Friday, December 18, 2015

Tři oříšky pro Popelku

The magically beautiful, heartwarming film Tři oříšky pro Popelku (English: Three Nuts for Cinderella), a film that can only be told by Czechs, the greatest storytellers for me, has been finally restored by Norway and shown to audiences as Christmas approaches and snow has already started to beset home and hearth: in the celebration of this restoration of a fine, fine film, let us revisit it.

I have not been much a fan of Cinderella films and cartoons: most of them are insipid, cast the woman in too much of some dependent light for my liking, and use elements such as a slipper made from glass that turn me off in fact. Many employ a witch or someone of that ilk, and the Cinderella of most is too much of a letdown. This Czech version shines through not only a very beautiful cinematography, taking full advantage of my much beloved Czech countryside, but also through its twist on the characters' temperaments, in particular that of Libuše Šafránková's Cinderella: she is gentle but haughty, she has pride but good sense, she is expert but witty, she can countenance fate's highs and lows but she can also court good fate. She is beautiful, bold and audacious, and it is she who is the clear superior in the match. It is she more the princess than the prince the prince.

Shot in the Klatovy area of Pilsen region, which is streams, woods and snow, the film's story plays out in the thick of winter, with good cheer, hunting and youthful spirit pervading the film: it is hard not to feel hopeful after watching the film, hard not to feel yearning to explore the beauty of this world, hard to stay put at home, unless the home be in these woods, among these birds and trees. Fairy tales on screen are often given characters with strange noses, talking animals and girls with long braids or handsome princes: and they don't work. This tale has instead the beauty of nature and winter rubbing off its charm on us: it is a beautiful lesson in how there is so much magic to show and be inspired from in our life, without a need to import technology for that. Unless it be technology used to restore such wonderful films.

Note: I write however about the non-restored film. Non-restored prints have their own charm.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Taj Mahal (2015)

Nicolas Saada's debut feature-length film Taj Mahal is a work of art, framed by aesthetic sensibilities of leaving much unsaid; it is a pity that the film has been viewed by many critics uniquely through the lens of Mumbai terror attacks or dated postcolonialism. The film is in fact not about Mumbai terror attacks: the attacks are only a catalyst. The film is about a timid, unsure, not very courageous, slightly repressed girl Louise: it is her character's development, which will not climax to any satisfactory level with the film's end, that concerns us. On the face of it, the film appears to many as just another of those films of someone trapped in some dangerous situation, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in mass numbers. But the film goes much beyond that, in terms of both actual plot and what is implied. The film does not end at the girl's release from the tragedy: it goes on, to provide us vital clues to Louise' character. It is not a Hollywood hug-and-cheer ending. It ends indeterminately: Louise is still young, and she is still to discover herself, but the incident and the India trip have given her impetus and maybe a newfound courage. She can now ignore her slightly cold, domineering mother, she can now try to reach out to people whom her parents don't ask her to talk to, she can now say "I don't know" with surety, in a world where "I don't know" is not accepted as answer, where pretensions of knowledge are what you stake your reputation on.

As I said, a lot is unsaid in the film. The embrace of Louise and the Italian woman is tight and warm, both enjoying human warmth after being trapped in an inferno. Giovanna is a woman which Louise's mother is not: it is telling that Louise prefers always to talk to her father when distressed, contrary to usual expectations. Giovanna has brought her intimacy, love and promise in one embrace, which Louise had been searching for all her life, which makes her so diffident. Giovanna is someone whom Louise could have loved passionately, if not torn apart without any addresses to exchange. But she finds only the cold, unembracing world like Pierre or her mother; the people who cared for her, the man who offered her the footwear, the room service guy, Giovanna, all are lost in time and in India. The world of India is the world where Louise steps into youth, struggles into it: she finds Paris meaningless, colourless, she finds her life sucked, tucked into a microcosm: that incident, that trip. It is not painful or an adventure for her: that world is a cocoon in which she was tightly wrapped, a sequence of life events that have changed her, that have suddenly given her something new, made her a bit more known to herself.

