Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shakespeare Wallah (The Shakespeare Vendor)

James Ivory, 1965, English, 122m

This is a film with the delicacy of a gauze of muslin. In the guise o a sensitive love triangle, it chronicles the transition from the British culture to the Indian, from Shakespeare to Bollywood. The Buckhinghams--the father Tony (Geoffrey Kendal), mother Carla and daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendal) are a troup of travelling actors who travel all over the subcontinent giving performances of Shakespeare plays. After independance, they choose to remain behind instead of returning to England, but find the audience for their considerable talents dwindling. They have a hard time making ends meet. During a performanceof Othello, as the performers strain every nerve during the murder episode, the play is interrupted by whistling and catcalls and a riot breaks out. This is the heartbreaking climactic scene, though it is located in the middle. Not least among the delights of the flm are some vignette Shakespeare performances, mostly performed i the Gaiety Theater, Shimla.

The British in spite of centuries of presence remained aliens in India. They cultivated the difference and remained a small island that emphasized their perceived cultural, educational an economic superiority, insulated from the masses by a thick layer of brown sahibs with all shades and gradations of English affectation. They were the most exclusive of the castes, cultivating a unique brand of semi-apartheid. Knowledge of English language and ways was by and large the determinant of status among the Indians.

The film is an improbable but perfect concoction, a genre of one. The cast is English and Indian, the director is James Ivory, an American and the musical score is by Satyajit Ray. The film is set in the misty nostalgic heights of Shimla, the summer capital and mountain retreat of the British. Felicity Kendal and Shashi Kapur as the romantic pair give a marvellously nuanced performance in their brief, torrid and doomed affair. Madhur Jaffrey plays a Bollywood starlet and the remaining vertex of the triangle, a role which fetched her an Oscar. The parents, Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Lidell portray the sadness of their situation in a few deft and bold strokes. Encased in this very human story are vistas of Indian history like distant mountains enshrouded in mist.

The film is based on a script by the Booker Prize novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, a German who acquired British citizenship, married an Indian and lived in India for many years..She is quoted to have said that her books about Indiawere less about India than about herself in India. At one level, the movie is a touching picture of the experience of being a lone alien.

Bosley Crowther

Friday, November 19, 2010

The wind will carry us

Abbas Kiarostami 1999

After seeing an excellent film, it is perhaps natural to feel, at least for a while that this was the director's best. None of Kiarostami's were disappointing. But since there are many who find his films to be monotonous and empty, I may have at times had second thoughts about my own evaluation. This film reconfirms my immense liking for his movies.

He has been called painfully slow, repetetive, and plain boring. I find his description of everyday events set in a mountain village to be hypnotic, a leisured meditation on the wonder of  event-less daily existence. It is no more repetitive than a refrain that re-occurs in a song. I found this movie, in it's series of cameos of details of the ordinary--a tortoise succeeds in uprighting itself after being upturned by the sullen protagonist, a robust mother of ten shyly withdraws behind a curtain on being asked how many more the factory could produce, village folk refuse to accept payment for a jar of milk, an insect dragging it's loot--no less absorbing than a courtroom drama, or a horror film, with the difference that it gently draws you in, rather than assaulting your senses.

The present film is a sketch of life in a remote Iranian village. The camera surveys the fascinating structure of mud dwellings placed against a hillock one atop the other like a house of cards. The corn fields stretch out between the bald mountains like the Van Gogh painting. Kiarostami vision is reverential, and whether he is looking at objects or people, seeing his films is like a voyage of discovery in a territory familiar in it's humanity. His camera is as though intoxicated by the things of this world and there is an almost biblical simplicity about his observation of people. Others say his characters lack psychological depth. They certainly are not obsessed with individualism.

