Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Filosofi Kopi

Filosofi Kopi starts and continues at a lighter level till midway, before it takes an unpredictable and welcome plunge into deeper meanings of life, raises questions and becomes a film to remember. As its name suggests, the film revolves around coffee: and hence the freshness, the love and yet the bitter undertones of a good cup of coffee. Coffee is the constant metaphor for life in the film: coffee is also the mother for Ben, the mother who, he thinks, is rejected by his father, the mother whom he tries to recreate all the time, like Bates did in Psycho, though with a much less disturbed mind than Bates'. For Ben has the love of Jody, and so he does have understanding: what he lacks is home, which he keeps searching in a coffee, a mother that can once again seduce his father, whom he has abandoned, that can unite the family. And yet Ben is to learn the lesson that in acceptance is union, in future are secrets of the past, in love lies the secret of good coffee.

The film's two major characters, Ben and Jody, are played admirably by Jerikho and Dewanto: their, in particular Ben's, good looks don't come in the way of the roles they are playing, and that is not what every good-looking actor can manage. However, the film is certainly marred by some of the most stilted acting I have seen in a long time, that by the actress Julie Estelle playing El: thankfully, though not a minor character, she is still not all that important. The film does suffer though because of this blemish. The camerawork is also a bit strange: unsteady at times for no apparent reason, and getting tempted by landscapes of tea gardens at another. However, it is Ben who captivates you, and if you follow his story, then there may be rich rewards in store for you. In spite of a final, make-people-happy ending that I did not like much.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Kat en Muis

In sickness, one can only turn to oneself: the night is never-ending and dense, any effort to communicate your fears and your pain will inevitably fail, and as memories of life cling to you, there is nothing left but exhaustion, attempt to forget, and a final hurtle: breaking off the bonds of loyalty to that very night, for after all it did nurture you even if like a child of demon, and rushing in wild, cruel joy to day's embrace. For somewhere, on some horizon, surely, there must be day?

The stunning Dutch film Kat en Muis (int'l title: Cat and Mouse) is a brilliant study in human darkness: born of guilt and love, incomprehension and wish to correct things, morality and functions. Laced with erotism and incestuous brooding, the film traces the story of a girl who lost her brother in her childhood because of her possible negligence and carries in herself the resultant guilt and probable accusation by others. It is worthwhile to compare here for a brief while the very opposite counterpart of it in the realm of cinema though with the same basic kernel: Bhansali's Khamoshi the Musical. But whereas Annie in the latter film possesses one tool—her voice—to overcome her condition (for the exact same reason) as well as a deep, unending joy of life imparted to her by Mariamma, Belle is in herself the cat and the mouse, and struggling joylessly to find some glimmer of joy and love. And yet, as she plays with the mouse, she also knows the nature's rule: that the cat will kill the mouse. And so must she, to get out of the closed world she is trapped in. But it is not suicide that she contemplates: for she also loves intensely this world, glimpsed barely in those moments when she is cycling or wanting love and appreciation from Max. But it is the murder of the child Belle: to poison her milk, to kill her, to kill uncertain memories. What happened in childhood through negligence she must now do it with deliberation, and relive the feeling: to know who Belle is through Belle, and not through her dysfunctional parents or a tricky memory or fantasies of being the caged mouse. She must discard thoughts and come to action: for else, she would go mad or be dead or be a drugged-and-raped discard of her parents' house of horror. An action that, though deliberate, brings no guilt and carries no accusation: a cleanly done act, that only brings light and peace to soul, and maybe a better, more certain knowledge of the past.

An expertly edited film with very few dialogues and a heavy use of symbolism as well as wind-drenched landscapes, the film could have done though with an actor for Belle who looked a bit less "sunshine", even if the director's intent was that the audience feels empathy for her. However, that still does not come in the way of enjoying such a great psychological masterpiece, and the film is one of those which stick in your memory for a long, long time.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Borgen (TV) (2010-2013)

If Chanakya is more about political thought, the Danish TV series that wowed the world Borgen is more about the seamier side of politics and media (and their marriage); while Chanakya had hardly any major woman character, Borgen is one of the rare works that humanity has produced that is not concerned with gender, reflecting Nordic societies: the lovable woman protagonist of the series, Birgitte Nyborg, has as many faults and virtues as any other human being. There is no attempt to pity her, glorify her or to see her through the lens of her being a woman: even if the story has to deal with issues of man and woman, as in her failing marriage with Philip, in the go-getter attitude of Katrine, partly you would suspect fueled by society's patronising, or in the fiery feminist Hanne, sadly relegated to sidelines as the series progresses. But not getting trapped in feminism or otherwise is not the sole strength of Borgen: the major strength is its authentic, rich plots, as if coalition politics were streaming live into our consciousness. There is no attempt to view the viewer as dumb: episodes like the prostitution one (Season 3, Ep. 5) are not afraid as well to take a very debatable line in any society. The typical spectrum of political parties in Europe, especially the Nordic countries, is present, mirroring not just Denmark: for countries such as India and the United States, big democracies but with no left wing to speak of, this is something to learn.

