Please Say Hello

A friend of mine, K, has started a blog, Celluloid Escape, where he analyses the movies he watches. Please go over and say hello to him!

Apart from his analysis being incisive, I find myself agreeing with his point of view like 90% of the time, in person and on the blog.

After reading his posts, I am inspired to go see some movies and write about them as well; something that I haven’t done in a while.

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Notes on film: Kahaani

Spoiler alert: Some incidents documented and discussed here may interfere with your experience of the film if you are watching it for the first time.

To be honest, I did not expect much from Kahaani. I only went to see how Calcutta was portrayed. I am glad I did. Kahaani is one of the noteworthy films to come out of the Hindi film stable. Within the framework of the form, the director has experimented a lot and almost all of them have worked.

The film begins with a shot of a white mouse in a lab giving you the hint that it’s going to be a film about trapped people or people who will be trapped. It was a little jarring in tone when compared to the rest of the movie. My immediate reaction was that it was going to be about the Tokyo subway gas attack. We know that a significant man (Abir Chatterjee) is killed along with countless other citizens. Questions like “Who is he? And why is he so important?” buzz in mind but before they crystallize we are whisked off to see the hero in the meantime.

The hero is of course a woman. Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi is tailor-made for Vidya Balan. Fearless, undaunting and rather late in her pregnancy, Mrs. Bagchi arrives from cool London to the heat, dust and confusion that is Calcutta. And she has a story to tell. Her husband Arnab Bagchi (Indraneil Sengupta) has gone missing for the past month. Her investigations start from the Kalighat Police station. The name is not lost on the audience. As hints go, this one is a hammer. Kali is the darker more dramatic form of Durga and fittingly, the time is the Autumnal Durga Puja. Durga as we all know destroys evil. So the stage is set for the action to unfold.

Vidya Bagchi struggles against many odds – the complete lack of any proof that her husband exists, the inefficiencies of the guest house named after a famous Da Vinci painting, the Bengali tongue that obliterates any difference between then sound |b| and the sound |v| and, finally, the corrupt intelligence system. And she wins.

Early on in the movie, Vidya (tempting but not succumbing to the alliterative version of the name) finds her Watson in Satyoki/Rana, the young idealistic police officer who goes out of his way to help her. She remarks that Satyoki is Arjuna’s sarathy/ charioteer. Rana even comes as a package with his modern-day chariot, the police jeep. Which begs the question – who is Arjun? Obviously Vidya. Arjun, who hesitated before the Great War. So, did this hesitation on Vidya’s part fill up the gap of two years between the first referred incident of the Metro gas attack and Vidya’s appearance in Calcutta? We are left to draw our own conclusion.

Director Sujoy Ghosh has played with some tropes through the film subverting them beautifully. In no particular order, here they are.

Hindi film trope: The intentions of the mother are always pure.

Kahaani comment: Mothers and would-be mothers are human beings with selfish intentions that may be self serving more than serving others.

Hindi film trope: Hired assassins are gym-trained bulky muscular men oozing virility and charm, if not both.

Kahaani comment: The subversion of this trope is a particular favourite of mine. When you see a home-grown hired assassin who travels by hand-drawn rickshaws, probably a first in modern Hindi cinema, you are partly appalled, partly fascinated. Bob Biswas (Shaswatha Chatterjee) makes you believe that he is a harmless man while he shoots you with impunity. Biswas is stunning as a bumbling unsuccessful middle-class insurance agent who moonlights as a hired killer. As alternative careers go, this one is pretty radical.

Hindi film trope: The guardian guards the hero.

Kahaani comment: The guardian guards the cause, not the hero. Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) is the guardian and aforementioned charioteer who takes the hero wherever she wants to go. Sometimes even when it causes a moral conflict with himself. However, in the interest of the cause that the hero also services, the guardian may step back from overtly helping the hero.

Hindi film trope: One needs to see in order to perceive.

Kahaani comment: One needs to be deceived in order to truly perceive. This pretty much sums up the movie. Almost every significant character engages in some level of deception. The police inspector (Kharaj Mukherjee) who files a missing person’s report and gives Vidya Bagchi hope. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) henchman (the searing Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who doesn’t think much about lives lost en route in his investigation. The retired IB chief (Darshan Jariwala) who wants to help on one condition. The current IB chief (Dhritiman Chaterji) who asks his henchman to ignore the pregnant woman and find the missing rogue agent. The protagonist herself. Even the audience, who will be deceived in order to truly perceive. On this account, the film is very Shakespearean.

