Maa Ki Pukar (1975), an errant young man is convinced by his mother, who bears a resemblance to the PM, that violence isn’t the solution to the nation’s problems.

But propaganda wasn’t limited to purveyors of kitsch alone. Even original voices like S. N. S. Sastry were recruited into smoke and mirrors exercises. In a characteristic fashion, We Have Promises To Keep (1975) mixes approving street interviews, old-style documentary and violent contrasts to develop an impressionistic picture of a country where forces of order are at war with those of anarchy. Though not without some irreverent ambiguity (the film opens with a shot of a skull cut to one of Indira Gandhi’s eyes), Promises offers robust proof that the avant-garde can be put in service of pretty much any ideology.

The career of one particular filmmaker encapsulates the complex, conflicted public response to the Emergency. Sukhdev was a fierce independent who kept his distance from FD, finding real artistic footing in the organization only after Bhownagary took over. In their righteous anger and their rejection of all-knowing voiceovers, Sukhdev’s earliest films, such as And Miles to Go… (1965) and India ’67 (1967), are a far cry from the patronizing, didactic quality of the typical FD production. The years that followed, however, saw the filmmaker taking increasingly pro-government stances. For instance, in Voice of the People and A Few More Questions (both 1974), Sukhdev interviewed common people across social strata about their opinion on the impending all-India railway strike. Focusing on its potentially catastrophic effects rather than the demands driving it, these films present the strike as a selfish action of a few at the cost of many.

Compared to Sukhdev’s first films, Thunder of Freedom (1976) represents a volte-face both ideologically and stylistically. Though made of interviews of people opining on the political situation, the film is held together by the filmmaker’s authoritative voiceover, which interprets public unrest as an abuse of freedom. It walks us through the benefits of the Emergency using the same ‘before’ and ‘after’ model of the FD factory that Sukhdev’s early works violently rejected. With few exceptions, subjects talk to us about the welfare of slum resettlements, crackdown on profiteering and worker exploitation, quality control in ration shops, increased industrial productivity, and vast improvements in women’s safety and civic sense. All those interviewed express a concern that these changes might be reversed once the Emergency is removed.

One of Sukhdev’s last films, After the Silence (1976), presents arguably his most compelling case for the state’s iron fist. Politics remains out of the picture for the most part, the film probing into the horrific effects of legal and illegal bonded labour. The filmmaker is typically brash, even offensive, as he gathers testimonies from rural women sold into Delhi’s brothels, but the film retains a poetic, polemical force thanks to its stark photography and humanist conviction. Having established the urgency of problem, Sukhdev describes how the government has been able to abolish this practice and save thousands from unspeakable misery. It’s a wrenching film, disturbing in its methods but also empathetic in its exploration of intersectional poverty. It also demonstrates that Sukhdev’s relation to the state was more complex than it appears, that people were always at the focal point of his work.

A publication titled “White Paper on the Misuse of Mass Media During the Internal Emergency”, published under the new JP government in 1977, details the way the preceding regime abused the media, including FD, to glorify the Emergency and stoke a personality cult around its leader. This included commissioning a four-hour documentary on Indira Gandhi for an exorbitant sum of 11.9 lakh rupees. The document also hints at the special favours Sukhdev enjoyed, receiving projects directly from the MIB, without having to go through FD. At the same time, he wasn’t indispensable to the state, as no individual is. The MIB rejected one of his films, and he wouldn’t get any commissions from the JP government, which saw him as a collaborator in the Emergency.

An FD film made under the new government indirectly reveals what was, historically speaking, at stake during those 20 months. Directed by Sai Paranjpye, Freedom from Fear (1977) is a powerful account of the horrors of the Emergency: stories of torture, detention and disappearance, accounts of journalistic resistance and statements by students who had no choice but to become politicized. Unsurprisingly, the film promotes the new government as a champion of free speech that not only allows artists and reporters to criticize the state, but even offers a space on national television for the opposition to express itself. The film ends on an uplifting note, with images of children at school cut to a voiceover reading “Where the mind is without fear”.

What is most curious about the film is that we barely see images from the Emergency itself. When it wants to show public unrest, it employs footage from before the period, drawn from the FD archives as usual, like that of the railway strike of 1974—footage that, ironically, Sukhdev had shot. This absence suggests that the Emergency is really a black hole in our cinematic historiography, which makes the oral testimonies in Paranjpye’s film, stilted and preciously few in number though they are, all the more valuable.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[Disclaimer: I know the filmmaker Arun Karthick on Facebook. In principle, I don’t write about films by people I’m acquainted with. But since Nasir had a worldwide screening on YouTube as part of the We Are One festival, I thought it okay to write about it. Take it with a pinch of salt all the same.]

Arun Karthick’s Nasir is built on a series of refusals. As a non-Muslim filmmaker telling the story of a poor Muslim man, Arun seems to have felt that the only way he can negotiate this dilemma is by refusing to give in to objectifying characterizations of Muslims typical of a whole lot of non-Muslim cinema. So very little about Nasir (Koumarane Valavane) marks him as a Muslim in the viewer’s eyes. He doesn’t wear a kurta, doesn’t have a skullcap and doesn’t shave his moustache. We never see him eat meat or biryani. He doesn’t live in a Muslim ghetto, his impoverished neighbourhood accommodating poor of all stripes. His speech is plain, largely untouched either by Dakhni Urdu or the prevalent Kongu accent of Tamil. His household isn’t teeming with children; in fact, Nasir doesn’t have a child of his own, and he takes care of an orphaned, developmentally challenged teenager at home. This considered refusal of artificiality must not be confused with authenticity.

This extends to the dramatic construction as well. Right at the outset, we learn that poor Nasir needs money: he has an ailing mother and a memorial ceremony is around the corner. It’s the most melodramatic of all premises. But the film refuses to take Nasir through a parade of frustrations, disappointments and humiliations. The drama is constantly deferred, relegated to the margins, until late into the film. The filmmaker is mostly content in observing Nasir’s workaday over 24 hours, starting from his morning routine until his walk back home from work late in the evening. Nasir works at a clothing outlet, and the film captures his interaction with colleagues, customers, his boss and his family at length, interspersing it with pensive moments of Nasir smoking beedi.

Nasir is a relic from another time, something of a poet adrift in a commercial world. He listens to music on a tape recorder, writes loving letters to his wife who’s away from home for just three days. Like his poetry, his understated but distinctly innocent romanticism are at odds with a universe of short-term relationships and teenage affairs. His long letter to his wife—doubling as an elaborate expository device read out as voiceover—is interrupted thrice by instances of violence. But Nasir is out of pace with the world in other ways as well. As an unmarked Muslim unbound by his community and uninvolved in debates surrounding Islam, he mentally lives in a time and place in which he could survive behind the general anonymity of the city and the marketplace.

