Cinema of India


Udaan

A Summer At Pa's 
(Image Courtesy: Radio Sargam)

Udaan, one of this year’s entries at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, is a coming-of-age tale set in the heartland of India and tells the story of seventeen year old Rohan Singh (Rajat Barmecha) who is expelled from his boarding school in Shimla, along with three of his friends, and is forced to return to his hometown of Jamshedpur to his estranged father, Bhairav Singh (Ronit Roy). He discovers that he has to put up with not only the tyrannical ways of his father but also with his six year old step brother Arjun (Aayan Boradia) who is treated no better than Rohan by their father. Bhairav makes Rohan work out every day. He gets him admitted to an engineering college and instructs him to work in his steel factory. It is clear that it is not just the steel he wants to temper. Rohan regretfully abides, wearing the bland white jacket over his snarky one-liner T-shirts. More interested in the ambiguity of poetry than the precision of engineering drawing, Rohan starts bunking classes, winding up at the river bank to write. Naturally, writing becomes the tool for him to express himself, apart from other methods like shouting into a deserted basement at the dam and reciting largely improvised stories to patients and staff at the local hospital, where his brother is admitted for a few days.

Rohan is portrayed by debutant Rajat Barmecha. Barmecha plays Rohan straight, without the usual film vocabulary actors succumb to, and he is the greatest success for the film. With their long lashes, his eyes suggest everything from desire to rebellion. As Rohan, he appears to be the kind of person who seems to be willing to listen to your problems and the kind of person who hopes that you listen to his. With his “feminine” countenance (a feature that his father derides heavily in the film and the reason I predict that he won’t make it big in Bollywood), he’s also the person you believe won’t be parading his chutzpah or doing something alarmingly foolish. In short, he appears to be a person whom everyone will trust. Ironically, he lies to his father whenever he is in potential trouble (In a well realized arc, he later chooses to tell the truth to his father, not out of guilt, but because he knows that he knows his father well enough and that he can handle the consequences). He would probably have gotten away from his father and his rigid laws if it wasn’t for Arjun, whom he seems to view as a younger, not-yet-scathed version of himself. Predictably, he becomes Arjun’s surrogate father (and mother too, if we are to consider his oft mentioned femininity in the film). Meanwhile, Bhairav’s brother Jimmy (Ram Kapoor), who does not have children of his own, becomes Rohan’s surrogate father and the latter, his surrogate son. Each of the three otherwise unrelated characters is connected to the others via the beastly persona of Bhairav. These are all familiar writing tricks, of course, but first-time director Motwane treats the text with skillfulness of a semi-veteran.

You know that a coming-of-age film is on the right track when it starts with the protagonist jumping over the walls of his hostel into the city streets. In fact, Udaan strictly adheres to the path laid out by the genre, carefully working out culture-specific variations and steering clear of conventional pitfalls of the nation’s industrial cinema. The latter was possible perhaps because the film draws inspiration more from the west’s treatment of the genre than from the melodramatic traditions of Bollywood (more on this later). There seems to be an influence of virtually every landmark coming-of-age film in Udaan. Rohan and his college friends, high on booze, deliberately pick on a group of mooks at a pool hall – a scene that seems directly out of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973, the appropriation doesn’t seem like homage or pastiche for it is employed in a very similar fashion for very similar effects. One might also recall that Anurag Kashyap, who has co-written and produced this film, had already harnessed Keitel’s LSD trip in his reworking of Devdas, which Motwane co-wrote). Rohan’s and younger brother Arjun’s having to put up with an authoritarian father they barely know has echoes of The Return (2003), but where, in the latter film, the father is a mythical, metaphorical figure looming over the kids like a phantom, Bhairav is an everyman grounded in reality (One of Rohan’s friends tells that every father in the city is like Bhairav). The teenagers driving like crazy through the city streets at night, too, might have been from Nick Ray. But it is The 400 Blows (1959) that Udaan seems to want to emulate the most. Right from Rohan’s breakout from the regressive boarding school, to the motif of running and up to the final freeze frame on his face (albeit on a less ambivalent note), Udaan smells of Truffaut’s masterpiece (There’s a fleeting, pretty stunning image of Rohan’s face, framed head on with harsh light from above, which recalls young Doinel’s). And that’s besides the fact that this is Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut film and might be highly autobiographical.

Udaan’s embracing of these films, especially The 400 Blows, and the tropes of the genre as treated by the west is of note because it is what defines the interesting politics of the film. Udaan is, at its centre, a war against tradition in all its shapes and sizes. Bhairav is the symbol of tradition and conservatism in the film. He acts like his father did and metes out the same kind of punishment to his kids as his father had to him. With his dark glasses, trimmed moustache and perpetually disgruntled look, he is the quintessential patriarch guarding the passage between tradition and modernity. He has married thrice, works out extensively everyday, drinks every night, smokes throughout, doesn’t hesitate to use his belt on his six year old, ridicules his first son’s feminine looks and is probably also proud of this skewed sense of masculinity of his. He admires the famed industrialists and other icons of Jamshedpur and literally prostrates before them. He calls his brother Chotu (“little one”, which he sure isn’t) and insists that the kids address him as “sir”. His brother Jimmy is the counterbalancing force to Bhairav in the film. He is a man who had chosen the road less traveled (and supposedly failed). He is a progressive man who believes that Rohan should do what he wants to. It is Jimmy who paid any heed to what Rohan’s mother felt her son should become. Bhairav, on the other hand, is disgusted by Jimmy’s impotence and obesity (he would have anyway called Jimmy impotent, given his definition of what being masculine is). The two vastly different father figures, resulting from a schism within the family, are the choices provided to Rohan, who similarly has to choose between industrial work and poetry. Obviously, he chooses to emulate Jimmy, and in a predictably rebellious manner.

[Udaan (2010) Trailer]

Along the film, Rohan repudiates everything that is traditional and everything that binds him to his biological father. He shatters the rickety old car of his father with a crowbar, he discards the familial watch that Bhairav gives him on his eighteenth birthday (a familiar cliché in Indian cinema) and he even punches his father right on the face. Towards the end, he manages to make his father chase him unsuccessfully, once and for all, after having run behind him everyday. He will perhaps become everything his father isn’t (which is exactly what the latter tries to prevent). There is also a conspicuous absence of women in the film. Motwane and Kashyap avoid the pitfall of succumbing to the view that all women are victims of tradition. There are two women who are alluded to in the film – Rohan’s deceased mother who wanted her son to be a writer and his friend’s mother who chastises her son for having thrown out his abusive father out of the house – who, too, reflect the dichotomy between modernity and tradition that Jimmy and Bhairav respectively represent. Moreover, Rohan being a very liberal person like his mother (whom he seems to have a lot of love for) and his wanting to break away from Bhairav’s patriarchy puts the film onto an oedipal course as well, which is not very alien to the narrative at hand. One reason why Udaan is one of the few truly liberal films out there is because it carefully avoids, through its script choices, subscribing to that awful pseudo-liberal axiom that you can follow your dream no matter who you are. By locating the protagonist in a regressive middle class setup (which is beset by the problems caused by the recession) and eventually shifting him into a more progressive, flexible middle class, Udaan comes across as an honest, non-exploitative bourgeois film. Of course, it does not mobilize this trajectory for more overtly political purposes (Rohan father is a steel industrialist in Jamshedpur while his friend’s parents live in Singur. This tempting premise is left unexplored), but that’s probably because the film chooses to work completely within the genre.

This liberal support of the individual, free of all traditional baggage, is what makes Udaan a very “western” film (“western” in the same way Kurosawa was) and it is perhaps what makes the film very offbeat with respect to Bollywood cinema as well. Where the typical film would have portrayed Bhairav as an ogre on the outside and a child within (he would probably have confessed his love for his son to a friend or would have spread a blanket over Rohan while he’s asleep!), Udaan retains him as a threatening force. There’s no gentle giant act that Bhairav is made to undergo. But that does not mean that he is merely a concept or a one-dimensional monster. What makes him very human is the fact that he seems to know that he’s acting it all out. He’s a man blinded by tradition no doubt, but seems to be aware of that limitation. He tells Rohan that he didn’t have much to say to him when he visited his school. Even when he apologizes to his kids (before he distracts them from reflection), he does so within the limits of dignity allowed by his “character”. The triumph of writing lies in its belief that it need not “prove” that Bhairav is a human being. He just is and Ronit Roy plays him with the same kind of conviction. This consciousness of one’s limitations and the choice to be what one is also goes down well with the basic libertarian idea, which the film espouses, of a man making up his own destiny (which is very frequently mutated to condemn crimes of all kinds).

