Thursday, November 21, 2013

Das Lied in mir

The pool is her cocoon. Her shell, from which she wants to emerge but does not know how. In a world of achievement and gray, black and white, she is trapped. And blue. And then she discovers she has dual identities. She has another country, another family, another life. She has the rich noises and colours of Latin America in her blood. She can be part of the spontaneity; she doesn't need to be confined within the world of Danke and Bitte anymore.

Beautifully shot, the greatest praise for Florian Cossen's debut feature (it is hard to believe that this is a debut!) is that he makes you want to live Buenos Aires, makes you want to go there. He combines the good elements of European cinema with the warmth of Latin America, and the mixture becomes potent when coupled with a stunning performance by the main protagonist Jessica Schwarz (as Maria) and meaningful editing. No one is given to histrionics; if Hollywood were to make this film, people would be throwing and smashing things, there would be too much bitterness and anger, and people would now and then scream or try to evoke pity, or something. Schwarz doesn't do anything of the sort: her low-key performance is the soul of the film. The colour scheme of the film throughout is a marvel to watch, feel and understand: to take an example, the sterile shots of the airport washroom are further enhanced by Maria's white shirt at the beginning of the film.

The movie is much beyond Maria's story: it is also about the clash of cultures as different as German/North European and Latin American. Even before Maria stumbles upon the secret, she feels drawn to the streets, to the chaos, to the cityscape: of course, her mind is active because she has already heard the song, but now that song is ready to burst from her. Not just the song whose words she knows but the meaning she doesn't, but also the song of her soul, the song of her persona - the song whose meaning she knows but not the words - which can now flower, in benign, suitable conditions. The film, whose title means The Song in Me (but strangely given the int'l title of The Day I Was Not Born), is the celebration of that song: of every human song that is ready even if hidden, that must not be strangled as Anton tries to do.

Anton's crime is not that he and his wife stole Maria; not just that he keeps on lying; not in his insecurity of losing Maria. His crime is he denied Maria the world where the song in me could be heard. That is why it will be difficult for Maria to ever forgive Anton. Until Anton learns the song.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Angst essen Seele auf / Vokzal dlya dvoikh

The Cold War wasn't so much war anymore at the time; it was simply cold. Even when it was to flare up, that was to happen in farflung, exotic-sounding and goddamned lands of Afghanistan and the like, not really closer home like the politically Eastern Europe. Newer issues had come up: oil had become the most important thing. Countries like France, Italy and Germany experienced or rather invited a boom of immigrants, many from North Africa; the old noble idea of democracy as conceptualized in Athens had now become the American dream, wherein mediocrity was celebrated and even worshipped; slowly, and inexorably, this would guide the flood-like wave of individualism, a cancer soon to spread all over the world. And with individualism came its issues: that of loneliness, and the idea that man loves another only to run away from his or her loneliness; or rather, is forced to. Around that hidden idea somewhere developed films focused on 'monologues' of a pair of lovers, a family, and so on: the family thing happened more in the US, where films were made showing a family coping with a son's death/drugs problem/etc. (curiously, it was more often son than daughter). Rarely, a Love Story came along, too. In Europe, in a trend that has since continued, it was more about a couple or relationships: while Antonioni deplored the modern, fragmented inner world of a man, some others accepted it as a fatality, and it is there that belong the films Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eat Soul Up, 1974) and Vokzal dlya dvoikh (known as A Railway Station for Two, 1982), the former German, the latter Russian.

The beauty about Antonioni is that he refuses to accept that there is any permanent salvation in the individualistic man's pursuit of and refuge in romantic love; the answer has to be beyond, since the malaise is in individualism. While many find Antonioni's films pessimistic, I find them optimistic. Rather, I find the two films meant to be the subject of this post as given to fatalism, as pessimistic. Emmi and Ali in Fear Eats the Soul (the grammatically correct title by which the film is strangely better known) are beings eaten away by loneliness: and they think of each other as the messiah who's come into their lives to save them from this utter loneliness, this atmosphere of veneer and civility wherein lurk only prejudices all the more sharpened by the values taught by some civilisation's mores. The same is the case in Station for Two: Vera and Platon here reprising the roles. There is nothing to fault in the stories themselves; woven with humour, an observant eye of the world surrounding, and great or at least adequate performances from most characters, the films are in their own right little gems, depicting authentic slices of life as lived by probably hundreds or thousands, or more, in though different guises, different costumes. Yet, a thought occurs, that there is no question asked that is not rhetorical, there is no transcending: they are good, decent films, being lovely stories, yet they lack what makes a story truly great: finding the answer. The viewer is rather invited to enter the tedium of these characters and swim into it, and self-identify with that: and at the most paint a critical, intelligent-looking picture of what all she or he views, as does Haneke to take an example. Yet, man's intelligence is surely bound for greater destinations than mere observing and analyzing? Analysis is not the goal in itself; sadly, with the modern academics taking analysis itself to be the goal (which they call as "research"), films have not been far behind.

