Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rang de Basanti

*Hindi*2006*Aamir Khan, Soha Ali Khan*

To dispense with the plot. A film is being made about the freedom struggle and in the process the five lead actors are awakened to the equally grim social realities of the present. Thus the film in the process of making  becomes more than a film and the past becomes a metaphor for the present. The youth take drastic measures to to counter the present ills, and the film culminates in a martyrdom analogous to that in the past.

One may have one's opinions about the cinematic values and plot credibility, but Aamir Khan's films are hard to ignore, if for no other reason than their mass viewer-ship. Like the others this one stretches close to three hours, and there are many stretches where one would like it to hurry up.

This is a movie about the widespread corruption in present day society, in the face of which we generally tend to throw up our hands in despair, even as we continue to be a part of it in our helplessness and majbooris. It draws a brilliant parralell between the period of the freedom struggle and the present times. It is true that the oppressive nature of colonialism persists in the present. In brief flashes it succeeds in evoking the powerful passions which were widespread in the first half of the previous century. The depiction of that period in monochrome is shoddy and the depiction of the Jallianwala massacre is hopelessly inadequate, in striking contrast to Attenboroughs powerfully stark delineation. Nevertheless the mood of the times is fleetingly caught, in however clumsy a manner. From these momentary flashes , the film takes a nose dive into absurd remedies of present day corruption.

A brave and serious attempt to focus on genuine issues, retaining a youthful and optimistic spirit. Aamir Khan's forte is his reservoir of raw emotion, and his ability to connect with the average Indian. Even as he para glides in the international sky, he is very much of the native earth, and is able to strike chords in large segments of viewer-ship. In his pan Indianess, he is representative (hopefully) of the next generation. He offers something a little beyond entertainment. I think he is able to genuinely address the concerns, aspirations and dreams of the citizenship, and to offer us something, howsoever inadequate, to fill the vacuums  life. As the saying goes, something is better than nothing. Perhaps he is most himself in Lagaan, a kind of Dilip Kumar clone. He gives you money's worth if not your time's worth of simplistic fare which rises above the pervasive tomfoolery of present Hindi cinema.

Aamir Khan is endearing in his depiction of a carefree spirited Sikh youth. There is a dazzling sequence of the Golden Temple, reflected majestically in it's surrounding sarovar.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Young Winston--a good history lesson

*Richard Attenborough*1972*146m*

As a companion peace to Gandhi, it's not half as good, but I am glad to have seen it for the enhancement of the historic perspective. The minutes flew lightly except for the parts pertaining to the military encounters and escapades, which one has seen ad nauseum.

It is based on the account of Churchill's youth, "My Youthful Years", which ends with his daring escape from captivity, and the commencement of his political career after his election to parliament at te age of 23. His experience at school is unhappy, since he shows scarce ability of any kind. Transferred to Harrow, despite a blank answer book in the entrance examination, he once amazes everbody by reciting a thousand lines of poetry from memory. Later, after three unsuccessful attempts, he is admitted to the military academy at Sandhurst, being selected for the cavalry, the least preferred branch.

The film gives a delightful view of life of the aristocracy in Victorian England, particularly since it is mostly done on locations. We have a sample of Churchill's oratorical skills in his maiden parliamentary speech at the end of the film. The narrator who voices excerpts from the book by Churchill is particularly bad, jarring on the ears and heavy and grating like an earth moving machine. Simon Ward as the hero is just adequate.

The military encounter between the British and the Sudan is a very clear example of a highly disciplined force with modern weapons is able to crush the technically and organisationally weaker force. Military studies sadly have evolved into a science over the millenia.

A film worth seeing for it's broad historical insights.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

G.K.Chesterton on Charles Dickens

"Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. . . . Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it......
The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. . . . The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like deity and poured out his riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonized to produce it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were enjoying the best he could do. . . . His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. . . . In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens"

