Cinema of India


Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Mati Manas (1985) (The Mind Of Clay)
Mani Kaul
Hindi/Marathi/Tamil

 

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

 

 [Capsule added to The Films of Mani Kaul]

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul
 

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

 

Writings

Interviews

Tarang (1984) (Wages and Profit)
Kumar Shahani
Hindi

 

Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1984) is located startlingly far from the intense stylization and abstraction of his previous feature Maya Darpan (1972), with its conventional, accessible, (overly?) fleshed out and faithfully realized story, generous score (including songs!), impressive cast and naturalistic acting. Taking off from the template narrative of class struggle, Tarang tells the tale of an internally fragmented family of industrialists and the equally divided body of workers at his factory, the link between them being the upwardly mobile wife of a dead worker (Smita Patil) who begins an affair with the manager of the factory (Amol Palekar). A staunch Marxist, Shahani examines the class struggle on multiple fronts: in the writing that nearly recites the labour theory of value, in the densely layered soundtrack where various voices vie for power and the casting, where the star value of the actors is in conflict with the characters they play. In fact, Tarang is presented as a film within a film and we are regularly shown that Patil and Palekar are famous actors who are playing these characters. Shahani realizes that his film is born of the same system that it rails against (Reporter: What do you think of this? Policeman: The crime or the film? Reporter: What’s the difference anyway?) and foresees the impossibility of any satisfactory resolution to the conflict. Like the films of Eisenstein, who no doubt influenced Shahani as is evident crowd scenes at the factory, there is so much happening – much power struggle – in the frames of the film, as it is in the deeply metaphorical text.

 

(Image Courtesy: The Case for Global Film)

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul 
(1944-2011)

Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal. He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966. Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia. [Image & Bio Courtesy: Mubi]

 

I guess Mani Kaul could be called, with qualifications of course, the invisible man of Indian cinema. The home audience might find his films too ‘European’, too alien, and too cryptic, and might prefer instead the realist-humanist works of an artist like Ray. Foreign viewers, on the other hand, might complain that they are too culturally-rooted, too alien and too cryptic, and instead opt for a ‘universal’ filmmaker like Ray. Indeed, neither Kaul nor his pictures make any claim to ‘universality’. They are, undoubtedly, steeped in Indian classical art forms like how the Nouvelle Vague films were, with respect to the European classical tradition. Many of these films are adapted from literary works in Hindi, have a profound relationship with Hindustani music and exhibit an influence of representational forms from the country. In fact, his cinema, if not much else, is about these very forms, both in terms of subject matter and their construction. These films, to varying degrees, are literature (The Cloud Door), painting (Duvidha), architecture (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi), poetry (Siddheshwari) and music (Dhrupad). Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between functional forms of industrial age and decorative ones from Indian tradition, Kaul makes it, more or less, apparent that is he is interested in the possibilities of a form itself more than the question if it can convey a preconceived thesis. Like Godard, Kaul starts with the image and works his way into the text, if any.

Perhaps it is classical music, and specific strains of it, that exhibits strongest affinity with Kaul’s cinema. The director has mentioned that the trait that attracts him to it the most is that there are elements that just don’t fit into a system, notes that slip away and could find themselves elsewhere in the composition, Similarly, Kaul, admittedly, edits his films like composing music, moving a shot along the timeline, beyond logic, meaning or chronology, till it finds its right place, in terms of mood, rhythm or whatever parameter the director has in mind. (“And I know that when the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning”). He has, time and again, spoken elaborately on the systematization of fine art by European Renaissance and the need to find out alternate modes of expression free from its constraints. Convergence, be it in the perspective compositions of painting, the three-act structure of literature, or the climaxing of motifs in music, has always been an area of concern and investigation for him. (He admires Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) for its insistence on spending a quarter hour fretting about a pair of shoes, at the expense of plot). Consequently, fragmentation becomes the central organizing principle of his aesthetic. Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences, Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body. (Kaul’s sketches, in that sense, are direct antithesis to the portraits of Renaissance). Accordingly, because the face is tied to the notion of a unique identity, Kaul’s actors are stripped off all natural expression and behaviour and de-identified. Many of his shots are ‘flat’, without any depth cues or perspectival lines. (He traces this to ‘perspectiveless’ Mughal miniature paintings and cites Cézanne as another major influence). None of the characters are Enlightenment heroes having a firm hold on their world. The narratives are decentered and distributed across multiple perspectives.

This resistance to convergence principles of Renaissance has also led him to radically reformulate his relationship to the spaces he films. He believes that filmic and social spaces have been conventionally divided into ‘the sacred’ – the perfect realization of an ideal, carefully framed and chiseled, with all the undesired elements out – and ‘the profane’ – accidental intrusions, random fluctuations and irreligious interruptions; that the moment a filmmaker looks through the viewfinder, he ‘appropriates’ the hitherto ‘neutral’ space to compose based a set of principles, polishes it and turns it into a ‘sacred’ space. Kaul, on the other hand, has increasingly been resistant to ‘perfecting’ an image or space, instead treating space as something neutral and unclassifiable in itself and concentrating on the tone, feeling and emotion of a shot. (This is also what Godard does in his latest work, where spaces and images of all kind are given equal importance). In his later films, he has asked his cameraman not to look through the viewfinder while filming. (This does not mean that one shoots blindly. The director has elaborated in his writings on how this could be practically implemented. “What needs to be determined by the director and the cameraman is the act of making the shot: attention being that aspect of time that deeply colours the emergent feeling in a shot”). He has, admittedly, been open to intrusions and one can see stray elements, like cat mews appearing unexpectedly, in some of his shots. Likewise, none of his “stories” converge, or even have a linear progression, and, in fact, keep diffusing and opening up new possibilities.

