Cinema of India


[First part: A Letter to Lijo Jose Pellissery]

A second viewing of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam confirms it as one of the highest achievements of Indian filmmaking and among the great spiritual works of cinema. More than a film that respects its audience, it is one that intimates us of the mysteries beyond the everyday. I still cannot wrap my head around its existence and believe/hope that its innermost secrets will continue to elude me.

Nanpakal is certainly an exploration of religious hypocrisy, but not with the derision and anger that it usually goes with. In my first viewing, I was moved to think of Luis Buñuel because of the peripatetic nature of the story, the absurd humour and the focus on group dynamic. But a more pertinent point of reference is the cinema of Roberto Rossellini, in which “there’s but one step from scandal to miracle” (Alain Bergala).

Set ostensibly around the month of Margazhi/Christmas time, Nanpakal is playing with both Hindu and Christian mythology, specifically the notions of reincarnation and resurrection, complete with a “noli me tangere” moment. James-as-Sundaram is a revenant whose return only occasions disbelief and suspicion among the devout. (The soundtrack plays “Paartha Nyabagam Illayo” from Puthiya Paravai (1964), another tale of a revenant.) Like Rossellini’s The Miracle (1948), in which a simple shepherdess takes a passing vagabond for St. Joseph and becomes pregnant, inviting the ridicule of her upright Catholic community, Nanpakal reflects on the impossibility of true belief. Or rather, on the tragedy that miracles can appear only in the form of heresy or delusion.

Part of why it may be hard to see that a miracle does indeed occur in Nanpakal is that the film doesn’t signal its shift into a meta-fictional mode as openly as, say, Certified Copy (2010) or Fauna (2020). We are introduced to James in the first act of the film as a control freak, and his transformation into Sundaram, a man who is capable of letting go, is not supported by rational explanation. And cinematic structures don’t allow for viewer identification over such radical discontinuities of consciousness (which is the reason films about multiverses like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) cannot transcend fundamental emotional limitations). As a result, it is not James, but his unchanging co-passengers who offer us a stable if sceptical guiding perspective through the remainder of the film. (I wonder how the film would have played had James and Sundaram been portrayed by two different actors.)

Yet I think a more rewarding if demanding way to watch Nanpakal is remain with James/Sundaram, to believe. That is the only way to get a sense of the Christ-like tragedy he is put through. What does it mean for James to walk away from his wife Sally (Ramya Suvi) and enter the bedroom of another woman, to be placed in a situation of infidelity? A chastening punishment? Purification through sin? To be turned into everything you hate sounds less like a miracle than a curse, but it is also a calling, a Damascene conversion through unlikely grace.

But there is another marital triangle in Nanpakal. We are told that the original Sundaram, whom we glimpse out of focus at the end of the film, disappeared in the holy town of Pazhani two years ago, creating a breach in the fabric of his community. In James-Sundaram’s familiarity with the place and its people, we see how closely the man was integrated into the life of the village. It is hinted vaguely that Sundaram’s wife Poovally (an excellent Ramya Pandian) has now been ‘promised’ to his brother (Namo Narayana) and that she is/was suspected of infidelity—an accusation refuted by the faithful dog that guards her and the household. Even though she speaks little, Poovally gets the most moving moments of the film. In Sundaram’s magical reappearance lies both a hope and a vindication for her, a closure for a grieving community.

Sundaram’s visually-impaired mother is the only one who has the power of recognizing the miracle, of believing in Sundaram’s return; rather, she seems to have never had a doubt. She serves as the film’s Greek chorus, laughing when others are distressed, crying when others are relieved. If her privileged perspective mimics that of the impossible, ideal viewer of the film, Poovally and Sally offer more intriguing, transitional points of view, between mother’s iron-clad faith and the disbelieving crowd, receptive to doubt and amenable to revision. Suspended in confusion, they accept their altered circumstances wordlessly, letting those around them decide the course of action on their behalf.

It is however through the patience and willing passivity of the two women that the miracle is consummated, that everyone manages to find a way out of their situation. Little happens, in contrast, when men take things into their own hands. The pilgrims and villagers eventually get out of the crisis just as they got into it, that is to say, through the arbitrary workings of transcendent will. “The Rossellinian character is touched by grace when he is least expecting it,” notes Bergala. “The real miracle for Rossellini,” he continues “is that which happens necessarily outside of deliberate choice, conscious thought and even faith.” This is true of Nanpakal too.

