Friday, December 19, 2014

Ugly (2013)

Anurag Kashyap's Ugly is actually an ugly film in itself: sordid life of big, chaotic Indian city, none of the characters that invite even remotely any sympathy, a plot with several loose ends and a very predictable end. The latter two aspects especially hamper a film that claims to be a thriller. However, even more than that, it is the inability of the viewer to connect with any character at all that makes the film an unbearable watch. Films have been always made that have had nothing but characters of dark shades: yet when a character is built well, the audience can relate to it, for in many of us also lie darknesses. However, Ugly does not go into any understanding of its characters: it goes more for style over substance, for the manifestations of sick minds rather than clues to their depravities. A poor storyline and poor editing do not help matters.

Ronit Roy has become the standard abusive figure in Hindi films these days: I thought those days of Hindi cinema were over when you had to watch Aruna Irani or Tun Tun playing the same role over and over again in different films. How can a director take an audience for a ride like this? And, as in 2 States, do not expect much of explanation for Roy's fury: it's just that the character is in vogue and pretends to give the film a psychological depth when in fact the film lacks any substance whatsoever. The plot has huge holes, all left unexplained: why would the police drop shadowing the toy seller woman completely even if Roy was busy with his personal enmity, and more importantly how come they just converge suddenly upon the toy seller woman when the film demands it? Why would Roy not implant a tracking device onto Rahul (and on his body) just silently: why let him know? The police commissioner (Roy) seems to have become one just because he can beat the pulp out of people when the whim takes him: he does not seem to have any smart style of working. And what are appendages like the female assistant to Roy: is she a technical expert working with the police department or a woman constable or a Karamchand Kitty?

The film revels in sickness, just as Kashyap's Gulaal did: it is as if that in the garb of realism you are showing endless stretches of people vomiting and nothing else. Ugly is a film for those who like sick films (plenty of the variety will be found in Hollywood and Spanish cinem) or for those who like to watch squalid Indian cities on big screen and take pleasure in it: but even for these two generalised categories, the gaping plot holes might be too much to handle.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ekspeditionen til verdens ende

It is seldom that films made on a grand scale have such a human touch, such beautiful sense of humour, such core of humility: as the Danish film Ekspeditionen til verdens ende (English title: The Expedition to the End of the World) has. A film in equal measures of science, philosophy and adventure, the film makes do without the common devices of many of National Geographic and Discovery style: no maps and routes litter the video, and wild nature is not the focus. The focus is humanity, its searching questions, its methods of investigation, its pressing concerns, and its ability to take in everything with equanimity.

The scientists, the explorers, the artists: all aboard a ship to an unexplored area, a journey made possible by melting glaciers. The funding foundation does not expect them to document, to produce, to achieve: and here is where the remarkable spirit of the film comes from. Rugged landscapes of desolateness, as if it is the end of the world and it is forbidden to carry on, greet man: and yet, there are possible signs of an earlier man, the Stone Age man, who once abided here, called it home, bred children, and mysteriously left. Life even in this desert is everywhere: and life in its pristine forms, life that holds clues about the nature of life itself. Where did life itself come from, if it did? And how robust is it? The tens of thousands of years man has been living: how long a future is feasible? Can man last long as, say, dinosaurs did? And what will be that man? Which civilisation, how recognizable? Or will they be picking our fossils?

The Expedition to the End of the World is a film that sets you liberated: and that gives a shining meaning of science, often lost in, ironically, the world of modern science.Like religions, like art, science is a beautiful way to inquire, to understand, to know the truth: equations and chants are not much different from each other.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Derakht-e Golabi