from G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study


*Michael Haneke*117m*French*2005*

1. At 48.38 Majid makes a reference to George’s nose, implying some injury to the nose, possibly inflicted by Majid. Could the coughing boy around the “smoking gun” have been George? Soon after he says “you are a lot bigger, should not be hard to kick me. George further says as a child Majid was bigger and stronger, so he had no choice.
2. Even if Wajid is not the source of the tapes, after seeing the drawing, he would know whether Walid is the culprit. In any case, once he knows what has been going on, he is in the best position to reason things out.
3. Pierrot, even if he already knows Walid and the childhood incidents, could not have done it solo.
4. We rule out Majid, because he looks and acts innocent, and it would be directorial folly to implicate him. Pierrot does hate his parents enough to disappear and cause them great anguish, so he may readily agree to be an accomplice to Walid. Walid of course has a powerful motivation to seek vengeance for his father’s fate. (When Walid finally confronts George, he just wants to see him, as if to enjoy the fruits of his psychological torture.) If Majid is to be ruled out the possibilities are (a) Walid alone (b) Walid plus Pierrot. They would need to be very perceptive, almost superhuman, to understand the traumatic memories buried inside a thick skinned guy like Georges or to scheme out such a devious procedure or anticipate it’s likely effects. Anne’s verdict about Majid’s innocence must be taken as final (“he couldn’t have staged it”). Walid’s denial of connection with the tapes in his final encounter with Georges is convincing.
5. The only conclusion I can draw from the final meeting of the two boys is that the whole story has entered the psyche of Pierrot and that is the real revenge.
6. The tapes? Must be Haneke. One thing which I believe is that our deeds are indelibly printed on our minds, at whatever depth of consciousness. You can escape from the legal system, but the real punishment is the psychological degeneration. This is an absolute law. It is said that when we die our entire life plays out like a video cassette. This is what karma actually means. In terms of psychological damage one can never escape the effects of one’s deeds. One easily recognizes grown-up Georges in the prevaricating boy that he was. I don’t think this is what Haneke is conveying.
7.In that sense the video tapes are the Recording Angel or the imprints of karma, or the workings of conscience, which are inescapable, absolute, and strict.
8.Could be to remind us about the Parisien Tien Mien, the massacre of Algerians, about which I for one have heard for the first time. The aslant approach penetrates deeper into the mind. Examples: Munyurangabo, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Nuit et Bruillard.The historical tragedy is a repressed memory like the "interlude" in Georges' childhood.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Monday, January 18, 2010

Spider 2002

*David Cronenberg*93m*

At 98 minutes it's a gripping enough movie with more than a quorum of gore. As an insight into mental illness with or without traumatic origins, I don't think it rises much above A Beautiful Mind.Perhaps it is authentic in the sense of portraying a mind trapped into revolving eternally around a single obsession. Unusual is that he finally sees through himself. It is too bleak for a movie and not bleak enough to correspond to the realities.

As Roger Ebert says, there is no growth, no transcendance. But maybe the concluding insight into his own failing is a growth, even a remarkable one, given the bleak prognosis in such cases.
Roger Ebert's review

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Passage to India 1985

*David Lean ( 1908-91)*168m*Peggy Ashcroft*Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Alec Guiness, Roshan Seth, Sayeed Jaffrey*

The film is based on E.M. Forster's novel, which I have not read. It is set in India in the 1920s. I have been for decades a fan of David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw in the sixties, was the seminal movie in my life, in which I saw for the first time what a film can be. The Bridge on the River Kwai comes a close second, addicted to war movies as I was . The present movie is not vintage Lean, with the vast vision and perspective . But it is certainly an unputdownable entertainer and  paints colonialism in general with  broad if not so deft strokes. However, the picture of India painted in the period referred to is silly and derogatory, which is attributable more to Lean than to Forster. To think he had an Indian wife for eighteen years.

"Only connect" says Forster in Howard's End. Looking at this film, the degree of disconnection that existed in India between the whites and the Indians is amazing. It is as though the English had positioned themselves as the superiormost in the caste system. "It is well accepted that the coloured races are physically attracted to the white but not vice-versa", argues the counsel in a trial for attempt to rape. In fact, the disconnect must have been more like a chasm, meticulously cultivated, and the means by which a miniscule of disciplened, wealthy and armed  foreigners managed to extend a lucrative occupation for so long. It is but a step short of apartheid, or apartheid cleverly disguised. It is also true that the colonial mentality has not died out because the wealthy classes have replaced the colonial masters and the poor and backward continue in their separate world.

However this is not quite the true India of 1928. Lean seems to see India as populated by mindless mobs , guided by irrational impulses and beliefs lurching like a river in spate. Even the educated and rebellious are shown to be rabidly emotional. In reality this was the period of  Gandhi, when he was awakening and organising the discontent by unconventional , revolutionary strategies . He was teaching the meaning of dignity and courage. The spiritual tidal wave that had appeared is nowhere visible in the movie. Indians are shown to be almost subhuman and deserving of contempt. After all, Lean was born in 1908, and for all his cinematic genius, is of the mind of adventurers and empire builders like Clive, Churchill and Aguirre. He seems to have been but a shallow humanist.

The picture is one sided. Some of the characters are quite improbable. Never have I seen anyone like Professor Godbole. Nor is the speech anything like the way Indians speak (even English). The intonation is false, even for Victor Banerjee, who is Indian, as Aziz. Lean may be a master of the panoramic and the vastness of a historical perspective, but seems limited in characterisation. Certainly he has no feel for India. His vision remains Kipling-esque. It is the India of snake charmers, just  thinly separated from the rope trick.