Unlike Jallikattu (2019) and Churuli (2021), the two earlier works that Pellissery developed with writer S. Hareesh, Nanpakal is sparse on dramatic incident, which means that there are fewer literary themes and moral lessons to be drawn. Instead, the film harks back persistently to cinematic spectatorship even as it draws on painterly and theatrical traditions. Nanpakal is the cinephile movie par excellence, and watching it as an irate viewer sandwiched between noisy, distracted people, as I did the second time, was an uncanny experience. Rejecting his real community (which happens to be that of theatre), James yearns to belong to another that won’t have him. And what is cinephilia if not the illicit thrill of being in places, seeing and listening to things that weren’t intended for you?

I don’t think any other film has ever quite captured the violently destabilizing feeling of stepping out of the dark of the movie theatre as Nanpakal does in its final moments, when Sundaram dissociates from his role to become James again and the entire pilgrim group trickles out of the village in ruminative silence like a stunned audience. The penultimate shot where James is alone in the bus, solemnly looking out to the village—and at us—so startlingly captures (and in Nanpakal’s case foreshadows) the experience of a perceptive spectator returning home after a particularly overwhelming viewing experience.

I did not have trouble with the film’s pervasive audio citation the second time around, and I think the film’s soundtrack is beautifully mixed in the way it drifts in and out of our conscious attention. All the syrupy scores, the cynical soundbites from M.R. Radha and the advertisements of the 90s combine to hold us in a state of fugue, and Nanpakal deploys them for sudden swings in mood, tone and texture. At several points, Pellissery’s film flits wildly from sad to funny, from absurd to touching, accessing emotional terrains I have rarely experienced in Indian cinema. A supremely spiritual work will stand the test of time.

Dear Lijo,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank you, really.

Just Another Film Buff

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

[Read Part 2 here]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

3. A German Party (Simon Brückner, Germany)

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

 

4. Stomp (Sajas & Shinos Rahman, India)

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

 

5. Nazarbazi (Maryam Tafakory, Iran-UK)

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

 

6. Footnote (Zhengfan Yang, USA-China)

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

 

7. The Plains (David Easteal, Australia)

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

 

8. Red Africa (Alexander Markov, Russia)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Special Mention: Saturn Bowling (Patricia Mazuy, France)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[First published in Frontline]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(First published in Film Companion)

Photo courtesy NL Balakrishnan Archive/Film Heritage Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[Originally published in Mint Lounge]

The Fribourg International Film Festival, which completed its 36th edition in March, has made a part of its program available online to watch for free until April 18. Two short films in competition, one from India and one from Pakistan, make intriguing forays into social portraiture through very different formats.

Rishi Chandna’s excellent short documentary Party Poster offers a glimpse into Mumbai’s visual culture around the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Every year, residents of Bandra’s laundrymen association commission a banner to accompany the festivities in the dhobi colony. These posters follow a convention: horizontal layout, bright background, an image of Lord Ganesh on top, lines of text inviting onlookers to the pandal, a graphic representing the legacy of the colony and, most crucially, an array of mugshots of the men (and only men) organizing the event at the bottom of the image. The latter respects a hierarchy, with the faces of the most influential individuals dominating those of junior members of the committee.

Distinguishable from movie posters that feature in countless montages about Mumbai, the festival poster is something of a self-referential object, an icon attracting worship. While its nominal function is to invite passers-by to the festival, it really seeks to draw attention to its own grandeur and to valorise those who have put it up. One interviewee in the film describes these banners as a gateway to popularity, even asserting that without them, one doesn’t even exist. After the festival, they sometimes get recycled, serving as thatching material against rain water or, tellingly, as the makeshift wall of a local shrine.

Party Poster is set in 2020, and the pandemic has had financial repercussions on the washermen community: the contributions for the festival have dropped and poster printing has become more expensive. The Ganesh idol too seems to have shrunk in response. Rajesh, Munna and Prem, the three figures that the film follows, feel strangely obliged to include Covid-awareness messages on the banner, exacerbating the fight for poster real estate: faces become more crowded, shoulders are cut off, the Ganesh image is cut down in size.