 

[There are numerous features not covered in this post. The entries will be added if and when I see those missing films. All short films are omitted here.]

 

Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Uski RotiMade when he was 25, Mani Kaul’s first feature Uski Roti (1969) is what one might call a poetic film about waiting. Kaul takes a simple premise for the film – a woman who goes to the highway everyday to give lunch to her husband, whom she,  oddly enough, addresses using his full name – and strips it down to its skeleton, diverting our attention from what is represented to how it is represented. (Kaul likens this process to a painter emphasizing his brush strokes). Bresson’s influence is palpable in many aspects of filmmaking here: the delayed editing of shots that parenthesizes action, the de-dramatization of scenario, the atonal, unaccented line delivery by actors without forced expressions, the emphasis on objects rather than concepts, the numerous shots of hands and faces that have a grace of their own and, of course, the central, suffering woman. (There is even a direct homage to Pickpocket (1959)). Additionally, Kaul’s own training in short documentaries seems to have made its mark here, given how keen the film is on documenting purely physical activities such kneading dough, which becomes the central gesture. (This would be elaborated upon in the short A Historical Sketch Of Indian Women (1975)). Utilizing plethora of Ghatak-influenced wide angle shots, in high-contrast monochrome (if only the film had used European film stock, Pedro Costa would applaud), a hyperreal sound mix and a highly idiosyncratic grammar (horizontal asymmetry, characters facing away from camera, no reaction shots), Kaul makes an arresting if not totally underivative debut.

Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973)

DuvidhaKaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) opens with a rather flat, Godardian image of a woman in a red saree standing in front of a white wall, staring determinedly into the camera, as high-pitched Rajasthani ethnic vocals grace the audio. Like the frozen image of Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent, it suggests a predicament addressed to the audience. Based a folk tale, Duvidha speaks of a love that is beyond time and space. The presence of the ghost, which falls in love with the new bride, is not an exotic delicacy served to us but a given. And so is the ‘story’, which is read out verbatim to us by the narrator, freeing the film from the burden of storytelling, so to speak, instead allowing it to experiment with the imagery. Employing a number of photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts and replays, which illustrate the film’s central notion of temporal and geographical dislocation (and save on the budget) and manipulating time like an accordion player, Kaul weaves a narrative where the past, the present and the future are always in conversation. (The ghost is simply referred to as ‘Bhoot’ (ghost), which is, of course, the word for ‘past’ as well). The predicament of the title, then, involves a choice between the spiritual and the material, the bride’s past and future, her childhood and adulthood, her freedom and honour and her love and security. Bewitchingly shot like a Dovzhenko film (and composed like Cézanne‘s still lifes), and impressively designed, with a simple yet striking interplay of red and white, Duvidha builds on both Kaul’s feminist leanings and highly personalized aesthetic.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface, 1980)

Satah Se Uthata AadmiSatah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides. This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film. Based on the deeply personal texts of Gajanan Mukthibodh, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi presents a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing is certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to a sellout of oneself. (Like Godard-Truffaut, Ghatak-Ray, does Kaul have anyone in mind?). This fragmented, post-socialist state of society that the film depicts – through its vignettes of urban Indian individuals – is reflected in the Malick-like disunited voiceover which spans three characters and which conversely, unites the narrative together. A remarkably sustained tone poem, with brooding surreal passages (including a hypnotic documentary sequence inside a factory and an unabashedly allegorical finale) and minor experiments (sections from Muktibodh’s texts displayed on screen), reminiscent of Godard’s work of the 90s, rife with strong verticals and perspective compositions (which is odd, given Kaul’s resistance to it), Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is both Kaul’s most stringent and most affecting work.

Dhrupad (1982)

DhrupadDhrupad (1982) finds Kaul studying the eponymous classical music form, specifically the Dagarvani variation of it practiced by the Dagar family, with whom the director has close associations with. Apparently, the music the film examines is one without any form of notation since, reportedly, many of the tones don’t fit into existing notational systems and the transmission of tradition is done purely orally. (The vocal performances that we hear exhibit such malleability of human voice that one is convinced that no instrument can aspire to emulate its timbre). This trait of not conforming to the systematized models of Renaissance is of special interest to Kaul, who has long been aware of the need to discover non-reductive, discursive modes of expression. Likewise, Dhrupad, like many of the director’s pictures, eludes categorization or compartmentalization. Part historical study, part religious documentation of performances, part experiment with cinematic time (the sublime shot that spans a sunrise invokes contemporary ‘landscape filmmakers’ like Benning) and part exercise in thematically conglomerating classical Indian art forms – music, sculpture, architecture, painting and cinema – the self-referential film gives a vivid picture of what makes Dhrupad so striking, with its numerous mise en abymes and fractals. Like in the films of Resnais, with whom Kaul shares an affinity for ‘fragmentation’, the camera glides through the Mughal style corridors and courtyards, in which the veteran artistes of the Dagar family perform and teach – while the soundtrack takes off on its own – evoking a sense of history that is living and breathing.

