Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Paradine Case (1947)

The Paradine Case is quite a less known film within the celebrated director Hitchcock's work, which is strange, for it comes close in excellence to the 1958 film Vertigo, which I regard as his finest film. The two films have much in common, too: a mysterious woman (not just a crude femme fatale), a clever, upright man abandoning his reason in his obsession with that woman, a smart, slightly cynical but romantic, not very feminine girl or woman (a foil to the mysterious woman, to so speak) who acts as a friend to the man but probably has an unrequited love too at her heart. Now these features are often found in some other Hitchcock films, too, not just these two: it's amazing how many little-differing variations of them Hitchcock has tried them out in different circumstances. In the case of The Paradine Case, a film set in Britain, Hitchcock also throws in a third woman: feminine but with no mystery, devoted and loyal, loving, mother like. She plays the man's wife in this case.

So the man is Anthony Keane (played by American actor Gregory Peck), the mysterious woman is Paradine (played by European import Valli), the not very feminine, smart woman is Judy (played by Joan Tetzel) and the loyal and loving woman is Gay (played by Ann Todd). The film on the face of it is a very simple, tragic story of unfulfilled passion and its tragic consequences; it also serves as a social commentary, though not much emphasis has been put on that aspect, and rightly so. But the film also serves as a brilliant exposition on the difference between love and obsession. Keane, engaged to defend Paradine who has been charged with murdering her husband, is a highly celebrated barrister: and yet, he neglects even the most fundamental tenets of his profession, when he is repeatedly browbeaten by Paradine because of his obsession for her to not even get to know the full details of what really happened. Usually, one would assume the lawyer even knows whether the client did it or didn't, but Keane, it seems, doesn't even want to know the truth, rebuffing any attempts indignantly to enlighten him. He believes in Paradine, but tremulously so: he doesn't want his belief to shatter, so shuts his ears off to any possible warnings. This is quite different from, let's bring in a very different climate and character, the Jatil Yadav character played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raat Akeli Hai: Yadav keeps on going and does not hesitate to accuse Radha of indeed being the murderess but still doesn't abandon her. For Yadav may also be a little obsessed by Radha, but he is also in love with her, whereas Keane is obsessed by the elusiveness of Paradine, rather than in love with the woman. He doesn't want to know the past so well, for it could break the idol he has made of her in his world of imagination.

Another highly significant meaning of love is brought to the film by Keane's loving and loyal wife Gay herself: one of the exchanges between the couple is one of the finest exchanges one would have seen between a couple on screen, at least certainly in a British or American film. Gay, unlike her husband, does not want to escape from reality or shut herself to it: she wants to take it on, for love cannot stand upon illusions and faked reality. She has the intelligence and courage to know and feel it. And it is Gay's character which indeed elevates the film above scores of films playing on the same theme: after all, there have been a lot of films with this very same story but focusing just on the man and his object of obsession, with either no wife or a silently suffering wife. Gay is neither non-existent nor a silently suffering, weeping one. To complete this portmanteau of men-women relationships, there is also the quite-underdeveloped (and understandably so) relationship of the womaniser, lecherous judge Horfield (played superbly by Charles Laughton) and Lady Horfield (also played brilliantly by Ethel Barrymore, though her role is very brief). And this another variety of a relationship doesn't detract or subtract from the film's main story: it adds to it and doesn't seem an add-on, unlike, to take another example of a recent Indian film, the clumsy attempts of Thappad. And then there is Judy: energetic, highly intelligent, not very feminine in habits or appearance and probably therefore often seen as a pal rather than a desirable woman by men. In Vertigo, there's Midge, more apparently in love with Scottie; in here, Judy doesn't have that possibility as Keane is already married happily, but she does allow herself the imagination to think so, if only to teach a lesson to the likes of Keane.

And finally, besides the brilliant character parts of the film, what really makes the film a great little gem is its marvellous editing and cinematography. In a nutshell, brilliant direction from Hitchcock. What a way to show Latour (played by Louis Jourdan) the first time! Or can it even be called showing? Neither a jealous Keane, nor the smug trap driver and nor the curious viewer will ever be sure of who this man is. The lecherous gaze of Judge Horfield on Gay's nakedness: the camera also looks covetedly. The respective first entries of Paradine and Latour the first time in the court room: the world burning its judging looks onto Paradine, while Paradine, even without daring to turn her face, burning to look at Latour with every fibre of her consciousness. And the portrait of Paradine following Keane, unable to leave him at rest: the man's obsession evident. All this executed by a cinematographer who did what he was asked to, the director who had the vision to think of this and the editor who cut out the unneeded where needed.

A fine film that deserves to be known more and better.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Chaman Bahaar

It is only now, when much of Hindustani cinema is losing its originality, that films from the Hindustani heartland have, ironically, started to emerge much more regularly: while many, especially from the Netflix stable, show an exaggerated world of lust-crime-passion, as if Zola were resurrected into Indian films (or as if the B-grade films of the old days have gotten themselves the Netflix gloss and unabashed viewer permissiveness), there are rare gems such as Chaman Bahaar, which are trimmed to the authenticity of India and its people and are important chapters not only in Indian cinematic history but also in a record of Indian people's lived lives in the centuries to come.

