Superfood for your childs intellect

Golden words indeed but what are most kids doing holed up in an indefinite lockdown? “Netflix and chill” seems to be the mantra but can we watch something that truly enriches us? Can a global catastrophe provide us with a global worldview? I invite your child to discover World Cinema with me in a unique Corona friendly format.

This is how it works :
You child and I mutually agree on a movie for you to watch – something offbeat and out of his or her comfort zone. After you are done watching and mulling over at it we Zoom/Skype and have a freewheeling discussion around it. I will make it fun with online resources. The film will be age appropriate and you can do as many sessions (movies) as you like. Children and teenagers can use this to sharpen their writing skills by penning a review which I will evaluate and give feedback upon.

For a richer insight into the concept please watch my TED talk.

Get in touch !

On Trees

cc_iStock-478639870_16x9Trees are the most beautiful entities on earth. I realised this important truth only in the last seven years as my eyes started lingering over the majestic beauties which are found all over Singapore. There is something magnetic about them – the strong, robust and proud trunk, the branches which spread out in all directions and reach for the sky, the lush canopy of leaves which form an exquisite pattern against the sky when you look up and the roots, of course. The roots are special, those exposed arms with which the tree holds the earth in an eternal embrace. 

I am no botanist, my knowledge of tree species is very poor indeed. However I can rattle off names of exotic tree species from Africa to Latin America, but more on that later. I grew up in a modest apartment in Kolkata that was situated on a busy road leading to the airport. It was a reasonably green road, lined intermittently with trees and bushes. But there was something special about the 300 yard stretch in front of our house. There were  rows of closely planted Gulmohar trees which completely covered the road. My days as a young boy often passed daydreaming while gazing at the trees from our balcony. It was my father who pointed out how special our location was, nowhere along the 8 kilometre stretch were the trees planted with such symmetry and generous density. He is the kind of man who will pause to touch and feel an exotic looking leaf, pluck one of them and bring it home to show us. He would marvel at how glossy the surface is and how alive is its green colour. But for me it was still not a love affair.

My first job was that of a tea taster. Here was an opportunity to fall in love with a bush called camellia sinensis but for the duration of my job I remained immersed in unlocking the mysteries of the flavours of the black tea that its leaves and buds produced. I was only mildly intrigued at the glass top coffee table which my colleague fashioned out of a tea bush, inverting the trunk so that the strong wily branches served as scores of elegant legs.

A few years later I found myself deep inside the jungles of Africa. I had been despatched to a tiny francophone country called Gabon to train for the role of a timber trader based in Europe. Riding a muscular pickup truck we drove for hours on dirt tracks to arrive at an ethereal spot. The company owned logging concessions and we were cutting species of trees which had commercial value in Europe. In my presence the gang of loggers got to work and a 15 meter tree which must have stood in that deep forest for maybe a century or more, came crashing down beside us as we ran out of its path. The ground shook and the fresh sawdust which flew around us filled the air with a strange heady smell. But I did not smell murder. Nor did I remember Gulzars searing couplet which speaks about men who come to cut down a tree but start with taking rest under it, since it is too sunny.

These are among the hundred odd timber species I became familiar with, trading the commodity across Europe but I still remained indifferent to trees. However I did learn to appreciate the qualities of the wood which made it valuable – from the exquisite grain of the wenge and zingana which adorn luxury cars to the durability of azobe which line the canals of Amsterdam, to a particular smell of Spanish cedar which lent itself to cigar boxes. I was beginning to think about our hunger for these natural resources and the implications of our actions. Our actions were legal but were they legitimate?

Whenever I go close to a tree and run my hands over the cracked bark I feel a strange rush of emotions. Here is a living thing central and indeed critical to our very existence, a thing of sublime beauty and utility. Why did my mind turn its attention to trees so late, I do not know. Perhaps along with the vagaries of age come some belated wisdom too. And whenever I sit on a wooden chair I run my hands over the warmth of the wood. The wood will age beautifully and the tree will continue to be useful even in its afterlife. Yes we need to use wood products, thats the natural order of things but surely nature did not sign on to provide for 8 billion of us?

When I read of tree hugging activists, I smile. Recently the students and teachers of The School of the Arts, Singapore bid an elaborate and heartfelt farewell to an Angsana  tree that stood in the middle of the steps to the school. They sang songs and read notes to the tree. It had been wisely incorporated into the architecture and had become iconic in its own right. That precious tree needed to be felled as it had become dangerous for the thousands of people who passed by daily. This attitude of love and compassion for a single tree touched my heart. Perhaps it takes budding artists to understand whats truly valuable in our world. Perhaps all of us need to look again, in these extraordinary times, there is nothing else more reassuring and comforting that these green giants.

A new way of looking at Cinema

Reposting a new version which includes the slides as requested by many readers.

Please do spread the message if it resonates with you !!

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Here is a TEDx talk I did recently which is a crystallization of my thesis that Cinema needs to become an integral part of our education system- lifelong!

In my journey as a filmmaker this is an interesting and important milestone. One strives to express oneself through the medium but sometimes the medium itself needs championing in a new way.

I often call myself a Film Evangelist in jest but this is the gospel of cinema that I am so happy to preach.

I most humbly urge all of you to listen to the talk and if you agree, to please share the idea that Cinema is indeed Superfood for the brain, especially young brains. We would be failing our young generation if do not expose themselves to the transformative powers of a cinema that goes beyond entertainment.