Mati Manas (The Mind Of Clay, 1985)

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

Siddheshwari (1989)

SiddheshwariWith Siddheshwari (1989), Kaul turns the typical artist-profile film (produced by Films Division) on its head. Not only does it eschew straightforward documentation of the titular singer’s artistry, but it almost completely does away with basic biographical details to arrive at something more exhilarating and revelatory. Instead of presenting music, the film presents the idea and experience of music. A bona fide avant-garde feature that amalgamates multiple timelines, geographies, realities and narrative modes, Siddheshwari brings together various art forms like literature (the chapterized film opens with a table of contents!), music (shifts in ragas, reflected in the filmmaking with hue and rhythm changes) and theatre (both in its production design and its emphasis on role-playing throughout). The camera is perpetually moving – dollies and cranes galore – as if reading an ancient scroll and acts like a force of time that moves Siddheshwari Devi through landscapes and times. The soundtrack, similarly, is a dense network of speech, whispers, vocal and instrumental music ad recited poetry. Siddheswari Devi is portrayed by a number of women, including some who enact her biography, some who depict her sensorial experiences and Devi herself. (This is only one of the reasons I’m reminded of Hou’s The Puppetmaster (1994)). One of them is Mita Vasisht, whom we see at an archive, at the end, watching tapes of Devi singing, possibly to prepare herself for the role. Like The Taste of Cherry (1997), fiction and reality bid adieu, with Kaul restoring things back to their original places, as though returning what he borrowed to create his greatest work.

Nazar (The Gaze, 1989)

NazarAdapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, Nazar (1989) bears natural resemblance to Robert Bresson’s shining adaptation of the same, A Gentle Creature (1969) in its characteristically stylized direction of actors and the sacrificing drama for rhythm, mood and an intensity of observation. Kaul replaces the generally bright interiors of Bresson’s version of the couple’s high-rise housing, which cordons them off from the rest of the world and which is emphasized continuously in the film, with a low-lit (barely any artificial light) semi-dungeon marked dominated by black-blue and brown shades, suggestive of the moral malaise that marks both the psyche of the male character and the space the pair lives in. The ever-wandering camera hovers over characters who appear to be stationed in space – with barely any movement – as if frozen in time. Kaul’s ultra-minimal chamber drama, too, starts off with the suicide of a woman (Kaul’s daughter Shambhavi, an avant-garde filmmaker herself), although it is only alluded to by her husband (noted director Shekhar Kapur), who tries to recollect to us what might have moved her to commit this act. Kapur’s stream-of-consciousness delivery of lines is exceptionally fragmented, as if he’s trying to wrestle information from deep recesses of ‘actual and ’‘convenient’ memories. This narrative within the narrative is the man’s way of vindicating himself; of blinding himself to the fact that ‘ownership’ is what that mattered to him all along and that he is, like the antiques that he sells, a man stuck in time.

Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999)

Naukar Ki KameezNaukar Ki Kameez (1999), as it appears, is a ‘conventional’ narrative film, by the director’s standards, with that generally-revered ‘naturalistic’ acting and speech, its relatively generous use of musical score and a general willingness to present a string of events, if not a plot. However, it is also one of Kaul’s most experimental features (Kaul couldn’t ideally be classified as an experimental filmmaker) and employs a fragmented narrative structure (which keeps spreading out to new directions) with constant chronological jumps back and forth, an absurd, magic realist tone (which reveals a tenderness towards his characters and his geography) and a potpourri of filmmaking modes (including canned laughter of sitcoms and internal monologues of low-end TV dramas). Set at the fag end of the 60s, Naukar Ki Kameez, which centers on a lower-middle class clerk, Santu, in a government office, and his wife, for most part, is a simple metaphorical tale of upward class mobility and its psychological and social impediments. Santu is a bundle of contradictions; he is conscious of class divisions and the need for revolution and yet harbours hope for social-climbing, he recognizes the need to respect the other, yet casually oppresses his wife, whom he genuinely loves as well. Like Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), it gives us a nation with an identity crisis: one caught between extreme Westernization and dreams of a revolution – between tradition and modernity – posing a question to itself: To wear or to tear?

