Wednesday, November 15, 2017

An Insignificant Man

I had anticipated An Insignificant Man for a long time, being also a crowdfunder to the film with a very tiny contribution. The film, originally and better titled as "Proposition for a Revolution", has, however, disappointed me, notable for its focus on one man (Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, founder Arvind Kejriwal) rather than the film's stated aim of focusing on the evolution of a new political party.

The biggest letdown of the documentary film is its linear narrative, which ends with the unexpected good performance (for some) of the AAP in its very first legislative elections. Unexpected for the uninitiated, but the Indian knows the story, and the film thus ends up giving some thrilling political narrative with some grit around it, but is absent of substance, is absent of thought. It focuses too much on Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav, essentially doing the same what Kejriwal himself has been repeatedly accused of: personality cult. Electoral battles, however, are not won by mere charisma, especially when it's on a wide scale and for the first time, and when you face more charismatic leaders in the opposition (BJP's Modi): they are rather won through grassroots successes, which the film gives a mere glimpse of. The film could have focused on a few aam candidates, a few constituencies within Delhi: for it is the workings of politics that need to be shed light upon and that would provoke thought, not the tired old story (especially by now) of the outsider storming to power. The film, though it claims to be impartial, also does worship Kejriwal: it does not focus on opponents, except when it is a weak opponent in her weak moments, as Sheila Dikshit during her moments of arrogance. What of Modi or even the very weak Harsh Vardhan? To show victory, you have to show what got defeated (and, then, BJP stood first in those elections). The film's linear narrative, which though misses out on the Anna Hazare context except a visual in the beginning, only makes the film be like one of those Hollywood sports movies, at the end of which the underdog does win, against all odds. All political thought, except when preached by Yadav, serving as punctuations in the film, is absent. For that to happen, the film should have engaged with party volunteers as well as voters and opposition candidates, rather than revolving around Kejriwal. And with less Yadav preaching. The film is not supposed to be a Kejriwal biopic, one must remember.

Meanwhile, the film does simplify matters to those audiences who know nothing about Kejriwal, notably foreign audiences: hence, it is a film that can run well on the festival circuit. The sheer complexity of India, and its electoral exercise, is a mind-boggling one, which is captured in detail in the film, and that can impress or stun (or confuse) a Western viewer, some of whom are too often used to think of themselves as the only democracies. The film's subtitling in English, though, is terrible, at least for now: colourful or idiomatic Hindi is replaced with staid English phrases. The title of the film itself, which is the unique title of the film including in India, does it great disservice; it in fact gives impression of a reality that does not exist, something ironic for a documentary: aam aadmi does not mean "an insignificant man", but "a common man". In the film as well, Kejriwal's proclamation that he is but an aam aadmi is again subtitled as "insignificant man", so that is very clearly a conscious choice. Yes, the mango man does carry nuances of insignificance, but that is already packed in the English word "common". If Kejriwal had meant to call his party that of "insignificant" men, Hindi does not lack words: to translate "common" as "insignificant" elevates the thrill of the (now insignificant) outsider, the David, versus the established, the Goliath; it also heightens bitterness, and at the same time gives a distorted picture of Indian polity and society.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Le chemin

Jeanne Labrune's film Le chemin ("The Path") can lend itself to several interpretations, and I will talk of mine. The film has a simple or even almost non-existent plot but brimming with possibilities and is rich with tension: which in itself makes the film a worthwhile watch. But, as the title suggests, the film is about the paths, often against the bidding of society, we take, and how sometimes they take us where we could never have imagined; in such a manner, the film celebrates the beauty of our lives' unpredictability. Chance encounters can give a radically new direction to our life, as happens for Camille, trying to be a nun, when she meets Sambath, the pensive and charming French-speaking Cambodian, who is torn between a cultural upbringing in France and his inner identification with Asian attributes. The meetings with Sambath will come to be frequent, though always stolen and the desire behind them un-confessed to oneself: Labrune manages to sketch far better the resulting tension and desire hidden in Camille's mind than what David Lean could manage in A Passage to India. The film, however, also depicts, even if involuntarily, how the East and the West have grown, across millennia, to be incompatible: while Camille is governed always with passion, whether it be her desire to take religious vows or her renunciation of them, and hence concentrates her whole selfhood into a very narrow sphere of thought and activity, Sambath is governed with pragmatism and foresight, and hence does not give in to a strong pull of desire. For the West, giving in to passion is liberty, forgetting how cheaply, for the satisfaction of being able to act upon a whim, it in fact sells liberty; for the East, discipline is liberty, knowing that true freedom lies in governing one's own conditions, rather than the conditions dictating your life, and thus free not to be bound by some gnawing preoccupation. In some ways, the film is also an encounter between modern Christianity and the idea anchored in Buddhism: between here and now, and eternal. Camille will leave, having learnt a little but only of how things work, not herself; Sambath will be left behind, knowing his two pasts and an uncertain future, but knowing himself better. Thus indeed happened with the colonisers: they learnt and profited from their encounters, but could not re-examine or reform themselves; thus indeed happened with the colonised: they live in confusion, knowing two systems and now no longer of one, and yet innately adhering to the organic whole that existed before the invader came.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Umi yori mo mada fukaku


(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its June 2017 issue.)

Dignity for a man is often found, or rather sought, in his father: he hero-worships him, and he would rather be the son of someone he can look up to and whom society respects. When society does not, the man, right from his earliest years as a boy, is often forced to choose: either continue believing in his father and seeking endearing traits in him, and thus know that his father is indeed worthy of his love and respect, or bear the painful reality and feel an orphan even more, hating probably even himself. In either circumstance, the result is a humiliating loss of innocence, to which the subconscious hardly ever comes to terms. For in later life, the search for a worthy father often morphs into the search for one's own self—a search either for someone who, through being like the father, excuses the father, or for someone who, by seeking to be everything that the father was not, either in imagination or reality, tries to alienate the father and shrug off that tainted appendage. And yet, is that even possible?

