28 February 2009

RAMCHAND PAKISTANI (Dir. Mehreen Jabbar, 2008, Pakistan)


There is an argument to be made that when the state or government fails to provide any kind of moral, social or political direction and support for its people then traditionally institutions like the media and film in particular are able to respond to crises, concerns and anxieties in both an allegorical and populist way. However, for all the suppression, be it religious and social, that has permeated Pakistani society for a number of decades now it is difficult to account for the consistent failure of film makers to act upon such misgivings in a constructive way. Personally, in times of political and social failure, it is the responsibility of a nation’s film industry to try and demonstrate on screen, the problems and inequalities that are evident in society. Yet no such aspiration or didactic impulse has really ever existed in Pakistani cinema. Perhaps it is to do with the reality that an orthodox religious fervour affects all walks of life in such a way that images are regarded somewhat suspiciously and possibly associated with an out dated, decadent view of a corrupted western society. But this argument seems invalid and even absurd when one looks to Iran after Khomeini swept to power as the Islamic revolution not only helped purify cinema but paved the way for a new Iranian cinema based on neo realist principles.

Many continue to refer to Pakistan as a new nation yet this seems like an awkward scapegoat for the poor economic support and creative discouragement expressed by a government to indigenous film makers, many of whom have constantly been forced to work in the television industry. With such a young population, it is surprising that the youth are not been actively encouraged to engage with film as a career choice, but the steady decline of cinemas in Pakistan over the last ten years is alarming and makes for grim analysis of the current dire state of an industry in desperate need of a proper support structure including funding, film courses and an adequate means of implementing some kind of nationwide film education programme. Karachi which is located in the province of Sindh has never shied away from tackling social taboos and unlike the feudalism of Punjab, the emergence of an intellectual middle class has meant a far greater level of involvement with theatre, television and cinema. However, it is not solely Karachi that has continued to offer a pluralistic vision of what might be possible if the government was to get behind artists, Lahore’s intellectual circles have also had success with television drama, taking on a broad range of social issues in a very melodramatic format. Prior to the partition of India, Lahore was an influential and important city for South Asian cinema, offering a home to established film studios. Unfortunately, the partition forced many key writers, technicians and film makers to leave Lahore and settle in Mumbai.

Even today, Karachi does not really see itself as part of Pakistan, the on going rivalry with Punjab and Lahore in particular has seen some politicians criticise the westernised, outward looking middle class of Karachi as ideologically dubious. Pakistan’s only internationally recognised film festival, The Kara Film Festival, takes place annually in Karachi. A recent development and established in 2001, the festival tends to show a broad range of films from mainstream Hollywood blockbusters to more specialised world cinema films. This year, ‘Firaaq’ (Separation), the directorial debut of Nandita Das which focuses on the recent communal riots in Gujarat, India, walked away with the top prize.

http://www.karafilmfest.com/

Actress and campaigner of women’s rights, Nandita Das has been very supportive of the Pakistani film industry and her presence in a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ was instrumental in attracting an audience and the attention of film festivals. Before I move on to have a closer look at the possible significance of a film like ‘Ramchand Pakistani’, it may be useful to mention that for a long time, Pakistani cinema was dominated by the ‘dacoit’ (bandit) genre, and that during the 1980s, the presence of the country’s two biggest film stars, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, besieged the box office with a traditional brand of rural identity that appealed to a wide section of the population. In the BFI’s contemporary survey of South Asian Cinema, the Pakistani journalist, Sajid Iqbal underlines the cultural significance of Pakistani cinema’s most successful film:

‘But the best was yet to come two years later with the release of Punjabi film Maula Jat featuring violent hero Sultan Rahi. The running period of this movie at cinema halls was so long that people simply lost track. This was undoubtedly the most successful film ever made in Pakistan. The typical axe (called gandasa in Punjabi and Hindi) held high by the character Maula Jat is an accepted symbol of violent protest against the cruel military regime by the poor masses. It established Sultan Rahi as the most successful film personality of Pakistan’

http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/imagineasia/guide/contemporary/pakistani.html
'Pakistani Cinema' by Sajid Iqbal, July 2007, BFI

For all its iconic status, ‘Maula Jat’ (1979) is a poorly directed film that features some wonderfully over the top performances. It is a very violent film and borrows heavily from the western genre but the exploitative tone maintained throughout what is a meandering narrative transforms ‘Maula Jat’ into a film that is defined by a populist appeal rather than its unsatisfactory technical achievements. The lack of investment in the latest cameras, film stock and lighting has also played a crucial part in preventing Pakistani cinema from achieving some acceptable degree of technical competence. The stark reality is that the vast majority of films produced by the Pakistani film industry have been of a relatively poor quality, both in terms of aesthetics and storytelling. Audiences have always had to turn to television drama in Pakistan for some kind of commentary on the country’s social and political problems.

‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is the directorial debut of Mehreen Jabbar, somebody who is better known in her home country for the many popular series she has directed for television. It is not surprising that Mehreen Jabbar’s formal training and background is television based as Pakistan has yet to establish some kind of accredited film institute where directors, writers and cinematographers can learn to specialise in a specific area. She has benefited enormously from the support provided by her father, Javed Jabbar, who is a well known television producer and film maker, having directed in 1976, ‘Beyond the last Mountain’, Pakistan’s first English language film. Mehreen Jabbar’s studied Film and Television at the University of California before returning to Pakistan to enter the television industry. The press kit for the film says that she is currently based in New York. This is interesting as it places her alongside other South Asian diaspora women film makers like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta who have also used cinema as a platform to address the unfair treatment and discrimination faced by women in contemporary society.

‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is derived from a true story concerning the accidental crossing of the Pakistan-Indian border during a period (June 2002) of extreme, war-like tension between the two countries by two members of a Pakistani Hindu family belonging to the 'untouchable' (Dalit) caste, and the extraordinary consequences of this unintended action upon the lives of a woman, a man, and their son.

http://www.ramchandpakistani.com/documents/PressKitRamchandPakistani.pdf

It’s not hard to see why an actress like Nandita Das would naturally gravitate towards a story that explores an unreported and often hidden part of society, the untouchable caste. The film also questions what it means to be a woman in such a feudal, suspicious and patriarchal way of life. When her husband and son accidentally cross the border into India, they are captured and illegally detained in a prison. With no word of their capture, Champa (Nandita Das) fears the worst and is forced to pay off her husband’s debts. Lonely and isolated, Champa starts to form a relationship with Abdullah (Noman Ijaz), a villager who is eager to help her find her husband and son. The villagers misinterpret the idea of companionship for something much more taboo. Mehreen Jabbar uses the idea of separation to explore how prejudices exist in all facets of Indian and Pakistani society, not just village life.