I am very very grateful to have been given this opportunity to take this idea beyond the small groups that I have been sharing with.

Cinema – the medium of light and sound needs to be seen and heard in a new light..literally !!

PS: I have not been writing on my blog for a very long time. I have the usual excuses that bloggers have. But may I say that I have been busy serving cinema in other ways?

Thanks for all the love and support !!

 

Kharij ( The Case is closed), 1982

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Dir: Mrinal Sen

Anjan ( Anjan Dutta) and Mamata( Mamata Shankar)  lead a comfortable middle class life in the Kolkata of the 1970’s. They have a young son and they are in need of a live-in servant. When an impoverished man from the hinterland arrives with his young son Palan, roughly the same age as the child, Mamata is very happy. She bargains about his salary with the poor father, knowing fully well that one mouth less to feed is what the arrangement is all about. The boy is given a space to sleep in the kitchen and one morning the family wakes up to find that Palan is dead- of carbon monoxide poisoning from the coal oven in the tiny closed kitchen. With these precise events Mrinal Sen, quickly sets up the first act of his searing film Kharij ( The Case is closed ) and we get to observe a bourgeois Bengali family survive a crisis created by their insensitive, selfish and callous attitude.

The family depicted here is certainly educated, their own child goes to an English medium school, wearing a clip-on tie, while they have absolutely no qualms about hiring another child of similar age to be their live-in servant. As the couple struggle to extricate themselves from the police investigation that starts as a result of the unnatural death, Mrinal Sen plays with the tension between husband and wife as they both wrestle with the implications of what has happened. The couple blame each other, Mamata is perhaps more conflicted because she created and administered the gigantic divide between her child and the servant. The husband Anjan tries to blame her but  does not find himself occupying the moral high ground from which to question her effectively. Both of them are not bad people, they would not harm anybody wilfully but it is a question of living comfortably in a very imperfect society without getting ones hands dirty. They are merely part of an ancient system that is struggling with modernity.

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The film uses the bed in which the family of three sleeps in an interesting way. Towards the beginning Mamata is making the bed joyously, leaning over and almost falling as she tucks in the bed sheet in a corner away from her. We see the family sleeping under a plush quilt in the winter night. Towards the end we see her struggling to pull out a padded mat from under the same thick mattress so that a bed can be made for Palan’s father in the living room. I found myself thinking of a very similar family unit from Satyajit Rays Aguntuk. In that film too Ray probed beneath the genteel lives of an upper middle class household to expose shocking hypocrisy and insecurity.

The family decides to consult a lawyer and this character is perhaps the voice of the director. He questions Anjan precisely and makes him uncomfortable about his double standards. He innocently asks “ Did Palan ever get sick?” to which Anjan replies that Palan made them suffer once. The implication is that Anjan’s family suffered from inconvenience when the boy servant fell ill. The lawyer cross checks “Made you suffer?!”. Anjan corrects himself and says Palan suffered once due to illness. This little exchange is enough to illuminate the mindset of a selfish employer. There are many moments like this in the film till the police formally closes the investigation. The case could easily have been of manslaughter but is closed conveniently as that of an accidental death.

The film derives its power by building a stifling atmosphere, choking us slowly like the carbon-monoxide. Temperatures never boil over, it’s a little bit like the experiment of boiling a frog in water, the poor creature never realises what is happening and does not jump out. Kharij has been called a highly constructed film and indeed Mrinal Sen’s script and treatment are like a crime procedural. Every element of the story is meticulously examined and taken care of but there is a moral and ethical question attached at every step. This is not a film that buries its message deep inside a story. We are part of the proceedings and have to wrestle with our conscience at every step. I think there will be a dichotomy of responses between a western audience and an Indian/ Asian/ Third world audience when thy watch Kharij. Due to our overwhelming income divide and equally large population we have become desensitized to the value to human life and there will be many who will understand, if not empathise, with the “nuisance value” of a dead servant on your premises.

The screenplay is studded with precise dialogues which show that the class divide is baked into the DNA of the bhadralok who swings like a pendulum between being enlightened and liberal and being patently feudal. This phenomenon is very unique to the modern Bengali milieu which struggles between being the children of the Bengal renaissance which laid the foundation of modern Indian society and being the inheritors of a post colonial brown sahib syndrome. Take for example the scene where Anjan Dutta motion to the father to sit down for a discussion. He is offering him a stool to sit on, while he and his influential neighbour sit on the sofa. This is a huge concession, made hesitatingly, awkwardly and is a calculated gesture when he has much to fear from the father. And when Palan’s father weeps he does not reach for the knees of the gentleman positioned next to him by the director but hugs the door. Even in his darkest moment of grief the poor father never forgets his place in society.

In an earlier scene we see Anjan bring in a group of loutish men colloquially referred to as chengras into his house. These men would have been kept at a distance, acknowledged on the street with a measured nod. Anjan is trying to curry favour with a section of society that is usually kept at bay but any sensitive situation warrants that the “local brothers” are on your side. Later he has to allow the father into his house, even creating a space for him to sleep in his living room. It becomes amply clear to the audience that the same arrangement could easily have been made for Palan, effectively saving his life.

The first time I saw the film one aspect jumped out at me – the art direction by Nitish Roy. At that time was working with Dr Girish Kasaravalli on his seminal Kurmawatara (2011) and we were struggling to create a perfect lower middle class home with a reputed Art Director from Bangalore. Kharij captivated me with the details of the house where the film is set as well as other locations. Art Direction is one of the under-appreciated aspects of filmmaking and as this film illustrates how art direction elevates the cinematic material.

