Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Highway (2014)

In the 2012 German film Barbara, André tells a story of a book to Barbara: how a young consumptive girl of 17 or 18 is dying, has never loved, and decides to live life before doing so: by taking the old, ugly district doctor as she is dying in a lonely night. Highway is this story in a different guise and in the format of a road movie, a highway movie: a love that is born of need and strategy for survival (of the spirit, not the body), and not of mutual attraction. A love that is for this world and its purity, its different ways and stops, its crooks and brooks, and its ability to throw a surprise where you only wanted death. This is what Veera decides: to go on, without thinking of the end. And later on this is what Mahabir will accept: he knows his end is nigh, but he knows his role as the healer, who must give his life for the young girl, like the doctor did before returning to his family, and as Mahabir will return to the home of all.

Wonderfully, simply wonderfully shot, and with a genuine itinerary, the film also peeks into several aspects of society and Indian culture. Hooda's dialect is a pleasure to listen to, for both accent and choice of words: unfortunately, this will be lost on those who do not understand Hindi - and yet, language is a key part of the charm of the film. The film touches many personal chords, of course, so is dearer to me: I have travelled on some of these ways, I have seen the majesty of the Himalayan mountains - and if you know that, you will know why Veera was laughing madly, wildly, freely when the river was roaring past her, in a wild, seething storm - and I come from a stock where many will use the vocabulary that Hooda or his associates use. It is also another feature of the film that how weaved in is the music: there are few songs, but you feel them kneaded inside, nothing patched onto the story.

The one major weakness that the film has, in common with many other Hindi movies: they think the audience doesn't grasp things. What was the need to put all those child actors to represent child Veera and child Mahabir? It is better to leave things half unsaid, to be guessed at (which was easy here): like what Mani Ratnam did in Dil Se with Meghna (Koirala). I wonder how much of such shit happens in postprocessing.

There is plenty of great humour in the film: some of it may not be understandable easily for those who don't know India so well, but some of it is universal. Alia Bhatt has still long way to go to become a real good actress, but in this film she suits her part and plays sufficiently well. It is Randeep Hooda though who lights up the screen, especially the angry Hooda: his confrontation with the gang leader early on in the film after the wrong kidnapping is great in terms of both acting and dialogues. Imtiaz Ali has often given us good films, but none so good as this one: for the first time he has had the courage to not give us a feel-good film, and that is a rare victory won in Hindi cinema.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Invention of Love (2010) / Luminaris

Many animated shorts deal with the subject of man's increasing mechanization: like did Berni's Doll. Some agitate you with stark, depressing realism; some others weave a story of romance in it, as does here Invention of Love; and some give it a happy varnish, a possibility of escape, like does Luminaris. However, each of such films provokes thought, even more so in an age where people are hooked to social networking and smartphones. It seems that people have forgotten their own selves: they are too much of automatons run by "society," no longer an abstract term.

Luminaris is a film with real (flesh-and-blood) characters and animated effects: so not out and out animation. And this turns out to be the strength of the film. The choice of Gustavo Cornillón as the Man is particularly excellent: he's got that old-fashioned Clark Gable-kind suave, roguish looks (or say like those of Jean Dujardin in The Artist), which goes along harmoniously with the music of the film: that pretends to project the story as an old-fashioned tale, even though the setting is futuristic. However, the film climaxes in the birth of a beautiful romance: which permits this old-fashioned-ness to permeate the film. After all, love itself is out of sync with the modern times, so the Man not only rebels through his stealing but also through his loving. It's a film that all those modern slaves called "officegoers" should see.

Andrey Shushkov's traditional animation short, Invention of Love, is a much longer, much more profound film: with allegories also to love and marriage, to the cycle of life and to our attempts to own what or whom we love, attempts that always fail. On the outside, though, the film again deals with obsession with technology: and its tragic consequences. The film begins beautifully, poetically, set to some lovely music and atmospherics reminding one of the English countryside to some extent; thereafter, the film moves to some scenes quite heavily inspired in admiration of Jasper Morello; and finally the disillusion, the heartbreak and the living ever after with the knowledge, the guilt of an irrevocable mistake.

As of the time of writing, Luminaris can be seen here and Invention of Love here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Solitudes (2012)

She is a woman. She is a Romanian. She does not speak French. She is a prostitute. She is raped.

A stunning, minimalist film by Liova Jedlicki about the walls we have created around us, around others. She trusts those from back home. But they rape her. Later, the interpreter lies to her about the helmet. Instead of sympathy, he feels being stuck. Maybe it's one more charge against him: he is also Romanian. They will tell him how his people are dirty: pigs and prostitutes. They will taunt him when they need to, and order him when they need to, and fling him out of the country like they may do with her whenever they want to.

Rape is deconstructed into the number of penetrations. Sex encounters into locations and modus operandi. Identity into nationality, gender and language. Human experience into love, indifference and hate.

Except that there is no love in this stark, haunting, beautiful film.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chacun Cherche Son Chat

Everyone's searching for their cat. The dog, of course. The man and the woman. Drumming. Free sex. A little love. Work and money. A little sympathy. Someone else's cat. A reason to live: a reason to stay young or forget being old. A reason to wake up; a reason to talk. A reason to call someone; a reason to express opinions and identity. A reason to say, "I'm not cat." The cat's searching for freedom, and everyone's searching for the cat.

Chloé's cat. A black cat called "Gris-gris" ("Grey-grey"). How odd! And everyone's looking for the cat. Including white French and Arab French. Including black French, who are as black as the Grey-grey. Or more, maybe. Including gays and bisexuals and straight ones. And single ones.

The Bastille is turned topsy-turvy. Plastered with advertisements searching for the cat. On drain pipes. On presidential candidates' campaign fliers. Maybe Jospin and Chirac are also looking for their cat. Or maybe for Chloé's cat. New acquaintances are struck; new glances are stolen. When the drums will stop, beautiful Angolan sounds will creep up: the child is left behind in a land where they are searching for their cats.

Did the cat ever get her freedom? Some did not. They were just trapped. Like the old woman whom the police always caught. Some did. They died.

