Review


[First part: A Letter to Lijo Jose Pellissery]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Lijo,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank you, really.

Just Another Film Buff

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

 

[Read Part 2 here]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[First published in Frontline]

 

The home is a sanctum of peace in Abbas Fahdel’s new work Tales of the Purple House (“Hikayat elbeit elorjowani”). It is here, in this independent house in the south of Lebanon, that Nour Ballouk, Lebanese visual artist and the filmmaker’s wife, spends her days surrounded by canvasses, films and her four cats – Sukker, Antar, Kiwi and Panda. The sun shines down on this quiet haven, the gardens are bountiful and Nour devotes herself to painting nature.

Yet the world is too much with the Fahdels. The Edenic stillness is interrupted by news reports about the 2019 anti-government protests, the 2020 Beirut explosion, the COVID-19 pandemic and, later in the film, the Russian incursion into Ukraine. Moussa, a young Syrian immigrant who visits the Fahdels regularly, is a reminder of the unrest outside, as is the bevy of sanitary workers spraying daily disinfectants in the Fahdel compound.

Like Fahdel’s monumental work Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), Tales pits the intimate against the historical, whittling down the world to the size of individuals but also examining the individual as a creature of history. Yet in the new film, the distance between the two is more strained. While the imminent “war” had already become a fact of everyday life in Homeland, the domestic space in Tales is eerily insulated from the tumult outside. Fahdel’s film is about chasm between the here and the elsewhere, the need to carve out a personal space and the desire for political action.

At the heart of Tales is the question of the role of art and artists in the face of existential and political threat. What does it mean to paint trees and flowers and hills and beaches at a time when humankind possibly stands at the brink of extinction? Nour’s paintings may reveal a hidden desire to bask in the permanence of nature – outside time, outside history – a tendency equally found in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky that the Fahdels watch. But as her feline friends demonstrate over and over in the film, there is no escape from the violence in nature.

Tales overflows with shots of domestic animals, and interspersed with footage from protests or warfare, they evoke a different perception of history. The linear timeline of the protests, pandemic and wars come crashing against the seemingly timeless nature of the film’s non-human characters. Seasons come and go, city squares fill up and go empty, but the cats – as though in cosmic indifference – continue to huddle or hunt smaller critters for fun and food.

Nour, however, is not a cat, and her relationship to her home and herself is necessarily mediated by history. Bombarded by the horrors besieging her town, she is doomed to lean back on memories, to wait evermore for the bird of her childhood. “The wars have created an attachment to the land,” she reflects as she paints a landscape. Death hangs heavily over the film, dedicated to “Those Who Have Left and Those Who Stayed,” and Nour’s musings are shot through with a melancholy about people vanishing, migrants and refugees, the killed and the deceased.

What does it mean, though, to watch Tarkovsky at the time of the Russian offensive in Ukraine? A screening of Solaris (1972) was, after all, cancelled in Spain in March this year in response to the invasion. A cinephile and an erstwhile film critic, Abbas Fahdel regularly shows clips from arthouse classics playing on his TV in Tales, inserted in rhyme with preceding shots. At one point, a sequence from a Tarkovsky film is jarringly spliced with an infographic about the war. Fahdel, whose production house is named after Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), seems to be reminding us of art’s subordination to history. Like Nour’s personal, mental images of Beirut, our perception of the films we love are necessarily coloured by the circumstances of their (re-)viewing. Our original, magical encounters with them are obscured, if not downright violated. There is, alas, no purple house of the cinema.

 

[First published at Locarno Film Festival ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(First published in Film Companion)

[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

[spoiler & trigger warning]

Whatever one thinks of Arun Matheswaran’s sophomore feature Saani Kaayidham (“Pulp paper”), it is hard to deny that it is cut from the same cloth as the director’s debut, Rocky (2021). Both works pivot on wronged, broken characters drifting through spare, sometimes desolate and often gorgeous landscapes, seeking bloody retribution, grasping at the remnants of a shattered family. Road movies, in some ways. They are united in tone and structure, their thematic undercurrents, their exceptional attention to plastic composition, their approach to actors and, most of all, their ambivalent attitude to violence.

