Sunday, September 30, 2012


With beautiful acting performances, a straightforwardly told tale of the ages-old story of fathers and sons is given an even greater depth through elements of man's struggle with and often victory over nature, left-unexplained mystery, and the inscrutable workings of fate which can even transform a person into something else. Vozvrashcheniye (int'l title: The Return) is an organic film: the story is all humanity's and yet every turn of event and every alternation between excitement over the fish caught and loathing of the man who seems coarsened to the end, and running through it all a deep-seated admiration for the man's manly jobs and strength and resourcefulness, seem to have been born of the scenery surrounding them, the rains which come and go, the weed-overgrown dunes which seem to have never budged an inch, and the mud, clay, and grime that cakes everything that can rust, as everything can. The film's greatest strength is its remarkable ability to show differences of characters between all its notable characters, most importantly the two brothers, Andrei and Ivan.

It is a tough enough job to delineate two characters who don't dramatically differ from each other yet are different in temperaments, and yet again have a deep love for each other, to draw such characters through dialogues and screenplay. But it's a rarer thing to find two such actors who can completely be in their roles and hardly look anything else than them, whose eyes can speak more than their mouths do. Initially, one would think Ivan Dobronravov's character, playing his namesake, to be the central character of the film, not least because it is common to find films showing the growing up of some young boy. But this is no Hollywood film to stick by the same trick. Slowly, while Ivan never loses his primacy, Vladimir Garin, playing Andrei, comes into being, slowly his character gains more and more sympathy from the viewer, not just as the elder brother or as a necessary cog in the film's plot, but slowly it dawns on the reader that the film is about the two brothers, both of them. Of how where that one who can see things more penetratingly or can reason more can be more obstinate, but won't lose or gain more in understanding of life than that one who is hero-worshipping but only so for receptivity, who can love and forgive but who can also think, even if hiding that behind no ideas to stick to. The contrast and the love between Ivan and Andrei is fascinating, which is only the more and better exposed by their different reactions to their father and what they think they can learn from him.

The film shines in its honesty to its narrative. There are no voice-overs, there is no one recalling the incidents of those 7 days, except the diary and photos if you choose to view them so. There are no attempts to alleviate what all shall always remain mystery: where was the man for those 12 years, why has he come back, what was hidden in the pit, and does he have a dark past or even present that he has been fleeing from and that has made him the man he is, unable to warm up to his own blood? For in the photos before he left, he seems a usual family man: what must have happened that he left? In the frame of such questions that remain open, two boys struggle to find meanings of manliness and how important it is to be a man: in a society where plunging from as high as possible into water is done to show that you are not a chicken, these questions not only are for the boys, but even for the man, who keeps reminding the boys how little the men they are that he is. Victims all, there is still hope in the silently suffering mother, for she still runs to her child when he is standing up there grappling with the question, to jump or not.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Barfi! treads where few films do: into the realm of irreverence, recalling the days of Buster Keaton and the hidden little heartwarming scenes of Jacques Tati: however, the wonder of Barfi! is that it also combines with all this the cheerful boisterousness of India with its attendant chaos and liberty. Genre-slotters will be hard-pressed to call this film a comedy, a musical or a romance, and even further stressed to note that the film excels in every one of these areas.

The film’s strength is its ability to keep the viewers laughing endlessly through to the end: and its greatness goes even beyond this, for it does not try to whip up any sentimental air of fighting against all odds, as is common with every film featuring a deaf-mute or blind person as its central protagonist (cf. Bhansali’s terribly degrading Black): rather, it even pokes fun in the traditional way (munna mute hi aansu bahaye: “the baby sheds tears in mute mode...” being one of the lines of a song that can come only from India) and thus lifts the character out of the zone of charity and snivelling – rather it is Ranbir as Barfi who is poking fun at you at every step of the film. The film does falter at the very end, doing a Kisna-like act, wherein variegated characters are waiting outside the sick room, and then we are shown unneeded scenes from the old couple’s life: why not leave to the viewer to imagine how did Barfi and Jhilmil live together? These are not the only faults of the film, a very curious editing of the narrative being another: but all is forgiven for the sheer joy of living that the film manages to inspire, evoke and feel. The film does copy several scenes from many Keaton and Chaplin films, but adds many new ones to the repertoire: so all in all it doesn’t grate much, and Ranbir anyway gives it all a new zest.

I hope Anurag Basu keeps on making films in his beautifully fluid style: every one of his films that he has written as well besides directing has been at least worth watching, with Gangster and Barfi! being the standout exceptions of Hindi cinema. With Kites, even though the film was good, I felt a danger of him succumbing to big stars, big money, as happened with Bhansali; but here he avoids that: now all he needs to be alert to is not to go for over-stylization and glamour, as Barfi! relies heavily on it, but in a Tati-like film wherein stunts and slapstick play a huge role that is a strength rather than weakness.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sans toit ni loi

If you have seen Sandrine Bonnaire only in Secret Défense or Au coeur du mensonge, then you haven’t seen anything yet: the much younger Sandrine gives a lesson in virtuous acting in Agnès Varda’s powerful observation of that meaningless rootlessness that is often confused with freedom, Sans toit ni loi (literally: ‘without a roof or rule’; int’l title: Vagabond), often a direct result of sans foi ni loi (without faith or law). The film is not at all about Bonnaire’s remarkable combination of vulnerability, lack of discipline and idleness masked as rebellion; rather, it is a sweeping canvas of French countryside and French life, including the immigrants, men and their objectified desires, and the banality of lives framed in this frame: lives ranging from that of some big-shot professor to that of an immigrant who prunes the vines and is too abject to even keep the girl he wants. The film is remarkably similar to Gogol’s novel Dead Souls, not just because of the variety of human characters thrown up in a chilling moral landscape, but also because that the main character here, Mona, is not very heart-warming yet does not excite apathy, just like the rascal Chichikov.

The film in its structure and rhythm is very much a Varda film: segments of film intercutting; characters talking to the spectators; humor and poignancy so frequently butting into each other, that there is hardly space to laugh or cry; and a female character being the central character. Mona Bergeron is indeed living the wandering life of a shepherd (bergère), but without a flock to take care of: and that makes all the difference. Without discipline or responsibility, freedom is a myth: as the shepherd predicts, it ultimately leads to self-destruction, not simply physically but also morally. However, it is not easy to turn away or back from the route one has taken, for discipline requires an elevation of spirit, not just of intelligence: and how many are willing to embark on that sacrifice? Too easy it is to scorn the world, to say I’m my own (wo)man, and pretend (even to oneself) liberty: too easy it is to give a wild, brilliant spurt here and there but not channel forth into a great river.

There are some excellent supporting performances all throughout the film, most notably by Yahiaoui Assouna and a young Yolande Moreau. Dialogues are a key to any French film, even if they are few in number, so if you understand French, it would surely make you appreciate the film much more. The lasting impression that the film leaves is that of the transitoriness of human life: the words that came at the beginning still resound in you, when the narrator wonders if those people who were in contact with a younger Mona still remembered her.