Wednesday, November 15, 2017

An Insignificant Man

I had anticipated An Insignificant Man for a long time, being also a crowdfunder to the film with a very tiny contribution. The film, originally and better titled as "Proposition for a Revolution", has, however, disappointed me, notable for its focus on one man (Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, founder Arvind Kejriwal) rather than the film's stated aim of focusing on the evolution of a new political party.

The biggest letdown of the documentary film is its linear narrative, which ends with the unexpected good performance (for some) of the AAP in its very first legislative elections. Unexpected for the uninitiated, but the Indian knows the story, and the film thus ends up giving some thrilling political narrative with some grit around it, but is absent of substance, is absent of thought. It focuses too much on Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav, essentially doing the same what Kejriwal himself has been repeatedly accused of: personality cult. Electoral battles, however, are not won by mere charisma, especially when it's on a wide scale and for the first time, and when you face more charismatic leaders in the opposition (BJP's Modi): they are rather won through grassroots successes, which the film gives a mere glimpse of. The film could have focused on a few aam candidates, a few constituencies within Delhi: for it is the workings of politics that need to be shed light upon and that would provoke thought, not the tired old story (especially by now) of the outsider storming to power. The film, though it claims to be impartial, also does worship Kejriwal: it does not focus on opponents, except when it is a weak opponent in her weak moments, as Sheila Dikshit during her moments of arrogance. What of Modi or even the very weak Harsh Vardhan? To show victory, you have to show what got defeated (and, then, BJP stood first in those elections). The film's linear narrative, which though misses out on the Anna Hazare context except a visual in the beginning, only makes the film be like one of those Hollywood sports movies, at the end of which the underdog does win, against all odds. All political thought, except when preached by Yadav, serving as punctuations in the film, is absent. For that to happen, the film should have engaged with party volunteers as well as voters and opposition candidates, rather than revolving around Kejriwal. And with less Yadav preaching. The film is not supposed to be a Kejriwal biopic, one must remember.

Meanwhile, the film does simplify matters to those audiences who know nothing about Kejriwal, notably foreign audiences: hence, it is a film that can run well on the festival circuit. The sheer complexity of India, and its electoral exercise, is a mind-boggling one, which is captured in detail in the film, and that can impress or stun (or confuse) a Western viewer, some of whom are too often used to think of themselves as the only democracies. The film's subtitling in English, though, is terrible, at least for now: colourful or idiomatic Hindi is replaced with staid English phrases. The title of the film itself, which is the unique title of the film including in India, does it great disservice; it in fact gives impression of a reality that does not exist, something ironic for a documentary: aam aadmi does not mean "an insignificant man", but "a common man". In the film as well, Kejriwal's proclamation that he is but an aam aadmi is again subtitled as "insignificant man", so that is very clearly a conscious choice. Yes, the mango man does carry nuances of insignificance, but that is already packed in the English word "common". If Kejriwal had meant to call his party that of "insignificant" men, Hindi does not lack words: to translate "common" as "insignificant" elevates the thrill of the (now insignificant) outsider, the David, versus the established, the Goliath; it also heightens bitterness, and at the same time gives a distorted picture of Indian polity and society.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Le chemin

Jeanne Labrune's film Le chemin ("The Path") can lend itself to several interpretations, and I will talk of mine. The film has a simple or even almost non-existent plot but brimming with possibilities and is rich with tension: which in itself makes the film a worthwhile watch. But, as the title suggests, the film is about the paths, often against the bidding of society, we take, and how sometimes they take us where we could never have imagined; in such a manner, the film celebrates the beauty of our lives' unpredictability. Chance encounters can give a radically new direction to our life, as happens for Camille, trying to be a nun, when she meets Sambath, the pensive and charming French-speaking Cambodian, who is torn between a cultural upbringing in France and his inner identification with Asian attributes. The meetings with Sambath will come to be frequent, though always stolen and the desire behind them un-confessed to oneself: Labrune manages to sketch far better the resulting tension and desire hidden in Camille's mind than what David Lean could manage in A Passage to India. The film, however, also depicts, even if involuntarily, how the East and the West have grown, across millennia, to be incompatible: while Camille is governed always with passion, whether it be her desire to take religious vows or her renunciation of them, and hence concentrates her whole selfhood into a very narrow sphere of thought and activity, Sambath is governed with pragmatism and foresight, and hence does not give in to a strong pull of desire. For the West, giving in to passion is liberty, forgetting how cheaply, for the satisfaction of being able to act upon a whim, it in fact sells liberty; for the East, discipline is liberty, knowing that true freedom lies in governing one's own conditions, rather than the conditions dictating your life, and thus free not to be bound by some gnawing preoccupation. In some ways, the film is also an encounter between modern Christianity and the idea anchored in Buddhism: between here and now, and eternal. Camille will leave, having learnt a little but only of how things work, not herself; Sambath will be left behind, knowing his two pasts and an uncertain future, but knowing himself better. Thus indeed happened with the colonisers: they learnt and profited from their encounters, but could not re-examine or reform themselves; thus indeed happened with the colonised: they live in confusion, knowing two systems and now no longer of one, and yet innately adhering to the organic whole that existed before the invader came.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Umi yori mo mada fukaku