Udaan’s one more connection to The 400 Blows must be noted. While Truffaut’s work tried to break away from a tradition and the moral squalor that it seems to have brought, it simultaneously represented a move away from the traditions of cinema, with its technical radicalism and its inclination to make cinema author-centric. It was a battle being fought against the tradition (of quality) on multiple levels, virtually kicking off the New Wave. Udaan, on the other hand, has its feet planted firmly on the genre. Motwane is not a strict modernist like Truffaut was. Even if he is opposed to tradition and might be using cinema as a medium of personal expression, he does not go to the extent of taking up genre-blending or self-reflexivity. Sure, it does break away from the conventional story telling methods of the national cinema, but it does so only to adopt conventions of a different cinema. The aesthetics of the film – sunrays scattered by tree leaves piercing the camera lens, faces gazing towards infinity from the edge of the frame, cute symbolism, characters dragged softly into and out of the shallow focus and guitar riffs trying to create the blues – virtually cry out “Sundance!”. Some of the lines feel very scripted (a shortcoming that is commented on within the film and nearly overcome by making the protagonist a writer). But there are stretches in Udaan that are also directed with considerable finesse. There is much restraint in the score. Where a lesser film would have tried to cover up the silence with piano pieces, Udaan dares to leave it as it is. In the film’s most striking moment, Rohan relaxes on a cot after having dragged his heavy trunk upstairs. There’s no music. Almost no sound. Just the anxious face of a teenager back from an arduous journey and ready to embark on a longer and more important one. The shot lasts a few seconds. You wish it went on – the shot and the journey.

 

Rating:

Pulijanmam (2006) (aka Tiger Birth)
Priyanandan
Malayalam

 

PulijanmamDirector Priyanandan’s National Award winning Pulijanmam (2006) charts the efforts of a middle-aged, true-blue communist playwright Prakash (the recently deceased Murali Nair) who is about to stage a play based on a folk legend about a highly-skilled man, Kari, of the lower caste who defies god and enters the dark woods, assuming a tiger incarnation, to bring back tiger mane in order to cure the madness of the ruler. “Every generation takes what it wants from a story” says Prakash early on. For one, he sees himself as a reincarnation of Kari and the play as some sort of a self-portrait. History and mythology merge as Prakash finds his campaign against religion and against the ruling communist party’s decision to allow corporations to build resorts over farm lands to be increasingly similar to Kari’s inhuman crusade. Writers N. Prabhakaran’s and N. Sasidharan’s ambition to chronicle the fall of communism in one of the nation’s two most left-leaning states is palpable, but Priyanandan’s methods hurt the film beyond recovery. The director resorts to too much cross cutting, trying to thrust the parallel between the two stories down our throats and destroying the intrigue built up by the film’s first half-hour. The cinematography and composition is purely functional, with some flashes of brilliance to hold attention. Then there’s also the script’s tendency to cover too much ground and make a few social observations too many that stick out like a sore thumb. I must say it’s a tad disappointing to see this film being given the Indian National Award for best film over Goutam Ghose’s ideologically kindred and infinitely superior Yatra (2006).

Maya Darpan (1972)
Kumar Shahani
Hindi

Your brother’s going away hasn’t changed him a bit. Such pride! Even your leaving will not shame him. He is as he was.

 

Maya DarpanKumar Shahani remains one of the directors in that rarely seen and even more rarely discussed group of filmmakers that includes names such as Mani Kaul and M. S. Sathyu. Unfortunately, neither are there home video releases for most of their works nor are there widespread public screenings or film fest retrospectives within the country to generate interest. Heck, they don’t even make their way into the world of file sharing and peer to peer networks. We are now at a point where even the original negatives of the films face the risk of extinction. One can only hope that institutions like the World Cinema Foundation will do something about it. Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) is a seminal work in Indian Parallel Cinema not just because it canvasses critical social issues (a facet that, more or less, in hindsight, has become a characteristic of the movement) but also because it attempts to seek out a new aesthetic, which does not try to straddle mainstream cinema and art cinema, to do that. The very title, Maya Darpan (literally “Illusory Mirror”), aptly sums up both the film’s social (imprisonment by one’s own “image”, as defined by the class system) and formal (Maya Darpan could well be a sobriquet for cinema itself, encompassing both its illusive and realistic properties at once) concerns at once.

Shahani’s film is set in a provincial town in Northern India, at a time following the nation’s independence in 1947 (The film could well have been set in 1972, just after the worldwide leftist revolution had been put down, and there wouldn’t be much change to the script) when India was yet to be completely integrated as a political entity and when Nehruvian socialism was about to take on the existing feudal hierarchy. Taran (Aditi) is the daughter of a wealthy landlord (Anil Pandya) and lives with her father and her widowed aunt (Kanta Vyas) in their ancestral mansion (which goes on to represent the whole of upper class in the film). The town is witnessing protests by newly formed labour unions which are partly being politically educated by the local railroad engineer (Iqbalnath Kaul), who seems to have an unspoken romantic relationship with Taran. Taran’s unseen brother, who had, to the chagrin of their father, renounced his class privileges and gone off to an Assamese tea estate, asks Taran to join him. Stuck in a stifling patriarchal order, with pressure to get married to an upper class groom mounting, Taran decides to talk to her father about her plans. Actually, much less goes on in the film than what I’ve described and the film is more interested in assessing the formal possibilities of the medium than in following a seamless opportunity-conflict-resolution trajectory. Taran’s character does not arc in the traditional manner (she seems to have already entered the third act) although she eventually manages to switch roles with her lover.

Maya Darpan is a film about transition and transformation – from the bondage of regressive social structures to a progressive state of liberty and equality, from a setup where people have to assume rigid roles irrespective of free will to one where a individual can free himself of inherited roles and think for himself/herself (Taran recites a poem – “I’m called to birth again” – that recalls the legend of the phoenix, as she washes her hands). In other words, it is about the process of breaking the cycle of repression and exploitation into a zone of freedom (Shahani even inserts newsreels depicting World War 2 battle sequences and Gandhian protests during the British rule of India, perhaps to suggest all forms of oppression and subjugation). Shahani finds the cinematic idiom to express this cycle in the form of duplicated shots, redundant compositions and repeated actions and dialog. There are many shots that depict characters moving from the right edge of the screen to the left that are so schematic and mundane to the point of being humorous and self-parodying (One of Taran’s daily routines is to dust the set of chairs – presumably the symbols of power and authority in the film – that her father and other landlords use during their teatime. Fittingly, they are left scattered and disowned by her towards the end of the film). This transgression of social boundaries is also depicted by having characters cut through boundaries and cross railway tracks regularly. Consequently, Maya Darpan plays out like a piece of complex musical composition with many minute variations on a few primary motifs (The film’s unexpected coda itself is a set of classically choreographed tableaus that, I believe, presents the class conflict in dance/martial art form).

Maya DarpanShahani apparently assisted Robert Bresson on A Gentle Woman (1969) and the influence of the French director on Shahani’s style is obvious (especially the extraordinary opening sequence of that particular film, which is echoed at multiple places in Maya Darpan). Like Bresson, Shahani’s shot division has a tendency to break down sequences into their most basic components. Images of hands and feet, isolated in action, often punctuate the narrative. Also Bressonian is the use of sound in the film. Shahani employs tremendous amount of off-screen noise to complement the imagery rather than reinforce it (This divorce between image and sound is alluded to in the very first scene of the film – the nomadic camera, at first, seems to be searching for the voice on the soundtrack and eventually settles down near a sleeping character. The voice turns out to be non-diegetic). The presence of trains, automobiles, oxcarts and taps are all established by the soundtrack. In fact, the camera is never made privy to any sensational action. These actions are either relegated to the space off-screen or they are only provided to us through words. But the influence of Bresson is most palpable in Shahani’s use of his actors. He asks the actors, all non-professionals, to have no expression whatsoever on their faces when spouting their lines monotonically, without any modulation. The effect is all the more unsettling given how vehemently it goes against the natural speech pattern of the country.

As a result, Maya Darpan could be described as a film in which the sociopolitical concerns of Shyam Benegal and John Abraham are distilled through the minimalist aesthetics of Bresson (with a dollop of Resnais, Antonioni and Pasolini to boot). However, it should not be assumed that Shahani’s style is entirely derivative. Shahani’s Bresson influence is just the base upon which he works out his own ways. For instance, in Bresson’s films, conflicts would largely be kept internal and would very occasionally manifest in the characters’ physical actions. In either case, Bresson thoroughly remains a realist of space and time. Shahani, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to slip in the borderline-surreal elements. Large stretches of poetry and prose are recited by the characters on the soundtrack, which touch upon their psychology but abstain from analysis, while we see them wandering the barren, debris-filled streets of the town. Furthermore, Bresson’s characters have to go through a process of suffering before they can attain deterministic grace and happiness whereas Shahani’s protagonist is an active entity who chooses to change her life through conscious effort. Even the handful of comments online about the film mentions its innovative use of colour, which I find to be the least important aspect of the work. Shahani does this through the costume and production design of the film, which doesn’t exactly seem to succeed throughout.