Kiarostami more than individuals is portraying society. The community portrayed in this film might seem idyllic, specially if one has become used to the gangster movies as a norm of human behaviour. The villagers, perhaps due to their interdependance, cherish the virtues of neighbourliness and brotherhood. Kiarostami, often criticised and banned in his own country, is hardly one to glorify religion, but the simplicity of these pastoral and agricultural hill-folk, brings out the essence of the Islamic ethos, and indeed, of any religion worth the name.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sadgati (Deliverance)

Ray, 1981, 51m, Hindi, starring Smita Patil and Om Puri

Bestial cruelty and exploitation is inherent in social stratification and in India it has been deeply ingrained in the name of caste. So despised were the so called lower castes that the the distinction between man and beast was obliterated. Munshi Premchand is the Balzac of his milieu and his novels and short stories are an eternal chronicle of the ageless misery of the poor. Satyajit Ray here gives us a film of brutal social realism based on a short story of the great writer. This is not the usual Ray, whose sensibilities are closer to the shimmering  gentle lyricism of Tagore than to the more earthy and anguished style of Munshi Premchand.

Dukhia (Om Puri) is a low caste laborer and he leaves for the village priest's house to request his presence at the betrothal ceremony of his daughter. He has been sick but the priest has to be met today for astrological reasons. The priest treats him with the scorn due to a low caste and sets him to back breaking labor in return for his expected services. Dukhia is on an empty stomach and the chores succeed one another. Finally a log of stone hard wood he is asked to chop proves too much and he falls down---dead. There is some hue and cry in the village, even a few impotent and smothered voices of indignation against priestly hypocrisy and no one is willing to remove the dead body. Finally the priest decides to do it himself and drags the body by means of a rope to a place littered with the remains of dead cattle.

Om Puri as Dukhia gives a powerful portrayal, at one point breaking into helpless sobs. The late dusky and alluring Smita Patil as his wife powerfully complements him.

The film lacks the gentle subtleties for which the director is known. This is a film of raw power which vividly portrays one aspect of the realities of Indian society. It can hardly be accused of melodrama.

The movie is available in very clear download on Youtube:

Teen Kanya: Samapti (Conclusion)

Satyajit Ray, 1961, 1 hour, Bengal

Yet one more unprecedented melding of the two giants, another essay which comes from the depths of the heart and soul.. Aparna Sen gives a dazzling prima-donna performance at a young age. She is the girl child, the adolescent, prankish Minmoyee, nicknamed Pagli (mad girl). She is notorious in the village for her wayward ways. The hero Amulya takes an inexplicable fancy to her and won't marry anyone else, and his widowed mother has to give in to his wish. But even Amulya little realizes what he has bargained into. She escapes through the window on the nuptial night to feed her pet squirrel. The next morning she is found asleep on the swing. She is locked in her room but smashes everything in sight and tears the books. Amulya finally deposits her with her own mother and goes away to continue his studies.

But then awareness gradually dawns. She loses her squirrel, but-what a touch!-will not go even to bury her. This is a movie made up of ordinary events, but nothing is expected or foreseeable. The dialog is robust and lean and there is no hint of sentimentality. In Minmoyee Ray has given an infinitely layered and complex portraiture of womanhood, springing from the mysterious vaults of genius to which a review can hardly do justice.

Ray's films have a way of soaring suddenly towards the end and this one too, like The Postmaster. has a knock-out ending.

"The Postmaster - a story of betrayal - is a pure and simple small masterpiece; the second, "The Conclusion," has some memorable scenes, beauty, and wit but also has some defects of rhythm, so it is merely wonderful..."
- Pauline Kael 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teen Kanya: The Postmaster

Satyajit Ray, 41m, 1961, Bengal

This is a heart wrenching story, capturing both a vanished era and eternal truths about the human condition. It is a worthy confluence of Ray and Tagore.

Young Nandalal arrives from Kolkatta to take up duties as a postmaster in a rural backwater. The post-office is a beaten down mud structure with a thatched roof and the lush greenery of the delta envelops it from all sides. He is served by a little girl Ratan (Chandana Banerjee), an orphan who lives in the post-office, serving as domestic help for the succession of postmasters. Nandalal enjoys the peaceful environs and strikes a bond of affection with the girl, teaching her to read and write.