Champa’s isolated position in the later half of the film represents her as somebody struggling to maintain her dignity in the face of regressive attitudes harboured by those around her. When Ramchand (brilliantly played by Fazal Hussain) accidentally crosses the Indo-Pak border, it happens without any kind of real emphasis, it is merely a boy taking a stroll across a patch of land. Yet this child does not see the lines that have been drawn up, separating and dividing humanity, to Ramchand, borders are invisible. The father/husband, Shankar (Rashid Farooqui), is benign as his son when it comes to the intense rivalry that exists between Pakistan and India. Jabbar seems to suggesting that to a lot of people, living in the rural areas and in villages, they are oblivious to such tensions.

After Shankar and Ramchand are captured and imprisoned, the film maintains audience interest by focusing on the details of prison life and also using Ramchand as a means of tackling the outspoken prejudices and racism that exists within Indian society. The roles portrayed by Nandita Das exudes a sympathy with the plight of those who are continually oppressed within Indian society today including the repression and discrimination faced by the Muslim minority in cities like Mumbai and Gujarat. Though this is not solely a film told through the eyes of a child, by focusing on the father/son relationship, it does offer an acknowledgement of the enduring and influential quality of De Sica’s masterful ‘Bicycle Thieves’.

So what is it that makes ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ such a unique and special film? The press pack on the official website offers a valuable insight into some of the ‘special aspects’ of the film:

1. This is possibly the first film post-1971 (after the loss of East Pakistan) in which the central characters of a Pakistani film are Pakistani Hindus.

4. This is the first full-length feature film for cinema directed by a young Pakistani woman director, Mehreen Jabbar. Her work reflects a deep concern for the individual identity, rights and empowerment of women.

6. While the film is indigenous to Pakistan, it also represents a rare example of creative and constructive co-operation between Pakistan and India on a non-official level. With the consent of the Government of Pakistan, one of India’s reputed actresses Nandita Das has played a lead role in the film as a Pakistani Hindu woman. One of India’s leading music directors, Debajyoti Mishra, has composed the background music and 4 background songs, 3 of which also feature the voice of one of the leading Indian woman singers, Ms Shubha Mudgal. A widely acknowledged Indian film editor, Aseem Sinha has also co-edited the film with the Director.


http://www.ramchandpakistani.com/documents/PressKitRamchandPakistani.pdf

It is true that many of these aspects are new to Pakistani cinema and perhaps the most revealing fact is that this oppositional attempt to create a new kind of cinema has come from the most repressed section of Pakistani society, women. I would go as far as to say that ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ is a rarity and is part of a handful of Pakistani art films (‘Khamosh Pani’ / Silent Waters, 2003) to have been made recently in the country since its creation in 1948. ‘Khamosh Pani’ was also directed by a Pakistani female director and it too is very critical of how women are treated and discriminated against.

The other aspect that makes this film stand apart from the traditional Pakistani musical melodrama is the technical achievements. Beautifully shot using HD cameras and on location (Thar Desert), the film benefits greatly from the invaluable contributions made by experienced veterans from the Indian film industry like Debajyoti Mishra (Ritapurno Ghosh’s regular composer) and editor, Aseem Sinha (editor on many of Shyam Bengal’s films). In this context, the film is a strong example of a genuinely artistic and mutually beneficial co-production between India and Pakistan. ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ continues to make its way around the different film festivals, attracting a lot of critical acclaim. It was shown at the London Film Festival in October, 2008. Once again, like Sivan’s new film, ‘Tahaan’, I am not sure entirely sure if Jabbar’s film will be able to find distribution in the UK, but this should not stop audiences from seeking out what is a rare example of a Pakistani art film that one hopes will inspire a new generation of film makers in Karachi and Lahore.

25 February 2009

DAYS OF HEAVEN (Dir. Terence Malick, 1978, US) - Magic Hour

I can still remember the first time I encountered ‘Days of Heaven’ at University. It was during a seminar on cinematography. The extract was from a video, ‘Visions of Light’ that explored the evolution of cinematography as an art form in American cinema. I did manage to track down a copy on VHS and even though it was of a relatively poor quality, the poetic images on display were still compelling. Eventually, with the advent of DVD, Paramount grudgingly released a DVD of the film, and watching the film for a second time, it made me truly appreciate the purity and naturalness of director Terence Malick’s incredibly gifted eye for detail. Most recently, Criterion finally released a beautifully restored print of the film on DVD and threw in some very illuminating extras including a commentary track. Watching the film for a third time confirmed that this may just be Malick’s best film and also one of the great films of the 1970s that tends to be eclipsed by the likes of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘The Conversation’.

It’s hard to write about the cinema of Terence Malick without sounding deeply biased. Another difficulty is that his films are so dense and layered that they are not easy to analyse without adopting some kind of empowered intellectual and philosophical approach. Having only made four feature films to date, I would argue that his 1978 masterpiece ‘Days of Heaven’ is one of Hollywood’s finest cinematographic achievements. Actor, Sam Shepherd, refers to the cinema of Malick as visual poems, a description that I also feel aptly sums up what is a deeply unconventional style of film making; observational, transcendental and humble – all terms that seem to oppose the pretentiousness of many Hollywood film makers. Malick is a humanist but any kind of creeping of social agenda remains very much in the background of his films and I would go as to far as to place him alongside world cinema directors like Robert Bresson, Yasujir┼Ź Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Days of Heaven’ is only ninety minutes yet Malick’s extraordinary and adept pacing prolongs the journey of his characters so that the narrative becomes wholly subordinate to characterisation, generating a lyrical tone.

Malick was lucky enough to be able to collaborate with three different cinematographers on ‘Days of Heaven’, and Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler and John Bailey achieve some staggering results with photographing much of the action during what is commonly referred to as ‘magic hour’, a time in the day when the sun is setting and the light produces an amazingly translucent effect. Having developed voice over narration in ‘Badlands’ as a technique that could question what was happening on screen by the protagonist, Malick decided to add a voice over to ‘Days of Heaven’ whilst editing the film. Voice over narration had been a convention of film noir in particular but the emergence of the Nouvelle Vague re introduced the voice over into American cinema and a film like ‘Taxi Driver’ underlined how such a technique could be implemented to act as an additional psychological dimension, giving an alternate voice to characters. In ‘Days of Heaven’, the voice over of the little girl (Linda Manz) is delivered in an indescribably monotone fashion, offering a childishly subjective point of view.