Een Aaps Regenjas (A Monkey’s Raincoat, 2005)

A Monkey's RaincoatMore fascinating than the fact that A Monkey’s Raincoat (2005) revitalizes the age-old question of purpose of art and its relationship to the real world is that low-end handheld DV, which the film is shot on, helps put nearly all of Kaul’s theoretical principles and inclinations into practice: the idea of not looking through the viewfinder while shooting, the rejection of the dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” spaces, the notion of camera as an extension of one’s body and movement and a deep-seated interest in the experience of filming over filming itself. Adopting a loose, instinctive and continuous mode of shooting, Kaul inquisitively records an assortment of young painters at work at two places – Biennale, Venice and at their residency in Amsterdam, Netherlands – often interacting with them as he works. We see that Amsterdam is something of a dream destination for budding artists, a melting pot of cultures, where they can at least hope to find an audience. Though never taking potshots at art or its reception, Kaul’s film gently mocks an art scene where artists seem to be fond of ‘playing’ artists, with a set of personalized eccentricities and self-imposed clichés. As he samples their creations, he wonders in the voiceover if there is any purpose to art at all, given that it has been able to solve not one of the world’s problems. Kaul realizes that the question is moot and questions if art for humans is what a raincoat if for monkey: it might not stop the rain but at least it helps you to recognize it and shield yourself from it.

Shaitan (2011) (Devil)
Bejoy Nambiar
Hindi

 

ShaitanBejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011) deliberately starts off on the wrong foot, presenting a hackneyed bunch of carefree upper class youth inducting one more into the gang, with a scene that seems more like endorsement than condemnation. (This is the sole scene when the five leads are their most comfortable, with a slack, indulgent, food-in-the-mouth kind of acting epitomized by Brad Pitt). It is only when we follow them all over Mumbai as they indulge in all sorts of puckish activities including casual robbery and midnight races that we realize that our identification is being severed and a critical distance developed. And it is only when the pack rams into a scooter that it realizes that a whole world exists underneath its (literally: under their car’s tyres). Speaking in collective terms here is justified, since not one role in the film is a character; all are types, with minute variants at best. The film itself makes no claims otherwise. (In a way, it is a final girl flick, full of caricatures, without any external threat). Ostensibly a film wanting to examine mob mentality – the gang, bevies of reporters, religious masses – and tyrannical impulses within us – the leader of the gang, the various law enforcers and their activities – Shaitan finds its bunny-ear-donning child-adult protagonists, who are initially blind to notions of class and religion, gradually being pushed out of their comfort zones into a minority and attempting to blend into larger groups for survival. (You have kidnappers thrashing kidnapers, police chasing police and rich kids with a money crunch!) The film is defined by its major ellipses which swing between smart telescoping of action (e.g. the suspension of the officer) and incompetent shorthand (the news channels, which have usurped the role of the narrator in Hindi cinema off late). But it is the bravura action sequence at the lodge, with its off-kilter, everything-is-allowed, anything-goes, Hollywood movie brat-like aesthetic that takes the rest of the film’s banal TV and ad inspired stylistic to a whole new level. Nambiar, it seems to me, is a natural when directing music videos and this sublime, provocative, magical scene, which cross cuts between slo-mo bullet rains and the gang dropping from rooftops in fluttering black purdahs like fallen angels onto a truck full of feathers, alone is worth sitting till and beyond it. Also includes an in-joke among Kashyapians involving Rajat Barmecha and a wordless subplot (if not the ultimate ignoring of the gang’s original crime) dealing with a miffed couple that might impress Nambiar’s south side mentor.

(Image Courtesy: First Post)

Explorer (1968)
Pramod Pati
Silent
 

ExplorerPramod Pati’s pocket-sized dynamite, Explorer (1968), opens with a rather representative image: alternating horizontal black and white strips, resembling window blinds, flickering on what appears to be a screen (within the screen) that is being refreshed vertically – like television display – at a relatively slow rate,. The soundtrack, likewise, alternates between high-pitched, discontinuous noise of what might be telegraphing and printing machines and the comparatively bass sound generated by the Damaru. It is through this audiovisual thicket that the name of the film reaches us, appearing and disappearing along with the strips, oscillating between two typefaces – one fragmented and stretched and one sturdy and more conventional. This deeply dialectical title sequence pretty much sets up the tone, the modus operandi and the primary thematic and stylistic concerns of the seven-minute phantasmagoria that is to follow. Pramod Pati, who died an untimely death at the age of 42, worked for the Films Division [sic] of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in India, which generously commissioned feature-length and short documentaries as well as short animation films for the purposes of cultural archiving and nationwide information dissemination. The documentaries generally consisted of profiles of artistes practicing traditional forms (sometimes directed by names as big as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan and Ritwik Ghatak), standard ethnographic explorations, educational films for adults (such as on family planning, which Pati was involved in) and other socially-oriented films while the animation was usually targeted towards toddlers and young adults, presenting simple moral tales and basic literacy courses. Although there was an obvious restriction on the type of subjects filmmakers can choose, the Films Division, like the Kanun in Iran, was free from commercial concerns and thus presented a higher scope for formal experimentation for directors. In Explorer, Pati seems to have harnessed that liberty to the fullest to produce a doggedly inscrutable, remarkably witty and manifestly personal work.