Bomnaleun Ganda

Hur Jin-ho gives yet another fine romantic film, Bomnaleun Ganda (int'l title: One Fine Spring Day); this one charts the course of a love story, from its birth to its death and offshoots. In the process of doing so, the film explores girls' typical changeableness (often bordering on fickleness), guys' honesty and loyalty, and how human lives and loves undergo seasonal changes as much as time and place. If love could heed, it also warns of not to fall in love with someone who is merely feeling lonely.

For that is what Eun-su feels: lonely. That doesn't mean that she will jump into anyone's bed; but when she feels drawn to Sang-woo with his artistic temperament and strong arms, she lets herself drift into it ... which Sang-woo naively thinks as her loving him; for he does love her, truly and beautifully and forever. Sang-woo's giving it a name, of asking her to meet his family, makes the smooth car ride bump: Eun-su realises that she will miss Sang-woo a lot, but she has other priorities. And then starts a very familiar, very often played out story of heartbrokenness and betrayal: it is here that the film stands the strongest. Sang-woo's utter incapability of understanding what's going on, the impossibility for him to make any sense of it and accept it: anyone who has loved deeply and lost, he knows what Sang-woo is going through.

Sang-woo will keep on loving her: but will learn to reject her, and still cherish what they had together, their story. Like his grandmother rejects the older pictures of his grandfather, he also will learn to live with what was beautiful, and reject what is no more so. It does not mean that he has escaped from reality: rather, he invents a multidimensional reality. He has grown up: he now carries all - pain, joy and love - in his heart at a given moment of time, and life has only become richer for him. Maybe more so since he wasn't successful with Eun-su.

There are very few dialogues in the film: Sang-woo plays a sound recorder, and so the film has ample scope for silences and nature's sounds, which gives the film a poetic beauty, just like Jin-ho's Palwolui Christmas had. Eun-su looks pretty but never got my sympathy; however, she does fit the role. The rest of the cast fit their parts very well. The music used in the film is well known, but that doesn't subtract from the charm and pathos it adds here. Korea is again shot in beautiful ways, making the film overall a little gem worth knowing.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tubelight ka Chaand

Rarely does a film achieve 'perfection': in the sense that you are amazed by each and every trick, technique and turn of the film. For a live action short film, to do that is even much, much more difficult: and Shlok Sharma's stunningly beautiful film Tubelight ka Chaand (English title: Tubelight's Moon) does that. It manages the kind of dreaminess and awe that the Russian animation short Hedgehog in the Fog does and that watching a field of stars from a lonely camp in the countryside's cold night does.

Set to beautiful music, the film is a rarity in that India, even though a powerhouse of cinema, including some very good cinema, is not the place for short films. They are not really appreciated and watched; or let me rephrase: they are not really known by Indians. The paisa vasool nature of Indians does not allow them to appreciate that they barely spent 10 minutes or 20 minutes and yet got something that maybe a 3-hour-long film couldn't have given them: yet short films are made, in dozens, especially by those passing out of FTII. But, somehow, just like much of contemporary Indian literature in English, those shorts are lost often amidst causes and a desire of voicing out their opinions and concerns. On the contrary, here, Sharma simply tells a beautiful story: and in the process also pokes fun at media and its circus, using also references to Peepli! Live and Delhi 6.

The film deals with that eternal human quest: romance. Love at first sight: often one of the purest forms of love. Not love based on judgements, on trials of living together and comfort, on the other's degree of humour or wit or intelligence, on the alike thinking of the other. Not love that can be dismantled at the first whiff of averse weather, of the incipience of feeling of loss of adventure. But the film celebrates the truest love: love at first sight, and loyalty that often is consequent to it, love that celebrates itself as the greatest adventure, and hence cannot die. Because here the protagonist boy truly finds the complement in terms of the beauty he loves and searches for, and finds it in an external object: rather than the supplement, which today goes by the name of loving and love.

Tubelight's Moon is a film that does not shy from being beautiful.

As of the time of writing, the complete film can be watched at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2TgRz5Mjuk

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Das Lied in mir

The pool is her cocoon. Her shell, from which she wants to emerge but does not know how. In a world of achievement and gray, black and white, she is trapped. And blue. And then she discovers she has dual identities. She has another country, another family, another life. She has the rich noises and colours of Latin America in her blood. She can be part of the spontaneity; she doesn't need to be confined within the world of Danke and Bitte anymore.

Beautifully shot, the greatest praise for Florian Cossen's debut feature (it is hard to believe that this is a debut!) is that he makes you want to live Buenos Aires, makes you want to go there. He combines the good elements of European cinema with the warmth of Latin America, and the mixture becomes potent when coupled with a stunning performance by the main protagonist Jessica Schwarz (as Maria) and meaningful editing. No one is given to histrionics; if Hollywood were to make this film, people would be throwing and smashing things, there would be too much bitterness and anger, and people would now and then scream or try to evoke pity, or something. Schwarz doesn't do anything of the sort: her low-key performance is the soul of the film. The colour scheme of the film throughout is a marvel to watch, feel and understand: to take an example, the sterile shots of the airport washroom are further enhanced by Maria's white shirt at the beginning of the film.

The movie is much beyond Maria's story: it is also about the clash of cultures as different as German/North European and Latin American. Even before Maria stumbles upon the secret, she feels drawn to the streets, to the chaos, to the cityscape: of course, her mind is active because she has already heard the song, but now that song is ready to burst from her. Not just the song whose words she knows but the meaning she doesn't, but also the song of her soul, the song of her persona - the song whose meaning she knows but not the words - which can now flower, in benign, suitable conditions. The film, whose title means The Song in Me (but strangely given the int'l title of The Day I Was Not Born), is the celebration of that song: of every human song that is ready even if hidden, that must not be strangled as Anton tries to do.