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has grappled with this same question in many of his works, including in Kiseki (I Wish), Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son), and most notably Umi yori mo mada fukaku (int'l title: After the Storm). A society like Japan—in which the pursuit of excellence imbues even the mode of death and in which mediocrity can be looked down upon with withering scorn—gives Koreeda fertile ground for exploring a world where individuals are judged to be able or not able. As a result of this environment, innocence is lost early for a child and love often cedes place to confusion about should one love? When judgement enters the realm of instinct, you know innocence has been impaired and the child is no more.

After the Storm tells the story of three generations: with Hiroshi Abe, playing Ryôta, the connecting link. In Ryôta, Koreeda has created a loveable character: he is a son to a dead father and a living mother, and is a father to a son who is becoming more distant by the day and questioning whether Ryôta is worthy enough. Ryôta grapples with this same question about himself and also about his dead father. But even if Ryôta were able not to think about his self-doubts, society, including his own family, is there to remind him of his mediocrity as a writer whose career never took off and as a part-time detective who does nothing noble and does not even earn enough to pay his ex-wife the agreed amount for his son's upkeep.

However, despite his poverty, Ryôta is defiant—defiant enough not to sell out his writing for a genre he doesn't respect; defiant enough to keep buying dreams for himself and for his son. It is this aspect that makes Koreeda's film such a great watch and Ryôta a character that one connects with. Ryôta knows that when the storm has gone and the sunshine returned, there may be trees that have fallen down, but there will also be seeds that have been planted and that some of them will grow, having received both rain and sunshine. He knows that dreams are what sustain a human being, or at least a human being's goodness, and that once-planted, they are sometimes hard to dislodge, even under the scorn of society. Ryôta knows that seeds, and dreams, need to be planted with persistence and belief. For then, when the storm has finished, he will be able to recognise the belief that his father planted in him and will witness how he has managed to plant some in his own son.


Judgement had entered Ryôta's heart, seeping through society, but the storm has cleansed him, and as a result, his love for his father, his faith in himself and his hope for his son have all sprouted anew. It will matter less to him now if his ex-wife takes him back: because the storm has made him again innocent in a way, or rather now, he can choose to be innocent. Ryôta can finally be free.

Mukti Bhawan


(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its March 2017 issue. It is reproduced here in full, but footnotes have been stripped off.)

Many articles, documentaries and news reports have covered Varanasi as the chosen place to die for Hindus. Some of these have also chosen to focus on individual stories and the guesthouses where the dying come to wait for death in this city which may guarantee them liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Shubhashish Bhutiani's film Mukti Bhawan (international title: Hotel Salvation), the young Indian director's first feature-length film, adds a work of fiction to this growing field of inquiry. The film, however, doesn't add much to the subject of Varanasi and its guesthouses: in this respect, it merely enlarges upon Al Jazeera's 2011 made-for-TV documentary "Salvation House" (aired as part of Witness). Mukti Bhawan instead treats Varanasi, and the age-old struggle of man's preparation for death, as mere backdrops, focussing instead on the relationship between a father who has not entirely accepted his forthcoming death and hence needs Varanasi, and his son who navigates the inhibitions of filial piety and the restrictions of the milieu in which he was raised.

As the film progresses, the father becomes more amenable to the idea of death. Likewise, the son—who initially resents his father's easily bought liberation while he (the son) remains ensconced not only in the epic cycle of births and deaths, but also the grinding middle-class struggles of this life—also later finds peace. As the father attains liberation, the son is also brought to his own, coming to terms with his unspoken grudges, his repressed aspirations and his present. In this respect, on the back of a brilliant chemistry between the father-son duo of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, Mukti Bhawan is a lovely little movie, and adds another feather to the cap of the current crop of independent Indian cinema. However, it could have been more thought-provoking and touching if it had enlarged on the backdrop of Varanasi itself and sought to understand how one merges into many, and many into one, in the unique land that is India.

This thought reminds me of another TV show, specifically the first episode of the famous series Bharat Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India). This 53-part series—which was written and directed by Shyam Benegal and aired in 1988—is based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book of the same name and covers a 5000-year-period of Indian history and culture, finishing with independence in 1947. Toward the end of its first episode, there is a clever montage of close-ups of men, women and children, reflecting the stunning diversity of Indian faces and undermining the homogenisation of Indian history and opinion. These close-ups are interspersed with medium shots of small groups of people: women in a field, almost-naked boys jumping into a river for a joyful bath, scenes from a bazaar, boys playing marbles. The montage finishes with a shot of a huge crowd—one of diverse faces and occupations, ethnicities and religions, viewpoints and histories—but whose members are all moving on a busy square, as if one. (Such a scene is common on many of India's streets.) Bharat Ek Khoj beautifully illustrates how multiple histories have shaped, and continue to shape, India, by showing the country not as an abstract idea, but as a nation composed of every single Indian. Diversity, with abounding fertility, lies at the heart of India's uniqueness and has allowed it to remain a strong nation and a weak state, in spite of sporadic (and continuing) efforts to the contrary. The unity of India thus does not come from a common language, or common rituals, or a common history or political system; instead, it comes from partaking. It comes from shared, and acknowledged, histories; from shared, and swapped, philosophies; from having to communicate (all the more effectively) through the eyes, thanks to a lack of a common tongue. The scope for violence is automatically reduced because my word cannot be the word.

Returning to Mukti Bhawan—in focussing very narrowly on the father-son relationship, Bhutiani borrows heavily from Western idioms of filmmaking and forgets the organic whole from which these characters sprout: while the film is a good study of father-son relations, the context goes missing. A Hollywood film (at least one set in the West) which mostly placing its characters at the centre of the earth wouldn't go amiss for treating its subjects in this manner, as detachment and individualism reign in the West. However, India is not like this: it is the land of dharma ("righteous duty," as in a tiger's dharma is to hunt for prey) where a person lives with several dharmas, which are not always easy to reconcile. A man is not merely a son: he is also a father, a husband, a neighbour, an employee, a tourist, a stranger, a human, and all these roles come with different dharmas, which themselves also vary at different times. Bhutiani's film shows Adil Hussain's character, the son, to be in all these roles, yet fails to interconnect them, as Varanasi—or Kashi (the "City of Light," which is the ancient name for Varanasi and still preferred in the spiritual context)—is missing in his film. A clue lies in the film's very name: while in Hindi, Mukti Bhawan simply means "Liberation House," the international title is Salvation Hotel, which is a mistranslation on several counts. Hindus do not have the concept of salvation (and it is a gross simplification to translate "moksha," of which mukti is a variation, as "salvation"); liberation actually occurs a step prior to moksha in the cycle and a place which does not charge for accommodation can hardly be called a "hotel."

