Cinema of India


[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.

The sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, opened with the premiere of Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves. Revolving around the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, the film is a respectful but not a celebratory description of the institute’s activities. With an aim to hone students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) background for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action, CREST conducts five-month-long diploma courses for batches of thirty-odd students. Participants are trained in public speaking, presentation, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking and personality development. They learn the basics of corporate etiquette through engaging audiovisual support. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational. Recasting Selves, which follows the induction and graduation of one particular batch of students, is not a success story; yet some progress is made at the end: some students get placed, some become first graduates from their community, and some others go back to their traditional professions.

The film is a mix of talking-head interviews with the institute’s staff, vignettes from the classroom and scenes at students’ homes in villages far from Calicut. In the latter, we get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, their non-Vedic beliefs and their disappearing language. At the home of another, we have a conversation between the student, who wants to start a fashion boutique, and her tailor father, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is a little discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants. Back in the classroom, during the presentation sessions, the handheld camera stands close to the students, sometimes making them freeze in fear. It redoubles their consciousness of being seen and heard, which is what is the course helps them overcome. On the other hand, the students are more articulate when the camera is on a tripod. They talk about their aspirations. They recount their personal experience of caste discrimination, or lack thereof, and present their opinion on reservation. All of this in English.

The batch is fairly divided between boys and girls. It’s a much better gender ratio, in any case, than at the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the sight of CREST girls in their colourful salwar kameez, moving as a mass into the IIM lecture halls implicitly questions the gender distribution at IIMs. Recasting Selves points out that, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift within Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was actually a BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice that he explains in terms of exposure and personal progress. Politics, whose ubiquity Vachani captures in shots of party posters across towns, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, whose symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre banners competing with the party posters.

There are traces of institutional critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers in their campus. The director doesn’t see that as being an issue, while quickly promising to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that’s part of the curriculum. Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in their newsroom—a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST direction, apparently none of them from a DBA background, is choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even socially-conscious academic and journalistic institutions, of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

Running through the film is a tension between an assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. They take cognizance of the invisible barriers they have come up against during their schooling. They recast their experience in terms of discrimination and envy. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One of the boys points out that it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectical line into sharp focus in the final sequence of the film. As part of their end project, students are required to mount a street play together. The choice of subject is between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations and take a vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of having to talk about discrimination all the time.

Going by their line of questioning, the CREST faculty are strongly in favour of the first subject. So is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration—criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers—Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that wasn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognizes this as a double-bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste (one faculty member mentions that Kerala accounts for the fewest inter-caste marriages), itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

In this light, their choice to speak about Bengali immigration scans as the other side of the coin: by deflecting the question of caste onto immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayalee identity—a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of neoliberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves participants researching into the history of their communities. Outside their classroom, the boys and girls unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institute is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students be corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity and blend into the wider middle-class. Recasting Selves resumes this identity crisis in its the cut from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman at her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

 

[An edited version was published in The Hindu]

I am excited to announce that I will be curating a retrospective of Indian filmmaker Amit Dutta at the Bombay Art Society in Mumbai between the 8th and the 10th of December, 2017. The event is organized by Matterden CFC. It is the filmmaker’s largest retrospective to date and features six (!) world premieres. Here is the catalogue I wrote for the programme.  Do drop by for the event if you are in town.  Schedule at this link.

 

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Nirbaak  (2015) (Speechless)
Srijit Mukherji
Bengali

 

NirbaakSrijit Mukherji’s Nirbaak (“Speechless”) tells four stories of doomed, extraordinary love. There is, first of all, a man in love with himself (a delightful Anjan Dutta), one so self-absorbed that the only time he reaches out to another person outside himself is when he imparts pithy advice to a heartbroken girl: “Love yourself”. There is, secondly, an unrequited love of a tree for a woman (Sushmita Sen) featuring arboreal onanism and animist BDSM – a pressing subject that, I daresay, has never been attempted on film till now. The third segment is about the jealous love of a dog for his master (Jisshu Sengupta), while the last speaks of a love beyond the grave. A professed tribute to Salvador Dali (a monument of self-love and self-pleasure, if there was one), Mukherji’s rather well behaved exquisite corpse nevertheless contains ideas outré enough to make Kim Ki-duk envious. For a good part of the movie, the filmmaker weaves his scenes nimbly, cycling through a few precise camera setups, experimenting with some zany angles and having fun with an anti-realist sound palette. It is in the third section, where psychological realism supplants absurdist comedy and bland shallow fields replace the interesting wide-angle interior cinematography so far, that the mildly amusing tips over into the annoying. What should have been a weird but strangely dignified image of a dog’s possessive love instead becomes kitsch, suffused with absolutely redundant POV shots through the animal’s eyes rendered in monochrome. That, and not the intent to portray the toxic love between man and animal, is anthropomorphism. The ultimate impression of Nirbaak is that of an earnest student film: too focused on its conceptual framework to allow for accidents, too transparent in its technique to sustain mystery and too disciplined to befit the personality it is dedicated to.

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