Anton's crime is not that he and his wife stole Maria; not just that he keeps on lying; not in his insecurity of losing Maria. His crime is he denied Maria the world where the song in me could be heard. That is why it will be difficult for Maria to ever forgive Anton. Until Anton learns the song.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Angst essen Seele auf / Vokzal dlya dvoikh

The Cold War wasn't so much war anymore at the time; it was simply cold. Even when it was to flare up, that was to happen in farflung, exotic-sounding and goddamned lands of Afghanistan and the like, not really closer home like the politically Eastern Europe. Newer issues had come up: oil had become the most important thing. Countries like France, Italy and Germany experienced or rather invited a boom of immigrants, many from North Africa; the old noble idea of democracy as conceptualized in Athens had now become the American dream, wherein mediocrity was celebrated and even worshipped; slowly, and inexorably, this would guide the flood-like wave of individualism, a cancer soon to spread all over the world. And with individualism came its issues: that of loneliness, and the idea that man loves another only to run away from his or her loneliness; or rather, is forced to. Around that hidden idea somewhere developed films focused on 'monologues' of a pair of lovers, a family, and so on: the family thing happened more in the US, where films were made showing a family coping with a son's death/drugs problem/etc. (curiously, it was more often son than daughter). Rarely, a Love Story came along, too. In Europe, in a trend that has since continued, it was more about a couple or relationships: while Antonioni deplored the modern, fragmented inner world of a man, some others accepted it as a fatality, and it is there that belong the films Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eat Soul Up, 1974) and Vokzal dlya dvoikh (known as A Railway Station for Two, 1982), the former German, the latter Russian.

The beauty about Antonioni is that he refuses to accept that there is any permanent salvation in the individualistic man's pursuit of and refuge in romantic love; the answer has to be beyond, since the malaise is in individualism. While many find Antonioni's films pessimistic, I find them optimistic. Rather, I find the two films meant to be the subject of this post as given to fatalism, as pessimistic. Emmi and Ali in Fear Eats the Soul (the grammatically correct title by which the film is strangely better known) are beings eaten away by loneliness: and they think of each other as the messiah who's come into their lives to save them from this utter loneliness, this atmosphere of veneer and civility wherein lurk only prejudices all the more sharpened by the values taught by some civilisation's mores. The same is the case in Station for Two: Vera and Platon here reprising the roles. There is nothing to fault in the stories themselves; woven with humour, an observant eye of the world surrounding, and great or at least adequate performances from most characters, the films are in their own right little gems, depicting authentic slices of life as lived by probably hundreds or thousands, or more, in though different guises, different costumes. Yet, a thought occurs, that there is no question asked that is not rhetorical, there is no transcending: they are good, decent films, being lovely stories, yet they lack what makes a story truly great: finding the answer. The viewer is rather invited to enter the tedium of these characters and swim into it, and self-identify with that: and at the most paint a critical, intelligent-looking picture of what all she or he views, as does Haneke to take an example. Yet, man's intelligence is surely bound for greater destinations than mere observing and analyzing? Analysis is not the goal in itself; sadly, with the modern academics taking analysis itself to be the goal (which they call as "research"), films have not been far behind.

Fear Eats the Soul does portray Germany, especially that of the '70s, quite effectively: the immigrant from Maghreb is still very much the Other in white countries like France and Germany. However, what Fassbinder does well is to portray also how Emmi also experiences the hostile othering gaze when she is among circles not of her class: the opening scene when she enters the bar and everyone looks at her is a classic, exaggerated, lovely scene; later on, it will happen again when she will go to confront Ali at his workplace: this time, it's more economic class distinctions acting (even if Emmi is herself poor, she is German looking, white, and not looking a junkie: hence, for the stranger, she represents respectability, which Ali, even if earning more than Emmi, doesn't; rather Ali, the dark man, means filth, pig, squalor, muscles, hard cock). However, by selecting an actor who doesn't act well to play Ali, Fassbinder may have only reinforced some stereotypes; the only thing that the director has surely done is to show that whites (Germans) can be and often are themselves filth. That is, whiteness has got nothing to do with how dirty - or how clean - you are from inside. However, it is not clear if blackness has got to do something with it or not; Ali doesn't inspire much confidence, especially because of poor acting skills of the actor playing Ali. The film however has to be watched for the superlative acting of Brigitte Mira, playing Emmi.

Another great performance, again by the woman protagonist, Lyudmila Gurchenko, playing Vera, marks Station for Two. On appearances, the two women cannot be more different: while Vera plays a street-smart, gutsy waitress, Emmi is a humble, meek old woman who wants to be integrated into the world around her at every step. Yet, Emmi is as strong as Vera: she married a Polish, against her Hitler-loving father; she excuses her father's memory of Hitler loyalist almost immediately by claiming herself also to have been in the party; she marries Ali in spite of the reactions and keeps trying to go through it, and maybe her own self-doubts at the start. For, probably, in the memorable scene when her coworkers are introduced at first, it is her doubts speaking about the foreigners, rather than her coworkers. And Vera, for all her apparent meanness, is as soft from inside, as much in want of being loved, as Emmi; she is rootless, working in a place where people come and go, and all you have is a nice fuck with a man who comes now and then. But this fornication doesn't give her any company; when she sees another such soul, alone inside but outwardly busy in a bourgeois world, the pianist Platon, she will go even to the prison camps with him; just as Emmi will resolve to protect Ali from stress again if she can. That said, Station for Two does paint certainly a rosier picture of romance than does Fear Eats the Soul. That might be because the latter has one of the protagonists, Ali, whom we are ambiguous about: we also can't trust him!

We do not know the endings of these stories; they do not matter. They are your or mine stories. The ordinary man has triumphed; these films are not about momentous events of history, though history is certainly influencing their life courses. But the films are about hope, fear, stupidity, jealousy, meanness, generosity, altruism, love, irrationality; they are about eating couscous and changing trains. What these films do not set out to achieve, however, is finding the, or a, meaning beyond: they are content contemplating.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ship of Theseus


While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er again return?