Satyajit Ray once commented about Maya Darpan, along with other acclaimed works of the period (almost all of which he was critical of!), in his collection of essays Our Films, Their Films. I’ll type it down here:

Shahani’s other allegiance [in addition to Ritwik Ghatak] is to Bresson with whom he had worked on a film. The legacy of that lesson is to be seen in the girl in the centre of Mayadarpan [sic]. She, too, like Mouchette, suffers inwardly and wordlessly. No quarrel with that. But we are concerned with what happens outwardly. And here, I am afraid, Bresson evaporates. Does Shahani seriously believe that the major outward manifestation of such suffering is a slow, rigid ambulation up and down verandas repeated every five  minutes or so throughout the film? Film language would be threatened with extinction if this were really so. To me Mayadarpan seems a combination of poor psychology and poorer stylization. Even the sophisticated response to colour goes for nothing in a film that is so gauche in its handling of the human element. Even more than [Mani] Kaul, Shahani seems to forget that when one imposes a rigid style on the actor without a thorough working out of its expressive possibilities, it becomes indistinguishable from bad acting. The method becomes, extremely risky in a story with an urban background, where the nature of life and work severely limits the expressive gestures. The only possible approach here is the psychological one, for which Shahani seems to have no use.

While I would not be so harsh and unforgiving about Shahani’s film, I do believe Ray makes some fine points there. Shahani sure does seem to be on an experimental ground, trying to figure out the most effective means to get his points across. Not all his flourishes work and there are a number of rough edges to the film. Some shots seem o serve no purpose except perhaps to further disengage us from the already alien narrative. But it would be a tad unfair to say that Shahani eschews psychological exploration altogether. True that he does not work towards psychological realism through the conventional means of writing, acting and scoring. His psychological examination is, akin to Michelangelo Antonioni, carried out through actor choreography, his compositions and his mise en scène (and, to a minor extent, through the poetry-driven non-sequiturs that brace the narrative). Taran is almost always composed against the mansion’s walls and amidst the imposing interiors of the building. She is arrested and suffocated by the endless amount of doorways and pillars in the mansion. During the course of the film, it’s as if the monstrous structure assumes a life of its own, consuming Taran into the void within. This is starkly contrasted with the lush and open spaces of Assam and of the working class section of the village. The bottom line is that, if not anything else, films such as Maya Darpan are of considerable interest to the native viewer since they repudiate accepted norms of psychological realism in a country whose cinema has always thrived on those norms.

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha

Through The Rear Window 
(Image courtesy: BigOye.com)

Let’s not make wrong assumptions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) is not an experimental film, although it is considerably avant-garde in comparison to the existing norms of Bollywood, with its premise, non-professional casting, sound design and somewhat non-conformist grammar. The promos may have given one the idea that it is a film that works in ultra-Brechtian mode. Far from that, the film doesn’t ever breach the fourth wall, thanks to its choice of making the film appear entirely subjective (It actually isn’t as is revealed by certain shots). Another misconception the promotional ads might have given birth to is that Banerjee’s film is highly agenda-driven. This was my biggest fear too, that Banerjee might be presenting an extended, dressed-up message pertaining to mass media and reality TV.  Thankfully, not considering its minor flights into Madhur Bhandarkar-ness, the film eschews making any overt statement and lets the implication of its choices speak for itself. Banerjee uses a number of clever and not-so-clever tricks to make the film straddle the zones of populist and experimental cinema, the brilliant and the banal and art and entertainment. But, perhaps, the best part about the whole venture is that it stands witness to the fact that it isn’t just because of the star or studio system that our cinema is in such a poor shape. And that good cinema can well be produced under shoestring budgets.

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha presents three stories, running for about 40 minutes each, each of which is introduced by an apt B-movie title, suggesting the highly fictional and staged nature of the segments to follow. Indeed, each of the three stories amounts to some form of performance or the other. The first segment gives us a student filmmaker, Rahul (Anshuman Jha), who idolizes Aditya Chopra and is trying to complete his diploma film that takes off from his mentor’s much loved Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). The second part tells the story of a retail store manager, ironically named Adarsh (Raj Kumar Yadav), who is terribly pressed for money and plans to break through, not without much hesitation, by rigging up a sex scandal. And the third section gives us a television reporter, Prabhat (Amit Sial), and his aide, whom he saves from suicide, trying to blow the cover of a vulgar pop-star by setting up a sting operation. Banerjee uses the oldest trick of the new millennium to tie the three disparate stories together, using overlapping narratives and intersecting references and conversations, whose artificiality shows up at a few places, but not so much as to make the choice seem completely inorganic. In all three segments, there is at least one diegetic camera recording all the events – of Rahul’s professional camera, the CCTC cameras and Prabhat’s spy-cam – whose footage Banerjee splices and slices to form a seamless narrative.

The first segment, at first glance, seems cut off thematically from the other two. However, gradually, it reveals itself as a gateway to the other two segments, which starkly diverge from the idea the first one presents. Rahul, like the bumbling duo of Ishqiya (2010), does not understand the difference between life and art. He believes that life can proceed the same way as one of his mentor’s movies. He tries to port Bollywood culture on to his life – scribbling his beloved’s name on trees, eloping with friends’ help a la Saathiya (2002) and making late night phone calls to surprise his sweetheart. One even wonders if his real name is Rahul or if it is another one of his lame attempts at merging life with pop art. In other words, he does not realize that his life is the exact negation of the film he is making. A cut from the smiling face of Shruti within the film gives way to the image of her crying in reality. A scene in Rahul’s film is interrupted by a similar incident happening in real life. Shruti’s father turns out to be far from the generous father in his film. Rahul films his life 24×7, in order to send it to his idol some day, with a belief that it is as fairytale-like as the films he likes (there is even a kiss scene in this section that is severed from the frame in a manner characteristic of Bollywood). Rahul, eventually, pays the price for not understanding the vast chasm that exists between reality and its popular representation, an instance of which he is creating as his diploma project (I don’t understand why Banerjee feels the need to exaggerate the film within the film so much to emphasize this dichotomy. Comic relief, maybe).

[LSD Trailer]

Having established the disjunction between truth and its representation, Banerjee’s film attempts to explore the ethics of representation in the second segment of the film. Banerjee bases this part of the film fittingly in a supermarket – the temple of commodification and commerce. Characters, especially the two women in this segment, are almost always filmed standing amidst aisles filled with FMCG products, wearing clothing that is as colourful as the products themselves. One person in the mall tells us how commercially profitable the CCTV is, citing the hefty amount of money that the footage of a shootout brought. Welcome to the world of consumer capitalism, where violence and sex are commodities to be proliferated, packaged, advertised and sold. The moral conflict that Adarsh is presented with, when he has the option of switching off the CCTV system, is the quintessential moral question underlying capitalism – just how far will you go? In fact, the target is capitalism in all three segments of the film. Only that it is indicted through its powerful agents – mass media and Bollywood. Adarsh himself is a more polished and less addicted version of Rahul in the way he is unable to comprehend the difference between reality and its representation (and, hence perhaps, the gravity and possible consequences of his moral choice). In a cheeky homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), Adarsh gloriously “performs”, in true Bollywood fashion, a fake death stunt while he frets when an actual shootout follows. The sex scene itself is filmed head on and plays out between the storeroom shelf and a curtain suggestive of a theatrical performance.

Following this segment on the ethics of representation, Banerjee takes up the tautological (and Godardian) question of representation of ethics. This third section of the film, which deals with a sting operation performed by a private news network, is, on paper, the richest segment of the film for it’s the most morally ambiguous of the three. Morally ambiguous because, unlike the other two segments, we just aren’t able to embrace any particular side or character here. The pop-star’s activities may be highly questionable and even downright immoral, but so are the methods of the news network. Each character in this segment is prostituting himself/herself in one way or the other (Of course, here too, the punching bag is capitalism). Only that the news network, the self-proclaimed keeper of truth and justice, seems licensed to do it. More than acting as a medium of announcement, this news network, as in reality, likes to work as a moral police, telling its people what is ethically right, what is wrong, when to be enraged at someone and when to cheer for some lame event. There is apparently no difference between what the news network editor does and what Adarsh does. However, there is a ray of hope that is presented in this segment in the form of (again, the aptly named) Prabhat, the least unethical person in the film and the alter ego of the director himself perhaps, who refuses to hand over any of the footage that he has shot, sacrificing fame and money for integrity.