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The film ends on an anticlimactic note – the audience expected the dead child’s father to literally slap Anjan but instead he just folds his hands in a formal goodbye and departs without a word. This drove the audience mad with anger when the film was released, but Mr Sen resolutely refused to provide that catharsis. Mr Sen says with great prescience in an interview that “ We all got the slap, there was no need to show it.” This is the signature of Mr Sen, when the film ends, the action begins in the minds of the audience.

The question here is how does life continue after the case is closed ? Does the family hire another child servant? And more damningly what does Palan’s father do? Does he send his other underage children to work in the city? Do they enter even more hazardous vocations like working in an illegal factory or worse a mine? The answer all these questions is probably yes and that is still the reality of India more than 30 years after the film was made. The case against hypocrisy of the Indian middle class is far from closed.

Awards

Fandry

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(2013, Marathi with English Subtitles)

Dir.: Nagraj Manjule

The title of this film means “pig” in Marathi. Jabya (Somnath Awghade), the young protagonist, comes from the lowest of the lowly classes – the untouchables, people who live not on the fringe but outside of society, his fathers job is to keep stray pigs off the dirty mud tracks in their village. Pigs are strange creatures, for Muslims it is a sin to eat pork since pigs are considered exceedingly dirty while upper class Hindus in India extrapolate it to be synonymous with the untouchable caste who do all their dirty work including handling human excreta.

But modern India is a brave new world, where age-old divisions of caste and religion have been swept aside by the law but the practice of segregation remains alive. Jabya studies in the same school as the rest of the children in the village and falls hopelessly in love with an upper caste girl, Shalu. The logical question of whether Shalu loves Jabya back is the least consequential question here, but the director does provide a very devastating answer towards the end of the film.

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The film uses the physical space of the school very effectively, it is adorned with portraits of the stalwarts of the Dalit emancipation movement – from Ambedkar to Jyotiba Phule. The teacher tries to engage his teenaged pupils with the words of a reformist poet. But during this lesson, Jabya suddenly curls up into an invisible ball when he notices his dishevelled mother cleaning the courtyard outside, an extreme example of “uncool parents at the PTA”. Jabya may have a seat in the same class as Shalu but he can never enter her home.

Ultimately Fandry is about shame, the way it has been baked into the DNA of every ordinary Dalit trapped in a feudal, rural setup. Jabya in his quest to woo the unattainable Shalu, experiences the dilemmas that any adolescent, giddy from a rush of hormones, experiences.  But he has the additional burden of history on his wobbly shoulders. His shame at what his parents do and what they expect him to do is constantly at odds with the hopes and desires of a young boy in modern India. Rather then rely on agitprop tropes, Fandry draws its power by peering deep within a Dalit family unit that is deeply divided on what being an untouchable means in 21st century India. Mr Manjule never gets preachy, but stays close to a young boy who wants to don a new pair of jeans and go on a date to a fast food restaurant with the girl of his dreams.

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When a piglet gets trapped in a drain and Jabya refuses to pull it out on the orders of an upper caste man, his father quickly steps in to apologise for his sons impunity and does what is expected of him. Mr Manjule,  immediately cuts to the hut where Jabya lives with his parents and sisters – the piglet is now dinner, and one cannot help but think that within this grave social injustice is the gift of nutritious food that others reject as filth.

In the most intriguing sub-plot of the film, Jabya tries to capture an elusive black bird. His grown-up friend, an enigmatic man played by the director himself, also low-caste, convinces him that capturing the bird, burning its body and then sprinkling the ashes on Shalu will make her fall in love with Jabya. Jabya is unsure if this will work, but his friend says it’s all in the mind, if Jabya is convinced – it will work. Jabya does come close to catching the black bird but never succeeds. Perhaps this bird is a metaphor for the unattainable solution to the Dalit problem in India. There are too many solutions, too many false starts, too many Dalit politicians peddling the snake oil of emancipation to the electorate.

Although the theme of social oppression in Fandry is universal, we must distinguish it from a situation wherein say a black boy from an inner city neighbourhood falls in love for a college educated white girl in Chicago. Caste unlike race is a philosophy and sometimes even an ideology that has survived millennia of opposing influences from Islam to British colonisation. There is a powerful shot at the end of the film, a guard of honour or sorts as Jabya and his sister walk past a mural depicting the entire pantheon of India’s social reformers, a pig hanging upside down from a pole balanced on their delicate shoulders. This is a cross that Jabya is doomed to bear for the rest of his life, a lesson that his father, a man well broken-in by the system has been trying to teach his wayward son.

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Fandry has no clear villains, the upper caste village folk are not being cruel in any new or perverse way( from an Indian standpoint of course) on Jabya and his family. Fandry takes us inside a family of pig catchers and allows us to experience a perverse kind of creeping paralysis. One may walk away shaken and moved by the final gesture of anger from Jabya but ultimately he will be tamed. He will face the dire consequences of his rebellion and fall in line. This is because his family does not belong to what is referred to as the “creamy-layer ” of the lower castes, the thin sliver that has learned to game the system of lucrative job reservations.

In terms of his imagery Mr Manjule mixes lyricism and realism expertly and shows us an utterly confusing world from a pint of view that is consistently Jabyas. I saw this film about a year after its release and wanted to write about it immediately. However I decided to give it time and examine how the film ages in my memory. Revisiting Fandry I can confidently enter the film into the club of the finest Indian films ever.