- Madhava Vidyaranya, 14th century AD

Social status depends not upon your accomplishments, but in the ownership of property; wealth is now the source of virtue; passion and luxury are the sole bonds between spouses; falsity and lying are the conditions of success in life; sexuality is the sole source of human enjoyment; religion, a superficial and empty ritual, is confused with spirituality. 
- Vishnu Purana, ca. 100 BC [a prediction of the modern age]

Ship of Theseus "tries to" ask if there is a beyond outside the body, the material world: if you were to create a man with different parts, would that still be a man (a life, rather, since the emphasis is not just on humans), or would something still be missing? (And what would that be?) Its intentions "seem to" be to address the opposition between two of the ancient Hindu schools of thought, as quoted above: one dualist, the other not; one believing in soul, the other believing in the here and now and nothing else. However, unfortunately, the film ends along with Life of Pi as one of the several recent successful spirituality-driven hoaxes: it seems that such stuff has become the new business, with audiences fed up of investments and shopping in upmarket malls wanting some instant dose of spirituality. What else are discussions between Kabi and Shukla (playing the characters of Maitreya and Charvaka in the film) except for some "Learn to Be Spiritual in 10 Minutes" crash course?

One of the main reasons for this film to suffer the same fate as Life of Pi's is once again heavy reliance on technology: director Gandhi may or may not have used the most high-end equipment to shoot his film. However, it's the film's stunning cinematography and graphics that keep the film propped up, more than anything else. A couple of other good things that Gandhi did was to keep background scores away, often (ab)used to give some 'epicality' to the film; plus use of a decent cast and "cleaner" urban India (thus keeping the film focused to the spiritual narrative it wants to tell). However, with the lack of substance in the film, the props can only support this much: it "can get only this much good."

The most important blot on the film is in its most important-seeming story: that of Maitreya, the (Jain) monk. It is easy to ask questions, but it's the clues one needs to provide, one's own insights, through art. The questions are already there. What's the answer of Maitreya to Charvaka's "What's the difference between you and a suicide bomber?" A lame "Are you really making that analogy?" Why not? In fact, what's the problem with the suicide bomber? Is he, who at least hasn't lost the capability of believing, not better than someone who can't do so? Maitreya's apparent irritation to being compared with a suicide bomber comes across, and makes you understand that the director doesn't know his own story: he has been able to think only till the skin depth of questions, then it's all dense.

For beliefs are not meant to be established through reason. For if I love someone, I can never prove it. I may feel it. The beloved might or might not feel it. In any case, there is no proof. Love is simply belief. Nothing less. A believer who tries to explain his belief is already an unbeliever: belief is Mira's devotion to Krishna, it is what spirituality is all about. Gandhi has reduced the flame of spirituality to its cinders of religion, and mistook the latter as the former: Maitreya tries to explain away his institutional duties and abidings by saying that it's important to look beyond symbols. But why to have symbols? While Western philosophy works through creating more and more symbols for esoteric circles of intellectuals, spirituality works through removing more and more symbols for esoteric circles of believers, for those who have the supreme capacity to be ever joyous, to believe. Symbols are meant for those who can't look beyond them: a form of spiritual spoon-feeding. And yet no one can be spoon-fed: wisdom has to come to oneself from within, from one's own experiences. The film itself abounds with references, the intellectual's favourite symbols. And yet, Gandhi is unable to build any of his characters in the film, except to a certain extent that of Sohum Shah in the third story: and that is where his film lacks pitifully. More importantly, it is clear that the film belongs to yet another pseudo-spiritualist class of work, that the person telling the story has himself not the inclination or the ability (or both) to think more deeply of what he's saying.

Once the lack of substance prevails, there is nothing much else in the film to watch, for there is hardly any storyline except in the third (Shah's) story (which also has some good comic moments). One pity is that the Hindi dialogues are very inaccurately subtitled by the filmmakers themselves: but that is hardly any new trend in a world and a film where 'karma' and 'karmic' is bandied about half a dozen times with the standard Western meaning of the word while all along pretending to portray Indian thought. The only reason to watch it once is its cinematography, plus for those unaware of Indian nonviolent traditions, to get introduced to them. If you have missed watching this film, there's nothing to regret.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Lootera (2013)

Good performances (except from Adil Hussain, who looks out of place), snowy locales of Chamba and lilting, beautiful music are unable to lift Lootera from a decent film to some great film: in spite of taking O'Henry's The Last Leaf, a touching story in itself, as the second half of the film. The primary culprit is shoddy editing: but also poor character development, two stories forcefully shoved into one feature film, and some television soap-like effects (numerous flashbacks to scenes already depicted in order to 'explain' to an audience presumed to be of dimwits; minor characters making impactful entries in the film; too clean decors). For those not that familiar with India or Indian films, the film does probably deserve one viewing, especially if they haven't read O'Henry's story ever; for the rest, the film is all what cinema isn't meant to be. It is a clueless editing and screenplay which play spoilsport.

If the film had been a short feature of an hour or so, just the post-intermission part, then this would have been a lovely little gem: but some unneeded melodrama of what happened prior to The Last Leaf  leaves the viewer confused about what he is watching - which story, which character, which timeline. Sonakshi, who plays the role of Pakhi wonderfully well, suddenly transforms from a feisty girl with guts and gumption to someone who has grouses from fate and everything else: that does not lend too much to digestion. One would rather expect her to go out and search for the man who betrayed her and ruined her family: that is the character she lives till intermission, and that is the character the actor Sonakshi is better equipped to play.

When a story is reinterpreted, one always looks forward to the new interpretation bringing in some new element: nothing like this happens with Lootera. O'Henry's little story is still very much preferable, because it does not go into the pathos, the melodrama of anything: rather, O'Henry's story is about human goodness and human achievement. It uplifts you. On the other hand, Lootera is about falling for the wrong man, and human weaknesses: but with the attempt to give it the O'Henry flavour. It disenchants you. For a film that promised so much, it is a pity that it falls short of expectations: in fact, it is its not being able to meet (my) inflated expectations that proves to be the biggest bane. However, the film does offer two relatively fresh actors, Sonakshi and Ranveer Singh, some meaty roles with an array of emotions to act: and both of them do it very well, thus making for a not so common occasion where almost all actors have acted well.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Incendies

The greatest strength of this mesmerizing film, drawn from a play, is that it could easily have been dramatic, indulging in hysterical cries in Hollywood style, or too much about messages, but avoiding all these traps, the film remains a tight, taut thriller: the plethora of meaning and message that one can draw from this film do not distract the viewer from feeling the thrill of zeroing in on the people the twins are searching for. In this respect, the film strongly reminds one of another political thriller, the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. However, Incendies (its English meaning could range from "Wildfires" to "Gutted") goes beyond being a political film with human side to it: it is always simply a human story that spirals in between circumstances of a civil war, a romance and an inability to hope after going through human cruelty and its acts.