Echoing this isolation, the film hems close to Nasir’s perspective of things. The viewer experiences only what the protagonist experiences. Nasir is the centre of the cosmos on whose margins tumultuous things unfold, things that he keeps at bay unwittingly or not: signs of anti-Muslim sentiment and political mobilization in the city. A shorter sequence at his shop transposes Nasir’s condition temporarily onto a female co-worker. As the men at the outlet discuss porn, sex and adultery, the camera leaves Nasir to follow the young woman around the store as she tries unsuccessfully to ignore this ostensibly uncomfortable discussion.

Nasir’s observational approach isn’t new, and it plants itself firmly in the Hubert Bals-sponsored tradition of meditative fiction filmmaking. The film starts out with extreme close-ups of scenes from Nasir’s household, partially blocked or obscured images offered through layers of fabric or grills so that the viewer squints to perceive what’s happening. This formal scheme loosens up as Nasir sets out for the day, the scenes at the clothing shop serving both as visual and comic relief. The filmmaker often fixates on minute details of décor, setting or actors’ bodies, with one afternoon sequence around Nasir’s nap turning into an abstract vision of a state between dream and waking life. While this fetishization of the ordinary remains eccentric and tasteful for most part, it sometimes tips over into the exotic, such as when we see Nasir’s prayer at the mosque—a rare sign of his Islamic affiliation—at great, almost voyeuristic detail that goes against the general principle of the film.

On the other hand, the film’s treatment of the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, where the story is set, is quite refreshing. My recent memory of the city on screen is in the noxious Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (2018), where it’s a contested town filled with treacherous North Indian immigrants and Muslims to be strictly policed and surveyed from apartment rooftops. In Nasir, in contrast, we witness the city almost exclusively from the eye level on the street.

To be sure, the film does not purport to offer an objective, value-neutral glimpse of the city. For instance, we hardly see any political or film posters on its walls, or hear Dravidian political rhetoric—sights and sounds that are integral to public experience in Tamil Nadu. And the same could be said of the deep-seated caste and ethnic fault lines of the city. In Nasir, it would seem that these details have been supplanted by a pan-national communal discourse: Jamaats and Mahasabhas announce themselves on the walls as Nasir walks from his neighbourhood to the larger city—sequences whose lengths seem determined by the soundbites from mosques or BJP speeches we hear on the soundtrack. And a vaguely suspicious North Indian presence is still felt on the narrative periphery, most notably in the ubiquity of Ganesha idols during the Ganesha festival, which here becomes an occasion for Hindu assertion and mob violence.

Even so, Nasir does a good job of capturing the unique visual culture of the state, the sensory overload it imposes on the public, vying for its attention akin to the shop worker who calls out to potential customers: flashy private vehicles at a mofussil bus depot, serpentine chains of stores selling the same wares, coloured decorations cutting across roads like wires, etc. More importantly, it touches on the fragile cosmopolitanism of the city, easily upset by politically-motivated communal polarization.

Critics have hailed Nasir for its reserve, its abstinence from grandstanding, its relegation of the political to its margins and its refusal to give a message. While some of it is true, I think this profoundly mischaracterizes the film. For one, the rejection of messaging is new only as far as one compares it to mainstream Indian cinema, a comparison with little possible ground. Nasir is as far from mainstream Indian cinema as it is from Hollywood; its lineage is different and specific. Considered in light of other Rotterdam-funded films of the past two decades, its minimization of the political and its refusal to preach is wholly in line with that tradition.

Moreover, it isn’t to the film credit to say that it focuses on some fuzzy humanism, keeping the political and the communal out of its scope. Nasir’s indifference is a virtue only as far as there’s the threat of political and religious violence about him. The marginalization of the political is part of the film’s emotive substructure and not some independent artistic choice outside of its desire to follow Nasir’s life. One collapses without the other. Finally, it seems plain as day to me that Nasir has a message and one it wishes to convey ardently. It isn’t an ambiguous film by any measure, and there are no dozen ways of reading it. It isn’t any less message-oriented than many liberal-minded mainstream pictures, and to acknowledge that doesn’t take anything away from the film’s accomplishment.

[Spoiler alert]

Which brings me to the film’s ending. As Nasir walks home at night, reciting the letter to his wife on the voiceover, a Hindu mob confronts and kills him. Where arthouse filmmaking would typically omit this graphic event, presenting vignettes of its aftermath alone, Arun chooses to depict the violence. The camera unhinges from the tripod, frenetically following the men pouncing on Nasir. The shaky camera abstracts the lynching such that that the mass of men is reduced to an indistinct blob of low-def colours, with a face or a snatch of dialogue emerging from time to time to pin down the meaning of the event.

It is a bold choice that finds a novel (and morally defensible) midpoint between the iniquity of representing such violence and potential perversion (not to mention the aesthetic staleness) involved in artfully eliding the event. But I do wonder whether it isn’t a superfluous ending that could’ve been done away with altogether. I understand that it’s intended to inscribe homicidal violence within the everyday experience of the poor Indian Muslim. But I also think that it topples the affair by suggesting that the travails of Indian Muslims could only make sense within the optic of murderous communal violence. In other words, the low-key struggles born of structural problems—lack of state support, the dearth of economic opportunities, the obligation to ply one’s trade under neutral names, the pressure to move to the Gulf, the intersectional violence on women and the disabled—that are the focus of the most part of the film risk being relativized by what is evidently a coup de théâtre. It reduces the admirable qualities of the film to the setup for a dramatic punchline.

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

[A report on Mirza’s masterclass at the Bangalore International Centre in February]

Saeed Akhtar Mirza in conversation with Aakar Patel.

“Asked about the long, revealing titles of his films, Mirza speaks of a democratic dialogue with the audience, of not wanting to deceive them. When the viewer buys a ticket, he says, he has an idea of the film he’s walking into. “It’s not some Khandaan or Jurm.

In no other film is the title as illuminating as in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). The instruction—don’t cry over Salim the cripple—positions the film as a tragedy, with the fate of its lead character sealed from the start. Salim, a low-level hustler with dreams of making it big as a gangster, gets a rude awakening when he’s showed his place by a system that views him differently. The Mumbai slang of Salim and those who abuse him are far from the Byron-quoting urbanity of Mirza, who had to undertake midnight trips to Dharavi to talk to real underworld figures as part of his preparation.

            Mirza describes the last of his five major films, Naseem (1995), as the final nail on the coffin of the idea of India. Set in the months preceding the destruction of the Babri mosque, Naseem paints an elegiac portrait of a syncretic, tolerant nation, thrown into disarray by the events of and after December 1992. Like Salim, but on a lower, more heart-breaking key, the teenager Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is forced to confront her social identity as reflected in reaction of those around her. Naseem finds Mirza articulating space with greater surety, with the fluid camera stitching the rooms of Naseem’s middle-class household into long, unbroken shots.”