#Fandry is available on DVD and on Netflix.

27 Down (1972)

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A young MK Raina as Sanjay.

Dir.: Awtar Krishna Kaul

27 Down is as beautiful, truthful and evocative as the trains of the Indian railways which serve as its almost constant backdrop. And it induces the same yearning, for that forgotten taste of tea in a earthen cup, a little stale, a little metallic, a little too sweet and just a little bit dusty. But the reasons why 27 Down, a debut film by Awtar Krishna Kaul, a young man of 28 , made 44 years ago has survived as a classic of Indian cinema, lie beyond the overwhelming nostalgia of trains.

Sanjay (M. K. Raina)  was born on a train. For his birthplace, he mentions two places, much to the exasperation of the interviewer who is about to give him a job in the railways after Sanjays father has pulled a few strings. Sanjay is slightly adamant about it, the train was at an unknowable point  in the vast labyrinth of railway tracks that span the country. This is his very minor rebellion against his father, who was a train driver and now wants his son to have a secure but dull job in the railways. He has very practical reasons for pushing his son in that direction, including perks like free coal that railway employees get to fire their mud ovens with at home.

 

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Rakhee as Shalini, on a train where Sanjay does not offer her a seat.

The young director about whom very little information is available online, must be reflecting on his career path in some way through this film, being an art film director in the late 60s must have been a far more radical career choice than it is today. Even now if one speaks to the teachers in two of India’s leading state run film schools you hear of how a large section of students have revolted at home and sought a kind of refuge at the film school in the promise of a career as an artist.

In an early scene in the film we see him as a child admiring a nude sculpture of Aphrodite and then we see him in a reputed art school in Bombay, a young man, away from his family. His father writes letters to him, offering him practical advice which we see Sanjay not heed, his mother has passed away and his father makes a big deal of acting protective.  Somehow the director never foregrounds the artist in Sanjay, he is perhaps wary of making the film autobiographical ( Google does not know much about Avatar Kaul yet, but I shall find out one day and post an addendum to this review). When his father asks him to join the railways, Sanjay offers only half hearted resistance. He refers to his art education as “ I want to complete my studies” to which his father says “ You can do that along with your job too!”. Sanjay is afraid to speak more clearly about  his education, varnishing it as “studies”. It is this strange tone of being unsure that defines the overall tone of the film for me.

This attitude of meek capitulation is most telling in his marriage to a village girl of his fathers choice. Sanjay is having a serious affair with a girl, Shalini (a de-glamourised Rakhee), who he has met on a train. Orphaned early, Shalini now works in Bombay as a clerk to support her grandfather and siblings who live in another city. Now think of Satyajit Rays Mahanagar made in 1962 which portrays a housewife working to support her family and the shame that her husband experiences. Shalini is doing the same but Avatar Krishna Kaul is gently putting our middle class morality in the dock, in a style that is equidistant from Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghakat and the formalist Mani Kaul.

27 Down is a singular voice in Indian cinema, not fully formed, hesitant to make its point but marshalling the power of the cinematic image to its advantage with a lot of passion, restraint and wonder. Along with his cameraman AK Bir, who was all of 22 years old and heavily influenced by Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, they hold the hidden camera on crowded railway platforms and on moving trains and capture high contrast black and white images that evoke the romance of railways and the drudgery of travelling in a third class compartment, all at once.

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The grand Victoria Terminus, which Sanjay favours because it offers anonymity.

The job that Sanjay lands is as a TTE or a Travelling Ticket Examiner. We see him spend days on the train, going about his job in a stupor of heat and dullness. I could not help but think of a very good friend of mine who worked as a TTE before he became my classmate at a prestigious  business school in India. Could Sanjay have made made a similar choice?

In one remarkable shot, undoubtedly a classic of Indian cinema, and right up there with Durga and Apu discovering the train in Pather Panchali, a camera placed very high up in Bombays dazzlingly grand and grimy Victoria Terminus, a local train pulls up and empties out a vast load of humanity on a almost deserted platform. The disembarking passengers who soon turn into a teeming sea of white clothes and black heads are a potent metaphor for the subversion of the individuality of sensitive young men like Sanjay. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael famously called Rays sequence “locating the mythic in the ordinary”, I believe Avatar Kaul neatly turns that paradigm on its head – in this shot we get the ordinary in the mythic.

If you notice carefully you will see a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru hanging on the wall in Sanjay’s fathers house, sandwiched between numerous Gods. In fact just Nehru’s trademark white Gandhi Cap is visible and I could not help speculating that it was an oblique comment on the demise of a Nehruvian New Deal that had gone wrong for the young people of that time.

 

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Original Poster of 27 Down

There are also hints of Jiri Manzels 1968 masterpiece Closely Watched Trains, and the moment I finished watching 27 Down, I told myself – “This is our Closely Watched Trains”. In a way 27 Down too is a film about the confusion of youth in a socio economic climate in limbo, and the loss of innocence when confronted with the forces of world. We see Sanjay wilt under pressure from his father, lying in a stupor on sleeper trains. When he senses that the train is passing over a bridge we hear him philosophise incoherently. The numerous bridges connect nothingness with nothingness and the train for him is running in a maddening never-ending loop. 27 Down refers to the train route – “Bombay to Varanasi”, the holiest city for Hindus. Even though Sanjay takes that train he returns from Varanasi in spiritual despair .