Maybe the greatest strength of the film lies in the fact that it does not succumb to sentimentality. There is drama, emotion, some copious tears, a few touching scenes, but no sentimentality. That works very well for me.

I cannot close without commenting on the acting. Balan brings so much natural flair to her role. She is strong, vulnerable, innocent and exhibits a drive that is very modern. Indraneil Sengupta does not make any impact. Abir Chatterjee has a comparatively smaller role and makes a stronger impact. Almost the entire cast of Bangla television has been co-opted for several minor roles. So I played actor spotting in almost every scene. The two child artists are to watch out for: Ridhi Sen as Poltu and Ritabrata Mukherjee as Bishnu. Ritabrata reminded me of a very young Kunal Khemu; the same mischievous eyes and smile. Parambrata stole a few scenes from Balan herself; no mean feat this. In one scene, Rana’s attraction to Vidya Bagchi is so palpable that all eyes were on him even though Balan was given more screen space and was better lit. Dhritiman Chaterji did not have as nuanced a role as he is capable of. But since he is such a delight to watch, all was forgiven. Agnes D’Mello portrayed by Colleen Blanche follows the legacy of Jennifer Kendall in 36, Chowringhee Lane as the aged Anglo Indian woman who is intrinsic to the narrative.

Finally, there are the Calcutta vignettes that capture a city so vibrant, so grimy, so dusty, so unbearably beautiful whether it be the regular landmarks (Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, Kumartuli) or the interior lanes and dilapidated mansions. The film is a visual ode to Calcutta.

I still have some questions regarding some plot twists. However, that is on hindsight. The dialogues were peppered appropriately with Bengali and Tamil appeared as one cameo sentence. The Bengali sensibility permeated the film but the pace was pure Bombay.

Some ideas were a bit off key. For instance, Vidya Bagchi claimed to not know about the two names that Bengalis have. It’s surprising considering that she claims to be married to a Bengali man. Rana having to explain this trivia which even those who have had peripheral contact with the Bengali world would know sounds a bit odd. Was this discussion for the benefit of the audience? If so, then it would have strengthened her character if these very lines were to come from her not Rana.

Another idea that was not paid enough attention was Mrs. Bagchi’s marriage markers. Even those married and settled in London sport at least one of the many markers of a cross-cultural marriage either from the Tamil side or the Bengali side. Vidya had none. I did not see her wearing shanka-pola (red and white bangales), or noa (iron bangle), or sindur (vermillion) on her forehead, or metti (toe ring), or thaali (sacred chain). Agreed, we know later why she doesn’t wear them. But within the probablilities of the plot it could have been explained. Moreover, how is it that in an inquisitive society like ours this goes unnoticed and uncommented? For the sake of authenticity of her character, she should either have sported one of these markers or an explanation given as to why she has opted out of them.

I have to add that Amitabh Bachchan’s take on the popular Rabindrasangeet song Ekla Cholo Re that ran along with the rolling credits was a huge disappointment. The stilted accent at certain points made me cringe and I am not a purist. It was a relief when the song slipped into Hindi.

To wrap up, yes Kahaani is a rather flawed film but it makes up for that by being original and fast paced.

Notes on Film: The Rum Diary

Over the weekend, I went on a movie marathon watching You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Fantastic Mr.Fox, Rango, and The Rum Diary. It was The Rum Diary to which I kept going back again and again in my mind as if it didn’t reveal all its secrets.

The plot is not just simple but is hardly there as well. However, the storytelling was par excellence. Based on the book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp plays the character of a journalist, Paul Kemp,  who’s the only one who applied and was accepted to The San Juan Star, a sinking Yankee newspaper in the middle of a troubled 1960 Puerto Rico.  Kemp, who has an alchohol addiction problem and is zoned out most of the time, is eminently unsuited to be an objective reporter* or any reporter for that matter. No surprise then he is allocated the horoscope and bowling alley beat. He connects with a fellow reporter Sala (Michael Rispoli) who shows him around town. Kemp’s I-don’t-care attitude attracts a host of characters including millionaire Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), his fiance Chenault (Amber Heard), a few Puerto Rican goons, and the unkempt journalist and narcotic specialist Moberg (Giovani Ribisi). In this journey through the film not just Puerto Rico but his mind, Kemp is searching for his own voice, a daring adventure and love, not necessarily in that order. Things seem to happen to him in a way that reminded me of Murakami’s protagonists. However, there is one major difference. Unlike Murakami’s protagonists, Kemp takes a stand at the end of the movie. It’s in taking this stand against the exploitation of the native Puerto Rican people and their land that he redeems himself. In the end, he also finds his literary voice and the woman he goes on to marry.