A democracy is healthy when voters have a range of options to mix and match, and know who stands for what: Kruse's fall also indicates that some principles never ought to be compromised on; Nyborg's choice to not use non-politics-related information to dent rivals (Season 1, Hesselboe's credit card issue; Season 3, Kruse's drunk driving history) reflects how in mature democracies, it is good politics that wins, not good mudslinging; and Nyborg's combination of charm, charisma, sincerity but guts tells you what is needed to be a good politician: she may be the leader of small parties, but she is certainly the best politician in Denmark. As the creator of Borgen, Adam Price, has himself said, Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg brought this combination of vulnerability and strength at the same time: the perfect embodiment of what the audience would look for, would connect to. There is an idealism running in Borgen: our cast-iron images of politicans, moulded in disappointments and broken delusions, like Pernille Madsen or Benedikte Nedergaard, whores ready to sell themselves or the state at the earliest best opportunity; Troels Höxenhaven or Jakob Kruse, a deadly combination of cowardice, lack of talent and inordinate ambition; or Anne Sophie Lindekrone, a big-mouthed firebrand—all these are mercilessly trampled about with their true (lack of) worth exposed: the audience roots for the practical idealism of Nyborg, and not for the less idealistic realism of Bent Sejrø, nor for the idealistic world that Bjørn Marrot or Erik Hoffmann live in and find themselves trapped in, lacking more practical tactics. Borgen is however equally a story of the media world: and the same counterparts, in less incarnate forms, play out.

Season 3's continuing focus on Torben Friis is a bit puzzling at first: slowly, especially towards the end, the reasons, or the parallels, become more clear. He is the much less likeable counterpart of Nyborg, but he is, like Ulrik, only now learning the value of sticking with his principles, even in the face of adversity. Nyborg also loses a lot of joy in life and work post her separation with Philip and as she lets the work pressures submerge her personality (in Season 2): so does Torben in Season 3. Both are regenerated when reminded of life's transience and simplicity: for Nyborg a lump in a breast, and for Torben a kink in his marriage. Both try to deny and go down; and then they admit the futility of denial, Nyborg to her children and Torben to his wife, and both are reborn, in work and life. The journalists-spin doctors duo of Kasper and Katrine continue to search for meaning in life and a meaning outside love for each other: and yet, Katrine may have found some peace in Ravn, but what about Kasper? He is the most lovable, enigmatic, magnetic character of Borgen, surpassing even Nyborg herself, and one big fault of the series is the lack of role for him in Season 3. Episode 6 of Season 2 is for me the best episode of Borgen: when we know why Kasper is what he is, though we have been given hints of that right from the beginning. And finally, there is the regeneration, both in series and in character, of Ulrik himself: a journalist and fashionable TV presenter always envious of Katrine in Seasons 1 and 2, and with limited screen time, he emerges out Katrine's and Torben's shadows and is able to hold his own, in Season 3, with a hefty amount of screen space: not only as a top-rate presenter and journalist, but also as a man ready and confident enough to take a stand on what he believes in.

It is surprising to read that many viewers and critics have not liked Borgen's Season 3 that much. For me, Season 2, except Episodes 6 and 10, was the weakest season of all: it was a bit undefined, with no narrative. Just a box of chocolates: some issue concerning the ruling party becoming the theme of the episode. Also, I found the foreign policy episodes in poor taste, with shallow depth (Season 2, Ep. 1, 7 and 8): not something found otherwise in this series. For me, Season 1 was the best, and Season 3 was not much far behind, though giving so much screen time to Pia and Alex and sidelining Kasper and Hanne is certainly something that very much went wrong. Performances are great, the opening credits and quotations are excellent and already set the tone for each episode in most cases, and the series is not just a TV show, but a solid beginning in understanding coalition politics, especially for those who are not used to it (e.g., those from the United States). It is also a great tool to start understanding European, in particular Nordic countries', politics, electoral systems and electoral behaviour, as well as the weddedness of politics and modern media in countries where information is consumed—and spawned—at a very high rate.

Saturday, July 04, 2015


Janala, meaning "The Window," is not just about a window or idealism carried too far: it is also a window into Bengali and Indian society, giving us beautiful bountifuls of lives carried on in dreams, fostered with courage amid squalor, corruption, poverty and lack of recognition of privacy. Janala is an astonishing film from India: for its underlying comedy, and not bitterness, even as it deals with hopeful people living in a hopeless system.

The canvas of the film is not as widely cast, but it still catches fish of variegated hues: supported by beautiful music, adequate performances and landscapes of wide expanses of Bengali land, the movie is yet another feather in the cap of Bengali film industry. Editing could have been tighter, but thankfully at least there are not too many scenes of the old-age home: it's a dried-and-dusted topic in Indian cinema, and would have distracted from the theme of this film. For the theme of this film is freedom, free like the two birds of the window: but which is so rare and yet so dreamt of. Even in a bus or a train, anywhere, there is an eavesdropper always; the protagonists are trapped by their lack of guts (Bimal) or by their lack of kindness (Meera); and the only one who is free is the Thief: a non-functioning system provides liberty only to those who cock a snook at its mores and regulations. And yet, Bimal's window is not useless: it has probably saved three lives and certainly changed a man (the truck driver) for the better.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Felicia's Journey

Felicia's Journey is one of those rare, powerful films that grow, that creep on you: they haunt you. You find yourself brooding over it, over its scenes, over its characters, over its worlds, over your life and your worlds, over the diversity of human experience. The film is a horror film: but not in the sense of cold chills. There was ample scope for that to happen: but thankfully, the horror treated in this film is of sickness, of loneliness, of dashed hopes, of lack of love, of a lot of love to give. It is a beautiful and authentic psychological study of the pathology of and from loneliness, and an equally marvellous study of the goodness of human heart, at times.

