Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Asa Jawar Majhe: Of Drudgery and Romance and Poetry

It’s one film which has been cropping up in our conversations now and then since it premiered at the 71st Venice International Festival last year, and was later shown at the BFI London International Film Festival where it won huge accolades. It went on to become a global phenomenon bagging several awards in international film festivals before it eventually opened in Kolkata amid much fanfare, but, disappointingly in only three theatres. When it hit the Kolkata screens on 26 June 2015, film enthusiasts made a beeline for it in all three theatres, often returning home, put off by the Sold Out board. We were supposed to watch it at Nandan, but were met with a condescending dismissal at the counter, for they did not seem to believe we were asking for tickets three hours before the show. All were sold out, and yes, long before we arrived. Our next stop was City Center, Salt Lake, which as we realised from the website, was fast filling up too. We did not take chance this time, and booked seats online while still on the Nandan premises. Another friend arrived soon after, by which time City Center too was sold out; he had to run to South City Inox to grab the last remaining seat. The point in prefacing the review with my ‘getting or not getting to see’ anxiety is to bring home the fact the overwhelming zest for this film, which is rare in case of contemporary Bengali Cinema. But unfortunately, as always it has been with good cinema, this film too did not get a statewide release, nor did it get as many screens in Kolkata as it deserved.

Reviewing Asa Jawar Majhe may be compared to commenting on great poetry at the risk of spoiling its lyricism and effortless appeal. The labour of love that has gone into the making of this film is visible in every single frame. It seems as if the director and his cinematographer (Mahendra J Shetty) are romancing with every bit of the film, replicating the emotions on screen. Only profound insight and an extraordinary proficiency in storytelling could do away with dialogue. Very few films have successfully managed to narrate a story depending on background score alone. 

The slow pace, the lack of dialogue, the long lingering on rotating bicycle wheels, walls, staircases, verandas, and filling of spice and lentil containers project an existential drudgery with the “Nothing happens, twice” effect of a Becket’s Waiting for Godot. However, while Becket’s play ends in despair of a never-ending wait continuing, Asa Jawar Majhe redeems its protagonists from the mundane everydayness of living on by allowing them a moment of togetherness which though short-lived comes with the intensity and ‘feel-good-ness’ of dream romances. The film working through powerful imagery and constant reminder of a desired but fantastical world of romance (underlined by the two prototype romantic songs, Tumi je amar and Nishi raat banka chand playing in the background) deconstructs the conventional paraphernalia associated with romance and coupledom by locating its protagonists in the harsh reality of a failing economy and the narrow alleys of a cramped North Kolkata neighbourhood. The crescent moon zooming out to reveal the veil of a mosquito net through which it is seen or missed is perhaps the most poignant moment in the film. The repeated motif of the shehnai (Bismilla Khan), which is the staple background score of most Bengali weddings, has been brilliantly deployed too.

In a long time, no other director has seen such a brilliant 
debut. Aditya Vikram Sengupta is certainly in the race to 
stardom. Thanks to Suman Ghosh for backing this small 
film, which might have been lost in oblivion. Ritwick Chakraborty 
and Basabdatta Chatterjee’s ‘non-acting’ leaves an indelible 
mark. 

As the end credit rolls, it seems as if you have been exposed 
to such a truth which you always wanted to tell, but never 
could.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Piku: ‘Feel good’ in a different package

Bollywood’s “feel good” romances of the 1990s, a genre re-inaugurated by Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and reinforced by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, had a heyday in the hands of Karan Johar, but gradually began to lose steam, when its gelatinous sweetness began to rack the nerves. Plus, the incredibly affluent families in which these romances were usually set also began to appear tormenting, for the sheer un-realism of the abundance of wealth which they shamelessly paraded: expensive kanjivarams as kitchen-wear and designer jewellery in plush hospitals became difficult to digest, although there was an initial awe at Bombay Cinema’s sudden rise from poverty and exaltation of the propertied class, as opposed to its lachrymose moralising against the latter ever since it came into being. However, an economically devastating downslide all through the second half of the 2000s brought in the need for realism, when even first-string production houses, such as Yash Raj and Dharma Productions, devoted to fantastical melodrama and barefaced revelling in opulence, began encouraging a closer brush with everydayness. In a certain way, Karan Johar’s growing friendship with Anurag Kashyap is symbolic of the ‘commercial’ and the ‘arty’ making a conscious effort to enter into an astutely planned arranged marriage. The family drama, the romance set against it, the songs and the dance sequences – all are still sustained, but in a different, more believable package. Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor and his latest venture Piku are both products (endorsed by movie-tycoon Aditya Chopra) of this new trend, which has proved to be successful not only in urban sectors or among multiplex viewers, but also in small towns and rural areas.

Piku is a family drama, sans the mushy sentimentalism of its 90s counterparts, sans an epic range of sugar-sweet aunts and uncles, greying and sagacious grandparents, well-dressed cousins having nothing to do, and plush weddings and tear-jerking funerals. Piku, despite certain ethnic specificities, manages to rise above two overused stereotypes, at least: first, the conventional Bollywood brand of an Indian family and second, Bengaliness. Although highly emotional, Piku saves the sentimentalism by bringing to familiar emotions a comic distance, or by viewing them with brash sarcasm. Father-daughter relationship has been an interesting emotional (and sexual) tie which both cinema and literature have explored time and again; Piku brings to it a mint-like freshness, despite the family’s endless toilet discourses. It’s hilarious how father and daughter alternatively bond and separate over constipation and bowel movement, Piku finding it hard to deal with the tantrums of an ageing hypochondriac father, never satisfied with his toilet ventures. But what comes through is a profound love for each other, the importance of being together, the pleasures of care-giving.