 

[Read full article at SilverScreen]

Ottha Seruppu Size 7 (“Single Slipper Size 7”, 2019, R. Parthiban)

The claim that it’s a single-actor film is indeed a falsity, a gimmick. Sure, we see only one actor on screen (Parthiban himself), but we hear a dozen more on the soundtrack. Worse, it takes pains not to show any other actor even in scenes not featuring Parthiban. So the camera would look away from implied actors, whose exchanges we nevertheless hear. In its minimalist story that could’ve perhaps worked just as well without the conceit, a detained serial killer, interrogated by three or four high-level police officers, confesses liberally to his crimes, but walks out scot free. To avoid the monotony of looking at him speaking for a hundred minutes, actor-director-writer Parthiban cycles through a range of zany camera angles, playing with scales of objects at different distances from the camera. The framing is now partial, now distorted. Parthiban walks in and out of the view of the camera, both the film’s and of the one in the police station recording his testimony. For a major part of its runtime, we share the perspective of the police officers and never once that of Parthiban. This renders him less a character we identify with than a purely external being performing for the camera(s). On the other hand, in a theatrical gesture, we hear the voices that he hears in his head, which invites us to understand his psychology and also serves to insist that he’s not faking his way through the interrogation. I think the end result remains largely stage-bound, with concomitant light and sound effects. Be that as it may, there’s much pleasure to be had in watching the actor get so much manoeuvring space to showboat his unique personality. He forges a quintessential Parthiban character in his serial killer, a Socratic figure whose modesty, piety and powerlessness belie his wit, wisdom and wile. This fusing of Parthiban’s real life identity, his work as a writer and an actor turns him into an all-round film entertainer not unlike Jackie Chan or Takeshi Kitano.

 

Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (“Wheatish Complexion, Average Build”, 2016, Hemanth M Rao)

Rao’s debut effort wedges together two stories. In the first, a 66-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, Venkob (Anant Nag), strays away from the home he’s admitted in, prompting his caretaker (Sruthi Hariharan) and his estranged, corporate rat of a son (Rakshit Shetty) to go look for him. In the second, two henchmen trying to hide a dead body end up taking shelter with Venkob at the home of a middle-class family. The twinning of stories has two advantages. First, it doubles as a showreel for Rao, who could demonstrate to future producers that he can handle a romantic melodrama as well as a crime thriller. (It apparently worked; his next was a police procedural produced by Puneeth Rajkumar’s new house.) But it also helps balance the film, which is otherwise a bland family drama or a tepid thriller developed in the broadest strokes possible. The characters are all are well-worn types with little inflection. The callousness of Venkob’s son, especially, is drummed up to an unsustainable pitch. It predictably breaks down with Venkob’s disappearance, and the character mellows down. As he searches for his father, he also discovers through oral testimonies his private habits, his romantic past, and his community influence, and realizes that his father wasn’t as generic and boring as the titular missing-person description suggests. In the process, he owns up to his own past, finding his roots and narrativizing his own life. Most of the search takes place through montages and song sequences, and the film itself is overly chopped up, far from the appreciable economy of Kavaludaari. If it’s still moving, it’s largely thanks to Anant Nag, who plays it light, not invoking every characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients. His essential simplicity bestows his character a basic dignity despite the ill-treatment meted-out to it by the script.

 

Taramani (2017, Ram)

Pray you don’t meet director Ram at a dinner. He is the kind of character who can’t pass the salt without giving you a five-minute lecture on the politics behind it. He might not be one to step inside pubs or to work at a call centre, but that doesn’t prevent him from pontificating with great authority on their social dynamics. A gay man in a hetero marriage? Ram knows exactly how he feels. A cuckolded husband? You got it. An adulterous North Indian housewife? Ram’s got you covered. The word pedantic doesn’t begin to describe this type. In Taramani, possibly the most reprehensible Tamil film of the past few years, this personality is given free rein as the director plays the wise prophet in an obnoxious, smart-ass voiceover. As he holds forth about the evils of globalization, employing preciously symbolic CGI birds realistically brought to life by an offshore VFX company, the viewer pictures a smug individual who has figured it all. The film’s ostensible story centres on the relation between a liberal, westernized, conveniently Anglo-Indian single mother (Andrea Jeremiah) and a nondescript, upwardly-mobile, resentful man (Vasanth Ravi). If the film sets their perspectives in parallel early on, it soon tilts the balance to establish a grand theory about the inadequate Indian male grappling with the sexual revolution of the past twenty years. Ram’s hand of judgment falls heavily on (straight) men—fair enough—but he proves himself utterly incapable of acknowledging the basic dignity of women without making martyrs out of them, without surrounding them with countless failed models of masculinity. This strategy also serves to acquit the filmmaker, who incriminates these broken men to conceal his own misogyny. The pat conservatism of a film like Maalai Nerathu Mayakkam, which deals with the same subject, is more honest than the pretend progressiveness of this sham. Taramani is a shameless piece of intellectual fraud.

 

Angamaly Diaries (2017, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Angamaly Diaries is about gangs of young men from respectable social backgrounds flirting with lawlessness. The testosterone accumulates from frame one and, in an escalation of macho one-upmanship, blows up on their faces. There are shades of City of God here, but Pellissery doesn’t judge the community (on the contrary) and offers no higher moral ground. Instead, the filmmaker is paying tribute to the Christian-majority town of Angamaly in Kerala, whose meat trade and beef- and pork-dominated cuisine become primary motifs of the film. Diaries has formally very little to do with Pellissery’s next two films. While Ee.Ma.Yau and Jallikattu are explosives with a long fuse, building up to a crescendo through long, snake-like passages, Diaries is a serial firecracker proceeding at a breakneck pace from the get-go. Several episodes in the film have an average shot length of less than a second, the rapid edits and camera movements reflecting in their aggression the violence of the milieu portrayed. I was reminded on futurist-cubist superpositions in the way Pellissery chops up even brief actions into unrecognizable bits and stitches them back together to produce an impression rather than coherently describe events. So unlike in the later films, editing is the primary motive force and the creator of meaning here. Diaries is also decidedly a more commercial film, with its voiceover and music that reins in the otherwise chaotic proceedings, and without any of the philosophical pretensions of its successors. But if the film makes for such a crowd pleaser, it’s largely thanks to Pellissery’s work with his actors. His film is flooded with colourful characters, all of them played by debutant non-professionals. Even so, a majority of these actors leave a strong impression. The reason for this, I think, is that, in contrast to the use of non-professionals in other films in this roundup, the mostly male performances here are all set at a very high pitch, and they register with us principally through the actors’ physicality and bluster. To use the food metaphor so pervasive in the film, it’s like dousing all your dishes in the same spicy sauce. Leaves you excited one way or another.  