Dharma is the very opposite of the Western concept of law: there is no "thou shalt." The flexibility of this philosophy is what has enabled India to retain its diversity so far, when every other land in this world has failed in that respect. Though Mukti Bhawan is a promising debut for Bhutiani, his film also reflects the current trend towards the Westernisation of Indian cinema, which borrows Western mores and ways of narrating a story, and even Western optics themselves, thus distorting India more and more through borrowed glasses. The film is also a reflection of modern Indian society, which, through ignorance primarily, has started to lean towards law and away from dharma: a society that has started to take the same path, in other words, that China took several decades ago by crushing the Confucian and Daoist elements of its culture in favour of a ruthless consumerism that does not seek, or care for, harmony. It would be considered an irony by some that a film that takes a very spiritual Indian ritual as its core theme, one that even appears in the title, constrains the Indian experience by giving it the colour of one story: forgetting that there is no one story, at least not in India, only many welded stories.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Baahubali: The Beginning / Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

The best moment of this extravaganza is the very beginning of Baahubali: The Beginning, when a beautifully rendered Telugu song is heard, and Ramya Krishnan impressively wades into the river, drowning but saving a baby, the to-be Mahendra Baahubali. But then, things go rapidly down, and in The Conclusion, the film makes a mockery of people's intelligence. But, maybe not: after all, it is one of the most successful films of India by now in terms of gross revenue earned. And yet, cinematically, the two films do not deserve much writing about: their crassness can be summarised in a few phrases.

The much-vaunted special effects of the films, on which the films rely so heavily as to even forego basic sets for them, are extremely badly executed, especially in the second part: are Indians praising them just because they are so blinded to a regional/national product? In terms of acting performances, Ramya does well throughout, and the first part overall is not too bad, but the second part topples: Anushka's performance as a young Devasena is poorly performed, not helped in that her part is badly sketched as a mindless, arrogant girl. Baahubali's abilities to do things overleap the bounds of belief in the second part, and so does Prabhas's believability; from a gritty general, Sathyaraj as Kattappa is not able to pull off the comic, endearing capers of an Anupam Kher; and Rana Daggubati, as chief villain Bhallaladeva, is reduced to a smiling assassin's role, with no scope given to his acting prowess, though Rana is otherwise a good actor. Long songs in weird settings punctuate the film, or rather interrupt it; lengthy action scenes, some of which again lack believablity, again strip the film of any pretense to telling a story. The film's dialogues are unbelievably cheap for a film that is rooted in a mytho-historical context: the absence of any intelligent conversation in the film, and modern attitudes getting reflected in characters of both Devasena and Avanthika (the former due to the dialogues given to her, and the latter due to poor acting skills) make you wonder if the film just showcases might, and more might, coupled with charitableness, as the basis of rule, and forgets that subtlety is the art of ruling, of politics, not a strength of hundred elephants, nor condescension. Wit is absent: and that is an extremely hard thing to forget when dealing with a royal context. It is not that in India, wit was absent from the royal context: for that, see the Merchant-Ivory film In Custody (Urdu poetry and witticism developed primarily due to royal patronage and the context of being used by elites). Or, for how subtlety and the art of cunning are paramount in the world of politics, see the 1966 classic A Man for All Seasons. But, then, intelligent fare does not earn buckets of money: not just in India, but worldwide (otherwise, Hollywood supermen/women and most of disaster movies would not be running their franchise businesses). Yet, but why should Indian ambassadors and critics sing paeans for a film that can only advertise Indian cinema badly: and that, when India should be proud of its long-existing cinema, its originality, its beautiful escapist fare and yet a realism in it, its excellence in narrating a tale, and its strength in drawing artists and spectators alike in a land where money is not aplenty. Instead, today, India is more and more switching allegiance to the Hollywood mores of telling story: the Baahubali franchise is a sad attestation to how India is changing. If special effects-laden films required lesser money to make or if India had been richer, one suspects that such films would become standard course. This reflects very aptly today's India, an India that is composed of people who confusedly take their self as same as the label Indian, who go for flash-bling-bling of a nouveau riche, maybe even a nouveau (faux-)libre. But about that, I will write separately.

Note: I have watched the films in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. Telugu, however, is the original language version of the film.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Stella (2008)

Sylvie Verheyde's film Stella is a remarkable achievement: with hardly a plot, rather a psychological portrait, intimately drawn, of a young girl, the film is at the same time a much deeper glimpse into French society than many films are successful at: though, in general, French films do a better job at drawing everyday life than films of many other countries (Iran excepted, which also does a great job).

Stella is a courageous girl at times, at times not: like any human being. She admires beauty and aspires for it; she hates herself at times, for she finds herself ordinary, coming from ordinary surroundings. But she loves the things she learns in these ordinary surroundings; she loves rough, sexy men frequenting the bar her parents run, learning poker, the carefree atmosphere. But it is this she loves, and the elitist society she belongs to doesn't want this from her: rather than any kind of practical knowledge or recognising that there exist many kinds of knowledge, this society talks to her of literature and history and spellings. Stella's life begins to offer a glimpse into the schizophrenia that afflicts French society: her home is different from the civilised school. Her only Paris friend, Gladys, a kind soul, is also an outsider: not charming enough for boys, with a name that makes others laugh. But even Gladys' home is more traditional, with leftist-leaning discussions dominating smoky tables, and Gladys gets good grades; not that Gladys cares, but Stella does, who only gets teachers' rude reprimands forever. But Stella changes; life at home changes, as her mother and father draw away from each other, her countryside friend is more interested in boys now than spending time with her, a known customer lures her to abuse her (and maybe succeeds?), and Stella is asked for a dance by a most handsome boy ... for whom Stella even starts getting good grades, for she doesn't want to be left behind in the old class now. But life does not change all: Gladys continues to be her dear friend ... life does not change all, but it changes dramatically for Stella. And thus, she will learn life in the schizophrenic world of France, where appearances and reality can mean two different, often diametrically opposite, things.