Saani Kaayidham unfolds in the year 1989, but it is a gratuitous detail for a film neither bound to a specific time nor very interested in period particulars. It is wholly possible that somewhere in the same world where Rocky is slicing his way out of a cycle of vengeance lives Ponni (Keerthy Suresh), a police constable raped by a band of landowners for having been slighted by her mill-worker husband. When her daughter and husband are burned to death by the same men, Ponni pursues legal justice (a flab absent in Rocky), in vain, before resolving to avenge her family herself. In this, she is helped by Sangayya (director Selvaraghavan), a figure from her past.

Unlike a number of his peers in Tamil cinema, Arun Matheswaran is not all that concerned with questions of social justice, and if caste oppression (or the Eelam crisis in Rocky) is invoked in the film, it is solely to serve as a credible source of personal injustice. Nor is Saani Kaayidham invested in the feminism of its rape-revenge tale. When she approaches the law, Ponni doesn’t in fact press rape charges, seeking prosecution only for her family’s murder. This refusal to see herself as a victim is a way for her to pull herself together, to keep the rage burning; her simmering stare down at the court with one of the perpetrators is relieved by a cathartic sigh.

Notwithstanding the elaborate rape scene, the director does not emphasize its impact on Ponni. He abstains from inserting rapid flashbacks to telegraph her trauma. Instead, in crisp, daylight visions that also figure in Rocky, Ponni watches her husband and daughter walking past and away from her. In a long-take close-up that is the centrepiece of the film, she monologues about vengeance, expressing a desire for the landlords to burn the same way her family did. So as Ponni sees it, her mission is to avenge her child and husband, which means that the rape exists rather to keep the viewers motivated. The only times this perspective scrambles into a male fantasy of rape-revenge are when Ponni uses acid to burn the private parts of two of the rapists (whereas she sets the only woman she kills on fire).

The filmmaker dwells instead on what he takes to be a more primal trauma. Recurring through the film is a single monochrome sequence from Ponni’s childhood: a woman curses Ponni’s mother in the young girl’s presence for seducing her husband away from her. The woman happens to be Sangayya’s mother, and her condemnation that Ponni’s family won’t flourish seems to hang heavily over Ponni like a malediction come true. In a strange way, Ponni’s brutalization becomes an affair actuated by women and executed by men, rendering Ponni’s repeated use of the expletive “thevidiya paiya” (son of a bitch) somewhat curious.

This original trauma is also the point of connection between Sangayya, who sympathizes with Ponni despite his mother’s admonitions, and Ponni, who begrudges her half-brother for his mother’s hostility. As an adult, Ponni takes Sangayya’s help in tracking down and killing the landlords, but till the end, she refuses to lower her guard or even call him by his name. Until we learn about Sangayya, which is a good while into the film, he is presented as a somewhat dubious character hanging around Ponni’s young daughter. This red herring doesn’t entirely work because of Selvaraghavan’s casting and because he has already been introduced in the opening scene as Ponni’s ally. Sangayya is Ponni’s guardian angel, watching over her as a child and as a grown man. But something about the character doesn’t compute.

In the opening scene of the film, where they set a woman on fire in an abandoned building, Ponni and Sangayya are presented as slightly opposed characters. She is agitated about the execution, rushing across the frame, exhorting Sangayya to make things quick. He is more relaxed, smoking peacefully and walking leisurely, as though killing were routine for him. Half way into the film, though, he narrates a backstory that is as tragic as Ponni’s: not only was he unable to avenge his family’s murder, he was even blamed for it. He tells Ponni that he gave up thoughts of revenge once he found her and her family. The account is intended to soften him, but the impression of psychopathy remains. If the story were true (and even Ponni seems to entertain the possibility that it may not be), it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t pacify and dissuade Ponni after her fiery monologue. Instead, he encourages her to get started with the bloodshed with the enthusiasm of someone inviting you to Pothys for festival shopping.

It is impressive that Arun’s visual sense can already be described as unmistakable, and its singularity owes to the fact that it is the product of a photographer’s (as opposed to a cinematographer’s) eye; his markedly static compositions deal in rectilinearity, harsh contrasts and earthy tints, peg the horizon below the mean of the frame, decentre subjects, double frame them, carve out deep space between picture planes and exhibit the kind of tasteful prettiness native to PC wallpapers and photo manuals. If this post-humanist style, predicated on subjugating actors to composition, sometimes recalls international art films, it is perhaps unique when seen against the overwhelming anthropocentrism of Indian cinema.