 

C/o Kancharapalem (2018, Venkatesh Maha)

The popular success of C/o Kancharapalem speaks to both the strengths and shortcomings of streaming giants like Netflix. On one hand, the fact that a modest, independent production such as this has found a sizeable audience speaks to the platform’s curatorial power and appetite for risk. But it also testifies to how easily public taste can be shaped. C/o Kancharapalem is practically a student film—a telefilm at best—whose natural home so far might have been Youtube or Sunday afternoon television. But it’s position on Netflix alongside super-productions, prestige pictures and auteur cinema does disservice to both the film and its more competent peers. The film interweaves four short stories, each involving a forbidden romance and all of them set in the titular neighbourhood of Vizag in India’s east coast. The female characters in all four stories hail from a conservative, caste-marked, patriarchal setup, which they are courageous enough to break out of through an affection for the other. This turns out to be an affront to family honour for the men gatekeeping their lives and leads to invariably sad consequences. Then there’s the question of religion, either as faith or practice, which modulates the four love stories. As can be guessed from that synopsis, the film pursues the parallels closely, even mechanically, resulting in an emphasis on the overarching concept (think Griffith’s Intolerance) at the expense of detail and texture. It cuts between the stories rather arbitrarily, sometimes forgetting an arc or two altogether for considerable stretches of time. This produces a curiously uneven emotional profile in which tensions in some sections are resolved while others remain. The film is, of course, not without endearing moments, especially in scenes involving the older pairs, but the actors are asked to do much more than they are capable of and the algorithmic quality of the scenario saps all surprise.

 

Merku Thodarchi Malai (“Western Ghats”, 2018, Lenin Bharathi)

Aka Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. For most of its runtime, Merku Thodarchi Malai is a low-key portrait of a specific-geographic location: the ghat section on the frontier between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Nature, of course, is indifferent to state boundaries, and most of the people we see co-habit within a continuum of languages, customs, beliefs and worldviews. We witness life and work in the mountainous region through the eyes of porter Rangasamy (Antony). We get a sense of the local economy, the trade routes, the inhabitants’ relaxed attitude to money, and the near-total lack of a desire for profit. Business is important only so far as it sustains life. There are accidents and there’s a bit of drama, but for most part, Lenin develops a static, existential picture of lives lived at the mercy of nature, which knows nothing of human needs and sorrows. And then comes the coup de grace: a series of events that wrecks the film down in order to build it anew. Troublesome emotions like greed and wrath take on monstrous proportions through politics and come down on the region like an avalanche. Lenin rapidly, but rigorously, sketches the consequences of the breakdown of an agrarian society tenuously held from collapse by labour unions. GMO firms, land mafia, modern machinery and development projects quickly follow, corrupting the ecosystem beyond recognition. The filmmaker lingers on a shot of a shopkeeper noting down what Rangasamy owes him in a ledger—the incipient notion of debt marking the arrival of new economic relations. Like in Happy as Lazzaro, the brute force of modernity brings in newer forms of bonded labour. The community dissolves, and with it its faith and solidarity, forcing even its non-contributing members to take up jobs in the new economy. The last half hour of the film turns our perspective inside out, forcing us to recognize the landscape now as a bearer of grief at the mercy of a human order. Merku Thodarchi Malai is that rare film which is political without being sentimental. There’s a murder that happens, but it’s presented purely as an existential reaction devoid of moral connotations. Lenin concludes with an absurdist wallop in which a uniformed Rangasamy is hired to guard his own unfenced land—now a private property housing a windmill—and protect the free winds from… what exactly? As Lenin’s drone camera flies farther and farther backwards, we see all the surrounding plots of land—each one bearing a tragedy perhaps—occupied by more windmills, those shiny white icons of clean, green progress now looking like gravestones. If you want to know what Marxist cinema looks like today, this is the preeminent film for your consideration.

Gantumoote (“Baggage”, 2019, Roopa Rao)

That a coming-of-age tale told from a girl’s point of view seems exceedingly fresh partly points to cinema’s conditioning of the audience to the primacy of the male gaze. Rao’s film is the hidden half of a story we are intimately familiar with: a lively, popular boy loses his way in life because of his romance. Rao filters the story entirely through the perspective of her protagonist Meera (Teju Belawadi, daughter of filmmaker Prakash Belawadi), in whose voiceover the film unfolds. At times superfluous and overpowering, the anachronistic voiceover oscillates between the adult Meera, trying to make rational sense of her experience, and her teen self, living life as it presents itself, and nevertheless provides fruitful tensions with the image. From the outset, Rao portrays the movie buff Meera as someone who likes to see (the interaction of screen and spectator has generally been the prerogative of male cinephiles). Through countless shot-reverse shot constructions, she makes the viewer share Meera’s awakening of desire. All through, the emphasis is on Meera’s autonomy, her right to be alone, to want alone, to suffer alone. Rao plays off specific gestures (Meera pulling her boyfriend by his shirt sleeves, his preventing her from biting her nails) against a series of moods (the anxious wait for first kiss in monsoon, the languid summer vacation), specific memories of Meera’s against her lack of knowledge of events beyond her purview. Even when it goes in and out of student film territory, Gantumoote is carried forth by Belawadi’s incredible turn. Her frame drooping in harmony with her eyebrows, she looks over the shoulders, hers or her beloved’s, her eyes conveying her inner life with the directness of subtitles. She is an instant star.

 

Ee.Ma.Yau (“R.I.P”, 2018, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Ee.Ma.Yau deepens the suspicion I had watching Jallikattu: that Pellissery works like a painter. First comes the underlying structure; in this case, the social machinery of a small-town Christian community that springs into action following the death of a member. Overseen by a trusted friend of the deceased’s son, a doctor, a priest, a policeman, an undertaker, a printer, a coffin maker, a gravedigger and a music band galvanize around the dead alcoholic. Overlaid on this impersonal societal analysis, like colours on a drawing, are human emotions and characteristics: desire (of an man wishing a grand farewell to his dead father), malice (of a man who is bent on arousing suspicion around death), self-righteousness (of a priest who makes it his mission to complicate things), greed (of a coffin maker trying to sell an expensive unit), generosity (of a friend willing to abase himself to alleviate his friend’s suffering) and compassion (of a rival battered by the dead man). Like Jallikattu, this is a film about how these individual qualities overwhelm and destroy the community from within, turning a complex collective calculus to see off a man with civility into a spectacle of uncivility. Despite the (sometimes unwatchable) sordidness of the happenings, the stress is on the basic dignity of individuals. Pellissery’s characteristic, long Steadicam shots bridge indoors and outdoors, connecting the perspectives of characters that were only pieces in a communal mosaic before the death. The uniformly caffeinated performances are pitched above everyday realism, but below cartoonishness. While his work on the image is still strong—the floodlight-bathed coastal town has a distinct character—Pellissery has no qualms dealing in the abstract or being literal-minded: a blunt coda resumes the film’s philosophical motivations. A potent shot of cheap liquor you don’t want to try again.