What’s worse, these awareness messages seem to be at odds with the purpose of the poster. Rajesh & co. want to lead by example by appearing with masks on the banner, but no one would be able to identify them anymore. They recognize the contradiction inherent in asking the public to stay home while inviting them to the festival. Reflected in their ambivalence is a tug-of-war between the eternal desire for community and the urgent need for social distancing. Chandna includes a very funny shot of an organizer who instructs caterers not to serve those without a mask and then, realizing the presence of the camera, quickly pulls up his own mask.

Party Poster zeroes in several such tensions that the poster culture embodies. Imitating the prime minister, Rajesh wraps a scarf over his mouth in place of a mask. He lives in a shantytown, but still believes he can work his way up the party ladder. To this end, he asks the poster designer to make the tilak on his head more prominent. The poster provides him a relief from the anonymity of the city, whose contempt for people like him is barely concealed: outside the colony stands a hoarding for a high-rise apartment complex that promises its customers “mask-free living”; that is, away from the crowd that Rajesh and his friends represent.

In Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020), Ganesh Chaturthi was an occasion for Hindu assertion, pandals and processions staking a claim on the secular landscape of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. In Party Poster, the festival procures a semblance of enfranchisement to otherwise marginalized individuals. It does this not only by offering them a chance to momentarily assimilate into dominant identities, but also by allowing them to participate and bond together in the open ritual of putting up banners without governmental or corporate retaliation.

The film, however, takes pains to point out that this poster culture is nonpartisan and that individuals and organizations of all stripes partake in it: political parties, professional fraternities, cultural associations. In opening the phenomenon up, Party Poster poses the question of who owns a city. The hoardings all carve out private shrines out of public spaces — an encroachment that the authorities appear to tolerate seasonally. Rajesh and his friends perch their banner on a tree by the main road. With no additional support, the installation looks fickle and Chandna amplifies the sense of fickleness by filming it from a distance at late night.

The fragility is but more than just physical. Like the festival, the empowerment that Rajesh & co. experience in putting up their banner comes with an expiry date as well. When the season comes to a close, the men carefully dismount their poster and take it back into the colony, ruling out any more outsider attention. As the credits roll, we see municipal authorities bringing down banners in a different part of the town. Public space is reclaimed and re-secularized, but in doing so, it is also reintroduced into the market for corporate bidding.

In Seemab Gul’s short drama Sandstorm, on the other hand, it is a question of private images and private spaces. Zara (Parizae Fatima) is a high-schooler from an upper middle-class home in Karachi. She has befriended a young man from another city (Hamza Mushtaq) with whom she chats every day in the privacy of her room. On his request, she sends him a video in which, sporting a sleeveless kurta, she performs a dance with her dupatta. The man saves the clip that was supposed to vanish and tries to take advantage of Zara with it.

The threat, and the boyfriend’s comment that her dance looked a little chhichhori (subtitled as “slutty”), cuts Zara’s world down and makes her realize how limited it is. She is truly free only in her room and has to lie to her father about her secret conversations. A neighbour appears to stare at her as she is removing her lingerie from the clothesline. At her all-girls school, she is taught that women’s virtue is the foundation of a civilization.

Sandstorm is indeed about gendered social norms and the double standard that men have. But the film focuses on Zara’s response to it more than anything else. Gul shoots Zara from up close, at her eye level and largely from over her shoulder, resulting in a surfeit of left and right profiles. This abstracts the world around the girl and invites the viewer into her inner life. We dwell on Zara’s long hesitation before she sends the clip, we observe her anxiety over the video leak in her interaction with others, and we see something that we seldom see on screen: the first pangs of sexual shame.

Caught between propulsive desire and restraining guilt, Zara’s reactions to the blackmail are soaked in an ambiguity that sustains the tension. Some of this ambiguity passes through the dupatta she wears, which registers first as a sensual dance prop, then as a sexual accessory and finally as a boa constrictor that wraps around Zara’s neck. On the day that she is supposed to meet him, Zara turns the dupatta into a headscarf at the request of her boyfriend, putting on and then rubbing off her lipstick. The scarf eventually helps her gain anonymity and evade the scrutiny of the man’s eyes, threatening to turn the film’s feminism — despite its obvious sympathy for Zara — into a cautionary defence of tradition: “see what happens when you don’t cover up.”