Canadian French cinema has often yielded better films than French cinema itself, but this film surpasses all expectations, which is all the more remarkable as Canada hardly plays any role in the film: it is Lebanon the centre of action, and quite a lot of the film's dialogue will be spoken in Arabic. Lebanon has been shot beautifully in the film: and neither more scenically, nor less than required - a difficult measure to achieve usually (this is where a master like David Lean failed in an otherwise great adaptation of Madame Bovary in his Ryan's Daughter). What does place the film in the category of all-time greats is its superb pacing, its editing and its cast: none of them too fine actors, but well suited to the film's characters, which is what one wants in a film. For once, a film needed cuts between present, past and the different layers of a complicated story: and the director delivers what was needed. Importantly, each sequence in a layer is long enough for the reader to get further absorbed, sucked in the world of Nawal Marwan (played expertly by Lubna Azabal), not just a frenzy of cuts. Nawal's daughter Jeanne Marwan is even more beautifully played by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin: a role somehow not acknowledged as it should be, shadowed by the prominent role of Nawal in the film. It would be great if Désormeaux-Poulin could get more and meatier roles in more films. This is an as yet unexplored talent by filmmakers: a serious miss in my opinion.

I did not find anything to criticize the 1+1 ending: the twins are living that search, that quest rather, every day of their lives, and their wits are sharpened by intuition. It is absurd to think that the viewers would grasp intuitively at the meaning of the sentence spoken by Jeanne's brother as immediately as Jeanne did, if at all they do. The only thing that I personally did not like in the film were the repeated swimming pool scenes (except where the viewer feels an incestuous moment developing between the twins, which is a good scene): I am tired of watching swimming pools being used as metaphors for disconnectedness since some time now in films (did it start with Kieslowski's Blue?); it's become a cliché. For the rest, I'd say that this masterpiece should be watched by many and many all over the world: to understand and find repugnant war, human cruelty and its frightfulness.

For those who haven't seen the film, if they wish to watch this film, I implore them to watch it without conducting any online searches about the film: any spoiler would indeed take away a lot from the film when watched the first time. Of course, the film merits repeated viewings, as its story is timeless, universal and brilliantly filmed and acted.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kai Po Che

No: there is nothing like "Kai Po Che." When we fly kites in Gujarat, we cry out a "Kaapyo!", and even with the unnecessary addition of Gujarati equivalent of "is," that would be "Kaapyo chhe" no "che", no "kai po". The film's reviews worldwide are a perfect example of the glut of information we take to be wisdom these days: from Berlin to Mumbai, everyone explains what "kai po che" means because that's what they heard from a source. They don't know what it means, they can't "kai po che" is meaningless but they still will tell you what it means. How strange! In any case, let's get on with the review.

I narrated the story of the title just to indicate that the film Kai Po Che does work through, and depend on, milking stereotypes - not just about Gujarat but also about this sudden trend in Indian cinema of male bonding post Rang de Basanti. Nowadays, everyone jumps into a lake or sea or something, and struts drunk on top of a fort wall or some big height: it seems sometimes that a Mountain Dew ad became interminably, and insufferably, long. Indians haven't yet learnt the art of a Vincent, François, Paul ... et les autres. That kind of film would flop miserably in today's India, as Khamoshi the Musical did in this country; it's good though, for otherwise it would become fashion, and then we will have at least a dozen films exploiting the genre.

What is far more seriously wrong about a film like Kai Po Che is that it also continues to pander to the distorted history presented in India by a leftist-leaning intellectual milieu:  those intellectuals who only see what they want to see and what they have already determined to seek and find and see. It is a pity that much of our colonial and pre-colonial history has been interpreted by leftist intellectuals, but why are we continuing to interpret our modern history through their eyes? No! The story of Gujarat riots does not go like this: it wasn't always a mob of Hindus descending upon hapless Muslims who just wanted to talk about Gandhi and peace. To imagine a leader giving a speech to a Muslim audience with the words "Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye" goes over the top: to not to show Muslims getting ready with weapons stored up in their mosques and attacking Hindus is criminal if you are showing the Hindutva goons doing the same with Muslims. If a film works with a historical backdrop, it should limit itself to the backdrop: not try to portray one side white, the other black. That is where Kai Po Che is more than an ordinary film: it is a disgusting film.

Speaking of the ordinariness, in spite of great acting performances all round, in particular by Amit Sadh (as Omi) and also by Sushant Singh Rajput (as Ishaan) and Manav Kaul (as Bittoo Mama), the film lacks humour in spite of trying to show bonding: three people jumping in the sea doesn't create bonding, but humour does. The editing is seriously suspect: at the beginning itself, if you are showing Omi to be in jail and then moving the story ten years back to 2001, you know what will happen; any person having knowledge of Gujarat's 20012002 history will tell you immediately how Omi will get more and more influenced by Bittoo and then kill someone during the riots. If all the story is apparent right at the start, what's the point, really, of watching a movie that does not offer you much visually, anyway? The film also tries to package in as many Gujarat stereotypes as possible: from Garba that didn't look like Garba, to kites, from the three friends' living in a pol to some eating of patra and then to ... some bloopers! There's not enough "jai shri krushna"; the scenes of earthquake relief camps are poorly filmed: too clean and unchaotic and the extras not looking Gujaratis; Bittoo cannot pass off as a Gujarati, ever; and so on ... and of course the wrong title!