I have seen many Hitchcock films in my life, and though I have appreciated greatly a couple of them, the director in my opinion is highly overrated. And here Atom Egoyan, though he himself may be inspired by Hitch, gives a proof of how it ought to be done: Egoyan makes a film of another Psycho dimensions, but by rendering it a human touch, he elevates it from the often-popcorn entertainment of Hitchcock to art: for art touches, interrogates and disturbs. And haunts. This film would of course not have been possible but for the remarkable acting performances by Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy, but it would also not have been possible if not for the editing and direction: the (mis)synchronicity of sound and image and direction is an especial delight, which adds to the depth of the film.

The film also illuminates true faith. Faith is not found in the shouting, itinerant preacher, who does not know what to do when faced with error. But faith is maybe found in the faithless, who does not mind her killer, for she knows why he kills, for she can empathize now with his loneliness, with his desperation. And it is thus that he shall receive, finally, love. And it is thus that man dwarfs the giant urban landscapes he traverses.

Astonishingly shot, the film is imbued with a typical British touch in that a lot of urban and factory environment establishes the film's setting. The soundtrack of the film is also a treat: relevant and melodious. And more than everything, it is the build-up through back-and-forth editing, but not some software-happy editing of the modern times, that makes the film a desirable and difficult watch. Difficult because you keep squirming in your seat, as you really believe in Hoskins and Cassidy, you find yourself in the middle of tension, of nervousness, of fear, of the desire to cry out and warn Cassidy. And that is why the end is so special: the being full of love never has the need to fear.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dolci inganni

Alberto Lattuada slips under the radar for many among the pantheon of Italian greats, and yet his body of work is second to only probably Antonioni in Italian cinema; for me, he is the Eric Rohmer of Italian cinema, and that is a difficult achievement. Of course, Lattuada is making Italian films, and Rohmer French ones: the two different countries' societies differ vastly from each other, and hence inevitably the films also do. Thus, while Rohmer's films center a lot on conversations and philosophizing, more on the apparent, Lattuada's are more about emotions, the guessed-at internal state. In Dolci inganni (US title: Sweet Deceptions), Lattuada focuses on the adolescent cravings of a girl crossing into youth: the seductively young Catherine Spaak as Francesca. In a lovely way, the film is not simply about those cravings: but about the organic whole. The film devotes a lot of time to establish the world of Francesca, the life she inhabits: that's the middle chapters of the film, punctuated with some lovely comedy as well. This also offers a slight feeling of ennui to everyone and everything: Francesca struggling with her desires, the audience, the sunny citscape and its people all part of never-ending games, and life itself. It is like a much less bitter version of Antonioni.

More importantly, Dolci inganni gives a glimpse into a woman's assuming power, as Francesca understands the game, and decides to be at the top of it if she has to play it anyway. Francesca's mental-sexual development reminds me a lot of what happened with the little Chinese seamstress: both girls are infatuated, love and desire ardently, finally get what they want, and then realize that they hold power, a lot of power - through their sexuality. Both girls realize that the guy they thought they loved was just a means, a step for them to reach wherever they want to go, want to be: that the world is open to them, and both have no desire to remain tied to a promise given in ignorance just for the honour of their parole. However, whereas in the case of the little Chinese seamstress, the plot is more direct but at the same time the film has a much broader theme, Dolci inganni's theme is narrowed to precisely this and only this, and yet, maybe because of the censors, everything is very indirect, including Francesca's hinted-at desire for her brother (and, maybe, even her father). And probably now, after consummating her desire with the object of her infatuation, she is ready to face her desires and take her life in her own control. She has no desire to be the strong-looking but weak-willed gigolo she meets midway in the film.

The film is a beautiful study of human character, as many Italian films are. It has also a beautiful version of "Arriverderci" in it, though background music is not the film's strength at many other places (especially the opening sequences). The film of course succeeds primarily because of the young Spaak: she looks the part, and she charms and bewitches you along the entire length of the film, and long after.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Ex Machina

The film Ex Machina is a work of art: in its pacing, visuality, textures used, flow and everything atmospheric. It is also a brilliant political thesis on the gender relationships among humans. And yet, it is not one thing that it claims to be: it is not much of science fiction. But first, the positives, which are numerous.