The film's title, quite appropriately given that the film revolves around an incipient paan shop owner, is the name of many paan shops in India, with "chaman bahaar" literally meaning something like "a blooming garden" or "a blooming flower-bed" or "a garden in spring." The film, however, is not about paan: one would need to watch many of Saeed Jaffrey's films to appreciate paan. It depicts the mentalscape of many a Indian youth: not well educated but having enough brains, aimless, wanting to be a big shot, idling alone and in company (often around a paan and cigarette shop), and finally getting infatuated with a girl: a girl who is a package of many of the things they are missing in their life, namely "modernity," English, confidence, education, pampered upbringing, money, acknowledgement of feminine-ness, and a role for feminity. Some of the boys end up in a state of overbearing and noxious masculinity (called nowadays as "toxic masculinity," which this film does not celebrate, contrary to some myopic critics' judgements), and many, like Billu (the protagonist of the film), end up in a state of feeling sorely and helplessly their lack of masculinity. The film sticks to Billu and his world: the film is his universe, his emotions, confusions, frustrations, feelings, understandings and lack of understanding. The film is his eyes, his senses, his voice, and the director never compromises on that: staying true and courageous to his story, he remains loyal to his character and that character's universe. Billu never talks with the object of his infatuation, and hence the object of infatuation is even more objectified, with the girl Rinku having no dialogue in the film, simply flitting around and exciting boys' desires. There is nothing demeaning to women in this, as some critics have fallen headlong into such surmises: rather, this is the aesthetic demand of the film, because Billu is in his world, trapped in his frustrations, and although he watches Rinku every day, watches her with a rising crescendo of passions in his heart, yet he never sees her for who she is, as will be realised by Billu himself later in a painful episode of life that may serve him well.

The film paints an extraordinarily authentic picture of India, though reality can be much more scary when politicians' sons start chasing a girl than what is shown in the film, meant to be light-hearted and meant to keep focus on Billu, not the other boys and bees. I know many Billus, and I think many in India would know many of them and would themselves have been a Billu at some stage of their life. To be a Billu is a man's fate in India, especially in small-town India, for a boy and a girl can hardly even walk together hand in hand in India: inevitably, frustrations for some mount, especially (but not uniquely) when presented with a birth that was not in a power-wielding household. The Marathi film Sairat, which deals with requited love unlike here, comes to mind: Sairat is a good (and very different) film and story, but it could have developed its male protagonist's character a bit better at the beginning of the film, giving him Billu-like shades.

A final word about the film's other aspects. Dialogues are brilliant, with humour underlining the film throughout, and lines such as "puus ke jaaRaa men aam phal jaaen" in one of the songs are extraordinarily poetic if Hindi is a language you understand well or you are born in: the very selection of the word for winter here, "jaaRaa," elevates the song to sublime poetry, staying true at the same time to the film's small-town register. Acting performances are all adequate, with Jitendra Kumar as Billu doing the necessary, the two actors who play the characters of Billu's friends Somu and Chhotu putting in the best performances of the film, and Ritika Badiani as Rinku looking the teenage girl whom all the boys find hot. The film is based in Chhattisgarh, a welcome rarity, but the film could have been based anywhere in the Indian subcontinent: this story is to be found everywhere and yet so less and so lackingly told! The film is not celebrating the Billudom of India's youth: the film is showing a Billu's story, with compassion and understanding. The film is rather lamenting the Billudom of India's youth. This is a powerful debut by the director Apurva Dhar Badgaiyann, who is not only directing the film but also donning other roles (such as writing the story and co-writing the song lyrics). I hope he does not chase big banners and starts making inane films, as sometimes happens to young promises.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Thappad (2020, dir. Sinha)

Thappad (in English: "A Slap"), unfortunately, is too much trapped in the Western feminist world to be able to understand woman, in particular the Indian woman. The film would have been a great film if it had devoted itself to one story, to the story of Amrita (or Amu): instead, it tries to take up the cudgels for women of all backgrounds, to show the universality in their lives of being the powerless and exploited or ignored, and then also tries to show what the solution, the fix, is in each case. When you universalise, and then you miss the typical Indian woman and her life, and her dilemma, that's a significant crime.