This minimization of the human element may also help explain the film’s lack of emotional affect. There is a push-and-pull in both of Arun’s features between the viewer’s narrative-enabled identification with the protagonist and the distance that the style installs between them. How can you get busy raging against the world when you are invited periodically to reflect on how lovely it is? But it seems to me that this tension is the product not so much of a deliberate aesthetic design (vide Michael Haneke) as of a lack of clarity as to what to do with the characters and the viewers.

Some of the confusion is technical, involving disorienting edits and sound cues. At one point in the pre-rape scene, Ponni proceeds towards the house where her aggressors are, the camera moving back with her, hears something and turns quickly. What follows is a wide shot of a figure knocking another with a spade. Where 99 out of 100 films would have had the second shot from Ponni’s point of view, here we see the blow from inside the house. This wrong match-on-action, which filmmakers instinctively avoid, severs our perspective from Ponni’s, as it does in many other occasions through the film.

Some of it is the writing. If Sangayya’s character is undersketched, Ponni’s remains overdetermined. Keerthy Suresh plays her as a level-headed personality at the beginning, in a measured, bass voice, and increases her intensity once on the mission. But she reaches a crescendo too soon, around the second murder, and with nowhere else to go (except perhaps into hardened impassivity), she remains there for the rest of the film. She also lacks a dialectical streak that could have deepened the character. Delicious exception is the scene where she tortures a lawyer to get details about her targets’ whereabouts. Ponni stands behind the seated victim, facing away, noting down names and places with a pen on paper. When information isn’t forthcoming, she gently manipulates, with her left hand, the knife she has planted on the woman’s nape with the casualness of a seasoned researcher working on a lab instrument.

The villains are all men with extraordinary coiffure and facial hair (there are no bald men in Arun’s films); one of them does a bit with his thumbs that seems borrowed from Bharathiraja in Rocky. But they aren’t clearly differentiated, and the decision to split them up into separate hideouts for the sake of narrative proves to be laborious. The most despicable of the lot is dispatched first, dooming the boss fight (set in an implausible movie theatre playing MGR’s sci-fi curiosity Kalai Arasi (1963)) to an anti-climax. The villains in this film are proof that Arun is a terrible writer of dialogue, and that if he keeps at it, it could become poetry.

Saani Kaayidham contains even less humour than did Rocky. As it is, humour in Arun’s films arrives like a 50-rupee note on the street — incidentally and with marginal pleasures — and here the nervous laughter that you see in his interviews is scarcely to be found. It is perhaps understandable. Humour often comes with maturity, and for filmmakers like Arun who are obsessive about strict control of tone and texture, it may sometimes register as loss of control. So it is allowed to show up only behind the protection of cinephilia (the chapter title “naadum, nattu makkalum” cut to Sangayya’s mother cursing) or post-Kumararaja cinematic coolth (a torture sequence cut to a Mahabharata exegesis).

Which brings us to the violence of the film. Saani Kaayidham, like its predecessor, is suffused with scenes of torture and execution. The violence itself isn’t shown, with the camera largely fixated on the killer’s face, while the (rather unimaginative) sound design does the heavy lifting. As an extension, Ponni’s rape is photographed from her (and the audience’s) point of view, with occasional reverse shots of her bruised eyes. The director relieves the sordid cynicism of this long sequence by intercutting it with scenes of Sangayya accompanying Ponni’s daughter home, which is shot through with its own kind of dread.

Like Balaji Tharaneetharan’s comedy, Arun Matheswaran’s violence is expressed in ritual repetitions — repeated stabs, repeated kicks, repeated taunts, repeated closing doors — that can numb. As with the overall style, however, there doesn’t appear to be a principle guiding the representation of violence. Arun can’t seem to decide if he wants to commit himself to the fantasy (Ponni mowing down a platoon of henchmen), regard it from an amoral distance (the focus on Ponni’s rage over the victim’s suffering) or judge its futility (a villain who laments about the plight of his blind boy as he is being hacked). Ponni’s trajectory, from her violation to her final Pyrrhic victory, has the inexorability of a mathematical formula, but it is also crippled by an indecisiveness, as though the film were too reflexive to fulfil the wishes it engenders, too devoted to subvert them.