What surprises me most is the increasing inability to think: in the '80s any film with song, dance and some dishoom worked; in the '90s, any film with "somewhere someone is waiting for me" concept; these days, any film that makes it appear as a serious film works: everyone is in the race to belong to the intellectual class. Alas! How they not know to which pile of dead bodies these maggots want to join!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Piravi

Anyone who has loved Kerala, its incessant water, its rains, its old men, its constantly plying boats, its simple ways of life led amidst extreme poverty, any such person will love Piravi. An ode to Kerala, to undying hope and faith, and to water the element, it is a beautiful film to be experienced. I do not know what effect does it or can it have on those who do not know Kerala, but to someone like me who has known Kerala in a lot of its intimate details and who has spent a lot of time there, among its wooden-gabled houses and temples, among its leech-infested forests and lapping rivers and backwaters, where there is water above and water below, water, water everywhere, the film is nothing short of lyrical poetry.

The actors have played their parts well, especially the old man: whose toothless smile is a treat to watch. The boy's narration adds something extra to the film and thereby fulfils it: from his voice, we know his personality, that he could not have done anything 'wrong'. He could only have been a victim of the State's terror apparatus. Life will slowly ply on, in a seemingly forgotten land; but forgotten does not matter, because love and waiting are for ever present in those hearts for whom only the story is relevant. For them, their being forgotten beings is their tragedy, but also their means of healing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My dinner with Andre


You must come yourself, you must not believe in fairy-tales,
the girl waits on, she is sleeping there, amidst roses.


(a translation excerpt from an old Czech song)

Shawn, who is having dinner with Andre, will rather have the GPS to do the finding of the girl, even if his reason-dominated self will admit, reluctantly, that the princess is sleeping somewhere in a bed of roses: he prefers the security of a nice book in hand, of a cup of cold coffee in which no cockroach has found his way, and of the order that science brings to his life, so he can know things he ought to believe in and things he ought not to. He is simple and he wants simplicity: even if it means being dead, being smug, being shut off to the possibility of visions, dreams and madness. He wants to pay bills and keep shuttling in metrolines so that he can have that simple sensual pleasure of a cup of coffee in early morning. Life is already abrasive, in that you have to wait for that cold cup of coffee and that inspirational morning, and then it's not always that a roach hasn't found his way in it: but that occasional, even rare, appearance of such a perfect morning is the electric blanket that keeps him happy, hardworking, struggling.

Andre is open to the romance, the adventure of life, or so he thinks; a bit too much happy with himself, one suspects. He wants to live every single moment, he wants to feel a lifelong thrill: and so he experiments with bizarre-sounding theatre techniques and New Age communities. He does see the electric blanket as that another instance of a technological product that has alienated man from reality; just like I find the same thing happening with numerous people who travel with earphones stuck in their ears, or even reading books and magazines on train journeys. I often wonder without these books and their mobile phones playing music into their ears, what would they be doing? Half of them, sleeping, which many are still, but the rest? But Andre is the active fellow: he wants to somehow live every moment thrillingly, with huge emotions, not realizing that in that case it is the experience of emotions that is being deadened - and that's why he already is numbed. Just like people are deadened to the sun and the wind and the trees and a true love, for it is there, forever. They scorn, 'don't you ever change? how can you love me forever? don't you see I have changed, so how can you now love me?'

Shawn thinks that for all his talk of alienation from reality, it is Andre who is going far from reality: isn't his coffee cup reality? Aren't those streets and shops with which hundreds of recollections are associated in his mind, aren't those his reality? For Andre, it's Shawn who's living in a mechanical, far-from-real world: he's going about in suburban trains without really thinking, he's chewing food without feeling the pleasure of every morsel. Somewhere in between, the coffee is merely being sipped, drunk: only when he is beginning that cup and when finishing it, for it is finishing, then he feels what all the coffee means to him. But, in between, he has slipped into the mechanical act of drinking. And, as per Andre, anything mechanical is dead. He wants to break the monotony of everything, including existing: hence, he would go and eat sand in the deserts of Sahara.

Almost a 2-hour-long conversation between two people unable to come to grips with modern Western society's alienation, increasingly becoming the norm throughout the world, as democracy, technology, and individualism take over (I place them in the order in which I think one has led to the other), the film doesn't delve into high-flying philosophical terms: it's not a Godard film, thankfully, but a Louis Malle film. There is no action, except the conversation happening between the two of them at a posh restaurant table: one does wonder what object does the conversation have. Andre is bent on praising himself, and he does not seem to be too receptive to Shawn's loud-pitched objections. The waiter is bent on doing his job with 'dignity', and he does a great job as the intermittent third actor in the film.

A stunning film, My dinner with Andre has often bore the criticism that no use of the cinematic medium is being made as nothing is happening except two people talking to each other and that anyone could just place a camera and direct this film: my answer is simply that, well, no one did, till Malle came along. Like Columbus' egg or Holmes' deductions, some of the simplest things are also some of the most ingenious and brilliant, often.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Life of Pi

When a film claims itself to be "spiritual," I often subconsciously compare it with Dreyer's works, in particular Ordet. Belief in God is not some wild frenzy, whereas in Life of Pi it seems to be always the case with all stages of Pi Patel, except maybe that of a mellowed Irrfan Khan (and not to be able to place the pulse on this mellowing in the film's story is an irritant). Is it indeed a spiritual film, or simply a showcase of what all can be done with computers?

If only this can be done with computers, then I am very disappointed: because even on the level of visual imagery, I much prefer animation shorts like Hedgehog in the Fog or Father and Daughter, rather than this sequence of ocean storms that fail to touch and move. Probably, for those who can't get enough of India, since outside of documentaries focussing on poverty there is not much material, not as much as India deserves, it's still satisfying to get some of Pondicherry and Munnar: but, as an Indian viewer, I have seen India in a much more satisfying way in many other films. Nishabd's is a story rooted in Munnar's tea gardens: an organic part of the whole. Frozen creates poetry from humans and the snowy, Himalayan space surrounding them. Kisna sparkles with the freshness of Gangetic rivers and valleys. In contrast, Life of Pi is such an utter disappointment: it fails to catch not only the Indian atmosphere, but also the Indian landscapes. And fails miserably. In spite of fine actors all over (except Rafe Spall playing the writer).