In the process we participate in the rhythms of rural life in the late nineteenth century. The host of villagers, most of whom have never traveled beyond the next village, is etched with sublime delicacy. They surround the educated young man with awed respect. One of the less remarked qualities of Ray's cinema is his wonderful ability to catch with razor sharp accuracy and powerful nostalgia details of different periods in India. He has marvelous instinctive sense of history.

But then the scourge of malaria visits our anti-hero postmaster, and he is nursed back to health by his little care giver. However he has had his fill of the village and applies and is granted a transfer back to the city. It's not a big deal for him and the new incumbent is soon there to take over. But what about the little girl who stares with moistened eyes and dawning comprehension? But Ray and Tagore are too great to conclude on a note of defeat and heartbreak and the ending is one of those moments of dense meaning which lighten the Ray pantheon, wherein in a single master-stroke he touches the heart of things.

I was just wondering whether the figure of the local lunatic, whose ranting , frightening and comical, punctuates the film. The postmaster is scared of him but the girl can just shoo him off. Perhaps he is a symbol of the agony which only the heart of a child is capable of feeling. After all this is a stark and terrible story about childnood which Tagore has sketched so innocuously. Perhaps one of the marks of a master is the ability to see the extraordinariness of the ordinary things of life.

Teen Kanya: Monihara (The Lost Jewels)

Satyajit Ray, 1961, 49m, Bengal

Can jewelry make up for love and childlessness? Can it fill the loneliness and barrenness of a woman who is in the process of falling apart? Manimalika, lives in a mansion in the Bengal countryside somewhere around the previous turn of century. What is sure is that when Ray sets his lens to transcreate a short story of Tagore it is no surprise if the result is extraordinary and bewitching. What is surprising is to find either of them indulging in the Hitchcock genre. Also this might be the mother of another string of Hindi melodramas like Madhumati and Bees Saal Baad. Another film that comes to mind is Rebecca.

The film is a hypnotic tale of the jewel obsessed woman as she gradually descends into near psychosis. Perhaps Tagore is describing the congenital human craving for the yellow metal and whatever security it represents. Here this lust is personified in a young, beautiful and half crazed woman. Kanika Majumdar in the female lead with her wild vengeful eyes gives a powerful portrayal.

Somewhere along the way it veers off it's promise of psychological depth to turn into a full fledged spook story with wailing winds and creaking doors.

The film is part of Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) which consists of three independent stories of Tagore which Ray has filmed. This is a flawed gem which shows flashes of extra-ordinary brilliance but finally ends in a rut. At the same time, it was a delight to catch a glimpse of Tagore through Ray's eyes. And also, we can compare Ray only with Ray and nothing short of the miraculous will do. The film does not lack in magical moments and is well worth it's 49 minutes of viewing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1972, 108m, Malayalam

Poverty is a disease and in many parts of the world it has epidemic proportions. This powerful film is set in such a milieu. Things become all the more unbearable if you are severed from your roots of family and village in such a pre-modern society. The middle class has the worst of all worlds because it doesn't know where it belongs.

Vishwam and Seetha elope from their village and we are introduced to them on a seemingly endless journey through the rural landscapes of the lush riverine state of Kerala. A few days of honeymooning in a humble but respectable motel ends their alloted quota of married bliss  and life begins it's agonising nose dive.Thet are educated and probably hope to make a living but this is not to be. The little money they have is running out and the wolf in many garbs is snarling. He can't publish a book he has written ahd loses his first job as a zoology lecturer. Many a ruffian eyes Seetha lasciviously and maintaining respectability on an empty pocket is as difficult as bodily survival. First the spirit breaks and then the body. And a baby's arrival makes the situation unbearably harrowing.

This is Adoor's first film but we catch glimpses of the mastery and restraint of his maturer work. But this is a slice of reality-scary, painful and bitter-in which we can see our own reflections. Both the leads (Madhu and Sarada) have given powerful performances well supported by the remaining cast. The social realism of the film reflects a point of view widely prevalent among the intelligentsia of the period.