There is some scope for his panoramic cinematography.  There are trains, as there were in Zhivago, Kwai and Lawrence. The Indian Railways are surely the crowning  glory among the good things the British left behind. Trains  pierce through the vast plains or the lush green hills. Crowded railway stations, where the select mingle with commoners and dogs, and the military bands blare a welcome. Luxurious , lurching dining cars, where the white man preens. Every white man seems to have been like a king, merely by virtue of skin colour. The sublime and battered erotic sculptures in the forest, which send the young post Victorian heroine into a dizzy spell. There are some magnificent closing shots of the Himalayas, worthy of the maker of Lawrence of Arabia.

Attenboroughs Gandhi is a far more texturally accurate account of the period under narration. Satyajit Ray's Chess Players remains unmatched for it's understanding of the British period. Through the finely etched and inspired portraits of General Outram and Nawab Wajid Ali, he captures the essence like a two-sided mirror.

Finally, I seem to have outgrown Lean as my idol of younger years. But a movie well worth the penny.

Roger Ebert's review

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Firaaq 2008--"in camera"

*Nandita Das ( director )* Gujarati, English, Hindi*101m*Deepti Naval, Tisca Chopra, Naseerudin Shah, Raghuvir Raghav, Paresh Rawal*

Perhaps the best film about the holocaust is Alan Resnais' Nuit et Bruillard ( Night and Fog ), in which the tragic events are examined in a very indirect manner as reflections, and we see no brutality on screen. Similarly, the same director frames the nuclear holocaust in a melodrama Hiroshima mon Amour, and the actual tragedy ( transcending the power of imagination ) comes to our consciousness at a degree of separation, through a corner of the eye as it were, that makes it all the more unforgettable. The maybe one minute sequence of charred two legged creatures as they lurch towards the river is a permanent image in my mind. More recently Munyurangabo, from the Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung relates the Rwandan genocide in a retrospective story about two teenagers, which leaves a more powerful impression than the older bloodsoaked Hotel Rwanda, which covered the same ground.

The post Godhra events have deeply scarred the subcontinental psyche, and one may be grateful to the maker of Firaaq from sparing us the gruesome details which we can more easily imagine, rather than have them rubbed in once again. Instead, she skillfully focuses her camera on the society of Ahmedabad a month after the pogrom, and examines the volcano through it's aftermath. Interweaving several strands of narrative into a  rivetting movie experience, one is left with a graphic and authentic picture of the ghastliness of what must have been. The strength of the movie is the authentic under current of humanism.

Arti (Deepti Naval) is married to the brutish Paresh Rawal, trying to save his younger brother from prosecution on charges of involvement in a gang rape during the carnage. Arti herself is unable to forget her failure to rescue a woman fleeing from the marauding mob. Anuradha Desai (Tisca Chopra)  is married to a well-to-do Muslim businessman, contemplating a shift to Delhi. Muneera ( Shahana Goswami ) is a Muslim lady whose house was burnt down. Comically, a group of Muslim friends fight for the ownership of a pistol and a single over-sized bullet, which occidentally goes off, provoking a police chase sequence. Khan Sahib, a somewhat demented music teacher, lives in isolation, with his faithful attendant Karim ( Raghubir Yadav ) till he begins to understand that the world which was his has ceased to exist. And there is an orphan child Mohsin ( Mohammad Samad ) who has seen it all, the killings and burnings, but too small to undestand it--perhaps he thinks that is what life is. The film ends on a faint note of optimism as Mohsin is returned to the refugee camp.

The film is alive, cinematographically. The suburban landscape with our ubiquitous three-wheelers, the narrow lanes flanked by avenues of multistoreyed, old, ornate and ramshackle dwellings give true three dimensionality to this stage of erstwhile carnage. The cocktail of languages and endless variety of dialects is our very own and familiar tower of babel.  Nowhere does it strike a false note. Form is seamlessly blended with content, faulting towards restraint rather than excess.

A remarkable debut which succeeds splendidly in what it sets out to achieve. This places Nandita Das squarely as an emergent force in cinema.
Review: Gaurav Malani

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gandhi (1982)--the empire within

*Richard Attenborrough*1982*188m*English*Ben Kingsley*

Attenborough's achievement should not be belittled. Not only the life and personality of an extraordinary individual but half a century of history has been reduced to a crowded canvas of three hours. That this should have been done not by a compatriot but an Englishman perhaps underlies Gandhi's universality and timelessness. I must have seen this film perhaps four or five times, but the present viewing was one of my major cinematic experiences, perhaps because the subject matter has come to mean more to me now. I have heard it said that the historical dramas of Shakespeare ( with all inaccuracies and biases ) came to be the history of England more than the real history. Ironically, an Englishman has captured the essence of the freedom struggle and it's central inspirational figure. It is a more than adequate portrayal and has made this period come vividly alive in my mind. I think it needs to be said that the nationality and passport of the film maker should not be allowed to cloud one's evaluation.