 

Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (“Shoot at Sight”, 2019, Ramprakash Rayappa)

An unmitigated disaster. All it takes is five minutes to figure that this is the work of a bona fide hack. It’s the director’s third film and he’s apparently never heard of a tripod. One could say that Rayappa really puts the motion in motion picture. Three men (or four, who cares, certainly not the filmmaker) rob a bank and hole up in a cramped residential colony of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. A hot-headed officer (Mysskin, paying his bills) is on their heels. It so happens that a group of terrorists are hatching a bombing plot in an apartment in the same colony. The specificity of location suggests that the writer-director has a personal connection to it. But all we learn about the area is that it’s overridden by ostentatious and treacherous North Indians, and so the good policemen of Tamil Nadu are obliged to carry out a clean-up job. A big twist at the end is intended to overhaul our understanding of the events. The director is clearly aware that he’s been cheating his audience so far, and tries to cover his tracks with no avail. The result is a cheap prank in the vein of The Usual Suspects. There’s a monumentally irritating constable character whose stupidity is amped up solely for the big twist to work. The sole point of interest is the final reveal montage: in maybe fifty shots in three or so minutes, we get to hear the whole backstory—an indication of Tamil film audience’s increasing capacity to absorb a great volume of sudden information, a capacity thoroughly abused here.

 

Kavaludaari (“Crossroads”, 2019, Hemanth M Rao)

A valuable archaeological find was robbed and the family of the archaeologist murdered in 1977 at the peak of emergency—the original moment of the Indian public’s disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. The case, thought to be a stub, is pursued by a traffic policeman (Rishi) after 40 years when unidentified bones of three individuals are found during a road-widening project. The cop collaborates with the original officer who investigated the case (Anant Nag) to complete the puzzle. Co-writer of Andhadhun, Rao renders the idea of the police officer living with his case literally, as the people involved in the murder materialize in his apartment with post-production effects. The film starts out as a more ambitious portrait of men and their obsessions, problematizing the investigators themselves, but eventually settles on a traditional whodunit arc. Rao loads the narrative with information after information, plot thread after plot thread, whether they serve to enrich it or not, whether they are indispensable or not. The surfeit of information in itself—mimicking the cognitive experience of navigating today’s mass and social media—sustains a feeling of mystery and importance. The film is generally a couple of steps ahead of the audience, but imagines it is taking them along. In a crucial montage, the suspense is taken to an artificial crescendo through an intercutting between three different spaces. It’s supposed to create an anticipation about the identity of the killer, but what it does instead is produce an anxiety that something grave is underfoot. This mechanistic approach to thrill aside, Rao exhibits an admirable economy of exposition. Several sequences are constructed out of the fewest possible shots, the camera craning across space to furnish additional details. There’s a charming shot of the two investigators waiting in a car in which Anant Nag tries to trap a CGI fly as Rishi observes with amusement from the back seat.

 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (“Evidence and Eyewitness”, 2017, Dileesh Pothan)

Having eloped, Prasad and Sreeja (Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan) are on their way to the north of Kerala when Sreeja’s matrimonial gold chain is stolen by a criminal (an ostentatiously self-effacing Fahadh Faasil) who swallows it when caught red-handed. The trio ends up at the police station of a tiny town to sort out the issue. It’s an open-and-shut case with no information withheld from the audience, and the film rejects novelistic suspense and epistemological mysteries. The director keeps riffing in scenes set in the police station by weaving in peripheral incidents of petty crime, which increases tension by delaying plot progression. This allows him to mix contrasting tones to great effect, visually (as in the shot of the devastated wife sitting next to colourful balloons), narratively (the triviality of the crime set against the seriousness of consequences) and conceptually (the sanctity of a marriage having to pass through a thief’s rectum). In an unusual characterization, he describes the police force as a rather transparent establishment where information trickles up and down with ease. The cops get comfortable with the plaintiffs on a first name basis, while the latter grow familiar with all the policemen. More sharply, the film spirals out of the story of small-time felony to weave a quasi-philosophical picture of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of impersonal institutional imperatives. The film’s Rashomon-like network of perspectives are centripetally held by the act of stealing a gold chain. The husband (seeking the stolen valuable), the wife (seeking honour and justice), the criminal (seeking liberty), the constable who lets him escape (seeking a closure to the case) are acting on a constant drive for self-preservation, but they are also capable of tremendous, sporadic grace. The equivalence between Prasad and the criminal—echo of another Kurosawa, Stray Dog—is perhaps overly stressed, but it doesn’t take away from the considerable accomplishment of this film.

 

Kirumi (“Germ”, 2015, Anucharan)

Anucharan wrote, edited and directed this debut feature. Kathir (Kathir) is an unemployed young man, offended by the disdain of his friends and family for his predicament. When he gets an opportunity to work for the police as one of their black-market mercenaries—employed to gather information, collect bribes and rough up suspects—he sees a way out of his impasse. He makes quick progress, soaring up the preferential ladder until he becomes too big for his shoes. There’s very little feeling for milieu here. We don’t get a sense of Kathir’s social situation. He seems to glide in and out of lower-middle class domesticity, rubbing shoulders with an unmarked pair of financially struggling friends, an underground police informer (Charlie, playing the kind of decent everyman that so well suits him), politically-enabled gambling lynchpins and, later, higher-up police officers. What it lacks in nuance and local colour, Kirumi makes up for with a smart structure. Taking the titular microbe as analogy, it sketches the tragedy of a disruptive agent that infects the corrupt body of the police institution—kept from total collapse by internal rivalries and mutual suspicions—only to end up strengthening its immunity and be rejected. Kathir is presented as someone resenting his lack of power and esteem, and his short-lived ambitiousness a product of his power trip. His horniness is regularly invoked, I suppose, as a reference to his compensatory, self-destructive masculinity. The filmmaking is cranked up for effect and the emotional peaks are somewhat misplaced. But the ending, with its perversely welcome cynicism in the mould of Chinatown, is refreshingly anti-climactic, understated and conceptually at home.

