Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ray, most feminine of directors, and his Charulata

1964, 119m, Bengali, "The Lonely Wife", based on Tagore's "Nastanirh" (The Broken Nest")

Extra marital affairs were not unknown in Victorian India of 1871. Charu (Madhabi) is the bored childless wife of Bhupen, workaholic editor and owner of "The Sentinel", one of the yet faint newly emerging voices of protest against British rule. She embroiders a three petalled flower on a white piece of muslin stretched on an embroidery frame as the opening titles roll. She wanders aimlessly around the rooms of the immaculate upper class house, listening to the street sounds, observing the antics of a monkey on a string through a pair of opera glasses. Embroidery is a very apt symbol for this exquisitely delicate film. Her doting thick bearded somewhat unattractive husband emerges from another room, lost in his political journalistic reveries, oblivious of his wife's presence. But he is a kind well meaning chap and as he realizes his wife's need for company and occupation, he suggests inviting his own younger brother Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray's perennial hero, from the Apu trilogy onwards), who has just completed his studies, and has literary aspirations. And that is how the trouble starts. --the young, beautiful, intelligent bored to death wife and a handsome, poetic, romantically inclined, college pass out is inflammable stuff in the stuffiest of eras.

It is strange that this six feet five hulk of a man, Satyajit Ray, should have produced a body of work so feminine in it's texture.

Ray is at his most intoxicating in his portraiture of women. Even his favorite hero Soumitra has more of Shelley than Byron in him---he is a bubbling brook who sings a range of melodies. In Aparajito, he was a somewhat ordinary young man given to a moderation of revelries of youth who carelessly neglects his mother even as she expires in his absence. In Apur Sansar, he graduates from idealism to the tragedy of losing his deeply loved wife (Sharmila Tagore), already having lost in succession his sister, father and mother in the fist two parts of the Apu Trilogy-- and finally triumphant acceptance. Soumitra is feminine with abandonment. I suspect Ray was somewhat embarrassed with his towering frame and rough masculine, even coarse, appearance and saw in Soumitra someone he would have preferred to look like, someone who doesn't stand out like a thumb. Tagore too was six feet two. There is perhaps some food for thought in that Gandhi was was not even five feet five--he was the most manly of men and quite obsessive of his gender.

Charulata is a romantic film which hovers dangerously close to eroticism--dangerous in terms of the era it inhabits and also in terms of the Tagore-esque refinement of it's creator. One of the climaxes in the film occurs in the earlier part as the lovers never to be are in dalliance in the weedy garden where a naughtily dis-clad stone Cupid observes a poetry exchange with Madhabi on a swing. The dams of her emotion break down inexplicably in a later scene when Amol's poem is published in a respected magazine. She sobs uncontrollably. Is she lamenting her own strangulated creativity? But she has her revenge when her own short story is printed--she flings the paper at Amol, her eyes blazing in triumphant exultation.

And, in the background, the wheel of history silently rolls. Each of Ray's movies films are precisely located in a specific era of India's past and he recreates a period with poetic and masterly indirection. He is a great chronicler and passionately of native soil. He is a nightingale who sings of his land. In The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) the deadly British political game of  gulping vast Indian territories is wound around the comedy of two dissipated nawabs and their errant wives. Ghare Bhaire (The Home and the World ) is towards the proposed partition of Bengal in 1909, and examines the ambiguities in the rise of nationalism, as birds of many feathers take shelter and advantage of the social turbulence. Ray brings history to life by telling stories--it is a moot question whether history or the story comes first. After all, the world, and even the British, know English history more through the series of Shakespeare's plays than what may have actually happened. In Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder), we learn of the harrowing Bengal famine of the forties artificially brought about by the diversion of rice to the troops battling the Japanese in South East Asia. It is a masterpiece of understatement as we participate in the rhythms of remote rural Bengal, and the famine is brought home through one single death. Excess is what you will never find in Ray's films.