Shot on 16 mm film, the film is a visual treat. The tones are pure 1960s and frames very stylish. In its visual treatment, it reminds me of Andy Garcia’s 2005 film, The Lost City.

——

*Ergo, gonzo journalism.

Notes on film: The Neighbour

Note: Written for the Samsung Women’s International Film Festival 2011, Chennai.

Director: Naghmeh Shirkhan

Time: 104 min

Country: Canada/Iran

Genre: Feature

The Neighbour is an unconventional love triangle involving two women and a girl. Shot in mostly tight interior spaces, it tells the story of a woman, her neighbour and the neighbour’s child and the way their lives become entangled.

Shirin reaches out to Leila

Shirin (Azita Sahebjam) is a single mature woman, an accomplished Iranian folk dancer and teacher in Canada. She is desperately missing a real connection in her life. Her lover is only a functional asset to her life; she dumps him when he asks too many questions. Into this vacuum, steps in the neighbour’s latchkey child Parisa (Parisa Wahedi). Parisa washes the dishes, entertains herself, and looks after herself while her mother, Leila (Tara Nazemi) leaves the apartment everyday to be with her lover. Parisa and Leila’s week is punctuated by long-distance phone calls from an absent father and husband. Shirin and Parisa haven’t met yet; however in two shots that follow each other showing them in the emotional heart of the home (the kitchen) we know they will get along very well.

On the other hand, Shirin and Leila could not be more different. Many shots focused on Shirin’s graceful and smooth dance moves in two genres (folk, tango) which is a sharp contrast with Leila’s clumsy ice skating. Leila has no purpose in life; Shirin’s purpose is her dance.

Shirin tries to befriend her neighbour but is met with a cold reception. The inevitable happens. A crisis (in this case, Parisa’s illness) propels Leila to ask for Shirin’s help. In the beginning, Leila is happy that she has found a babysitter. However, when she realises that she is being excluded from the happy circle, she tries to separate them. Shirin’s nourishing presence makes Parisa blossom whereas Leila’s careless mothering leaves Parisa scarred, insecure, and wise beyond her years. Between the fast food served by her own mother and the homemade food served by the neighbour, the child knows which one is good for her and slowly gravitates toward Shirin. In one memorable scene, Shirin brings over a plateful of homemade food to Leila’s house but that is rejected.

Both Shirin and Parisa are artists: Shirin with her dance, Parisa with her playacting and dressing up. It’s no wonder they come together. Later this is reinforced when Parisa enjoys Shirin’s dance lessons. Leila, on the other hand is a stumbling ice-skater, literally walking on thin ice when it comes to her daughter.

Shirin and Parisa

Through Shirin and Leila, we see the stereotype of the good mother/bad mother played out. Ironically, neither of them are stereotypes and one of them is not even a mother. Shirin has her own demons to deal with including her troubled relationship with her mother, who in her turn– in this circle of repetitions – is dealing with her relationship with her own mother i.e. Shirin’s grandmother. Every where you look in this film, you will find a mother-daughter pair who love but do not understand each other.

A day comes when Leila walks out on Parisa leaving her in Shirin’s capable hands. Shirin steps in literally (in Leila’s clothes on Parisa’s insistence) assuming the role of her mother, looking after her, and searching for the absent mother.

Leila also has an internal vacuum to fill, only she doesn’t realise that it’s for her daughter to do that. She searches for love in sterile pubs and hotel rooms when all the while it waits for her at home. By the end of the film, she has an epiphany and makes the crucial trip home. Shirin can only step in temporarily. In order for the cycle to be complete, the real mother must return.

Parisa is quite a complex character by herself caught between two mothers she needs but who don’t see eye to eye. When she is with Leila, she asks to be with Shirin. Her constant refrain, ‘I am hungry!’ is a loud proclamation of her emotional hunger. Later, when the situation is reversed, she keeps asking for Leila.

Thoughtful touches like Parisa’s hair elevated the film from the ordinary. Parisa’s hair is like her emotional barometer. When she is with Leila, it is dishevelled but when she is with Shirin, it is tied neatly. But when Leila disappears –ostensibly for good—her hair goes back to her old state. Her hair seems to indicate what the child cannot—Parisa needs both the mothers, which eventually happens.