This is a remarkably open film, a moving feast of images and moods, which will draw in viewers in its embrace. This was the only film that Awtar Krishna Kaul made and it adds up to much more than what many achieved in a lifetime.

Avatar Krishna Kaul died in an accident the same night it was announced that his first film had won top honours at the national awards.

Kapoor And Sons – A very brief case study of Bollywoods growth pangs.

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Its raining money!

As Tolstoy said “All happy families resemble one another, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”,  and so is Mr Kapoors family, unhappy in multiple ways that is. Time is running out for the patriarch of the family Mr Kapoor ( Rishi Kapoor, twinkling eyes firmly in place under a thick mask of grubby makeup). The film opens with him pretending to drop dead at the breakfast table, as his son Rajat Kapoor and daughter in law Ratna Pathak bicker over expenses. They don’t even roll their eyes in a “not again” move. But goofy Granpa soon has a real heart attack and his two grandsons Rahul and Karan fly down to be with the family.

The film treads well worn territory in bringing together a family under difficult circumstances and putting them under some sort of stress and watching it all fall apart. The success of such a film depends upon how closely it watches and how claustrophobic does it get for the viewer. A film like this should place you in a sauna and gradually raise the temperature to an unbearable level. But Kapoor and Sons is a strange film, it skilfully mixes serious family drama with Bollywood campy humour, with a quirky old grandfather salivating at a wet Mandakini under the waterfall, to a bubbly teenybopper(Alia Bhatt) bursting out of her hot pants.  Without these two formulaic elements, Kapoor and Sons could have been in Thomas Winterbergs Danish drama Festen (1998) territory, or even Burgmanesque in bits. And of course there are two handsome hunks to draw in the ladies to the theatre, harried husbands or boyfriends in tow, not the least bit enthused about Alia Bhatt.

This film is 160 minutes long, about the standard running time for a average Bollywood flick and spends about 80 minutes trying to be a Bollywood rom-com crossed with “ tharki grandpa in his elements”. The casualty for a serious film viewer is that so many elements which are solid building blocks of the films characters remain unexplored. How did this Punjabi family land up in a South Indian hill station like Conoor? Why did Rajat Kapoor have an affair and what is the nature of his failing business venture, why did his two sons became novelists, what was Rishi Kapoor like as a father, what more can we learn about the rich brother who makes an appearance twice in the film but we know precious little about him? And what about that little old man – Choksi Uncle, with whom Rishi Kapoor has a fight playing cards, the feud between them obviously runs deep?

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Mandakini gets her 15 minutes of fame again!

These are a host of such details which are ignored, they are critical not for plot, of which there is precious little in the film anyways, but for developing individual characters and the organic whole of a family unit locked into perpetual conflict. More than three months after watching the film these questions are alive in my mind, because the film had a lot going for it.  I really wanted the film to delve into the relationship between Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak, this is the real reason why the two brothers have fallen apart. Both these veteran actors steal the show, Ratna Pathak is an actress we need to see more of.

Instead of sticking to the spine of the story which is the dynamics of the nuclear family of the Kapoors, the film fluffs up its act with the completely tacked on character of Alia Bhatt, who plays it with well, a whole lot of tack. I feel compelled to comment on this film because it is a great case study of Bollywoods growth pangs. The problem of course is not with Bollywood or all our regional mainstream cinema, but with us the audience. Come Friday evening we need some laughs, some dance and music, one item number, a few stars, foreign locales and hot bods. If those boxes are ticked then we are able to appreciate some moments of pure cinema which Kapoor and Sons provides. “We are like this only” and shall continue to be, for the foreseeable future, and who am I to complain?

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“Too Big for Alia” – “Whats-an-apt” joke sirjee !

Shakun Batra sets it all up expertly and we are immediately sucked into the tension on the dinner table. As I watched the drama unfold I could not help but notice how different the visual grammar was compared to mainstream Bollywood, the quick editing and very intimate handled camera taking us to the heart of a conflict zone. A scene involving a plumber intercut with the bickering family is brilliantly filmed and edited. It is these moments which lift Kapoor and Sons above its peers and makes us sit up and take notice.  When Jeff Bierman, an American cinematographers name popped up in the credits, it made complete sense. This is a rising trend in Bollywood, the “gora” DoP looking at Bollywood scenarios with fresh eyes, and indeed the results are refreshing. And there is Greg Cannom the three times Oscar winning makeup artist who turns Rishi Kapoor into our own Benjamin Button. This is another gimmick in the film, they could well have cast an actual 80 year old, look how well Big B did in Piku( psst.. he even won the National Award).

Five years back for me there were about 5 Bollywood films every year worth a watch, the last two years the number has inched up closer to 10. Recently I found Neerja, the biopic about an air stewardess who saved hundreds of lives on a hijacked plane quite riveting, a story worth telling  and very well told indeed. The production design of Bajirao Mastani was world class, in the Oscar nominee territory.

So do I see it as glass half full or half empty? Half full of course, is the answer, or as a recent Whatsapp nugget of wisdom enlightens me- the glass is refillable. I have been sitting, for far too long, a very thirsty man, at the Bollywood table, with people slurping Rose syrup around me, so when Karan Johar and Shakun Batra come and pour me half a pint of Belgian beer (I make this comparison factoring in the films euro sensibilities )  and top it off with syrupy lemonade, I try to be a happy shandy drinker. After looking at the list of National Award winners this year I am even willing to put a small bet on Shakun Batra winning the best Director trophy from the Presidents hands next year.