The period from 1850 in India  produced a series of moral and intellectual titans, who were clearly able to grasp the oppressive and humiliating nature of the British occupation of India. Even among this constellation of luminaries, Gandhi is a phenomenon extraordinary, who appears almost as though by predestination to open new pathways in human history. What is the essence of the power of love he wields on the common people, or the moral strength which ties up the colonial masters into knots of perplexity and consternation? As he says in the film, " We, not they, are in control." The initiative, if not superior brute force, was with the freedom fighters. They had the upper hand, because  justice lay on their side. It is a classic battle of right versus might, of moral spine arrayed against the baton and bayonet.

Shortly before this film, Attenborrough gave a brilliant portrayal as an actor in his role as General Outram, in Ray's Chess Players. He has a truly admirable grasp of the Indo-British inequation and a panoramic view of the history of the period. The Jallianwala Massacre, in  it's incredible ferocity, is portrayed to spine chilling dramatic effect. The formative years in South Africa, where the lion jumps into the pit; the transition to leadership in the Indian freedom struggle ; Champaran, Chauri Chaura, the salt march, the confrontation at the salt works, Naokhali and assassination; the events unfold with graphic vividness, and if it is a history lesson you want, it's all there. Gandhi's cheerfulness, wit, legal acumen and power of words is well portrayed. His wife is more like a disciple. The episode of his interaction with the the reporter from Life magazine ( played by Candice Bergen ) where he has her virtually mesmerized with his sheer goodness and nobility is a moment of rare sensitivity.

The acting performances are uniformly solid and convincing. Ben Kingsley's job is of course the toughest and he does it adequately and well, though it may be advisable not to confuse the man with the performance. All the others project the director's vision to give a convincing, enjoyable, immersive experience at the unavoidable cost of  simplisticism.
Gandhi's Speech
Footage of funeral
Roger Ebert's review

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Earth 1947--a first person account

*1998*Deepa Mehta*100m*Hindi*

1950 Amritsar born ( now Canada based ) Deepa Mehta is in her element in this film. The partition of India and the ensuing butcheries on both sides of the border must have been collective memories not far removed from her own life in terms of  space and time. These events, though not personally experienced or witnessed by me, or even my immediate family, are part of the family lore, and evoke feelings of nostalgia and deja vu,  of self recognition and home-coming. Although the movie is filmed in Delhi. the aromas of Lahore and the feel of the different stages of that crowded period of history are portrayed with an authenticity of near first hand experience. The director's cultural antecedents as an Amritsari lend it the force of cultural specificity, in terms of nuances of speech inflection ( she has not failed to insert some judiciously selected gems from this region known for it's  ferocity of  invective ), body language and environmental cues. The communal frenzy is glimpsed through the sensitivity of a polio afflicted pubescent Parsi girl. If not cinema of a high order it has the merit of passion and a touch of the autobiographical. Unlike the more recent Water, this is authentic stuff, for all it's no doubt unavoidable catering to various segments of the audience, like the rather non-descript songs and the gratuitous sexuality. Maia Sethna as the Parsi teenager gives a quiet and sensitive performance. Nandita Das is a born actress, and bold enough to take on and breathe the fire of youthful energy into a challenging and unconventional role. Aamir Khan is spot-on with his trademark charisma and box office credentials.

Certainly the best depiction of those times on the screen which I have seen, notches better than Kamal Hassan's bloodthirstier  He Ram and  even  the parts of Attenborough's Gandhi relating to these events.

Review: Stephen Holden

Water 2005--of widows and snake charmers

*Deepa Mehta*Hindi*

A film set in 1938 in an unspecified city ( could be Varanasi ) but shot on location in Sri Lanka due to the controversies it generated. It is set in a widow's "home"--a place where widows ranging from child-brides to old women are claimed to have been removed to live out the remainder of their lives in a kind of ghettoised existence. The film closes with a written message to the effect that such continues to be--in 2005, when the film was released-- the plight of large numbers of widows. When I look around me I find merry enough widows from all sections of society ranging from maid-servants to affluent matrons pretty much free to do whatever they want and marry as many times as they wish. To suggest that Indian society continues to be governed by codes of antiquity is to pander to western audiences of the kind looking for a rope trick. It is little more than a taste for the sordid.. Even if conditions of the sort did exist at some time in some pocket's, to project it as a generalised picture of this country, is disinformation of a very distasteful and harmful kind, specially where people abroad are concerned, who would naturally take it at face value. Raking non existent or extinct muck is a more apt description than windmill-tilting. Mehta does no service through this movie to her ancestral homeland.