Shirin’s fluid folk dances echo the dance of the whirling dervishes. The lush green light of her dance studio underlining the fact that dance is her love and her life. Some scenes were stunning in visual detail like the ones of the women in black dancing. Tara Nazemi and Naghmeh Shirkhan have created a Leila of such Brechtian detachment that no one can sympathise with the character. This alienation was important to achieve the balance in the film. Azita Sahebjam played Shirin in an intense yet restrained way. Parisa Wahedi’s natural acting was a sheer delight. She reminds me—in appearance only—of Mani Ratnam’s Anjali and Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Michelle McNally.

Naghmeh Shirkhan has created a sensitive film that explores the complexities of modern women’s lives.

Image courtesy: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Notes v/s reviews

At one point in time, I thought that the only way to write about a book or movie is to write reviews. So I read book and movies reviews, read up on them as well and started writing them. But I always felt very constrained by the form. There is a format and one must abide by that format. The format must have worked for a while but then I started outgrowing it. Till one day, it felt all wrong and I dreaded even writing reviews because I was trying to squeeze my reactions into a form that didn’t fit me. My reactions were very personal, my interpretations were shaped by my reading, and the structure of the review didn’t acknowledge it at all. But write I must. So I’ve started writing notes. The wonderful thing about writing notes is there is no one stringent form! I don’t have to worry about sequence as long as it is logically structured. I feel free; I can breathe and revel in the formlessness of writing notes.

Notes on Film: Doubt

Spoiler Alert: If you intend to watch the movie, please read no further. Many plot details are revealed here which may interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

DoubtDoubt (2008) is an intensely packed little drama between four deeply-flawed characters. It betrays its theatrical origins in its fondness for words, which usually happens in intimate spaces, and its proclivity for the unsaid.

I picked the Doubt DVD on an unplanned walk through the neighborhood. It was sitting on a formica shelf of a 5 by 5 feet room, which is what is called locally as a potti kadai (literally translated as box shop, selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, and chewing gum) in its previous life. Today, it’s a full-fledged shop, selling all kinds of movies – purely pirated – in three languages. Now, back to the movie proper.

Most of the action takes places indoors. It’s not a film that concentrates on external landscapes, rather on internal ones. When the camera spends so much time indoors, it goes without saying that the most interesting drama happens in the head.

The time was a year after Kennedy’s assassination, somewhere in America is a school run by the strict principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep in an unlikely role). Sister James (Amy Adams in a far cry from her Enchanted role) is the history teacher who struggles to keep control of her class. Sister James’ innocence and fragility is not a secret. That is why it’s all the more poignant that it is she who recognizes that something is wrong with Father Flynn’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a powerful role) relationship with the school’s first non white student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). No one doubts her sincerity. Sister Aloysius on the other hand is an old hand. Her mistrust of all things new and modern, symbolized by her opposition to the use of the ballpoint pen, and therefore of change. “The wind has changed,” she tells the gardener after a particularly fierce storm. It’s a sign that she will do anything to stop change – the wind itself if need be – from entering the portals of her organized, quiet world. We don’t know her intensions other than dislike and mistrust, which propels her into confronting Father Flynn about the inappropriate relationship with the school’s first non white student. 

The tug of war between the male and female members of the church is legendary. Sister Aloysius knows who wields the power. And yet she is willing to go against the traditional power structure.

So far so good.

But what’s the drama if everything goes according to plan? Father Flynn turns out to be the inspiring ‘cool’ teacher in whom every adolescent finds a confident. Sister James begins to doubt whatever she has inferred. Sister Aloysius begins her journey from certainty to doubt. In other words, the winds of change begin to blow. It’s no coincidence that Bob Dylan’s iconic song Blowin’ in the Wind was released just a year before in 1963. 

The structure of the film is very neat. It starts with a sermon on doubt delivered by Father Flynn who would get quite untangled in it and ends with Sister Aloysius starting to grow some doubts of her own. Little touches like the way people respond to the wind are so revelatory. Sister Aloysius shuts windows to protect herself. Sister James is unperturbed by it.