A beautiful critique of modern French society in many ways, especially of its elitism and the way children are treated in French schools, Stella offers a glimpse into a girl's, or any human's, mind. Stella is a perfectionist in her love for perfection: hence, she will even attack someone when not coming to scratch. But the world she lives in is far from perfect and will often disappoint her. She needs her dreams to cling on to, for those dreams, and Gladys' love, are what let her preserve her sanity; the rest is cleaved between outside and inside, between now and then.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memorias del subdesarrollo

The Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Memorias del subdesarrollo (English title: Memories of Underdevelopment) is the most stunning, astonishing, and deep exposure of colonialism that I have ever seen or read or witnessed in any form in my life, and I doubt if it can be surpassed: the extraordinary work, much filmed stream-of-consciousness-like in the manner of Resnais's admirable La guerre est finie, a film only two years older, can be watched and rewatched dozens of times by me, for every frame is a revelation, every subtle reference is power-packed, meaning-punched.

The film is decorated with several references: of course, Cuba's political situation in those heady days when Castro took over, Kennedy's failed missile deployment, the women's emancipation as understood and advocated by the leftists. But that is merely, though not unsubstantial, flesh: at the dark heart of the film is one theme, or if you may, two—the intellectual's cowardliness, and the coloniser's (here the Spaniard's) civilising mission. For me, both are one, intertwined closely: for you, they may be two themes. And amid all this, the film is highly charged erotically: I could watch this film multiple times even just for its erotic impulse, preferring it to the best porn. The eroticism is not misplaced: for an intellectual is nothing but someone who delights in and is unable to get out of the habit of excessive intellectual masturbation without going ever to the length of actual intellectual sex—unless it be done for peeps.

Sergio Corrieri is the intellectual, admirably played by Sergio Carmona Mendoyo. He knows his disease: he is after all not a fake intellectual, but a proper one. And he cultivates himself in the usual, "European" (as mentioned by Sergio himself) manner: he goes to musuems and galleries and interminable conferences, sees artefacts of that another intellectual, Hemingway, and lives a smug life in high expectations of himself, dashed occasionally when he realises that he comes up too short. But the hallmark of an intellectual are not these habits: they may get developed in many of all ilk. The hallmark is the inability to take anything else seriously except one's own self, the hallmark is this cowardliness to embrace life in its diversity: it is this that leads to a constant self-abuse, and that leads to see others as "underdeveloped." It is here that the civilising mission of the West ties in: for there was the imperialism of Japan and Russia and of the tsars and sultans, and there was the missionary-spirited colonialism of countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and the UK. Both were quite different.

Sergio makes a remarkably acute observation about Cubans, though he draws the conclusion of underdevelopedness: the spirit of adaptability, the tendency of adjustability in Cubans. He bemoans this lack of consistency, this lack of firm vision. It is here that he also gives a fine glimpse into colonialism's dark secret, often misunderstood. Many people dismiss the coloniser's civilised pretence as just an excuse to dominate someone else, a stance take: but it's not often the case. The civiliser indeed belabours under this fancy. Many people do carry the feeling that they are "more developed", that the other needs to be taught and educated: the one with a steely determination, a far-reaching vision is unable to digest that another can be happy in all circumstances. The steely visionary then dismisses the seemingly pliant one as a beast, an animal, not developed to his human faculties: just as gentleness is often misunderstood as submission in this world, so does the ability to remain happy, even when it comes from the special ability to not to take oneself very seriously, is often mistaken as vacuity. The coloniser, like Sergio, in fact suffers: lacking flexibility, he dominates peoples and women to his liking, trying to make the world cohere to him, instead of just enjoying the variety. The really amazing thing is that such a message is hard to carry in a film, in any kind of entertaining format: but Gutiérrez does it with aplomb, sowing questions and insights with fine fecundity in the viewer's mind.

Like many really good films, it starts slightly ramblingly, a bit slowly, a bit reluctantly. But ten to fifteen minutes into it, and you are sucked into it. An irony would be that such a film would most probably be also watched by many intellectuals, but probably, hopefully, it hits home for some of them and leads them to question their way of life. Life is not PhDs and conferences and acclaim; it's passion, not for oneself, but for life's beauty, which comes in all tastes, bitter and sweet included.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

La tortue rouge

I do not know much about Michael Dudok de Wit's interests and leanings, but every film of his that I have seen bears that strong stamp of timelessness and of cyclicality: and I shouldn't be saying "and" here, since what impression does cyclicality give if not timelessness, as if all times recur, are same, time has frozen? This is again the case with de Wit's first feature-length film, La Tortue Rouge ("The Red Turtle", though I would be more tempted to translate it as "The Red Tortoise" given de Wit's strong leaning towards Hindu-Buddhist themes of spirituality).

If you have seen de Wit's remarkable Father and Daughter and The Monk and the Fish, you know what to expect from the man: stunningly beautiful, fluid strokes of animation; a stillness like David Lean had with live action films; attention to seasons and little things going around us (which is an essential feature of good animation, to make us suspend disbelief); and exceedingly well-chosen, lovely music. Father and Daughter was remarkable in every way, but especially so for the extraordinarily realistic animation and immensely touching story; The Monk and the Fish was so for a hard-to-believe, wizard-like synchronisation between action and beautiful music; while La Tortue Rouge is for its spiritual message carried forth through a longer vehicle than the former two short films. All three films, however, carry a, and the same, spiritual message, though modulated on different harps.

Not all reviews of La Tortue Rouge have been kind: in the Age of Reason (or Cynicism), people want "I see, I get" stories unless they are told in advance that they are watching a gadget-ful, sci-fi movie, when most absurd things and characters will make sense for them since they know they had chosen the realm of absurd. But de Wit gives no such warning and treats what seems absurd to the reasonable with what seems real: this mixture is not just some experimental kitsch, designed to provoke or to thrill, as happens in many of those so-called sci-fi films. It is laced with deep meaning, for those who have the patience to feel life's, and the year's, seasons. All de Wit films remind me of two things: Test cricket and gardening. Things you can only enjoy with patience. De Wit should make Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees".

