31 October 2009

DHARAVI / QUICKSAND (1992, Dir. Sudhir Mishra, India) - 'They all say, that I'm in a great hurry...'


A NFDC-Doordarshan Co Production

"Much of our cinema, even its so-called modern, alternative strand, is too referential. It thrives on imitation. It is not really our own cinema. We have to learn to break free and do our own thing," he [Sudhir Mishra] argues.

Hindi cinema's radical mainstream, Saibal Chatterjee, June 09 http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/jun09/jun091.asp

Should an auteur be judged on the near impossible criteria of consistency or should one simply stand back and simply accept that most film makers can only really ever become accomplished, credible artists if they remain true to themselves. Consistency as a demarcation of a film maker’s authorial status is perhaps arbitrary when considering how virtually most directors unhesitatingly alternate between the personal and the banal. Sudhir Mishra continues to be plagued with what is an inconsistent body of work, wavering from ambitious mainstream failure to realist political cinema. His 1992 parallel art film ‘Dharavi’ set in the slums of Bombay and starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (social realist favourites) certainly suggests a consistent authorial approach yet his status as an influential film maker is undermined by an unevenness in terms of narrative structure that characterises a number of key films.

When exactly the parallel cinema movement started and ended is largely unclear because of the reality that an art cinema has tended to exist alongside the mainstream, popular outlets in the film industry of most countries. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974) and M. S. Sathyu’s ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) certainly seem to act as definite starting points, signalling the birth of a new phase in the emergence of what would be dubbed ‘parallel cinema’. Though Sudhir Mishra has found it deeply problematic to make films on his own terms, ‘Dharavi’ was indicative of a movement which had peaked by the end of the eighties, occasionally producing a handful of noticeable art films in what was a largely commercialised nineties cinema. Perhaps this is why ‘Dharavi’ falls into the category of what is labelled as an unmemorable nineties art cinema.

Yet with the recent international success of stylised films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘City of God’, which have arguably popularised the imagery of slum poverty, Mishra’s realist morality appears wholly convincing and appropriately suited to depicting the lives of a marginalised underclass without resorting to the artifice of sentimentality or an overly constructed escapist narrative in which characters get the metaphorical chance to punch the air in glib satisfaction. A co production between NFDC and Doordarshan, ‘Dharavi’ revolves around a lowly taxi driver, played superbly by Om Puri, who dreams of starting his own business so that he can elevate himself out of the slums alongside his frustrated wife (Shabana Azmi), aging mother and naive son.

Combining a wonderfully atmospheric feel for authentic locations and an unpretentiously realist visual style, the film preys upon the prescient idea that mainstream entertainment in the form of popular cinema is both a diversion from confronting real man made problems in society and also a worryingly powerful distortion of inner ambitions. Mishra’s illustrative and inspired use of dream sequences which act as a projection of Om Puri’s opportunist fantasies features the presence of Madhuri Dixit as herself. The late Renu Saluja’s influential skills as an editor (a key figure in the parallel cinema movement) are evident in the tightly edited montage sequences depicting the visceral taxi journeys through the streets of Bombay, the original and appropriate use of slow motion and perhaps most significantly in the ideologically suggestive juxtaposition between reality and dreams.

Alternatively, Mishra’s film can also be viewed as a sociological study of male anxieties. Once all sense of moral dignity has become invisible to Yadav (Om Puri), a ferocious and uncontrollable anger stirs within the people of the slums who retaliate with violence, collectively resisting the sense of outrageous exploitation being committed in front of their very own eyes. The denouement may seem a little far fetched yet one suspends disbelief largely because the social oppression visible in the slums of Dharavi cannot remain repressed forever. However, nothing really changes for Raj Karan Yadav (Om Puri) as he reverts back to driving a taxi, confirming how survival and those like him are to an extent dependent on the democratic illusion of social mobility which is crudely propagated by the unattainable imagery of cultural icons like film stars. Mishra seems to be saying that the escape offered by Madhuri’s glowing red Saree may be infinite but at what price must this illusion be sustained?

DHARAVI (1992) - IMAGES FROM THE OPENING SEQUENCE:

CANONIZING A DECADE OF CINEMA: 2000 - 2009

Here in my personal opinion are some of the finest films of the last ten years. I have chosen to categorise them under four clear areas - Hollywood, World Cinema, Indian Cinema and British Cinema. That may seem a bit odd for what is supposed to be a list of the best films I have seen over the last ten years but I found it very problematic and nightmarish trying to narrow down what was an epic short list of potential films. I suspect over the coming weeks I will be adding to this canon with lists focused on genre, independent cinema, great performances, directors who have shown the most consistency, etc. The films listed appear in no particular order.