Of course, Banerjee’s film isn’t as consistent and ambitious in presenting us with such moral ambiguity. The characters in the first two segments are mostly black and white and we are told beforehand whom to root for and whom to curse. But as such, the film has a set of ethics (evident from its editing pattern), close to that of Prabhat’s, which it staunchly adheres to, even to the point of flaunting it. The possibly sensational sex scene is dimly lit and choreographed at a considerable distance from the camera that it is completely de-eroticized. So is the case with the murder in the first segment. In all three segments, reality is manipulated to a large extent for the sake of representation – Rahul’s film, the MMS clip and the sting operation footage – with a profit motive. Although the titular love, sex and betrayal form the prime motifs in the first, second and third segments respectively, it is clear that all three elements run though all the three sections of the film in a manner that betrays much cynicism about cinema. This cynicism towards such an important medium by a filmmaker is certainly off-putting until Banerjee presents the warm epilogue to the film, where a young girl wields the camera and charmingly interviews the various characters of the film. Yes, Banerjee does seem to recognize the power of cinema in preserving life’s most precious and fleeting moments, to convert them into art and preserve them for eternity.

 

Rating:

Jang Aur Aman (2001) (aka War And Peace)
Anand Patwardhan
Hindi/English/Urdu/Japanese

“In India, the ideology that killed Gandhiji was once more legitimate. Nuclear nationalism was in the air. The memory of one who opposed the bomb on moral grounds alone had begun to fade.


War and PeaceDocumentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s controversial War and Peace (2001) could well have been titled War and Peace: Or How I Learned to Forget Gandhi and Worship the Bomb, for the major theme that runs through the film is the disjunction that exists between the past and the present and a nation’s collective (and selective) cultural amnesia with respect to its own past. Shot in four countries – India, Pakistan, Japan and the USA – and over a period of four years following the 5 nuclear tests done by India in 1998, Patwardhan’s film was slammed by Pakistan for being anti-Pakistani and by India for being anti-Indian, while the film’s barrel was pointed elsewhere. Tracing out the country’s appalling shift from Gandhian-ism to Nuclear Nationalism and Pakistan’s follow-up to India’s nuclear tests, Patwardhan examines the role of the countries as both the perpetrators and the victims of a major mishap that is now imminent, taking the Hiroshima-Nagasaki incident as a potent example to illustrate why nuclear armament is not merely a potentially hazardous move, but a wholly unethical one. War and Peace is a film that should exist, even if amounts to only the ticking of a radiometer amidst nuclear explosions, for it calls for a realization that there can be neither a victor nor a finish point in this internecine nuclear race.

Minutes into the film, it becomes evident that Patwardhan’s stance is far from neutral. War and Peace is not a documentary which sets up the dialectics, leaving it to us to resolve the contradictions and come to an ideological stance. It is, clearly, anti-nuclear in its politics. Patwardhan’s editing is deterministic and it pointedly juxtaposes shots of unabashed right wing celebration of the success of the nuclear tests with those of the anti-nuclear protests being squashed by police force. The cross section of people Patwadhan takes for the pro-nuclear arguments consists almost entirely of common folk, far removed from any knowledge of the bigger picture, and the sample he gathers for the film’s anti-nuclear arguments is made up of activists, scientists and cultural icons whose opinions, naturally, seem far more logical than the former group’s. However, even amidst the one-sidedness of Patwardhan’s intent and approach and the near simplification of issues, War and Peace provides a lot for the audience to work with. Part of the pleasure in watching War and Peace comes from the cat and mouse game between the audience trying to pin down the filmmaker to a particular ideology, political side, a nationality or a religion and the director invalidating every such categorization, one after the other.

Eventually, beyond the seemingly-leftist tone of the first chapter, Patwardhan turns out to be an absolute centrist, with humanitarianism (and hence complete nuclear disarmament) being the only ideology he seems to support. One by one, he strips down every artificial façade people have been made to wear, to elevate the movie to a purely human level. In a moving scene, the friend of a Kargil-war martyr, a Pathan himself, tells us that he feels guilty because it was another Pathan who shot his friend. In another, two former generals – one from India and one from Pakistan – recall how futile the previous war was, both politically and personally. Likewise, Patwardhan nullifies every classification based on class, religion, nationality and political leaning in order to recognize people just as people and to acknowledge the existence of each one of them. But, despite the film critical and sometimes cynical attitude, never does Patwardhan assume a stance superior to the people he deals with. War and Peace is as much a personal film as it is political. From the film’s very first lines, Patwardhan ties his story to the history of the country. He goes on to tell us in a somber, disinterested tone, which will stay for the rest of the film: “That our family, like Nathu Ram Godse and his co-assassins, were upper caste Hindus cured me for ever, of any narrow understanding of nation and any vestige of pride in the accident of birth”. With the significance of his own caste questioned, Patwardhan merely goes on to explore if there is any worth in associating one’s name to these man-made trappings at all.

War and PeaceWhen Mao Zedong told the Dalai Lama that religion was poison, he was, in fact, nurturing another poison called patriotism. Of course, in India, it is undeniable that both religion and jingoism work in union to charge the people up with faux ideologies, no matter which party forms the government. War and Peace investigates this strong synergy within the context of the nuclear race between India and Pakistan. Both ultra-nationalism, with its distorted, larger-than-life definitions of “bravery”, “martyrdom” and “sacrifice”, and religion, which perpetuates a misplaced sense of masculinity with its belligerent iconography and literature, as is elucidated by Patwardhan’s film, seem to operate in conjunction with the free market system to create an environment where might is indeed right. And this explosive mixture of religion, politics and capitalism, as Patwardhan highlights briefly, doesn’t exactly seem unique to India or Pakistan. “For God and Country” reads the American motto on its Air Force Association headquarters. In this regard, War and Peace shares a lot with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964, alluded to in the film’s first few minutes), where, too, the nuclear superiority was equated with masculinity. In fact, in a panel discussion about Patwardhan’s film, former director-general of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani tells us that the only fear Pakistan has about the nuclear bomb, thanks to the ease of access to it, is that it might go off accidentally!

Patwardhan emphasizes this effacement of the individual to serve national and religious ideologies continuously in the film. People are often photographed, in long shots, as being overshadowed by huge banners of political leaders, by paintings of gods, by commercials of consumer products and, sometimes, by the nuclear bomb itself – both in India and Pakistan (Even during his stay in America, Patwardhan manages to photograph a couple of security guards being dwarfed by a triumphant image of Neil Armstrong holding the American flag on the moon). There is a constant battle between individual conscience and populist opinion throughout Patwardhan’s film (In a noteworthy composition, Patwardhan photographs Raja Ramanna, father of India’s first nuclear program, through a ventilation in the piano that gives us a wheel like figure – the symbol on the Indian flag – imprisoning the man). In a cracking sequence, during a debate on nuclear testing, in a high school in Pakistan, Patwardhan finds a girl, who had just now spoken onstage ‘for’ the bomb, speaking against it. Upon inquiry about this discrepancy, she tells us that she chose a side that would give her more points to speak about and one that would be received well by the majority. It is a remarkable scene, with the politics of both the countries being boiled down into a single classroom, which strikingly underlines the tendency of common folk to conform to the majority in an unstable political climate.

But the real catalyst in this destructive process seems to be the free market system whose agents leave no stones unturned to create and exploit emotional imbalance among people. War and Peace examines how privatized media networks, instead of reassuring people, “brought [Kargil] war into the living rooms” by sensationalizing images of war and selectively filtering truth to evoke a vengeance-driven feeling of nationalism. The FMCG brands promptly followed up with slogans and graphics on their packages so as to reinforce the ruling party’s justification of the war. Even after the war, these firms did not forget to cash in on the remains of the war. “Cadbury’s salutes the heroes of the war”, “Hero Honda presents the 50th day commemoration” and other such commercials flood the Indian TV screen following the war. Extrapolating this set of arguments, in the final chapter titled “Song of India, Song of America”, and taking into consideration the infamous Tehelka scam that exposed the corruption of the Indian defense ministry, Patwardhan raises the question about the consequences of privatizing the defense industry, as it has been done in America. The point that Patwardhan seems to be making with this fabric of arguments seems to be that, in an attempt to ape the west, both India and Pakistan seem to have forgotten their basic necessities while going after a luxury called nuclear empowerment, which turns out to be only detrimental to the development of both countries.