It is seldom that we see poetry distilled in biographies: even though aren't memories the best example of poetry? Derakht-e Golabi (English title: The Pear Tree) deals with memories. It also deals with why Boo Radley did not choose to come out; why the young man waits for 99 nights outside the princess' window but not the promised, 100th night; why love for grand ideals can make you feel tired. The film strongly reminded me of the book To Kill a Mockingbird and the films Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and La guerre est finie. Like Diego, Mahmoud is tired: but here we also see that self of Diego before the tiredness came. How often a love for justice is born of love for beauty and a strong commitment to be faithful. Mahmoud loved M, in the form of my eternal love even more than M the person Mimcheh. His love for Mimcheh is slavish; he thinks he is not her equal; he loves to please her, he adores her, and he can die for her. He can always brood over her, and yet be far from her. For his love of his love for Mimcheh is strong: he cannot bear the thought of it dying, it quenched, it spurned, it cold-shouldered. Absence from Mimcheh only makes her more beautiful; absence from her only makes of him the culprit, never her. Now she can be perfect, and he can give all his love to fight for grand ideals of equality for all. And now he realises their futility: now he realises everything worth having in his life is his love for Mimcheh, the time he spent with her, the moments that can never be shared. The most beautiful novel he has written is unwritten: it sleeps, reposes inside him, and gives him the pear tree's peaceful shade. Neither to justify his ways, his ideas, his thoughts, nor to declare unto the world that "yes, I also loved": nothing will make him draw forth now from this seclusion, which is at once his paradise and his teacher. Now, the middle-aged Mahmoud becomes a child again: now he learns again, and now he learns to appreciate Mimcheh. Maybe more than M, my own eternal love. Now Mahmoud learns to love Mimcheh.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Plemya

It is said that Eugène Ionesco felt himself lifted off the ground one fine summer day as a child: when he came back from that ethereal feeling, he realized the depravity of the world around him. This is what the extraordinary commentary on the human condition Plemya (also called as The Tribe) is all about: a sharp look at human bestiality. The film is about the absence of Hope: and of what it makes men of. When Hope is limited to pillage calls as for scavengers; when Hope can find for itself no expression but having a good fuck with one particular girl; and when that minuscule expression is also crushed, the new horizon opens black like a day, yawning like the cruelties now living in your soul, unforgiving like the gods you reject.

This new horizon is the camera. Not of the biologist who is examining human species under the microsope. Not of the film director who is interested in aesthetics. Not of the storyteller who wants to say, "And then, one fine day ...". For there is no fine day in this tale of the eternally dumb: the modern humans. The camera is of the atman: untouched directly by good and bad alike, not even defining what is good and bad, not laughing with the comic and not tearing up with the tragic. It is the gaze which we lose, which we are not one with, which is neither interested nor uninterested. It is the vision that gazes, not observes; that sees, not looks. It tells stories of mirages, just like Ionesco did in The Killer: mirages that are universal, the maya, that can come in the shape of a pimp knocking at your truck door, or a wad of cash in a railway coupé, or a cheap T-shirt mentioning L'Italia. But this camera is not far away, as in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia: no, there is no near, no far here. This camera is mid-distance: it is just playing. There is no judgement of the near, and no contempt of the far; there is no shock of the near, and no intellectualization of the far; there is no sympathy of the near, and no charity of the far; there is no spoken word of the near, and no silence of the far. But with this beautiful camera to which a feature-length film plays out like a documentary without ever being one, accompanied by not a single dialogue or commentary or caption, the film invites you into the heart of human darkness, especially as common in the West and fast-modernizing parts of the East. The film is a story of civilisation: of grand projects like European Union and complicated manmade systems in place (whether they be schools or they be codes of bullying), but wherein man finds the ennui to return to his primitive state: the beast.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Keshtzar haye sepid