Piku, without being preachy, successfully conveys a social message which is rather timely. At a point, when even nuclear families are breaking down, with children relocating to other cities, leaving their parents behind, Piku brings together certain moments which inspire a strengthening of the parent-child relationship. Perhaps, the film touches a chord with everyone, by stringing together certain easily identifiable familiar moments, moments of despair and happiness, when one has an ageing, almost child-like parent to look after. While the film critiques the power relationship, in which the parent always takes advantage of being the parent, it also unveils the sheer joy in the ability in successfully parenting a parent. In this father-daughter equation, there is often a role reversal, shifting of power dynamics, but what comes through is the pre-eminence of affect, over and above the politics of emotion. Rana Chaudhury’s petulant mother and her regular squabbles with her son reinforce the message that there’s nothing to romanticise about the family, yet, there’s enough reason to stick to it. By associating a dysfunctional digestive system with emotion, Sircar generates a powerful symbol.

It’s interesting how Piku dismantles middleclass social decorum, by veering the narrative through endless talk on the lower bodily stratum, menopause, loss of virginity, nighties, sex life, and nuances of family feuds. This brings the film closer to everydayness, in which none is saintly, none is heinously evil. The ending divested of sentimentalization, delves deep into questions of unpredictability of life and inevitability of death, bringing to the latter a rare ‘feel-good’-ness, when it seems that there was indeed nothing more for which the old father could live on.

Amitabh Bachchan never appeared so lovably cute since Paa, and Deepika Padukone has never been so next-door. Irrfan underplays Rana with a rare panache, while Moushumi Chatterjee returns to Hindi cinema with her characteristic vivacity and chirpiness. The supporting cast is equally brilliant.



Amid the constant father-daughter row, what stands out is 

the consensus on need-based sex...well, that was indeed 

pleasantly surprising, for that one thing was powerful 

enough to dislodge all pretensions of moral high-

handedness and purity associated with the ‘tradition’ of 

old North Kolkatan families residing in palatial mansions, 

endlessly stereotyped in popular culture. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Imitation Game: Love and Death in the time of the Second World War!

When the Cambridge professor, with an exceptional talent at computing, is interrogated for an alleged “gross indecency” (the circumlocution for homosexuality), he asks:

So tell me what am I?
Am I machine am I a person?
Am I a war hero, am I criminal?

The interrogator does not have an answer and looks on flabbergasted at this fascinating mathematician who had dedicated his life to end the war. Sadness shows in his eyes, when the man is eventually charged of ‘indecency’ and put on hormonal therapy which would supposedly cure his homosexuality. He is indeed a war hero, who is labelled a criminal. The Enigma decrypting story and the man behind it remained in the dark for five decades: one of the most fiercely guarded secrets of the British government. What was made public instead was his ‘gross indecency’− he loved men!

Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a tragic love story, the story of a man who names his machine after his lover Christopher, the machine that would change the world. Predominantly a thriller, the film while dramatising the historical decrypting of the Nazi Enigma code (that shortened the war by two years and saved approximately 14 million lives) by Alan Turing, delves into his personal life, his homosexuality, his love affair, and the agony of being different. Flashbacks of Turing’s school days, his torture at the hands of his classmates, his love for Christopher, and his introduction to the world of cryptography undercut Turing’s apparently successful life as a cryptanalyst. Unfortunately, his success remains unrecognised; instead he is marked out as a criminal, and given the choice of two year imprisonment or hormonal therapy by the same nation-state which should have been grateful for the service he rendered.  

Ironically, the film brings out the ‘gross indecency’ of the British nation, evident not only in its illegal probing into personal spaces of its citizens, but also in its unending injustice towards men who identified themselves as homosexuals (the terms gay or queer had not yet become fashionable, during the time this film is set). Around 49,000 people were charged of ‘gross indecency’ in Britain, under the anti-sodomy law, between 1885 and 1967. A law that caused Alan Turing’s suicide in 1954!

The film interestingly posits questions of masculinity and sexuality in the backdrop of World War II, a predominantly hypermasculine affair, in which real men participated. The Imitation Game remarkably problematises this category of ‘real men’, by crowning the state-identified ‘unmanly man’ the real hero. The film could easily be canonised as one of the most telling narratives of hidden lives of heroes, poets, and other high profile men, who had either been punished or forced to lead a masked life for decades, for ‘coming out’ could have spelt the end of life for them.

Although Turing was granted Royal pardon by Elizabeth II in 2013, thanks to the campaign initiated by Turing’s grand-niece and others, those other 49000 men and women have not been pardoned yet! Endorsing The Imitation Game, the Human Rights Campaign's Chad Griffith said, “Over 49,000 other gay men and women were persecuted in England under the same law. Turing was pardoned....others were not. Honor this movie. Honor this man. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000.” (The Hollywood Reporter)

Benedict Cumberbatch credibly brings out Turing’s vulnerabilities and eccentricities, his eyes speak with a rare intelligence and his body language articulates a curious mixture of confidence and helplessness. Mark Strong’s sternness, Keira Knightley’s radiance and Matthew Good’s amicable disposition make the characters extremely believable. Greyscale footages of the real war that intersperse the narrative attribute to the film the truthfulness of a documentary, despite its overarching fictional framework.

Although we now have the answers to all the questions that a visibly devastated Turing poses to the interrogator, the film closes with a profound sense of despondency, the agony that Turing died an unceremonious death that was grossly unjust!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Baby: Terrorism, thrills and patriotic fervour

Neeraj Pandey’s Baby acquired more mileage and topicality than it aniticipated, thanks to the Charlie Hebdo incident, that has since floated multiple discussions, conferences and articles on the nature of global terrorism in the public domain. While acknowledging the fallacy in labelling every Muslim as terrorist (contrary to populist notions), a sizeable number of sensible journalists, social scientists, and political commentators seem to have arrived at a consensus that it is undeniable that the global face of terrorism in the twenty-first century has been unambiguously Islamic. S Prasannarajan, the editor of Open, writes:

"Fourteen years might be a tiny patch in history, but scars on the twenty-first century has one adjective – religious, or to be specific, Islamic."