Let's forget about the film for a bit and let's think of a woman, especially a woman of India. Imagine being married to Barnaby Rudge. That Barnaby Rudge is not necessarily deranged, as in Dickens' novel. But he is everything else that he is in Dickens. This Barnaby is selfish, knows how to use others' love, is cruel, and, at the same time, foolish, helpless, like a child, unable to understand the wily ways of the world, error prone. In Dickens, Barnaby is son to a mother, whom he distresses enough, but let's imagine a different life for our non-deranged Barnaby. Imagine the typical Indian woman married to this Barnaby, now let's say she begot children too with him, let's say she has invested a life in living with him and trying to build something. But Barnaby is selfish, is cruel, maybe even jealous of her intelligence and luminosity. Barnaby tortures her: if by nothing else, then by snide remarks, insidious suggestions, outrageous accusations, violent outbursts. The woman has been trying through it all to better their life as well as to "reform" Barnaby, to make him see that maybe they could have a good life together, if only he were to appreciate his life, his wife, his children. The woman, all the time, is working hard through her intelligence and goodness to make her own and everyone's life better. She is wise with everything: money, lifestyle, rearing up of children, respect for the family in public eye. But Barnaby continues being Barnaby, with spells where he is much less mean to his wife and children, alternating with spells where he is as if a monster has possessed him. What does the woman do? She is bold, she doesn't care for what society will say, she even has those who will back her decision, let's say her brothers, she is even educated so she can be on her own feet, she can leave him. But how does she leave Barnaby to his own devices, when she knows that Barnaby will get into bad company, bad habits easily, will be ruined, diseased, poor, dead if she were to leave him? She can, of course, but she doesn't want to: she feels herself responsible to the fate that brought them together. What does she do? Continuing to live with him is not so pleasant; but leaving is also out of the question for her. She can only fight, unpleasant though it is, every day for every inch of space, but there's not much space she is ever going to get unless Barnaby gets a miraculous cure from somewhere. Does Anubhav Sushila Sinha, the director of the film, have a quick-fix solution to this, among all the solutions he presented at the end of his film? If you have not understood, if you have not thought of the story of the woman married to Barnaby, then you have failed to understand a human being, in fact, forget even whether it's woman or man.

And, indeed, what about the men? Amrita's story by itself is a story that was waiting to be told: the story itself is not shot with great subtlety, but at least it's a necessary story to be told. Yet, by universalising it through showing various women characters in that plight makes the film preachy and a propaganda. Where are the men of this society? I know men who were not given good education because the poor family preferred their sisters to receive it, even though the boys were more interested in education; I know men who have often sacrificed their lives for the sake of their sisters' or daughters', and sometimes their wives', ambitions; I know well-to-do families where the boys have been asked not to marry so that they can continue be the beasts of burden for their families; I know families where girls' littlest of achievements are celebrated but boys' greatest ones are given a perfunctory nod. All these stories are there in Uttar Pradesh itself, the land of the film and its director: a land where severe discrimination exists against men, too, in many families. If these stories sound difficult to stomach for some of you, trained as you might be to focus on discrimination against one set of people only, then surely you must be knowing thousands of men who have been forcibly thrust into the masculine role of the provider of everything, the one who is supposed to step out of the home, to work and make their way up, to provide riches and muscular protection to their family. Society does not like men to stay at home or those who wander around without earning money or power. It doesn't even like men to work from home: it wants men to step out and do some "action"if nothing else exists, visit a brothel (but don't just tell it). Staying at home is "soft." I have seen thousands of listless young men, especially in India, burdened by the society's wants. Go to any busy bus depot of India: you will meet these young men I am talking about. Where are they in the film? When you universalise and yet leave at least half of the world from it, that's not universalising: that's a fake universe you are creating. If the director had dedicated himself to the story of Amrita, then there would have been no qualms: but by making a portmanteau, he has exposed himself to questions regarding his choices of what to put in the portmanteau. A portmanteau usually ends up being a vehicle of propaganda. The title of the film, "Thappad" ("A Slap"), rather than "Ek Thappad" ("The Slap"), also reveals how the film is more about the portmanteau rather than Amrita's story.

As for the story of Amrita itself, it could have been better told through use of more and better subtlety and casting the husband Vikram's character differently. Rather than show an impatient, hot-tempered Vikram, show a man who does not have these flaws in such a great extent: then show the subtle undermining of his wife. That makes the story richer and closer to home for the audience. There are men who do most of their own work (and know how to do it) rather than asking their wife or mother to do that for them, who are more mature, more patient: but they too have the power balance on their side and use it to keep others around them under their thumb. Show them. Symbolism-laden shots such as the one where Amrita sees herself in the image of a mere servant, when Vikram asks for medicine from his maidservant, make the film only preachy and rob it of any subtlety. Such symbolism at best only ticks the director's ego in having managed it. What I demand would require more subtlety (than films like this or the short film Juice), but that is the story to tell rather.

Taapsee Pannu herself acts well and her dialogues with Tanvi Azmi towards the end of the film are well written and important. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is poor and preachy when it could have been so much better.

I will end with what exists. There are at least a couple of excellent Indian films that show both the worlds of men and women, the pressures on each of them in our society. One is Ray's Mahanagar (int'l title: The Big City), and the other is Rajkumar Santoshi's much-underrated Damini, which is explicitly about the miscarriage of justice but in reality a much deeper film in spite of its melodrama. It's time for Sinha maybe to watch them and learn a thing or two.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

To meteoro vima tou pelargou

Theo Angelopoulos' The Suspended Step of the Stork is heavy in symbolism and could probably have been an even better film than it is by eschewing some of it: yet, the film is moving poetry already, treating one to an aching examination of longing. In this story, the longing is often created by borders, by society's conventions that have made humankind a stork with a suspended step, not a man with both feet on the ground. Even the scenes replete with symbolism are full of a pathos, created by how the camera remains still, frames the scene tightly, while fog and cloudiness, a kind of radioactive cloud hovering over mankind, permeates the atmosphere. The only time when there is some brightness is at the spectacular and symbolic end of the film: Angelopoulos expresses a persistent optimism in a world which had seemed hopeless till now. Maybe, it is the insistence of the border-crossers which eventually gives rise to that hope, or maybe it is an acknowledgement that man can reinvent his past and hence also his present, his future. The boy has not heard the rest of the story of the kite, for he is yet to play out, live out the story: it is he who must take it forward. Stones are whetted in the heart, when life's passion is unable to be frittered into a dozen innocent happinesses of safety and assurance; the girl prefers waiting, loving, hoping, and race. For border accentutates identity: she knows herself all the better for the border. So much so that, in the most marvellous wooing scene I have ever seen on film, she makes the journalist fall in love, and fall from cynicism into a despairing hope, with only a never-flinching gaze. A steadfast gaze of knowledge and determination, unheeding the time as it tears by, a gaze that could make the kite soar into the sky, helping all humanity.

