Friday, March 26, 2010

Roma, città aperta

Probably, stripping away the old Hollywood flair and style meant "neorealism": Roma, città aperta (Rome: Open City) works well, and grippingly enough, for a small snippet from the occupation days, but realism? Melville's L'armée des ombres, a film strikingly similar, would have highly merited this tag; Lino Ventura, even if an actor, looks more natural than the "non-actors" here. Realism doesn't just mean filming in devastated cities and showing life to be hollowed out (which is what was also probably thought by the Bicycle Thieves maker) but life as it is. The German officer might scorn the rhetoric that Italians are fond of, but there is hardly any visible rhetoric in any actor's mouth: instead, the director indulges in much of it - the running betrothed woman was bound to be shot; the German officer had to forget his cruelties in drink; the woman who gave them away had to swoon; the whistles sing before the priest is shot. Is this not rhetoric?

Rhetoric might be a reality in people's words, it hardly is when it comes to life. Things don't happen so opportunely, especially when one is not seeing in hindsight. A key force to realism is lent by an inability to see backwards or forwards: one lives in the moment, just as one lives life. To show depressing sights is not the answer; for that one can see a grim documentary. A film must work on the level of fantasy - even if it tries to project reality - the fantasy of a tightly strung thread running through; reality does not work on the basis of what might have been and eliciting such sighs from the viewers, but the brute slap of what happened and can happen, the realization and the fear, the action and the anticipation.

Though Melville's film came much later, as a viewer of the modern age having once seen it I see little to choose in Rossellini's film. The story of Rome: Open City is fortunately centered around only few characters, and yet a poor cinematography and lack of characterization make the film appear like one were watching a story through binoculars; there is hardly any depth to the film, and it seems to make blanket statements for or against each of the protagonists, covering all in a shroud of inevitable tragedy. As long as one breathes - which is reality - nothing's inevitable, nothing's impending!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Harishchandrachi Factory

It is not only a marvellous story of the pioneer of the world's largest film industry, but also in equal measures the story of an always enterprising India, the story of a middle-class Hindu family, and the story of a man who refuses to die whatever the moment be. Nandu Madhav stars as the irrepressible Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, a man fascinated by stories and magic and machines and now bent upon learning and unfolding the magic of moving pictures upon the world. The best thing that Harishchandrachi Factory (English: The Factory of Harishchandra) does is to stick to its title; it has no interest in showing the multiple facets of Phalke: the brilliant photography student from the MS University of Baroda or the man obsessed with printing machines and who went to Germany to learn more of them or the man who worked with Raja Ravi Varma and learnt magic from Carl Hertz. The film is only about the making of the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, and almost parallels the enthusiasm in a similar story shown about the first Romanian film's making in Restul e tăcere.

Where the film however makes a mark is in situating the story firmly in the Indian context: while the few slogans for Tilak and pictures of Kesari are just artificial ploys to make the film appear in 1910s, it is the brilliant artwork and well-written dialogues that do the job. Hardly has anyone succeeded in so meticulously constructing a typical Hindu family's lifestyle and dynamics as Paresh Mokashi has in his directorial debut. The chemistry between all the four family members is a sight to watch, and each member of the family shares work and respect equally; coupled with the humor attending the never-say-die spirit of Phalke, who makes the bleakest of situations appear as games to be played, the film is a life-changing story.

One thought that strikes the viewer is the large contrast between Benigni in Life Is Beautiful and Madhav in Harishchandrachi Factory. Benigni comes upon suddenly as an overacting, highly affected actor in comparison to the natural skills of Madhav, who seems to be lifted out from life and placed in the film. Benigni 'keeps' himself happy, Madhave knows to be happy.

And a special mention to the film's effervescent music: not only capturing the days of old Marathi cinema, but also tilting the viewer into the craziness of DG Phalke.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Road, Movie

The much-touted, much-anticipated Indian answer to Cinema Paradiso never materialises in spite of a talented cast, stunning locales, and a vast and diverse country as the backdrop: Road, Movie never adopts a story, instead ending up with a confused one that wanted to tackle all the Paradiso themes of coming of age, journeys, and the magic of cinema, and yet ends up with only an abstract shimmy into the hot, arid desert landscape of Kutch-Rajasthan. Where it fails even more miserably is by giving the story the typical oft-seen Hollywood notion that young men have to come of age; on the other hand, in Paradiso, Toto came of age at every moment of his life: the childhood of learning from Alfredo, the youth of love and waiting for love, and the old age of the magic still alive and yet the realisations and the revelations never ending, a life thrilling to touch at each moment. A life to live with the gumption of Alfredo, whatever it may bring: there's always a story, romance.

Abhay Deol carries his Dev D mistargeted angsts to this film and set against the flimsy hairoil business of his father that he hates, the undecided nature of the film sets in. The film from there on does not manage to balance the several threads running right through: molière-sque farce and life-changing journeys. It does not explain how does the Rajasthani boy manage to pronounce Starbucks so correctly, and how does Yashpal Sharma, the water dacoit, manage to pronounce the English "~tion" as "shun" and "son" both. The sweet Rajasthani dialect or the salty Kutchi one, wherever the film is meant to be placed, is completely absent, and instead we have every character speaking khariboli Hindi; how? If a lonely truck roaming in the desert picks up a gypsy woman who speaks just like a woman you met in a real Starbucks cafe would have, and when this woman roaming in search of water even manages to have a full coat of lipstick on her lips, then how do you manage to feel the film? Especially when the whole point of the film is somehow to just get lost in the hotness, the ballooning white skies, the sheer struggle of finding oneself through travelling. And not just find places, not just peace for yourself, not get lost in wildernesses, but to find humanity, outside and within you.

There are times though because of the beautiful landscape that the film does work and shows travel to be what it is. Punctuated by a selfish Abhay, bright Mohammed Faizal (who seems to be simply the most effortless actor I have ever seen, and with a head on his shoulders; a good match-up for Ishqiya's Alok Kumar), a maverick and lovely Satish Kaushik, and a sultry gypsy Tannishtha, the film is essentially hardly cinema and its magic, but just the various colors of this world, and how each life, each voice, each background, each drop of water carries a story, a breath, a dream. This is what travel is and this is what Abhay realises, alongwith finding a bit of more humanity in him than he was wont to. Showing remote human settlements cinema is just the guise for Abhay, and the filmmaker.

For lovers of the beauty that India presents, the film is a gift: though not going outside the desert, there is enough to make the viewer curse that why did the director not make a full Hindi feature-length film, instead making some chopped-headed 2-hour-or-less film. Short length is a major weakness of the film: when you start with Lawrence of Arabia landscapes, and try to play some of the same tricks that Lean played masterfully, then you also have to let your films seep into the viewer's mind, into his consciousness. Lean was able to ignore the Hollywood commercial guidelines and still ended up a winner, since his films were good: and even if they had not worked, he wouldn't have shelved his grand sequences that got into the sun and wind of a shot.

It's still a wonderful film for a traveller: s/he will know the pleasure of being on the open roads and the not-roads. But a film is meant to be a story at some level, and Abhay's character didn't excite me to write a story about him - how to build a film without any empathy, or hate, for or with the hero?