 

[First published in News9]

Writing with Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, is a documentary about Khabar Lahariya, an all-woman media company based in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. But in the run-up to the Oscars, where it has been selected for the Best Documentary Feature award, the film has become the story. On 21st March 2022, the editors of Khabar Lahariya put out a statement distancing themselves from Writing with Fire, which they believe “eclipses the kind of work and the kind of local journalism we have done for twenty years.”

This soft disavowal has come as a surprise to the filmmakers, who had so far enjoyed the support of the newspaper and its journalists. Whether the volte face stems from a puritan recoil from international recognition for a grassroots organization, or a resistance to being co-opted by partisans, or simply post-election damage control, we won’t perhaps know. But the affair goes to show that, even in a closed system like filmmaking, the best intentions may not always lead to favourable outcomes.

And the best intentions, Writing with Fire abounds with. In fact, it casts Khabar Lahariya as nothing less than David taking on Goliath; the opening title cards tell us that when Lahariya was set up in 2002, it was “expected to fail,” but that it went on to “stir a revolution.” With wide-eyed admiration, the film profiles the reporters of the newspaper who brave societal discrimination, sceptical family members, unsupportive husbands, malevolent governments, corrupt police force and internet trolls to give voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power.

We don’t get to know about the history of the newspaper, its charter, its funding mechanisms or its machinery as such. The film instead looks at its everyday operations by following three of its reporters. Meera, who is currently the Bureau Chief of the outlet, was married at the age of fourteen, had children in high school, completed her masters and became something of a mentor in Lahariya’s ranks. The younger Suneeta is articulate, plucky, unmarried and a resident of a mining town devastated by illegal extraction. Shyamkali would seem to be the oldest of the three and is still a learner. Writing with Fire films them on buses, trains, autos and on foot, as they travel to towns and tiny hamlets in search of stories. The women cover a host of topics including elections, sexual assault, sanitation, illegal mining and religious radicalisation.

The film captures Lahariya at a moment of transition: after fifteen years of newspaper publishing, the company is launching its YouTube channel, which means that its employees will now have to produce video content too. Meera trains junior reporters on the use of smartphones, but there is still apprehension about the new medium. The upskilling is however successful, and over the course of the four years over which Writing with Fire was shot, Lahariya accumulated over 500,000 subscribers. Over time, the reporters themselves become savvier, more well-versed with the aesthetics and rhetoric of video reportage. The film fashions Lahariya’s growth as a value-neutral media success story, periodically showing us its increasing viewership and reach.

To see marginalized young rural women actualize themselves through education, employment and technology is thoroughly uplifting, and for them to do this through conscientious journalism is stirring. But Khabar Lahariya’s recent statements evidence a disconnect between how the organization regards its own work and the film’s response to it. There is a process of contextualization at work all through Writing with Fire that views the newspaper’s day-to-day efforts through the prism of national political discourse. This reframing obscures as much as it clarifies.

On one hand, the film’s national consciousness performs the important task of analysing Lahariya’s larger role within the political climate of the country. To this end, it stands to reason that the murder of Bangalore-based journalist Gauri Lankesh is one of the stories that Writing with Fire includes: in the film’s view, the reporters of Lahariya face adversity as reporters, in addition to their other identity-based disadvantages. The narrative firmly establishes that theirs is a risky, even life-threatening occupation that is not welcome in these quarters. In that regard, their participation in Writing with Fire may have come with the promise of some degree of immunity, in addition to publicity.

At the same time, the film’s approach reveals a tendency to simplify, to recast something new and specific in terms of the familiar. Writing with Fire explicitly pits the newly minted BJP government of Uttar Pradesh with the operations of the Lahariya, in effect bringing them on the same playing field. But what for the film amounts to a direct defiance of an extremist leader may perhaps only be the negotiation of everyday reality for Lahariya’s field workers — we don’t get to know how they perceive this exactly. Sword-wielding, effigy-burning Hindu Yuva Vahini youths make sensational fodder for the national media, but it is hard to believe that such a low-hanging fruit would provoke similar reactions among the reporters.

