Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ghost World

The film opens with a song from the Swinging Sixties of India: Rafi's "Jaan Pehchaan Ho," by now a cult number in North America (though a largely forgotten one in India amidst a bevy of cabaret songs and invitations to twist from the same epoch); and the apt introduction sets the tone for the film. Without bitterness, and without commentary, the film delves into the suffocation of American life, where bored people make everything into a trend or discourse and lack the ability to see where the frontiers are. No one has the courage to take the bus away from here, from this life; maybe, Enid does get it, the faith to take the bus to nowhere.

It is Thora Birch playing Enid who is the soul of the film, in that she is just so much in the skin of her character. The rest of the cast is well played, and it is difficult to not to feel an itch running over your body on thinking of coming into any kind of physical contact with Steve Buscemi's Seymour: which is what he should make you feel. He is kind of a nerd, but also quite creepy, and with a very loose set of principles and pants ready to drop. It is him who provides the final punch of disappointment and of deception to Enid. Even if Enid was bored and playing games with him: on the face of it, something like another bored character, Austen's Emma the matchmaker, but to the extent of it, more like Cruel Intentions' Kathryn the evil plot-maker: the common element is neither intrigue nor designs, and not even the jeux interdits that they indulge in; but it is the lack of knowledge of what to do with their lives except design set pieces in the vaudevilles that they are trapped in.

We know what will become of Rebecca, Enid's friend, who starts adapting to the world, rather than live in the cellule of satire, wit and sneer: she will grow into a Kathryn, preferring a much-larger cocoon with labyrinths that befit a palatial mansion of luxurious charms. Enid however has realized the character of the game: that it is a game, and that bored people will continue to make makeshift arrangements of graduations and carnivals, egg-and-spoon races and art classes. She doesn't know where to go, how to get out: but she knows she has to get out. She knows she has to take the bus out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Filmistaan

Once in a while do odes to cinema itself also appear among all the others: in different guises and playing with all our emotions, as a film about films ought to do. The greatest ode perhaps remains Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, but Filmistaan remains the best one to Indian cinema in particular. The beautiful thing about it is that just like Cinema Paradiso manages to elevate itself into an epic story of undying love, Filmistaan (literally meaning "the land of films," but also rhyming with Hindustan and Pakistan, the entities that a barbarous partition created and the repercussions of which the film deals with) also becomes a film about human goodness: and amazingly, while dealing with a topic as complex as hardline zealots, presents a comedy par excellence.

Who would think of Sharib Hashmi as the leading man of a film? And yet how could this film have been made without him: without his thumkas, his infectious energy, his never-say-die spirit of playfulness? No situation can daunt this man; and it is easy to fall in love with him. And yet some have crossed over so much into the land of bitterness that either they come back too late from it or they never manage to do so (Jawad and Mehmood). While man keeps propounding ideologies and erecting idols, while he keeps drawing circles of philosophy around something as simple and uncomplicated as life, and thus makes life complicated, Hashmi, in the role of Sunny Arora, unravels it all in a wink, in a trick, in a dialogue from a Hindi film aptly suited to the situation: he doubts himself that maybe he is not an actor, but only a buffoon, but no one who gets to know him will doubt who he is and what he has given to them. In a way, he is the Idiot, the Prince Myshkin, of Dostoeyvsky, and it is rare for me to come across another Myshkin in literature, film, or life. So many years have been rolled back for me, and so many encrusted ideas of the other have been swept away for the Pakistani village. Because it is stories that human hearts thirst for: and the one who can be happy in stories is richer than anyone else, than any saint or assassin, any magnate or politician.

Films: as Indians we grow up with them. They are weaved into our afternoons, our lazy Sundays, our morning shows, our speech, even our gods and goddesses. Films have often changed a generation's outlook in India, as did notably Hare Rama Hare Krishna or 3 Idiots. But even films of a trend, from Maine Pyar Kiya to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, and thereafter, coloured the minds of many. The sterile Hollywood cannot give us what the rain-drenched, emotion-laden, suggestive-dance-attuned, melodrama-oscillating Indian films do. The beauty of Indian cinema is seldom acknowledged; if it is, it is only those like Ray, poor imitators of the West, who are spoken of. Indians are ashamed to appreciate the Indian idiom, the joy that we celebrate our life with and that reflects in our films: and Filmistaan unabashedly does precisely that. A much-needed injection of courage to those who love heavy Raj Kumar dialogues.