Bitter Chestnut (Gurvinder Singh)

If cinema could substitute for voyages, it will look something like Gurvinder Singh’s Bitter Chestnut. The film immerses the viewer deep into the sights and sounds of an unnamed village in one of the valleys in Himachal Pradesh, where Gurvinder then lived and worked. The immersion is so total that the film could serve as a comprehensive catalogue of the way of life in the valley. Gurvinder is so fascinated with the textures of the place that the need to impose a fictional narrative on it becomes not just a secondary concern, but a hindrance at several points in the film. Bitter Chestnut is brimming with anthropological facts; the food, architecture, attire, language, occupations and rituals of the community become such important details that the film abandons its putative story half an hour in to become a full-blown documentary, resuming its narrative only much later. We are made privy to a baby’s first shower, the woman-only drunken revelry that follows, an oral history of fire hazard in the village, men and women daubing colour on each other during Holi, a newly-made cupboard moved through a celebrating crowd, not to mention elaborate scenes of the 17-year old protagonist, Kishan (Kishan Katwal), cooking. Even when the film introduces fiction, there’s no drama, Kishan’s low-key anxiety never snowballing into a conflict. Kishan’s family, around which the film revolves, leads a tough life sustained by a variety of occupations—hunting, carpentry, horse rearing, dairy farming, spinning—in addition to Kishan’s father’s and brother’s stints as labourers in the city from time to time. It’s an austere, pragmatic life, only occasionally given to festivals and faith.

Sporting a hoodie and sneakers, Kishan, like the community at large, is facing the slings of modernity. He makes pizzas at a restaurant (Gurvinder’s own, called Cloud Door, in homage to his mentor Mani Kaul) run by an outsider for international tourists. It’s a dead-end job, especially depressing considering that Kishan’s peers are leaving the valley for greener pastures in Delhi. His uncertain desire to move out is counterbalanced by the immediate economic and emotional needs of his family. It’s a modern predicament that goes against the time-worn mores of the valley. It’s also a narrative that hovers untethered over the documentary pleasures of Gurvinder’s film. Bitter Chestnut rests uneasily between two modes: the purity of the world at hand holds Gurvinder back from fictionalizing it too much, while the fiction prevents him from breaking the fourth wall, something which could have made for a richer work. Gurvinder works with simple camera and lighting setups, allowing large chunk of the scenes to unfold in the master shot itself. The participants are all non-actors from the valley playing their real selves. Their reticence before the camera shows when they are made to enact predetermined exchanges, while scenes of them celebrating or performing are more spontaneous. It is, however, the spellbinding (if at times touristy) Kangra district itself, spanning winter and springtime, that is the true protagonist of the film. Along with Amit Dutta’s films, Bitter Chestnut constitutes a distinct cinema of the region. I do nevertheless wonder if this is the kind of film the creator of Alms for a Blind Horse would ideally like to be making.

Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski)

Ute Adamczewski’s excellent debut feature Status and Terrain begins with shots of homes, public structures and castles in the Saxony region of Germany. An archival text, spoken on the voiceover, tells us that the region was home to the labour movement of 1933, the backbone of the National Socialists (“Hitler belongs to the Elbe”, states one citation). It was the year that opponents to Nazism, especially Communists, were detained in “protective custody” under the Decree for the Protection of People and State. And it’s these youth clubs and castles that served as preliminary concentration camps for the detainees. And so Status and Terrain establishes its modus operandi early on. All through the film, we will be shown buildings, monuments and public spaces in current-day Saxony, captured in the mournful hues of winter. Read on the soundtrack are documents—official notices from the government, bureaucratic communication between state organs, diary entries and memoirs of the persecuted, prisoner release forms and surveillance reports—related to the structure under consideration: a shut-down notice to a cafeteria that has become a hotbed of subversion, a plea by the wife of a political prisoner assuring her husband’s recantation, an ordinance asking camp detainees to pay two reichsmarks every day for their own detention, a letter from traders around the Sachsenburg camp requesting the state to source supplies from them, a Soviet announcement declaring that Jews shouldn’t be considered the primary Nazi victims, and other such extraordinary communications.

In the film’s dialectical organization, the tumultuous past described on the soundtrack seems to belie the calm image of the present. But, as the description of more recent events are read out, it becomes clear that the present, rather than representing a rupture with the history, bears witness to continuing violence and fascism. This manner of tracing historical trauma in the visible signs of the present isn’t new. In that, Status and Terrain shares DNA with works like James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and, closer home, Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia and Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Space in Time. But the present in Adamczewski’s film doesn’t just bear the weight of history, it is an active battleground of ideologies. In the eighty years of German history that Status and Terrain shuttles across, we see that different narratives contest for the same geographical space. After the war, an association of the persecuted wrote a letter to Soviet authorities asking them not to execute Nazis in the same space that Jews were. Antifa and pro-DDR graffiti are as visible as ultra-right-wing imperial flags. A WWI memorial was turned into a fascist monument in 1933, an anti-fascist monument in 1963, a symbol of German unity in 1990 and is now being run over by a supermarket. Like in Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, all sediments of history over a place seem to be active at the same time, vying for dominance. Adamczewski’s gently roving camera picks up an encapsulating detail: celebratory plaques for great German composers embossed on the ceiling of a castle that was converted to a concentration camp.

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

A return to the permanence of nature might be symptomatic of the desire of old age to distance itself from worldly affairs. But when Patricio Guzmán returned to the Atacama Desert in Nostalgia for the Light, it was to get back to the political past, both personal and national. The approach was reinforced in The Pearl Button, the vast Chilean coast being the subject of Guzmán’s dive into history. The Cordillera of Dreams completes the trilogy, the filmmaker now turning to the Cordillera, the stretch of the Andes mountain range that isolates Santiago from the rest of the world, as the object of his interrogation. “I was busy trying to change society”, says the filmmaker in his characteristically meditative voiceover, “that I was never interested in the Andes; I now see it as a gateway to understanding Chile”. The film is punctuated by awe-inducing helicopter shots of the snow-covered Cordillera, its rocky surfaces and barren, infinite valleys. Woven around these heart-stopping images are interviews with Santiago’s culturati—two sculptors, a singer, a writer and a volcanologist—who discuss the significance of the Andes: the mountains as a watchful mother, a carrier of scents, a muse for artists, a veritable coast that turns the country into an island. For Guzmán, however, the Cordillera stands as a silent witness to the nation’s hidden past. It’s as though the mountains are keeping a secret from me, he says in all sincerity, a secret that might be the coup d’état of 1973.