Cautiously abstaining from generalising this claim, Prasannarajan qualifies the adjective, by pointing out, how such widespread ‘Islamic’ terrorism is contingent upon mindless misreading(s) of Islamic religious texts:


"The text of Islam continues to be read and misread for sustaining the twin essentials of its power struggle: conquest and the cult of martyrdom. Someone out there, somewhere in Arabia or Persia, is deconstructing the text for the expansion of a monochromatic imperium of absolute faith."

In the same edition, delineating terrorist networks that have spread like a difficult-to-unravel matrix in India, so much so that the country might just be sitting on a ticking time-bomb, P R Ramesh signs off with a portentous warning: “Indians have every reason in the world to be worried. Very worried.”

Pandey’s Baby reinforces this warning, uncovering the alarming networks through which terrorist activities are channelized, how young minds are tutored in and interpellated into jihad discourses, how it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the perpetrators of violence from their victims. There are numerous nodal points in this militant network, which has disseminated worldwide rhizomically. There's no single trigger point of this violence which can be identified and eliminated; rather, this extremist ideology of  terrorism is being spread through countless groups, cyber networks, and training camps. While raising the alarm, Baby makes every attempt to dispel the anxiety by projecting an extremely efficient undercover security force, composed of zealous patriots, with the right mix of brawn and brain, who are always on vigil to protect the nation and its inhabitants. However, Ramesh’s warning that India is precariously living on the edge nags till the end.

Baby, addressing the populist sentiments towards the squabble over Kashmir, rather than delving into the complex discourses that condition militant activities across the globe, makes of it an us/them issue, India’s vulnerability against a revengeful neighbour. Yet, what sets the alarm bells ringing loud is that terrorist threats no longer reside on the other side of the borders; the threats are perilously lurking in every corner of the nation. 

Pandey, however, dissociates religious identity from the national, by making the leader of Baby, a Muslim. And Ajay tells Taufiq that on his passport, he writes INDIAN in bold letters, in the box against Religion, prioritizing the national over ethnic identities. But, what’s most unsettling is the power of this jihad, the immense power of the discourse of martyrdom associated with it.  With each passing day, it is seducing a steeply rising number of young Muslims (notwithstanding their nationalities) who are embracing its ideology fanatically, in the name of founding a puritan Islamic empire. Case in point: Jamal.

Pandey reveals an appalling reality, but, does not allow his average audience to ponder over it, by hooking them on to the thriller bait of ‘what would happen next?’ The thriller narrative mode, spinning mostly on hardcore action, violence and breath-taking suspense, supersedes the disturbing reality it presents, and perhaps, this is what is drawing the crowds to the theatre. Despite its honest efforts, Baby eventually turns out to be another patriotic film, sans the mushy sentimentalisation of its predecessors, though. But Ajay's desh-bhakti is no less electrifying than a Sunny Deol uprooting a tube-well, and mouthing volcanic dialogues in front of an India-hating Pakistani mob. 

Pandey’s A Wednesday was far more subtle and nuanced than this.

The film is remarkably well acted. Danny Denzongpa brings the right dose of confidence to his portrayal of Feroz Ali Khan. Akshaye Kumar’s Ajay is raw and fiery, while Rana Daggubati literally brings to his performance a bulging muscle power.  The performance which surpasses all is that of Rasheed Naaz as the Maulana.


Post Charlie Hebdo, and a ridiculously juvenile PK, Baby would appeal to many and generate new meanings. But both Hebdo and PK are coincidental to its release, as it goes without saying. It is Pandey’s good fortune that both these disasters (of very different kind though!) turned out to be his lucky stars, that unwittingly gave him a rather smooth sailing at the box-office. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Haider: Of Sons, Lovers and Shakespeare

Naseeruddin Shah in his enthrallingly honest autobiography And Then One Day makes an interesting observation, which if not original, is uttered with a certain degree of sarcasm:

...the Hindi filmwalas have helped themselves to such humongous doses of Shakespeare ― there is no cliché in Hindi cinema that is not borrowed from the man, and I often wonder what popular Hindi cinema would have been like without Shakespeare’s source material.

Besides direct plot-borrowings from the playwright which have been rampant (from Comedy of Errors to Romeo and Juliet), the Bombay revenge dramas of earlier years bear distinct marks of Shakespearean tragedies. Even certain motifs, for instance, a guilt-ridden Sanjeev Kumar compulsively washing his hands at regular intervals in the Yash Chopra multi-starrer Trishul (1978) or the musical play-within-the-film which unsettles the villainous Simi Garewal revealing to the world the conspiratorial plot she had hatched to murder her husband in Subhash Ghai’s 1980 blockbuster Karz (later revisited by Farah Khan in the 2007 megahit Om Shanti Om), are clearly drawn from Shakespeare.

Therefore, when a partially mad Haider (Shahid Kapoor) stages a perfectly choreographed dance at his mother’s wedding, it appears more Karz than Hamlet, for in between Hamlet and Haider a lot has been stolen from Shakespeare without acknowledgement. In fact, in his one-man-show below the clock-tower, Haider reminds more of Antony Gonsalvez of the mother of all lost-and-found melodramas, Amar Akbar Antony (Dir: Manmohan Desai, 1977), than Hamlet, with a bout of Chaplinesque trampish comedy thrown in. Therefore, Vishal Bharadwaj’s official analogical adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy might appear less Shakespearean and more Bollywoodish to an alert viewer. The Indo-Pak skirmish over Kashmir does not help in upping the originality quotient, at least apparently! For, it invariably recalls Mani Ratnam’s mesmerizingly lyrical Roja (1992) or even the very forgettable Mission Kashmir (Dir: Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000), in which a brawny Hrithik Roshan, still shining in the glory of newfound stardom, mouthed some fiery dialogues and danced some extraordinarily good dances. The mother, figuratively representing Kashmir itself, is seemingly no revelation either, for she has always been a symbol of a contested political site, the nation, over which Hindi film’s good sons have fought emotional battles forever.