Moreover, in its effort to editorialize the Lahariya story, Writing with Fire risks making the mistake of sorting complex issues into distinct progressive and reactionary camps: patriarchy, intolerance, casteism and avarice are the sole dominion of the latter, while Lahariya embodies the ideals of liberal democracy. There is undeniably some truth to the classification, but any reasonable person living in the country would know that reality is more intransigent than what such mental models would allow for.

This rhetorical manoeuvre becomes something of a handicap in the film’s depiction of Lahariya as an institution. To its credit, Writing with Fire dedicates passages showing the functioning of the outlet: how raw footage by reporters is edited and transmitted on the internet by a group of younger, savvier newswomen. In the monthly meetings or yearly outing, Lahariya comes across as a fairly democratic outfit where every voice is heard. But the film doesn’t get into the disagreements and ideological differences within the organization. This homogeneity is discordant, especially as we can perceive class differences between the reporters and the newspaper’s top brass — it is probably in response to this impression that Lahariya’s statement emphasizes the heterogeneity of their newsroom.

But the accusation that the film passes off some of its own footage as Lahariya’s is more serious since it suggests a formal obfuscation rather than mere ideological simplification. Writing with Fire presents the reporters’ work through video clips that simulate the YouTube browsing experience, complete with upload titles, subscriber count and user comments. A cursory search on the site doesn’t bring up these videos for verification, but given that an original shot of Yuva Vahini members taking a selfie is cut to the same image embedded in Lahariya’s report on the topic, the charge has substance.

In the same vein, the presence of the film crew alongside the reporters called for a little more reflexivity. Meera’s inquiry at a police station is shot with two cameras and edited into a shot-reverse shot sequence. Another interview appears to be photographed with two lenses. Point of comparison: the documentary A Rifle and a Bag (2020), in which an Adivasi woman’s interactions with the state are shot with a single camera setup from the behind the functionaries. Writing with Fire raises questions that plague other works of its kind: did the presence of the film camera facilitate or complicate Lahariya’s access to people in power? What was the film’s process of collaboration with Meera and co.? How did the subjects of Lahariya’s stories perceive the film crew?

To be fair, these formal issues are challenging to address without making the work cripplingly inward looking, and the film’s introduction of extraneous footage into Lahariya’s reports may finally be excused as a lapse of judgment. Above all, Writing with Fire has a communicative purpose that it achieves with considerable success: to present and celebrate a form of journalistic endeavour that instils hope in those who find it increasingly hard to come by. By linking Lahariya’s reporting to remedial actions by the state, the film assures us, willingly or not, that that the powers that be can still be held accountable. In that, Writing with Fire is possibly more optimistic than a lot of its viewers.

 

[First published in News9]

The first few minutes of Gurvinder Singh’s Adh Chanani Raat (“Crescent Moon”), which premiered at the Harbour section of IFFR, are of such economy and precision that they set up the lead character with great clarity: arriving at a small-town railway station in Punjab, Modan (Jatinder Mauhar) tells a rickshaw puller that he has always paid only 10 rupees — and not 150 as the man demands — for the ride to his village. Deciding to walk instead, he finds himself giving directions to a passing SUV: he delivers it fumblingly, albeit with a feigned authority that makes it evident that we have here a man who thinks he belongs in these parts, but has been long evicted from them by time.

There is a reason why time feels out of joint for him: he is returning after fifteen years of prison time for murder. When Modan arrives home to his aged mother (Dharminder Kaur), the prodigal son takes some time to absorb the situation, to come to terms with the fact that things aren’t the same anymore. The landlords who killed his father have taken over the village, pushing his family to the outskirts. Worse, his own brothers are working with the landlords now and have built a mansion from the new money. Simmering with rage at this double betrayal, Modal wanders the village at night, ending at the local watering hole where, by way of gossip, drunk old men bring us up to speed on the family rivalry.

When good sense returns, Modan decides to build life anew: he breaks with his brothers to reconnect with an old friend Ruldu (Samuel John), a man without an ounce of ill will towards him. Modan begins to work on Ruldu’s sugarcane fields and, with the help of his friend, restores the ancestral the property from which his family was evicted. He reinstates his mother in this house that she had been made to leave six years ago. Soon after, wishing to start a family, Modan marries Sukhi (Mauli Singh), a young widow with a child.