Note: The film's comedy depends heavily on the viewer understanding the Indian cultural context, more specifically the films and actors referenced. If you haven't watched a lot of Hindi films from all eras plus cannot recall easily who or what is being referenced, the film isn't necessarily for you. The subtitles would be meaningless unless you understand why the original dialogue of a referenced film is epic/memorable in the first place, and of course what is being referenced.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

City Lights (2014)

In a way, the film City Lights is all about what not to do: fine performances, especially from the lead actor Rajkummar Rao, beautiful music, and a story made for a gritty thriller all fail to uplift the film to being a classic, which the film could easily have been with a bit more reflection, bit more getting lost in the world of no-hopefuls. And yet, the film remains a beautiful etching on the Indian cinematic canvas, and the effort to make it an honest one: most importantly, the film rises above being a crime drama and becomes a beautiful film about marriage and love, a typical story from the heart of India. For in India, we have arranged marriages and we are fiercely loving, loyal and understanding of our other half: self-sacrifices are commonplace and more often than not, love reigns supreme. It is something foreign to the "my liberty"-searching Western mind-set (and newer generations of Indians), but Rao and Patralekha (playing his wife) remind one of what a typical Indian couple are: their love, their fleeting joys and omnipresent lurking dangers, their struggles for a better material life, their ability to sacrifice everything for their love, their honour, their children.

Where the film does suffer is a lack of coherent vision about what the film wants to be. Manav Kaul, playing Rao's mentor and colleague Vishnu, is given too much screen time: unfortunately, the film is not about crime and gangs, nor about how to carry out a heist. The film is about a little family of three, and Kaul's unneeded, constant presence in the film eats into the soul of the film. In fact, to put it bluntly, the film could have been twenty minutes shorter, and with a differently shot climax. Bad editing is a feature of the film elsewhere: there was no need of some of the characters; the background music is unable to be weaved in with the story by the director though the music is wonderful; small things like unnecessary references, both visually and aurally, to lights of a city could have been avoided (especially when abruptly introduced like at the intermission if you watch this one in an Indian theatre); and the grand finale could have been more high-octane, much more thrilling. Right now, there's nothing grand about it. The film is essentially a love story, a story of survival: not just a crime drama. The film fails to realize this; however, the one place where some thrills were badly needed is where the film fails to provide them.

However, for someone who's not lived in a materially poor society, the film may certainly be a gem to watch. The performances are marvellous, complete with Rajasthani accents. The film is also well shot, and some of the meandering shots are brilliant: I particularly remember one of the shots at the beginning of the film of dim, yellow light reflecting on the steel utensils typical to any Indian home. I think I will remember that shot for a long time into my life: in that shot is hidden the song "Muskuraane ke vajah tum ho" ("You are the reason for smiling"). If only the filmmaker could have drawn out that connection!

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Polytechnique

To the pacing of soft snow-flakes, to the grimness of winter but the warmth of people's hopes, disappointments, tears and laughter, to the isolation of cells from other cells, humans from other humans, even as stories do link up, is set the beautifully poetic film Polytechnique, a film with little dialogues, and a film where you would least expect visual poetry and meaningful substance if you were to know that the film is basically about a 1989 shooting spree in a Canadian college.

The best thing that the film has done is to limit colour, dialogues, music, acting: rather, the film is about silence. Or, about silences. That of the young man who is forced to seek a solution to his life in killing others, who has no friends, no girlfriend, who, one feels, is in some need of unconditional love, who is intelligent but not in sync with the world and feels painfully that he's not in. That of the young woman who finds the world a less accepting place for her ambitions to enter a male-dominated field, who is in the bubble of ambitions and her passion for engineering and life. That of the young nerd who is shy, who is easily taken advantage of by a girl at the photocopier, the kind of girl with her mean cleverness that is the representative quality for all womankind for the first young man. That of places where music is bursting out, unknown of the shootings going on in other parts of the campus. That of the men who left the girls to their fate and remained transfixed in silent guilt throughout their lives. That of the surviving women and men, who have seen something out of the ordinary and have remained in its cocoon, through dreams and trauma and a too painfully acquired ability to see beyond their short-term goals.

With stunning cinematography and attention to detail, lingering over hands, pistols, snow, little trivia, in beautiful soft black & white, Denis Villeneuve's film touches the heart and, even though it seems that it is faithful to the actual occurrences, also takes liberties to make it a greater work of art rather than mere reconstruction of events. More importantly, Villeneuve gives the role of the killer to not someone who looks Arab by looks, unlike the actual killer's identity: this is a wonderful consideration, given that the film could otherwise lead to hate crime against immigrants in countries like Canada and France, where many from the Maghreb make home. The film is not about gender, violence or death thrills, something that easily such a film ends up in becoming: the film is about disjunct identities, it is about the loneliness in modern, often Western civilization, that culminates here in an act of rage.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

In a film, in a story, when you do not develop your characters, when you do not give anyone the chance to know them, and when you fill your story with stylistic devices of handsome (here typewritten) statements and repetitive visuals of impact (here, shattering glass and exploding bombs), regardless of how well the film or the story looks or reads, they remain hollow. This is the central problem of the overambitious German film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.