HOLLYWOOD

Fincher's most mature and ambitious film to date.

1. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) - If only all films shot digitally could look as beautiful as this.

2. The New World (Terence Malick, 2005) - A lifetime worth of imagery.

3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) - The most politically radical film of the decade?

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) - Brad Pitt shows he can act.

5. Sunshine State (John Sayles, 2002) - John Sayles is America’s finest Independent film maker.

6. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002) - Genre film making at its best.

7. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) - Enigmatically bold.

8. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2005) - Los Angeles noir.

9. Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005) - The first and only Hollywood film to humanise a suicide bomber.

10. Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000) - A history of a people.

Honorable Mentions:

11. Goodbye Solo
12. Elephant
13. Michael Clayton
14. The Mist
15. The Dark Knight
16. Into The wild
17. Munich
18. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
19. The Yards
20. Requiem for a Dream

WORLD CINEMA

Haneke deals with the colonial guilt of France.

1. Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005, France) - Unflinchingly prescient film making.

2. Time Out
(Laurent Cantent, 2001, France) - Dehumanisation of the work place.

3. Che: Parts 1 & 2 (Steven Soderbergh, 2008, Spain) - A staggering achievement and with subtitles too.

4. Three Times (Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2005, Taiwan) - A film about relationships.

5. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, 2007, Germany) - Trapped in two worlds.

6. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009, France) - France's finest film maker is Jacques Audiard.

7. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006, Romania) - Political satire that bites.

8. The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2004, Germany) - Youthful anti establishment musings.

9. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008, Italy) - Neo neo realist cinema.

10. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) - The Hallyu.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006, Germany) - A political thriller for grown ups.

Honorable Mentions:

11. One, Two, Three – Belvaux trilogy
12. In The Mood For Love
13. The Child
14. Consequences of Love
15. Let The Right One In
16. Beat My Heart Skipped
17. The Return
18. Still Life
19. Uzak
20. Robert Succo

INDIAN CINEMA

Mira Nair's 2001 film won the golden lion at the Venice film festival. It is still her warmest film to date.

1. Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001) - Patriarchal anxieties in postmodern India.

2. The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, 2001) - The close ups on Irfan Khan's eyes.

3. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) - Youthful political ideals.

4. Aap Tak Chhaappan (Shimit Amin, 2004) - Nana Patekar is the Lee Marvin of Indian cinema.

5. Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003) - Macbeth Bhardwaj style.

6. Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006) - Revolutionaries.

7. Sarkar (Ram Gopal Varma, 2005) - Amitabh Bachchan.

8. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001) - A beautiful homage to the cinema of the past.

9. Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004) - Proves why Kashyap is one of the finest Indian auteurs.

10. Raincoat (Rituparno Ghosh, 2004) - Devgan and Rai's best performances to date.

Honorable Mentions:

11. Swades
12. Yuva
13. Company
14. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
15. Khosla Ka Ghosla
16. Manorama Six Feet Under
17. Water
18. Eklavya: The Royal Guard
19. The Rising
20. Johnny Gaddar

BRITISH CINEMA

Ken Loach's most successful film to date.

1. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach, 2006) - Loach's greatest achievement as a director; the most accomplished political film of the decade.

2. This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) - Tolerance.

3. Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002) - Truth.

4. Hunger (Steven McQueen, 2008) - A film about textures.

5. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) - Finally, a worthy British horror film.

6. In This World (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) - Escaping impoverishment.

7. Dead Man's Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004) - A powerful revenge tragedy.

8. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002) - The silent minority.

9. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) - Superior genre cinema.

10. Yasmin (Kenneth Glenaan, 2004) - Belonging.

24 October 2009

BLUE (Dir. Anthony D’Souza, 2009, India) – ‘They call me Khiladi?!’

Does the human race have it within them to be subjected to the verbal and visual pantomime afflicted atrocities of yet another prosaic film starring the narcissistic superstar ego of Akshay Kumar? Commonly or should I rephrase that by saying affectionately known as ‘Khiladi’ to his brain dead fans (which means ‘player’), Akshay Kumar is supposedly the super hip, super swish international film star playboy who appeals to both the NRI market and indigenous domestic masses. Unlike his contemporary equivalents, Akshay has still yet to and probably never will make a film of any substantial, artistic value. Some absurdist, deluded critics like to compare him to both Rajesh Khanna and Shammi Kapoor when in truth Akshay Kumar is just a glorified film celebrity who considers himself somewhat of a retired stunt man for hire. A week doesn’t pass by without a wave of bland, predictable and banal high concept Indian films making their terrible presence felt at the UK box office. I really don’t know what compelled me to actually pay to watch the new absurdist Akshay blockbuster inventively titled ‘Blue’ other than a gargantuan marketing blitz and perhaps the notion that bad cinema can inadvertently help fortify the soul.