Nowhere does it touch a chord of reality. Ebert's comparison of the film to Ray in it's portrayal of destitution seems very inappropriate. It is probably a case of giving grace marks or lowering the benchmark to encourage third world cinema, which it isn't. Ray's capture of Varanasi in the second of his famous trilogy was electrifying in it's authentic portrayal of a city with a cultural roots hearkening to millenia . Deepa Mehta's cinematography does not rise above picture-postcard exoticism--the palm trees swaying in the background are quite jarring-- and her characters do not come alive, specially the lead pair,  prime Bollywood icons. Lisa Ray and Abraham are quite pathetic, unable to figure out what genre the film belongs to. Seema Biswas, as one of the inmates of the ashram, gives a fine portrayal and seems to have matured since her Bandit Queen which was somewhat over board. Some of the minor characters, like the devilish ashram ma'am ( Manorama ), the eunech ( Raghubir Yadav ) and Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the benovelent priest give interesting performances. The star of the film is Sarala Kariyawasam, a non-hindi speaking Sri Lankan girl as the rebellious eight year old widow who injects whatever life the drab film posesses through a spirited performance.

A very mediocre film with a special masala mix targetting different audiences: songs and good looking dummies for Bollywood; presumptiously appropriation of a non existent exoticism  to cater to the western crowds; taking on social non- issues for the festivals. Among NRI film-makers I would place Gurinder Chadha above Mehta for having caught  the pulse of a piece of India. Bride and Prejudice was an uninhibited delight .

In any case, I intend to go through with the rest of the trilogy, to complete my collection of specimens.
Roger Ebert's review

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Shatranj ke Khilari: Chess Players

*Satyajit Ray*1977*Hindi*Amjad Ali Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Sayeed Jaffrey, Shabana, Farida Jalal, Veena, Richard Attenborough, Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee*Based on a short story of Munshi Premchand*

The only movies I can remember which made me laugh more than this one-actually laugh, not smile or snigger-are Chaplin's Circus and Duck Soup. Of course this is far more refined and a different blend of tea.

This is Lukhnow, 1856, a year before the anti-colonial uprising. Kite strings entwine in the sky , cocks fight to the death, rams exchange head  blows, the crowds yell and scream . Lukhnow, the city of nawabs, Shiraz-e-Hind, the Constantinople of the East, birth place of Naushad and Begum Akhtar. City of Kathak and Thumri. Pulao, biryani, kababs--"the garden, granary and the queen of provinces". This is a film as much about a city that was as about what happens.

The province of Avadh ( Oudh in anglese ) in which the city lies, was at the time being "ruled"-the British sword is sheathed but ever ready-by Nawab Wajid Ali Khan. This is Amjad Ali Khan's finest performance. Is this really Gabbar, the death spewing snake of Sholay, whose dialogues are now proverbs? In the hands of Ray, Amjad's clay is transformed into the effete, dance loving, poetry composing, bemused Wajid Ali Shah, born to be a puppet-king, if king at all. He maintains a harem of 400 concubines, loves kite flying, dresses up as a Hindu god and dances with the girls in raas-leela, has many "muta" ( Persian for pleasure ) wives for three or thirty days, says his prayers five times a day, won't touch a drop of wine, and is the patron-founder of the lauded Lukhnow school of kathak ( a classical Indian dance ), of which we are treated to an exquisite performance in the course of the film. The Nawab's eyes moisten and a lump forms in his throat as he sees the dance.

Mirza Sajjad Ali ( Sanjeev Kumar ) and Mir Roshan Ali ( Sayeed Jaffrey ), two hereditary landlords, living off  taxation, passing their lives in blissful idleness, chewing pan and smoking their hookahs--quite in love with life and themselves, flitting from diversion to diversion--have currently made chess the centre of their lives, and, as chilum follows chilum, the comrades straddle the board from morn to eve--obsessive like the internet, maybe--much to the discomfiture of at least one of their wives. Mirza's shrewd and lovely wife, inimitably portrayed by Shabana--Shabana smoking a hookah!She brings range and perfection of nuance to any role--she has the ability to lose herself in a role, yet retaining perfect control. Farida Jalal, as the second wife, is cuckolding Mir Sahib, who is far too stupid and trusting or unwilling or uninterested to know what is going on right under his nose. The Mirza's uncontrollable fit of laughter, as he rolls up in spasm after spasm after spasm, amazed at his friend's naivete is an absolutely incredible feat of acting, never seen in the annals of cinema.  Frustrated at being neglected on account of the game, she contrives to hide the chess pieces. After hilariously desperate endeavours to find another set, even taking them to the house of a dying attorney, who exhales his last even as the chess-pals fiddle with a chess board with pieces which decorates a side-table in the drawing room, they finally settle on continuing their game using  vegetables--tomatoes and onions as chess men. Outwitted, Shabana angrily hurls the pieces at the friends. They decide to shift the game to the Mir's place, where we are treated to another comic interlude of cuckoldry.