A home, however, can’t be collected and this dream assemblage of Modan’s strains at its seams: uprooted from her other sons, mother feels somewhat restless at this new-old place; she doesn’t exactly get along well with Sukhi and wanders away from home. Sukhi has her own personal baggage that she is not ready to share with new husband. Waking up next to a toddler doesn’t, moreover, seem to be the image of domestic bliss that Modan had imagined for himself. Ruldu’s aggressive neighbours encroach his land, provoking the two friends to fight back. Modan’s younger brother, too, has run-ins with the landlords and comes over to his elder sibling’s side. All through, there is a constant threat that Modan might regress into the past.

Inspired by from Gurdial Singh’s novel of the same name (1996), Adh Chanani Raat is resolutely fixed on Modan, his figure, his world, his violence. Except for an unexpected flashback where we see Modan killing a man in revenge, the landlords he seethes against are barely seen, so much so that they could represent a metaphysical threat; indeed, when Modan creates a ruckus around the landlords’ bungalow towards the film’s end, he looks up at the sky as though he were challenging gods rather than men. But the entities that are on the margins of Modan’s universe offer a more telling commentary, an alternative to its model of retributive masculinity: Ruldu’s reticent young son, the beseeching voice of the landlords’ mother that echoes Modan’s mother, Sukhi’s child who may yet be saved from this cycle of revenge.

Yet this privileging of Modan’s perspective also disadvantages the film in some ways. One the one hand, the narrative intends us to view him as a victim of the landlords’ chicanery and his belligerence as noble resistance to them. But because the antagonists have no presence in the film, this implied injustice doesn’t register as well as it should. I think the script forces the matter further by having Modan spontaneously instigate a violent confrontation whose bloody outcome comes across less like tragic fall than mere machismo that was asking for it: play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Jatinder Mauhar, six feet tall, plays Modan as a hulking creature ready to combust at any moment. There is little history in his performance, little sense that this man has spent 15 years in a cell, and I think this is what the script expects of him: a character so consumed by revenge that even time hasn’t muffled the indignation. Gurvinder devotes long shots of him just walking, which gives us an inkling of his blind determination, but it is a shot of him uncharacteristically coming home with a bag of groceries that expresses his essential unpreparedness for what he desires.

Like Gurvinder’s previous films, Adh Chanani Raat continues to present a Punjab that the rest of us rarely get to see: people as they are, proud, kind, arrogant, dignified. Shots of Modan sneaking out from his brother’s oversized mansion on a used motorbike, with prayers blaring out from a gurdwara nearby, or the long sequence of him rediscovering his childhood home — made of a slowly panning camera reminiscent of Mani Kaul — give a hint of the work’s lived-in texture.

On the contrary, the film doesn’t clearly establish the geography of its story; the relation between the brother’s mansion (supposedly on the “outskirts”), the ancestral home (in the village? town?), the landlord’s bungalow and Ruldu’s cane fields is never evident, which means Modan’s constant peregrinations between these locations are even more disorienting; this, despite the fact that Ruldu offers Modan a charming tour of the transformations in the village, its growing inequality, its realigned power relations and its material problems.

Lastly, I had the impression that Gurvinder would rather have made Adh Chanani Raat on celluloid, where the camera movements could have been put to better effect. As it is, the film has the look of a ‘90s telefilm shot on analog video, especially the night scenes that appear somewhat diffuse or bleached out. It also takes some shine off the actors’ performances.

The star-crossed lovers of Indian cinema may declare that their romance is divine, but it isn’t every day that they actually become the playthings of gods. Seeing the world through each other’s eyes, whispering tender secrets in each other’s ears, retaining one another’s memory, expressing emotion in lofty proclamations — Rahat Mahajan’s debut feature Meghdoot (“The Cloud Messenger”), in competition at the recently concluded IFFR, takes these ideals of Hindi movie love at face value and gives them a weight by encoding them in Indian mythology.

The year is 1995 and the setting is a mixed-gender boarding school nestled in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Quiet yet mischievous, Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) is instantly smitten by new student Tarini (Ahalya Shetty), victim of visions. This adolescent romance is, however, framed by a faux-Orphean legend where yaksha lovers Jaivardhana and Tarini are separated by the jealous, ten-headed king Dashanana — this story told intermittently in a mixed style that draws elements from traditional dance forms of Kerala. As the film progresses, the two strands cross paths, interpenetrate each other to a point that it is not possible to tell the text from subtext anymore.