So, what’s new in Haider, and rivetingly and unsettlingly new?

Perhaps, Haider’s difference from all that went before it on Kashmir in Bollywood is that, the film tellingly discards the populist-nationalist rhetoric of the need to protect Kashmir from an insurgent and unlawful neighbour, which has been mindlessly villainized in film after film riding high on belligerent jingoistic invectives. Haider remarkably problematizes the Kashmir issue, rescuing it from the simplistic populist narrative of a Hindustan vs. Pakistan war, and locates it within a very complex matrix of ‘internal’ politics, in which the ‘real’ villain is not really a “weak-hearted” neighbour (cf. Border or LOC: Kargil or Pukaar) waiting in ambush to pounce on the unsuspecting at the first opportunity.

And, the great “to be or not to be” dilemma of Hamlet is here transferred into a less talked about reality of the war-torn Kashmir: Hum hai ke nahi hai, calls into question the state’s deliberate nonchalance towards those who disappeared never to return. The literally liminal existence of these disappeared people, between life and death, generating an entire population of “half-widows” is remarkably captured by the “to be or not to be” syndrome. The narrative of disappeared individuals in the wake of one of the most blood-curdling wars of all times has been thereby brought to the fore in a hard-hitting manner, not seen in any other mainstream film. This is perhaps one of the best parts of the adaptation, apart from the film’s gradual shift to a more surreal/absurdist mode in the second half. The existential crisis which forms the core of the Shakespearean play is transposed beautifully on-screen, be it in the clock-tower tramp act, or in the grave-diggers’ scene, the backdrop of a snow-clad Kashmir providing the perfect ambience for the absurdist drama to unfold believably.

Probably the best thing about this film is Ghazala. Enacted brilliantly by a luminously real Tabu, Bhardwaj and his co-scriptwriter Basharat Peer give Shakespeare’s Gertrude a wonderful makeover, from a passive, submissive mother and wife to an articulate half-widow, inextricably and helplessly torn between a distraught son and a scheming lover. In fact, the film by postponing the back-story of the murder of the Doctor (read, the appearance of the ghost), Haider’s father, foregrounds the Oedipal tension between mother and son to remarkably unsettling effects. In fact, Haider’s erotic leanings towards Ghazala are totally unambiguous, beginning and ending with a physical intimacy which is distinctly sexual. Bharadwaj and Peer do away with circumlocution which always took care to conceal the son’s eternal obsession with the mother, floating such narratives through sanitised tropes of nation, patriotism, duty and some such moral responsibilities.

Ghazala wields power both as a lover and a mother, in both roles, excelling in incredible seductiveness and an equally adorable vulnerability. This seductiveness which precariously verges on her self-destructive tendencies erupts rather powerfully in the end, when she blows herself up. What is remarkably extraordinary about Haider is that how by attributing an agency to Ghazala, Bharadwaj and Peer challenge the predominant patriarchal structures within which the Shakespearean play mostly operates.

Haider, while being located firmly in the tradition of Bollywood potboilers, also takes care to dissociate itself from it, most conspicuously evidenced by its portrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two Salmans, obsessed with Salman Khan films! The two knaves, to use an archaic term, turn out to be the most detestable villains, completely spineless and chicken-hearted. In other words, they fail the screen-god they are so fond of in their real life actions, thereby obliquely garnering a critique of Bollywood’s much celebrated larger-than-life heroism and its speciousness.

Yet, what appears disturbing is how Bharadwaj and Peer completely do away with the procrastination, which is so fundamental to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Haider broods like Hamlet, feels cheated, feels betrayed, but he doesn’t procrastinate in the classical Hamletian fashion. The design behind his father’s incarceration and his subsequent death (his jail days, by the way, cannot but remind of Manoj Kumar’s patriotic potboilers where the shaheed incessantly sings sentimental songs from behind the bars) is revealed to him much later, when half the film is literally over. By then, Haider probably is not left with enough screen time to put away the revenge eternally. Had he wasted time in procrastinating, the film would have dragged, robbing the plot of its initial raciness. Perhaps, this technical reason marked out procrastination as an unnecessary evil to be done away with, catapulting Haider directly into madness, which is, however, enacted radiantly, but not with too much originality. If there is any procrastination at all, it is more circumstantial than philosophical. What actually damages the intensity of the second half is a romantic song in the snow, which comes immediately after Haider visibly loses his mind. It seriously dilutes the gravity of his psychological trauma in its lyrical extravaganza, and also irrevocably harms Arshi’s character (Ophelia played by Shraddha Kapoor), attenuating to a great extent the tragic intensity of her eventual suicide.


While Haider is actually a constellation of intertexts overlapping each other in the garb of an official adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I believe the film cannot be fully appreciated without knowledge of Shakespeare. Even without that, the extreme agony of a burning paradise on earth is bound to leave you utterly distraught, as the camera gradually zooms out, the top shot revealing an unending snow-covered landscape strewn with dead bodies. The stains and blotches of blood on immaculate whiteness of the snow aggravate the horror of it all. Haider doesn’t die, he limps out of the frame in maddening rage, totally devastated, leaving to the audience’s imagination what would happen to him next. Bharadwaj’s Haider is not blessed with death, unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, which intensifies the tragedy all the more. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chotushkon: Triangles and Tragedies

The seemingly complex parallelepiped-like structure that encloses the title of Srijit Mukherji’s Chotushkon is a figurative representation of the plot which unfolds to reveal several twists and turns, surprising the audience with its sudden shift to a popular generic mode, which was unanticipated. But, for an alert viewer, the end should not come as a surprise: as it happens with several Hollywood thrillers, the more fastidious audience would constantly be nagged by the film’s prelude to the main plot. Beginning with a macabre suicide, the film leaps into a sophisticated world of filmmakers, three veteran and another struggling (completing the Chotushkon), who set out to make a film, which would be a bouquet of four shorts, each linked by a common theme: death! 
  