Fear Eats the Soul does portray Germany, especially that of the '70s, quite effectively: the immigrant from Maghreb is still very much the Other in white countries like France and Germany. However, what Fassbinder does well is to portray also how Emmi also experiences the hostile othering gaze when she is among circles not of her class: the opening scene when she enters the bar and everyone looks at her is a classic, exaggerated, lovely scene; later on, it will happen again when she will go to confront Ali at his workplace: this time, it's more economic class distinctions acting (even if Emmi is herself poor, she is German looking, white, and not looking a junkie: hence, for the stranger, she represents respectability, which Ali, even if earning more than Emmi, doesn't; rather Ali, the dark man, means filth, pig, squalor, muscles, hard cock). However, by selecting an actor who doesn't act well to play Ali, Fassbinder may have only reinforced some stereotypes; the only thing that the director has surely done is to show that whites (Germans) can be and often are themselves filth. That is, whiteness has got nothing to do with how dirty - or how clean - you are from inside. However, it is not clear if blackness has got to do something with it or not; Ali doesn't inspire much confidence, especially because of poor acting skills of the actor playing Ali. The film however has to be watched for the superlative acting of Brigitte Mira, playing Emmi.

Another great performance, again by the woman protagonist, Lyudmila Gurchenko, playing Vera, marks Station for Two. On appearances, the two women cannot be more different: while Vera plays a street-smart, gutsy waitress, Emmi is a humble, meek old woman who wants to be integrated into the world around her at every step. Yet, Emmi is as strong as Vera: she married a Polish, against her Hitler-loving father; she excuses her father's memory of Hitler loyalist almost immediately by claiming herself also to have been in the party; she marries Ali in spite of the reactions and keeps trying to go through it, and maybe her own self-doubts at the start. For, probably, in the memorable scene when her coworkers are introduced at first, it is her doubts speaking about the foreigners, rather than her coworkers. And Vera, for all her apparent meanness, is as soft from inside, as much in want of being loved, as Emmi; she is rootless, working in a place where people come and go, and all you have is a nice fuck with a man who comes now and then. But this fornication doesn't give her any company; when she sees another such soul, alone inside but outwardly busy in a bourgeois world, the pianist Platon, she will go even to the prison camps with him; just as Emmi will resolve to protect Ali from stress again if she can. That said, Station for Two does paint certainly a rosier picture of romance than does Fear Eats the Soul. That might be because the latter has one of the protagonists, Ali, whom we are ambiguous about: we also can't trust him!

We do not know the endings of these stories; they do not matter. They are your or mine stories. The ordinary man has triumphed; these films are not about momentous events of history, though history is certainly influencing their life courses. But the films are about hope, fear, stupidity, jealousy, meanness, generosity, altruism, love, irrationality; they are about eating couscous and changing trains. What these films do not set out to achieve, however, is finding the, or a, meaning beyond: they are content contemplating.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ship of Theseus

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er again return?

- Madhava Vidyaranya, 14th century AD

Social status depends not upon your accomplishments, but in the ownership of property; wealth is now the source of virtue; passion and luxury are the sole bonds between spouses; falsity and lying are the conditions of success in life; sexuality is the sole source of human enjoyment; religion, a superficial and empty ritual, is confused with spirituality. 
- Vishnu Purana, ca. 100 BC [a prediction of the modern age]

Ship of Theseus "tries to" ask if there is a beyond outside the body, the material world: if you were to create a man with different parts, would that still be a man (a life, rather, since the emphasis is not just on humans), or would something still be missing? (And what would that be?) Its intentions "seem to" be to address the opposition between two of the ancient Hindu schools of thought, as quoted above: one dualist, the other not; one believing in soul, the other believing in the here and now and nothing else. However, unfortunately, the film ends along with Life of Pi as one of the several recent successful spirituality-driven hoaxes: it seems that such stuff has become the new business, with audiences fed up of investments and shopping in upmarket malls wanting some instant dose of spirituality. What else are discussions between Kabi and Shukla (playing the characters of Maitreya and Charvaka in the film) except for some "Learn to Be Spiritual in 10 Minutes" crash course?