(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its June 2017 issue.)

Dignity for a man is often found, or rather sought, in his father: he hero-worships him, and he would rather be the son of someone he can look up to and whom society respects. When society does not, the man, right from his earliest years as a boy, is often forced to choose: either continue believing in his father and seeking endearing traits in him, and thus know that his father is indeed worthy of his love and respect, or bear the painful reality and feel an orphan even more, hating probably even himself. In either circumstance, the result is a humiliating loss of innocence, to which the subconscious hardly ever comes to terms. For in later life, the search for a worthy father often morphs into the search for one's own self—a search either for someone who, through being like the father, excuses the father, or for someone who, by seeking to be everything that the father was not, either in imagination or reality, tries to alienate the father and shrug off that tainted appendage. And yet, is that even possible?

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has grappled with this same question in many of his works, including in Kiseki (I Wish), Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son), and most notably Umi yori mo mada fukaku (int'l title: After the Storm). A society like Japan—in which the pursuit of excellence imbues even the mode of death and in which mediocrity can be looked down upon with withering scorn—gives Koreeda fertile ground for exploring a world where individuals are judged to be able or not able. As a result of this environment, innocence is lost early for a child and love often cedes place to confusion about should one love? When judgement enters the realm of instinct, you know innocence has been impaired and the child is no more.

After the Storm tells the story of three generations: with Hiroshi Abe, playing Ryôta, the connecting link. In Ryôta, Koreeda has created a loveable character: he is a son to a dead father and a living mother, and is a father to a son who is becoming more distant by the day and questioning whether Ryôta is worthy enough. Ryôta grapples with this same question about himself and also about his dead father. But even if Ryôta were able not to think about his self-doubts, society, including his own family, is there to remind him of his mediocrity as a writer whose career never took off and as a part-time detective who does nothing noble and does not even earn enough to pay his ex-wife the agreed amount for his son's upkeep.

However, despite his poverty, Ryôta is defiant—defiant enough not to sell out his writing for a genre he doesn't respect; defiant enough to keep buying dreams for himself and for his son. It is this aspect that makes Koreeda's film such a great watch and Ryôta a character that one connects with. Ryôta knows that when the storm has gone and the sunshine returned, there may be trees that have fallen down, but there will also be seeds that have been planted and that some of them will grow, having received both rain and sunshine. He knows that dreams are what sustain a human being, or at least a human being's goodness, and that once-planted, they are sometimes hard to dislodge, even under the scorn of society. Ryôta knows that seeds, and dreams, need to be planted with persistence and belief. For then, when the storm has finished, he will be able to recognise the belief that his father planted in him and will witness how he has managed to plant some in his own son.

Judgement had entered Ryôta's heart, seeping through society, but the storm has cleansed him, and as a result, his love for his father, his faith in himself and his hope for his son have all sprouted anew. It will matter less to him now if his ex-wife takes him back: because the storm has made him again innocent in a way, or rather now, he can choose to be innocent. Ryôta can finally be free.

Mukti Bhawan

(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its March 2017 issue. It is reproduced here in full, but footnotes have been stripped off.)