The most unfortunate part about this kind of a system of governance, so the film points out, is that it makes science a culprit to the decisions made on religious and nationalist bases. The fundamentalists, both in India and Pakistan, believe that the A-bomb is a “gift from God” (Hindus and Muslims are seen, literally, worshiping the bomb). Science is transmogrified to serve the cause of religion and the fanatic nuclear race. Every decision is justified using science and mathematics and people, as a result, are reduced to mere numbers. One scientist tells us the casualty due to nuclear radiation is just one in a million. Another one talks about making tradeoffs for a greater cause. Probability theory is exploited to uphold morality and deaths are quantized and neglected in comparison to the superpower status a nuclear bomb might give the nation. General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan project, as is revealed by historians in the film, decided to use two nuclear bombs in place of one (even when Japan had virtually lost the war) just in order to compare the effectiveness of uranium and plutonium based bombs. By the time this factoid is revealed, Patwardhan’s observation that the minorities – ethnic, social, political and religious – are the ones who end up at the receiving end becomes a universal truism.

War and PeacePatwardhan’s film is full of humorous moments brimming with great irony. These blink-and-you-miss moments often arrive as establishment shots, cleverly setting up the attitude of the filmmaker in the sequence to follow. Be it of a man cleaning the garden of Raja Ramanna, who is sedately playing the piano inside his house, a miniature cannon placed in his house besides a sculpture based on the Mahabharata war, a set of Nancy Drew books arranged alongside books on Islam in the girls’ high school in Pakistan, a destitute woman sitting indifferently besides the hordes of laymen celebrating the nuclear success or a bunch of puppies and kitten playing in the Gandhi ashram, Patwardhan’s ever-curious camera, even during the most serious of conversations, never hesitates to wander off to make a point of its own. But the remarkable part in all of this is that Patwardhan derives his assertions from reality – from actual objects present in the scene of discussion. Instead of cutting forcefully from one image to another to make an Eisensteinian statement, Patwardhan merely reframes using a gentle tilt or a pan, often with a socialist eye for detail, to highlight the various opposing forces acting on people.

War and Peace could well serve as a fitting documentary counterpart to Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000) – my pick for the best Indian film of last decade. Both are decidedly Gandhian films that examine the deadly confluence of politics and religion (one character in Haasan’s film equates this combination to “sex and violence” in cinema). Where Haasan’s film ends with the murder of Gandhi, War and Peace begins with that incident. While Hey Ram had the present in black and white and the past in colour to reflect the collective loss of memory that the nation seems to be suffering from, Patwardhan’s film presents us the past entirely using monochrome newsreels – both archival and reconstructed – and the present in colour, as if quarantining the past as a work of fiction (complete with a introductory countdown and a projector hum). Both explore the country’s selective renouncement of its own past whereby all the ills of the past are willfully retained and rewarded while the ideology that called for a non-violent and symbiotic way of life is as consigned as foolish romanticism. “This thing skips a generation”, notes one of the residents of Hiroshima, in War and Peace, referring to the effects of the A-bomb toxins on the new-born. This, in another sense, is indeed what both these films hope for – that the younger generation will open up to a past that their elders refuse to acknowledge.

Weaving Gold...

Weaving Gold...

In some ways, Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession, 2008) reminds of another film that released the same year – the Oscar winning Departures. Not only because these films are two of the best melodramas of recent times, but the fact that both these directors had been making pornographies, real or figurative, for quite some time. A while ago, looking at Priyadarshan’s series of inane films, one could almost joke that Priyadarshan is distracting us while he is laying the groundwork for some sinister master plan. Only that it has come true. In Kanchivaram, he creates a film of high cinematic and dramatic values that I wouldn’t think much about calling it ‘the’ movie Indian cinema has been waiting for. Having witnessed, now, that Priyadarshan’s film can lick Departures any day, it is only saddening to recollect that they sent that educational video about dyslexia for the Oscars. Not because the Oscars are the greatest recognition for movies or that the Academy would have easily nominated Kanchivaram (which is actually unlikely), but the fact that we should be careful about the quality of films that we choose to give a boost to.

Priyadarshan’s script, quite simply, follows the life of Vengadam (Prakash Raj), a silk weaver in Kanchivaram, Tamil Nadu during the pre-independence era. Vengadam is one of the best weavers in that region and has just got married to Annam (Shreya Reddy). The screenplay gradually adds detail to Vengadam’s every day life until Vengadam and Annam have a daughter Thamarai (Shammu). At Thamarai’s naming ceremony, Vengadam, as per customs, avows that he will adorn her in a silk sari during her marriage.  And this event becomes the focal point of the story, the object of desire for our protagonist and the fodder for some neat writing by Priyadarshan. The narrative starts two days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and we see Vengadam, now in the police custody, being taken somewhere. The film shuttles between, ironically, the pre-independence era and the newly independent nation as Vengadam recollects his past during a bus journey. This is one of the most worn out devices in cinema but, surprisingly, it works for Kanchivaram because it tells us beforehand of Vengadam’s fate and in essence, removes the unnecessary element of suspense from, what would turn out to be, a character-driven movie.

Evidently, the facet that stands at the podium is Priyadarshan’s script, which perhaps is the kind Indian cinema has been having a go at, unsuccessfully, for years now. Stringing together a chain of massive ironies, honest observations and relevant details, Priyadarshan concocts a script that doesn’t merely derive its characters like many a potboiler, but lets them evolve. That is to say that it doesn’t just take its characters through preordained dramatic checkpoints, but allows them open up at their own pace. Save for the two inevitable turning points that are required to stitch up the three acts, never does Priyadarshan feel the unwarranted need to see the story through to a climax just for the sake of it. Rather, he relies on accumulation of detail to unravel Vengadam’s world. Consider the scene when Vengadam presents the worker’s petitions to his “boss”. Or the scene where he declares the protest. Or even the scene where he and his daughter get caught throwing pebbles at a bystander. One would otherwise have expected a spat of sorts in each one of these petty situations. Instead, Priyadarshan squelches every possible avenue of exaggeration and manipulation.

KanchivaramThat is not to say that Kanchivaram is not a melodrama. On the contrary, I believe, it is precisely how a melodrama should be. The word “melodrama” has been used very loosely and often as a derogatory remark. Most of our mainstream movies have been put down because of the same reason, and rightly so. Where these ordinary films tried to exaggerate emotions through copious amounts of words, leaving no margin for discovery or imagination, Kanchivaram lets cinema do that for it. Its exaggeration is not the weak over-emphasis of words, but the subconscious amplification by images. Priyadarshan realizes that subtlety is the essence of art and places immense trust on his audience, yet never lets the movie lurk near ambiguity. His melodrama is not made of music cues or slow motion shots, but of cinematic compositions. Consider the final scene where Thamarai, who had earlier taken over the responsibility of taking care of her father from her mother, breathes her last. Vengadam takes her in his arms to show the sari he has been weaving for her. Earlier in the film, Vengadam had does exactly the same thing when his wife is in her death bed. Instead of having Vengadam break down, and cry out aloud the unfairness of it all, Priyadarshan merely uses the same camera angle – looking at the pair of actors through the weaving machine – to nudge our memory, make us work and only then earn the tragedy of the moment.

But what is most striking about the script, which treads a very risky and usually avoided territory in mainstream cinema, is the way it examines what politics means to common man. Even though the novel idea of communism aids Vengadam to realize that he is being exploited, in summary, it amounts to nothing. Personal, emotionally charged motivations overwhelm conscious political ideologies. Importing an alien political system without any concern for existing social structure has resulted in more harm than good. In fact, reminiscent of what fellow Keralite John Abraham did three decades ago in Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978), Priyadarshan explores the implications of porting any foreign system to suit a completely different environment. The caste system, which was initially used to classify professions, has mutated into an organized system for exploitation, which is passively accepted by both the oppressors and the oppressed. There is even a subplot in the film, which acts as comic relief and satire at the same time, where a policeman, who is to take charge of the convicted Vengadam, finds the official emblem dislodged from his hat and panics at the thought of losing his job just because of that.

KanchivaramAlthough attention-craving at places, Priyadarshan’s direction shows the signature of a mature director who knows his craft. He seems to know where exactly to use expressionist lighting and where to focus deeply. Speaking about cinematography, Kanchivaram would not be what it is without the contribution of three fine pieces of work. The first is Sabu Cyril’s production design. Though aided considerably by what looks like post-production processing, Cyril nevertheless does a terrific job in creating a uniform earthy tone to the film which eventually blends into the red of communism that later becomes the central point of the film. All the people in the film – the leads and the junior actors – look straight out of grandpa’s albums, with clearly defined facial features. The second is Thiru’s cinematography, which speaks for itself. This veteran cameraman had already proved his worth in Hey Ram (2000), Kanchivaram is just second witness.  And equally noteworthy is M. G. Sreekumar’s soundtrack, which is befitting of the period and shuttles between classic Carnatic, which was at one time everyman’s art, and emphatic choral, going hand in hand with the communist theme of the movie. But needless to say, the greater credit goes to the director for retaining the necessary and weeding out the superfluous.