A special word for Dora Hrisikou as the girl on her film debut: without her, the film could not have made it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Da xiang xi di er zuo

A masterpiece of the highest order, the film is in the canon of cinema what Raskolnikov is in the canon of literature. A film that can be made only as a one-off: either the genius fades or dies or abandons the ambition. Like Gogol. Like Bo Hu, who committed suicide soon after making the film. And the world he paints in his film, very much like Plemya, is a desolate one, where everything is shit. The difference with Plemya being that the film also says, maybe desperately, that one has to look for something else, that there must be something else.

Da xiang xi di er zuo (int'l title: An Elephant Sitting Still) is about an elephant one never sees. Very few will bet on him, very few will leave their mundane chores to go to a godforsaken place to go and meet him. It is not that the others are happy, it is not that the others are doing something meaningful. It is just that everyone's tired, and they fail to see the charm, the humour, the silver lining that the elephant presents. They fail to see that the world may yet present some degree of hope if the elephant is sitting still all by himself. They fail to smile, they fail to laugh. They will never even listen to him bellowing, for they have given up on him without even having known him or about him. For them, there is no something else. There is this and this and then that, and then this and this and then that that. Life for them is a cycle, but not a cycle which liberates you, making you take everything as a drama and letting you indulge in the colossal joke of a still, alive elephant: no, a cycle, which begins with this and ends with that, the two ends of routine that they know too well, never straying once out of it. They are too messed up to stray. They are in fact like the domesticated elephants, who do remain quite still, chained early in their childhoods, so they do sit still, and yet that's not charming, for they were chained, they are not wild elephants sitting still. Is the one in Manzhouli, the one who's sitting still, a wild one or a domesticated one? Is Wang Jin right, saying that there's nothing else, or is Wei Bu right, hoping against all experience that there is, that a wild one does exist in Manzhouli? Will we ever know? From our own experience, we will if we go and search one, but only incommunicably. But if we don't find one, then what?

One will probably never know why Bo Hu committed suicide, but do not be misled into thinking of the film as a despairing realistic piece because of that. The film's beauty lies in Wei Bu's insistence and Wang Jin's implicit flickeringly alive innocence, when he does accept Wei Bu's offer to go and meet the elephant. If ever there was a film singing the most articulate song about the human condition, here is one, and I doubt if ever there will be another. It helps matters even more when one witnesses supremely virtuous cinematography: a cinematography which though so talented yet slips into consciousness, making one steep into the film's gloom. Very different from the much celebrated cinematography of a recent Polish hit Zimna wojna (Cold War), where the camera is excellent, yet is guilty of celebrating itself rather than slipping in the shadow of the film's substance. But, then, that is the difference: An Elephant Sitting Still is all substance, little style, whereas Cold War is mostly style, little substance. And it is probably this lingering bitterness that led Bo Hu to make this film: this world, where excellence is cast out and where it's demanded that films be shortened to the usual length of 2 hours or less. Bo Hu did not, and has made an immortal name for himself in the history of cinema for centuries.

A final word about the excellent performances in the film, most particularly by Yu Zhang playing Yu Cheng. It is difficult to play a restrained violent person, or rather a person whose profession is violence but who is otherwise not violent. A bit like a wild elephant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

27 Down (1974) / Gişe Memuru (2010)

The childhood is short—and golden. Thereafter, life is a spiral going downwards, punctuated by love affairs that beckon the man to shake off cowardliness and paternal domination, to shake off one's own lethargy, but finally unable to be consummated. Everything—and everyone—dominates, and the man who is judged to not have grown up is smothered. Each step is violence, and the artist, the dreamer prefers to rather betake himself in the world enclosed by constant motion: that of a swaying berth in constantly shunting trains, that of a still toll booth among a swirl of traffic of license-bearing grown-ups.

While the beautifully shot, black-and-white 27 Down is a finer and heavier film dealing with the story of many if not most men, of their dealing with their fathers and this patriarchal world, Gişe Memuru (int'l title: Toll Booth) is a slightly lighter affair, with occasional brilliant bursts of humour, though winding up with same tragic consequences. The stories are the same, it is the setting that differs. One is set in a rainy Bombay, among the grime of trains and their busybodiness; the other is set in perspiringly sunlit Turkey—a bit too much sunlit when the sunflowers decide to accompany the sun—among content automobile drivers and their uncouth inquisitiveness. Behind both looms the figure of the Father, demanding more than his pound of the flesh from the obedient good-for-nothing son, whom they need to "settle" in life. The chain of familial relationship lies heavy on the sons, the protagonists: when they, in spite of their flinching selves, even catch hold of a corner of the floating cloud for themselves, the Father's death will still intervene, the expiring, ascending soul making a last-ditch successful effort to forever shatter the flimsy confidence of the young men. And the world goes on: almost brutal, not mere insensitive, to the crushed spirits. For those who may make merry, the world is ready to join in; for those who may not, each one lives with enough demons of their own to want more of the others'.