The film's secrets, its tears, the sadness of today and the laughter of tomorrow, the pastures of yesterday and the land where there is no salty sea of tomorrow: they will all vanish, evaporate, be no more, like a swan that will fly away. What will remain is the essence, not in a form of theory, not in a spark of recognition, not in a feeling of achievement: it will remain in the form of perpetual mourning, perpetual search, perpetual voyage; and in the form of stunning visuals of Rasoulof's masterpiece that is Keshtzar haye sepid (known under various names internationally, such as White or The Secret Tears or The White Meadows). The pearl that the tears will accrete into is the heart of the tears collector, Rahmat. Hard, having no clemency unlike his name: or maybe playing the god, not playing the role of the good man, the bad man. He will meet the father, but will not tell the son is here; he will meet the sea's wife again, but will not tell of that one who was stoned to death for her; he will know to preserve each secret deep inside, weaving a pearl, holy in this ablution, not choosing to decide for himself when revelation is good and when not. He himself has become the salt: indispensable, like the famed lowest-caste untouchable pyre-burner of Indic lands; but carrying a grave responsibility, carrying the need to not laugh and yet keep his sanity when lamentations, sins and rituals are repeated in every man, every island, every people, every age, every gender. He has become the salt that preserves death and burns life, but that attacks wounds and seasons meat. The dead shall arise again, the blind shall see again and Iran will come out of a constant vigil at the dying man's bedside.

The dying man is Iran, since centuries: not for a disease, but for a lack of youth. I remember when I was staying in the home of an Iranian family, the man asked me if I had noticed how people in Iran are always sad. Even if they laugh, they are sad. Even if they joke, they are thinking of death. They are afraid of it, but cannot rush to party to banish that fear, as the West does, and nor can overcome that fear, as India long ago learnt to. There is a vulture in the air; there is the smell of salt everywhere. Bright, burning salt. Lands that keep stretching and seas that never end: they are so banal, so nothing. That nothing itself becomes the most beautiful landscape. Iran relived in me when I watched this film, but so did also the amazing power of man, of his stories, of his camera, of his penchant for telling tales. There can be few films that are so beautiful to watch and that can say so much with so few words used.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost

Qissa (meaning "anecdote, tale") is a tale of frontiers: between nations, between customs, between mentalities, between genders, between life and death. It is also a tale of dissolution, of breakdown, of merging: those of frontiers. Whether they collapse or whether new ones are created, they often bring tragedy in their wake. Crossing borders can be significant, impossible, even leading to confusion, leading one to always live in liminal states. Crossing boundaries, whether voluntary or not, whether conscious or not, is an act that can change destinies for ever. As the director Anup Singh says, Punjab is where all converge: the Mongols, the Persians, the Arabs, the Indians, the others; and in the process are created boundaries, fluid but rigid, flexible but relentless, rivers that divide lovers to two opposite, never-meeting shores. And this is the tale of Qissa, only one among the many qissas, like the qissa that animates Mani Kaul's Duvidha but in a grander dimension: of history and geography, of reverberating ages and clashing gender roles.

There are several faults to the film: an unnecessay, revelatory appendage to the title; poor art direction, meaning too "clean" sets/locales; limited ability of major actors. However, it is the story and its multiple, unending implications that reign supreme here: and the rest is forgiven. The latter half of the film is particularly excellent, and music supports the film throughout. The ambiguous ending is what is best about the film: is it the child-begetting spirit of Umber, or is it the unfulfilled lust of Kanwar the girl, which wants to bed Neeli? And to protect herself from which one does Neeli take the final step? Has Kanwar finally succeeded in crossing the border, but Neeli, the wiser one so far, unable to? Or has Kanwar failed, and Umber's will proved stronger than Kanwar's love?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Szyfry

Where does reality find itself? Of what is it made? Is it definable? Which war is greater: the soldier's on the battlefront, or the one at home when everything is caught in a web of intrigue, when human affections also become arms to be used, scorned or discarded? Man will seek his legacy in his Son. The Son will seek a hero in his father, the Man. When the Man shall be absent, the Son will elevate whatever clay idols are within reach to the pedestal of God. The absent will be commemorated in forgetfulness: till one day the absent and present meet. Through dreams and memories and letters. The winter of human solitude reaches everywhere, covers everything and everyone. Wars will finish, but remains will still be lost, dispersed in thickets and trenches, scattered in faces unrecognisable and masks unrecognised. We will keep digging our own graves; in the name of progress, we will keep sinking to madness of reason. As we sink, we are never able to get out, never recover what was once there. We believed it was all ours, but nothing remains. We will regret, thinking that something and someone is ours; as we regret, the pit becomes deeper, narrower, just so as to fit us nicely. There is no space left, no manoeuvre left. Even prayer has gone, for when we regretted, faith left us. The last white bird flew away, leaving nothing but crows: eager for clutching at our wretched consciences, those sickly pieces of meat.