Amy Adams as Sister James is very effective as the innocent teacher who takes everything at face value. The actress brings a certain glass-like quality to the character. Her eyes, limpid pools of vulnerability remind me of glass–transparent and strong, but which can break under enough pressure. Meryl Streep took me by surprise. She evokes admiration, fear, and disgust in equal measure but at different points in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sincere and yet indefinable Father Flynn always kept me guessing till the end whether he was guilty or not. Viola Davis shines in a short role. Her helplessness and knowledge are so superbly conveyed in the short time that she was on the screen.

The film seems to gain oxygen from the things that are not said. No one tells explicitly what “the problem” is. Everything is hinted at, nothing said. Yet words are spoken and judgments delivered. It’s a wonderful little film that explores people’s intentions and the effect of doubting or not doubting everything that you see or hear.

Watch it for the quality performances of the main actors.

Notes on Film: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Spoiler Alert: If you intend to watch the movie, please read no further. Many plot details are revealed here which may interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona Over the span of a summer in Barcelona, close friends Vicky and Cristina discover another dimension to love and themselves. It’s both a typical Woody Allen movie and yet it’s not. There is the Woody Allenesque loquaciousness – characters talk a lot about their situations, their reactions and their ever-changing feelings.

Though Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are good friends, they have different romantic ideals, the voice over informs us. Vicky is the grounded one who has planned a certain life for herself, and intends on following it with her fiancé Doug. Cristina is the bohemian artist who is searching for the romantic ideal that books are written about. Will they find it in Barcelona? They do. And they also lose it. “Love is so transient”, says one of the characters, Juan Antonio.

But as usual I am getting ahead of myself. Vicky and Cristina are put up by a couple Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), whose sole purpose is to provide a foil to the outwardly reckless lifestyle of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Mark and Judy live a beautiful life – at least on the surface – with their Mediterranean bungalow in Barcelona. Into this picture perfect Spanish holiday drops this anarchic force dressed in red. No, it’s not a woman for a change. But a man. Javier Bardem a.k.a. Juan Antonio is wildly creative, charmingly seductive, and dangerously Dionysian. And he has a proposition. At first, Vicky almost turns it down. But reluctantly follows to keep an eye on Cristina. Juan Antonio flies them down to a Spanish provincial town Oviedo to spend the weekend with him. Due to a weird twist in the plot, the one willing to try Juan out falls ill, and it’s Vicky who ends up sleeping with Juan Antonio. From this point onwards, the script functions exactly like life, going in all possible directions-expected and unexpected.

Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio and is joined by Maria Elena, the beautiful neurotic ex-wife of Juan Antonio. In a twist that I didn’t see coming, Maria Elena, Juan Antonio and Cristina start a relationship that fosters creativity and love in the three of them. Vicky in the meanwhile is tormented by her night of passion with Juan Antonio and hides it from Cristina. She marries Doug reluctantly even though her mind is on Juan Antonio. Judy (of the Mark and Judy pair introduced earlier) herself is searching for passion outside of her marriage. In short, no relationship is whole in this film. Everyone is searching for something; sometimes it’s within the relationship, sometimes outside.

Cristina, the eternal wanderer, decides to leave Juan Antonio and Maria Elena because she wants to continue this search. Vicky has one hilarious encounter with Juan Antonio for the last time before she resumes her planned life. All through this circus of love flows the thought that only unfulfilled life is romantic, voiced by the perceptive Maria Elena. And so the circle breaks, new circles are formed, and they in their turn break and the process goes on. Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona with different experiences. Will that help them answer the eternal question – “Why is love so difficult to define?” (No coincidence that this is the theme for Cristina’s 12-minute acting attempt before she lands in Barcelona.) We don’t know. What we know is that the dynamics of love transcend time, space, and logic.

Javier Bardem has never suited the role of the anarchic artist more than in this movie. This is a more subtle performance than even Love in the Time of Cholera. Penelope Cruz is such a delight as the hot-blooded Spanish woman so in touch with her inner chaotic self. Scarlett Johansson pales in comparison to these two veterans. She’s effective as the young idealist. However, it’s Vicky’s character that changes the most and seems the most affected.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) is a visual treatise on burning questions like what is love, how long does it last, with whom etc. The ripe yellow light that bathes the film makes it look like things are on the cusp of fruition. Don’t forget the other most important character-the seductive Barcelona in the background doing her bit to woo the viewer! Gaudi’s asymmetrically beautiful fluid buildings landscape the film like a painter’s canvass and soulful stirrings of la musica de guitarra perfectly showcase this philosophical pursuit.

Watch Vicky Cristina Barcelona for Gaudi, Barcelona, and Penelope Cruz.