The eerie title sequence of Explorer gives way to the first “photographic” image: a miniature Hindu idol in profile, magnified by its distance from the camera. We assume that it on the plane closest to the lens, but Pati reconfigures our depth perception with a fluid racking of focus – rack focus forms a major motif in the film – that discovers an oil lamp nearer to the camera than the idol, before revealing a man – in profile as well – reading sacred verses. We don’t hear him though and the soundtrack, strangely, gives us the cry of an infant, as if trying to reach out. This somewhat serene shot is interrupted by a startling cut, followed by a short, rapid zoom accompanied by the noise of a cymbal. Before we even begin to register the scene, Pati switches to a barrage of images in which with the bobbing camera captures the faces of ecstatic teenagers in extreme close-up, interleaved with extra-brief shots of the religiously-charged alphabet “Om” represented in Devanagari script and of the chicly-dressed gang, from at a distance, dancing to what might be rock-and-roll tracks. The audio, however, uses loopy non-contiguous samples from traditional music including classical instruments and vocals overlaid over a continuous stream of Ghunghru sounds, punctuated now and then by clapper board-like noises. The association here is, of course, between tradition and modernity, between ecstatic rapturous tripping and religious fervour – and it is here that the film announces its context – urban India in the sixties – and its central idea.

ExplorerThe sequence is also one of the few occasions in the film when we are asked to make a purely intellectual connection between the shots, between the sound and the image. For a large part of the film, the montage is also rhythmic, and sometimes even metric, as is the case with the immediately following segment in which the preceding staccato arrangement makes way for a rather mathematical audiovisual pattern: A snappy pan shot from right to left followed by the face of a Buddha idol, a quick pan shot from left to right followed by a painting of Radha and Krishna. This model repeats a couple of times before being abruptly interrupted by a brisk tilt shot of an electronic machine with hundreds of small lights on it, which, in turn, is interrupted regularly by close-up shots of the faces of youth, before culminating in a slightly intimidating, negativized image of another god, (The latter intervention is thematically and stylistically vital to the film). The linearly assembled audio, in this section, curiously enough, neither spans across multiple images nor consists of overlapping tracks. Each sound accompanies an image. The whole setup described above repeats once more, faster than before, with additional interruptions by sound graphs and B&W film headers, after which select images from the whole film thus far interspersed with a hazy shots of palm lines and fingerprints play over a sound stream composed of what might be samples from sci-fi and thriller movies. What follows is a sprawling ten or so seconds bursting forth with polemical ideas. The visual backbone of this stretch – the (by-now-familiar) tracking shot of hundreds of analog indicators (of pressure gauges? speedometers?) – is disrupted by disparate single-frame images (a la Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled To Death (1957-2004)) hurrying past from right to left in a way that also reveals the “filmic” nature of Pati’s work: faces of gods, the word “War” printed on paper in bold, black letters, the cover of a porno storybook, an open eye and a medieval painting on whose central figure’s chest is a white circle with the self-censored words “F.ck Censorship” in capital letters. The soundtrack here, though, is unbroken and is made up of repetitive noise of machine/automobile exhaust. Then, another horizontal-vertical assemblage like the previous segment, now with the image of a huge plant leaf inserted right in between. In retrospect, it is probably at this point that the film’s primary ideas clearly surface.

Explorer was made in 1968, a time right in between two wars with Pakistan, a time when the scientific race among the superpowers was at its most feverish, a time when the Vietnam War was shaking the world and a time when Western media was becoming increasingly permissive. Urban India, meanwhile, was vacillating between the forward thrust of scientific and technological development and the conservative tendencies of its dominant culture, religion and art forms. Explorer subliminally charts this polarization at the heart of this ancient-yet-young country, in ways that are just more than textual. This conflicting duality is embodied by the colour (strong blacks and strong whites), movement (the diametrically opposite directions that the camera takes), the sounds (ancient chants and electronica, ritual noises and machine humming) and the very material of the film (developed and undeveloped negatives). Till I saw Pati’s film, I’d thought Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1988) really had no precedent in Indian cinema. Exactly like Swaroop’s pièce de résistance, Pati attempts to portray a country caught between a number of opposing and diverging tendencies – between war and celebration, rock-and-roll and Bhajan, science and religion – in all its richness, convolutedness and madness. Alongside such analysis, Pati’s film seems to wonder about the future of the nation, especially that of its youth. Palm lines and fingerprints from the chief leitmotif of the film. As if, ironically, practicing palmistry through assortment of sounds and images, Pati strikes a conceptual parallel between the myriad divergent lines of the palm with the numerous incompatible and expansive practices emerging with the march of progress. Perched at the crossroads of 1968, Explorer is an idiosyncratic – but ever loving and never cynical – examination of where the nation is and where it is heading. It is a “palm-size” state of the union address.