The performances are all fine (except for Prakash Raj’s diction, which sometimes betrays his roots) and would be the first things to amass praise. But I find it kind of funny that a Malayalam film director casts a Kannada actor and a Telugu actress as the lead in a Tamil film! Talking about languages, it is also interesting that Priyadarshan sets his film in Tamil Nadu and not Kerala, given that communism is central to the plot of the film. And one more thing, I would definitely have loved see more of the actual weaving process, the machines and the graceful movements of the workers who churn out such world-class products, just in order to sink into the world of Kanchivaram. Priyadarshan does show these images early on, but cut away too early to have any effect. Furthermore, with clever use, these gestures could have well increased the vitality of Vengadam’s character manifold. Well, let’s just stick to what is present in the movie, which itself is pretty darn awesome. I may be slightly overrating this movie, but what the heck! We are not going to see such an uncompromising Indian film for a long time to come. No, not from Priyadarshan at least. De Dhana Dhan is slated for a 2009 release.

 

Verdict:

P.S: Here is a hilarious article by an American about his experience of working as an extra in a Priyadarshan comedy.

(pics courtesy: Impawards, Rediff, Salisbury International Arts Festival)

Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978) (aka Donkey In The Elite Colony)
John Abraham
Tamil

“I felt a living thing had come to me for love and affection. I hadn’t the heart to drive it out.

 

Agraharathil KazhuthaiJohn Abraham’s Donkey in the Elite Colony (1978) begins before its imagery does, with the narrator passionately reciting a fiery poem by Subramanya Bharathi, in praise of fire, during the credits. The first visual of the film follows up the verbal worship of fire in the poem with an extended shot of a sunrise. The tone is set for a leftist kind of film with revolutionary overtones. The seventies was a notorious decade in Indian cinema – both parallel and mainstream – as the permissiveness of American cinema had started showing its influence. And fortunately, it was also the period when cinema was taken most seriously and for the good. Malayalam film director John Abraham’s second film, and his only film made in Tamil, is a controversial film from the era and continues to be rated as one of the most important non-mainstream movies from the country.

Professor of philosophy, Narayanaswamy (M. B. Sreenivasan) returns home one day to find a little donkey at his doorstep. He comes to know upon enquiry that its mother has been killed by a mindless mob and decides to provide refuge to the animal. But staunch opposition from college officials and his students forces him to transport Chinna (that’s what he has named his pet) to his native village, only to trigger a chain of apocalyptic events. The neighbourhood is an agraharam, the settlement of Brahmins (considered one of the higher social classes in ancient India), where the mere notion of a donkey (an icon of the working class) replacing the sacred cow as a domestic animal breeds hostility. Narayanaswamy is single and has a brother who is married but childless. Chinna is taken care of by the mute Uma (Swathi), who is as devoid of the notions of class and caste as Chinna  is and whose fate clearly mirrors the donkey’s.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiDirector John Abraham and scriptwriter Venkat Swaminathan evidently draw inspiration from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, even overtly referenced early in this film), where too the protagonist’s fate was tied up with the donkey’s. I say fate because none of the central characters (the women and the animals) seem to be able to affect the direction of their lives. Both Chinna and Uma are mute creatures who end up being victims of insecurities and questionable intentions of certain individuals who take refuge under the cover of their social standing. But Abraham is far from being a Jansenist (that Bresson is often claimed to be). He is more interested in doing away with the oppressive forces than in contemplating about the harrowing state of affairs as his opening and closing sequences testify. Towards the end of the film, when the professor finally searches out the whereabouts of Uma, he finds her sitting listless among the ruins of a temple, amidst abandoned idols, subtly raising an intriguing question – Has God forsaken his subjects or is it the other way round?

It is so good to see an Indian film, after a long time, which respects the cinematic form and not just its scenario. Venkat Swaminathan’s script would have been just a hard hitting short story if not for what John Abraham does with it. Although Abraham’s style does become showy at places and the film feels like an uneven student film, the director’s conviction that form underscores and enhances content overwhelms. He draws inspiration from Eisenstein (montage is used regularly in the film), the neo-realists (location shoot and use of non-professionals) and, more extensively, Bresson (lot of detail is conveyed through off screen speech while the camera lingers on the characters’ actions). It is enough to witness just the opening few minutes of the film to see the formalist urge of the film. Following the prolonged shot of the sunrise, using simple cross cutting between the professor and the little donkey, Abraham starts presaging the intrusive and iconoclastic nature of both of them, which will be elaborated upon later in the film.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiBut most interesting is the central piece of the film, where Abraham achieves a unique effect through repetition and montage. It is a sequence where Narayanaswamy’s father is recounting the villager’s complaints about the donkey. Each scene of complaint begins with a villager shouting out his gripe, after which, Abraham cuts to what actually happened. It is revealed to us that in none of the cases, is the donkey guilty of what the villagers are accusing it for. In contrast to the verbose ranting of the villagers, these flashbacks are completely devoid of words, with only a soundtrack playing throughout each one of them, as if stressing the inherent dubiousness in human words. At the end of each scene, we see Chinna and Uma walking past the father-son pair almost in the same fashion every time. This is followed by a section that shows a working class man taking advantage of Uma’s condition, much like the villagers making use of the donkey’s inability to object. The whole sequence of events repeats three or four times and constantly calls attention to itself, making it a bit of an overkill by today’s standards.

Donkey in the Elite Colony has been called an attack on the Brahmin hegemony in rural Tamil Nadu. But Abraham’s film is much more than a simple tirade against a particular caste or class. It, in fact, talks against any system that tries to imitate itself for a reason it can’t understand and imposes upon itself, laws and practices that are either irrelevant to the present or plainly irrational (In one scene, Narayanaswamy tries drinking coffee without sipping – a practice considered a characteristic of the Brahmin household – in front of his mother, only to fail). Donkey in the Elite Colony presents one such social system which blindly attempts to sustain its oppressive structures like class, caste and family and goes any distance to weed out anomalies that may harm the setup. The class divide is as much perpetuated by the submissiveness of the working class as it is by the domination of the elite. The fact that Narayanaswamy is single and his brother’s family is childless seems to be a big taboo. Status quo is restored only when his brother’s wife bears a child. Even the college where Narayanswamy works insists that he get rid of his pet since it is “demoralizing” for the institution.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiThe final act of Donkey in the Elite Colony begins on an ambiguous note, which, in a way, feels like a weak link. We are first shown Brahmins who are repenting for their actions, haunted by the implications of their sins, and then the workers rising to revolt. Is Abraham suggesting that a change has to come from within, rather than through an organized movement (This is a plausible explanation, for Narayanaswamy himself is one of the Brahmins)? Or is he of the opinion that a revolution is the only way for progress? The climactic act, at times seeming indecisive, is brought to a final resolution with the help of another Subramanya Bharathi poem – Dance of Death. The penultimate image in the film is that of burning houses, rendering closure to the film’s first sequence (the opening poem is recited in the soundtrack once more) and providing us with a clear solution rather than an introspective question. Abraham’s leftist tendency overwhelms, taking the film with it into an agitprop mode reminiscent of the Soviet cinema of the twenties. The film closes with a shot of the setting sun – a rather unusual metaphor for a propagandist showdown, for the revolution has just begun.

Om Darbadar (1988) (aka Om-Dar-Ba-Dar)
Kamal Swaroop
Hindi

“To Prime Minister. Subject: The Googly. Dear Raju, Please ban googly in cricket and life in general. Thanks, A freedom fighter, Babuji B. Sankar.

 

Om DarbadarIf one is asked to describe briefly what Kamal Swaroop’s Om Darbadar (1988) is, some of the answers could be: carefully constructed non-sense, endless dream of a cinephile, a satire on everything, full stop to Indian parallel cinema, random footage, extremely challenging piece of filmmaking, the great Indian LSD trip, landmark Indian film that aims big. With all the ingredients required to make a cult classic, Om Darbadar is the kind of movie that can easily polarize critics and audiences alike. It is, in fact, surprising that the National Film Development Corporation consented to produce this film. Using image, sound and montage to the maximum extent (and often gratuitously) and dialog that seem like knitted from parts of different sentences, almost always making no meaning (written by Kuku, also the lyricist and the art director of the film), Swaroop’s film is an antithesis to whatever is recognized globally as Indian cinema – a reason good enough to make Om Darbadar a must-see movie.