Charulata is a delicious slice of historical cake, recounted with humor and love. Amol  receives a marriage proposal propped by the carrot of higher education in England to be financed by his father in law to be. England, a magic word! The land of Shakespeare, gloats Amol , as his mouth waters. And of Macaulay, Burke and Gladstone, chimes in his brother! Even as they protest the excesses of British rule, their patriotism takes the form of hooting for the Liberal party in the British elections. Fiery Gandhi is a long way in the future and the spirit of the age is more expressed through the rather comically idealistic hymns of the anglophiliac Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who is buried in the Amos Vale cemetery in Bristol. There is little effort to hide their admiration for the English. Satyajit Ray embodies this deep dualism of Indian intelligentsia--we never seem to be able to chose between the East and the West, to this day. India has indeed been a confluence and a clash if never quite a melting pot for many and divergent civilisations, and this shimmering immiscibility of hues is what it is. It was in Bengal more than any other part of India that England and India came most closely face to face. Tagore and Ray are two pre-eminent examples of this fruitful insemination.

Ray has been on occasion compared to Shakespeare. This is not really far fetched. Shakespeare in his own words is "god's spy on earth". It is in his ability to encompass the entire range of human experience--birth, childhood, sickness, and above all, death; the seven ages of man; transcending differences between clown, king, soldier, man, woman--that he excels all other human beings. Hamlet's mind as he sets out on what is to be his final journey towards the fatal duel; the scene of the morning after when Macbeth's murder is discovered--Shakespeare straddles these incomprehensible extremities of life, even as he treats us to the exquisite social refinement of "Love's Labor Lost".  Ray plays a gentler flute but his melodies recognise the secret recesses of the heart, and reach stunning crescendos. Again and again, in film after film, he soars. Ray unbares the range of human experience through the society of Bengal, the city more than the countryside, the middle and high more than the low. His sympathy is always universal.

He has a peculiar power of compressing an ocean into a drop--certain split moments which contain literally an infinity of meaning. Two such come at once to my mind. The first is from Pather Panchali. Apu is leaving his childhood home forever. His elder sister Durga has been lost to poverty and disease. He hurls into a muddy pond a lately discovered necklace, one which his late sister had stolen from a neighbour and vehemently denied having stolen.  The object sinks into the slush to be covered by the floating algae. Now the little secret is theirs alone, a private jewel of memory. The past is dead, childhood is over.

Another one occurs in that other masterpiece, Jalsaghar. Bishwambar is of a an aristocracy hurtling towards economic extinction, overtaken by the newer moneyed aristocracies. A musical soiree, such as form the central passion of his days of decline, has just concluded. His much scorned lately rich neighbour Mahim is about to fling a purse towards the performer. Bishwambhar extends the hook of his walking stick to restrain Mahim  forcefully by the wrist, claiming precedence as host to make the first offering. It is a stunningly dramatic moment, an assertion of dignity by a doomed man, of culture over vulgarity.

Such too is the conclusion of Charulata. Bhupati has been shamelessly defrauded by Charu's brother. And now he discovers Charu's infatuation with his own brother Amol, who has already scampered away in remorse and is on his way to England. Knowing everything, Charu extends her hand to her husband. But the hands fail to reach each other. Not yet. It is a sad moment of triumphant optimism, as if a flickering candle settles into a steady flame.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Cow

Dariush Mehrjui, 1969, Iran, 115m, "Gaav"

Hassan loves his cow, the only cow in the mud caked, sand blown village, in an age before electricity. He bathes the cow, talks to her, laughs with her. The bond between cow and man is extraordinarily powerful :emotional, spiritual, obsessive. But the star crossed love is smitten with incomprehensible tragedy, as the beloved dies suddenly, while he is away for a day. He cannot bear the shock. As he pines away, he gradually comes to believe he himself is the cow. A rare brand of insanity indeed as he turns into the deceased animal. We find him chewing away at the hay, big eyed and uncomprehending, bellowing furiously at the considerate neighbors who want to care for him. Well, this may verge on the ludicrous, but the film is profoundly tragic, as a man sinks into insanity beyond redemption, metamorphing into a different species.