ExplorerBy the same token, Pati’s film is an outrage against film censorship. The Film Censor Board, coming from a country where the most famous and explicit book on sexuality was produced, too, seemed (and it still does) to have been caught between similarly opposing currents, when the rest of the world was opening up to hitherto scandalous representations. Pati’s placing of such elusive placards disapproving censorship and the bunch of barely-identifiable images of porn magazines and nude women throughout the film is, patently, an attempt to break out of this entrapment. Likewise, three pairs of opposing camera movements characterize the visual field of Explorer, which are simply the three geometric axes: a up/down movement consisting of fast tilts and headers consisting of everyday symbols, an in/out movement made up of numerous rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs and protracted rack focus shots and a dominant right/left movement involving zippy pan shots of the dancing crowd and machines at work and handheld shots at a university library. The camera frequently hops across these major axes, as though being swept by their force, oscillating to and fro within them. There are also a number of (possibly metaphorical) crisscrossing diagonals – the veins of the leaves, the leaves of the tree – that seem like vectorial resultant of actions on major axes. (One useful point of reference for Explorer is Artavazd Peleshian’s electrifying Beginning (1967) with its equally rhythmic back and forth movement of crowds and its eclectic sound mix consisting of popular dramatic sounds). The notion of present as a meeting point and a dialogue between the past and the future is further emphasized in the way the film often juxtaposes images we’ve already seen so far with those we are yet to see (and will see a little later).

After the psychedelic opening minute or two, the film applies brakes to present a series of “melodic” rack focus shots – some of the longest in the film – that appear to meld images of idols and paintings of god (which were intercut with the faces of exuberant young people) and those of laboratory machines. We hear a teacher and a student reciting “Ramayana, Parayana. Kuran, Puran” one after the other and we see youngsters handling microscopes (much like how Pati uses his medium). This passage is followed by another series of brusque imagery and soundscape: a shot of a bearded man meditating and those of a group chanting the Vedas, interwoven with a spate of western symbols and psychedelic wallpaper patterns, archival images of riots, women in the nude, the face of a monkey (Hanuman?) and the now-familiar attack on censorship. (A case could be made for Explorer as a sur-realist – even Buñuellian – portrait of the mind of a teenager in urban India in the sixties). The film’s construction becomes more mystifying following this, with both the images (not just religious and scientific, but archeological and cosmic as well) and the connection between them appearing even more abstract, although the aesthetic choices remain pretty much the same. There is a marked predominance of images of science, technology and education over those of religion and tradition, possibly hinting at a resolution of the conflict thus far. But not for long. As the film moves into its final “section”, where we see the same close up shots of the faces of youth, among negativized images of the dance sequence at the start, . the soundtrack becomes, once more, infused by classical vocals and Hindu incantations. In the final few seconds, the film is reduced to a sustained flicker, with a looming image of the letter “Om” becoming the visceral centre of the imagery. Beyond this point, the whole film seems to go backwards, calling forth a flood of recognizable images from the film in reverse order within a matter of seconds as the film’s title flashes in the middle of the screen. The film is actually undoing itself. Here in, Explorer, like Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), becomes a Sisyphean tragedy; not of a man unable to escape the process of film, but of a film unable to escape the claws of a reactionary establishment. As indicated by the lateral tug-of-war involving the film-strip-like imagery throughout, Explorer is a film that fails at breaking free into full-on modernity, instead getting sucked back (and backwards) into the mouth of traditionalism. Forget it, Pramod. It’s India.

[The Explorer (1968)]

Thampu (1978) (aka The Circus Tent)
Govindan Aravindan
Malayalam

“World-famous performers. Hilarious clowns. Leopards, Goats, Monkeys and other exotic animals. Miracles, acrobatics you have never seen in your lives. Don’t wait for anyone. Art loving residents, watch the Great Chitra Circus.”

 

https://theseventhart.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/kummatty.jpgThe state of the great Indian filmmaker Govindan Aravindan, who would have turned 75 this year, is not much different from one of his most famous characters, Esthappan, about whom every one talks about and whom no one has seen. An even more unfortunate fact is that few of his films are available on home video or underground distribution networks – the ones available are in an extremely bad shape – and the situation doesn’t seem like its going to get any better. When even ‘bankable’ art house filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli don’t have all their works out there on discs, a truly marginal (and truly challenging) filmmaker like Aravindan, who was neither a professionally trained filmmaker nor a filmmaker who made cinema his profession (He did have a day job, if I’m right), could only hope for a miracle. Thampu (1978), my favorite Aravindan film of the ones I’ve seen, is as simple as they come, in terms of the plot: A circus troupe arrives at a village, sets up their tent, performs and leaves. And Aravindan films exactly that. We see in fine detail – pretty much like a fly-on-the-wall documentary – how the troupe enters the village, how it sets up the tent, promotes the show, practices, performs multiple shows, incurs losses and finally leaves. Like Tati’s amazing Jour de Fete (1949), Thampu is a film that is a chain of moments, actions and impressions.