The film traverses a complex historical layer of (West) Germany, about something that is still awake in public consciousness to some extent: the possibility of violence in the aftermath of the two World Wars remains very much so in Europe, and one feels that even more now than ever we are all sitting on some tinderbox. Germany, because of its myriad emotions coming from pride over an empire or a nation that has seen periods of Frederick the Great, to the Weimar Republic and finally to Hitler's project, is the case most intensified out among all. In many ways, the Baader-Meinhof gang of thugs, or RAF in other words, was the product of this confusion: I am not suggesting Baader to be this product, because whether he was or he was not glosses over the seeming fact that he was simply a common waylayer in the guise of the then extolled "anarchist," but the coloured imagination of the youth certainly was so: youth whose fight against US occupation of Vietnam was their new drug, who had their newfound liberty of doing whatever they like, of being trigger-happy, whether it's fucking anyone and wherever, shooting a pistol shot at whomsoever or whatsoever or just into the void, or glorifying themselves by pushing and bullying others into some cruel act. The so-called anarchist often plays the Russian roulette, not with himself, which he pretends to, but with others' lives: he believes in nothing, but in destruction, in inversion and in perversion. Meinhof and her group may fight against the likes of the Shah of Iran, but they will also take arms and training from the Stasi, or from the Arabs whom they would otherwise disdain by getting nude whenever they want to, with no care for some other culture; or they may easily hijack a plane, because after all the passengers of an airplane can presumably be only capitalists.

And yet, the film tries to go away from who Baader was, who Gudrun was, who Ulrike was, or who Mohnhaupt was. It paints them in a haze of smoke and sex, high-falutin words and a mixed bag of actions, most of which end up botched and all of which are dirty: but fails to reveal the essential insecurity underlying someone like these adrenaline-fuelled terrorists. These are people who are neither Vietnamese, nor Arabs: their land has not been taken away, they have not been subjected to poisonous gas, and even in prison they have access to TV, radio and other means of contact, something that many free people in other countries wouldn't have. These are not terrorists driven by a consuming anger from experience. Their anger is rather the anger from impotence: they know their fathers were impotent, and they know that they are equally impotent, and so since they cannot fuck, their guns do the fucking part. And this is where the film comes up a pathetic cropper: there are a lot of incidents, lot of shouting and shooting, but there is no substance. Even though the film gathers a good cast, the director only succeeds in partially brightening up the image of some of the most despicable murderers in German history, which, considering how littered it is with them, is to say much.

There is no sensitivity of La guerre est finie, there is no small but detailed scope of Buongiorno, Notte, and there is no human uplifting story of The Lives of Others, all comparable films in theme and preoccupations: all there is, is a body but no soul. The body is handsome - the production values are high - but without the soul, the eyes don't light up.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Revolver Rani (2014)

If there were a genre called "grit," then Revolver Rani (meaning "Revolver Queen" in English) would fall into that, rather than black comedy, action or drama among others. And if there were an award for the best acting ever across all cinema from all over the world, then Kangana Ranaut would be a serious contender and very likely winner for her role as Alka Singh, the Revolver Rani of the film and of Gwalior. And if there was ever an example of how the remaining film fails to match the high-voltage intensity and sheer ability of one of its crew (Kangana), then this film is the example.

Failing miserably in the editing department, the film is still unmissable: simply because of a breathtaking performance, yet again in her life, by Kangana. For me, Kangana's performance in her debut film, Gangster, had been the best-ever performance by any actor in a Hindi film equalling Kher's in Saaransh, but here Kangana as the Revolver Queen surpasses even both of them. And not only that but Hindi cinema gets its first pulsating action performance and its first action hero in the unlikely shapes of Kangana and her act; the finale of the film, set to the high-octane, rhythmic song of "Pehli Lohe ki Chingari," is riveting, stunning, spectacular: before the scene was set into its frenzied motion, I was expecting something like Ishqiya's Vidya Balan ending, but the film, for all its flaws in editing and directing, did serve up a climax unforgettable by way of believable dream stuff. And an unbelievable "rann chandi," Kangana.

If only the film had avoided the Udaybhan clan ... their comedy falls flat, and most importantly it is completely stupid to start the film with a long sequence of them. It is only Kangana's entry that energizes the film; till then, the viewer is floundering, thinking what on earth he came for. Kangana's role in the film does lead to one think: if only someone would make the Betty Blue story adaptation with an evil twist, what a God-given gift would Kangana be in a role similar to Betty's. The wish list couldn't be better for a film lover.

The film is overall simply decent, but watch it for the sublime Kangana. I guess I have set down a litany of adjectives here for Kangana in such a short write-up, and yet I think I haven't done her any justice as yet. Words fail when faced with such exceptional talent and work.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Printed Rainbow

Films, or works of art, come hardly more beautiful than this. Gitanjali Rao's 2006 film Printed Rainbow is ostensibly about an old woman and her cat, her solitude and her dreams, her ability to imagine coloured landscapes and her gumption to live on. But made with loving, careful detail, the film says a lot more. It is not merely about old age, it is about modern society. People trapped in little boxes, far from rain, far from forests, birds and harems' enjoyment. Everyone is on a wheelchair, unable to get out from it: and imagination, bright, vivid imagination rich with music, textures and disperse scenes from the far-flung corners of India, through the matchboxes of Sivakasi, is required, is the only vehicle to escape the monotony, the imprisonment behind a spinning wheel: the spinning, ever-circling wheel of a sewing machne, of a paper boat in too little a sea, of life and death.

As of the time of writing, this 15-minute-long masterpiece can be watched in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaNJbaBsZ-I

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.