It is easy to succumb, for there is an object: satisfaction of your ego. It is difficult to fight, for the object seems absent: the world seems a ludicrous affair.

Monday, June 18, 2018


There are films, and very few of them, that take you through an expanse of not only space but time and history, of people's unchanging desires, frustrations, hopes and disillusionments across changing eras, where hair styles change, the choice of music changes, the furniture changes, roads are dug up and relaid and re-dug up, and older businesses go obsolete while newer replace them. Through this never-ending cycle, people evolve but also remain the same at their core, and so does a society, so does a nation. Jia Zhangke's film Zhantai (in'tl title: Platform) matches in scope and surpasses in subtlety Zhang Yimou's To Live when it comes to a study of modern China's history. At the same time, it is a study of youth, a study that persists into their middle-aged years, unlike Hsiao-hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei. And hence, it is a more remarkable film, difficult to make, indicating Zhangke's complete mastery over his subject matter: China and the Chinese. By extension, people.

The beauty of Zhangke's film is in its details, in its precise portrayal of life in northern China. An exquisite camerawork and brilliant, placid camera angles enhance the effect to leave lasting impressions on the viewer, especially on someone who has known China. A still position for the camera, as action happens in its purview, brings a detached style to the film, and yet long shots intersperse to give it the effect of a canvas, not mere documentary. Without it being explicit, to an observant viewer, it is evident that material comforts increase as the linear narrative goes forward, and yet people seem trapped in their suppressed hopes, worn-out habits, and nothing and nowhere to look forward to. For those who have chosen to be on the move in the wide open world, they have had to sacrifice their homes; and for those who have chosen to remain, hopes are pinned on others. Disappointment and adjustment to complacent contentment are often the lot of both. While circumstances shape people's lives, Zhangke achieves the difficult feat of not focussing blame on some ideology or some historical incident in particular: such a story could have happened in any land, regardless of its political system and ideology, whenever youth drift and don't have always much to look forward to.

A special word for actor Jing Dong Liang, who plays the role of dandy-ish Chang Jun exceptionally well.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a film that resonated in the United States as corporate cultures battled with the personal sense of individual freedom, before a growing tech, and resulting start-up, culture has made the film seemingly less relevant today. It would be a mistake though to write off that relevance: while man seems to grow towards freedom, at the same time technology can also give a greater degree of control over individual lives and tastes to corporations and states. It is hence an appropriate time to revisit the film: and not just for what all the long-winded film tackles, but also because it is a fine, fine film, with sterling performances by all of its cast, including Jennifer Jones, who otherwise did not get many roles suited to her personality in her career. While Lee J. Cobb is more remembered for 12 Angry Men, he is even more admirable in this film, though his role is a small one here (but an important one).

The film, broadly speaking, is about suited men: executives. Fredric March plays Ralph Hopkins, the very image of a go-getter big businessman. But March plays a finely nuanced character: he is not all good or all bad, not white or black, and he sometimes has self-pity, not something that one expects in go-getter type of characters when presented on screen. Gregory Peck plays Tom, a man with a conscience and some weight on it as well, a man who was, and is still, honest, but whose character has faced the challenge of being warped by humanity's madness: war, and profit-driven dehumanisation of society. Women, on the other hand, represent non-suited roles: they are not in suits, but they are there to help, love or inspire men. This is typical of Hollywood films in general, even more particularly of the mid-twentieth century, but then it was also the life that was prevalent in the United States in the middle decades of the last century. The film reflects what it sees: and the women's being in non-suited roles brings in its own complications of dependence and insecurity. The supposedly public thus intersects with the personal, and not only adults but also innocent children are ensnared and enmeshed within.

The film is made with great attention and lovingness, one could say: it crosses the usual length of the American films of that era, and it does not shirk from delving deep into the past and into side-stories, just so that a more complete psychological portrait of its characters can emerge. As I said earlier, the cast is very well chosen and does a great job: even Ann Harding, playing Mrs. Hopkins, a very minor role, is impressive, as is Joseph Sweeney, playing an aggressive old man, also probably afflicted by greed. Sweeney's character hints at the larger corruption at hand: greed drives not just big corporations, but even old and poor men of the age. Peck himself, in the lead role, does not disappoint: he plays his stolid Atticus figure, something that seems to come to him naturally. Jennifer Jones, playing not a completely angelic wife, which used to be a staple of Hollywood, is the wise choice for such a role, and the ending scenes of the film are when she shines at her brightest.

A lovely film, its relevance may again grow as the world moves into technology-enabled control and pretense of freedom.

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.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Stella (2008)

Sylvie Verheyde's film Stella is a remarkable achievement: with hardly a plot, rather a psychological portrait, intimately drawn, of a young girl, the film is at the same time a much deeper glimpse into French society than many films are successful at: though, in general, French films do a better job at drawing everyday life than films of many other countries (Iran excepted, which also does a great job).