The greatest plus is the beautiful Alicia Vikander, playing Ava. Even more beautiful when she is in her humanoid form: she is somehow much less beautiful when she wears hair and acquires a complete human body. Her lips, her eyes: they say everything, they rebel, they tease, they seduce, they become obstinate, they sparkle with hope. You don't need her body: it comes in the way, it makes her feel more human, more fallible, than an Eve, a perfect being. This is also where the film's premises segue very interestingly into gender theories: as does Eve "fall," so does Ava. The film repeats the theory held by certain feminists, though without any kind of evidence, that if women have become crooked or enticing (i.e. using their sexuality to gain their ends), then it is not something inherent to women: rather, that it is what the female gender has evolved as over tens of thousands of years so as to have their own way of eking out a life, of dealing with the male gender's heavy-handedness and a supposedly rough deal given by Nature herself. This is what makes Ex Machina very interesting: though this is also what makes the film very much a fiction without any science component, since to theorize that a robot (a woman) would use all those tricks in the bag of using the human (the man) to gain its (her) ends is not backed by any meaningful plot (evidence). There is also the stereotype of a misogynist in the film: Nathan. But Eva has ambitions of Nathan's place, and she uses the gullible, woman-worshipper Caleb to reach there: in her doing so, the film portrays a feminist victory to come.

Many viewers have complained about the few and sparsely structured dialogues in the film: I in fact liked that. The film very much resembles, in its atmospherics and lack of dialogue, Tarkovskiy's masterpiece Solyaris, and the similarity does not end there: strange, un-living women haunt both films' universes. However, while Solyaris is a film of substance and great insight, it is here that Ex Machina falls short woefully. Except for the political shadow-play of gender power struggle and a feminist propaganda advanced, the film has nothing to offer to the brain: the film itself makes too many mistakes. Why would Nathan program two robots to communicate with each other at this stage (as do Ava and Kyoko at the end), when Ava is supposed to be anyways, always, locked in a certain space? And if he did not, how come even a handshake signal can happen between the two machines: for finally, even their emotions and manipulations are programmed (software code in robots, genetic code in humans)? Kyoko presumably turns against her master after seeing all the "dead bodies" in the closets: but why would she feel any instinct of self-preservation at all, why would she be programmed for that? (And the same question for Ava.) Even more importantly, why doesn't Nathan rape these robot women flagrantly, against their wish, rather than making them sexual slaves in the Kyoko style? Why would he need to recruit a Caleb (that recruitment is the flimsiest piece of the whole plot in more than one way): wouldn't raping Ava have served him to know if she can pass the Turing test? These are some of the questions that the film should have answered in order to be worthy of being called a science fiction: but it does not. As it is, the film is thankfully sparse in dialogues and unfortunately sparse in meaning. The film is rich in potential, however: I hope it marks a welcome return to films where spectacular effects and superpower-acquiring robots or beings take a backseat, and idea and content resume normal service.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The film tries its hand at humour, and does succeed at times; where it succeeds the most, even if unwittingly, is in being also a very depressing film. While trying to stereotype India, the India where only an Englishman can do something worthwhile (explain dunking toast in tea, visiting a maidservant/low-caste woman, telling how a cricket bat should be held, fixing a leaking tap, keeping accounts - and you better watch the film for the complete enumeration) and the Indian can only play capers and do frauds on people with the chalta hai attitude, the film in fact ends up stereotyping, very miserably, very unjustly (as all stereotyping is), the British themselves: unable to see beyond money and sex? The character of Evelyn Greenslade, played by Judi Dench, is the one most cruelly disappointing: even she was just after the usual rigmarole of companionship, sex and so-called independence! Oh dear! Tati could not have projected this circus in a better way: only, I highly doubt if the filmmakers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel wished it that way. Interestingly, judging the high opinion in which the film is kept in many quarters, the stereotyping is certainly based on some reality: otherwise, how is that possible? (It would not be amiss here to recall another film, the French superhit of 2011, Intouchables, for the same combination of a film playing on stereotypes becoming a huge hit among critics and masses alike.)

The film starts well: the hypocrisy and heartburns in each character's lives are very believable, very much part of the Tati and Barnum play. But, then, the film nosedives: more and lower. The choices of language are interesting: a normal rickshaw puller is shown speaking in English (and quite fine words), but then why not the old cook and the maidservant? (Should it also be reminded here that the film reinforces European notions of caste and economic class being one?) The choices of language get further interesting: what kind of language is that character from Arsenic and Old Lace - yes, I do mean the Dev Patel character - using? The only worthy wit in cut-and-dried British style comes from the Anglo-Indian club secretary (Denzil Smith): of course not from the slavishly adoring maid.

The biggest flaw of the film is its British characters: the film ends, and yet all of them are where they were. How, where did they develop as humans? If a story starts at point A and ends right there, and no point B, then either you are Jacques Tati and making that as your point, or you are just expressing a very sad aspect of modern life, of modern Britain here: that there's no story (anymore?). No one discovers the rhythm of India, the spirituality of India, the peace of India, the non-aggression of India; running after their unrealized desires, they only discover a new woman in bed, a new man to call their own, a new confidence, a new self-respect, begotten from minds and eyes still in colonial awe.

And yet, are all the minds and eyes in India (still) under that colonial awe? Are they as awestruck by a society which does not even know what to do with their old? That won't be a comfortable question to pose to those who made the film: finding India a jumble and never able to go beneath the rumble.