And from those disfigured interior beings will arise memories of different shades: memories that will give meaning to our unbearable lies. We will construct new pasts, and then new futures based on these evergreen pasts. The pasts shall conflict, shall clash among themselves; the present will have many explanations, each one real, but maybe none true. No one knows, so there is no definition of true. But there is one of real. Every reality will ask you to keep faith: that which you lost when you regretted. Now, it will be difficult, for you may never recover what was once there. And the consuming madness of trying to believe in manifold realities will consume you: till the war front looks like some comedy put up for an emperor in a bloody arena. Till someone can give you some tangible proof of something: a dead body or a living child.

But there is none. There is nothing but absolute darkness and supreme snow. You will grope, and you will grope, and you will grope: for proofs. You do not, cannot believe in light, not any longer, so even when it will come, you will turn and keep groping. There is no summer: the child shall keep searching for the hero in an icy land. The Son for the Man. The absent never return; or if they do, it is not them.

Szyfry (known often as The Codes in English) is a remarkably beautiful film that is a privilege to watch.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

La cara oculta

La cara oculta (English title: The Hidden Face) is a film that has more potential than was realised by the director: the basic plot is superb. However, the director goes for the usual hair-raising stuff of crashing thunder, strange events happening that only one person seems to perceive, and something happening when in bath: there is also the more banal stuff of stuffing your film with hot-looking ladies, their nude figures, and an expressionless, debonair man. In a film that could have been a lot more about the psychology of captivity, of horror and of jealousy, the focus is not even on mystery - for whoever has watched the trailer knows what's happening even before the midpoint of the film - but on the resolution of a seemingly hopeless situation. This is where the film falters: it is an almost unbelievable story but told in the most ordinary cinematic language.

Yes, there is a lot of focus in the first half on mirrors: but even that dissolves when the mystery is revealed. A mirror troubles human conscience, for you see yourself: you do not know why, you do not know what the mirror is going to present to you, and you do not know if there is someone or something on the other side, and if yes, then who or what. A mirror redirects our gaze to ourself, but more to what we project: we may have believed something else, and now we perceive ourselves, yet not as we know ourselves to be, but as we see with our own faculties. We create an idea of ourselves as we seem to others; and there we rest. For we cannot dive into the mirror like we can in a pool of water; we cannot break through its disturbing stillness. Baiz, the director, unfortunately shows us both sides of the mirror: and that too with a lot of melodrama, which at times appears childish. Even the spell of lights going out and events happening in bathrooms is broken: a film that could have been a supreme inquiry into man's deepest fears, perceptions and beliefs is reduced to a thriller with some skin play, some romance, some poorly drawn out characters. It is a film designed to satisfy audiences with popcorn on a Sunday afternoon, seeking to spend a couple of hours of their life distracted.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Haider

While Haider is not equal to Gulzar's Maachis, the comparison inevitably springing to mind even though the latter's focus was militancy, which is only the backdrop to the former's storyline, it is, apart from Blue Umbrella, probably Bhardwaj's best, and certainly a better work than Shakespeare's Hamlet itself. Set in a raw Kashmir, with the film relentless in its dark thrust and building up of tension (in spite of knowing the broad contours of the story), the film scores with its nuanced understanding of Kashmiris' fight and their concerns: it does not take sides except that of humanity, just like Haider's father does not; and it does not flinch from showing Indian army's cruelty and what it leads to. Where the film fails is its too many songs, pointless (and unsuccessful attempts of) comedy (Maine Pyar Kiya odes seem to have become quite popular in films these days, from Filmistan to here), and an important supporting cast who fail to act: that is, Shraddha Kapoor and Irrfan Khan. In a film whose nucleus is its characters, it is important to have the people playing them right: thankfully, Tabu has played a stellar role (another similarity with Maachis), and Shahid Kapoor has also done a good job. Yet, without especially Shraddha's role being played to the standard the story wanted, one cannot have the film needed. In addition, the film would have gained by showing a spirit as spirit, rather than an escaped prisoner. Right now, in fact, the film tries both: and loses by it. The original play's beauty is that nothing is certain; the film does start out on those lines, but gradually tries to educate the viewer, to lessen the uncertainty.