The film's greatest gift is the discovery of a brilliant actor, Suraj Sharma, playing the lead role. It remains to be seen whether he can go on now to build a fine acting career, but in this film at least he has given a stunningly good performance. Irrfan Khan usually overacts these days, but surprisingly in this film he has not, and also looks good, as does Tabu. Depardieu is brilliant in such a short role, though I was quite bitter to find him for such a short time. Both boys playing Pi have also done a great job - a more difficult task, considering that good child actors are always in paucity. And, yet, it's a pity, that given such wealth, the film has gone nowhere: most importantly, in its argument, if it is trying to make one.

God isn't to be proved or disproved, pertinently not through miracles: especially when those miracles are created on a computer. The effect is like watching all those Santa Claus films with a Western teen audience, wherein the teens are enjoying the film as some 'fun', even if they poke fun at the Santa legend. The most crucial difference between Life of Pi and Ordet is that whereas in the latter it is the believer who is pushed out of society, a mad man, in the former it is the man standing for reason (Pi's father, well played by Adil Hussain) that is cornered: when this is done, inevitably Belief stands in the dock. And how can Truth ever defend itself? For defence itself means coming inside the ambit of Reason, means accepting the duality of white and black, true and false, whereas Truth lies not somewhere there.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Palwolui Christmas

What, finally, do we leave behind? More importantly, what do we think we are going to leave behind: is it permanence established and enshrined through concrete, famous acts; or is it a seed floating in the air, in memories of someone who cherished you, who loved you, who could not live without you, but now is living, surviving you, maybe has forgotten you mostly, and yet through whose unconscious shapings of destinies, a merest flutter keeps living - as if one were the wind, with no name and yet everywhere? It is with this timeless pondering of men that Palwolui Christmas (int'l title: Christmas in August), a beautiful film from S. Korea, and Asia, deals with: but not philosophically, nor discursively; but poetically, through a beautiful romance that even if will not be fulfilled will never be called doomed, that even if never uttered will long survive all the vociferous pulsations of men and women - like a river that will flow on, as the seasons change, wilt and bloom.

Photographers, equally those that take passport-size photos as those that capture lands and people, have long held my imagination: often, I have thought of this tribe, who are so sensitive and so much at peace, yet. Han Suk-kyu as Jung-won, a small photographer, plays the role to a poignant perfection: he has long ago accepted the inevitable but he has held on to his character, his patience and his goodness through it all; and through it all, he understands and cares for the people who come to his shop or whom he meets, even if the contact would be a moment's. Every moment can carry great significance; the old woman has a long family to remember her, but Jung-won's desire to have his memorial portrait taken is not absurd even if he has no one he's leaving behind: he will be rather immortalised through the portrait of the girl, who loved him over all the other smart, macho and more ready men, for whatever he is. The girl whom he could carry with him to his sleep: a love that was beautiful for being only felt, in little intimacies, in stolen instants, under umbrellas in rain.

He leaves, and yet she is stronger; he is not, and yet she will always know he is.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Zabriskie Point

Even if not for Antonioni himself, Zabriskie Point would be a shame to miss for Daria Halprin’s voluptuous beauty: which, surprisingly, seems to have been a neglected feature given how the film is universally panned. Her male counterpart, Mark Frechette, also doesn’t do a bad job: and slips in his role with perfect ease, particularly since Frechette’s own life paralleled the role he’s playing in the film. It’s an irony of sorts though that director Antonioni has apparent sympathies placed in no camp: rather, from consumerism to the hippie movement and the counter-culture that swept through America in the ‘60s, he views all of that as nothing more – and nothing less – than a product of ennui, that has usurped human lives once belief disintegrated or decayed.

Zabriskie Point is a continuation of the exploration of the modern condition by the master director: and he does so brilliantly well, using the locales of Mojave desert in a stunning manner (Antonioni would once again situate human barrenness in desolate landscapes in The Passenger, to be written about later). In the tight canvas of the film, there is no hope anywhere: except in inviting death. Antonioni’s films have always been analyses of the decadence of the Western society, but here for the first time he is crisper, more concrete: a specific society, a specific time and a specific location. The desert orgy scene is brilliantly conceived, though I could have wished for more extras: how the anti-establishment wave would soon transform into free sex, free love and little more. Antonioni gives no clue in the film itself whether he views it as degeneration or celebration, which makes the film reach a greater height. It is as if a dispassionate analysis, an observation of all that is happening: the viewer who can think is free to draw his or her own conclusions.

The film raises fearful questions, just as Dostoyevsky did with The Devils. Today’s Western, in particular American, society has many of these hippies in the role of the older adults; today’s West has consumerism and counter-establishment as its God and Devil, whichever side one may choose – as its genesis. To where does one go from here? Technology has enabled man to forget his moral chasm: till when can this be supported? Till what time will a myriad of games, from philosophies to gadgets, keep diverting man away from his basic inability to love and to believe? Until when can man make himself forget that he’s now contented to be a coward?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Luce dei miei occhi

Great actors putting in beautiful performances; some suitable, unobtrusive music; beautiful cinematography ... and yet, the ultimate strength of Luce dei miei occhi (int’l title: Light of My Eyes) is its fleshing out of every major character: Antonio, Maria and Lisa. I have seen even the best of films getting away with loose character development: that seems to be the job of books; but here is a film that slowly but surely comes home, that is not concerned with anything flashy but the eyes of Antonio, full of questions and reprising the role of “il viaggiatore” (the traveller). And yet the film leaves also a thousand questions in the air: through shots of people’s faces, crumbs of their conversations, flakes of people’s lives here and there, all as much real as the dreams in which Antonio moves: those stories are still to be made or getting somewhere made. That this world of immense possibilities exists, where travellers come, care for and leave, is established right at the beginning: when Antonio becomes a part and parcel of a family’s daily life. That even if a prime number, he can learn the ways of those on this planet is established, when he gets away blackmailing a man whose job this was so far to do (Donati as a lower-key version of Zhivago’s Komarovsky, and played by Silvio Orlando with as much guts as was done by Steiger).