Actually, three different texts seem to operate without any apparent connection; and within those three texts, three other texts are inserted (shot in three different filters, green, red and blue), with a fourth text constantly signalling its possible emergence but never materialising. Interestingly, as this fourth text is anticipated with a lot of expectation, the twist comes with the audience realizing that they have been always already inhabiting this fourth text, without knowing. (If one notices the deployment of the three different filters, RGB, it would not be difficult to apprehend the fourth story. It's technically already there...the three filters merge to produce colour scale of the fourth story, the main story....it demands a little more attention!)

The plot gets even more layered as the characters within the main plot also realize that they have been made to perform within a text, plotted long time back. It’s as complex as the line structure that encapsulates the title! One really needs to pay attention to find one’s way out of this maze of overlapping fictions.

What makes Chotushkon an interesting watch is how the geometrical structure of the quadrilateral is deconstructed into a triangle, which becomes the base of, not one, but a triple tragedy. Srijit Mukherji seems to have come a long way from his Hemlock Society or Mishwar Rohoshyo to conceive something as intriguing as this. Located firmly in Tollygunje, the film to a great extent is auto-reflexive, concurring within it several intertexts (some a little too obvious, some subtle). This auto-reflexivity engenders a rare humour that undercuts the predominantly dismal circumstances in which the film starts, and seems to meander into now and then. Sample this: When Dipu (Chiranjeet Chakraborty, alias Dipak Chakraborty in real life) proposes a plot about an eccentric man, devastated at his wife’s death, he introduces his wife as Banalata and the framed picture shows Kirron Kher in her Devdas avatar. Several discourses are in operation here. First, Chiranjeet had played the treacherous lover to Kirron Kher’s Banalata in Rituparno Ghosh’s classic Bariwali. Kher also played Parvati’s mother Sumitra in Sanjay Bhansali’s 2002 adaptation of Devdas, and had appeared more comic than tragic in her exaggerated boisterousness. While Banalata is a victim of a man’s ruthless exploitation and is still remembered for her composure, poise and muted agony, Sumitra is etched in the memory of the Indian audience for her loudness and over-the-top, high-strung melodrama. The conflation of the two images (which also symbolise merging two different gharanas of filmmaking) in the framed photograph, therefore, appears hilarious, provided the audience could make the connection. This little scene also functions as a small tribute to Rituparno Ghosh who was supposed to play Jayabrata (the role now essayed by Parambrata Chattopadhyay). If Ghosh had played this character it would certainly have a different name.

And there's the unmistakable 36 Chowringhee Lane and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer connection. Aparna Sen had shot into fame as a director with the former revolving around a lonely Anglo-Indian English teacher, who is eventually betrayed by her favourite student. With Aparna Sen as the conjurer in the third film-within-the film, Mukherji makes it a palimpsest of her career as it were. Mrs. Meenakshi Iyer (Mr. and Mrs. Iyer) come together with Violet Stoneham (here Miss Havisham in the second film within the film, the Great Expectations link going very well with the English teacher in the third story) creating a thrilling memory game as it were. 

In another scene, towards the climax, posters of popular films hanging on the wall, act as interesting intertexts for the film in discussion. Through posters of such hardcore commercial films (specially, Protishodh and Troyee, which also hint at the theme) Mukherji makes a conscious effort to locate his own film in history.  The Aranyer Dinratri poster, on the other hand, becomes a literal reminder of the final setting: a bunglow in the middle of a dense forest. Sesh Anko again underscores the theme of murder and retribution. Nemesis? However, this could have been done far more subtly.

One of the primary strengths of the film is its cast: Parambrata Chattopadhyay is brilliant, in his easy-going, slightly effete and vulnerable disposition as the youngest of the foursome. Aparna Sen is restrained and it is interesting to note how she plays herself, but with a detachment. Chiranjit Chakraborty surprises by his performance which is comparable only to Dipankar in Bariwali. This time he speaks in his own voice though. Goutam Ghose is real, and delivers satisfactorily. But, it’s Kaushik Ganguly who leaves an indelible impression. The Payel-Indrashish-Rahul trio needed a lot more grooming though. They barley appeared as belonging to the 70s...the grey-scale did not help much.

Anyway, whether spring has returned to Tollygunje is difficult to confirm, but Chotushkone would surely contribute to expedite its arrival, given others also come up with equally interesting stories, not just a dumb Dev gyrating to cacophonous music in exotic locales and punching blood out of puppet-like goons. Bangla Cinema has always sustained itself on good storytelling, not on special effects or action (that’s why a Bangla Troy with Moonmoon Sen as Helen appears so classically hilarious); and Chotushkone tells the story well.


Friday, August 29, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey: Food of Love

Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake coming together to back a project speaks volumes about it. Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred Foot Journey had already received rave reviews before it officially released in India. Within two weeks of its release it gained significant momentum, mostly through word of mouth publicity, securing more number of shows at the multiplex with each passing week. A story of a diasporic Indian family in Rotterdam, The Hundred Foot Journey appeals for its simplicity, if not anything else; for, the film repeats some established stereotypes of diasporic narratives: the large Indian family, its nostalgia for home, its persistent efforts at preserving Indianness in a foreign land, cultural clashes, a deep sense of un-belonging, etc. While tales of migration have always revolved around these issues, in both populist and elitist diasporic cultural texts, The Hundred Foot Journey does not overexert any of these issues, drawing a careful margin before something tended to go over the top. Most importantly, as it happens in many migration stories, there’s barely any penchant for establishing the supremacy of India over other nations. In popular cinema, in particular, it is often observed, that a sense of triumph is achieved by successfully exhibiting a long-distance nationalism, with the intention of trashing the culture of the host country. The Hundred Foot Journey cautiously avoids such sentimental exaltation of the nation-state (‘home’), and in that sense, emerges as a truly transnational film, going beyond hyphenated identities and diasporic dilemmas. Although the sense of not having a ‘home’ plagues the characters, Mr. Kadam (Papa, played by Om Puri) consoles them saying, ‘Home is where the family is.’ But as the film comes to a close, the protagonist, Hasan Kadam (Manish Dayal) takes that extra hundred foot journey beyond the boundaries of ‘home’ to find a place in the world; the narrowness of a constricted ‘home’ is overcome, and Hasan becomes the citizen of the world, while preserving his memories and his roots.