Meanwhile, the bigger game is in progress. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general in Calcutta, sends General Outram (Attenborough, another delectable performance ) to Luckhnow ( six hundred miles in six days, with thirty changes of horse ), with clear orders to take over the administration of the province. Veena as the Queen Mother, Victor Banerjee as the Prime Minister, Tom Alter as the urdu speaking aide de camp Captain Weston, all give indelibly memorable performances. Veena particularly, as the betrayed and wounded mother of Wajid Ali, is marvellous in her defiant yet fore-doomed cry for justice, to Queen Victoria and to heaven. The peaks in this film are too many to single out, The film is a himalayan achievement in the annals of Indian cinema, deserving more accolades than it has received.

Finally the chess friends retreat to a hovel in the countryside to pursue their game in peace. They quarrel over the game, and, already in bad humour because of mosquitos and lack of a light for his smoke, he taunts his companion about the doings of his unfaithful wife, the talk of the town. Angered Mir Sahib fires his pistol.

As the gun explodes, we are treated to a panoramic sight of a rag-tag British force---cavalry, infantry, bullock carts, elephants, camels, muskets---on their way to take over Lukhnow. Deadly enough, come to think of it.

This gunshot reminds me of the plop of the stolen necklace in Pather Panchali as it sinks into the algaed water. It is an inspired moment and marks the conclusion of one era and the start of another.

"How can we, who couldn't manage our wives, face the British ?", philosophically rues Mir Roshan Ali. They continue their game, waiting for the cover of darkness to sneak home.

The film is less about politics and history than about the confrontation of civilizations. Ray, with his oriental heart and western intellect, is well qualified to tackle this theme. It bears repetition that not one but each of the seven leading actors have given performances of amazing fluidity and power. Certainly no one who understands Hindi or Urdu should die without seeing this movie twice.
Review: Vincent Cranby
Wiki on the film
Review:Jay Antani

Friday, January 8, 2010

Masoom ( Innocent ) 1983

**Shekhar Kapur**Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana, Saeed Jaffrey, Tanuja, Supriya Pathak, Urmila Matondkar*Gulzar ( script )*

Shekhar Kapur's first film, from where he took off into a variegated career spanning the likes of Mr. India, Bandit Queen, Elizabeth.

It is always nice to punctuate life with an occasional Bollywood flick ( as a relief , not to mention a return to one's own roots ), and this one, coming from the yet budding talent of Shekhar Kapur, supported by a script from the sensitive and sentimental Gulzar, is a pleasant enough specimen of the genre. Shekhar wisely may have decided to line his pocket with a block-buster or two ( this was followed by Mr. India with it's inimitable and immortal villain-comedian Mogambo ) before getting into the more serious and riskier waters.

D.K.Malhotra ( DK for short ) and Indu are an upper middle class Delhi based couple who along with their two ebullient school going daughters, share the common yet uncommon joys of familial bliss, depicted with deft and light strokes. There is a charming song-dance sequence at a party by Naseerudin Shah and Jaffrey in which their comic talent as well as  plasticity of limb and torso is  used to good effect.

A telegram from Nainital serves as the spanner in the spokes. It is from the dying schoolmaster who is in charge of an illegitimate son of DK, the result of a brief affair soon after his marriage to Indu. DK was unaware of this offspring, since the mother chose to disappear from his life. The mother herself dies, leaving his charge to the good hearted school master.

DK has to bring the boy into his family against the wishes of his wife. The daughters take to him immediately, and the movie revolves around the family drama of the wife's reaction to the husband's confessed infidelity, and her overt resentment to the boy.

At best, it is a drama of childhood, a boy innocent of his own illegitimacy, and his consuming need for love and parents. Shabana is a fine actress, expressive in her silences, and the fire-brand on screen which she is in real life. Her gradual melting towards the unwanted boy is a great performance. Who can forget her roles in Shyam Benegal's Ankur and Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari Naseeruddin also is an actor of range and versatility, the sort for whom Hindi cinema has not proven worthy. He is at his most natural best in Monsoon Wedding.

Shekhar Kapur's natural ability enables to steer clear from being totally formulaic, while yet remaining in the safety zone of commercial viability and popular expectations. It's a movie which gives  hope for better things to come. It's a different question if they did. At least he made it as far as Hollywood.

Thursday, January 7, 2010



The portrait of a young sociopath, with echoes of Travis Bickle ( Taxi Driver ) and Raskolnikoff in Crime and Punishment.

