Saturday, October 18, 2008

Velipadukal: Biography of a Sacred Cow

A rare film, made on something as selective as dystopia, and that has the temerity of asking questions about religion and cult, is Shahul Ameen’s Velipadukal. This Malayalam film, subtitled in English, was shot on a low budget of 4.2 lakhs (a running time of around 70 mins), and is yet able to force the viewer to reexamine many of the issues that he might have completely missed so far. The reason is its powerful script.

As with the usual films or literature on the subject, the film is not from the perspective of an outsider to a dystopian society, but from the insider’s (Lintu) who begins to question himself and the society. A society which follows a “scientific religion,” with the only divisions left now between “rightists” and “leftists.” Wherein ancestors are worshipped, to the extent that even the ancestor who made a chair is thanked before settling in it, and wherein women are only meant for sex and procreation: the religion believes in passing on ancestors’ attributes, even fleshly attributes, so that no one dies as such, but keeps on living through descendants. Thus, “eternity.”

An interesting premise, though I still do not understand why would such a religion get invented in the first place. Important, since for a fiction to work, it has to be as much believable as possible. In Shahul Ameen’s own words:

There are actually two storylines in the movie. One is obviously Lintu’s story. The second one is that of the creators and perpetrators of Scientific Religion, which goes like this – in the present times, majority of people who say they are religious are hypocritical, as they simply follow the rituals and do not follow the major teachings of their respective religions. In times like this, one clever fellow/a group of people devises the Scientific Religion. They use an innovative USP - that of surviving death and attaining eternity. Gradually, the religion spreads, and people start living more morally, with the aim of attaining eternity. Then, few centuries later, someone proves that the religion is wrong, and people go back to their innate sinful lives. The arbitrators of the religion are still satisfied that they were able to curb the entire human race at least for a few centuries.

Curb from what? Women at the beck and call of each and every man for procreation? The movie in fact fails to convey the second storyline, that of the creators of scientific religion, much effectively: the viewer very soon becomes obsessed with Lintu, and how he could fight such a totalitarian system, in which no one is ready even to hear him, forget understand him. Where people are already so much satisfied. Though in Shahul’s words, “I did not want the audience to develop so much sympathy for Lintu that they do not notice the satire, and I decided to use a nonjudgmental and objective camera language, avoiding close shots and shots parallel to Lintu’s eye-line as much as possible.” But, it does become a story of Lintu vs. the system, and maybe the film should have been treated more like an essay, a question.

Another one of my questions for the director and his subsequent answer were:

Me: If I might continue the discussion a little forward on religion itself, is it all really a totalitarian state, reducing human emotions to rituals? In spite of all the religions, I don't think so: and actually think it a necessary evil, if left to flourish only to some extent. For the simple reason that I've observed people being mad to find something to bow to: if you take away one thing, they will find some other thing or being. Even if your “scientific religion” won't be there, what would take the place of void? Can you suggest a society where people are not following any customs, any rituals, any religion? All religion proceeds from some of the primal instincts of man, like fear and sympathy and love for things one gets used to, or even a love of beauty. It isn't as detestable when one views it in this light, and believe me for a lot of people religion is more love (maybe not for people but for their own little habits and oddities) and habit. A cushion in a world where anyway they soon find out that even love is bought, sex is bought, and knowledge itself is bought, at least that knowledge which is apparent to the world. Religion affords to these people something of themselves that isn't bought by someone, nor did they buy it of someone. Yes, you would argue that they did buy it of their ancestors, but so did probably you your unbelief from your education, or even from whatever inspired you to dare to think existing things wrong.

Shahul: I agree that many people find solace in religious faith and rituals, and I don’t find any harm in it. And I myself am envious of people who are able to do that. But, many of those like me who start thinking think more objectively and critically as they grow up soon realize the flaws in the underlying beliefs, and hence become unable to find solace in those rituals/beliefs. Lintu himself initially tries to fight his doubts by trying to immerse himself in spiritual matters, and even attends another internalization with the hope that faith will gradually follow. He even asks the Psychiatrist whether all his problems are a result of his intelligence, and even tries shock therapy to get rid of the doubts he has about the religion. In one scene he looks at the ladies who find solace in The Book played in the stereo (though they do not understand a single word of what is being said), and slowly walks out, unable to share their pleasure. It is only after all these failed attempts that he comes out openly against the religion, first to his friend, then to the Principal, and then to the whole world through the TV interview. But, the world does not allow him his rights to not-to-believe. And exactly this is one of the criticisms of organized religions the script tries to make – those who find solace in absurd rituals have the right to do so, but unfortunately most of them don’t stop there, and start harassing those who see through it all.

Quite an interesting discussion, which I would like to carry forward one day with him and other people as well, maybe through some of my own work. Since work speaks the best. The film does disappoint on one or two scores of art direction and lack of an effective color scheme for such a subject, but then lack of budget also entails lack of extras, lack of several other small things each of which costs money when you finally add up those. Of course, the production quality is superb. You can read the director’s views and about the whole crew and the film on

The real pleasure that I had was that thinking is alive, and people are making films--here in India itself--which are not merely song & dance routines or high-stakes thrillers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

16 Vayathinile

A truly great film, Pathinaru Vayathinile (or 16 Vayathinile) is about the vulnerability of a woman, and yet her strength: at the same time, she can change the life of a man through her love, and she can mar her own life by falling for the wrong man in the first place. The film’s charm lies not only in three brilliant actors, who were all raw at the time--Sridevi, Rajnikanth, and Kamal Haasan--but also in the minimalistic style the film has been directed.