Besides Jour de Fete, there are a number of films that Thampu channels. First is, of course, Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1914) in the way Aravindan develops a tone and an ambience by choosing to shoot the deserted streets and the old buildings of the village with great affection, as though they were all alive. We can also see assorted elements that Tarr would incorporate in his later films: long shots of outdoor action, processions, celebratory dances, inebriated people, papers all over streets, high-pitched diegetic music and even an enigmatic head of the circus troupe. Then there’s the ‘c’est la vie’ approach to circus and life – life at circus and circus of life – of Chaplin’s Circus (1928). But the most fruitful reference point for Thampu would have to be the middle period films of Federico Fellini, especially The Clowns (1970) and Amarcord (1973). Like the former, which deals with the circus as well, Thampu is a touch elegiac about the profession, about the waning interest towards circuses and about clowns of yesteryear being disregarded and discarded as troupes lose business. And like Amarcord, Thampu unfolds as a string of vignettes of the village – children on the streets watching the circus monkey perform, workers leaving the factory after a hard day’s work, villagers crossing the river on a boat to catch the evening show, the village prostitute carrying on with her work and, generally, the dead times of a life lived more leisurely – all directly from what seems like adolescent memory, so typical of Fellini’s cinema as well.

ThampuThe prime structural and visual motif – a rarity considering given how ‘spontaneous’ the film seems – of Thampu is that of the circle. The film opens startlingly with a three-minute, near-silent sequence – redolent of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s equally experimental opening of Swayamvaram (1972) – that presents the circus crew entering the village in their truck and it closes with a similar sequence as they move out of the village, with no apparent impact on either the village or themselves. Within the story, circles of power result in circles of suffering and circles of mute suffering, cyclically, perpetuate circles of power. The local elite who has returned from abroad, Bidi Menon, maintains his own circle of bourgeois connections and practices while manager Panicker’s circus (etymology check: “circle”) crew is a closed circle of friends and families putting up assorted acts in the circus ring. Power abuse in Menon’s family is mirrored in that of Panicker’s. (Aravindan, of course, cuts between the two ‘circles’ in order to establish this equivalence. Both the family heads are even portrayed by bald actors with a good degree of resemblance). In both, people – the women in Menon’s group and the aging performers in Panicker’s group – are subordinated and condemned to a lowly existence (The protracted inter-cutting between the old clown and the monkey getting ready for their respective acts is one of the very few instances of heavy-handed-ness in the film). Only Menon’s son, who realizes his entrapment – within concrete houses, amidst drinking bouts and alongside rock music records – tries to break out of this circle, even if it means entering another – that of the circus. (The last shot is, at once, full of hope, anxiety and pathos). It’s not a bit clichéd as it sounds at all, for all these relationships remain nearly inconspicuous under the ‘tender’ surface of the picture.

It’s tempting to declare Thampu as a work that is all surface and no centre. The film is fragmented, constructed as a series of visual and aural impressions of an event, as an elliptical memory of images from the village fete. Like Ruttmann, Aravindan shoots the empty streets and bylanes of the location with care, as though attempting to find something in these surfaces. Aravindan’s cinema is, in more than one sense, surfaces in search of a centre, images in search of a story. In Kummatty (1979, a remarkable ‘children’s book movie’, if there ever was one), the eponymous, mysterious bogeyman becomes the talk of the village kids, who seem to spin their own myths about him. The identity of the titular stranger in Esthappan (1980, a quasi-Marxist update on Citizen Kane (1941)), is nothing but the sum of the village folks’ anxieties, fears and hopes. Same is the case with electricity in Oridathu (1987, the portrait of a nation in its Mirror Stage). Far from dealing merely with central MacGuffins, these pictures emphasize the present over the absent, the visible over the invisible, appearance over meaning. (Even in a deceptively straightforward documentary like Anadi-Dhara (1988), the director underscores physicality, of people trying, with glitches, to exhibit their native art within a totally alien environment). This trait seems all the more radical given that it stands in direct opposition to the conventions of Parallel Cinema – the category under which Aravindan’s name is generally placed – whose works are built around heavy, politically-charged texts. Aravindan, on the other hand, constructs his films top-down, using his images to develop rhythms and moods rather than to drive the plot. He knows well that cinema begins where meaning ends, that cinema is the preeminent art form of the visible and that no philosophical or psychological depth can make up for the visceral impact of the photographic image.

ThampuThampu could be classified, in a broad sense, as falling under the ‘aesthetic category’ of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC), a mode of filmmaking that Indian filmmakers rarely get into. Like the major works of CCC, it eschews narrative for texture and psychology for gestures. The film generally works with long shots and little employs speech, pruning down sensational elements and using a naturalistic mise en scène and an observational style. However, unlike most CCC films, Thampu uses a lot of music, most of them diegetic. There are songs that play on the radio, songs from the circus loudspeakers and a bunch of them even sung directly by characters. However, each of these occurrences is presented in a nearly-documentary format, as a part of everyday life of the villagers. The result is fascinating in the way the movie ventures into territory generally alien to CCC and yet works within its paradigms. Throughout the film, there is a tug-of-war between performance and naturalism. Rather, one complements the other. Decidedly over-the-top, spectacular scenes from the circus performance are intercut with the audience’s faces whose startled reactions are little spectacles in themselves. We watch the performance of their faces as they watch the faces of their performers. We are made the spectators of faces as we watch the faces of the spectators. The contrived and repetitive, even if bravura, acts of the circus troupe are countered by the fresh, spontaneous gestures on the audience’s faces, as if trying pointing to Parallel Cinema a whole new type of filmmaking.