Here’s the plot of the film: Horoscope, dead frog, cloudy sky, the moon, radio program, caste reservation, bicycle, Mount Everest, women’s liberation, communism, sleeveless blouse, Yuri Gagarin, miniature book, Nitrogen fixation, man on moon, terrorist tadpoles, computer, biology class, turtles, Hema Malini, typewriter, sleazy magazines, hibernation, text inside nose, googly, James Bond, severed tongue, fish rain, shoes in a temple, World War, assassin creed, Gandhi, illicit trade, the lake, goggles, hopping currency, helium breath, counterfeit coins, underwater treasure, diamonds inside frogs, fireworks, the zoo, explosives, town at night, dead man, visit of God, the Panchsheel Pact, foreign tourists, Promise toothpaste, holy men, Fish keychain, Ram Rajya, food chain disruption, anti-cooperation movement, birth control, bagpipes, gecko, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aviation centers, Potassium Cyanide. And I guarantee you, this is as lucid as it can get.  

Om Darbadar

Om Darbadar is, hands down, the most confusing movie I have ever seen and not many movies can come close to dethroning it. Some might propose Buñuel’s first film, but one could at least find one pattern in that work – of anti-narration. This one regularly tantalizes us with a somewhat coherent narrative and just when it seems to get steady, snap! Or Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which is, in fact, an incisive study of the human memory. Om Darbadar, on the other hand, overwhelms us with its utter irreverence for integrity of reality, unity of content and consistency of form. Or the very many avant-garde films of Brakhage, Warhol, Anger, Snow or Smith, which, I believe, have always had a strong theoretical basis. No, this film does not have any single, central factor as its theme or motivation. Of course, one can find shreds here and there in the film that do make it seem like dealing with the idea of identity crisis in suburban India, but that’s strictly on a speculative level.

Often we witness directors claiming to show the world what real India is – a statement negated by the films themselves. Leave alone filming, it is to be accepted that even understanding the dynamics of such a largely diverse country is near impossibility. But, if there was ever a film that attempted to capture the workings of real India almost in its entirety, it has to be this one. Yes, it does bite much more than it can chew, but surely, digestion is not its intention. In a country where science, religion, mythology, arts, politics and philosophy seep into common lives trying to overpower each other, there is no single way to separate these threads so as to examine their influence on the way of life. This is a nation where the apparently inexplicable supernatural walks hand in hand with the most modern of scientific theories (In one scene in the film, Gayatri (Gopi Desai) asks Jagdish (Lalit Tiwari) if women can really climb Mount Everest without the help of men, he tells her: “Why not? After all, goddess Parvati did it”), a culture that is exposed to all the isms of western thinking yet revels in having its own interpretations of them (wearing a sleeveless blouse is equated to emancipation of women) and a country whose emotions are largely dictated by cinema, television and pop culture (Om Darbadar can be seen as a jab at just about every genre in Indian cinema).

Om Darbadar

Conventional (and good) cinema has relied on the fact that human psychology manifests itself in the form of their behaviour and speech and hence, an unhindered documentation of their lives would help us understand them better. But not many filmmakers seem to have embraced the reverse process – an entry into the real via the surreal. Kolker fittingly calls Buñuel “the neo-realist of the unconscious” and each one of his films testifies that. Likewise, the whole of Om Darbadar could well be the ultimate Freudian exercise that could help us (de)construct the actual world that Om lives in – a world that is as much fuelled by a love for pulp novels and thriller movies as it is by an aversion to zoology. But all is not so simple and the film is far from an extended dream sequence. Swaroop could have easily had Om (or his father, who begins the film’s narration) wake up at the end of the film, thereby taking us back to our comfort zones. Instead, he seamlessly blends present reality, past reality and fantastical reality to create an elusive work of cinema that defies literature, science and rationality.

Om Darbadar is an utterly frustrating, endlessly irritating and supremely hilarious film. Is it nonsensical? Yes, that is precisely its function. Is it pretentious? No, that can happen only when a film attempts to be something. Is it a one-of-a-kind movie viewing experience? You bet. Whatever one calls it, you cannot deny one fact – Om Darbadar is an indubitably addictive and thoroughly riveting piece of work that simultaneously repels a viewer by not pandering to his needs and yet, keeps him hooked on to the screen from frame one. Quarter hour into the film, I was completely disarmed and found myself laughing out loud through the rest of the film despite (rather, because of) the meaninglessness of it all. Om Darbadar is perhaps the kind of vision that flashes moments before one’s death. Call it the birth of Indian cinema, call it its death, call it Dadaist, call it anti-art, but be sure to bask in its absurdity while it lasts.

[Meri Jaan A A A…!]

Pather Panchali (1955) (aka Song Of The Little Road)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“This is my home, too. But look at it. It’s like living in the forest. “

 

Satyajit Ray’s name has become synonymous with quality cinema from the country and his opera prima Pather Panchali, (1955) its prime example. Made under hopeless production situation like many other great films of that period, Pather Panchali has been hailed by critics, filmmakers and cinema lovers across the world as one of the greatest of all times. And what a legacy it has left behind!

pather-panchali-1Based on a book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Pather Panchali is a series of loosely knit episodes in a poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who also dabbles in play writing. His wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee) manages the household and her two children Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee). There is also their old “aunt” Indir (Chunibala Devi) who loves eating the fruits given to her by Durga. Then there are their neighbours, the well-off Mukherjees, who share a love-hate relationship with their family. Mrs. Mukherjee helps out when Durga falls sick almost as her surrogate mother (as Ray hints early in his mise en scène) and Sarbojaya does the cooking in Mrs. Mukherjee’s daughter’s wedding. It’s a warm and isolated little world of theirs.

The biggest curse for Pather Panchali is that it was made immediately after the war. More precisely, at a time when neo-realism was the almost the in-thing. Almost every description or review of the film seems to kick off by assigning the neo-realistic tag to the film, perhaps more so after Ray’s enthusiastic comments about The Bicycle Thief (1947). It is beyond doubt that Ray’s employment of non-professional actors, use of natural locations, refusal of make-up and high-key lighting, the tendency of having the backdrop speak for itself and a complete abstinence from the exaggerated gestures and practices of popular cinema owe their debt to the masters of the neo-realist movement. But broadly calling Pather Panchali a neorealist film, basing arguments on the above conditions alone, is but unfair to Ray and his style. In fact, Pather Panchali often works against the “written principles” of neo-realism that pioneers like Zavattini proposed.

pather-panchali-5The neo-realists strongly emphasized that the neo-realist filmmaker be just a passive observer of reality without imposing his interpretations on it. That whatever the situation of their characters, – glory or misery – the filmmaker must maintain objectivity, always subordinating reason to action. Although many of the staunch neo-realists themselves couldn’t achieve this complete objectivity, they did attempt to do so in theory. However, in Pather Panchali, Ray never claims to be a mere observer. It is true that he does not comment on the characters’ actions and situation or throw hints to the audience so as to tell them what to feel. But that does not mean Ray does not take a stance (or a neutral stance for that matter). Ray is biased for sure, but not towards his characters but towards life itself. He takes immense joy in infusing life on to the screen and providing a channel of hope to his protagonists. Quite in contention with the neo-realist theory, Ray does not hesitate using Pt. Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack generously (but not without much caution) or in concocting sequences with a tinge of humour.

Further, deeming Pather Panchali to be a neo-realist film would only result in an over-simplification of Ray’s knowledge of cinema. Ray, being one of the country’s biggest and most renowned cinephiles, has evidently seen and absorbed a large cross-section of world cinema that spans various decades, geographies and cultures. And Pather Panchali stands as a testament for that wherein Ray incorporates many of his influences without ever making it look contrived or out of place. Apart from the overt nods to the neo-realist customs, Ray constructs sequences that conform to Eisenstein’s rules of montage (the scene where Durga is punished by her mother stands out), employs indoor sets that have an expressionistic touch to them. Some of his compositional practices, too, show closeness to Japanese cinema. If you ask me, Ray’s filmmaking in Pather Panchali is nearer to Fellini’s than De Sica’s. Ray’s penchant for close-ups, the dramatic zooms, the occasional submission to simple melodrama and the sheer lust for life that he paints on screen are closer in spirit to Fellini’s works, especially La Strada (1954), than any other director.

pather-panchali-3Like La Strada (another victim of the neo-realist baptism), that was as much away from its purely neo-realist contemporaries as it was close to them, Ray marries the neo-realist objectivity that avoids hyperbole and his own subjective view of life producing what may be, like Fellini’s film, called “neo-realism with a heart”. But again, Ray absorbs and deviates. Where, like many a film of later years, La Strada compares a road trip to life, Pather Panchali compares life to a road trip. Ray treats life as an inevitable journey which should go on no matter how shattering its events are. He punctuates his film with images of little roads through the woods and of characters arriving or departing from the village. In other words, Satyajit Ray presents life as a train journey where passengers may come and passengers may go, but the train itself never stops. Ray wasn’t kidding when he put that train in Pather Panchali – a train that Durga never manages to get on and one that Apu would, in Aparajito (1957), my favorite film of the trilogy.