A simple love story among many other things, The Hundred Foot Journey appeals to both gustatory and olfactory sensations through rich visual images of mouth-watering food. The film has every ingredient to appease the appetite of a foodie, every second scene displaying the aesthetic pleasure of great food; however, as it goes without saying, the sensation of taste buds needs to be transmitted to the eyes. It’s one of those rare films the sensuous appeal of which is directed to the tongue; it’s like watching food pornography. It’s that tempting, indeed! The love stories and border crossings take place through and over food; food divides as well as unites; food brings back memories, and food moves forward relationships. The film’s scopophilic appeal, in other words, is the wide range of food and their beauty.

The performances are first rate, with a passionately desi and boisterous Om Puri and a snooty and fiercely composed Helen Mirren matching up to each other’s panache. In fact, in that one scene where Om Puri mocks at her queen-like demeanour and high-handedness, the film makes a very subtle intertextual reference to Mirren’s Academy Award winning performance in the 2006 blockbuster The Queen. The recognition makes the scene funnier. Manish Dayal brings a delightful innocence to Hasan’s character, while Charlotte Le Bon as Marguerite impresses by her dignity and ethereal beauty.

If not a brilliant film, The Hundred Foot Journey is worth undertaking, for its overall feel-good factor. And of course to appease or to rake up gastronomic desires!!!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Filmistan: Only connect!

Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan could have very well carried the Forsterian subtitle to Howard’s End, “Only Connect”! Alluding to one of the most renowned studios in which some of the biggest Bombay blockbusters have been shot, Kakkar literally deploys it as a metaphor for an ‘affective’ site (read, territory) of connection, which is invisible in the geopolitical map of two warring nations. Bombay Cinema’s immense power to ‘connect’ people across ethno-territorial borders is the driving force of the narrative, with film-buff Sunny Arora as protagonist. Starting from the font of the title (that recalls Sholay) to songs, music and dialogues, Filmistaan unveils populist Bombay Cinema’s far-reaching impact on the masses, notwithstanding their location, race, or ethnicity. And, what’s extremely interesting is that Filmistaan very cunningly merges two very different genres of films: the realistic framework is often undercut by the over-the-top melodrama, Bombay Cinema is famous for. Sunny Arora, is pathologically ‘filmy’, and even in the most anxious moments, he breaks into songs, dialogues and mimicry of Bombay stars. The basic mantra of Bollywood -- ‘Entertainment, entertainment and entertainment!’ (as Vidya Balan so seductively puts it in Dirty Picture) – is what saves Sunny from dying in the hands of his captors.

The film refers back to several Partition narratives and cross-border terrorism stories, in which the aam aadmi becomes the unsuspecting victim of mindless fundamentalism. The concept that borders are but shadow lines which many micro-histories of individuals have time and again revealed is also the crux of this film. But, it reiterates the concept in a unique way, by identifying Bombay Cinema as an affective medium of emotional bonding; that nothing is really different on the both sides of the barbed wire is reinforced through the identification that takes place in appreciating films from Bollywood. Aftab and Sunny become mirror images of each other, and their friendship is appropriated into Bombay Cinema’s much-celebrated trope of male-bonding: Sholay, Sangam, Namak Haram, Dostana, Saajan, so on and so forth. The ending of the film while strengthening this bond, also recalls such blockbusters as Gadar: Ek Prem Katha that reached a resolution through a high-strung dramatic act amid a riot of bullets. The film ends on a tragic note, for it establishes the Hindustan-Pakistan rivalry as a continuous phenomenon, which began with the Partition (and even before that) and has never found a closure since then. As Aftaab and Sunny run towards the fenced borders with bullet shots following them from behind, the end titles begin to roll, underscoring the impossibility of a closure.

Filmistaan while celebrating stardom and glamour, also, very ironically, shows how a good film can be made on the strength of a good screenplay only, not on the strength of stars. None of the actors are known faces, yet all of them perform brilliantly. Sharib Hashmi as Sunny is a very intelligent casting; he brings to his characters the ‘feel-good’-ness of a crazy film-buff and a simple human being, with a big heart. Inaamulhaq as Aftab is also extremely powerful, giving Hashmi a stiff competition in several frames. Kumud Mishra and Gopal Dutt bring to their characters the cold-blooded ruthlessness that often makes shivers run down the spine.

A highly watchable gift from Shringar and UTV Motion Pictures, Filmistaan is one of the most important films which has released very timely...on the occasion of celebrating 100 years of Indian Cinema. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Apur Panchali: Rediscovering a phenomenon

Kaushik Ganguly who has been moving from strength to strength since Ar Ekti Premer Golpo reaching an acme of brilliance with Shobdo, revisits the most celebrated film in the history of Indian Cinema, Ray’s Pather Panchali, pulling out of oblivion its lead actor, extolled across the globe as the most eminent child artiste. This partly imaginary, partly real biopic of Subir Bandopadhyay (Ray’s Apu) charts the actor’s life which is remarkably, almost uncannily similar to Apu’s in several aspects.