 

PS: I get the images for my blog posts from Google of course and I could not find one still image of Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah sharing a quiet tense moment on screen. What I found I have shared. It is obviously not a coincidence!

In Search of Famine ( Akaler Sandhane, Bengali with English Subtitles) 1980

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Dir.: Mrinal Sen

Akaler Sadhane (In Search of Famine) is a great introduction to the cinema of Mrinal Sen. It was  made in 1980 when he was at the height of his powers. The film begins with the  arrival of a boisterous film crew in a remote village in West Bengal  who plan to shoot a film about the famine of 1943 which killed more than 3 million people. The filming process will interact with and change the lives of the locals and the crew alike. In the hands of a master like Mrinal Sen we get a film that feels fresh and relevant 36 years later as we continue to struggle with images of constructed reality. Films are second only to suicide vests in their ability to make authorities anxious around the world.

Mrinal Sen, the auteur,  is the true protagonist of In Search of Famine – in the film itself there is no single character who has the typical lead role, so to speak. Mr Sen is behind the camera of course, but then he too went with a film crew to shoot a film about a film crew trying to shoot a film in a real village. In Mrinal Sens very endearing memoirs Always Being Born, he devotes a fascinating chapter taking us behind the scenes of this film and reveals how he kept incorporating a lot of the real interaction between his crew and the village into the script, turning the shoot into a unique social experiment.What we get as a result is a 360 degree look at the scenario, change can only come when we are able to see well, with clarity and focus, and this film helps us see. In 2016, in this 36 year old film we can choose to see the India of today or even 10 years later.

Mr Sen weaves an intricate tapestry of subplots to drive home the complexity of what he wants to say with this film and it all comes together on the editing table. In one audacious scene the cast and crew play a parlour game of looking at photographs of famine that the young, ambitious and sincere director  (Dhritimaan Chatterjee) has brought along for reference. The players are supposed to identify the particular famine captured in the photograph, since the famine of 1943 was followed by 1956 and then 1971. As the crew try to guess the year it gives rise to complex emotions in the viewer. I recalled the words of the filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli who says that images, by nature, are very concrete and it is the job to the filmmaker to mould them into powerful metaphors. This innocent game played by the crew becomes a powerful metaphor for our casual and insensitive consumption of important images and this alone makes the film very contemporary in the age of 24X7 media and internet.

The stock figure of a village schoolmaster appears regularly in Indian cinema and In Search of Famine too has the benign, genial and wise schoolmaster. But Mrinal Sen uses him effectively to serve as a steadfastly neutral conscience keeper who blurts out hard truths despite his intention to quietly watch the roll of history. There are others for whom the arrival of the film crew is an opportunity, like the villager Haren played by Rajan Tarafdar. He had a theatre group of his own once and is a well read intellectual, much to the surprise of the city bred filmmaker. He tries to get a replacement within the village for a professional actress who gets fired for her sullen ways. But the role is that of a prostitute and the idea of a local girl playing such a character is anathema to the village gentry.

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Another powerful strand is the story of a young tribal woman Durga (Sreela Mazumdar) , whose husband was maimed in an industrial accident and she now has to run the house. The film unit provides her a temporary job as a cleaner that supplements her meagre income. She strikes up a rapport with Smita Patil, the iconic Indian actress who plays herself in the film as the actress playing a village woman. While Smita Patil is shooting a particularity tense scene where her character  falls into prostitution, Durga who is watching the shoot, lets out a heartrending scream of anguish. By this time  “action” and “cut” have become part of the village vocabulary, the onlookers know when to keep silent  but Durgas cry shatters the peace in the village and opens up the wounds of past famines.

Watching a Mrinal Sen film is to meet the man himself, his films are unequivocal about what they want to say without being preachy, didactic or even unilaterally grim. But they are sometimes very angry, the anger mostly seethes under the surface as the silent revolt of the villagers, who disrupt the shoot with tactics that are somewhat reminiscent of Gandhis non-cooperation. I was seated next to the great man at a film festival once, it was 2009 and I had begun to nurture dreams of filmmaking. He was muttering things to himself , about how his time has come to die. Mr. Sen was already an octogenarian and I felt deeply uncomfortable sitting next to him , thus squandering an opportunity of a lifetime.

Mrinal Sen has been branded a stridently Marxist filmmaker and this pigeonholing has done a great disservice to his legacy as India’s greatest living filmmaker. In his memoir he writes that his is a cinema of provocation and has said elsewhere that he is interested in a leap of dialectics. His outspokenness, both in his art and life, has ensured that in his final years he has been effectively sidelined by the current political establishment. He is 94 years old and when the day comes for the country to bid him goodbye, there will be no grand farewell that marked the passing of his contemporary Satyajit Ray, nothing much that will make the young want to discover his cinema, only silent tears from cineasts around the world. But the truth of his cinema will remain, as scratchy unrestored prints for his fans to enjoy and mull over. Satyajit Ray objected to being labelled the great humanist but humanism is what strongly permeates Mrinal Sens work and perhaps that label would have helped his legacy more. Long Live Mrinal da!

#In Search of Famine swept the national awards in 1981 and won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. 

Chauthi Koot (2015) ( The Fourth Direction)

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Dir.: Gurvinder Singh

I am standing on a railways platform in the middle of the night. It is the beginning of winter, I am wearing a sweater but it it feels much colder, I am freezing to my bones. There are very few people on the platform but police everywhere. Who are they protecting? The train pulls up. The cold wet rusty sound of metal on metal lowers the temperature further. Policemen get into the train, going from compartment to compartment, closing the windows. The metal shutters fall down with staccato sounds, like gunfire far away.