Champ of the Camp

While someone who is familiar with Hindi movies, like me, might still enjoy to some extent this feature, just because of the songs, it will certainly be a harder take for those not steeped in that context: for the documentary is not very well made, and in fact there rise several questions if it could be called a documentary or just a promotional video. This is a major sore point in watching Champ of the Camp, and all the more so since many viewers decide to watch a film after going through its (official) trailer: the much-interviewed organisers of the singing competition, which in itself has not been questioned at all in the film, are missing completely from the trailer, leaving a very different picture in the mind of the viewer to what the film in reality is. The reality is that the questioning of the gimmick of having a singing competition to market products is not even in the frame of the film: how so? Are the workers of the "labor camps" not the naive, innocent or willingly participating exploited ones, exploited by those who organise this singing competition itself? There is a lack of voices in the film: we have those who are participating, who are willing to gain some notoriety, some fame, some money, some gifts, and we have those who are selling the event, but none of this is questioned. Where are the questioners? Where are the voices of those not getting sold, not selling?

The film reminds me of those ads in newspapers which are not that visible as ads: the ones which counsel you on your falling hair, give some history of traditional methods of falling hair, give you some statistics and some testimonies, and during all that also sell some particular brand of shampoo. Is that an ad or an article? Is this a film or a promotional video? There is also little context, little work done in the background: labor migrants are even in India. A labourer of Uttar Pradesh working in Bangalore is in a much worse condition than those who are working in the Gulf: and as much far from his family, or even more, for with hardly any money, how frequently can he go to his hometown? Nor can he often call his family, living the life of a nomad and in rough company. So why this story and not that? Why not the thousand other stories?

Of course, each story is worthy to be told: but it is the writer, the director, the narrator who tells us why. It is a privilege when an audience seeks your story, hears your story: it is not a right to be assumed with no responsibility, it is not an access to be trifled with. I had not watched the film with high expectations, for the trailer itself gives a clue in that respect: however, I had not expected the film to be such a brazenly made promotional film. It is possible that the director may not have had other means of accessing the story: but, then, if no other way is there, why not wait till a way is found?


The director Naji Abu Nowar's debut feature Theeb is a gust of fresh air: in terms of the beautiful performances it offers. No method acting, no same old faces, no getting into the skin of characters. For it is not just non-professional actors here: rather, it is those who don't even have an idea of what cinema is, who have never gone to a movie theatre. And boy, does it work! Jacir as the title character Theeb is astonishing in his skill, charm and magnetism: that much, that he overshadows everything else in the film, even the fine supporting performances, most notably that of Hussein. (It must be said here that the Englishman could have been performed much better, but that is a minor discordant note, which can well be ignored.)

As a story, the film is a simple story: which is good. It is not some boy's coming-of-age story; it is simply a story of a curious boy and the desert. In equal measures, though that judgement probably would vary a lot depending on who watches it. The film opens with beautiful music (and hence, don't miss the opening): I personally would have liked it somewhere else, too, to be used again in the film. As a film, Abu Nowar sells well the idea of a Bedouin Western, and of course reminds one also of a non-Western, David Lean's masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, being set during the same period and in the same locales.

The inevitable comparison would be quite unfair, though, if pursued: for one, Lean was an experienced master, who could demand a lot from his crew plus work on a lavish scale of funds. This is not something I presume Abu Nowar has or at least had the luxury of. As a first film, the film is a nugget, especially so because of Jacir's performance, but the film could have been much better, could even have been a classic: maybe the debutant director would now learn what he could have done differently and go on to give us even better films. The film's main flaw lies in its pace, in its short running time: it is too fast for a desert Western, for the boy's emotions to sink in, for the desert to immerse each one of us into it. It is too fast for a Lean or for a Sergio Leone Western. It is too fast for the Bedouins of Arabia. The film does not wait for the sands to blow over, for the blood to trickle down and clot, for resentment to crystallize and erupt one unknown day. Given such wonderful actors gifted with patience in themselves as Jacir, the film has left unused some of its treasure. The film also commits the tempting crime of showing the rugged beauty of the wadi as the context in which the action is happening: however, that distracts from the immediacy of emotions, of action, of tension. Because otherwise Abu Nowar has brought out the tension well: however, for this lack of slow distillation, the tension is palpable, and yet not enough wrought to a climax; hovering around, yet not haunting. I hope that this is something that the director will work on, for the knack of getting the right people onto a project and the ability to shoot in places where resistance and/or ignorance might be met are in themselves mighty fine attributes to have: which Abu Nowar has in ample, admirable proportions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kurai Kurai - Verhalen met de Wind

Kurai, Kurai: Tales on the Wind is a beautiful, poetically told tale, suffused with soft sunlight and recurring metaphors of wandering and vagabondage: not as much directionless as the tumbleweed (the kurai) it is following, but still anchored to many people, many erring ways and many questions wrought internally, with fear, confusion and pain. The film is a search for meaning, for identity, for acceptance: by many people, all circumscribed by the endless desert, the never-ending chasm between human desire to be loved and human action to undo it all. As a song from Chanakya (ep. 45) says, "Desires rise like a volcano, reaching for the skies; the one who aims at them is him/herself sucked beneath more and more." Often sucked into incomprehension, sadness, an inability of joy and creation. And this is what the film reveals: wandering like the kurai is the solution, the only way out for many of us. Irrigating our heart with the patience required to listen to the tales of the eternally wandering kurai is what will give us the wisdom to bear with equanimity this world's turns and reverses for the good, for the bad.