In the process, we see the life in the village, which could be the stone age or millenia ago, but actually is very like what might have been in this part of the world a century ago. The environment is familiar to me from what I have heard from my own elders. The close neighborlinesses of the villagers, as they join in grief and festivity, is a picture of social symbiosis which has disappeared. The grief of the beloved Hassan as he sinks irretrievably into his delusions, becomes the common concern and grief of all the village. And then the village is regularly terrorized and plundered by a tribe of bandits and the shared peril draws them together. This impoverished and tightly bound fraternity of good people brings in me a feeling of nostalgia for places I know only from hearsay.

This is a strange, powerful, imperfect film. The background score, using indigenous string instruments is evocative of the heart wrenching pains of this semi pre-historic existence. The palette is a bit too dark. The village streets, the mischievous urchins tormenting the village idiot, the pathetic pots and pans,and the minimality of life's resources, is captured in the sensitive cinematography.

A deeply felt film. Hassan is a tragic and human figure. The director makes him entirely credible, though he borders on absurdity. This is the stuff of mythology, folk lore, the workings of the deeper strata of the mind. It is a portrait of an ordinary human being when confronted with the essential enigma. It is like Lear and his nevers. And it speaks the language sheerly of the heart, not the intellect.

Thanks to Nathanael Hood for introducing this film. His far more comprehensive review is HERE

Last Year at Marienbad

Alan Resnais (1928-), French, 84 minutes, 1961, "L'Anee Derniere a Marienbad"

".....I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors--silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls ..."

The film begins with this commentary accompanied by  liturgical sounds of an organ( could be Bach or Handel) as the camera travels over various aspects of the building, a baroque palace turned into a hotel , examining the ornate cielings, the statues, mirrored walls. The voice belongs to X, the protagonist, and a major part of the film is occupied by this impassioned architectural discourse.

He is obsessed by the place no less than by the woman he has come to meet after a year (or is it a million years). Yes, the film is a love story. But his obsession for her (her name is A) seems to have reached a sublime (or pathological if you prefer) pitch, and every slab, every cornice, the corridors and salons etc., etc., seem to be the embodiment of this craving .

The hotel is like a living being, a piece of space-time in which his soul is eternally encaged, the place where the battle was fought and lost. It's architectural wonders  represents the beloved's body (like the Taj Mahal). It has been rendered sacred by the events which are embalmed in its mass and spaces. It is the Zone. He is here to decide his destiny for evermored, a crucial rendezvous, maybe a duel.

This is a film without a story, or at least a story no-one seems to understand( not even the director). More importantly it is a film which does not need a story. The black and white images flow torrentially as the camera runs, leaps, somersaults, probing the architectural intimacies;  a  voice recollects a saga in modulated monotone to the accompaniment of the throttled, soaring notes of an organ; this is the substance. Understand it or not, you are not going to forget it. Who needs stories? Nor should we demean it by trying to figure it out childishly as though it were a riddle.. It has to be left alone and seen for what it is, a visual-vocal-tonal poem about the passage of time, the ante-chambers of the soul, and the pauselessly succeeding moments of our lives that become embalmed as they are extinguished.

The voice, the music, and this cathedral like hotel are the elements which fuse in a symphony. What a voice! Can anything compare to the sublimity of a voice? This is a voice as deep as the organ accompaniment; a full, resonant voice emanating from the bowels of the soul. And my French is not even primary.

The man(X) meets the woman(A) and tries to convince her that they had met a year ago. He tries to remind her with a desperate insistence of  many small details of the encounter-where she sat, how she sat, how  her elbow was positioned, what was spoken and promised-namely to meet after a year. She denies all recollection of such a meeting even as X serenades her with  more and more details, culminating in his invasion of her chamber. Isn't life like that? What for him is a matter of life and death is not even recollectable for her.

Then there is the third character (M), possibly her husband, who defeats him in the game of Nim every time they play. M shoots her when he discovers her with X  but this seems unsatisfactory to X so there is no problem to have her alive a few moments later. Apparently X commits a pseudo-suicide. But even death is ambiguous in this film.