Pitched superficially as ‘Jaws’ meets ‘The Deep’, ‘Blue’ manifests some of the worst aspects of contemporary popular Indian cinema. However, popularity does not equate to quality when it comes to mainstream cinema and a product like ‘Blue’ may not even be a film as the banality in terms of hyper kinetic editing, hyperbolic performances, over emphasised glitzy locations and freeze frame moments point to the cannibalized aesthetics of a well orchestrated film trailer. I emerged from the viewing experience suffering from a cinematic crisis as I knew I couldn't justify this one as either a ‘guilty pleasure’ or ‘disposable trash’; neither can one classify it as an entertaining B movie and offer some sort of closure to the matter. Aside from featuring some of the clumsiest continuity errors you are likely to come across in an A list feature film, ‘Blue’ is such a lazy and cynical exercise in commercial cinema that it ends up being quite regressive. This is a film that left me speechless but sadly for all the wrong reasons. I fully sympathise that the industry depends on the ugly commercial necessity of tent pole pictures and event films but do they really have to be this insulting and self indulgent?

23 October 2009

NINGEN NO JOKEN / THE HUMAN CONDITION (Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, Japan) – ‘Man is not poetry and morality, he’s just a mass of lust and greed...'


Part 1 – ‘No Greater Love’ (1959)

Part 2 – ‘Road to Eternity’ (1959)

Part 3 – ‘A Soldier’s Prayer’ (1961)


When film maker Masaki Kobayashi set out to direct his deeply personal statement on war, authoritarianism and power he did not foresee that his nine hour epic titled ‘The Human Condition’ would eventually emerge as somewhat of a definitive post war Japanese film. Both a historical record and leftist interpretation of Japanese society before and after World War II, Kobayashi’s monumental trilogy reconstructs the contemporary notion of ambitious, epic cinema by approaching the relationship between man, society and nature through a radically oppositional Marxist perspective. Originally released in three parts between 1959 and 1961, the convoluted narrative charts the journey of Kaji, played by Tatsuya Nakadai in a career defining role, whose ideological shift from Marxist communist sympathiser to an embittered solider in the Imperial Army of Japan exposes an implicit hierarchical abuse of power.

Constantly represented in direct conflict with the state, Kaji’s journey begins in the labour camps of Manchuria in which he becomes both a witness and accomplice to the systematic brutalisation of Chinese prisoners of war. Ridiculed by what is a traditional Japanese orthodoxy, Kaji’s socialist values symbolise an earnest humanism that is in many ways an autobiographical manifestation of the director Masaki Kobayashi’s political militancy. The first part titled ‘No Greater Love’ sees Kaji struggling to improve the wretched working conditions for the labourers whilst coming up against a military controlled system enslaved to the Japanese war machine. His failure to humanise the labour camps brings a veil of scepticism concerning political thought and ideological theories, rendering him somewhat apathetic and indifferent to the idea of social change.

In part two of the trilogy, titled ‘Road to Eternity’, as punishment for his attempts at political agitation and breeding dissent amongst the labourers, Kaji is called up to join the Japanese Army. Encountering a similarly brutal form of authoritarianism, Kaji excels in the army as an outstanding solider and though he still harbours and espouses socialist ideals, his superiors point out that his skill and determination as a leader more than compensates for what they argue to be a dubious set of political values. However, as many around him predicted from the outset, defeat for the Japanese nation signals the aftermath and trauma of the war which is dealt in an equally impressive manner in the third and final part.

‘A Soldier’s Prayer’ is by far the bleakest and most exhausting of the three films, documenting the harrowing experience of Japan after its cataclysmic defeat. With a nation and culture that had self destructed, Kaji and his band of hopeless soldiers attempt at survival are met with episodic encounters representing a cross section of what remained of a defeated Japanese people. Hunger, disease, poverty, devastation, and alienation symbolise the aftermath yet the real trauma of Kaji begins when he is captured by the Soviet Army and made a prisoner. Like Odysseus from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, Kaji becomes the fearless homesick wanderer who is compelled to be reunited with his wife Michiko. An inherent socialist Kaji comes face to face with the appalling cruelty of communism and finally awakens to the stark and painful truth that all ideology is in some way corrupt and flawed. All that remains is a compromised faith in people, leading Kaji to the conclusion that only humanism can offer any kind of real practical response to the evils of society. Kaji’s agonising death unfolds melodramatically on the harsh, inhospitable wintry landscapes yet the memory of someone who resists and refuses to be assimilated into the conformist mass is an elegiac tribute to the triumph of leftist, Marxist film making of which Kobayashi was an ardent member and sophisticated propagator.

