Road to the Oscars?

Road to the Oscars?

The official entries for the Academy Award have been made and as many as 67 countries are vying for the coveted award this year. Among the leading contenders for the nominations are Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Italy’s Gomorra, France’s Palm D’Or winner The Class, Iran’s The Song of Sparrows directed by Majid Majidi and Israel’s Waltz with Bashir. And the Italian entry is already making waves and being termed as one of the best crime dramas from the country.

The film interweaves five stories of five individuals – all inhabitants of Camorra (the notorious society of Naples known for its criminal activities) – a designer who sells himself to the fake manufacturers of the underground, a kid who fascinates getting into one of the gangs, two teenagers who wish to tackle everything with their newfound arsenal, an illegal businessman who pays the land owners in order to dump industrial waste and a plumber who tries to earn by other means. The narrative crosscuts irregularly from one story to another and it would a miracle if one could remember all five threads during any point in the film. But all this only adds to the harshness that the film depicts.

The basic atmosphere of the clan resonates what goes on there. There is no law, no neutrality and no word called crime. Everyone seems to belong to a gang and the gang wars are the courts that decide the future of the inhabitants. Everyone assumes that they are on the right side and are fighting for a cause. If Meirelles gave us the City of God, Matteo Garrone gives us the City without God. Gomorrah apparently refers to an ancient city that was decimated by God for the immense depravity of its residents. Indeed, it feels like God has deserted the settlement and has left everyone on their own as we see the figure of the Good Shepherd being dismantled and suspended by ropes (a possible nod to La Dolce Vita) as a family moves out of one of the buildings.

As Roy Stafford notes at The Case for Global Film, the locality forms a vital part in the narrative as we see in a fleeting shot that the whole establishment is so geographically close to the rest of the world, yet is culturally isolated from it. And like these structures, the film is completely devoid of any decorations that we see in conventional storytelling. It never once shows the trappings of a tale of crime, punishment and redemption that one expects at the starting of the film. Though it becomes a bit difficult to digest, it does provide the sense of confinement that the characters feel and the absence of any effort to come out of the vicious circle.

Also remarkable is the film’s photography that uses the camera as an active entity rather than as a tool for documentation. Like a thug staring at an intruder or like a dog sniffing a stranger, the camera gets close to the character, almost intimidating him and carefully peruses each one of his moves as if supervising his activities. It chooses to see what it wants and leaves out what it thinks is unwanted. It effectively becomes one of the clan members, even looking over corners and hiding behind people. For most part, the cinematography feels like hand held work, but never becomes nauseating even in the most dramatic moments.

The film is in the news for all the wrong reasons as the author of the book on which the film is based is under a life threat from the gangs of Camorra and a couple of the actors have been arrested in connection to the Camorra case. All this only assure that the director has been successful in exposing the inner working of one of the most arcane societies of the world. With the Academy’s policy towards violent and brutal films drastically changing, Gomorra may well cruise through to the last five and one can be sure that the weak Indian entry Taare Zameen Par has one less slot to compete for.


Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese

Goodfellas (1990) is one Scorsese film that made it big with both the audience and the critics. Its worm’s eye view of the underworld places it apart from all the films in the genre that still cling to the top level of the hierarchy.

Check this sequence in the film that takes place at a party club called Copacabana. The scene just shows Henry reaching his table with his girlfriend starting from the entrance. Though it’s a scene that is quite light on the minds and introduces us to the vital characters of the plot, the execution of the scene is so solemn and so thought over. The whole scene is captured in a single uninterrupted shot. The camera snakes in and out of thin paths, narrowly avoids collisions and tries to squeeze out into the destination. The way to the table is also too serpentine and access to it seems like a Herculean task, very much like the underworld that the film depicts.

Take a look:

Michael Ballhaus employs the camera like his eyes. Instead of using it as a tool for documentation, he gives it life and makes it an invisible character in the film. He makes it look at events, he makes it empathize and he transfers it onto the viewers. This effect is more pronounced in his earlier collaborations with German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose setups not only imposed physical restrictions on the movement of the camera, but also evoked a sense of claustrophobia that often reflected the characters’ own. The same period gave rise to his characteristic Ballhaus shot (or the 360 degree shot), again, testifying his opinion on the medium.

Though a lot of films off late have used the long snaky shot to gain unwarranted appreciation, none of them gels with the film as effectively as the Copacabana shot.

P.S: Sorry for another Scorsese scene. But what to do, he is one of the best scene composers alive!

While watching Polladhavan, I realized that almost every other Tamil movie that releases today is based on underworld and organised crime. Gangwars, Hooligans in love, Rise to power of a henchman, common man pulled into violence and what not. We may even see a Dada learning bharatnatyam or a Gunda turning into a priest very soon. I then traced back to the movie that perhaps started it all, Mani Rathnam’s Nayakan. Released way back in 1986, the movie has inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers in the state.

Heavily inspired by the Coppola classic The Godfather (1972), no doubt, Nayakan still has the power to sweep you off the ground. This may not be Kamal Haasan‘s best performance or Mani Rathnam’s best venture, but Nayakan has provided something Tamil cinema has longed for – a milestone. Organized crime has never been shown before with such authority and vitality in Tamil cinema. A commoner who has the guts to stand up against the tyranny of the police, a boy-next-door growing to become the biggest don, a godfather you can rely upon for help – what more could the audience ask for? Velu standing against the water spray, Nayakar defending Selva after his daughter witnesses murder, the scene at the hospital where a child is to be treated, the death of Surya, the now-classic climax – these images will linger in minds of everyone who wants good Tamil movies.

No other “don movie” has even thrilled audience like Nayakan (excepting Basha, credits fully to Superstar), leave alone making an impact. This shows how stale the state of the Tamil cinema industry is. Why do the filmmakers go in search of another Nayakan? Why don’t they try reforming the present state? The answer, some may say, lies in the “Critical Vs Commercial” debate. But haven’t many other films been both critical and commercial success? So why are we stuck up with these gangstas? Are we lacking talent? Are we devoid of new ideas? I think not.

The present state of the industry may be attributed to the producers who want to play safe. The small ones want to use the time tested formulas (2 rooba pottu 3 rooba sambathikardhu) and are afraid to produce new ideas. The big players, on the other hand need stars who in turn do not want their image to be hurt by new ideas. So what is the solution? It is up to the veteran directors and actors who want to provide good cinema to persuade their producers to take a bold step forward. Shankar’s S-pictures, for one, is doing that. Also, if the small-timers can collaborate or if the senior directors can contribute for more such production houses, Tamil cinema can proudly give birth to new Nayakans.