And how does Saada manage to achieve it? First, by selecting a fine cast, especially Stacy Martin's not very expressive face, which works wonders for the film. Then, by getting great cinematography and lovely use of tones: Paris is bleaker and colder, toned down, and Mumbai is brightened. The sound recording itself is a treat: in both Mumbai and Paris, outdoors' noises are heightened, the world of exterior collides with Louise's inward personality, ready to go into her shell. The interior world, whether it be Louise in the cafe in Paris or in the plush hotel Taj, is depressingly quiet, a troubled peace, like still water beneath which much lurks. One could accuse Saada of some things: that he didn't put a bereaving or distressed Indian family beside the French family when Louise was trapped in the hotel; that Giovanna is another European instead of an Indian. But would it not have violated the aesthetic purity and the integrity of the film? For me, it would have. Louise's world is small: it is she who sees, it is she who is feeling this world. Will she see the Indian family? Will she not find a lot of affinity with Giovanna? In this world of political correctness, we have forgotten people themselves. Thankfully, Saada sticks to his vision, not of those for whom everything is a ledger.

And to those critics who dismiss the movie as a story of some rich white girl, ignoring many others, I don't know what to say: are rich white girls not human beings? Should stories revolving around them be not made just because they are a minority in a particular milieu? Do not be deterred by critics: go and explore the several deep layers of an apparently simple film.

Friday, December 04, 2015

La Glace et Le Ciel

La glace et le ciel (int'l title: Ice and the Sky) is a disappointing film on many fronts, in spite of its Antarctic background: the most notable disappointment is that the film is a biopic, giving little by way of science, and focusing on idolising a glaciologist. It is not that a biopic is a bad idea: but it is a bad one when you make viewers expect that they are going to discover secrets and plunge into nature's mysteries; when the film is made in a heavily preachy style, with a continuous narration killing of any feeling of connection with the scientist or with science itself in spite of the extensive archival footage used; when the film uses a camera rotating for long periods of time around the glaciologist as the pivot; and when the whole film is just the story of a man's passion and struggles with nature but yet suddenly you are handed over an already-ripe conclusion that climate is changing for sure: but on what basis? Because the glaciologist tells you, with some ice cores thrust in suddenly to make that feel justified. But shouldn't that have been the whole point to develop, slowly and surely? There is a severe lack of science or philosophy or any kind of deep thought in the film: it is the complete opposite of the marvellously made The Expedition to the End of the World. A clue to how the film would be is right at the very beginning: an intense snow-white shot of Antarctica. A terrible way to begin a film which is about Antarctica anyway: wouldn't it have been better to start with a context-setting shot, which is neither a snowy landscape nor burning trees? Or, if a snowy landscape, then get it right and aesthetic? For cinematography is a major weakness in this film: something hard to believe for a film made in such a stunning locale.

The film though has its moments: notably with archival footage materials, especially that of the Charcot base. And the context being Antarctica, there will inevitably be moments where you start thinking and wondering, even though the film is too light on that and also says too much, is silent too little. In many ways, the film is very similar to the kind of films that the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand makes: speaking too much, too often. Let the winds talk, let the coldness speak, let the snow fall, and float, softly: the special effects used sometimes in the film or the continuous narration can probably never be the voice of these elements. Such potentially great material, such great stories of human courage and will to fight and win, but such a waste: how is it possible to make a film on science that lacks in poetry? For isn't all science a most noble attempt of composing poetry?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Darjeeling Limited

If Moonrise Kingdom is quirky, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited is quirkier: but Anderson's signature style is quirkiness. What many forget, or overlook, amazed or awed by the oddballs peopling his films, is Anderson's sensitivity to a place, an age or a character. In this story of three brothers, who may have come across as dysfunctional if not for the occasional leaps of goodness they also make, like the saving of children, the star is India: and Anderson is the only director I have seen till now who understands India. (A note is in due order here that I have not seen Louis Malle's documentaries; I love Louis Malle, and I think he might be another of that rare breed who understands India.) This film, made by an American, is a far cry from British films and TV around India, from the Marigold Hotels and Indian Summers. It does not patronise India, nor exoticises it: it rather jumps into the love-hate relationship that a non-Indian person finds him/herself in when coming to India, especially for the first time. And it does so with aplomb, through three characters whose craziness beats India's own craziness. It is no wonder that the three return from the airport, and continue on in their India and self-exploration: for where else there is such absolute liberty without encroaching on anarchy if not in India? And freedom does not lie in banners proclaiming liberté, égalité, fraternité; rather, when it is present, it is of no name, for why would a free society talk of freedom? It is the joy of life, of doing what you want, of sweet lime with snakes, and spirituality that does not divide itself into orders and yet implicates elaborate rituals of how to blow a peacock feather. It is the freedom for madness, when madness is routine.