Life at the convent is presented mostly through caricatured professors seemingly out of Another Brick in the Wall, but these jarring bits soon recede into the background, for Mahajan’s film isn’t all that interested in the banalities of campus life. It is a work at once rooted in a specific milieu and slightly unmoored from it. If it uses the rectilinearity of the school’s colonial architecture to stately effect, its tracking shots and shallow-focus cinematography detach the protagonists from these environs, which become increasingly alien to them.

Meghdoot is not Rockford. While it is patently a coming-of-age tale, the film doesn’t refract this experience through the prism of male sexuality or view it with nostalgic indulgence. None of Jaivardhan or Tarika’s peers are individualized, which means that we are spared a lot of colourful frat talk. The film’s strength instead lies in identifying completely with its young leads, who experience their union literally as a matter of life and death.

The mythical narrative, for its part, is impressively produced, with the performers arranged in precise tableaux vivants in a muralled palace and the story recounted by a Kudiyattam narrator in magnificent Carnatic vocals. However, I found the whole idea chafing in the way it uses Kudiyattam/Theyyam primarily for its spectacular potential rather than for what it is as a form. Now, I know next to nothing about Kudiyattam/Theyyam and I am not a purist; an artist has all the right to pick and choose elements from one form to adapt it to another. But in their use of sound elements external to these forms — hums, dramatic strings — and their repetitive if immersive forward tracking shots, these passages register too much as a forceful upsell of Indian mythology, closer to the assured commodification of music videos than the tentative heterogeneity of artistic experiments. (Mahajan reportedly has a background in visual marketing of Bollywood productions.)

But my bigger reservation was with the film’s construction. Evidently, Meghdoot seeks to provide thematic heft to its central love story by framing it through legend. But the parallels are so closely established, all the symbols so clearly mapped out, that the narrative becomes overdetermined by the myth. Watching the film, I was reminded of Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020), another water-obsessed work that employs an enveloping fable to impart mystery to the clinical relations of a present-day love story.

Mystery, though, is regrettably absent in Meghdoot, where everything is rationalized to a point that the viewer is left with a gradually self-solving puzzle. Instead of the myth infusing everyday life with a sense of the eternal and the inexplicable, the uncanny is made familiar by the literal-minded intercutting. Late into the film, Jaivardhan stares at a photograph made by Tarini. The film ensures that it cuts to the reverse angle and shows what exactly is present in the photo. This kind of instant gratification, I’m afraid, permeates the film, where the viewer is rewarded for practically no work.

It is undeniable that the multi-hyphenate Mahajan thinks cinematically. The assured repetition of compositions and sounds—canteen, dorm, bathroom, stairs, swimming pool, trumpet calls, electrical arcs—the division of dialogue across spaces with actors striking poses as they declaim impossible lines of dialogue, the leisurely pace despite the brisk editing pattern, the composition of points-of-view shots and the sporadic attention to telling documentary detail all point to a filmmaker with a native literacy in the medium.

Meghdoot also reveals an excellent direction of inexperienced actors in demanding roles. Ritvik Tyagi hurtles through the frame in a very physical performance, his rookie earnestness completely convincing. In contrast to her mythical counterpart, Ahalya Shetty’s droopy-eyed Tarini is taller than her partner, a piquant difference that is emphasized in the many mid-shots they stand together in. Her stature and broad shoulders also make it easier to spot her in a group shot, of which there are numerous in the film. The only misstep may be the role of Mr. Sapru (Raj Zutshi), a visiting photography teacher, whose serious tone and deliberate, self-important diction are exacerbated by a slew of didactic, overexplanatory lines.

But these fine qualities make me wish that the film didn’t have to play as safe as it does, to be so ready to please. For a story about the hereafter and the beyond, Meghdoot is unfortunately too much of this world.

[Edit: I learn now that the traditional dance form is in fact Kudiyattam (and not Theyyam, as previously mentioned in the review), with the film borrowing elements of Theyyam for some of the figures. I’ve corrected this in the text.]

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