Freelance writer and film critic Philip Kemp who regularly contributes to the UK Sight and Sound Film publication provides a telling summation of the film and its director in his specially commissioned essay that was written to coincide with the superlative DVD release by Criterion:
Although The Human Condition aroused widespread controversy in Japan, it was critically acclaimed, won international awards, and established Kobayashi’s reputation among the leading Japanese directors of his generation—a status he maintained throughout the sixties with Kwaidan and his jidai-geki (period drama) films. But the crisis that hit the Japanese film industry at the end of the decade blighted his career. Along with Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Ichikawa, he formed a group called Yonki-no-kai (the Club of the Four Knights) to produce quality films, but the venture foundered with the box-office disaster of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970). In an industry increasingly geared to yakuza thrillers, disaster movies, and soft-core porn, Kobayashi’s seriousness of purpose seemed hopelessly out of fashion; and unlike the more flexible Ichikawa, he never took to working in television. Funding for his projects became increasingly hard to secure, and his career petered out in the mid eighties. His work of the fifties and sixties remains his lasting legacy, with The Human Condition a towering achievement that few directors—in Japan or anywhere else—have equaled.
The Human Condition: The Prisoner, Philip Kemp, The Criterion Collection Website
http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1226

It was a real tragedy that Kobayashi struggled to secure financing in his twilight years. What is even truer today is that his contribution to Japanese cinema is somewhat obscured by the colossal auteur figures of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi which continue to be immensely popular with international audiences and cine-philes alike. However I do agree with Philip Kemp's unequivocal conclusion that this is cinema that 'few directors—in Japan or anywhere else—have equaled'. In terms of its influence, one only need to watch either Terence Malick's World War II film 'The Thin Red Line' or Stanley Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket' to see the far reaching impact of Kobayashi's masterpiece on the American war genre.

12 October 2009

FILM CANONS – The decade draws to a close

'The Lives of Others'; one of the best films of the decade?

My blogging habits of late have been woefully inconsistent. I have been commissioned to write a book on Indian cinema and so most of my time has currently been overwhelmed by the demands of research. So many films seem to be passing me by with great annoyance and I can foresee that it is going to be somewhat of a problem negotiating my way through an ever increasing pile of DVDs. However, as this decade is quickly drawing to a close, lists have steadily started to appear across the blogosphere. I’m already under the impression that this decade is likely to come up short in terms of quality cinema when compared to the memorable world cinema scene of the 90s. This has arguably been the decade that DVD and the Internet answered the old age question to do with accessibility and availability that continues to haunt the discerning cinephile. So, what have been the best films of the decade? I have never been a fan of film cannons but in many ways top ten lists continue to provide a great source of debate amongst cinephiles. I personally think it is wise to have two separate best of decade lists – one for Hollywood and the other dedicated to non mainstream, world cinema films.

A few weeks back, The Observer (a Sunday newspaper), published a list titled ‘The Best British films of the last 25 years’ in their magazine supplement. Not only was the list made up of predictable, mainstream films but many of them including the likes of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ were granted a place for inexplicable reasons to do with commercial sensibilities rather than be judged on valuable artistic merits. Michael Winterbottom was painfully represented by ’24 Hour Party People, one of his most recognisable films but also his most mediocre when compared to ‘Wonderland’ and ‘In this World’. Ken Loach appeared just once with his 1991 social realist comedy, ‘Riff Raff’, when in reality films like ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ should have also been fully represented. I wasn’t too sure if the Jonathan Glazer directed ‘Sexy Beast’ should have been included either, considering how uneven his career has been.

Surely the most dubious entry of all was Anthony Minghella’s ‘The English Patient’, a Miramax production shot in Italy and Tunisia. Whilst this may be a sweeping epic (another unfriendly marketing euphemism), other than the presence of a British crew made up of Minghella, Kristin-Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes, it to me falls short of attracting the status of a British film. I was also duly disheartened by The Observer’s dismissal of significantly authentic and prescient contemporary British films like ‘Yasmin’, ‘My Son The Fanatic’, ‘Raining Stones’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, ‘The Last Resort’ and ‘Dirty Pretty Things’. I might just have to put together my own list so that I can prove how characteristically pedestrian the art of canonizing can become if one is solely motivated by popularity.

So here is the question I would like to ask; what are the ten best Hollywood and non Hollywood films of the last ten years? I will be putting up my list sometime in November and I am looking forward to seeing what the major film critics, academics and friends on the blogosphere have to offer in the coming months.