Michel, the hero, has been brooding for some days of finally carrying out his first pocket-picking enterprise, and he is at the races, trailing an elderly lady. He positions himself behind her, opens the buckle of her purse ( his heart is pounding ), and as the horses rush by, extracts the banknotes and loses himself in the crowd. However he is nabbed by the police, questioned and let off for lack of conclusive evidence. As he hones his professional skill, he is drawn into a net of other more seasoned practitioner of the art of picking pockets. There is a wonderful sequence, in which we see the collusive performance of the team on a train about to depart from a station, and deft motions of finger and wrist which would evoke the admiration of a pianist or a guitarist--in fact, a symphony orchestra of pick pockets.

A police official who suspects him, but lacks the proof to nail him, frequently engages him in conversation. Since Michel is a pick pocket by choice ( he could have got a job ), we learn his belief that some special people should be above the law. Meanwhile, he neglects his ailing mother, who passes away. However he is becoming overconfident and careless and he is finally caught and imprisoned. In the prison, he is visited by the young and beautiful Jeanne, a neighbour who helped out his mother in her final days. Her love for him, inspite of his social descent, moves him, and the film concludes in a redemptive moment.

What drives this young man, living in his garret with his books? The room has no latch and is perpetually open. He is a person alienated from his surroundings, and the thought of working for a living is unthinkable. The adventure, risk and danger of picking pockets serves more than his financial needs. It has aesthetic and spiritual dimensions. It fills his life--it is a role he has selected for himself in the drama of the world. Does he have feelings? Certainly he feels the blood rushing to his temple at the climactic moments of the "act"--like the bomb defusing soldier in the Hurt Locker-- and this is is what he wishes to replicate and re-enact with ascending degrees of risk and boldness. He is an artist and an addict--"the adrenalin fix"--even as he is an amoral animal. The spiritual and moral vacuum, that he inhabits is indeed a state of life that may be the signature of the times. Picking peoples pockets is a drug that restores to him the feeling of being alive. He claims to love his mother more than himself. But he persistently refuses to see her, even as she is obviously approaching her end. Is this not the disconnect that pervades human relationships, which religions have vainly sought to bridge, and perhaps this is what Bresson was trying to address. John Donne says no man is an island, but tragically, that is precisely what we are. As the saying goes, breathing is not living.

At  seventy five minutes, it is dense fare. The style is muted, understated, enigmatic--Bressonian. It has the minimalism of a symbol. In Mouchette and Money, the robot-like expressionlessness serves to express extremes of feeling. In Pickpocket it serves to express a more complex state of life. Mouchette and Money are perhaps about the individual floundering in the gusts of social forces. Here the focus is on a seemingly autonomous individual and the radical choices he makes to give content to his own life.

It is perhaps characteristic of this artist to have selected the  gentler art of picking pockets rather than bloodier crimes--as Dostoevsky did-- as a study of the human mind. One can pick any number of pockets--giving scope for a leisurely longitudinal evolution of theme and character-- but killing would be a single shot affair.  True to his aims of precision, transparency, truth and detachment, he takes on a miniscule specimen of his subject of enquiry, the better to dwell on detail and texture---there is something  entomological in his style. What is beyond doubt is Bresson's own artistic passion to be true to the inner vision which he aims to replicate on film. That is why silence sweeps his film. Better to say little, or nothing, than a false note.

A portrait of homo modernus and much food for thought. Bears a third watch.

Roger Ebert's Great Movie Review

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


*Robert Bresson*1983*85m*L'Argent*inspired by a Tolstoi short story*

The last of Bresson's films--he was around eighty--after which he was financially constrained from furthur film-making. One of the dominant images in the film is that of ATMs: the sound of machinery and the money disgorging. " A film has four things--visuals, music, dialogues and sounds." This one has no music except a bit at the end, little dialogue, plenty of sound effects and is visually very expressive. Bresson remarked that the present film belongs to his so called "lucid"--rather than pessimistic-- period. Whatever that means.

Money! Who can deny it's power, importance and desirability? For it's sake, how many tears are shed, hearts  broken , enemies made and crimes committed! It is the ultimate objectivisation of worldly desires-- neither sinner nor saint can be indifferent to it .

Two school boys set in motion a tragic chain of events when they pass a fake 500 franc note at a photographers shop. The photographer and his assistant in turn pass off this bad note, along with two others they have, to a young man who delivers gas. This young man is caught when he tries to use this money, tried in a court, found guilty but let off. However he loses his job, which sets him on a path of crime to support his wife and child. Again he is caught and sentenced to three years in prison. While in jail, his child dies, his wife leaves him and he attempts suicide. He emerges from prison a transformed creature, and the film culminates in four brutal murders.