The film does play out like a Greek tragedy especially in its biblical finale in which a plague of locusts sets in motion a fiery inferno that consumes the fields of wheat, destroying the harvest and leaving only a singed landscape. Producer, Bert Schneider had already forged a reputation by producing liberally inclined films such as ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Hearts & Minds’, and he was overly enthusiastic in his support for an auteur kind of American cinema. ‘Days of Heaven’ took an unusually long time to edit and this delayed the release of the film by nearly two years, but even today, it is still regarded by some critics as inferior to Malick’s startling and influential debut feature, ‘Badlands’. ‘Days of Heaven’ is a textbook on how to shoot landscapes and its purity as an organic film is what makes it such a remarkable illustration of what is possible within the narrow parameters of Hollywood cinema. I am convinced that Malick’s masterpiece features some of the most unforgettable and potent imagery captured on film and this is perhaps why:

The Workers Arrive...

Malick's extraordinary eye for detail...

The First of Many Sunsets...

It is hard to imagine that this all natural lighting...

The harvesting begins...

Meeting of two strangers...

The film works through the key seasons...

Observing nature is a key Malick visual motif...

Magic Hour...

A tragedy begins to unfold...

The lost glass...

Wide open spaces...

Landscapes...

The Plague of Locusts...

A Tribute to Murnau's 'Sunrise'...

Apocalyptic imagery...

The devastated landscape...

Imagery of water reoccurs throughout the film...

The Death of Bill...

Linda's journey continues...

22 February 2009

BEFORE THE RAINS (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 2007, India/UK/US)


‘It was a wonderful feeling to work with talented actors from England, the United States and India. Each brought something unique to the production…’
- Santosh Sivan

What has become typical of the way in which Indian cinema is covered, a few grudging paragraphs were given to the coverage of Sivan’s first English language feature in the British mainstream press, and though none of the journals or film magazines ran a feature on the film’s production, disappointing considering the illuminating nature of the cinematography, ‘Before the Rains’ is a superbly crafted piece of cinema that reminded me of the intelligence and richness with which Merchant Ivory depicted India in many of their early films starring Shashi Kapoor. (Interestingly, ‘Before the Rains’ was marketed as a Merchant Ivory Presentation – I had mistaken it for one of their newest productions). Sivan’s complementary attitudes towards what is undoubtedly a globalised co- production harks back to the positive sentiments forged by Merchant Ivory when they made under rated films like ‘The Householder (1963)’, ‘Bombay Talkies (1970)’ and ‘Shakespeare Wallah (1965)’.

Set in familiar Sivan territory of Kerala, ‘Before the Rains’ is a 1930s period film. A colonial melodrama, the narrative focuses predominately on the character of T.K. (Rahul Bose) who works as a servant and guide for a British spice merchant, Henry Moores (Linus Roache). The allegiances of T.K. are brought into doubt when Henry’s illicit relationship with Sajani, a local village girl, becomes a source of controversy in the local community. As T.K. and Henry conspire to cover up a tragic accident, the local community responds to the death of Sajani by conducting their own investigation. Many of the reviews were critical of the supposedly heavy handed use of a revolver as an obvious narrative device:

‘English planter, Henry Moores presents his assistant T.K. with a revolver as a token of friendship. It seems an improbable choice of gift; T.K. is a quiet, unaggressive sort, and if it’s protection against the wild animals a rifle would make more sense…’

- Sight and Sound, August 2008, Volume 18 Issue 8, Film review by Philip Kemp, pg 53.

Philip Kemp’s uninviting review for Sight and Sound seems to overlook many crucial facts related to the character of T.K. (Rahul Bose). I would put forward the idea that the revolver should be interpreted as both a symbolic force of imperial corruption (it is Henry Moores who inadvertently brings violence into the life of someone as politically benign as T.K), and also an appropriate reminder of how the Quit India Movement that serves as a significant political backdrop to Moore’s desire to build a road for his dream of spice trading was vehemently supportive of a non violent ideology, based on humanist principles of civil disobedience. Kemp seems to misinterpret the use of the revolver as such a motif has surfaced on many occasions in the films of Santosh Sivan. Such a prop has to be positioned within a wider authorial context but this is apparently problematic for many critics and film reviewers who are often dismissive of Indian directors as being able to acquire the status of auteurs. Thematically, violence and its affects on the one perpetrating the physical act is debated in both ‘The Terrorist’ and ‘Asoka’, and eventually the protagonists from both films arrive at the enlightened conclusion that the preservation of life is something quite sacred and perhaps even absolute in the context of India’s profoundly diverse cultural distinctions. Acquiring tolerance for differing religions, races and political ideologies is ultimately what makes T.K. such a prototypical Santosh Sivan character.

“The term “heritage film” was first used by Charles Barr to describe patriotic wartime fare…it describes, he says, “a genre of film which reinvents and reproduces, and in some cases simply invents, a national heritage for the screen…”

- Film Comment, 'Heritage Cinema' by Graham Fuller, Pg 36-38, September 2008, Vol 44/No 5

I’m not sure if you could label ‘Before the Rains’ as an example of heritage cinema but many striking elements that are strongly associated with this kind of film making are clearly evident throughout a mise en scene which recreates Kerala in the 1930s under the auspice of the British Raj. Take for example, the idea of the plantation and house that becomes the focus for much of the action:

‘The country-house trope is a handy metaphor for the heated, unresolved debate in Britain over so-called heritage cinema – which is not a genre but a negative critical construct that emerged in response to the neoconservative climate of the Thatcher years…’

- Film Comment, 'Heritage Cinema' by Graham Fuller, Pg 36-38, September 2008, Vol 44/No 5

In many heritage films, the stately home is not just a visual signifier of class but it is iconic of the genre and describes to us a kind of Britishness that is both indigenous and representative of the ruling elite/aristocracy. In the case of Sivan’s film, the home occupied by Henry Moores appears not as a symbol of colonial subjugation but more importantly, acts as a psychological force, reminding audiences of Sajani’s (Nandita Das) constant presence even after she has been killed. Another distinct similarity shared with contemporary heritage cinema is the film’s representation of both the female characters; Sajani and Laura (Jennifer Ehle) are positioned very much as victims of a familiar patriarchal society. Sivan is careful not to condemn Sajani’s character and the search organised by her brother presents a heartfelt and emotive representation of local Nayar traditions. The community momentarily abandons the construction of the road so that they can join in what amounts to a futile search, but such a spirit of co-operation and co-existence underlines how Indian nationalism would naturally find sympathy and understanding in even the remotest of places in India.