Stella is a courageous girl at times, at times not: like any human being. She admires beauty and aspires for it; she hates herself at times, for she finds herself ordinary, coming from ordinary surroundings. But she loves the things she learns in these ordinary surroundings; she loves rough, sexy men frequenting the bar her parents run, learning poker, the carefree atmosphere. But it is this she loves, and the elitist society she belongs to doesn't want this from her: rather than any kind of practical knowledge or recognising that there exist many kinds of knowledge, this society talks to her of literature and history and spellings. Stella's life begins to offer a glimpse into the schizophrenia that afflicts French society: her home is different from the civilised school. Her only Paris friend, Gladys, a kind soul, is also an outsider: not charming enough for boys, with a name that makes others laugh. But even Gladys' home is more traditional, with leftist-leaning discussions dominating smoky tables, and Gladys gets good grades; not that Gladys cares, but Stella does, who only gets teachers' rude reprimands forever. But Stella changes; life at home changes, as her mother and father draw away from each other, her countryside friend is more interested in boys now than spending time with her, a known customer lures her to abuse her (and maybe succeeds?), and Stella is asked for a dance by a most handsome boy ... for whom Stella even starts getting good grades, for she doesn't want to be left behind in the old class now. But life does not change all: Gladys continues to be her dear friend ... life does not change all, but it changes dramatically for Stella. And thus, she will learn life in the schizophrenic world of France, where appearances and reality can mean two different, often diametrically opposite, things.

A beautiful critique of modern French society in many ways, especially of its elitism and the way children are treated in French schools, Stella offers a glimpse into a girl's, or any human's, mind. Stella is a perfectionist in her love for perfection: hence, she will even attack someone when not coming to scratch. But the world she lives in is far from perfect and will often disappoint her. She needs her dreams to cling on to, for those dreams, and Gladys' love, are what let her preserve her sanity; the rest is cleaved between outside and inside, between now and then.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memorias del subdesarrollo

The Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Memorias del subdesarrollo (English title: Memories of Underdevelopment) is the most stunning, astonishing, and deep exposure of colonialism that I have ever seen or read or witnessed in any form in my life, and I doubt if it can be surpassed: the extraordinary work, much filmed stream-of-consciousness-like in the manner of Resnais's admirable La guerre est finie, a film only two years older, can be watched and rewatched dozens of times by me, for every frame is a revelation, every subtle reference is power-packed, meaning-punched.

The film is decorated with several references: of course, Cuba's political situation in those heady days when Castro took over, Kennedy's failed missile deployment, the women's emancipation as understood and advocated by the leftists. But that is merely, though not unsubstantial, flesh: at the dark heart of the film is one theme, or if you may, two—the intellectual's cowardliness, and the coloniser's (here the Spaniard's) civilising mission. For me, both are one, intertwined closely: for you, they may be two themes. And amid all this, the film is highly charged erotically: I could watch this film multiple times even just for its erotic impulse, preferring it to the best porn. The eroticism is not misplaced: for an intellectual is nothing but someone who delights in and is unable to get out of the habit of excessive intellectual masturbation without going ever to the length of actual intellectual sex—unless it be done for peeps.

Sergio Corrieri is the intellectual, admirably played by Sergio Carmona Mendoyo. He knows his disease: he is after all not a fake intellectual, but a proper one. And he cultivates himself in the usual, "European" (as mentioned by Sergio himself) manner: he goes to musuems and galleries and interminable conferences, sees artefacts of that another intellectual, Hemingway, and lives a smug life in high expectations of himself, dashed occasionally when he realises that he comes up too short. But the hallmark of an intellectual are not these habits: they may get developed in many of all ilk. The hallmark is the inability to take anything else seriously except one's own self, the hallmark is this cowardliness to embrace life in its diversity: it is this that leads to a constant self-abuse, and that leads to see others as "underdeveloped." It is here that the civilising mission of the West ties in: for there was the imperialism of Japan and Russia and of the tsars and sultans, and there was the missionary-spirited colonialism of countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and the UK. Both were quite different.

Sergio makes a remarkably acute observation about Cubans, though he draws the conclusion of underdevelopedness: the spirit of adaptability, the tendency of adjustability in Cubans. He bemoans this lack of consistency, this lack of firm vision. It is here that he also gives a fine glimpse into colonialism's dark secret, often misunderstood. Many people dismiss the coloniser's civilised pretence as just an excuse to dominate someone else, a stance take: but it's not often the case. The civiliser indeed belabours under this fancy. Many people do carry the feeling that they are "more developed", that the other needs to be taught and educated: the one with a steely determination, a far-reaching vision is unable to digest that another can be happy in all circumstances. The steely visionary then dismisses the seemingly pliant one as a beast, an animal, not developed to his human faculties: just as gentleness is often misunderstood as submission in this world, so does the ability to remain happy, even when it comes from the special ability to not to take oneself very seriously, is often mistaken as vacuity. The coloniser, like Sergio, in fact suffers: lacking flexibility, he dominates peoples and women to his liking, trying to make the world cohere to him, instead of just enjoying the variety. The really amazing thing is that such a message is hard to carry in a film, in any kind of entertaining format: but Gutiérrez does it with aplomb, sowing questions and insights with fine fecundity in the viewer's mind.