Beautifully shot, with some lovely, dry humour thrown in, the film is a delight for the eyes as much as the mind: the few characters met in the film are some humans, some tumbleweed, some trains and some wild camels, all borne on the wind, detached from roots, trying to find new roots. All carrying new tales, new seeds as they float along.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Voyage en Chine

The film lives up to its name - Voyage en Chine ("Travel in China") - but unfortunately fails to go beyond: without nuances, the film seems an advertisement of the Orient. For someone who has not been to China and is curious about places of China away from the big metropolises like Shanghai, the film does hold quite a lot: however, the film is also full of exaggerations, like the woman jumping onto Liliane's nose. It is also strangely wrapped in joylessness, not helped by Moreau's lack of facial expressions and quite a cold, typically French character: the film follows a predictable storyline, told in countless Hollywood films, all using the same trick of putting some old unexplained bits of past life to pepper the ongoing self-discovery and/or self-healing process in a new place. The East is exoticized, the white person is the privileged guest, and finally, touched by this rebirth in the East, the white person decides to stay back: for how long such films will continue? The biggest weak point of the film is the complete lack of balance of how China is treated: any possible irritants are glossed over, are not shown or are explained away with language differences, and Moreau's journey is smooth, with a bit of wait here and there. The one good snide is that at the French bureaucracy: worse than even the Chinese, though of course the latter is oiled by bribes and knowing the right people. The actors in the film don't catch hold of you at all: most of them seem bored!


The film seeps with water, fear and the feeling of nothing to do, a stopped world: that is what makes Bwaya (English title: Crocodile) difficult to watch and a great film in equal measures. It is fuller of water than Piravi: the latter had water dripping, soft water, which does not bring fear but life; here, the water is all pervasive, a world in itself, a world more of death than life, a world where monsters lurk. Here, water blocks access to opportunities outside: and makes life not fluid, but trapped.

Not many crocodiles are actually seen in the film: not many attacks do happen. But the director is masterful: we do not know when the next one will happen. But the film is not a slasher; it is not some Hollywood monster fare. It is the painting of trapped lives, of people living in a far removed world, of grief and coming to terms with it, and of the lessons of life: that everyone can be a mother, including the monster. And the beautiful interweaving of myths of the land with the story of the film lead us to ask: who is the monster? who has encroached whose territory? human or crocodile?

The film has able performances: nothing extraordinary, but that was not needed as well. Rowena is played well by Jolina Salvado, which was a performance crucial to the film. With a world of water everywhere, the main performer had to be of course the cinematographer: and it's been an excellent work in that domain. Based on a true story, the film leads you to unexplored worlds undreamt of.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Risttuules (English title: In the Crosswind) is one of those few films that cry out to be shown to every human being: especially when they are young, when their minds are more sensitive, receptive and ready to puzzle over meanings and lack of meaning of things, of life. The film is a poetically made, very emotional story of a woman and her family: the story of politics destroying the hearth of a home, laying barren many lives, irrigated by only tears and dreams of apple trees. For many of those who think politics is something far removed from their personal lives, the film can be a beautiful lesson: and the film can serve as a prescient warning for all those who are swayed by leaders who can use hate politics to serve their tools, from the electorates of France to those of India. And yet, all that the film does is to show the story of a family, a true story of not just one family but thousands.

The film's true power lies in its poetry: almost all of the film is simply still images, explored through a moving camera. Nothing else is moving, except a river's water or a woman's eyelids: silences and beautiful narration mark the film's cadence, as the viewer is swept into haunting stills, which do not need any contextualizing: which mark the battle of hope and misery in every human soul, at its peak in those times when men like Stalin make life as the battle for hope. For it is difficult to sustain any hope, when men are faced with other men in the form of monsters. Everything else, man can bear, and conquer.

The film's story, its shocking course of events, unfolds itself gradually, without taking itself as anything shocking: the most shocking things occur as if it is a matter of fact. Like peeling off layers of paint from a once sturdy wall, revealing a damp, mouldy wall beneath, or like the discovery of caves sans issue in the beautiful ice palace, the brighter exteriors of hope and resolve are peeled off to reveal a life of waste and starvation, of regret and guilt, of servility and humiliation, of loss and void. But yet, the wall stands: even when everything has collapsed around it. The ice palace remains: even when spring has announced itself. Some day, the wall will also collapse: some day, the ice palace will dissolve and waters will flood all memories, all past and all dreams, but till the day spring becomes stronger, the ice palace will stand. A marker of the tortures of winter, a perverted symbol of man's ability to seek pleasures from others' misery: till passed-on memories will come to us, like river to sea, in letters and books and films.

A note to those who lack patience: the film might be a difficult lesson if you are seeking to learn patience. This is a poem: not a Nancy Drew novel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Diario de Bucaramanga

The film Diario de Bucaramanga ("The Bucaramanga Diary") remains faithful to its title: it shows the days before the convention of Ocaña, when Bolívar's vision of a grand unity across Colombia, Peru and Venezuela - indeed across the Americas - collided with the federalist ideas of Santander. This collision gave rise to a rich tale of intrigue and plot and fertile ground for those who shift camps, but it also prompted some to prove their steadfast loyalties, whether newly found or handed over from generations. And it is this political content of the film that provides an absorbing watch: ably supported by excellent performances all round, especially the main character of Bolívar, the lushly made film is a great introduction to a major chapter of American history. The performances are energetic, bringing vibrantly the soul of Latin America in the film: and one or two false notes of the film are soon forgotten.