Like much of heritage cinema, female characters are regularly instructed by what is a repressive society to contain their sexuality and that to harbour affections is less of a taboo then to act upon them. Such a convention of both the female melodrama and heritage film clearly manifests itself in the character of Sajani. She is not allowed to desire or permitted to openly pursue her own inner feelings. It seems as though the opposition to colonialist rule is an exclusively political one that cannot provide any kind of revolution when it comes to over turning dominant patriarchal attitudes that threaten to engulf the community. This overt patriarchy is not solely attributed to the local community as Henry is also complicit in the destruction of Sajani; he is just as obstinate, selfish and protective of cultural identity as those around him.

If we were to read this film within a heritage cinema context then the unexpected departure of Sajani provides a real crisis in terms of gender and its centrality at the narrative. Typically, the female character would continue to be viewed as the victim and much of the narrative would be continued to be motivated by her actions but in this case the absence of a Sajani does not leave a void for the spectator in terms of empathy, it on the other hand shifts the focus onto Henry who subsequently becomes a victim of his own short sightedness. In the final third of the film, it is Henry who becomes the victim, imprisoned in his own house and subjected to the traditions of the local community who threaten him with expulsion. Like ‘The Terrorist’ and ‘Asoka’, and even ‘Dil Se’ to a certain extent, water literally permeates the frame. Like trains, water seems such an integral part of the iconographic make up of Indian cinema and its presence in ‘Before the Rains’ is an elemental motif and symbol of purity that is strongly tied to Sajani’s character. Take for example the final confrontation between Henry Moores and T.K. at the end which finishes with the sound and sudden appearance of rainfall, signalling the monsoons and reminding us of yet again of Sajani’s presence. In this case, water is represented as a potentially destructive force but it carries with it something distinctly feminine.

‘The relationship between the characters is a metaphor for the promise - and the tragic flaw - of British Colonialism…’
- Santosh Sivan

Sivan’s film reminded me greatly of Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 masterpiece, ‘Black Narcissus’. Supported by an excellent set of performances from Nandita Das, Linus Roache and Rahul Bose, ‘Before the Rains’ confirms the critical reputation of Santosh Sivan as one of India’s leading film makers. The Wikipedia entry for Sivan’s latest film ‘Tahaan’ says that it has already been released in India (September 2008) and it still seems that the film is without any kind of UK distributor. The website to the film offers no confirmation about a possible UK release date either. I am getting the terrible feeling that this film will not get a UK release which is a shame because Sivan is an Indian film maker who occupies a middle ground that borrows from both indigenous and populist cinemas, but makes films that are accessible for a specialised and perhaps even dare I say it mainstream audience.

http://www.idreamproduction.com/website/tahaan/

16 February 2009

INDIAN CINEMA and TRAINS

Would it be right to suggest that trains are an iconographic aspect of Indian cinema that has been consistent since urbanisation took hold of society way back in the 1930s or is it purely a coincidence that most of the finest and much celebrated Indian films all feature the visible or aural presence of the train. Currently, the success of a film like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ seems to have generated wider interest in Bollywood cinema but Danny Boyle’s film understands that you cannot possibly shoot a film in India without referencing the convention and potent symbolism offered by the image of the train. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ climaxes at a train station, Jamal is separated from Latika by a train and after the lovers have embraced, Danny Boyle stages a mock dance sequence at a train platform. You could argue that’s the film’s narrative is effectively interlinked via the motif of the train as it works to sever and unite our enamoured lovers.

The fixation with trains in mainstream Indian cinema in part extends from Bengali cinema and the films of Satyajit Ray. It is the motif of the train’s unexpected arrival and departure in the foreground that cuts a path across ‘The Apu Trilogy’, eventually haunting and consuming the shattered figure of Apu. The image of the train and its aural presence in many of Ray’s films brings a sense of foreboding, and ultimately it is the harbinger of death. As a metaphor for urbanisation and change, the motif of the train has been repeated endlessly throughout Bengali cinema, but unlike in mainstream cinema where it brought the promise of freedom, regeneration and optimism, it was represented by Ray in particular as a negative, destructive force. So whether the presence of a train in an Indian film is symbolic, metaphorical or even political, it is an iconographic element that cannot be denied and must be acknowledged as an expression of life and death.

D E A T H


APUR SANSAR / THE WORLD OF APU – (Dir. Satyajit Ray , 1959)

In the final part of Ray’s masterful trilogy, Apu’s anguish over the death of his wife is powerfully interrupted by the shrieking sound of a passing train. It is no ordinary sound, it is one we have become quite familiar with in the earlier films, a sound that signals doom and in this case, death.

EK LAVAYA / THE ROYAL GUARD (Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2006)

Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s intimate epic has been one of the few contemporary films to feature a noteworthy performance from Amitabh Bhachan. One of the stand out sequences in the film occurs at a railway crossing; as the train passes, a whirlwind of sand and dust consumes an assassin and the royal guard (Amitabh Bhachan) sworn to protect the king trapped in his car. It all ends tragically.

D A N C E


DIL SE / FROM THE HEART (Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1998)

Gulzar’s melancholic lyrics, Farah Khan’s exquisite choreography, Santosh Sivan’s vivid images and Shah Rukh’s floppy hairdo combine with Ratnam’s gutsy, extravagant execution of the song ‘Dil Se’ on a moving train to create a sequence that is simply timeless and unashamedly enjoyable.

F I L M S T A R S


YAADON KI BAARAAT
(Dir. Nasir Hussain, 1973)

One of the biggest hits of the 1970s and still fondly remembered for its soundtrack, ‘Yaadon Ki Baaraat’ is the quintessential ‘lost and found’ film. It features one of the best star entrances you are ever likely to come across in a Bollywood film. The star in question was none other than Dharmendra whose appearance is signposted quite explicitly and dramatically by the sudden appearance of a passing train. The camera cuts from Dharmendra the dishevelled young boy to Dharmendra the flamboyant superstar.

F A T E


THE NAMESAKE (Dir. Mira Nair, 2006)

Opening with a train crash, Ashok Ganguly (Irfan Khan) is discovered in the wreckage holding on to a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’. His fear of trains remains with him through his life but it provides a sacred connection with his son, Gogol. In this case, the image of the train becomes an overwhelming symbol of fate.

J U S T I C E


VIRASAAT / THE INHERITANCE
(Dir. Priyadarshan, 1995)

At the end of the film, having taken the law into his own hands, Shakti Thakur (Anil Kapoor), the son of an influential landlord, surrenders himself to the police. The villagers descend upon the train station where Shakti is placed onto a train and taken away to face trial for the crimes he has committed. As his wife, Gehna (Tabu), looks on in dismay, it becomes strikingly clear that finally some sense of law and order has been restored and perhaps even justice prevails. Ironically, Shakti arrives on a train, full of promise and hope yet also departs on a train as a radically different person.