Many articles, documentaries and news reports have covered Varanasi as the chosen place to die for Hindus. Some of these have also chosen to focus on individual stories and the guesthouses where the dying come to wait for death in this city which may guarantee them liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Shubhashish Bhutiani's film Mukti Bhawan (international title: Hotel Salvation), the young Indian director's first feature-length film, adds a work of fiction to this growing field of inquiry. The film, however, doesn't add much to the subject of Varanasi and its guesthouses: in this respect, it merely enlarges upon Al Jazeera's 2011 made-for-TV documentary "Salvation House" (aired as part of Witness). Mukti Bhawan instead treats Varanasi, and the age-old struggle of man's preparation for death, as mere backdrops, focussing instead on the relationship between a father who has not entirely accepted his forthcoming death and hence needs Varanasi, and his son who navigates the inhibitions of filial piety and the restrictions of the milieu in which he was raised.

As the film progresses, the father becomes more amenable to the idea of death. Likewise, the son—who initially resents his father's easily bought liberation while he (the son) remains ensconced not only in the epic cycle of births and deaths, but also the grinding middle-class struggles of this life—also later finds peace. As the father attains liberation, the son is also brought to his own, coming to terms with his unspoken grudges, his repressed aspirations and his present. In this respect, on the back of a brilliant chemistry between the father-son duo of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, Mukti Bhawan is a lovely little movie, and adds another feather to the cap of the current crop of independent Indian cinema. However, it could have been more thought-provoking and touching if it had enlarged on the backdrop of Varanasi itself and sought to understand how one merges into many, and many into one, in the unique land that is India.

This thought reminds me of another TV show, specifically the first episode of the famous series Bharat Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India). This 53-part series—which was written and directed by Shyam Benegal and aired in 1988—is based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book of the same name and covers a 5000-year-period of Indian history and culture, finishing with independence in 1947. Toward the end of its first episode, there is a clever montage of close-ups of men, women and children, reflecting the stunning diversity of Indian faces and undermining the homogenisation of Indian history and opinion. These close-ups are interspersed with medium shots of small groups of people: women in a field, almost-naked boys jumping into a river for a joyful bath, scenes from a bazaar, boys playing marbles. The montage finishes with a shot of a huge crowd—one of diverse faces and occupations, ethnicities and religions, viewpoints and histories—but whose members are all moving on a busy square, as if one. (Such a scene is common on many of India's streets.) Bharat Ek Khoj beautifully illustrates how multiple histories have shaped, and continue to shape, India, by showing the country not as an abstract idea, but as a nation composed of every single Indian. Diversity, with abounding fertility, lies at the heart of India's uniqueness and has allowed it to remain a strong nation and a weak state, in spite of sporadic (and continuing) efforts to the contrary. The unity of India thus does not come from a common language, or common rituals, or a common history or political system; instead, it comes from partaking. It comes from shared, and acknowledged, histories; from shared, and swapped, philosophies; from having to communicate (all the more effectively) through the eyes, thanks to a lack of a common tongue. The scope for violence is automatically reduced because my word cannot be the word.

Returning to Mukti Bhawan—in focussing very narrowly on the father-son relationship, Bhutiani borrows heavily from Western idioms of filmmaking and forgets the organic whole from which these characters sprout: while the film is a good study of father-son relations, the context goes missing. A Hollywood film (at least one set in the West) which mostly placing its characters at the centre of the earth wouldn't go amiss for treating its subjects in this manner, as detachment and individualism reign in the West. However, India is not like this: it is the land of dharma ("righteous duty," as in a tiger's dharma is to hunt for prey) where a person lives with several dharmas, which are not always easy to reconcile. A man is not merely a son: he is also a father, a husband, a neighbour, an employee, a tourist, a stranger, a human, and all these roles come with different dharmas, which themselves also vary at different times. Bhutiani's film shows Adil Hussain's character, the son, to be in all these roles, yet fails to interconnect them, as Varanasi—or Kashi (the "City of Light," which is the ancient name for Varanasi and still preferred in the spiritual context)—is missing in his film. A clue lies in the film's very name: while in Hindi, Mukti Bhawan simply means "Liberation House," the international title is Salvation Hotel, which is a mistranslation on several counts. Hindus do not have the concept of salvation (and it is a gross simplification to translate "moksha," of which mukti is a variation, as "salvation"); liberation actually occurs a step prior to moksha in the cycle and a place which does not charge for accommodation can hardly be called a "hotel."