Now to the film itself, not its reception. In some ways, maybe, the film is less ambiguous than The Monk and the Fish, because even if the hidden spiritual message is unable to be comprehended by all, there is the romance: a beautiful, heart-touching story of a man and a woman who are ready to sacrifice their all - their home, their skin - for each other. But the film also acts very much on a spiritual and even theological plane, as a life spirit continues through repeated deluge and destruction. That life spirit, across cycles of universe, is not just the red turtle bearing the universe on its back: it is also the essence of birds chattering, crabs running around, moon looking. This is where de Wit, incredibly, marvels: how on earth does he manage this timelessness in a film, that too an animated film? Needless to say, never has such a talented filmmaker been born, perhaps. I haven't see any, at least, so far. Animation is already very hard work, but to touch the core of an essence that most can dimly feel at some moments of their lives is not just hard work, not just talent, but insight and genius.

Being a feature-length film co-produced and made across continents, the film has a few blemishes though: the opening scenes has the man floating a bit, that is, his walk, his jump do not have the required weight. That is a bit surprising, as de Wit's films are spot on in terms of animation: but given that this is a big production, and his first of such a kind, that is understandable and anyway not that important in the bigger scheme of things. For soon de Wit will create a poetry, without using any words: just his magic, his renderings, his chosen music, his message.

In a world where Disney and Pixar and productions like LOTR or Harry Potter or Star Wars exist, thankfully, in such a world, there is also Michael Dudok de Wit and his vision. And the possibility to realize his vision.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Le sens du toucher

Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo's animation short Le sens du toucher (English: The Sense of Touch) is, for me, one of the most remarkable romantic films in cinematic history: it is also an excellent lesson in the need of communicating, in not withdrawing into your shell. Animated with fluid strokes, the film plays with an easily accessible symbolism throughout, that does not lack in effectiveness just for being less abstract. Distances become small and large, and faces change Dorian Gray like, though this time not because of orgies, but because of anger and inability to accept another way of life. The film somehow also succeeds in drawing out the pain of the OCD-ish, introverted, clumsy guy: and it is painful to watch his struggle between love and desire, on the one hand, and the sway his habits hold on him, on the other. The film at the same time succeeds in drawing out the slightly vulnerable but ultimately stronger girl: believing in communicating and in her heart till the very last, but also knowing where to draw the line. When you give out hand, you can keep stretching it out, and that is as much as you can do: it's still up to the other to take it. But, one must not forget that to take someone's hand, even if stretched out in love, is not that easy always, not for all: this is what is difficult to come across on screen, and yet Mbotti Malolo manages to do it in the short space of a dozen minutes!

For the moment, the complete film can be watched here.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Snezhinka

Natalia Chernysheva's short animation film Snezhinka (English: Snowflake) is not just extraordinarily beautiful: it is also marvellously heartwarming and multilayered at the same time. Set in stark whites, stunningly punctuated by slivers of colours and given life by the black boy, the film at first is celebration of curiosity and of imagination. That curiosity which has produced not just good but also bad in the world, for good and bad are inextricable: that curiosity which led maybe the earliest men to cross seas and straits and settle thus in other lands, and thus spread humanity, but which also led some of the adventurers to marry their lust of a fine name with bravado, their penchant for cruelty with burning ambition: to imperialism and its disastrous consequences, from which we still suffer. And Chernysheva's film celebrates both aspects of human curiosity: while the animals look on and shiver cutely, the boy brings the charming foreign element and then also has to banish it, has to live with and without it.

The film is not the story of a letter that brought tundra-like cold to an African landscape: but the film is also about an organic whole and how a foreign element, howsoever charming and innocent in itself, can often destroy that organic quality of an ecosystem, of a society, destroy existing balance and lead to mayhem. The film offers a lesson for all those who ape blindly any other society's mores: be curious and learn, yes, but also take heed that nothing can be introduced with innocent effect. The boy is wise: not only he recognises the unwitting evil he has brought for the denizens of this world and sacrifices his pleasure, but he also knows that, instead of hate or regret or anger or sulking, the best response to an appropriation is reappropriation, both not done in the spirit of appropriating, though: as he sends one of the elements of his world, it is the other world that either may be in peril or may know how to deal with the foreign element. At some point, of course, someone will break, that is, accept the foreign element: and thus, new cultures will be born, new knowledge, at the cost of much devastation. For the cycle of curiosity, of knowledge, makes the loss of innocence inevitable.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Mosaferan

Mosaferan (Travellers in English) is not just another beautiful Iranian film: it is also the most stunning film of faith that I have ever seen, surpassing Dreyer's Ordet. The fight of retaining faith, in a crumbling non-believing world, is any believer's true test, regardless of the age he or she lives in: faith, which means also trust, demands everything, life and spirit, without conceding an inch, except in the rich satisfaction itself of possessing it and the ensuing torture when it totters. Faith is also the mirror, the only mirror, reflecting a person: those who lack it, those who are bound by blindfolds of rationality, are unable to see themselves—their relation and their relativity. And that is why the mother waits for the mirror: faith has momentarily deserted the house of marriage and the house of death. Only the mother keeps it, and she has not simply faith for herself, but she has faith that it shall be brought to others, that others who want a miracle to happen shall witness one, shall see themselves in the dazzling, often-blinding mirror. For in the mirror of faith, one can see one's atman. See, yes, but not with a pair of eyes.

Bahram Beyzai's film is also a masterful execution of editing and camera work: even though it is only the latter half where the film is contained within one house, the whole film seems like a tight huis clos. Elements recur, constantly: automobiles, trees, old men, a suspense of driving on roads when one has already witnessed one such promenade ending rashly. Or, rather, not witnessed: for Beyzai does not show any accident. Can the viewer be also sure if the deaths did occur? The fourth wall is broken at the film's beginning, predicting deaths, but so what? Why to believe someone's word more than someone's actual presence? Why to put the first one in the realm of rationality and the second one in the realm of apparition? Everything in the film is rhythmic, not in the sense of beats that progress to a climax, but in the sense of concentric circles, in a sort of cyclicality. The circle contracts, then expands, then contracts; one is happy, then sad, and then happy; now it is marriage, then funeral, and now marriage; she says yes, she says no, and now she says yes. The circle expands in stages: the relatives, the dead, the policeman, those of the other dead, the drivers. Each time the circle contracts, before expanding, to the mother's faith, to the tottering of the bride's faith, to the family's desertion of faith. Life flows in the ebbs and tides of faith and its loss: like a pressure head created that would make water or electricity flow, or any natural phenomenon to occur, the mother's faith creates a pressure head, where was expected none. And hence a phenomenon does occur: something's got to give. Bayzai makes us feel the full, unbearable tension, as the circle keeps on stretching more and more while punctuated with contractions all the time: bringing us closer and closer to a deeper understanding, and not merely an imposed one, of life and faith. For when you look into the mirror, you know yourself.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mandala (1981)