These are but excuses for the circular and brooding film to investigate and explore the world of past-present-future embalmed in these precincts. There are the guests who now and then make an appearance, conversing in polite, muted, almost soundless tones as they float from chamber to chamber beneth the chandeliers, across the mirrored halls, through the corridors lined with marble sculptures. Mostly the the scene is populated only by the Voice in the deserted floors or at most one or more of the threesome, X, A, and M.

It does have all the elements of plot into which ambiguities are built in as a matter of artistic necessity. Be that as it may it is a powerful portrayal of the workings of the human mind and soul. The labyrinth of the palace  is not just the setting but also the subject of the film. It is a poignant metaphor for one of those secret places to which we human beings are wont to happen by in our wanderings.

It is a choked, sorrowful film-about the past, about possibilities which failed to happen, hopes held in abeyance. It is also a film about time. It's about the three existences of past, present and future. It has echoes of the eternal which human beings are as capable of perceiving as their finitude.It is a film which could have been nothing other than what it is.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Blue Kite

Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993, 140m, China, "Lan Feng Zheng"

Mao died in 1976. Between his assumption of power in 1949 and his death is a strange period in which a series of experiments in social engineering were carried out  at the cost of great suffering to ordinary people. This film narrates the experience of a single family caught in this tempestuous era.

The narrator is the boy Tietou and the movie covers the first ten years of his life, which falls in this period and we catch glimpses of the Great Leap Forward; the Anti-Rightist witch hunts; the organised and officially blessed mobs of youth whose rampages were the Cultural Revolution. The drama narrates the fortunes of the family comprising the boy's mother, the beautiful and plucky Chujuan; the three husbands she loses one after the other; her sister, a typical thoroughly brain washed, alternately politically awakened product of the period; her two brothers; and the mother, an anachronistic granny bewildered by events, as indeed are the best of them.

The reach of the party is pervasive and politics cuts sharply into private lives, often creating fissures within the family. We see the culture of mutual denunciation just as the boy's biological father is exiled to a work camp after he is reported against by a close friend. Teachers are publicly denounced and their heads shaved. His mother and third father are belabored by a mob after a poster campaign against them. It has  resemblance to pre-war Germany in that people are compelled, at the point of the gun, so to say, to think in a particular way. It is a lesson in the power of distorted ideologies to wreak havoc and chaos.

Yet the scourge of Mao's reign was too short to succeed in obliterating traditional ways and we see normal humanity huddling together behind domestic walls and biding their time.

The film rips off the curtain behind which the reality of this enigmatic period is hidden. The street scenes with children at play and the details of life are realistically caught.The background score is non-existent but for brief subdued eruptions at climactic moments. A room with a bookshelf is a recurring marker, as though symbolizing the element of stability in the human heart which tempests cannot shake. Another repeated motif is a brilliant eruption of fireworks, punctuating both joy and tragedy, like the inherent energy and resilience of life.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Time for Drunken Horses

Bahman Ghobadi, 2000, 75m, Kurdish Persian, "Zamani Baraye  Masti Asbha"

The eponymous horses are in fact mules which are employed to smuggle cargoes of tires and other articles across the snow covered and land mine spangled mountains which form the border between Iran and Iraq. They are routinely fed liquor in order to help them make the arduous journey across the harsh tundra like terrain. The title is also a satiric reference to the warring nations (who have more the obstinacy of mules than equine dignity), and the impoverished dwellers of the region who are the victims of their political vendetta.

The impassioned semi documentary centers on the vicissitudes of an orphaned family comprising two brothers and two sisters living with their uncle. All the cast retain their real life names in the film. The younger brother Madi is crippled and in urgent need of medical attention and in danger of his life. He is the MacGuffin around which this magnificent anthropological or political essay is constructed. Smuggling is the precarious means of livelihood of these simple and tough mountain folk, and any operation is liable to end in disaster due to gunfire and ambushes.

