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.