While a personal work like its predecessors, The Cordillera of Dreams however ventures deep into sentimental territory. The sight of the mountains, admits Guzmán, makes him want to go back to his childhood in this city that nevertheless “greets him with indifference”.  He films the houses and streets he lived in, talks about the making of The Battle of Chile, his detention by the military and his subsequent flight to Europe. He confesses his desire to begin anew and rediscover the life he had left behind. Even in Europe, he says, he’s always been making films about Chile. He seeks to understand this gravitational pull that the country exerts on him through the figure of another filmmaker who did stay back. Pablo Salas is a documentarian who has been recording political happenings around him for 37 years. His personal archive of video tapes and hard drives fills his entire office, and they serve as the suppressed record of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzmán and Salas discuss their work and politics at length: the challenges of filming protests, the tyranny of the dictatorship, the ruthless neoliberalist revision of Chilean economy, the inequality and rampant privatization of resources, and so on. Guzmán is wholly admirative of Salas, the man he wasn’t, and speaks of the filmmaker’s large archive as the memory of what was hidden. His own film, though, feels like an obligatory extension of Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. Part of the reason for the slide is that the Andes remains only a picturesque background to the investigation. Now and then, Guzmán does relate the mountains to history, as with the idea that the rocks from them were used for paving the streets of Santiago, which saw the boots of the military and blood of the protestors. These connections, though, remain far and few, unlike the tightly knit associations of the previous two remarkable works.

143 Sahara Street (Hassen Ferhani)

In a bright, panoramic shot of a desert, a microscopic figure on the left side moves slowly towards a rudimentary structure on the right. The figure is that of Malika, a rotund, elderly woman who lives and runs a shop on a highway just outside the town of El Menia, Algeria, in the Sahara. Malika lives with her cat Mimi and her joint, possessing the absurd address of the title, serves as a refreshment point for bikers and motorists passing by. Malika is an unusual woman, not just in that she’s an old woman running the shop independently, but also in that she’s unmarried, doesn’t have kids and prefers to stay away from her extended family. Her independence needs no extenuating context: when a client talks about newly legislated women’s rights, she lashes out, “I don’t need any rights”. Malika likes music and dance, hates religious hypocrisy and claims she can’t stand other women. The building she inhabits is spare and contains two rooms: a kitchen and a dining area for clients. There’s a fridge but no electricity. Living far from civilization, Malika, whom one visitor aptly christens “the gatekeeper of the void”, listens to whatever the radio can pick up. A petrol station-cum-restaurant is cropping up next door, potentially eating into her revenue. Malika, though, is unfazed, convinced that the new venture will shut shop in two weeks.

Outside of the occasional accident in the vicinity, Malika’s only entertainment and source of interaction is with the people who stop by at her place for tea, bread, cigarettes or soda. The characters are colourful enough: a Polish woman biking across two continents, a group of young men who mount a musical performance for Malika, a couple of imams from Algiers, immigrant workers who have come to Algeria for better prospects, a man looking for his lost brother whom Malika suspects of being a charlatan. Director Ferhani captures all this interaction in simple, front-on shots from a tripod. Inspired by the Sahara, his compositions are strongly horizontal, the desert constantly framed by the edges of doors and windows like a landscape painting. Over the course of the film, we are made intimately familiar as much with the building as with Malika. The various walls of the house against or through which we see Malika are later stitched together with a circular tracking shot around the house. Ferhani does not dissimulate his presence and regularly interacts with both Malika and her clients from behind the camera. Less than a hundred in number, the long shots of the film encapsulate the rhythm of the place, recording action in real time without ellipses. Despite its apparent modesty, there’s a philosophical undercurrent to Ferhani’s film. When Malika is by herself, the passing of time is all the more palpable, her mortality looming large. The infinite space of the desert, devoid of other human presence, invites an interrogation of the meaning of freedom, and whether or not one would trade it for the security of a community.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Maithili Rao

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not much of a speaker. He has written the screenplay of all his films and composed several books on cinema, but the spoken language is something he appears to steer clear of. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who suffers a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps the reason that the masterclass was conceived simply as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focused on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artists, we are glad to receive whatever we get.

Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. Spanning forty years, the film charts the life of Kunjunni (Vishwanathan), the scion of a feudal household who suffers from a stuttering problem. Kunjunni’s personal story—his legend-like birth, his fatherless upbringing, his relationship with the working-class family employed at the house, his blossoming into a young intellectual, his imprisonment and his eventual “cure”—is set against larger events from the history of Kerala. Like many of Adoor’s characters, Kunjunni is a barometer of the upheavals that saw social relations transition from feudalism to communism. His stutter goes just like it came: in reaction to a specific institutional violence. Adoor constantly jumps in time with ellipses that arrive unannounced. These vast temporal leaps are in contrast with the real-time sequences that populate the film. In Kathapurushan, the filmmaker accentuates his characteristic editing style that involves intervals of dead time bookending action or dialogue within a shot.

In the exchange that followed, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by the film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green proper to Kerala. He insisted that he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylized shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands. This manner of synthesizing shots against continuity recalls the work of Sergei Eisenstein, as does the use of actors. Especially in Kathapurushan, the actor’s work is objectified into individual packets of information—gestures signifying discrete ideas like crying, grieving or rejoicing—whose purpose is to support the wider thematic scaffolding.

If Kunjunni represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Both Patelar (Mammootty), the malevolent feudal relic who runs roughshod over a village in Dakshina Kannada, and Thommi (M. R. Gopakumar), a migrant settler who becomes his trusted vassal, are products of a social structure that has no legality anymore. Right from the first shot of the film, where Thommi is interpellated by Patelar’s humiliating call, the two are bound in a master-slave dialectic in which each derives social-existential legitimacy from the other. If Vidheyan remains Adoor’s supreme achievement towering over the other films, it’s perhaps because, here, his style finds a subject matter that’s an organic extension of it, inherent to it: the shot divisions, the backlight and the use of off-screen space all become emanations of the central idea.

Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve being out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker K. G. George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected the moderator’s proposition—after Suranjan Ganguly—that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said that he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying as repulsive character as Patelar.

If Patelar and Thommi are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adapted from Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novella, Mathilugal, in fact, centres on the dissolution of an institution, namely the police force, into individuals. The story is set a few years before independence in a Travancore prison where Basheer (Mammootty) is held for writing against the state. At the facility, he gets a preferential treatment, with both jailers and fellow-prisoners willing to provide him with his indulgences. Basheer, in turn, is not only brotherly towards them, but affectionate to the plants and small animals on the premises as well. He thinks of a jailbreak, but the romance he develops with a woman prisoner across the high walls of the prison makes him rethink the meaning of freedom. Mathilugal is a tender film for Adoor, gives in as it does to the vagaries of human desire and behaviour instead of putting it under the microscope.

Adoor remembered his collaboration with V. M. Basheer with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film will turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story will not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh and blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of the Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression—a change in tone that Adoor mapped to the Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.