A German Party, Simon Brückner’s magnificent political documentary about the workings of the far-right outfit Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), begins with a declaration of its own uselessness. Allaying the worry of party members that a camera in the room might make their financial discussions public, senior leader Frank-Christian Hansel informs them that the film will not release until 2022, that is after the 2021 parliamentary elections, and by then it won’t be of much value. A German Party has nothing to be embarrassed about the comment, for its goal is not to persuade voters or influence elections.

Founded in 2013, the AfD experienced a meteoric rise in its first years, winning 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 federal elections to become the first far-right party since the Second World War to enter the Bundestag. Feeding off anxieties triggered by the migrant crisis, the AfD gained as much as every third vote in certain regions of erstwhile East Germany, but has since experienced a backlash for its shift further to the right of the political spectrum. In 2020, the domestic intelligence service placed large sections of the AfD under surveillance, classifying them as a threat to the constitution.

Outside of opening and closing title cards, however, the film gives very little contextualizing information. There are few markers of time and place, no direct interviews or archival clips to aid the viewer. The film follows a handful of party members, but we learn their names only incidentally, if at all. Divided into six chapters and spanning three years, Brückner’s fly-on-the-wall documentary instead drops us into the middle of the operations, alternatingly walking us through cool deliberations of top-level meetings and high-temperature confrontations of grassroots activism. The result is a markedly composite picture that offers a sense of the heterogeneity of an organization popularly considered an ideological monolith.

The very first scene, where party workers discuss slogans coined for the upcoming campaign, lays down the orientations and beliefs of the AfD: distrust of the establishment (“Courage for Truth” goes the main catchphrase), the European Union (“More Europe, Less EU”), immigration (“Integration Needs a Dominant Culture”), eco-socialism (“Stop with the Windmills”) and a support for the army (“Modernize the Army”), heterosexuality (“Only Mom and Dad Make the Future”) and the family (“Grandkids Safeguard Grandma’s Pension”). “Screwing for pensions,” jokes one skeptical member, prompting another to point out that the slogans are there to galvanize the voter, not the partymen: the bait is for the fish, not the fisherman.

These hot-button topics recur throughout A German Party, but the film avoids sensationalism and instead emphasizes the ordinariness of the AfD’s day-to-day negotiations — a risky move that could invite charges of mainstreaming the group. The film was made with the consent and cooperation of its participants, who perhaps saw in it an opportunity to polish their public image. The individuals we see here aren’t the tattooed, tonsured skinheads of Vice documentaries, but ordinary citizens and politicians formulating responses to specific issues, solving logistical problems or involved in public outreach.

Yet, what we get is far from an attempt at white-washing, and the film sheds its mundane garb at regular intervals to reveal the pathologies of movement we are dealing with. “Those who don’t love Germany can leave,” states a speechmaker of the party’s youth faction. Another one talks about land-grabbing migrants from Africa taking up too much space in public transport. Supremacist jokes, anti-mask rhetoric, badmouthing of news media and references to Prussian valour should ring alarm bells even for the uninitiated viewer. In one sequence, party members dressed in suits drive to a refugee camp near the Bosnian border to make incendiary videos for their TikTok accounts. When they spot three figures in the far distance, they get into a mini panic and prepare to leave.

These incriminating evidences aside, the film pronounces no further judgment. It is so focused on the mechanics of party operation that every viewer is likely to walk away with their own evaluation of the AfD. There are thematic connections between the chapters, but A German Party doesn’t aim for an exhaustive portrait. Condensing five hundred hours of footage into a commercially viable two-hour runtime, the film instead positions the AfD as an elephant that can only ever be partially apprehended.

Indeed, even the members of the party perceive it in highly divergent ways. Each one has a theory of what its identity, strengths and failings are, of why the party isn’t succeeding or how it should correct course, but these assessments are riddled with contradictions. Unity is important to some, getting rid of dissidents to others. The AfD is too niche and must reach out to a wider audience, believe a few. It is already spreading itself too thin in trying to appeal to the entire right half of the political radar, think others. The fact that many of AfD’s leaders are not seasoned politicians like those in other parties is seen as both an advantage and a shortcoming.