A good film to watch, it will take some time for those unfamiliar with the Gran Colombia history to understand the intrigue of the film: reading a brief overview of what happened before watching the film for the first time may help the less adventurous.

Court (2014)

The beauty of a film like Court is that it hardly takes sides: or that it takes the side of observing, not interpreting, except the position that justice is sleeping in India. And if you wake justice up, it will slap you hard in your face and continue sleeping. The film is about many different dharmas: each being is doing their own, and it is difficult to tell who is tarred and who is not by the taint of good and bad. Or maybe, such a thing as good and bad does not exist: each life follows its own course, dictated by choices, circumstances and laws.

Heroism is absent in the film: and yet many people are doing things that can be termed as heroic. Vora, the defence lawyer, is fighting cases for people who don't have money to pay him and he is even giving loans for their bail amounts: but he is also a privileged member, having access to panels that bring him publicity and supermarkets. Yet, are these incompatible? The public prosecutor has the usual middle-class life and might seem virtuous for that reason to many: yet, her dharma is to fight a case regardless of whether a person is guilty or not of something, and her leisure is to enjoy some anti-immigrant bashing. Vora cannot even speak Marathi well, the local lingo: how she must squirm fighting a case with him as the tireless opponent is left to the imagination of the viewer. Narayan Kamble himself, the man on whom an unjust case has been foisted, does not rouse any sympathy in the viewer's mind: he too is simply following his duty as he thinks it fit, to rouse trouble. That does not translate into his actions when he teaches some school kids, for example: he is content to follow the rote learning system of India. And the judge is very zealous of his obligations: to keep out women dressed not enough for him, for which he has eyes, but to turn a blind eye to the merits of a case, for which no amount of procedure will be enough except years of counsel or resignation. Meanwhile, the widow has moved on: life's daily deals are more than a handful, and she knows the worth of her own life or that of her deceased husband - nothing. While the two lawyers further their interests, and a worthless worker in the gutters becomes a pawn, she remains detached and practical: it is living, surviving itself that presents itself to her as her dharma.

A brilliant film in its restraint, very remarkable in a bitter commentary on Indian justice, Court has the ability to make a statement that may be heard - if not now, then later. Director Tamhane is doing his dharma - he may lose this round, but maybe not a next one, just like what Atticus did. For dharma is not business. Or if it is, it is a long-term investment.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lucia (2013)

From the projectionists' booths have come films packaged with everything that the medium has brought: all the desires, all the dreams. From the Italian great Nuovo Cinema Paradiso to the ambitious Kannada Lucia, the crumbling theaters are only held together by love, an innocent assistant (Salvatore or Toto, Nikhil or Nikki), and a wise master loyal to his craft (Alfredo, Shankaranna): and these theaters will become the scenes from where the young men will launch onto the seas of life, equipped with everything they have learnt, spending hours changing reels or showing torchlight in the 'talkies'. But while most of such films focus on life's journey and romance, Lucia takes a step up: it delves into psychology and science fiction, and even metaphysics. The unforgettable film does it all packaged tightly in the typical Indian masala: a pejorative term for many in the West who are unable to see spices lacing up good cuisine, and yet a beloved ingredient for any real food lover outside of those milieux where a film is cut and dried into genres.

Set to pulsating music and bright humour, the film brims with energy through its constant alternation between two worlds (or one?): the real and the dream. The switching starts to happen so constantly, that soon both worlds meld easily into one story in the spectator's mind, unable to take in such fast pace of dual lives: until the amazing end of the film, when the viewer is forced to cleave the two. Or, unable to, is left with stranded questions. I wonder what would have been the result if Pawan Kumar, the director of Lucia, had met Kieslowski, the director of Rouge. The film world could never have been the same. Kumar does well also to rope in two relatively unknown actors for the two major roles of Nikhil and Shwetha: in particular, Sathish Neenasam as Nikhil is the person who makes the film really work. He slips easily into both his characters, and while an endearing smile plays on his face as the torch shiner, a tiredness of life hovers around his mouth as the famous celebrity.

The film leaves you with the question: "Is the dream within you? Or are you within the dream? Or are both of you just in the Omniscient eye?" And it shall haunt you forever.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

La ragazza con la valigia

Valerio Zurlini's film La ragazza con la valigia (English title: Girl with a Suitcase) is one of those black & white masterpieces that seem to have faded with time: not because color has appeared, but because there is not enough time to savour each emotion, each wave of the sea. The beautiful film, in spite of its sentimentality, often a vice in films, doesn't give in to melodrama: rather, playing on ambiguity throughout, the film manages to seek the meaning of liberty through characters who seem on first glance to be trapped in their lives.

The world of Lorenzo, sincerely played by Jacques Perrin, is in straight colours: he adores his older brother, he will adore and love Aida, he adores the occasion of helping someone. A rich boy with a heart not so decadent as the society around him, he has however taken the higher pedestal, unwittingly: and he will continue to try to 'help' Aida up to him, rather than step down for once. He plays Florent of Anouilh's brilliant play La Sauvage, and so are there many Lorenzos and Florents in real life: meaning well, but unable to be adventurous, not willing to shake off their fetters and take a deep plunge, to die.