The indoor scenes, on the other hand, are highly synthetic (not in a derogatory sense). For one, the scenes at Menon’s house are filmed like a newspaper caricature, composed like a tableau at times. But even in the other scenes at the circus, the naturalism of the documentary sections (the circus show, the streets of the village etc.) is replaced by a highly stylized aesthetic that uses monochrome backgrounds before which actors move, perform and talk in a self-consciously artificial fashion. Even here, there is a push-pull relationship between conscious performance and the naturalism vested in the documentation of that performance (a dialectic that forms the central working principle of Anadi-Dhara). The circus manager, Panicker, is played by Bharath Gopi, one of India’s finest actors. He plays Panicker straight, without any attempt to convince that he’s into the skin of the character or that this is how a circus manager behaves. Like Cassavetes’ strip club owner (but not half as empathetic towards his workers) he just is. Gopi’s portrayal is a termite art of the highest order and his face here is one that you won’t forget for a long time. In fact, it’s tough to forget any of the faces one watches in this movie. Quite simply, Thampu is a film about faces, like how Kummatty is a film about horizons of all kinds. Aravindan, somewhat like Bartas, cuts from one face to other, using them like notes in a melody, as if conjuring them up from childhood memory. As in Shirin (2008), there is something expressive about these faces, their reaction to a small-scale spectacle revealing more than what’s visible. And like the Kiarostami film, we realize that the screen space extends on to us, inviting us to revel in this small-scale spectacle of faces.

 

Here is a set of interviews of Govindan Aravindan speaking about his films. On Thampu:

 

When you planned the film THAMPU, what was uppermost in your mind: was it the problems and insecurities of the circus artists or the response of the villagers to the circus tent?

I planned THAMPU as a documentary feature. The film was shot in Thirunavaya on the banks of Bharathapuzha. I came to this village with ten to fifteen circus artistes who had already left their circus company. We did not have a script, and we shot the incidents as they happened. What we did on the first day was to call all the villagers and perform a circus act for them. There were a lot of people who had not seen a circus before. We shot their responses as they were watching. We did not ask them to do anything. After the initial hesitation, they forgot the lights and the shooting and completely got involved in the circus. It was all very original. At that time the village was also getting ready for the Ayappan Vilaku festival, which we used in the film. Finally the whole village got so involved in preparing for its festival, they lost their interest in the circus. The film ends there. In fact it is a location film.

Well, in THAMPU also, there is a discontented young man.

This character was there in the film – young man from an upper middle class family returned from abroad and settled in the native land. I am fascinated by these kind of people. You see similar people in UTTARAYANAM also. This ‘return’ has been with us for a very very long time. Earlier people ‘returned’ from Singapore, Burma, Ceylon etc. Now they ‘return’ from the Gulf. That is the only difference. When they ‘come back’ they will build a big bungalow and live isolated from the others around. Their relationships are confined to those of similar ‘type’ – they will of course have their “weekend gatherings”. The question is why do they ‘come back’ if they are unable to or do not want to mix with the people around? My young man is someone who is discontented with this sort of isolation and wants to be in tune with the people and surroundings. He does not like to sit at home. He starts learning to read Malayalam and then ask the circus whether he can join them and ultimately goes away with them.

Just a small comment. Although apparently ‘regional’, your films, one could say are much broader – Indian. Your comments on contemporary issue reflect more a cynicism towards the present (as in your cartoons) than a nostalgic return to the past. To get back to the film – the young man has never been to see a circus, has he?

No. When the circus goes back he just goes along with them.

When a circus is on the move, the artists are resting or asleep. They have nothing to expect or remember from the places they visit or stay in. This young man takes a decision to go with them. Why? Perhaps a recognition that he is no different from them! Or is this decision merely coincidental?

He could not get along with his family. To escape the home atmosphere he goes and finds a place under the Banyan tree and learns to read etc. I have included in the film the moment of his decision to join the circus. At home he was surrounded by rock music while he himself loves classical music. There you see him asking the circus to take him along. The circus manager tells him to get into the van. At that moment he has not identified himself with the circus – he is merely escaping from his environment. No one has taken note of him in the circus company. The film ends with the sequence of him sleeping by the side of the circus clown.

For the circus, this journey is a stagnation. A period of rest, where as for the young man this trip is a progress and escape.

We cannot really say predict what he will become or do… He could become anything…even a circus clown… We are not making it clear. The emphasis is on his escape from the immediate environment.

As you are talking about the journey of the young man, it occurs to me that all your films have this aspect of a voyage to self-discovery or a ‘movement’ towards betterment of humanity. e.g. in KANCHANA SEETA, Rama carrying the sacrificial fire and going into the Sarayu River; in UTTARAYANAM, Ravi going into the forest; the arrivals and departures of the bogeyman in KUMMATTY according to the seasons; in CHIDAMBARAM Shankaran Kutty’s search for peace in his troubled conscience etc. Your films seem to be myriad manifestations of the deep desire of human kind for answers, peace, meaning…?

(Remains silent)

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