I am watching all this on the big screen and I am mortally scared. It is 1984 and I am at one of the most dangerous places on earth at the time. Two men on the railway platform want to board the train which is going to Amritsar, but empty. They are desperate to get to Amritsar , but we don’t know why. It is enough that we feel their difficulties and desperation.

A man carrying a sleeping girl child in his arms is walking through misty fields in the middle of the night. He is with his wife. They are trying to cut through the vegetation to find a short cut to their ancestral village. The wife is dog tired after a long journey from the city and they are lost. Are there gunmen in the field who will slaughter this family because they happen to not be Sikhs, because that was what was happening in Punjab at that time. There is little scope for reasoning. The tension is so thick that you can cut it with a knife in the cold Punjab night.

Again I shrivel up in my seat with fear. Pictures of busloads of people slaughtered at random float up in my memory. I had seen them in the newspapers when I was seven years old. On frequent nights the news on state run TV will talk about another such massacre and our joint family of 15 people eating dinner in distant Kolkata would fall silent at the madness unfolding in faraway Punjab, that none of us had ever visited. These things don’t bother us anymore. We can change channels now, we have remote controls, we have Bollywood starlets dancing for us 24×7. Life is comfortable. There is Facebook if we get too worked up.

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The man lost in the fields musters up the courage to call for help from the only house that stands in the fields. Is there death inside that house? We don’t know. The door opens and we meet Joginder and his mother. These families have known each other for long. Militancy is yet to fully destroy the age old social fabric. After Joginder has escorted the lost family to safety we see him lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. A lone gunshot rings out somewhere in the distance. His dog Tommy starts to bark.

Tommy needs to be silenced. His barking can give away the militants hiding in the fields to the police. Joginder is torn between his love for the dog and the practical need to put him down. We meet the faceless militants, they appear to be decent people, men of God, increasingly radicalised by the excesses of the armed forces. Joginder and his old mother find it difficult to take sides, they are perhaps as tired of the situation as a family in Kashmir is today, just yearning for normalcy to return.

Chauthi Koot transports us to a time whose memory is beginning to fade from our collective consciousness. As I sat in the theatre watching this film I felt the odd mix of dread and exhilaration that one does when watching a good horror film. Gurwinder Singh announced his arrival on the Indian Cinema stage with his superb Anhe Ghore De Daan( Alms for a Blind Horse)  and Chauthi Koot confirms that he is master of the medium. This is not an easy film to watch with its deliberate pacing and deconstructed narrative yet I felt my fingers tapping my knee to the rhythm of cinema as if in a concert hall.

The film excels in almost all departments. The sound design is completely exceptional and firmly proves that cinema is an audio visual medium. Ultimately film is a mediation on time and space and Chauthi Koot creates a stifling experience of Punjab in the early 1980’s. Gurvinder Singh does not take the easier path of falling back on story and takes his time to extract every ounce of emotion from the scenario. The filmmaker is a protégé of the late Mani Kaul who in turn was a formalist in the vein of Robert Bresson. Perhaps there is a trace of Au Hazard Balthazar in Chauthi Koot. Gurvinder Singhs use of a mute animal like Tommy who barks, as is his fundamental nature, is akin to Bressons memorable donkey. The technique of milking pure emotion by using elements of nature and juxtaposing it with banal human behaviour is deployed here in a clinical way.

Along with Chaitanya Tamhaney’s Court , Chauthi Koot heralds the birth of a new set of master Indian Filmmakers who will inherit the mantle from our aging stalwarts. I watched the film at the Singapore International Festival and this is a film for which I changed my travel plans. Some films are worth waiting for, Chauthi Koot is worth travelling for.

Garam Hawa ( Scorching Winds, 1973, Urdu with English Subtitles)

Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza, his last and finest performance.

Balraj Sahni as Salim Mirza, his last and finest performance.

Dir.: MS Sathyu

The opening shot of Garam Hawa shows Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) standing on a railway platform, bidding a family member goodbye. The train is going to Pakistan, carrying Muslims going to Pakistan soon after independence, and in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. He stands rooted to his place much after the person has disappeared from view, and continues to wave, lost in thought. In a sense it is a symbolic goodbye to an undivided India, an idea that will stay alive forever in the hearts of people like Salim Mirza. As the last compartment of the train exits the screen, the dome of a Mosque comes into view. Salim Mirza does even glance at it. Outside the railway station he hails a horse drawn carriage to go to his shoe factory.  The coachman is very forthright in his interrogation of Salim Mirza and his frank assessment of the situation sets the tone for the film, where Salim’s mulish decision to stay back will be questioned at every step.

Salim Mirza lives with his two brothers , the elder brother who sees himself as a Muslim leader with a future in Pakistan and a younger sibling who is a pragmatic businessman. Garam Hawa chronicles the saga of the Mirza families decline, skilfully depicted in scenes of the family eating together in their ancestral mansion. As the film progresses their number decrease steadily with the exodus of branches of the family to Pakistan. The shrinking of the dinner party is juxtaposed with the  decline of the shoe factory which ultimately moves in to their home with Salim Mirza himself lending a hand to the workers. The economic and emotional downfall of Salim Mirza is the downfall of the entire Muslim community in independent India.