These contradictions have to do with the evolution of the AfD itself. What is so compelling about A German Party is that it presents a political outfit fully caught up in the dialectical process of self-definition, an organization trying to identify itself through differentiation — a body at its mirror stage, as it were. The need for the party to go mainstream, to form alliances and influence policy, runs up against the image that it has built for itself, namely that it represents a force outside the establishment. The most intriguing suggestion of Brückner’s film may be that rightward shift of the party, far from signalling the formation of a coherent ideology, may actually be the fruit of a lack of clear identity; the AfD is the AfD because it is not the CDU or the NPD.

A German Party shows the degree to which AfD is caught up in an internal war between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremists.’ Party chief Jörg Meuthen calls the provocateurs of the party’s extreme-right factions “pubescent schoolboys,” which convinces some that Meuthen must go. (He did, in January 2022.) In convention after convention, we witness radicals elbowing out their rivals for candidacy and party positions. The fight is not just at the level of leadership; at a tiny borough meeting of three people, an elderly member bats for the deportation of Muslim families, a proposal that doesn’t go well with the meeting host.

There are other internal incompatibilities too. We see politicians promising higher financial security, better welfare, more protection from international competition to impoverished towns of the east. But a significant cross-section of the party, including its aggressive economic wing, appears to be of a libertarian tendency. The tug-of-war is most apparent on the issue of Covid-19 measures. We discover that as much as 70% of the party membership doesn’t believe that the restrictions are excessive. Yet we get the impression that the AfD condones, or has no control over, its extremist wings, Flügel and Junge Alternative, who conduct strident anti-vaccination, anti-masking rallies.

Whether this lack of consensus points to a healthy culture of debate and democracy within the party, or a kind of doublespeak that appeals to two different voter bases or simply ideological inconsistency is left to the viewer to decipher. Towards the end of the film, the residents of a flood-ravaged town refuse to take the relief money offered by the AfD, reportedly out of concern about associating with the party. Is the refusal a reflection of Germany’s robust democracy and its people’s moral courage, or is it a sign of their cowardice and self-destructive political correctness? For you to judge.

 

[First published in News9]

In the Romanian film Graduation (2016), a doctor helps a local politician jump the queue for a liver transplant in exchange for fixing his daughter’s test scores. The moral corruption of an entire society is refracted through cheating in exams also in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), which screened in the New Directors/New Films programme at the Museum of Modern Art in April. Assistant professor Rehana (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a medical professional too, but unlike the compromised physician of Graduation, she is an idealist acutely sensitive to wrongful conduct. Saad’s film describes the price that she has to pay for staying upright in a world that is forever willing to bend.

Shortly after she expels a student for cheating in an exam, Rehana becomes witness to what she perceives to be a sexual assault by Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), one of her colleagues at the medical college. The victim is a student who had, just earlier, spoken out against Rehana’s expulsion of her friend at the exam hall. Rehana’s conviction that the injustice needs to be exposed is at loggerheads with the victim’s desire to stay low and let it pass. Worse, her simmering anger at her colleague’s action comes up against the fact that she hasn’t actually seen the incident and the creeping doubt that there may have been extenuating circumstances.

Saad’s film puts Rehana in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, letting her resentment come to a boiling point. Set entirely within the premises of a medical college — the architecture of which is never clear — Rehana refuses to go outdoors even when its protagonist is in perennial interaction with the world outside. Even at work, Rehana is constantly on the phone, now asking her ne’er-do-well brother to pick her daughter up from school, now talking with the school principal over a disciplinary action or admonishing her mother. A single mom supporting an extended family, she needs to keep her job, a dependency that Arefin and the college dean exploit to keep her silent.

Badhon, who carries the film from start to finish, plays Rehana not just as a morally sensitive person, but as a thorough sceptic with a chip on her shoulder. The zealousness with which she guilt-trips Arefin in passive-aggressive (and sometimes plain aggressive) encounters reflects a moralist who has personal stakes in the matter. At one point, she even assumes the role of the victim to lodge a false harassment complaint — a grey area that the film uses solely to take the plot forward. Moving briskly in and out of the frame, Badhon’s Rehana has little time for either rest or idle chatter — an attitude established by her contemptuous scowl after she receives an unwanted touch early in the film.