This is a depressing, powerful and true film getting to the heart of the realities of the aam admi's lot, a treatment light years ahead of the caricatures and tomfoolery of Bollywood.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Social Network

David Fincher, 2010, 
This is a riveting snapshot (slightly long at two hours)) of the brave new world of the internet and the way it makes the distant close and the close distant. The script sizzles and sparks and the inter-cutting (fragments of two legal hearings punctuate the narrative) relentlessly drives the plot forward in an mind stimulating roller-coaster which keeps the viewer on his/her toes.

The film narrates the story of the $25 billion worth Facebook website, started in 2003, and it's creator, Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout and the world's youngest billionaire.

Zuckerberg is bursting with intellect and motivation with a mind like a furious engine and la dolce Harvard is the right environment to breed prodigies into dizzy success stories. (Zuck doesn't talk quite that frenzied on youtube but it's the film character we have to deal with, accuracy not being a factor.) His speech is a precise staccato articulation of his brisk and unconfused mental processes. He is obviously untroubled by philosophical problems of any kind, surfing on the wave of his effortless intoxicated ascent, only slightly put down by social inadequacy. The character is quite credible and we see a guy with a focussed tunnel vision, internally propelled like a "heat seeking missile" (Ebert) . He sees clearly and correctly that nobody around him is a match for him in the areas where he excels. He is a young, level headed, forthright person, too intelligent to need to stoop to deviousness. We see a certain transformation in the latter third as he is assaulted by hostile forces that work hard to knock him off balance.

This is a convincing portrait of a specialized genius and the other characters mainly serve to frame the central character. It's interest lies in being the "movie of the moment" with new technologies and the changing face of business. At yet another level, it is an excellent portrait of goal oriented behavior, as contrasted to our majority of dithering lives,

Roger Ebert
Manohla Dargis

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Dreyer, 1964, 2 hours, Denmark

This film has been variously described as a meditation on love, and a "two hour meditation on sofas and pianos". It reminds me quite a lot of Last Year at Marienbad, both in it's obsession with romantic love and it's fascination with architecture and interiors. While I cannot claim to have penetrated to the heart of the film, it was easy to watch for it's two hours worth, and it is visually and dramatically arresting and unusual. It is Dreyer's last movie, at age 75. It is indeed meditative even if it lacks the momentum and richness of plot of his three best known films (he made five in all).

Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is of middling age and has a beauty springing more from her narcissistic persona than physical or facial attributes. A former professional singer (we are treated to two exquisitely haunting songs in the course of the film) she is married to a lawyer (Gustav) about to be elevated to cabinet minister. "A woman's love and a man's work are mortal enemies", he ruminates at one point. Gertrud is going to leave Gustav for young and handsome rising concert pianist Erland who turns out to be a philanderer, boasting his conquest of her in a drinking party. Meanwhile, she is wooed by ex-lover Gabriel, a poet who has made it to the top. She breaks free of all three men to settle in Paris, immersing herself in a life of study (psychiatry, apparently) and we see her whitened of hair, finally breaking away even from Axel, her platonic lover. She has selected a spot for her own grave and an epitaph: Amor Omnia, "love is all".

The film has a kind of fluid formalism. Dreyer is restrained even at climactic moments, and in this film particularly, everything is on a tight leash, to the point of pantomime. The characters don't act naturally, in fact they don't even act. They strike statue like poses, as if for portraits. They are always in immaculate formal attire (except the tie-less Erland)  signifying that they are all "formed personalities", at a stage of maturity and fruition of their natural propensities, in a sense bound by their natures. Gustav and Gabriel are at summits of professional achievement, mirroring the film maker, their physical appetites very intact. Each shot is carefully framed and the camera roams over the opulent mansion liberally sprinkled with works and artifacts of art, including some very striking erotica, since the film never moves far from the carnal. Dreyer is a blend of the carnal, the spiritual and the artistic.