SWADES / HOMELAND (Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2005)

Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan), a NASA scientist who has returned to his village in hope of persuading his surrogate mother to immigrate back with him to America becomes increasingly complicated when he comes face to face with a stark social reality. On his short return from encountering an impoverished family, Mohan’s train briefly pauses at a platform so passengers can get refreshments. As Mohan waits, overwhelmed with the poverty he sees, a little boy is seen selling water to reluctant train passengers. What works about this moment is not the unashamed poverty on display but rather the blunt truth that water is such a precious commodity yet to ask someone to pay for it seems like a crime. In this case, the train initiates a personal revolution to bring some hope to the people of his village.

P R O G R E S S


ABHIJAN / THE EXPIDITION (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962)

Ray’s fixation of trains seemed to span his entire film career. In his most commercially successful film, Soumitra Chatterjee plays Narsingh, an arrogant taxi driver who finds it problematic to part with his precious 1930 American Chrysler. In a telling sequence in the film, Narsingh puts his Chrysler to the test by racing a train, underlining how modernity and change were grossly over rated.

L O V E


DILWALE DULHANIA LE JAYENGE (Dir. Aditya Chopra, 1995)

VEER ZAARA (Dir. Yash Chopra, 2007)

SAATHIYA (Dir. Shaad Ali, 2002)

Many of the European immigrants who made the journey to Hollywood in the 1940s brought with them a dark vein of poetic fatalism. ‘Letter From an Unknown Woman’, directed by Max Ophuls in 1948, saw two lovers part company at a train station, doomed never to meet again. Such fatalism seems pretty much absent from the romantic elements of many Bollywood films and recent ones in particular have tended to use trains as a force of destiny, providence and most importantly, love. Perhaps the most celebrated contemporary Bollywood train moment occurs at the end of Aditya Chopra’s 1995 blockbuster spectacle ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (The Brave Hearted Will Take The Bride) when Simran (Kajol) is melodramatically united with her lover, Raj (Shahrukh Khan). In ‘Saathiya’ (a remake of a Mani Ratnam’s film ‘Alaipayuthey’), relationships seem to be defined by the presence of trains, which not only bring people together but also act as a force of disruption and displacement.

H E R O I S M


SHOLAY / EMBERS (Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975)

I guess no cannon on Indian cinema would really be complete without a reference to a film like ‘Sholay’. Why this film continues to enthral audiences today is simply baffling. I don’t feel it measures up to any of the films Amitabh Bhachan made in the 1970s. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, ‘Sholay’ is hugely over rated and many aspects of the film have not stood the test of time, but the brilliant dialogue and on screen chemistry between Amitabh and Dharmendra continues to inspire film makers today. It does feature an exceptionally well executed train sequence in which our ingenious heroes (Jai and Veeru) battle some gruesome bandits attempting to hijack a train.

10 February 2009

BODY OF LIES - (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2008, US)

I do not know what to make of Ridley Scott anymore. Post 2000, apart from the mediocrity of ‘Gladiator’, he has busily directed a number of high profile Hollywood films but unfortunately none of them have been particularly noteworthy or representative of the aspiring work achieved in the science fiction genre with films like ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. His last three films have featured the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, but they are structured in such a confusing and lethargic way that they induce an emotional response which borders on frustration. In the countless press junkets and interviews, Ridley Scott always makes out as if he is somewhat of an independent, maverick film maker. However, what his recent films seem to reveal to me is that he has become just another director for hire who shops around for potential high concept film projects. He has also increasingly revealed himself to be a mainstream film maker who is strangely supportive of the dominant point of view and in ideologically dubious films like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) and ‘Body of Lies’ (2008) he has validated the notion that American might and superiority is something positive and even righteous. Scott received some notable criticism for his xenophobic representation of Somalia and its people who are depicted in ‘Black Hawk Down’ as merely cannon fodder for the liberating power of an interventionist American military. The Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, was unequivocally scathing in his criticisms over Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ in 2002:

‘The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals inspired by Enya. The American troops display horrific wounds. They clutch photos of their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies, killed cleanly, dispensable, unmourned.’

‘Both saviour and victim’, George Monbiot, Tues 29 Jan 2002
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2002/jan/29/2002inreview.features


Such an argument concerning the demonisation of Somalis into that of the savage blood thirsty ‘other’ offers a very regressive view of international relations and reinforces conservative black and white morality that one often found in the western genre. With his latest film, ‘Body of Lies’, Scott is merely paying lip service to the film’s supposedly even handed approach to terrorism and its representation of the Middle East and Muslims. No such impartiality exists as this is a film that appears to be a high tech thriller but is in fact a genre vehicle used to propagate and perpetuate a stereotypical view of the Middle East and its relationship with America. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe are unexceptionally miscast in the lead roles as neither of them quite understand what it means to make a film about terrorism. In his review for ‘The Hollywood Reporter’, Frank Lovece summed up the contradictory pleasures of this film quite well:

‘If you're looking for a high-tech, old-fashioned racist B-western, you've come to the right place, pilgrim’ (Oct 6, 2008)

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/news/e3i3ccdd00902078c246ed156a8fbd3bcf5

Referring to the film as ‘racist’ may be valid especially when one examines how the film tries and fails to counter the stereotypical representations of Muslims as Jihadi, monosyllabic evil terrorists with fleeting moments of questionable Hollywood liberalism. Take for example, the character of Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a nurse who was born in Jordan but with parents from Iran. She appears magically after Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at a hospital looking for treatment. Aisha is shown as one of the good Muslims, shown to be performing a noble service for her country and her relationship with Ferris is supposed to offer audiences an insight into how American and Middle Eastern relations can work if only Muslims knew how to behave and act appropriately. Aisha is symbolically passive and represented as a one dimensional narrative function and never permitted to develop as a character in her own right. I can’t think of a film that Ridley Scott has directed that isn’t technically competent but his grasp of cinematography and editing does little to soften the impact of what is a very unintelligent and deeply conservative espionage thriller.

9 February 2009

HAZAARON KHWAISHEIN AISI / A THOUSAND DESIRES - (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 2005, India)

'Hazaaron khwaishein aisi
ki har khwaish pe dum nikle
Bahut nikle mere armaan
lekin phir bhi kam nikle...'