Rehana’s vehemence is, however, understandable. After all, she has a young daughter who has been asked to apologize at school for no mistake of hers. Moreover, the film is set in 2015, that is before the explosion of the #MeToo movement, and as such, it appears to articulate the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the subject in Bangladesh, a country that is believed to have been, by and large, indifferent or at least a latecomer to the movement.

Rehana is made in the intense, muscular style that is the malaise of so much of post-Dardennes art cinema: handheld cinematography, shallow focus, realist sound design and an absence of musical score. The camera never stops moving, oscillating to impart some tension even when it is supposed to be still. It follows the protagonist from up close, observing her from over the shoulder and making the viewer intimate with her experience of her surroundings. This results in a spate of profile shots, including a long passage where Rehana repeatedly splashes water on her face to telegraph her angst. In her confrontation with authorities, in contrast, she is filmed from behind, often decentred and made vulnerable.

The decision to never leave the hospital lends the film its claustrophobic keynote, just as the dull choice of soaking the film in shades of steely blues offers no visual relief. These pre-formed ideas produce the intended effect, but at the cost of sucking all air out of the project. Too tightly bound to its script for its own good, Rehana has no more space for its audience than its protagonist. The film directs our attention at every moment, cruising like a well-oiled vehicle on autopilot, with director Saad betraying very little by way of personality or character.

The filmmaker’s personality is right at the centre of Humaira Bilkis’ Things I Could Never Tell My Mother (2022), a poignant home movie from Bangladesh that premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyons. A portrait of familial reciprocity through art, the film inhabits the space between Humaira and her mother Khaleda. Once a liberal woman who gave her surname to her daughter and who wrote playful, longing love poems in the Hindu manner, Khaleda became a devout Muslim after a journey to Mecca, swapping her evocative Bengali verse for prayers in broken Arabic. Where she once wanted Humaira to become a painter, she now disapproves of her daughter’s vocation, declaring that, to Allah, “photos are worthless.”

Humaira’s faith, in contrast, resides in images. A collector and conserver of photographs, the filmmaker views them as ramparts against death. “You can’t see the soul,” she replies to her mother’s warning against images, “but you can see the body.” She is unmarried, a fact that gives her mother great grief. But Humaira can’t possibly tell her pious mother that she has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta. The filmmaker formalizes the opposition between her mother’s faith and her love affair by interweaving her interviews with mother with shots of her sneaking away to meet her boyfriend, the latter passages charmingly accompanied by Humaira reading her mother’s love poems.

Khaleda’s religiosity, it must be said, isn’t as intransigent for all that and her beliefs take a rest from time to time. She has no qualms watching cricket or television serials, and even the veil comes down when prayer is not on the mind. The filmmaker asks her mother what is it that troubles her about her daughter’s life. Khaleda thinks that her daughter is living in sin and sees it as a reflection of bad parentage; she hopes to help Humaira mend her ways by taking her on hajj. The daughter acquiesces, seeing in the pilgrimage a good opportunity to tell her mother about her romantic entanglement.

Alas, the pandemic strikes, ruling out the journey to Mecca, but also producing other kinds of stress. The filmmaker’s father is diagnosed with tumour and he loses his memory to the point of not recognizing his daughter. Mother slips into a depression and begins to lose weight rapidly. Humaira’s own relationship dissolves and she finds herself taking care of her ailing parents. The most touching passages of the film involve Humaira playing a caregiver to her father, a counsellor to her mother. She struggles to find a language to encourage her mother, drawing despite herself from the Prophet’s messages. Palliating her mother’s fear at outliving her husband, Humaira offers her own single life as a model, but it only accentuates her mother’s sense of failure.

Through all this, Humaira keeps filming, as though capturing these difficult episodes of family life were in some way a means to gain control over them. Like Chantal Akerman in No Home Movie (2015), the filmmaker holds on to images of her mother as a way of warding off her physical disappearance. In a process of filial reciprocation, she offers documentary images in return for her mother’s poems, which had so far provided commentary to her life. “May this film give a new dimension to our togetherness,” she muses, “the same way my mother’s poems give a new meaning to my life.”

 

[First published in News9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[First published in News9]

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