The focus has largely been on the characters, there’s hardly anything else. And of course the film stands upon the shoulders of Mayil (Sridevi) for that: she can spit on Rajnikanth as disdainfully as she can laugh with joy on receiving a slap from Chapani (Kamal Haasan), thinking of how hard hit must be the vet doctor who jilted her. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the film absorbs the landscape in the story, rather than extraneously focussing on the village scenes, as so often many films make the mistake of doing (for example, Paruthi Veeran). Which is why one moves in a continuity, one moves with the characters to the story’s climax. Speaking of which, it is again one of the rarest and best ever seen: maybe, much oftener seen in Tamil films. There is no sweet, contrived ending as so often in Hollywood or Hindi films; and yet, it has something of a hope left. Even if Chapani is maybe going to be sentenced to death, there was always that love for which Mayil would wait for ever; and nothing can discount that. One of the highlights of the film by the way is the lovely drawl in which Chapani takes Mayil’s name: mentally retarded, yes, but his intonation of Mayil’s name has that special quality; which is how probably you get the measure of Kamal Haasan.

One of the rare greats of Indian cinema, the slow yet tenuous movement of the film’s story reminded me of another great Indian film, Girish Karnad’s Cheluvi.

Azur et Asmar

Since most of the exposure for most people might only be to Pixar films in the sphere of animation, I would forgive them if they thought Azur et Asmar refreshing: of course, how many folklores are made today as films? And then, this is an “original folklore,” though this is where the film’s troubles start. Taking bits and pieces from various sources, like the old man sitting on Azur’s shoulders reminding one of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights and the lion taking Azur flying through mountains of a similar Russian folk tale, does not always work: one has to sew everything into a wonderful whole. And then you have a princess Shamsa-Sabah who is suddenly too much of a Pixarish character suddenly thrown in this static animated film embellished with Arabic motifs and Arab language: static canvases don’t always work to make a film beautiful. For it is Azur and Asmar who are equally static; Asmar has actually not much of a role in except being mentioned in the title of the film! Concessions for being politically correct to an Arab?!!

The film starts again statically, but it does dissolve into a couple of beautiful scenes when Azur and Asmar fight as children, and get draped into mud, straw, tree branches, whatever. The animation here is delightful: both are like springs, seesaws, as if an elastic bond connects them in all their fights; also easier to animate this unrealistically, it’s also much more funny, and conveys the spirit of childhood. Asmar’s antics on the sidelines while watching Azur learn the crafts of noblemen lead one to believe that yes, the film will be really interesting, the story is going to be exciting when they both will grow up. But, the story and the film lose track, in trying to make things politically correct, and in maintaining the balance between everything French and Arabic, blanc and noir. Yes, Crapoux to some extent saves it, but then he is again a little jaded character brought from Pixar’s studio: he seems to be again the Edna of The Incredibles, reborn with a leaner role.

Maybe, part of the limited success that the film has met with, at least critically, has been due to the focus on characters’ faces. Though Azur and his nanny have not been assigned much variety of facial expressions, except closing and opening mouths and eyes, their faces have been rendered with much detail: Azur’s blue eyes seem really watery and pitiful, the texture and rendering artists have done a great job. Again, each of the novelties and delicacies of the Arab world have been focussed upon more: it’s OK if Azur’s stumbling when pretending to be blind for the first time looks very artificial, looks almost as if he himself is a stick rather than a human being; what counts in the director’s books apparently is to create quiet, serene background shots and frames. This is where Michel Ocelot errs: he should’ve selected a completely 2-D format in that case, right now it’s neither here nor there. Also, somehow people accept anything, even the most unreal things, when watching in 2-D; the same thing seems too much unreal or uncanny (yes, the uncanny valley phenomenon, as experienced by many in The Polar Express) in a 3-D format if you haven’t done your animation and dynamics properly. Using the 3-D medium yet the flat frames makes Azur et Asmar actually look very stupid: probably even most children won’t fall for it. And the purpose of any computer-generated animation, actually any film in itself, is to make the viewers fall for it!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Le voyage du ballon rouge

A film that seldom, seldom is made: where the film chooses to understate everything, only to lend greater force to the argument itself, only to not to indulge in any of dramatic ploys and just soak in a story of a lonely mother fighting for life and happiness and a little comfort and independence, only to gradually make the audience feel a part of sun-seeped Paris, of serene France, of so many colors and life everywhere, even puppets. A masterpiece from Hou Hsiao-hsien, the film has often been miscriticised for being too vague, too ambiguous, maybe the critics were not ready for a simple working mother and her child's story. I find only Manohla Dargis from NY Times doing rich justice to the film, so let me add another chapter to this grossly underestimated film.

Based on the 1956 Lamorisse classic The Red Balloon, this film however turns things a little more in a direction not conventionally taken: the red balloon stands less for innocence, more for the frailty of life, for the unexpected trivialities that disturb the harmony of your life day in and day out. Juliette Binoche does it yet, yet again: another warm performance, another energy-filled one, and once again mainstay of the film. Fang Song gives in a brilliant performance as the Chinese film student, calmly watching this French family of Binoche's, her life with all her attendant grapplings with minor issues and neighbours, and of course Paris. She almost acts a critical element on Binoche's way of life: yes, her work with puppets notwithstanding, the delight and passion with which she independently stands on her own, is she right in continuing on with Paris and thus deal with a thousand other small issues, which do not even leave her enough time with her own son, Simon. The red balloon hovers around Simon, but only as a guardian angel? Or something which he is always unable to reach, which he cannot reach for: dreams which elude as soon as he would be awake, at most only an image of that dream the reality. It is this sadness, this gentle mournfulness which tinges the film throughout and makes the film stand out among the others.