Dharma is the very opposite of the Western concept of law: there is no "thou shalt." The flexibility of this philosophy is what has enabled India to retain its diversity so far, when every other land in this world has failed in that respect. Though Mukti Bhawan is a promising debut for Bhutiani, his film also reflects the current trend towards the Westernisation of Indian cinema, which borrows Western mores and ways of narrating a story, and even Western optics themselves, thus distorting India more and more through borrowed glasses. The film is also a reflection of modern Indian society, which, through ignorance primarily, has started to lean towards law and away from dharma: a society that has started to take the same path, in other words, that China took several decades ago by crushing the Confucian and Daoist elements of its culture in favour of a ruthless consumerism that does not seek, or care for, harmony. It would be considered an irony by some that a film that takes a very spiritual Indian ritual as its core theme, one that even appears in the title, constrains the Indian experience by giving it the colour of one story: forgetting that there is no one story, at least not in India, only many welded stories.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Baahubali: The Beginning / Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

The best moment of this extravaganza is the very beginning of Baahubali: The Beginning, when a beautifully rendered Telugu song is heard, and Ramya Krishnan impressively wades into the river, drowning but saving a baby, the to-be Mahendra Baahubali. But then, things go rapidly down, and in The Conclusion, the film makes a mockery of people's intelligence. But, maybe not: after all, it is one of the most successful films of India by now in terms of gross revenue earned. And yet, cinematically, the two films do not deserve much writing about: their crassness can be summarised in a few phrases.

The much-vaunted special effects of the films, on which the films rely so heavily as to even forego basic sets for them, are extremely badly executed, especially in the second part: are Indians praising them just because they are so blinded to a regional/national product? In terms of acting performances, Ramya does well throughout, and the first part overall is not too bad, but the second part topples: Anushka's performance as a young Devasena is poorly performed, not helped in that her part is badly sketched as a mindless, arrogant girl. Baahubali's abilities to do things overleap the bounds of belief in the second part, and so does Prabhas's believability; from a gritty general, Sathyaraj as Kattappa is not able to pull off the comic, endearing capers of an Anupam Kher; and Rana Daggubati, as chief villain Bhallaladeva, is reduced to a smiling assassin's role, with no scope given to his acting prowess, though Rana is otherwise a good actor. Long songs in weird settings punctuate the film, or rather interrupt it; lengthy action scenes, some of which again lack believablity, again strip the film of any pretense to telling a story. The film's dialogues are unbelievably cheap for a film that is rooted in a mytho-historical context: the absence of any intelligent conversation in the film, and modern attitudes getting reflected in characters of both Devasena and Avanthika (the former due to the dialogues given to her, and the latter due to poor acting skills) make you wonder if the film just showcases might, and more might, coupled with charitableness, as the basis of rule, and forgets that subtlety is the art of ruling, of politics, not a strength of hundred elephants, nor condescension. Wit is absent: and that is an extremely hard thing to forget when dealing with a royal context. It is not that in India, wit was absent from the royal context: for that, see the Merchant-Ivory film In Custody (Urdu poetry and witticism developed primarily due to royal patronage and the context of being used by elites). Or, for how subtlety and the art of cunning are paramount in the world of politics, see the 1966 classic A Man for All Seasons. But, then, intelligent fare does not earn buckets of money: not just in India, but worldwide (otherwise, Hollywood supermen/women and most of disaster movies would not be running their franchise businesses). Yet, but why should Indian ambassadors and critics sing paeans for a film that can only advertise Indian cinema badly: and that, when India should be proud of its long-existing cinema, its originality, its beautiful escapist fare and yet a realism in it, its excellence in narrating a tale, and its strength in drawing artists and spectators alike in a land where money is not aplenty. Instead, today, India is more and more switching allegiance to the Hollywood mores of telling story: the Baahubali franchise is a sad attestation to how India is changing. If special effects-laden films required lesser money to make or if India had been richer, one suspects that such films would become standard course. This reflects very aptly today's India, an India that is composed of people who confusedly take their self as same as the label Indian, who go for flash-bling-bling of a nouveau riche, maybe even a nouveau (faux-)libre. But about that, I will write separately.

Note: I have watched the films in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. Telugu, however, is the original language version of the film.