(A thousand desires, each seeming to take a lifetime to realise.
Try as I might, they don't seem to want to become real)

- Mirza Ghalib, Urdu Poet

HISTORICAL IGNORANCE

I felt historically ignorant and slightly ashamed of myself whilst watching Sudhir Mishra’s impassioned film as I knew very little of India’s long association with left wing communist and Marxist ideals. A voice over begins by informing us about the many sacrifices given by those who were part of the initial Naxalite movement in South Bengal. I had to stop the DVD and take some time to read up on the historical events of the Naxalite movement in the 60s and in what sense Sudhir Mishra was actually using such events in his film. It probably is not absolutely necessary to have some contextual knowledge and understanding of the origins of Naxalite ideology as the film thankfully never falls into the trap of having to explain every kind of ideology or political party we encounter through what becomes a sprawling narrative, stretching over 20 years. It would also be wrong of me to argue that Mishra could have framed the opening to his film within some kind of wider historical context, but had he done this then his film would have struck a false chord by immediately giving the impression that what we were about to see was going to be in the vein of a historical documentary. Then perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Mishra’s film is undoubtedly being directed at a specialised audience, a generation of well educated middle class Indians or even Bengali’s who would be able to get to grips with the complex political arguments. This may even account for the film’s disappointing commercial performance at the Indian box office. Historical context is articulated through the narrative but it is a gradual process and never intentionally signposted by Mishra or condensed into preachy political moments. This is superior political cinema and the differing ideological conflicts are filtered through a love story between three college friends who we first meet in the confines of Delhi University.

NAXALITE IDEOLOGY

The word itself ‘Naxalite’ originates from the name of a village. The Wikipedia entry states the following in regards to the formation of such a leftist ideological group:

‘Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a section of The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) led by Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal led a violent uprising in 1967, trying to develop a "revolutionary opposition"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naxalite

Such an event subsequently led to the fragmentation of The Communist Party of India (CPI) and out of this emerged an ultra left wing faction of extremists who declared their opposition to the leadership of the party. Naxalites argued that the party needed to campaign more vigorously for the rights of the lower classes and comprehensively remain committed to the fundamental importance of revolutionary ideals. However, the implications of such an uncompromising commitment seemed a near impossibility when considering that the CPI would have to sanction and in essence condone the use of violence as an acceptable form of resistance. The Naxalites viewed the conflict between the classes as an armed struggle that required an absolute adherence to Marxist principles. Those who did eventually break away felt that the CPI was increasingly shifting to appease the hostile sentiments of those political groups occupying the mainstream political spectrum. The Naxalites seemed to disperse across Bengal and declared themselves as true Marxists; one’s who did not feel the need to dilute their original beliefs so that they could merely be accepted and assimilated into the mainstream. In a recent 2008 interview, Mishra talks explicitly about how his film documents the Naxal movement in rural Bihar:

‘Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, a lot of young people from upper-class backgrounds like my hero Siddharth were drawn to the Naxal movement because of the total violence and obscenity evident in the oppression of people in rural India at the time. Radicals like him tried to change the world for the better, and failed.’

Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
http://www.musicindiaonline.com/ar/i/movie_name/879/3/director/1307/

Though Mishra does not directly deal with many of these aspects in his film, he does present representatives of Naxalism as contradictory and complex. A telling moment occurs early in the film when Geeta (Chitrangda Singh) and Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon) are listening to a speech being given by a Naxalite member to a crowd of semi-illiterate villagers. Hitler is referenced quite explicitly but the problematic nature of Siddharth’s intellectual beliefs are more or less rendered redundant when Geeta angrily points out the stark reality of the villagers ignorance of Hitler and history in general is symptomatic of a general grass roots problem to do with a high level of illiteracy. This seems to underline how any kind of political and ideological education was pointless without the propagation and reality of some kind of effective literacy programme in many of the villages. Geeta’s wisdom and intelligent foresight underlines that the failure to initiate widespread revolution is an inevitability that Siddharth will painfully have to come to terms with many years later.

NAXALITE CINEMA

Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon) comes from a privileged background and is representative of the upper class, wealthy ruling elite but his political activism and involvement in the struggles for a popular Naxalite revolution seems to galvanise the sentiments of those around him. Siddharth seems to epitomise a social reality of the time as many students from Universities across India became increasingly active in their support of peasants and the oppressed that were reluctant to challenge and overturn an archaic and hegemonic caste system. The Naxalite movement has been incredibly visible in large parts of Andhra Pradesh and it has considerably affected the kinds of films produced by Telegu cinema. Film academic, S. V. Srinivas, one of the preeminent authorities on Telegu cinema has written extensively about the emergence of a Naxalite genre that appeared in the 90s:

‘Osey Ramulamma belongs to a genre that is locally known as the red film or naxalite film. In the films of this genre the naxalite is a representative of the oppressed who often speaks the language of rights. Despite the ‘forms and keepings’ of this genre, it is possible to argue that the naxalite in these films is a citizen figure, albeit a vigilante citizen who at times belongs to the group he fights for (such as Dalits or tribals). It has been pointed out that this genre, associated with Narayana Murthy who produced and directed naxalite films in addition to starring in them, remained in the margins of the film industry for half a decade and underwent a transformation with major film industry players taking an interest in it (Balaji 1999). The result was the production of big budget star-studded naxalite films, which incorporated a number of elements from industrial genres—duets and elaborately choreographed fights, for example (Adavilo Anna, B. Gopal, 1997). Osey Ramulamma, the prime example of the industry’s takeover of the genre, is the most commercially successful naxalite film ever…’

Citizens and Subjects of Telugu Cinema, S.V. Srinivas
Published in Deep Focus: Film Quarterly, March 2002, pp. 63-67

It is interesting to see how a marginal series of film or even a genre like the ‘red film’ has eventually become subsumed into the mainstream. The phenomenal success of a Naxalite film like ‘Osey Ramulamma’ poses a number of striking questions especially when framed within today’s politically agitated context. Admittedly, the big budget Naxalite films that Srivinas alludes to in his article also seems to suggest that perhaps the politics of Naxalism was diluted and compromised so that it would be palatable for a wider audience. It would be interesting to watch some of these films and determine whether or not this statement is true. The presence of Naxalite groups can still be widely felt across Bengal and the on going conflict with the Indian army led the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to recently declare the Naxalites as ‘the single biggest threat to Indian internal security’. Some journalists have labelled it as India’s ‘hidden war’, an appropriate assessment when considering how Naxalism rarely appears high up on the news agenda in fear of agitating the masses. Today, most Naxalites are viewed by the media as terrorists and what seems remarkably challenging in Mishra’s film is how he clearly condemns the failure of civil institutions like the police in supporting the lower classes and instead sympathising with the noble cause of such revolutionaries like ‘Siddhartha’.