It is a stark portrayal of the reality of human society, which seems quite valid as a description of India as I know it in the twenty first century. We are at the mercy of blind and invisible forces ( money and ATMs are perhaps a powerful metaphor for these forces ). The characters in the film--us-- seem to be like mindless rats scampering in a maze. With the austere style of expression for which he is known, Bresson observes this human tragedy of the obliteration of a youth with deep but leashed compassion--compassion utterly shorn of sentiment. At no point do we see violence on the screen--even a slap is only portrayed through it's sound. He maintains distance from the subject and his detachment is almost scientific. His poetry is cold and steely. As in his other films, the actors do not act, and speak only in monosyllabes. They are more like "mannequins". Bresson expresses himself through position and motion, a geometric linearity and minimalism.  His films are works of architecture, sculpted to the sinew. Bresson speaks to our soul, if  such an entity have existence, in deep humanism.

The film whets my appetite for  more of his work.
Noel Vera's review

Monday, January 4, 2010

Monster 2003--of thieves and judges

Aileen Wuornos, an ex-hooker, was convicted of seven murders of her clients commited over several years around 1990. She was in jail for twelve years, and finally executed in 2002. The convicted woman has been captured in an unforgettable portrayal by the South Africa bred actress Charlize Theron. This performance, rated by Roger Ebert as among the best in the history of cinema, has been compared to that of Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc.

Criminals are not a breed apart, genetically  wired. They are us, in different circumstances. They are natural by-products of society as it is constituted. Going by the film alone, Wuornos, due to lack of education or parenting, drifts into a livelihood of prostitution, which, at a point of sadistic abusiveness at the hands of her client, results in his murder. She decides to give up her profession for a job, but finds doors closed, mainly due to lack of education. Thereafter, she commits a series of murders, mainly for money to support a gay teenager who has become dependant on her, and for whose sake she is impelled into the series of crimes, and who is the one to finally betray her.

We see a human being, deficient in inner equipage and anchoring sucked by a powerful maelstrom of environmental forces into a trajectory the responsibility for which cannot be laid at a single door. The film is a compassionate study of the downtrodden  and an indictment of present day human society. One is reminded of Gandhi's famous quip when asked his opinion of modern civilisation. He replied he thought it was a good idea. The law of the jungle still rules our world and it is a war to death between the haves and the have-nots.

Theron's portrayal of the tragic character has the  momentum and inevitability of a natural calamity. Loose limbed, overflowing her clothes, like a river in spate or a  log racing downstream, her flight towards doom is swift and  preordained. It has been said that weakness is the greatest sin.

A deeply humanistic film.

*I would not have seen this movie but for it's inclusion in Ebert's new list of ten best films of the decade. ( Link below. )

Roger Ebert's review
Wiki article on Aileen Wuornos
Ebert's best films of the decade

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Mouchette---icy winds of youth

*Robert Bresson*1967*France*80m*

Mouchette means "little fly" in French.

The stark story of the sufferings of a teenage girl, Mouchette, living with her invalid mother and alcoholic father in a french country town. She is the object of ill treatment and suppression both at home and in the school and sinks into defiant dejection. Things come to a head when she is caught in a downpour in a lonely wood and accosted by a poacher.

The words "austere" and "spiritual" are often applied to this director. Spiritual is a vague and emasculated term because it often has shades of escapism and wishy-washy theorizing about things it is no use worrying about. The present movie is  humane and compassionate and a story of childhood and it's dignity and sensitivity, as well as the lack of mercy of human society as it is presently constituted, which in it's essentials does not seem very different in mid-century rural Europe as it is where we stand now.

Austerity of course may refers to his characteristic minimal style of direction and non-acting. Bresson's actors are expressly forbidden to "act", to make any "effort" to express. We see what seem to be dead-pan faces. But then, the emotion in the script and story is so authentic that this suppression comes through all the more powerfully. When we feel nothing, we act. What we feel too much, we need to hide. But the heart is omniscient: there's no fooling it.

Mouchette is a normal youngster of twelve or thirteen but all the desires and joy of childhood are crushed by the non-accepting, crushing and hostile forces in the shape of peers, teachers, family and the neighborhood.

In some powerful shots, we see tears of humiliation and anger streaming down her cheeks while no muscle of the face moves and no sound of a sob is able to emerge. The dams within have burst. It is as though a sculpture has burst into tears. The eyes have to do the talking.

In a moving sequence, when for once she has enjoyed herself at the fair and is about to make an innocent overture of friendship to a boy, she is rudely pulled back by her dissolute father and slapped in the middle of the fair and in front of the boy. This is the limit of indignity, and we see her silently crying as she pulls away. She is a child, like a million others everywhere from whom childhood has been snatched away. She has nothing and no one to hold on to.

What kind of person is she? Very ordinary, very normal. She has a strong self, a healthy sense of dignity, feelings of love, anger and hate. She will grow up into a responsible and beautiful individual. But alas, the gusts of adversity have come too early and too strong, little fly that she is, and she has had no chance to develop  commensurate inner resilience. She has no anchor. Not even the sick mother. No one is an island--once adrift from the main, we wither and shrink.

I certainly look forward to seeing more of Bresson.

A wonderful film.