The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Another chronicle of the response of the powerful classes to disempowerment, the film follows a landed family living in an ancestral house: the entitled, lazy-to-the-bone patriarch Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) and his two sisters, the suffering Rajamma (Sharada) and the self-absorbed Sridevi (Jalaja). Unni’s incurable fear of change eats Rajamma away and prompts Sridevi to flee the house in a gesture of self-preservation, while he remains locked up in the house like a trapped rodent. Elippathayam is a highly abstract work like Vidheyan, and Adoor gives each character in the film a single defining trait. Every shot, sound and detail of the mise en scène has a fixed place in the film’s meticulous structure and serves to illustrate the thesis. Adoor’s characteristic, Platonic attention to objects vested with social significance, such as ancestral furniture, saturates the film with meaning and intellectual heft.

Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishment of colour stock in the country to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue made of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land—something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.

The four films screened at the masterclass, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. The novelistic, classical quality of his script—personal stories set against historic transformation like in John Ford—are given a critical edge by the self-conscious form, the countless doorways that double frame his shots and the carefully curated panoply of ambient and artificial sounds. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, he went on, instead of compromising the idea. He said that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the seventy-eight-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.

 

[A shorter version of this report was published in Film Companion]

Jallikattu, the South Indian bull-taming sport, both lends its name to and serves as a metaphor for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film, which premiered in Toronto last month. Like the sport, which is not just an opportunity for young men to showcase their bravery and machismo, but also a yearly excuse for dominant castes to flag their importance, Jallikattu is about an animal that becomes a pretext for men to give expression to their aggression, resentment and anxiety. The film opens with a volley of shots lasting one second each—a metronomic editing pattern that will recur several times throughout the film—of yellow-lit faces opening their eyes to the dawn of a new day. Scored to the sound of percussions interspersed with vaguely primal choral utterings, the sequence weaves in shots of ants and worms in movement, in effect situating humans and nature on the same order of things. This rate of 60 shots per minute already puts us on our toes, but the intensity will unwaveringly increase without breather or detour until the nightmarish, all-consuming climax.

This mosaic-like scheme carries over to the first post-credits sequence as well. In a series of extremely brief shots cut to a monotonic rhythm, we see the routine of a tiny town in Kerala on a Sunday morning: a buffalo slaughtered before sunup, the meat sold to thronging crowds and delivered home by Antony (Antony Varghese), a mass at the church, an instance of domestic violence, another of uninvited romantic advance. There is some dialogue, but no central narrative movement except for the general description of the community with a few simmering tensions. It’s only when the film comes out of this pulsating rhythm that the narrative is set in motion. One particularly recalcitrant buffalo escapes slaughter and goes rogue, prompting men from the village and its surroundings to go after it. That’s it. The entire film is the increasingly violent hunt for the animal and its ugly repercussions.

The animal is presented at first as a force of proto-political anarchy that doesn’t see human constructs like fences, religion, private property and political parties. In a parody of communist revolution, it destroys plantations, shuts down businesses and galvanizes the villagers into a collective united in purpose. In a film without guiding perspectives or characters in the conventional sense, the buffalo serves as the absent centre that centripetally holds the separate points of view, presented here as fleeting vignettes. The existential reaction of an animal trying to evade death—a revolt of the Other, in the film’s cosmic view of things—binds the community in a common fear of the Other. But the buffalo turns out to be simply a catalyst that triggers the unstoppable combustion of the village. Long-repressed resentments, sexual jealousy and communal fault lines emerge, which find a violent expression in the course of the hunt.

As the animal flees from the deserted streets of the town into the jungle, the community too splinters into unruly mobs and regresses from civilization (like in Yojimbo, the gun-toting hunter proves to be less effective than the one with the machete). Like the animal, they stop respecting private property and enter other people’s houses. They catch an adulterer and humiliate him. Civility, law and order breaks down and the hunters—all men without exception—torch police vehicles and beat a cop up. Antony enters the house of the woman he desires and forces himself on her. Like in the Jallikattu sport, mob courage masks individual cowardliness, which resurfaces every time the animal charges at the men to disperse them into individuals. By now wandering the jungle harmless, the animal nevertheless becomes an issue of collective and individual male egos, leading to a bloody dogfight between Antony and his sexual rival, who charge at each other like raging bulls.

Progressively removed from naturalism and a sense of reality, the film escapes into pure abstraction after Antony stabs his opponent and runs out of the woods into a meadow. The discrete mobs meld into a fascist collective to pursue Antony. In the oneiric, painterly, Lars von Trier-like end sequence, an inexhaustible mass of possessed men jumps on Antony, continuously piling on top of him until they make up a single mountain of men, the formation covered in sludge, with Antony trying in vain to emerge out of it as an individual. In a brief, possibly redundant coda, the scene shifts to a cave where bare-chested men fight with torches over the carcass of a dead animal. If it’s startling enough to see a supremely tight, 90-minute film getting a mainstream distribution, the stylized final passage of the film—beyond the question of its merit—is a veritable miracle to have graced the screens.

The simplified, whirlwind tour of social ideologies that Jallikattu drives us through—capitalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, what have you—may not be for everyone’s liking, but it shouldn’t be the case with Pellissery’s exceptional sense of image making. Composing in deep space with direct sound, he has precise visual ideas for the film, which progresses from full field of daylight to reduced visibility of the night lit by flashlights and torches. The progression also corresponds to a shift from slender tracking shots through the village streets, relaying perspective from one character to another, to shots handling increasing amounts of humans in frenetic motion. The latter half of the film, with barely-lit animal and human bodies hurtling across the frame at high speed, push the image into the edge of perceptibility where, like in a Willem de Kooning painting, we notice the essential elements of form, but not the exact details. The sound mix, consisting of human cacophony in escalation, is equally a work of sonic abstract expressionism.

Pellissery hardly uses a closeup in the hunt, wide shots of men scouring the landscape being the norm. Characters insult one another, but there’s never a tight shot to capture reaction. Images of hundreds of men bearing torches descending the slope have a pointillist decorativeness. But for the most part, the emphasis is on depth of the frame. A large part of the movement in Jallikattu takes place along the Z-axis. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Pellissery’s fractured narrative uses a video game aesthetic where the Steadicam follows or leads character into and out of the frame—a pattern echoed in the numerous zooms in and out of tangential information on screen (a branch of a tree, insects, a sunset). These opposed movements are also characteristic of the men’s movement with respect to the animal: they rush towards it when it’s running away and fall away as it retaliates. In a mini set-piece within the larger set-piece that is the film itself, the hunters try to rescue the buffalo, now stuck in a pit, with a makeshift pulley system. Just before the animal lands on safe ground, Pellissery cuts away to secondary detail, returning only to capture the aftermath of the animal’s resumed rampage. It’s a striking example of how deliberate the film’s stylistic choices are. John Abraham invested masses of human bodies with meaning. Pellissery dissolves them in chaos.

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