The film is a somewhat enigmatic conclusion to Dreyer's five salvoes in the world of film.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

8 1/2

1963, Fellini, 138m, Italy

This Fellini film has a permanent berth in the top films of all time, specifically the Top Ten of Sight and Sound, which are chosen by a process of voting by many director's and critics. Fellini had completed eight films with one unfinished, hence the title. The film is said to be autobiographical. Guido (Marcello Mastriaonni) is a film director in the process of making a science fiction film in which he has lost interest.

One need not look for a narrative, since even in as much it is there it is not the main point. Guido says somewhere that he wants to make a completely truthful film, and that is what Fellini aims at and in the process structure and plot are bypassed.

He has chosen film making itself as the subject which currently occupies him, as though to say that the subject is only a vehicle for the music that plays inside him. Some of his other films are humanistic essays (The Road and Nights of Cabiria) telling clear tales but now he has left all that behind him and it is human experience, his own, in all its textured and layered complexity which he sets out to capture, a film maker's stream of consciousness. Ebert says Guido is a man without a centre, and so it seems is the real director, but he puts his artistry and command of the medium to portray this very centrelessness in a poem of tight minimalism and structural economy, with the pieces seamlessly merging into each other. Part of it's charm is in the utter effortlessness.

It's a mixture of dreams memories and the realities of the ongoing film making process, with bills to be paid and people to be hired, and prospectors for stardom to be warded off, and the women to be juggled.. There is his wife(Anouk Aimee), his mistress, and his dream woman (Claudia Cardinale). And the film ends with a triumphant, joyful procession of celebration as the movie project finally takes off.

The film is a visual delight, the figures often floating just above the ground. The one I find most inerasable is as the entire cast floats as it criss crosses in slow motion in an open space: women young and old, nuns and priests, a clown and a magician as though mankind itself is on carnival. In the opening dream/reality sequence, Marcello is trapped in a traffic jam, and the score is a furiously beating heart; the car windows won't open and he hammers desperately as he suffocates and then floats into the sky in a kind of out of the body experience, to be finally pulled down to the ground like a kite. The tragicomic and utterly lovable figure of the harlot Saraghina gazes into the sea.

The film is drenched in Nino Rota's musical score. It is in the fusion of the visual poetry with the soaring joy of music that the film touches the sublime. Ebert recently remarked that he could see a Fellini movie on the radio. Click here for Ebert's article on Rota.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Le Boucher

Claude Chabrol (1930-2010), 1970, 93m, France

Popaul is a butcher and runs a meat shop. He is young and handsome and has an easy gait of one accustomed to swinging his arm. He is good natured and simple and well liked in the village community. He has done fifteen years of military service in Algeria and Indo-China where he was assigned the butcher's job in his units. He has seen more than enough of killing and corpses and blood.

He meets Helene, the young and beautiful headmistress of the village school, at a wedding celebration, and a friendship is struck. This wedding feast serves as a prelude to the story and we get to know the community by participating in this intimate celebration. Helene is not inclined to romance and the friendship proceeds along platonic lines. The butcher sometimes brings along a choice cut of meat for her. She presents him with a cigarette lighter, which is to play a significant role in the plot like Othello's handkerchief. He often visits her during school hours and lends a hand with the kids and evenings for a drink in her apartment on top of the school. He is strongly attracted to her but she wants to hold on to her celibacy chosen after the trauma of being ditched by her guy ten years ago.

And then a young woman is found murdered in the surrounding woods, which naturally causes ripples in the peaceful community. But the first half of the film is a relaxed savoring of the aromas and flavors of this French hamlet with its steeples and woods. There are also the prehistoric grottoes with otherworldly streams and formations of stalactites, with the art work of Cro Magnon Man on the walls. Helen is a popular and loved teacher and finds much satisfaction in caring for her herd.