Set to beautiful music, from various sources, especially the lovely theme from an evidently inspiring little-known Merchant-Ivory film Bombay Talkie, the film's strength lies in its cinematography and the three principal actors. It could have been a bit tighter, though: I personally didn't see the point of introducing physically the mother, but then, yes, it did bring them, especially Francis, closure, as did the death of the boy for Peter: closure from a want to belong to someone, father, mother, lover, child, world. In the end, they are happy to abandon their suitcases-sized father, and ready to embrace life, and India, and themselves as they are, and each other. For there is always another sweet lime, as Jack now knows: maybe he also achieves his closure for his ex-lover whom he hadn't been able to forget (Natalie Portman, in the short film Hotel Chevalier acting as prologue to the film, though I'd advise to watch it after the main film). Maybe he doesn't even need a sweet lime now. Their joie de vivre is now not so much strange, not so much out of place, not so much quirky.

En kärlekshistoria

En kärlekshistoria (A Love Story, better known as A Swedish Love Story) is a beautiful film; highly charged with the eroticism of innocence, without needing its actors to drop clothes, it is also a film that is sedimented with several layers of life lived: Pär's grandfather, who has lost all hope and is bitter; Annika's father who tried to make a meaning of life through money and career and failed miserably; loveless Eva and Annika's mother, women who need another to stand by them but have none; the protagonists Pär and Annika, who, though strong and innocent their love is now, one fears, will one day end up similarly; and, finally, the dog, the babies, the insensible ones, who are yet to journey. The film's title can mislead some: it is not a romantic film in the mould of Love Story: this long, slow film gives a lot of time to characters other than the lovers, to people and contexts around them, and that remark is valid throughout till the end of the film, not just for build-up of the romance. At the same time, the love story is the only whiff of fresh air in a decaying, crumbling society: there are generational tensions, and there is an evident class tension (urban/rural, middle-class/peasant, piano/motorcycle) that informs the film throughout. The film is more a keen observation of society: and the love that can bloom in spite of such harsh conditions, like a flower in a desert. This love is trapped in bubbles, in a world segmented into conflicts not created by Pär or Annika, and yet which affect them and will do so even more: but the two defy those bubbles, by creating a bubble of their own, in the form of their love for each other.

A Love Story is a grim film: it crucifies Pär and Annika, their innocence, for even though they are busy celebrating their love, trying to find an escape from the sordidness around them, it is inevitable, though not shown, that they and their love will be affected and influenced and changed. The bubble will be pierced one day. And hence it is a relief, a struggle to continue hoping, that that will not happen: that their love will continue to take root in each other's delight even after the film ends, as if Pär and Annika were real. And aren't they real? The beauty of Roy Andersson's film is that you relate to them, their love, for many of us have had or have dreamed of such a love, the very first full bloom and make-believe, which changed and scarred us for ever and yet remains a fond memory, which made us grow as a human and yet left a vulnerable child in us, thus preventing us from becoming stones or insensibles: maybe, even Annika's father loved thus once, though now so far, and maybe that's what helps him keep his sanity. Andersson's film is a celebration of our this very vulnerability: when we seek love and find it, and when we want it with all our heart and believe in it completely, the time standing still and eternal, when we can cry and not be ashamed. For when we love truly, without a past or future, we have the taste of eternity in this life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


What Dagur Kári's heartwarming film Fúsi (with a very disappointing international title: Virgin Mountain) does best is to avoid the numerous clichés of modern films, and rather tell a story straight and sincerely, dictated by the intensity of Gunnar Jónsson's performance as the title character Fúsi. If Jónsson brings a rarely seen honesty to his performance, reminding me of Kher in Saaransh in that respect, then Kári has the soul to listen to that, change his film and come up with as true a film as Jónsson deserved.