But clearly, the most important character in the film is Durga – one that is very close to nature. Durga is Nature. Ray shoots her almost always amidst flora and fauna. She roams freely through the woods, groves, rice fields and in the rain without anyone stopping her. She is intrigued by man-made objects like locomotives and telegraph poles. Why, she even passes away after getting drenched in the rain. So is Auntie Indir who is nobody but a grown up version of Durga. Like Durga, she is also thrown out of house by Sarbojaya and who, too, passes away in the middle of the forest. Ray captures Auntie Indir and Durga regularly together in the same frame as he strikes a parallel by cutting back and forth between them. After all, both of them brought Apu up in their own ways. In the poignant end scene, Apu throws the necklace (that Durga was accused of stealing) into the river without an iota of hesitation – returning it back to Durga who has now returned to her nascent form.

pather-panchali-5

Because Ray lets us see only one world (with the occasional letter being the only mode of communication), – that of the village and its people – one can safely assume that Ray is normalizing the world into it and, consequently, that the statements Ray makes about the village are, in fact, applicable to the whole world (or the country in case of social and political observations). However, contrary to popular opinion that the film just talks about the misery of poverty, Pather Panchali goes beyond trivial economic connotations. Except for a few inherent observations about the class system, economics isn’t even a major concern for the film. So aren’t politics and theology that are kept are remote as possible. But that does not mean that the film is entirely universal and just for the sake of being so. Apart from the universal theme of man and nature, Ray’s major concern is the position of women in the society. Although Sarbojaya is the most thoughtful and resourceful member of the family, Harihar rarely listens to her. She is treated no better than a nanny for his kids. Like Mizoguchi (whom he admires, according to his essays) in Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Ray uses his mise en scène to express more than what the script does. But unlike Mizoguchi who used his aesthetics to denote the inevitability of fate, Ray uses it to comment on the pressing social condition of the family, especially Sarbojaya. Ray films her along the margins of the film frame. She is often seen stifled by artificial (physical and social) structures. Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra employ POV shots through doors, holes and ruptures to present a picture like snapshot of the family, with the image of a door often denoting freedom or the lack of it.

If there ever was life on celluloid, it has to be last twenty minutes of Pather Panchali. As the monsoon season takes over summer, skies darken and a breeze picks up. As the surface of the water starts pulsating, flies and other minute life forms start gathering. One wishes that this sequence never ends. The whole scene has a haiku-like visual quality and feel to it, not surprising considering Ray’s exposure to and admiration for Japanese art forms, especially cinema. He notes in his essay “Calm Without, Fire Within” (from his book Our Films, Their Films):

“Then there is the Japanese use of camera, of light. Light is used as the brush is by the painter – to feel and reveal the texture of things, to capture moods, to lend the right expressive weight to a given image.”

In fact, the same text can be used to describing Ray’s style in Pather Panchali that flourishes on the strength of its atmosphere, creating its own world and enticing the audience into it. Unlike the director’s later films such as Charulata (1964), which actually starts seeping through once it has ended, Pather Panchali appeals directly to the sub-conscious. Hypnotic may be the proper word. Throughout the film, there is almost no shot where life is not seen. We always see some life form or the other playing around on the screen. Dogs, cats, cattle and humans galore, Pather Panchali is a film that overflows with vitality. However, such reductive mapping would only lead to another over-simplification that Pather Panchali has been regularly subjected to. Both Pather Panchali and Ray have been called, rather labeled, humanist by admirers and critics all over the world. But such a reading of the film would just conform to a pseudo-liberal view of destitution and reinforce Nargis Dutt’s claims of selling of poverty to the West. In Pather Panchali, Ray turns out to be an animist rather than a humanist and the film itself, pro-life and anti-mankind.

pather-panchali-2Mrs. Mukherjee confiscates the family’s grove as a penalty for the failure of repayment of loan. Later, the people of the village persuade Harihar to stay and tell him that this place is their ancestral land. It is as if the people of the village have assumed the land to be theirs despite of the fact that it was already there much before them. Ray touches upon the conflict between man and nature that has been dear to so many filmmakers before and after him. And this is where Pather Panchali gets deeper than meets the eye. Exactly like Herzog would do in Signs of Life (1968), Ray often composes his shot such that there is interaction between man and nature, with the latter overpowering. It is essentially because of nature – the rains and the cold winds – that the family is forced to move out. Nature has indeed taken revenge. Earlier in the film Sarbojaya tells Harihar that it feels like living in the forest, insisting they move on, and Mrs. Mukherjee that no names are written on fruits. She is, in fact, the only adult in the film who realizes that Land belongs to no body except nature itself. As Harihar and his family move out, a huge cobra is seen moving into the now-deserted house of his. At last, Nature has reclaimed what was always its.

Our Films Their Films
Satyajit Ray
Orient Longman, 1976

 

Surely, God is not a socialist. Why then would he bestow so much talent upon a single person and deprive the rest of the artists of country of any comparable finesse? Be it Japanese architecture, German music, English literature, Chinese paintings or world cinema, Satyajit Ray’s knowledge of the seven arts is everything a connoisseur could ever desire to have. And his book Our Films Their Films clearly shows why a true love for cinema is the only pre-requisite to be a filmmaker.

our-films-their-filmsI have hardly seen Satyajit Ray’s films and was apprehensive about taking up this book. I was afraid that it would require a prior introduction to films he talks about and especially to his own films. But as it turned out, I was completely wrong. Shubhajit here recalls how this book single-handedly induced him into the film culture. Why not? Our Films, Their Films is a rare book that works two ways. I can’t imagine any other book that is as interesting for strangers to cinema as it is for the film buffs.  Ray never does it like an academic scholar churning out one jargon after another nor does he go too low-brow elucidating every shred of observation. Ray’s tone is conversational and at the end of the book, one does feel like he has spent a good few hours with an interesting man.

The book could be plainly called a bunch of essays by Ray assembled in a chronological order. But surely, it can pass off as so many other things too. Each of these articles has the charm of a short story, the depth of a critique, the personal quality of a diary entry and observations of a great essay. With a language that is neither overpowers the content of the text nor undermines its quality (which I think is true of his films too), Ray sets a standard for not only analytical but also for the verbal component of film writing. No wonder he also stands out as one of India’s key literary figures.

Cinematographe has this to say about the book: “The originality of Ray appears in an indirect manner: whilst talking about others, he offers us a subtle self-portrait“. This is so true. The essays in the book gradually and subtly unravel Ray’s perception of cinema and what he believes makes for great filmmaking, all of which reveals itself through the very many critiques of world films he presents. But the fascinating part is that he never takes the role of a filmmaker when he writes these pieces. He could well have elaborated on what lens John Ford used or what editing instruments Kurosawa employed. But the sections where Ray presents his views of international films could only have come from a true-blue cinephile whose very love for cinema is infectious. Look how he presents his opinion on Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), Kaul’s Duvidha (1973), Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), which organically unfolds into a fantastic review of the films.

But what really swept me off my feet are the observations that Ray makes in these early essays, the last of which was written in 1974. These observations – their almost prescient and intensely accurate quality just goes to show how deep Ray’s understanding of cinema was – both as a person behind and in front of the screen. I’ll give you an example. Ray met Kubrick just after he had made Spartacus (1960). He recollects: “On the strength of his Paths of Glory (1957), Kubrick had seemed to me to be one of the white hopes of American Cinema. He had first rate technique, he had style and I had a feeling that he had also something to say.”. Not just that, his opinions of Billy Wilder, Antonioni, Kurosawa and many others prove to be bang on the money.

If one takes a survey of the favorite section in the book among those who have read, it would definitely produce variegated results, for each section has the power to top the previous, no matter what order you read them in. My favorite section in the book Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker (along with Calm Without, Fire Within and An Indian New Wave?) provides an answer to almost every question I have had about the state of filmmaking in India. But again, this is one opinion that may change even before I finish this review. An Indian New Wave? may be just the winner in the long run, I suspect.

Reading the very many experiences of Ray abroad, one is regularly surprised about the range of people he knows in cinema and the dream-like way they meet each other. Reading these is almost like hearing a splendid raconteur recollecting his road trips with wide eyes. But all that is only because he presents himself with such simplicity. And that is partly a reason that this book shines with honesty. I’m sure, there would be hundreds of pages written from the other side of these meetings that would really give an idea of this monumental figure called Satyajit Ray.

 
Verdict:

P.S: Some essays of the book can be found here. Do read it. I think this book is a must read for film-geeks and not-so-film-geeks alike.

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