In the course of the narrative, we participate in the routines of these Kurdish Iranians. The elder sister Rojin is married off with the understanding that the husband's family will care for and provide for the desperately needed surgery of Madi. The bargain is not kept and instead a mule is given as dowry. The simple marriage ceremony and the almost funereal procession over the mountains is beautifully captured. We catch the life in glimpses of a class-room, a busy and quarrelsome market place, or a fist-fight over a matter of payment. The younger sister Amaneh badly wants a new exercise book, which her doting brother delivers right in her class-room. Madi screams as his hind is punctured with a hypodermic needle. Madi as Madi gives a wonderfully natural performance as a half intelligent and half moronic cripple of indeterminate age. The primitive life and poverty is invaded with symbols of the modern world like gleaming bicycles, tires, gunfire and land mines. It's the picture of a world in the sad and painful throes of transition.

This anthropological panorama is seamlessly embedded in the moving dilemma of these siblings hurled against the ongoing blizzard of national hostilities. The cinematography does justice to the bleak denuded magnificence of the landscape. The canvas is mostly sheet white with a cold, sunless sky and the only colors are of man made objects like clothing.

The overall impression is of poignant helplessness of tiny human figures moving across the harshly intimidating mountains, pawns in a mindless chess game. This is a masterpiece with western movie making standards and an Oriental sensibility.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Nolan, 2010, 150m

Two questions which surface after seeing this long and tedious film are (a)Why was it so popular? (b)What motivated  the film-makers to make it ($160 million, for heavens sake!)? I will leave the plot alone, since you have probably seen it. (It's about syringing ideas out of, or into, other people's heads, though I would think talking a more convenient procedure.)

With the world becoming increasingly complex, we are discovering ever newer and harder to pin-down or articulate dissatisfactions. We crave for answers, however half baked. Gurudom is a thriving business as people turn inwards seeking ways to fill the void left by the demise of faith, which no science or philosophy is able to fill. The present film seems to belong to the same genre of quackery as the latest breed of self-help books and self proclaimed jet borne sages, with or without flowing robes/beards.

The film has a germ of truth in that it vaguely mirrors the ideas of Jung in recognizing the vastness and depth of  our inner world, which we have been slower to appreciate than the dazzling glories of astronomy and physics. On the other hand it presents a very desolate picture of the mind as a computer like automaton without intrinsic hope or creative energy. No room for the soul in this mind. And can happiness be found only in delusions and dreams? Surely we are not made of such vapid stuff, there has to be hard ground somewhere.

The investors probably realized this is a genre to cash in on, with the success of films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which dealt with a similar theme of selective memory erasure and Matrix, dealing with collective delusion.

Very early in the movie, I decided not to make an extra effort to decipher the plot since I was clear there is nothing profound here. My compulsion to see it was mainly to join the discourse about this biggest block-buster after Avatar. The special effects are not impressive since you know it is just a computer generated deja vu of the world falling apart, (served ad nauseum since King Kong), and a dream or not in any case. Finally, cinema itself is the stuff of dreams, so what difference does it make? For the rest, people and objects criss-cross the screen at high velocities accompanied by appropriate noises, and folks (unless they happen to be apparitions) bashing or shooting at each other for reasons best known to themselves. They wear grim expressions (who ever heard of humor in a dream) and Ellen Page in particular has both eyes and mouth wide agape probably signifying architectural precocity, in contrast to her unforgettably innocent portrayal in Juno. The script itself is a desultory running commentary on the self manufactured logic needed to make sense of the psycho-neural skulduggery.

The pseudo-profundity and undecipherable plot accounts for it's mass appeal and one can imagine the heated discussions among the nouveau intelligentsia, on the drive back home, or over a drink, to dissect the plot thread by thread. Apparently, the market for such fare is much larger than one would imagine. In a way it may be good that people are asking self exploratory questions of the right kind, even though they take such puerile answers seriously. After all, the complexities of the times are fertile soil for charlatans and confidence men to thrive.

Best avoided, with due apologies to Nathanael Hood, not the first person to admire it. After all he is in the illustrious company of no less than Roger Ebert, who gave it four shining buttons.