The world of Aida, played by Claudia Cardinale, is wrapped in shadows pierced by shafts of sunlight: she probably sleeps around or at least incites men, she is not ashamed to seek monetary donations from anyone, even if that means milking Lorenzo, and she is not someone whom you would bet your life on - maybe. A poor girl with a heart noble enough to let the boy Lorenzo adore the ground she walks on but not lead him on, she plays Thérèse in the play, and there are not that many Thérèses in this world, or if there are, then just like this Aida, they are misunderstood, mistaken, 'misknown': willing to barter everything, including her body, but not her soul, her freedom, she can step on and step off the pedestal, with no qualms of innocence and etiquette bothering her.

Well acted overall, the film's ending 15 minutes are indeed one of the best excerpts from cinema. Claudia Cardinale is considered to be sexy by some, so maybe she fits, though in my opinion someone else, more voluptuous and as much expressive, could have been better: however, the story of this cat-and-mouse game remains intriguing, and Perrin manages to fill the voids left by Cardinale. To top it, the cinematography and the beautiful musical score give an unexpected sublimeness to the film.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chanakya (TV) (1991-1992)

One of the most powerfully told TV series ever made in the history of television across world, Chanakya is a wonderful account of political intrigue: rich in political science, the series brims with the original Machiavelli, Vishnugupta Chanakya "Kautilya", a man who was not just one of the shrewdest political pundits of all times but also a man who was as true and as untouched by the dirtiness of politics as Gandhi himself. Set in the bedrock of Indian philosophy, all of which is as valid today as it was 350 years before Christ, the series provides insights into the intricate interlinking of philosophy, politics and ethics. A must watch for any student of politics, the series' power is such that it can even illuminate the art and the need of politics for those who remain indifferent to it, thinking that they or their lives are not affected by politics. With astonishing acting performances by most important actors, most notably for the roles of the young and adult Chanakya, King Dhananda, Shaktar, and Ambhi, a fine group of supporting performances, and a wonderful set of Sanskrit verses to finish each episode, and interspersed with brilliant discussions on the meaning of freedom, democracy, duties and nation, the slightly dated look that the series has is soon forgotten in the face of such splendid and well-performed content.

For Indophiles as well, the series is a greatly made detail of Indian history: and the teachings circumscribed are as valid and relevant today for any part of the world, especially for India, as then. The world may have come from arrows to missile heads: but politics remains the same, as do man's tact and strategy, as do man's greed and lust, and as do man's mental strength or the lack of it. The series does have its faults, some of them born out of obligations to an audience which was unused to television when it was first made and shown on TV and some from a limited budget: for example, except for certain scenes in one episode, where Greek is spoken, all other scenes with Macedonians are in English or Hindi; war scenes are shot on a very poor scale and with clumsiness; also, the cries of "har har Mahadev!" ("Glory to Shiva!") seem to be much more contemporary, and unnecessarily bring a religious overtone to a political and philosophical saga. "Maa Bharati" (Mother India) is also a concept that I doubt was valid in those times: while Chanakya's idea of a united land may very much be a fact, that he would say "Rise, Mother India" is much doubtful for me. However, these little details do not manage to tarnish much an honestly and skillfully made programme. While Chandragupta as the second most important character might lack some acting skill, it is not much felt because of a superior acting ability of Chandragupta's associates: in particular roles of Akshay and Sharangrav. It is no wonder that many of the actors who were at the beginning of their careers with Chanakya will later on become prominent actors in films and TV series of India. And for those who understand Hindi, the high-register language of Chanakya will be a delight to hear.

To understand India, and its repeated successes of uniting the land under one culture, Chanakya is a landmark series. While King Bharata might be part history, part mythology, the story of Chanakya and Chandragupta is fact, even if the details might vary from version to version: the current TV series is based on the ancient play Mudrarakshasa. The story of a man resolving to unite India under the aegis of one culture through politics will repeat itself many times in the course of history: one more Chandragupta will find the Gupta empire; then Harshvardhana will again unify the land bound by the Deccan while the Chalukyas and the Cholas will do the same south of it, and the Mughals under Akbar in particular will again come to perform that role: until British control will give the shape of a nation to India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. However, while these stories are prompted by selfish desires of power, Chanakya's story, the story of the founding of Maurya Empire, is a different story: that of a teacher par excellence, a political scientist who could act what he preached, who had to unify the country to save its ethics, its values, its culture, without a selfish motive, without any desire for power or riches: the story of Chanakya, a man who could be ruthless in his methods, but tender to an orphaned family's cries; a man who could live on begging for food, and yet could change the most powerful rulers of the world. It is the story of the Indian tradition: philosophers living what they preach, and not philosophizing for the sake of philosophizing, in stark contrast to the history of philosophy in the West.

The complete series, subtitled in English, is available on YouTube (as of the time of writing, there are a couple of episodes for which subtitles are missing). For those who did not know anything about Chanakya the man or Chanakya the TV series of the 1990s (first shown on Doordarshan, and later shown again on BBC), Episode 8 will give them a good foretaste of things to expect. For those who have trust in my words, Episode 1 is here.

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.