Mandala is, one could say, a variation on Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund: a rare film, poetically made, to be able to do justice to such a theme. It is about Buddha, the nature of Buddha: it is about dogma and freedom outside it, about respect and freedom outside of it. The film flows like a river, like the river in Hesse's Siddhartha, a river turning in and out with slow purpose, and Jisan and Pobun meet and lose each other and then again meet each other, just like Siddhartha and Govinda. However, Pobun is more Narcissus than Govinda, with no one person's distinct way superior to the other's. Pobun is tormented, but sure and steadfast and trusting and loving, and seeking to know himself through himself; Jisan is the rogue and can also be steadfast in his own way, but he is also tormented, lusting after life and knowing himself through others, like Goldmund's quest. Both men seem to stand on opposite extremes of religious mores and yet stand hand in hand in the spiritual domain.

Elegantly shot, the film's slow rhythm is beautifully punctuated by Buddhist chants, and some of the shots are a delight to watch for their patience, which lets the viewer be immersed in the film's environment. Pobun in particular is very well played by Ahn Sung-kee, and the remaining cast is doing well, though I feel that the most important character of Jisan could have been played better. Overall, Mandala is yet another deep, sensitive film from South Korea.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Tharlo

Pema Tseden's Tharlo is one of the most beautiful movies that I have seen in recent years: it reminded me of the little-known, equally intense and poetic Hindi movie Frozen, but it betters the Hindi movie by its beautiful camerawork, intelligent camera placement in particular, and brilliantly interwoven humour and tragedy alongwith a constantly running political commentary on the modern state of China and its meaning for different people, particularly those who live on the margins or even outside of them, as does Tharlo, the film's protagonist shepherd. Both the film's main actors, the famous Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima as Tharlo and the hairdresser, put in strong performances; like in Fúsi, it is very important for such a film in particular for the main actor to be very honest to his role, and Nyima does it to great effect. But it is also the camera which is the star here: placed mid-distance, often noting details of small life along with the story, not moving much, silently partaking of life's river.

Shot in crisp black and white in the unforgiving landscapes of Qinghai, the film is an artwork in its truest sense: it makes you plunge in the routine of Tharlo the shepherd, of the city nearby, of the slow evenings where nothing much happens, of the police station. It makes you plunge like Gao Xingjian's novel Soul Mountain does: it makes you feel the place and the people. Along the way, the film makes wry, twinkling humour: without any bitterness, only with the full pleasure of observing irony.

Tharlo is a film whose scenes will continue to haunt you, for long, long after.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Le temps des aveux

Many Western directors have continued to Orientalize the Orient: some have still been worthy efforts, like David Lean's films, but some take the downright patronising path, as Régis Wargnier's Le temps des aveux (translation: The Time of Confessions). It is always a surprise to me how such films resonate with a large section of the Orientalized, too: have they absorbed so utterly the dominating colonial gaze?

This film inevitably led me to a comparison with Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, a film which is around the same theme but a different setting and context and yet is very different in one thing: Kwai portrays Saito as the equal of Nicholson: just with different rulebooks. Lean's camera does not just focus on Guinness' patient, obstinate suffering; it also focuses on Saito's patient, obstinate wilfulness. This is the strength of Lean's masterpiece: it is an exercise in dialectics in a way, though one person's methods may seem to be more cruel than the other's. However, with Le temps des aveux, it is the usual picture: the heroic, stoic white man, the only one who has the knowledge and courage to follow truth, among a sea of puny, weak-willed, ignorant heathens. The film moves very fast at its beginning: stealing glances at a Cambodian girl to marrying her and having a daughter with her happens in a blink. For the character development of the girl never entered the director's mind: the film had to deal after all with Bizot's lone, true fights. Then there is Douch, that enlighten-able man, perfect material for missionaries in other settings and here for Bizot, which the Westerners have loved to put up on a pedestal since colonisation's time: the intellectual dummy who buys into the gaze, who is content to be looked at with the colonial gaze. The patronising rarely becomes so insufferable than in such films, where it is mixed subtly, like a dose of slow poison.

Is such a film, also noteworthy for the very white, sympathetic appearance of France as a "just" country, a film widely appreciated by French audiences, a revealing detail of the fabric of French social life? As long as films such as these continue to be seen widely, hope for Europe is dim: some can cling on to their dreams of power as they deem it, and yet the world will move on, knowing that knowledge is true power and not asking someone else to subscribe to your ideas, your world.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tři oříšky pro Popelku

The magically beautiful, heartwarming film Tři oříšky pro Popelku (English: Three Nuts for Cinderella), a film that can only be told by Czechs, the greatest storytellers for me, has been finally restored by Norway and shown to audiences as Christmas approaches and snow has already started to beset home and hearth: in the celebration of this restoration of a fine, fine film, let us revisit it.

I have not been much a fan of Cinderella films and cartoons: most of them are insipid, cast the woman in too much of some dependent light for my liking, and use elements such as a slipper made from glass that turn me off in fact. Many employ a witch or someone of that ilk, and the Cinderella of most is too much of a letdown. This Czech version shines through not only a very beautiful cinematography, taking full advantage of my much beloved Czech countryside, but also through its twist on the characters' temperaments, in particular that of Libuše Šafránková's Cinderella: she is gentle but haughty, she has pride but good sense, she is expert but witty, she can countenance fate's highs and lows but she can also court good fate. She is beautiful, bold and audacious, and it is she who is the clear superior in the match. It is she more the princess than the prince the prince.