Fúsi is not an easy film to make: it is deceptively simple but provokes a lot of memories and thought, and it makes you immerse in a world of a man whom many would not have taken to at first sight. It is also the story of the travails of growing up, here for a man: in a world hoarse of feminism, too often one forgets what a man goes through when he does not suit the macho or adventurous image that the society expects from someone of the male sex. At the same time, the seemingly baby Fúsi is much more a man than those around him: he lives and loves with truth, and society's pressure or usual reactions do not faze him from what he thinks is right. The beauty of this film is its restraint: in the hands of a Hollywood director, this film would at best have become a Forrest Gump and have lost its shining honesty and attention to detail; thankfully, Kári is a master of his craft and believes as fervently in his story and his own struggles of feeling having "grown up," as does Fúsi in the film. At the end of the film, you are left wondering how intertwined are our struggles in our works, and how we attempt to heal ourselves through our creations.

A magnificent film, its one single flaw is the choice of the main actress: the character of Sjöfn could have been played by an actress with slightly more screen presence in my opinon. However, the towering screen presence of Jónsson, something very much compulsory for the film, does not let you notice it all that much, and accompanied with good music and cinematography, the film lends itself easily to repeated watching.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Love (2015) (3-D)

Gaspar Noé's Love is a film that goes nowhere: except in a world that makes you want to throw up in disgust, nausea and amazement at the obsession with sex (and its conflation with "love", the title of the film) in the West, especially when it comes to directors of Latin American origins or influences. When a film doesn't make you think, doesn't touch you, is it a work of art? Watching Love is an uncomfortable experience: it doesn't even titillate you, as the sex is too much set up and devoid of realism. It makes you as uncomfortable as it does in a Tinto Brass film: and the similarities do not end there. Plot is as much non-existent, characters are as much bored, and acting is as much bad. Watching it in 3-D makes for an even worse experience: one feels trapped in a world where humans translate all beauty into the highs they get (or do not get) through their sexual activity. The modern world is a world where pervertedness and sickness are celebrated: we have had Brass himself, we have had films such as The Last Tango in Paris, we have had directors such as Polanski, and now we have films such as these. It is as if we have started celebrating the decadence of the human world, that we have consigned modern humanity and its future to doldrums of boredom and glitz.

I say glitz, also because Love is often tastefully shot: the green-dominated scene when Electra and Murphy sit in some kind of a cafe is very artistically shot, to take an example; there are many other amazing shots in the film, not necessarily of sex. The all-grey scene in the Père Lachaise cemetery, a fast tracking shot of the couple again, is also a marvel to watch. And yet art for art's sake does not make for art: without substance, style is wasted and even criminal. Without an aim, the film's main character, Murphy, may ramble on, in and out of women's vaginas; however, a film, with no aim to its making, is nothing but an exercise in pleasing one's own ego from the filmmaker's part, and Love as a film comes across as much a jerk as does Murphy.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Koan de printemps

Life is often about learning, and learning is often about journeys: the decision to set out on them, and the readiness to profit from the encounters on the way. Those encounters are not just with other sociable human beings: they are with the tree and the snow, the bandits and the birds, the sun and the silence. Koan de printemps (in English: Koan of Spring) is a beautiful film with its own poetry derived from Asian spirituality and the flowing motion of Sino-Viet martial arts: it tells us to look and appreciate, feel and absorb, know well and proceed. The more you do it, the more open your mind is, the more you can be generous, secure and ready: for a sword or for a flower, for every destiny that befalls you. For though you may not know what shall befall you, you will know yourself, through everything else outside you. And isn't that everything, to be able to fulfill yourself, profiting from every richness given externally to you but with the corresponding fibre in you so as to notice it and appreciate it?

Lovingly shot in Vietnam and France (though the film is set in Vietnam), with shots of beauty enhanced through special effects (not something amiss in this film), the film has by and large able actors and a lovely silence interspersed with wit and humour at times. The music of the film is also a treat, as are the martial arts on display.

For the Zen concept of koan, a quick read is here.

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.