Otherwise, the cinematography is beautiful, and the background score is gripping and suitable; and what is the best is Bhardwaj with his over-the-top wackily dark humor. The gravediggers in their graves, the bald look of Shahid, and dialogues playing with 'to be or not to be' in various guises: all fit the mood. If only the director could have shaved off half an hour of it, it could yet have been a great film even with the other flaws intact.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dekalog, piec (TV)

The beauty of Kieślowski's films is that they are not humanist: they are human. The Dekalog series travels wide and far in its range of characters and lives, in its stories, so much that it is difficult to believe that one man can produce so much work of the highest quality, with the same themes echoing through such diverse multitude of humanity. This short film of less than one hour, the fifth part of the series, is at par with Victor Hugo's works in their human understanding and with Dostoyevsky's works in their plumbing to depths unexplored before. Can there be a higher praise for any creation than being said to carry both Hugo and Dostoyevsky in its womb?

This almost twenty-five-year-old film carries particular significance in today's society, where people often demand death penalty for those who commit rape or other crimes condemned by the system, or where there are those who are simply intellectually opposed to capital punishment, and yet have never bothered to think themselves as responsible when a crime has happened. And yet, isn't it they who are responsible? And yet, they have the temerity to judge, condemn and murder? The lawyer feels guilty because he was in the cafeteria when the condemned was toying with the rope, tortured by guilt, hate and the need of being loved and accepted.

We seek acceptance through conforming or rebellion, through declaring love or declaring hate, through creating or destroying. All expression, all communication is nothing but an attempt to seek acceptance, to seek respect, to seek a place. We seek it in people's hearts, in their memories, in their words, in their deeds. Sometimes, when we are too tired of seeking it there, we seek it even in a system. And when the system fails us, we hate not only the system but all those who comprise it. A film that raises questions about the moral tenets that society holds and keeps howling about, and raises doubts among each one of us about our duties, what we are doing, and if it is enough: it is not just life but it is the human spirit first of all that "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dekalog, jeden (TV)

In the whole Dekalog series, and most impressively in its very first episode, Kieślowski again tackles the spiritual quest of mankind without invoking the necessity of religions, or even that of gods. The quest that is the result of human curiosity: that seeks to define and predict, that seeks to know instead of not know, and yet that finally knows more in knowing that not everything is to be, or can be, known. Lit up by a wonderful relationship between the precocious father-son duo of Pawel and Krzysztof, seldom seen in most cultures' films, the film finds easily a way into your heart and lodges there for ever. Maybe, that's a fault to contend with: in a film which conveys a deeply philosophical message, there is more sentimentality than many would usually like. But a sentimentality of the warm kind, of the intelligent kind: as if the bonding, both of love and of intelligence, between Pawel and Krzysztof is like the soft feathery flocons of snow that dreamily fall, defying meteorologists and the most accurate machines.

Systematically, as he would do in all his films, Kieślowski will be obsessed with the point of the view of the absent, of that that would have happened (had ...), of the irrealisable. Little shots throughout the Dekalog series, and throughout the master's oeuvre, will time and again remind the viewer: that the perception of the same event, the same circumstance can be different from the other side of the window, from outside, from another's eyes, from another world. And what if the circumstances had changed? Charts of destiny are again the drifting flocons of snow: and nothing can be predicted, nothing can be established as one definitive truth or good, and no theory or science or religion can be cherished as God save the actual love for and by Pawel. It is Love that says "I am Lord thy God, and thou shalt not have no other gods but Me." Only, it doesn't say (so, or anything): it is silent and pervasive.

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.