SUDHIR MISHRA

Heralding from a theatrical background and also influenced by his brother’s formative years at the Film and Television Insititute of India at Pune, Mishra’s career runs parallel with the emergence of the short lived but highly influential Parallel cinema at the end of 1970s and early 1980s. Mishra’s first notable contribution to such a revolutionary art cinema came as a scriptwriter on the darkly satirical comedy ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro' (Don’t Mind Folks)’. Directed by Kundan Shah, ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ featured a cast and crew made up of some of the key figures in the Parallel cinema movement; actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapoor. The film itself was interpreted by critics as a blistering attack on political corruption in the 1980s. Mishra worked quietly through the 1980s, directing films with a strong political slant. Unfortunately, much of his work is not available on DVD or VHS and this seems a real shame when you consider how some of the most banal ‘Masala’ films made by Indian cinema regularly appear on specialised Asian television networks like Zee and Sony. ‘Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin’ (This is not your destination) (1987) and ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ (I am alive) (1988) are perhaps two of the most acclaimed films he directed in the 1980s but it is impossible to comment on the way Mishra’s career has evolved without being able to scrutinise in detail on the films he has made.

In 1991, Mishra directed Om Puri and Shabana Azmi in a little known and often forgotten film titled ‘Dharavi' (City of Dreams). The film received the National award for best film in 1992 and though I have not seen this film, it seems particularly current in the light of the success being enjoyed by ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as ‘Dharavi’ is a film that was shot in the slums of Mumbai and grapples with the issue of poverty. In an interview given by Mishra in 1997, he is very critical about the kinds of films produced by contemporary Indian cinema:

"In an industry where mediocre scripts rule, producers have got into the habit of compromising with content. I also feel that most of them are illiterate to understand good subjects."

Most Bollywood producers are illiterate: Sudhir Mishra
http://www.webindia123.com/movie/interview/aug2007/2.htm


Mishra is quite damning of the rampant commercial mentality that has besieged Indian cinema of late and goes on to vent his anger against the hypocrisy to do with the problem of piracy:

"The basic problem is that audiences also see bad films and hence producers prefer to give money for rip offs or stories that have been used before and can land hits. It is such a farce that we shout against piracy when we are operating on rip offs."

Most Bollywood producers are illiterate: Sudhir Mishra
http://www.webindia123.com/movie/interview/aug2007/2.htm

Much of what Mishra says is equally evident in Hollywood film making and it is very hard not to sympathise with his position on the plague of remakes and rip offs that continue to be churned out by Indian cinema on a regular basis. The Mahesh Bhatt studio has made a virtual career out of remaking Hollywood films. One of their biggest successes has been ‘Murder’ (2004), a remake of Adrian Lyne’s Richard Gere/Diane Lane starrer, ‘Unfaithful’. With the emergence of the NRI (Non Resident Indian) market towards the late 90s and the proliferation of independent television networks, financing possibilities from a variety of newly established production outfits and companies offered film makers some interesting possibilities. Alongside UTV Motion Pictures and K Sera Sera Productions (Ram Gopal Varma’s production company) was Pritish Nandy Communications, a production company set up by Indian poet and journalist, Pritish Nandy, in 1995.

Admittedly, Pritish Nandy’s production slate tends to favour a broad range of films and it has not specifically supported films with an overt political agenda but they did take a risk with ‘Chameli’ (2003) and then later with Mishra’s most personal film to date, ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’. Though both films underperformed at the box office, they certainly gave credence to a theory that indigenous film production companies could afford to take risks in supporting credible forms of film making that in turn provided an added degree of artistic credibility to the name of certain companies who were still trying to get a foot hold in an overcrowded industry. Unlike his contemporaries, Mishra complements Pritish Nandy on the risks it can take as a company:

‘PNC (Pritish Nandy Communications) is an ideal corporate set-up because it is not faceless. And while Pritish (Nandy) and I may not agree on a lot of issues politically, he’s an interesting, intelligent man with a wicked sense of humour. Someone who believes in stories and has the courage to back them at a time when many others are backing stars’

Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
http://www.musicindiaonline.com/ar/i/movie_name/879/3/director/1307/

Mishra’s latest film, ‘Khoya Khoya Chand / Lost Moon’, released in 2007 was unfairly savaged by the critics and though much was expected in terms of box office, the film was a commercial disappointment. Set in the 1950s, it is a period film that explores the Indian film industry through the eyes of an over eager director, self obsessed film stars and the anxieties generated by a film set that is out of control. Structurally, it is a messy film and is marred by an over stylisation but Mishra’s celebration of Bollywood’s golden age makes for a visually stunning film. The production design in particular is beautifully judged. Also, the film was disadvantaged by the earlier release of another similarly themed film about the film making process which was Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’, a playful post-modern pastiche and an unstoppable commercial juggernaut that literally laid waste most films released after November 2007. I guess it would be right to question the person or people responsible for what appears to be an obvious but catastrophic scheduling error. Had ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ been released before ‘Om Shanti Om’, it may have had a better chance to find a suitable audience.

A similar kind of problem faced the marketing department when thinking up appropriate ways of trying to market what many would have declared an unattractive commercial property as ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’. Clearly an audience existed for a youth film like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ in 2005 because this was proven most formidably with the incredible commercial success achieved by ‘Rang De Basanti’ in 2006. The marketing especially the posters sent out contradictory messages about the film, downplaying the political content and constructing a pretentious but marketable idea that alluded to the gangster and crime genre. Look carefully and it seems slightly absurd that Geeta, a character who continually argues for non violence in the film, appears on the poster pointing a gun. What this unveils is an uncertainty on part of the marketing department who did not really have a clear idea about the kind of film they were supposed to be selling to audiences.

POLITICAL CINEMA

‘Shekhar Kapur, Dev Benegal and Ashutosh Gowariker have called Hazaaron...the first genuinely political film to be made in Hindi and while it is about three people who are not too keen on the India they have inherited from their parents, it is not entirely about politics.’

Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
http://www.musicindiaonline.com/ar/i/movie_name/879/3/director/1307/

This seems like an exaggeration on Mishra’s part as parallel cinema in the 70s and 80s demonstrated how film could be used as a social and political tool for addressing the inequalities in contemporary Indian society. Terrorism continues to be a political anxiety that still affects the content of many Indian films that collectively represent a specific kind of political cinema. Once again, film makers from the South have been less reluctant to confront the representation of terrorism in their films and Mani Ratnam’s loose trilogy, compromising ‘Roja (1992)’, ‘Bombay (1995)’ and ‘Dil Se (1998)’ offers perhaps some of the most intelligent and insightful commentary on the origins, nature and affects of terrorism on society, whether that terrorism be a communal one (Bombay) or one inoculated by brutal repression (Dil Se).