Like many really good films, it starts slightly ramblingly, a bit slowly, a bit reluctantly. But ten to fifteen minutes into it, and you are sucked into it. An irony would be that such a film would most probably be also watched by many intellectuals, but probably, hopefully, it hits home for some of them and leads them to question their way of life. Life is not PhDs and conferences and acclaim; it's passion, not for oneself, but for life's beauty, which comes in all tastes, bitter and sweet included.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

La tortue rouge

I do not know much about Michael Dudok de Wit's interests and leanings, but every film of his that I have seen bears that strong stamp of timelessness and of cyclicality: and I shouldn't be saying "and" here, since what impression does cyclicality give if not timelessness, as if all times recur, are same, time has frozen? This is again the case with de Wit's first feature-length film, La Tortue Rouge ("The Red Turtle", though I would be more tempted to translate it as "The Red Tortoise" given de Wit's strong leaning towards Hindu-Buddhist themes of spirituality).

If you have seen de Wit's remarkable Father and Daughter and The Monk and the Fish, you know what to expect from the man: stunningly beautiful, fluid strokes of animation; a stillness like David Lean had with live action films; attention to seasons and little things going around us (which is an essential feature of good animation, to make us suspend disbelief); and exceedingly well-chosen, lovely music. Father and Daughter was remarkable in every way, but especially so for the extraordinarily realistic animation and immensely touching story; The Monk and the Fish was so for a hard-to-believe, wizard-like synchronisation between action and beautiful music; while La Tortue Rouge is for its spiritual message carried forth through a longer vehicle than the former two short films. All three films, however, carry a, and the same, spiritual message, though modulated on different harps.

Not all reviews of La Tortue Rouge have been kind: in the Age of Reason (or Cynicism), people want "I see, I get" stories unless they are told in advance that they are watching a gadget-ful, sci-fi movie, when most absurd things and characters will make sense for them since they know they had chosen the realm of absurd. But de Wit gives no such warning and treats what seems absurd to the reasonable with what seems real: this mixture is not just some experimental kitsch, designed to provoke or to thrill, as happens in many of those so-called sci-fi films. It is laced with deep meaning, for those who have the patience to feel life's, and the year's, seasons. All de Wit films remind me of two things: Test cricket and gardening. Things you can only enjoy with patience. De Wit should make Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees".

Now to the film itself, not its reception. In some ways, maybe, the film is less ambiguous than The Monk and the Fish, because even if the hidden spiritual message is unable to be comprehended by all, there is the romance: a beautiful, heart-touching story of a man and a woman who are ready to sacrifice their all - their home, their skin - for each other. But the film also acts very much on a spiritual and even theological plane, as a life spirit continues through repeated deluge and destruction. That life spirit, across cycles of universe, is not just the red turtle bearing the universe on its back: it is also the essence of birds chattering, crabs running around, moon looking. This is where de Wit, incredibly, marvels: how on earth does he manage this timelessness in a film, that too an animated film? Needless to say, never has such a talented filmmaker been born, perhaps. I haven't see any, at least, so far. Animation is already very hard work, but to touch the core of an essence that most can dimly feel at some moments of their lives is not just hard work, not just talent, but insight and genius.

Being a feature-length film co-produced and made across continents, the film has a few blemishes though: the opening scenes has the man floating a bit, that is, his walk, his jump do not have the required weight. That is a bit surprising, as de Wit's films are spot on in terms of animation: but given that this is a big production, and his first of such a kind, that is understandable and anyway not that important in the bigger scheme of things. For soon de Wit will create a poetry, without using any words: just his magic, his renderings, his chosen music, his message.

In a world where Disney and Pixar and productions like LOTR or Harry Potter or Star Wars exist, thankfully, in such a world, there is also Michael Dudok de Wit and his vision. And the possibility to realize his vision.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Le sens du toucher

Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo's animation short Le sens du toucher (English: The Sense of Touch) is, for me, one of the most remarkable romantic films in cinematic history: it is also an excellent lesson in the need of communicating, in not withdrawing into your shell. Animated with fluid strokes, the film plays with an easily accessible symbolism throughout, that does not lack in effectiveness just for being less abstract. Distances become small and large, and faces change Dorian Gray like, though this time not because of orgies, but because of anger and inability to accept another way of life. The film somehow also succeeds in drawing out the pain of the OCD-ish, introverted, clumsy guy: and it is painful to watch his struggle between love and desire, on the one hand, and the sway his habits hold on him, on the other. The film at the same time succeeds in drawing out the slightly vulnerable but ultimately stronger girl: believing in communicating and in her heart till the very last, but also knowing where to draw the line. When you give out hand, you can keep stretching it out, and that is as much as you can do: it's still up to the other to take it. But, one must not forget that to take someone's hand, even if stretched out in love, is not that easy always, not for all: this is what is difficult to come across on screen, and yet Mbotti Malolo manages to do it in the short space of a dozen minutes!