One of the main reasons for this film to suffer the same fate as Life of Pi's is once again heavy reliance on technology: director Gandhi may or may not have used the most high-end equipment to shoot his film. However, it's the film's stunning cinematography and graphics that keep the film propped up, more than anything else. A couple of other good things that Gandhi did was to keep background scores away, often (ab)used to give some 'epicality' to the film; plus use of a decent cast and "cleaner" urban India (thus keeping the film focused to the spiritual narrative it wants to tell). However, with the lack of substance in the film, the props can only support this much: it "can get only this much good."

The most important blot on the film is in its most important-seeming story: that of Maitreya, the (Jain) monk. It is easy to ask questions, but it's the clues one needs to provide, one's own insights, through art. The questions are already there. What's the answer of Maitreya to Charvaka's "What's the difference between you and a suicide bomber?" A lame "Are you really making that analogy?" Why not? In fact, what's the problem with the suicide bomber? Is he, who at least hasn't lost the capability of believing, not better than someone who can't do so? Maitreya's apparent irritation to being compared with a suicide bomber comes across, and makes you understand that the director doesn't know his own story: he has been able to think only till the skin depth of questions, then it's all dense.

For beliefs are not meant to be established through reason. For if I love someone, I can never prove it. I may feel it. The beloved might or might not feel it. In any case, there is no proof. Love is simply belief. Nothing less. A believer who tries to explain his belief is already an unbeliever: belief is Mira's devotion to Krishna, it is what spirituality is all about. Gandhi has reduced the flame of spirituality to its cinders of religion, and mistook the latter as the former: Maitreya tries to explain away his institutional duties and abidings by saying that it's important to look beyond symbols. But why to have symbols? While Western philosophy works through creating more and more symbols for esoteric circles of intellectuals, spirituality works through removing more and more symbols for esoteric circles of believers, for those who have the supreme capacity to be ever joyous, to believe. Symbols are meant for those who can't look beyond them: a form of spiritual spoon-feeding. And yet no one can be spoon-fed: wisdom has to come to oneself from within, from one's own experiences. The film itself abounds with references, the intellectual's favourite symbols. And yet, Gandhi is unable to build any of his characters in the film, except to a certain extent that of Sohum Shah in the third story: and that is where his film lacks pitifully. More importantly, it is clear that the film belongs to yet another pseudo-spiritualist class of work, that the person telling the story has himself not the inclination or the ability (or both) to think more deeply of what he's saying.

Once the lack of substance prevails, there is nothing much else in the film to watch, for there is hardly any storyline except in the third (Shah's) story (which also has some good comic moments). One pity is that the Hindi dialogues are very inaccurately subtitled by the filmmakers themselves: but that is hardly any new trend in a world and a film where 'karma' and 'karmic' is bandied about half a dozen times with the standard Western meaning of the word while all along pretending to portray Indian thought. The only reason to watch it once is its cinematography, plus for those unaware of Indian nonviolent traditions, to get introduced to them. If you have missed watching this film, there's nothing to regret.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Lootera (2013)

Good performances (except from Adil Hussain, who looks out of place), snowy locales of Chamba and lilting, beautiful music are unable to lift Lootera from a decent film to some great film: in spite of taking O'Henry's The Last Leaf, a touching story in itself, as the second half of the film. The primary culprit is shoddy editing: but also poor character development, two stories forcefully shoved into one feature film, and some television soap-like effects (numerous flashbacks to scenes already depicted in order to 'explain' to an audience presumed to be of dimwits; minor characters making impactful entries in the film; too clean decors). For those not that familiar with India or Indian films, the film does probably deserve one viewing, especially if they haven't read O'Henry's story ever; for the rest, the film is all what cinema isn't meant to be. It is a clueless editing and screenplay which play spoilsport.