It is during a picnic which proceeds through the ancient caves and out into the hillside with sunshine pouring from the azure sky that the second murder is detected when a few raindrops of blood fall on a piece of chocolate in the hand of a child. A bleeding hand is protruding over a ledge above. The needle of suspicion hovers towards Popaul.

The movie now turns into pounding suspense drama reminiscent of Psycho and Wait Until Dark.

It seems that the violence and suspense is only a MacGuffin to support this lyrical movie about people living in the lap of this bounteous region, with the camera lazily dwelling on each detail. The violence is only hinted and what we get is an exquisite and delicate liqueur of visual delights well supported by a quiet and delicate score. This is a film to roll over the taste buds and to allow the taste to linger.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From the Life of Marionettes

Ingmar Bergman, 1980, 95m, Germany

Suicides are generally a complete mystery since the chief witness has disappeared. The chain of events and the mental processes which finally precipitate the drastic action remains forever a matter of conjecture and surmise. Marilyn Monroe is a case in point. Murder can be subject to closer scrutiny, both from the forensic as well as the psychological viewpoint.

This is a movie with perhaps too heavy a baggage of psychiatric jargon and narcissistic introspection. The film opens with the seemingly motiveless murder of a street-walker named Katarina by Peter Egermann, who is having having a disturbed relationship with his wife, also named Katarina.

The film takes an objective view of the cataclysmic event examining it from different angles: his interactions with his wife in the preceding period; his dreams, in one of which he kills his wife; interviews with the psychiatrist, who also is emotionally entangled with wife Katrina; interviews with Peter's mother before and after the event; the eloquent outpourings of a gay family friend and of course the omniscient director-narrator's observations..

Why does Peter Egermann do it? The course of events is unshapened even in the last fifteen minutes. He wants to run away from the prostitute's den but the doors are locked. It is as though the floodgates of his lifelong turmoils suddenly creak apart--was it a glance, a word, a gesture or simply the spontanous consummation of an inner process that triggered the sudden eruption of violence?

Ingmar Bergman was in "tax-exile" in Germany when he made this German language film. Bergman is a person with appreciation for the complexities of the mind, specially in it's less wholesome manifestations. As Tolstoi says in the opening lines of Anna Karenina, misery is a far more heterogeneous commodity than happiness. Bergman experienced a sadistic upbringing under a bigoted father. With his precocious intellect and artistic talent he rocketed to dizzy success early in life. Thus he was uniquely placed to chronicle some of the more exotic blooms of human torment.

Rarely does a shaft of light penetrate into the dark landscapes of Bergman's inner world. The only redeeming feature is the privilege and power of articulation his characters enjoy to endlessly dissect themselves. But they are talking into the void, and rarely do they make mutual connection. As Peter Egermann says, they are mangled by surfeit.

One more litany of despair from the dour Swede.

Janet Jaslin NY Times

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mon Oncle Antoine (My Uncle Antoine)

Juttra, 1970, 105m, French-Canadian

This is sometimes praised as the greatest Canadian film. All I can say is that it is perhaps so local in it's meanings and evocations, that it's nuances and impact are lost on others from warmer climes, as they are for the most part on me. Many a time I was inclined to give it up as a lost quest but somehow hitting the half way mark, I just as well decided to do the rest.

The film is set in the 1940s in French speaking province of Quebec in an asbestos mining area, where the mineral noxious to human health takes it's toll on the labor community. We see the life of a family in a desolate hamlet through the eyes of a pubescent orphan. There are many human touches but the whole just does not seem to add up, at least not for me. It gathers momentum towards the end as we are taken on a journey through a snowstorm in the terrifying bleak Canadian snowy desert of ice on a coffin bearing horse carriage in the company of sozzled Uncle Antoine and his nephew Benoit, who is the protagonist. The situation is ludicrous, terrifying and pathetic in the sheer helplessness of the human midgets trapped in this icy hell.

The film does convey an image of the vast sparsely populated volumes of Canada and the struggle of settlers in former times.

Roger Ebert's Great Movie