The film once again belongs to Luigi Lo Cascio as well; seldom is that gentleness seen on an actor’s face repeatedly, in film after film (I have in fact never seen that before on the face of any male cinema actor after recognition). Because of Lo Cascio and the film’s more than outlined characters, the film is not merely some domestic or sentimental drama, some obsession with stories of here and now, as is common in a lot of Hollywood as well as certain sections of European cinema, too: rather, the film rises above them, partly on account of the science fiction analogy too running throughout the film, and raises several questions about our existence, our reactions, our emotions and sentiments, and how much it means for us to be blindly in love, to blindly believe, to want to do that. The loser is not the one indulging in unrequited love: love is its own reward. The loser is the one who could not accept to be loved, even if this everything be seen in victor and loser terms. Though, there is never any victor, never any loser, except in the eyes of a world which measures every action in terms of “getting her to bed”; everyone is grappling with own dreams and fears, with own insecurities and reasonings. Can you go beyond yours to understand those of others?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Vozvrashcheniye

With beautiful acting performances, a straightforwardly told tale of the ages-old story of fathers and sons is given an even greater depth through elements of man's struggle with and often victory over nature, left-unexplained mystery, and the inscrutable workings of fate which can even transform a person into something else. Vozvrashcheniye (int'l title: The Return) is an organic film: the story is all humanity's and yet every turn of event and every alternation between excitement over the fish caught and loathing of the man who seems coarsened to the end, and running through it all a deep-seated admiration for the man's manly jobs and strength and resourcefulness, seem to have been born of the scenery surrounding them, the rains which come and go, the weed-overgrown dunes which seem to have never budged an inch, and the mud, clay, and grime that cakes everything that can rust, as everything can. The film's greatest strength is its remarkable ability to show differences of characters between all its notable characters, most importantly the two brothers, Andrei and Ivan.

It is a tough enough job to delineate two characters who don't dramatically differ from each other yet are different in temperaments, and yet again have a deep love for each other, to draw such characters through dialogues and screenplay. But it's a rarer thing to find two such actors who can completely be in their roles and hardly look anything else than them, whose eyes can speak more than their mouths do. Initially, one would think Ivan Dobronravov's character, playing his namesake, to be the central character of the film, not least because it is common to find films showing the growing up of some young boy. But this is no Hollywood film to stick by the same trick. Slowly, while Ivan never loses his primacy, Vladimir Garin, playing Andrei, comes into being, slowly his character gains more and more sympathy from the viewer, not just as the elder brother or as a necessary cog in the film's plot, but slowly it dawns on the reader that the film is about the two brothers, both of them. Of how where that one who can see things more penetratingly or can reason more can be more obstinate, but won't lose or gain more in understanding of life than that one who is hero-worshipping but only so for receptivity, who can love and forgive but who can also think, even if hiding that behind no ideas to stick to. The contrast and the love between Ivan and Andrei is fascinating, which is only the more and better exposed by their different reactions to their father and what they think they can learn from him.

The film shines in its honesty to its narrative. There are no voice-overs, there is no one recalling the incidents of those 7 days, except the diary and photos if you choose to view them so. There are no attempts to alleviate what all shall always remain mystery: where was the man for those 12 years, why has he come back, what was hidden in the pit, and does he have a dark past or even present that he has been fleeing from and that has made him the man he is, unable to warm up to his own blood? For in the photos before he left, he seems a usual family man: what must have happened that he left? In the frame of such questions that remain open, two boys struggle to find meanings of manliness and how important it is to be a man: in a society where plunging from as high as possible into water is done to show that you are not a chicken, these questions not only are for the boys, but even for the man, who keeps reminding the boys how little the men they are that he is. Victims all, there is still hope in the silently suffering mother, for she still runs to her child when he is standing up there grappling with the question, to jump or not.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Barfi!

Barfi! treads where few films do: into the realm of irreverence, recalling the days of Buster Keaton and the hidden little heartwarming scenes of Jacques Tati: however, the wonder of Barfi! is that it also combines with all this the cheerful boisterousness of India with its attendant chaos and liberty. Genre-slotters will be hard-pressed to call this film a comedy, a musical or a romance, and even further stressed to note that the film excels in every one of these areas.

The film’s strength is its ability to keep the viewers laughing endlessly through to the end: and its greatness goes even beyond this, for it does not try to whip up any sentimental air of fighting against all odds, as is common with every film featuring a deaf-mute or blind person as its central protagonist (cf. Bhansali’s terribly degrading Black): rather, it even pokes fun in the traditional way (munna mute hi aansu bahaye: “the baby sheds tears in mute mode...” being one of the lines of a song that can come only from India) and thus lifts the character out of the zone of charity and snivelling – rather it is Ranbir as Barfi who is poking fun at you at every step of the film. The film does falter at the very end, doing a Kisna-like act, wherein variegated characters are waiting outside the sick room, and then we are shown unneeded scenes from the old couple’s life: why not leave to the viewer to imagine how did Barfi and Jhilmil live together? These are not the only faults of the film, a very curious editing of the narrative being another: but all is forgiven for the sheer joy of living that the film manages to inspire, evoke and feel. The film does copy several scenes from many Keaton and Chaplin films, but adds many new ones to the repertoire: so all in all it doesn’t grate much, and Ranbir anyway gives it all a new zest.

I hope Anurag Basu keeps on making films in his beautifully fluid style: every one of his films that he has written as well besides directing has been at least worth watching, with Gangster and Barfi! being the standout exceptions of Hindi cinema. With Kites, even though the film was good, I felt a danger of him succumbing to big stars, big money, as happened with Bhansali; but here he avoids that: now all he needs to be alert to is not to go for over-stylization and glamour, as Barfi! relies heavily on it, but in a Tati-like film wherein stunts and slapstick play a huge role that is a strength rather than weakness.