Garam Hawa was made in 1973, exactly 25 years after independence and it was a good time to  take stock of the Muslim condition in India. The writers of the film Kaifi Aazmi and Shama Zaidi never shift the point of view from the Muslim to the Hindu. The Hindu landlords who turn away Muslim tenants do so only for the very practical fear of having unpaid rents by tenants fleeing the country. Not for a moment is any blame laid at the doorstep of a Hindu, systemically speaking.

Ameena (Geeta Siddhartha), Salim Mirza daughter is in love with her cousin. She is effectively betrothed  to him but when he follows his politically ambitious father to Pakistan she continues to nurture the hope that he will come back to marry her. When he enters an alliance of convenience in Pakistan,  Ameena is shattered but soon begins to reciprocate the advances of Shamshad (Jalal Agha). When Shamshad too betrays her and leaves for Pakistan,  Ameena kills herself.  This trope from Indian popular cinema is used in Garam Hawa as a possible metaphor for the betrayal of Indian Muslims by both its community elders and opportunist politicians.

This little snippet of dialogue is key to the film.

This little snippet of dialogue is key to the film.

Balraj Sahani plays the quintessential pacifist, his love of his land and his value system is unshakeable and often his family members accuse him of being “impractical”,  the very same criticism which was regularly levelled at Gandhi. In that respect Balraj Sahni is the stand in for Gandhi in this film, the patriarch who is slowly becoming irrelevant in the same way that Gandhi had been sidelined in his final years. Salim Mirza continues to speak of the supreme sacrifice of Gandhi, who has just been assassinated, and hopes that it will not be in vain.

It is strange that nobody today talks about why Muslims chose to stay back in India, after the creation of Pakistan. This is a question that Garam Hawa attempts to answer in a tangential way. The exact reason why Salim Mirza wants to stay back is never explicitly articulated but in his stubborn refusal to leave, Salim displays a rootedness that cannot be tampered with by politicians.Garam Hawa is consistent in its thesis that the going to Pakistan was, at worst, an act of economic opportunism and at best a very practical move.  Staying back was an act of faith, an emotional decision.  This thesis is of course highly debatable. A single fictitious character cannot embody the predicament and illustrate the decision making process of an entire community, but the emotional state of Salim Mirza is what remains with us.

In India, the worlds largest democracy and arguably the most culturally diverse country in the world, vote banks are the real elephants in polling booths. This should logically mean that minorities also enjoy the rewards of being kingmakers but in a Machiavellian move the voters have been systematically ghettoised while a thin sliver among them has siphoned off the benefits of affirmative action policies. In a telling scene, the well qualified son of Salim Mirza,  Sikandar (Farookh Shaikh), is denied a job by a Muslim interviewer because the interviewer does not want to be seen favouring his brethren and thus damage his secular image. This murder of meritocracy in independent India has since been institutionalised and has hollowed the bureaucracy from its very foundations.

In Singapore, where I live, the question of the minorities could have been a big problem but because of its small size this island state has deployed targeted welfare measures. The policy that I admire most is the way communities have been made to live with each other in direct proportion to their numbers. Since over 90% of the population lives in public housing, the implementation of this policy has been very successful and ensured that no race based ghettoes form,  without sacrificing any political inclusiveness. Of course such a policy is not feasible in a mammoth country like India but the damaging effects of identity politics is obvious for all to see.

The Mirza Family, in transition.

The Mirza Family, in transition.

Garam Hawa effectively dramatizes the complex  Muslim question by looking at a beleaguered family as it grapples with the tragedy of partition. It is a classic example of approaching the general through the particular.  Interestingly since Salim Mirza and his family are wealthy businesspeople to start with, they are effectively insulated from the worst, there is no blood spilled in their family, and therefore the fate of the poorest comes into sharp focus with the smallest extrapolation. The creative and acting team was mostly drawn from IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association) and the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the group is patently manifest in its ending which suggests that a popular people’s movement is the only solution to the problems of post indolence India, that the freedom movement was but a beginning of the creation of a new equitable social order.

Ultimately the film rides on the shoulders of Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi’s screenplay based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai , embellished with great performances by a caste led by the towering genius of Balraj Sahani and is masterfully directed MS Sathyu. This was not an easy film to shoot on location  in Agra because of it sensitive material and even more difficult to release theatrically as it was labelled anti Hindu and pro Muslim by some sections of the Indian polity.

This film is called the seminal film on the partition of India but that is a gross misnomer. It would be more accurate to describe Garam Hawa as the best dramatised treaties on Muslims in post independence  India. Garam Hawa tests the limited powers of cinema as a tool for political discourse and 40 years later remains searingly relevant, from the strife torn Kashmir valley to the sealed Muslim ghettos of coastal Kerala, where a scorching wind of communalism still blows.

A poster of the film for the theatrical re-release of its restored version. The restoration project was born out of a quest to release a good DVD print.We can hope for a good copy soon.

A poster of the film for the theatrical re-release of its restored version. The restoration project was born out of a quest to release a good DVD print.We can hope for a good copy soon.

Read the story of the films restoration here:

http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/BfQSkhD0GNPpiyIexlWbDO/Return-of-Garm-Hava.html

#A watchable copy of the film is available youtube. I met the director MS Sathyu once at a film festival and walked upto him to express my deep admiration for his film. He asked me how did I manage to watch the film and I replied rather meekly -” You Tube”. This really seemed to upset him and he said thats a pirated copy. I did not reply but thought to myself that in the absence of any other legitimate way to watch such an important film I think I did well. When the restored DVD is released I will buy multiple copies to make up and gift them to my friends.

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