One figure overlooked when discussing terrorism and political cinema is that of the lyrcist turned film maker, Gulzar (Sampooran Singh Kalra). He has worked intermittedly as a film maker and though much of his ouvere shows little signs of political concerns, the last two films he directed ‘Maachis’ (Matches) in 1996 and ‘Hu Tu Tu’ in 1999 are illustrative of a shift towards an engagement with politically oriented themes. ‘Maachis’ is one of the genuine masterpieces of 90s Indian cinema and is by far Gulzar’s most ambitious and finest achievement as a film maker. The film focuses on the 1980s period of brutal repression and discrimination faced by Sikhs in the Punjab, but Gulzar does something quite extraordinary in the film that very film makers have been able to accomplish to date when tackling terrorism as a subject matter; he shows us the birth, evolution and death of a terrorist cell whilst simultaenously humanising the figure of the terrorist.

‘Maachis’ strikes a nightmarish tone and is unremitting in its plausible and convincing examination of how society creates terrorism. Interestingly enough, Gulzar collaborated with Mani Ratnam on ‘Dil Se’, writing the fatalistic lyrics for many of the songs. Since 1999, Gulzar has not directed a feature film and seems to have semi retired, continuing to be celebrated as one of India’s most successful and acclaimed film lyricists. Incidentally, Gulzar has been nominated for an Oscar for the song 'Jai Ho' alongside A R Rahman. Though ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ was actually made in 2003, for some unexplicable reason, it was not released until 2005. In his interviews, Mishra does not throw any light on this question and why there was a delay of over 2 years before the film was distributed. I am assuming that the producers did not really know what to do with the film once it had been completed because it was undeniably an example of political cinema that was neither too mainstream or too arty but somewhere in between. It seemed to address the concerns of an emerging middle class youth audience who were eager to be challenged by a rejection of traditional and orthodox Indian cinema.

The UTV financed ‘Rang De Basanti’ (Paint it Yellow), released in 2006, finally offered confirmation that such an audience existed but it also managed to incorporate some of the more appealing mainstream elements from a film like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ into a traditional ‘song and dance’ narrative that unashamedly juxtaposed contemporary youth apathy with the political resistance of past figures like the legendary Bhagat Singh. One of the other reasons why a film like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ failed to achieve commercial success was partly to do with the lack of a leading film star. However, I think the film works brilliantly because of its rejection of stars in the leading roles and though Mishra paid dearly in terms of box office, ultimately the presence of a leading Bollywood star may have severely detracted from the political thrust of the film.

On the other hand, ‘Rang De Basanti’ feeds off the energy generated by a socially and politically engaged film star such as Aamir Khan. Compared to the realism of ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’, the politics of revolution in ‘Rang De Basanti’ come across as slightly implausible but we have to bear in mind that this is not only an unselfish star vehicle, it is a mainstream youth film that aspires to the stylised aesthetics of a Hollywood production unlike ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ which is not afraid of acknowledging the debt contemporary cinema owes to the fierce political honesty of the 'parallel cinema' movement.

6 February 2009

THE TERRORIST - (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 1999, India)

If you were to ask a film critic in either the UK or US to put together a list of who they would consider to be important and influential cinematographers currently working today then it is more than likely that the name ‘Santosh Sivan’ would be overlooked. Having shifted into film making, Sivan still seems unfairly recognised more for his work on films like ‘Dil Se’, ‘Asoka’ and ‘Fiza’. His extraordinary cinematography on Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film ‘Dil Se’ certainly influenced a trend in Bollywood cinema for a stylised concern with bold, dynamic colours to signify mood and exuberance. His eye for detail and the breathtaking aesthetics of his compositions are characteristics he was able to bring with him to the films he has directed so far. Sivan’s understanding of cinematography gives him a real advantage over most Indian film makers and this comes through most directly in his own films, constantly observing nature and society in refreshingly inventive ways. Also, many film makers in the mainstream of Indian cinema have regularly preferred to give precedence to emotions and narrative, reducing the cinematography to an element that should be realised at a competent level and nothing more. Technical competence was something that many films in the mainstream struggled to achieve for a long time but the rapid advances made by film makers in the South gradually forced many to take notice. Santosh Sivan trained at the Film and Television institute of India in Pune and is yet another brilliant product of a legacy that has helped to shape and inspire the careers of a generation of influential Indian film makers.

Born in Kerala, Sivan’s attachment to capturing the intimacies of nature as manifested in his recurring fascination with water perhaps in a way rejects the urbanisation of many Indian film makers today; his cinema is one that seems to take place in a mystical hinterland which embraces a rural context. Some critics have written about Sivan’s 1999 film, ‘The Terrorist’ as if it was his directorial debut. Though it is probably the film that has attracted the most critical praise of his films and notably with the support of Hollywood actor, John Malkovich, it was in fact the third he directed after Halo (1996) and Malli (1998). Both of these films used children as the main narrative subject and it is a theme which Sivan has returned to in his latest film, ‘Tahaan’. Sivan was quite unambiguous about the apolitical nature of his film, ‘The Terrorist’,

"The film is not about Rajiv's assassination. It is an attempt to explore the mind of a suicide bomber," says Sivan, adding, "I deliberately kept out everything else, including the politics of terrorism."
http://www.india-today.com/itoday/28121998/profile.html
Director with a Focus, M G Radhakrishnan

Malli’s mission to assassinate a political leader is complicated upon discovering she is expecting a child. Sivan really does make it into something very matter of fact; a choice between life and death. Examining the psychological mind set of a nineteen year old Tamil Tiger, Malli, played by Ayesha Dharker, is one of the key strengths of Sivan’s claustrophobic and lean film. The wikipedia entry for ‘The Terrorist’ provides some useful production information that illustrates the severe constraints Sivan was working under,

‘the film was shot in 15 days, with natural lighting, on a budget of $50,000’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Terrorist

Micro budget film making of this kind is rapidly looking like a viable economic reality in the light of today’s credit crunch and some of the first micro budget productions to have been shot in the UK are due for release shortly. I guess constraints means a film maker has to come up with increasingly visual ways of getting across thematic motifs and probing characterisation. Whilst Malli is instructed by her co conspirators and resistance fighters on the details of the assassination, she warms to the unselfish affections of an aging farmer with whom she is staying. Had Sivan politicised the narrative then it would have easily turned into another disengaging polemic on the nature of terrorism but the fact that Malli is a young woman humanises an aspect of society which we usually condemn without even having begun to understand the origins of such anger and resentment. It is incredible to fathom that Sivan creates such potent and memorable images from natural light but I guess this is why he continues to be regarded in Indian at least as one of its greatest cinematographers.