The parallels drawn between Bandopadhyay’s life story and footages from Ray’s trilogy while locating the film in the great tradition of Indian art-house cinema (note the film is shot in ‘flat’ format, recalling yesteryear 35mm films), also celebrate that iconic moment in the history of Indian Cinema that marked a break from the past and altered film aesthetics forever. Ganguly pays homage to Ray, while, at the same time, traces the after-life of his most well-known child actor. Bandopadhyay did not have a screen life ever; his was an ordinary life away from the shutterbugs and media paparazzi; he was never really known. In this documentary-style narrative, Ganguly begins with Uma Dasgupta (Ray’s Durga) and Nemai Ghosh (Ray’s photographer) who speak about Bandopadhyay briefly before the fictionalized narrative starts unfolding. If Ganguly was deliberately mixing styles, I would ask him, why didn’t he interview the public, both in India and abroad, to reinforce his starting point? The voice of the audience is totally missing, and had Ganguly been a little more enterprising, he could have actually brought that out to corroborate that Bandopadhyay indeed is one of the most sought after child artistes of world cinema even today. The voice of the audience could have now and then intercut the narrative. This was necessary because Bandopadhyay was away from the public eye for more than half a century; he would not be recognised by anyone on the streets. Yet, he has enjoyed an enviable stardom, trapped in his child avatar. People remember him as Apu, and most people do not even know him as Subir Bandopadhyay. By making an SRFTI student pursue the fictional Subir to consent to travel all the way to Germany to receive a prestigious award, Ganguly made it seem that the actor only exits in the memory of film scholars who can go to any end to “do” anything “for” the Ray classic. The absence of the voice of the common people is indeed glaring. Remember, Pather Panchali was quite a box-office success, apart from winning unprecedented accolades in festival circuits!           

Apart from this conspicuous lack, Apur Panchali if not flawless, is quite an interesting watch. By replicating few frames and background scores from the Ray trilogy, and juxtaposing the frames with the old footages, Ganguly intelligently conflates the reel-life and real-life Apu, sometimes leaving you agape at the incredible similarities. It’s also interesting how Ganguly evokes a political context, the raging Naxalite Movement that swept across Bengal leading to the formation of the first leftist government in 1977. This connection is indeed laudable, for those were the years when neorealist Bengali cinema was time and again returning to the movement, celebrating it and anticipating a more promising future which it could herald. Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak were more articulately left-wing than Ray; but, the latter too had lent his voice in a more symbolic-allegorical way to this life-changing political tumult that rocked Bengal in the 1970s. Subir Bandopadhyay’s formative years in college and his participation in the Naxalite Movement must have roughly coincided with the release of Ray’s Calcutta trilogy. If Ganguly had been a little more scrupulous, he should have put up a few posters of one of these Ray films on the walls of the city to make the connection more hard-hitting. However, the film turns inwards from this political upheaval outside much too quickly to dwell on the domestic space of Bandopadhyay, which seems to be a partly real life enactment of Apur Sansar.

Now in his sixties, Ray’s Apu lives a solitary life in a crumbling house and seems to consciously distance himself from his screen avatar. Ray had not found him suitable for Aparajito; he had been offered other roles too, but his parents objected. He had never experienced the limelight himself. His stardom is as distant to his consciousness as are Apu and Pather Panchali today. Leading a pretty ordinary life, the aging Subir speaks with hurt pride, every time his stardom is mentioned. Ardhendu tries his best to bring out a sense of abandonment and negligence; but, what seems to irk is his obtrusive physical dissimilarity with Parambrata Chattopadhyay who plays the younger Subir. It requires a tremendous effort to suspend disbelief: how did Parambrata age into Ardhendu? No way! But, Parambrata is brilliant; Parno Mitra fits well into the character, but she needed to work on her Bengali accent. She sounds almost urban. Those playing character roles are the ones to watch out for; they remind of those luminous character artistes who lent abiding support to the heroes and heroines in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It was good to see Shobha Sen so many years after her amazing performance as the frail grandmother in Ghosh’s Abohoman! Kaushik Ganguly’s cameo as Subir’s colleague is also marvellous. He should act more.

It’s heart-warming that despite all the Paglus and Khokababus and all other such nonsensical stuff ruling the roost in Tollywood, films such as Apur Panchali is being made and is finding an audience. Kudos to Kaushik Ganguly for sticking to his guns, despite commercial pressure! And, please note it’s Venkatesh Films which has backed this film financially! Yes, they are the ones who had generously funded Ghosh for Chokher Bali and later supported him through many films, including his last two. Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho too was funded by them. It’s wonderful to see them supporting such projects as Apur Panchali!

But I can’t help pointing this out. Although not really remakes, such

 films as Apur Panchali, Kamaleshwar Mukhopadhyay’s Meghe 

Dhaka Tara, and Srijit Mukherji’s Jaatishwar which was released a

 few months before and set the box-office bells ringing loud, are 

much too dependent on nostalgia to draw the urban cine-goer! No?

 Nostalgia in other words is trending now, and is cashed in upon

 much too often to lure the educated middle class Bengali audience

 back to the theatre. Come to think of it, the colossal hit Bhooter

 Bhabishyot  (Dir. Aneek Dutta), also heavily depended on

 nostalgia only! But yes, the four films I have named are also

 original in their own way...but it’s nostalgia for a more glorious 

cinematic past which drove them on. No doubts about that! But, 

it’s also disturbing in a certain way! 


Monday, April 28, 2014

2 States: Predictable and Frustrating

Bombay Cinema has to a certain extent come out of its formulaic romances and extolling of heterosexual coupledom and family in recent times, examples being Queen and Dedh Ishqiya! Or we thought so! 2 States backpedalled the way forward the two above-mentioned films had shown. Reiterating stereotypes almost shamelessly, 2 States turns the romance between a Punjabi boy and a Tamil girl into a sentimental drama of a cultural tug of war between two families. While attempting to satirise the melodramatic paraphernalia that surrounds Indian marriages, the film fails to sustain its self-distancing mockery and subscribes to the very thing it had went out to ridicule. The Herculean task of convincing parents into accepting a spouse not belonging to the same class, caste, region or race would appeal to the masses certainly; but, the whole thing is so overstretched that it becomes difficult to sit through the mushiness of it all. It’s understandable that how very frustrating and immensely taxing it is to go through and finally surmount obdurate family resistance to personal choices in marriage; but, the problem is the film overdoes it to an irksome extent.