Shot in the Klatovy area of Pilsen region, which is streams, woods and snow, the film's story plays out in the thick of winter, with good cheer, hunting and youthful spirit pervading the film: it is hard not to feel hopeful after watching the film, hard not to feel yearning to explore the beauty of this world, hard to stay put at home, unless the home be in these woods, among these birds and trees. Fairy tales on screen are often given characters with strange noses, talking animals and girls with long braids or handsome princes: and they don't work. This tale has instead the beauty of nature and winter rubbing off its charm on us: it is a beautiful lesson in how there is so much magic to show and be inspired from in our life, without a need to import technology for that. Unless it be technology used to restore such wonderful films.

Note: I write however about the non-restored film. Non-restored prints have their own charm.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Taj Mahal (2015)

Nicolas Saada's debut feature-length film Taj Mahal is a work of art, framed by aesthetic sensibilities of leaving much unsaid; it is a pity that the film has been viewed by many critics uniquely through the lens of Mumbai terror attacks or dated postcolonialism. The film is in fact not about Mumbai terror attacks: the attacks are only a catalyst. The film is about a timid, unsure, not very courageous, slightly repressed girl Louise: it is her character's development, which will not climax to any satisfactory level with the film's end, that concerns us. On the face of it, the film appears to many as just another of those films of someone trapped in some dangerous situation, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in mass numbers. But the film goes much beyond that, in terms of both actual plot and what is implied. The film does not end at the girl's release from the tragedy: it goes on, to provide us vital clues to Louise' character. It is not a Hollywood hug-and-cheer ending. It ends indeterminately: Louise is still young, and she is still to discover herself, but the incident and the India trip have given her impetus and maybe a newfound courage. She can now ignore her slightly cold, domineering mother, she can now try to reach out to people whom her parents don't ask her to talk to, she can now say "I don't know" with surety, in a world where "I don't know" is not accepted as answer, where pretensions of knowledge are what you stake your reputation on.

As I said, a lot is unsaid in the film. The embrace of Louise and the Italian woman is tight and warm, both enjoying human warmth after being trapped in an inferno. Giovanna is a woman which Louise's mother is not: it is telling that Louise prefers always to talk to her father when distressed, contrary to usual expectations. Giovanna has brought her intimacy, love and promise in one embrace, which Louise had been searching for all her life, which makes her so diffident. Giovanna is someone whom Louise could have loved passionately, if not torn apart without any addresses to exchange. But she finds only the cold, unembracing world like Pierre or her mother; the people who cared for her, the man who offered her the footwear, the room service guy, Giovanna, all are lost in time and in India. The world of India is the world where Louise steps into youth, struggles into it: she finds Paris meaningless, colourless, she finds her life sucked, tucked into a microcosm: that incident, that trip. It is not painful or an adventure for her: that world is a cocoon in which she was tightly wrapped, a sequence of life events that have changed her, that have suddenly given her something new, made her a bit more known to herself.

And how does Saada manage to achieve it? First, by selecting a fine cast, especially Stacy Martin's not very expressive face, which works wonders for the film. Then, by getting great cinematography and lovely use of tones: Paris is bleaker and colder, toned down, and Mumbai is brightened. The sound recording itself is a treat: in both Mumbai and Paris, outdoors' noises are heightened, the world of exterior collides with Louise's inward personality, ready to go into her shell. The interior world, whether it be Louise in the cafe in Paris or in the plush hotel Taj, is depressingly quiet, a troubled peace, like still water beneath which much lurks. One could accuse Saada of some things: that he didn't put a bereaving or distressed Indian family beside the French family when Louise was trapped in the hotel; that Giovanna is another European instead of an Indian. But would it not have violated the aesthetic purity and the integrity of the film? For me, it would have. Louise's world is small: it is she who sees, it is she who is feeling this world. Will she see the Indian family? Will she not find a lot of affinity with Giovanna? In this world of political correctness, we have forgotten people themselves. Thankfully, Saada sticks to his vision, not of those for whom everything is a ledger.

And to those critics who dismiss the movie as a story of some rich white girl, ignoring many others, I don't know what to say: are rich white girls not human beings? Should stories revolving around them be not made just because they are a minority in a particular milieu? Do not be deterred by critics: go and explore the several deep layers of an apparently simple film.

Friday, December 04, 2015

La Glace et Le Ciel

La glace et le ciel (int'l title: Ice and the Sky) is a disappointing film on many fronts, in spite of its Antarctic background: the most notable disappointment is that the film is a biopic, giving little by way of science, and focusing on idolising a glaciologist. It is not that a biopic is a bad idea: but it is a bad one when you make viewers expect that they are going to discover secrets and plunge into nature's mysteries; when the film is made in a heavily preachy style, with a continuous narration killing of any feeling of connection with the scientist or with science itself in spite of the extensive archival footage used; when the film uses a camera rotating for long periods of time around the glaciologist as the pivot; and when the whole film is just the story of a man's passion and struggles with nature but yet suddenly you are handed over an already-ripe conclusion that climate is changing for sure: but on what basis? Because the glaciologist tells you, with some ice cores thrust in suddenly to make that feel justified. But shouldn't that have been the whole point to develop, slowly and surely? There is a severe lack of science or philosophy or any kind of deep thought in the film: it is the complete opposite of the marvellously made The Expedition to the End of the World. A clue to how the film would be is right at the very beginning: an intense snow-white shot of Antarctica. A terrible way to begin a film which is about Antarctica anyway: wouldn't it have been better to start with a context-setting shot, which is neither a snowy landscape nor burning trees? Or, if a snowy landscape, then get it right and aesthetic? For cinematography is a major weakness in this film: something hard to believe for a film made in such a stunning locale.

