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.

Mahanagar (1963) (aka The Big City)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“I think you should apologize to Edith”

 

MahanagarWhat is more surprising than the fact that Ray’s films are universally accepted with open arms and considered timeless, is that a large part of the west is able to relate only to works of Satyajit Ray whenever cinema of India is discussed. Similar to how Satyajit Ray’s phenomenal body of work eclipses all other commendable efforts from the country, his own Apu trilogy overwhelms his other worthy films. Case in point – Mahanagar (1963).

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Tahaan

Tahaan: Disarmingly simple

Santosh Sivan is one of those very few DOP turned directors that are spoken of nowadays. In spite of their box office results, Santosh Sivan’s films always create expectations. It is not often that we see a wide release of his films. And when they do, it is wise to catch them up on the big screen. Watching Tahaan: A Boy With A Grenade, it is inevitable for one to be reminded of his staggering work Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist (1999), for both graze similar and contemporary themes.

Set and shot is the paradisal Indian (!) state of Kashmir, Tahaan (Purav Bhandare) is the story of a young boy of the same name and his friend/donkey Birbal. Situations change for the worse and Tahaan is forced to separate from Birbal. Tahaan is shattered and decides to get back Birbal at any expense. For this, Tahaan travels from one place to another, meeting one character to another and facing one peril to another, in the end being exploited in many ways, much like Birbal himself. Meanwhile, his mute mother (Sarika) is desperately is search for her husband, who went missing three years ago. Though in utter distress, her only hope is a miracle, which seems to be the only way out for all of the valley’s residents. Amidst the echoes of bombs and bullets in the serene valley, Tahaan’s objective, however, remains simple and straightforward – Get Birbal back. Unlike Malli of The Terrorist, Tahaan’s primary aim is utterly disjoint from the state of the affairs of the country.

Made in the same tradition as Iranian gems such as Marooned in Iraq (2002), Turtles Can Fly (2004) and a few others, Tahaan is tightly grounded in the culture of the state and also in the present political turmoil of the region. Unlike many of its Iranian counterparts that enthrall the audience with the sheer simplicity of their plot, Santosh Sivan’s script tries to bring in the larger issues into the picture, but never once changing perspective or taking a stand. Thus, Tahaan strictly remains a story of the titular character, without any pretense.

Few directors in India remain in the same cadre as Sivan when it comes to visual composition. If it was the haunting and dense jungles of coastline Lanka in The Terrorist, it is the vast and white snowy stretches of Kashmir in Tahaan. Sivan’s cinematography effectively uses the widescreen to capture the awe-inspiring peaks of Kashmir in its entirety. The sound design needs a definite mention for its remarkable ear for detail and naturalness with its borderline synchronized sound.

No complaints in the acting department of the film. Anupam Kher is at his easy best and churns out the best performance of the film. All his lines succeed, in spite of being very mediocre and deliberately inserted. Sarika’s self-assuring quietness and her countenance gel well with her character and makes it a very credible effort. Rahul Bose, after a series of debacles, shines as a dimwit in his earthy and lovable role. Purav Bhandare, who plays the title character, does a decent job too.

Like The Terrorist, Sivan goes totally minimalist, in spite of not being under financial constraints this time around. This particularly shows in the film’s near-zero depiction of on-screen violence and its stubbornness against visual extravaganza, reminding us again of its spectacular predecessor.  This not only reminds us that grandness does not necessitate lavishness but also shows how Tahaan is shielded from the trauma of war, which apparently is the need of the hour. However, Tahaan does differ from The Terrorist, unfortunately, for the worse. More verbose and noisier than the former, Tahaan tries hard to elucidate the protagonist’s charm and bring in calculated humour, which could have been made very self-sufficient considering the quality of the material at hand. As a result, Tahaan does not linger in the minds of the viewers permanently and fails to stalk them long after the movie is over.

Though more overtly dramatic and conventional than The Terrorist, Tahaan may, to an extent, serve as a companion piece to it. The Terrorist depicts how the basic human nature is interminable and unalterable be what the external situation whereas Tahaan shows how the innocence of childhood is unduly exploited by (anti) social elements, although it remains untainted by them.

Verdict:

Thevar Magan (1992) (aka The Chieftain’s Son)
Bharathan
Tamil

“Go on, go educate your kids”

 

Thevar MaganThe slew of movies in Tamil cinema based on villages stopped with the late eighties as cities became the prime audience of the filmmakers. Though infinitely many stories still lie in the villages waiting to be told, not many movies from the nineties and the new century have tapped it. One film that has indeed done it, Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (1992), stands out as a vital milestone in the history of Tamil Cinema.

Coming as a revamped adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Thevar magan chronicles the life of Sakthi (Kamal), the son of the village head Periya Thevar (Shivaji Ganeshan) who has just returned from his life in the city for a few days. He experiences a totally different and even savage life in the rural area and is disgusted by it. Just when he decides that he has had enough of it, things take an awry turn and Sakthi is forced to relinquish his career to take up the helm of the village administration. Past rivalries are dug up, cries of scores to be settled once and for all echo and hatred and violence reign. Sakthi decides that the village needs to be saved and the villager’s pride for caste and race needs to be eradicated.

More than anything, the film is a powerhouse of high wattage performances with the central conversation between the two veterans remaining one of the best scenes of recent times. One can easily condemn the film as glorifying violence but on second thoughts, it is indeed the violence of the film that supports its cause. At the end of the film, one does realize that nobody has won and violence does not pay.

Charulata (1964) (aka The Lonely Wife)
Bengali
Satyajit Ray

“Give me your word that no matter what might happen, you won’t leave”
 

CharulataFor a large part of the rest of the world, the name Satyajit Ray would immediately relate to the Apu trilogy and would probably stop at that. Ironically, a great number of his fabulous films have never reached the eyes of the Occident. Charulata (1964) is one such gem that never gets a mention when briefing the director’s work.

Bhupati is the owner of a newspaper The Sentinel and gives his heart and soul for its development so much so that he neglects the presense of his wife Charulata. Charulata kills her time doing petty stuff such as looking at people on the street through her opera glasses and doing embroidery. Bhupati asks his graduate brother, Amol, to somehow induce her to write which she seems interested in. Amol pretends to Charu that he is interested in writing and spends his afternoons with her trying to get valuable inputs from her. Finally, Amol manages to make Charu write an article and get it published in a renowned magazine but not before the latter develops a strong bond with her brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Charu’s brother and treasurer of The Sentinel doesn’t see prospects in running the newspaper and decides to run away with the funds. Bhupati comes to know of the betrayal and decides to suspend production after which Amol leaves the house with the intention of easing his brother’s burden. After a few sombre days, Bhupati and Charulata decide to resurrect the newspaper with both of the contributing. This is immediately followed by the climax where Bhupati accidentally discovers Charu’s attraction towards his brother and realises his mistakes.

Not one character is wasted or overdone in the film. In many ways, Charulata is Satyajit Ray’s most daring and open statement on the position of women in the society. Charulata is the epitome for the free and thinking woman of new India as opposed to her sister-in-law Manda. The tale of constrained relations between a man who has been complacent in his marital life, a woman who seeks forbidden love and a young man who becomes an involuntary catalyst for the exposure of truth is not only a commentary on contemporary India but also a fine work of art. Charulata won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965.