Having said that, I should also concede 2 States is very real! But the problem lies in the title itself. How can you stereotype and homogenize people of two different states, here Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Are all Punjabi mothers so uncouth and unrefined? Are all Tamils so restrained and solemn? This is the story of two families, not of two states! One loud, garish, aggressive, over-the-top, revelling in excesses; the other, subtle, profound, quiet and minimalist.

2 States set in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Chennai cuts across the Indian nation-state, at least metonymically, playing up the hassles of being in a relationship, faced by post-liberal, urban, heteronormative couples. It uncannily reminds of Hum Apke Hain Kaun and such family dramas that dominated the Bombay film factory in the 1990s, with Hindutva fundamentalism spreading its tentacles in an alarming way. Nothing has really changed in these twenty years. Only that young boys and girls no longer moralise about pre-marital smooches. Or that’s what the film unwittingly projects!

All of this can be seen from a very positive perspective too. One can infinitely sentimentalise about how this film based on the Chetan Bhagat novel of the same title makes an attempt to bridge the differences among several Indias that is geographically contained between Kashmir and Kanyakumari, through love. How realistically it portrays the problems of the modern urban youth, bent on starting a family! How marriages are not so romantic as they seem! But, what needs to be noted is the film’s much too willing subscription to the status quo; it eliminates rebellion against hierarchy as not an option at all, and extols conformity to rules and customs. That way, it takes Bombay Cinema back by a few miles.


The only saving grace in the film is Alia Bhatt. Her effortless performance, her innate vivacity, and her grace keep the film going. Arjun Kapoor is easy on the eye, but needs to undergo speech therapy, it seems. His heavy tongue eats up half the dialogue he delivers with effort! Revathy has been completely wasted. Ronit Roy is re-cast as the tyrannical dad aka his role in Udaan; another typecast! Amrita Singh tries hard to be funny and aggressive at the same time, but does not succeed much. She draws a few laughs from the audience, but such Punjabi mom act has by now become an annoying stereotype in Bombay Cinema. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

‘Jatishwar’: The mystery of memories



Memory has a major role to play in writing and rewriting history. History is not confined within pages of fat books, but history is a liquid narrative, which takes the form of that memory which carries it and gives shape to it. This memory might be the memory of single person (personal histories), or of a collective populace. Therefore, history has myriad versions, and it is impossible to pin down a single version of the truth. Therefore, Rohit (Jishu Sengupta) is flabbergasted at the initiation of his dream project – of discovering Antony Firingie, the man and his music. The film takes a documentary mode, and commendably so, as Rohit interviews people on the streets of Chandannagore to find out what the public memory of Antony is. Nobody seems to know Antony, apart from the fact that matinee idol Uttam Kumar had played him in a Bengali blockbuster in the early 70s! That is the most familiar memory of this great musical genius, who seems to have receded into oblivion. Jatishwar, as it has been erroneously publicised by many, is not a remake of Antony Firingie. Yes, the retro-story in sepia tone is no different from the Uttam Kumar-Tanuja classic, but there’s much more to this Srijit Mukherji film. 


The fact that nobody could give any valuable information on Antony speaks volumes on the gradual dilution and eventually complete erasure of a genre of music (here mostly kabigaan, and its various phases), which was immensely rich, and demanded of the artists superlative intelligence, presence of mind, and the potential to compose impromptu! Kushal Hajra (Prosenjit Chatterjee) is perhaps no real Jaatishwar! He might not indeed be a reincarnation of Antony! He is perhaps that lost memory which is personified in a the form of man, a man who smarts under the massive history of that lost era which heavily weighs down on him and robs him of his sanity. The film takes its cue from such cult Indian films such as Madhumati or Sonar Kella (I was even reminded of another Uttam Kumar classis, Sannyasi Raja), and plays on two different levels: on one hand, it recalls and revives a particular musical genius who had a significant contribution to Bengali music, on the other, it firmly situates itself in the tradition of reincarnation or rebirth films, which have always been box-office successes in India. Music and cinema, therefore, blend in the narrative of Jatishwar, revealing a rich cultural tradition, while acknowledging Indian Cinema’s heavy dependence on songs and lyrics. The film could have used a few more well-known Bengali songs to reinforce the nostalgia...apart from some fading tunes (E shudhu gaaner din..., etc.), not much has come into the film, sadly enough!


I would refrain from delving deeper into the story, which is after all, a love story. It is also a film about communal harmony. In fact, the film also unveils that cultural colonialism was not a one-sided process; it was a game of exchange, after a point of time. As the narrative moves back and forth in time to establish so many plot strands, the whole attempt sometimes looks a tad forced. But, what is evident is that a lot of research has gone into the film. Kudos to Srijit Mukherji! But, he could have been a little more careful in streamlining the plot! 

Kabir Suman’s music is a definite plus; and interestingly, remarkable experiments have been done with the camera. It jolts, it jerks, shifts points of view, and what not! Prosenjit Chatterjee as Antony is a stunner (thanks for the dubbing), but Prosenjit the actor shows himself best in Kushal Hajra. But, the mannerism in his voice, which has become much too familiar, sticks out like a sore thumb. Jishu Sengupta is low-key and adorable. Swastika looks older than the character she has played, but she has tried her best. Mamata Shankar, Abir, and Kharaj are the other mentionable names in the whole gamut of Tollygunj starlets populating the film.