If the film had been a short feature of an hour or so, just the post-intermission part, then this would have been a lovely little gem: but some unneeded melodrama of what happened prior to The Last Leaf  leaves the viewer confused about what he is watching - which story, which character, which timeline. Sonakshi, who plays the role of Pakhi wonderfully well, suddenly transforms from a feisty girl with guts and gumption to someone who has grouses from fate and everything else: that does not lend too much to digestion. One would rather expect her to go out and search for the man who betrayed her and ruined her family: that is the character she lives till intermission, and that is the character the actor Sonakshi is better equipped to play.

When a story is reinterpreted, one always looks forward to the new interpretation bringing in some new element: nothing like this happens with Lootera. O'Henry's little story is still very much preferable, because it does not go into the pathos, the melodrama of anything: rather, O'Henry's story is about human goodness and human achievement. It uplifts you. On the other hand, Lootera is about falling for the wrong man, and human weaknesses: but with the attempt to give it the O'Henry flavour. It disenchants you. For a film that promised so much, it is a pity that it falls short of expectations: in fact, it is its not being able to meet (my) inflated expectations that proves to be the biggest bane. However, the film does offer two relatively fresh actors, Sonakshi and Ranveer Singh, some meaty roles with an array of emotions to act: and both of them do it very well, thus making for a not so common occasion where almost all actors have acted well.

Friday, June 28, 2013


The greatest strength of this mesmerizing film, drawn from a play, is that it could easily have been dramatic, indulging in hysterical cries in Hollywood style, or too much about messages, but avoiding all these traps, the film remains a tight, taut thriller: the plethora of meaning and message that one can draw from this film do not distract the viewer from feeling the thrill of zeroing in on the people the twins are searching for. In this respect, the film strongly reminds one of another political thriller, the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. However, Incendies (its English meaning could range from "Wildfires" to "Gutted") goes beyond being a political film with human side to it: it is always simply a human story that spirals in between circumstances of a civil war, a romance and an inability to hope after going through human cruelty and its acts.

Canadian French cinema has often yielded better films than French cinema itself, but this film surpasses all expectations, which is all the more remarkable as Canada hardly plays any role in the film: it is Lebanon the centre of action, and quite a lot of the film's dialogue will be spoken in Arabic. Lebanon has been shot beautifully in the film: and neither more scenically, nor less than required - a difficult measure to achieve usually (this is where a master like David Lean failed in an otherwise great adaptation of Madame Bovary in his Ryan's Daughter). What does place the film in the category of all-time greats is its superb pacing, its editing and its cast: none of them too fine actors, but well suited to the film's characters, which is what one wants in a film. For once, a film needed cuts between present, past and the different layers of a complicated story: and the director delivers what was needed. Importantly, each sequence in a layer is long enough for the reader to get further absorbed, sucked in the world of Nawal Marwan (played expertly by Lubna Azabal), not just a frenzy of cuts. Nawal's daughter Jeanne Marwan is even more beautifully played by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin: a role somehow not acknowledged as it should be, shadowed by the prominent role of Nawal in the film. It would be great if Désormeaux-Poulin could get more and meatier roles in more films. This is an as yet unexplored talent by filmmakers: a serious miss in my opinion.

I did not find anything to criticize the 1+1 ending: the twins are living that search, that quest rather, every day of their lives, and their wits are sharpened by intuition. It is absurd to think that the viewers would grasp intuitively at the meaning of the sentence spoken by Jeanne's brother as immediately as Jeanne did, if at all they do. The only thing that I personally did not like in the film were the repeated swimming pool scenes (except where the viewer feels an incestuous moment developing between the twins, which is a good scene): I am tired of watching swimming pools being used as metaphors for disconnectedness since some time now in films (did it start with Kieslowski's Blue?); it's become a cliché. For the rest, I'd say that this masterpiece should be watched by many and many all over the world: to understand and find repugnant war, human cruelty and its frightfulness.

For those who haven't seen the film, if they wish to watch this film, I implore them to watch it without conducting any online searches about the film: any spoiler would indeed take away a lot from the film when watched the first time. Of course, the film merits repeated viewings, as its story is timeless, universal and brilliantly filmed and acted.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kai Po Che

No: there is nothing like "Kai Po Che." When we fly kites in Gujarat, we cry out a "Kaapyo!", and even with the unnecessary addition of Gujarati equivalent of "is," that would be "Kaapyo chhe" no "che", no "kai po". The film's reviews worldwide are a perfect example of the glut of information we take to be wisdom these days: from Berlin to Mumbai, everyone explains what "kai po che" means because that's what they heard from a source. They don't know what it means, they can't "kai po che" is meaningless but they still will tell you what it means. How strange! In any case, let's get on with the review.