For the moment, the complete film can be watched here.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Natalia Chernysheva's short animation film Snezhinka (English: Snowflake) is not just extraordinarily beautiful: it is also marvellously heartwarming and multilayered at the same time. Set in stark whites, stunningly punctuated by slivers of colours and given life by the black boy, the film at first is celebration of curiosity and of imagination. That curiosity which has produced not just good but also bad in the world, for good and bad are inextricable: that curiosity which led maybe the earliest men to cross seas and straits and settle thus in other lands, and thus spread humanity, but which also led some of the adventurers to marry their lust of a fine name with bravado, their penchant for cruelty with burning ambition: to imperialism and its disastrous consequences, from which we still suffer. And Chernysheva's film celebrates both aspects of human curiosity: while the animals look on and shiver cutely, the boy brings the charming foreign element and then also has to banish it, has to live with and without it.

The film is not the story of a letter that brought tundra-like cold to an African landscape: but the film is also about an organic whole and how a foreign element, howsoever charming and innocent in itself, can often destroy that organic quality of an ecosystem, of a society, destroy existing balance and lead to mayhem. The film offers a lesson for all those who ape blindly any other society's mores: be curious and learn, yes, but also take heed that nothing can be introduced with innocent effect. The boy is wise: not only he recognises the unwitting evil he has brought for the denizens of this world and sacrifices his pleasure, but he also knows that, instead of hate or regret or anger or sulking, the best response to an appropriation is reappropriation, both not done in the spirit of appropriating, though: as he sends one of the elements of his world, it is the other world that either may be in peril or may know how to deal with the foreign element. At some point, of course, someone will break, that is, accept the foreign element: and thus, new cultures will be born, new knowledge, at the cost of much devastation. For the cycle of curiosity, of knowledge, makes the loss of innocence inevitable.

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Mosaferan (Travellers in English) is not just another beautiful Iranian film: it is also the most stunning film of faith that I have ever seen, surpassing Dreyer's Ordet. The fight of retaining faith, in a crumbling non-believing world, is any believer's true test, regardless of the age he or she lives in: faith, which means also trust, demands everything, life and spirit, without conceding an inch, except in the rich satisfaction itself of possessing it and the ensuing torture when it totters. Faith is also the mirror, the only mirror, reflecting a person: those who lack it, those who are bound by blindfolds of rationality, are unable to see themselves—their relation and their relativity. And that is why the mother waits for the mirror: faith has momentarily deserted the house of marriage and the house of death. Only the mother keeps it, and she has not simply faith for herself, but she has faith that it shall be brought to others, that others who want a miracle to happen shall witness one, shall see themselves in the dazzling, often-blinding mirror. For in the mirror of faith, one can see one's atman. See, yes, but not with a pair of eyes.

Bahram Beyzai's film is also a masterful execution of editing and camera work: even though it is only the latter half where the film is contained within one house, the whole film seems like a tight huis clos. Elements recur, constantly: automobiles, trees, old men, a suspense of driving on roads when one has already witnessed one such promenade ending rashly. Or, rather, not witnessed: for Beyzai does not show any accident. Can the viewer be also sure if the deaths did occur? The fourth wall is broken at the film's beginning, predicting deaths, but so what? Why to believe someone's word more than someone's actual presence? Why to put the first one in the realm of rationality and the second one in the realm of apparition? Everything in the film is rhythmic, not in the sense of beats that progress to a climax, but in the sense of concentric circles, in a sort of cyclicality. The circle contracts, then expands, then contracts; one is happy, then sad, and then happy; now it is marriage, then funeral, and now marriage; she says yes, she says no, and now she says yes. The circle expands in stages: the relatives, the dead, the policeman, those of the other dead, the drivers. Each time the circle contracts, before expanding, to the mother's faith, to the tottering of the bride's faith, to the family's desertion of faith. Life flows in the ebbs and tides of faith and its loss: like a pressure head created that would make water or electricity flow, or any natural phenomenon to occur, the mother's faith creates a pressure head, where was expected none. And hence a phenomenon does occur: something's got to give. Bayzai makes us feel the full, unbearable tension, as the circle keeps on stretching more and more while punctuated with contractions all the time: bringing us closer and closer to a deeper understanding, and not merely an imposed one, of life and faith. For when you look into the mirror, you know yourself.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mandala (1981)

Mandala is, one could say, a variation on Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund: a rare film, poetically made, to be able to do justice to such a theme. It is about Buddha, the nature of Buddha: it is about dogma and freedom outside it, about respect and freedom outside of it. The film flows like a river, like the river in Hesse's Siddhartha, a river turning in and out with slow purpose, and Jisan and Pobun meet and lose each other and then again meet each other, just like Siddhartha and Govinda. However, Pobun is more Narcissus than Govinda, with no one person's distinct way superior to the other's. Pobun is tormented, but sure and steadfast and trusting and loving, and seeking to know himself through himself; Jisan is the rogue and can also be steadfast in his own way, but he is also tormented, lusting after life and knowing himself through others, like Goldmund's quest. Both men seem to stand on opposite extremes of religious mores and yet stand hand in hand in the spiritual domain.

Elegantly shot, the film's slow rhythm is beautifully punctuated by Buddhist chants, and some of the shots are a delight to watch for their patience, which lets the viewer be immersed in the film's environment. Pobun in particular is very well played by Ahn Sung-kee, and the remaining cast is doing well, though I feel that the most important character of Jisan could have been played better. Overall, Mandala is yet another deep, sensitive film from South Korea.