The film though has its moments: notably with archival footage materials, especially that of the Charcot base. And the context being Antarctica, there will inevitably be moments where you start thinking and wondering, even though the film is too light on that and also says too much, is silent too little. In many ways, the film is very similar to the kind of films that the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand makes: speaking too much, too often. Let the winds talk, let the coldness speak, let the snow fall, and float, softly: the special effects used sometimes in the film or the continuous narration can probably never be the voice of these elements. Such potentially great material, such great stories of human courage and will to fight and win, but such a waste: how is it possible to make a film on science that lacks in poetry? For isn't all science a most noble attempt of composing poetry?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Darjeeling Limited

If Moonrise Kingdom is quirky, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited is quirkier: but Anderson's signature style is quirkiness. What many forget, or overlook, amazed or awed by the oddballs peopling his films, is Anderson's sensitivity to a place, an age or a character. In this story of three brothers, who may have come across as dysfunctional if not for the occasional leaps of goodness they also make, like the saving of children, the star is India: and Anderson is the only director I have seen till now who understands India. (A note is in due order here that I have not seen Louis Malle's documentaries; I love Louis Malle, and I think he might be another of that rare breed who understands India.) This film, made by an American, is a far cry from British films and TV around India, from the Marigold Hotels and Indian Summers. It does not patronise India, nor exoticises it: it rather jumps into the love-hate relationship that a non-Indian person finds him/herself in when coming to India, especially for the first time. And it does so with aplomb, through three characters whose craziness beats India's own craziness. It is no wonder that the three return from the airport, and continue on in their India and self-exploration: for where else there is such absolute liberty without encroaching on anarchy if not in India? And freedom does not lie in banners proclaiming liberté, égalité, fraternité; rather, when it is present, it is of no name, for why would a free society talk of freedom? It is the joy of life, of doing what you want, of sweet lime with snakes, and spirituality that does not divide itself into orders and yet implicates elaborate rituals of how to blow a peacock feather. It is the freedom for madness, when madness is routine.

Set to beautiful music, from various sources, especially the lovely theme from an evidently inspiring little-known Merchant-Ivory film Bombay Talkie, the film's strength lies in its cinematography and the three principal actors. It could have been a bit tighter, though: I personally didn't see the point of introducing physically the mother, but then, yes, it did bring them, especially Francis, closure, as did the death of the boy for Peter: closure from a want to belong to someone, father, mother, lover, child, world. In the end, they are happy to abandon their suitcases-sized father, and ready to embrace life, and India, and themselves as they are, and each other. For there is always another sweet lime, as Jack now knows: maybe he also achieves his closure for his ex-lover whom he hadn't been able to forget (Natalie Portman, in the short film Hotel Chevalier acting as prologue to the film, though I'd advise to watch it after the main film). Maybe he doesn't even need a sweet lime now. Their joie de vivre is now not so much strange, not so much out of place, not so much quirky.

En kärlekshistoria

En kärlekshistoria (A Love Story, better known as A Swedish Love Story) is a beautiful film; highly charged with the eroticism of innocence, without needing its actors to drop clothes, it is also a film that is sedimented with several layers of life lived: Pär's grandfather, who has lost all hope and is bitter; Annika's father who tried to make a meaning of life through money and career and failed miserably; loveless Eva and Annika's mother, women who need another to stand by them but have none; the protagonists Pär and Annika, who, though strong and innocent their love is now, one fears, will one day end up similarly; and, finally, the dog, the babies, the insensible ones, who are yet to journey. The film's title can mislead some: it is not a romantic film in the mould of Love Story: this long, slow film gives a lot of time to characters other than the lovers, to people and contexts around them, and that remark is valid throughout till the end of the film, not just for build-up of the romance. At the same time, the love story is the only whiff of fresh air in a decaying, crumbling society: there are generational tensions, and there is an evident class tension (urban/rural, middle-class/peasant, piano/motorcycle) that informs the film throughout. The film is more a keen observation of society: and the love that can bloom in spite of such harsh conditions, like a flower in a desert. This love is trapped in bubbles, in a world segmented into conflicts not created by Pär or Annika, and yet which affect them and will do so even more: but the two defy those bubbles, by creating a bubble of their own, in the form of their love for each other.

A Love Story is a grim film: it crucifies Pär and Annika, their innocence, for even though they are busy celebrating their love, trying to find an escape from the sordidness around them, it is inevitable, though not shown, that they and their love will be affected and influenced and changed. The bubble will be pierced one day. And hence it is a relief, a struggle to continue hoping, that that will not happen: that their love will continue to take root in each other's delight even after the film ends, as if Pär and Annika were real. And aren't they real? The beauty of Roy Andersson's film is that you relate to them, their love, for many of us have had or have dreamed of such a love, the very first full bloom and make-believe, which changed and scarred us for ever and yet remains a fond memory, which made us grow as a human and yet left a vulnerable child in us, thus preventing us from becoming stones or insensibles: maybe, even Annika's father loved thus once, though now so far, and maybe that's what helps him keep his sanity. Andersson's film is a celebration of our this very vulnerability: when we seek love and find it, and when we want it with all our heart and believe in it completely, the time standing still and eternal, when we can cry and not be ashamed. For when we love truly, without a past or future, we have the taste of eternity in this life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fúsi

What Dagur Kári's heartwarming film Fúsi (with a very disappointing international title: Virgin Mountain) does best is to avoid the numerous clichés of modern films, and rather tell a story straight and sincerely, dictated by the intensity of Gunnar Jónsson's performance as the title character Fúsi. If Jónsson brings a rarely seen honesty to his performance, reminding me of Kher in Saaransh in that respect, then Kári has the soul to listen to that, change his film and come up with as true a film as Jónsson deserved.

Fúsi is not an easy film to make: it is deceptively simple but provokes a lot of memories and thought, and it makes you immerse in a world of a man whom many would not have taken to at first sight. It is also the story of the travails of growing up, here for a man: in a world hoarse of feminism, too often one forgets what a man goes through when he does not suit the macho or adventurous image that the society expects from someone of the male sex. At the same time, the seemingly baby Fúsi is much more a man than those around him: he lives and loves with truth, and society's pressure or usual reactions do not faze him from what he thinks is right. The beauty of this film is its restraint: in the hands of a Hollywood director, this film would at best have become a Forrest Gump and have lost its shining honesty and attention to detail; thankfully, Kári is a master of his craft and believes as fervently in his story and his own struggles of feeling having "grown up," as does Fúsi in the film. At the end of the film, you are left wondering how intertwined are our struggles in our works, and how we attempt to heal ourselves through our creations.

A magnificent film, its one single flaw is the choice of the main actress: the character of Sjöfn could have been played by an actress with slightly more screen presence in my opinon. However, the towering screen presence of Jónsson, something very much compulsory for the film, does not let you notice it all that much, and accompanied with good music and cinematography, the film lends itself easily to repeated watching.