I narrated the story of the title just to indicate that the film Kai Po Che does work through, and depend on, milking stereotypes - not just about Gujarat but also about this sudden trend in Indian cinema of male bonding post Rang de Basanti. Nowadays, everyone jumps into a lake or sea or something, and struts drunk on top of a fort wall or some big height: it seems sometimes that a Mountain Dew ad became interminably, and insufferably, long. Indians haven't yet learnt the art of a Vincent, François, Paul ... et les autres. That kind of film would flop miserably in today's India, as Khamoshi the Musical did in this country; it's good though, for otherwise it would become fashion, and then we will have at least a dozen films exploiting the genre.

What is far more seriously wrong about a film like Kai Po Che is that it also continues to pander to the distorted history presented in India by a leftist-leaning intellectual milieu:  those intellectuals who only see what they want to see and what they have already determined to seek and find and see. It is a pity that much of our colonial and pre-colonial history has been interpreted by leftist intellectuals, but why are we continuing to interpret our modern history through their eyes? No! The story of Gujarat riots does not go like this: it wasn't always a mob of Hindus descending upon hapless Muslims who just wanted to talk about Gandhi and peace. To imagine a leader giving a speech to a Muslim audience with the words "Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye" goes over the top: to not to show Muslims getting ready with weapons stored up in their mosques and attacking Hindus is criminal if you are showing the Hindutva goons doing the same with Muslims. If a film works with a historical backdrop, it should limit itself to the backdrop: not try to portray one side white, the other black. That is where Kai Po Che is more than an ordinary film: it is a disgusting film.

Speaking of the ordinariness, in spite of great acting performances all round, in particular by Amit Sadh (as Omi) and also by Sushant Singh Rajput (as Ishaan) and Manav Kaul (as Bittoo Mama), the film lacks humour in spite of trying to show bonding: three people jumping in the sea doesn't create bonding, but humour does. The editing is seriously suspect: at the beginning itself, if you are showing Omi to be in jail and then moving the story ten years back to 2001, you know what will happen; any person having knowledge of Gujarat's 20012002 history will tell you immediately how Omi will get more and more influenced by Bittoo and then kill someone during the riots. If all the story is apparent right at the start, what's the point, really, of watching a movie that does not offer you much visually, anyway? The film also tries to package in as many Gujarat stereotypes as possible: from Garba that didn't look like Garba, to kites, from the three friends' living in a pol to some eating of patra and then to ... some bloopers! There's not enough "jai shri krushna"; the scenes of earthquake relief camps are poorly filmed: too clean and unchaotic and the extras not looking Gujaratis; Bittoo cannot pass off as a Gujarati, ever; and so on ... and of course the wrong title!

What surprises me most is the increasing inability to think: in the '80s any film with song, dance and some dishoom worked; in the '90s, any film with "somewhere someone is waiting for me" concept; these days, any film that makes it appear as a serious film works: everyone is in the race to belong to the intellectual class. Alas! How they not know to which pile of dead bodies these maggots want to join!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Anyone who has loved Kerala, its incessant water, its rains, its old men, its constantly plying boats, its simple ways of life led amidst extreme poverty, any such person will love Piravi. An ode to Kerala, to undying hope and faith, and to water the element, it is a beautiful film to be experienced. I do not know what effect does it or can it have on those who do not know Kerala, but to someone like me who has known Kerala in a lot of its intimate details and who has spent a lot of time there, among its wooden-gabled houses and temples, among its leech-infested forests and lapping rivers and backwaters, where there is water above and water below, water, water everywhere, the film is nothing short of lyrical poetry.

The actors have played their parts well, especially the old man: whose toothless smile is a treat to watch. The boy's narration adds something extra to the film and thereby fulfils it: from his voice, we know his personality, that he could not have done anything 'wrong'. He could only have been a victim of the State's terror apparatus. Life will slowly ply on, in a seemingly forgotten land; but forgotten does not matter, because love and waiting are for ever present in those hearts for whom only the story is relevant. For them, their being forgotten beings is their tragedy, but also their means of healing.