THE 2018 TABLEAU : all the artistic creations that mattered to this writer

Variety can be a double edged sword : it can create benchmarks that surpass the old order, yield to finer craftsmanship, reimburse fresh outlooks of discerning viewers or create, quite simply, a tradition of art that takes nothing for granted. But one shuffle on the wrong side of creative thinking and the prototype of repetitive content, no matter how noble, technically superior or earnest, can feel like rummaging through hay in a stack.

In contemporary times, the explosion of meritorious works comes with the standard, patented idea that the same successful formula can be emulated again and again. There lies the tightrope walk that creators and frontrunners – in terms of writers, actors, directors, producers, cinematographers and the whole crew per se- have to steadfastly commit to. In the past twelve months, they managed to rise above the herd in many ways and narratives of change were part of the mainstream.

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The shows and films that I write about here as part of the 2018 tableau are not restricted strictly to those released in the signature year but the many which I had the privilege to watch for the first time. Hence, the mishmash of genres and distinct moods pointed to one thing, really : that approximations of real life are the most sustained and dynamic in these two omnipotent mediums.

The following, hence, are my written encapsulations of works across mediums, nations and possibilities that graced my viewing experiences in 2018 besides the one I have already written about earlier on this blog. Variety and a commitment to changing the scenario prevailed in all cases and the universality of the works presented appealed to a more enlightened viewer who drew parallels with the world around and was informed by greater social churnings.

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This will be a series so I will accommodate the vast array of the filmmaking spectrum in lists.

For sceptics who may be asking how I found the time to watch so much on offer, well I utilized the lean period post my M Phil semesters to ring in the true spirit of a cinephile and thanks to streaming platforms, I could juggle my writing, academics and other varied interests with the one that has always stood out for me. Watching creatively ripe minds tune into the panorama of human endeavours and bring them to fruition on the two prominent mediums of television and cinema is the most humbling and enlightening enterprise. For me, it was like a gateway had opened. Hence from the next post, I will write about the works that greatly mattered to me.

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OUTLAW KING(2018) : THE ONE WHOSE FIGHT PAVED A NATION

These are my views on one of 2018’s most effective pieces of cinematic recreation that retrieved Scotland’s tale of tales from the dustbowls of history and put it on our laps via its distribution by global giant Netflix.

OUTLAW KING (2018)
*****

We often ascribe everything bad happening in the modern world to one person, one group, a single government or one particular nation. But it’s practical to see that the tentacles of nation building or society as a whole reach somewhere deep within the barrels of history, contemporary or older. The synthesis of human interaction is responsible for half of an era’s grandstanding ethics and the more we reflect, the better we realize that a distant light from the past has illuminated the definition of our civilization’s future and immediate present.

We say “that’s how it was back then” . Agreed. But isn’t it a cyclical iteration when it comes to the brutality of war, revenge tropes and armies against formidable armies? It would be safe to say that amorality has laid the foundation of our world over successive generations altogether and a work like OUTLAW KING lets us access our medieval past and find its footprints in the civilized here and now. Not a very different picture emerges when hordes have to raise weapons against another. Even if it’s in the name of absolute honour. Every sincere badge of patriotism is tinged with blood and this is the order we have been following in a man’s world. A grey, amoral zone then accommodates that understanding.
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That said, unraveling of contentious history is often treated as some kind of a grandiloquent opera in filmmaking. In OUTLAW KING, its rhythms are fundamentally attuned to the many gradations of lives at stake and especially those of the aristocracy which come into their own. It’s the tale of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s true heir to the throne who is made to reel from the dominance of England and is less than a regent, a nominal leader in his own land whose father and countrymen have somehow knelt to England’s King Edward. It’s a kingdom in tatters and the idea of confrontation is out of the picture. Maybe for the continuum of peace for common citizens. Or for preserving the kingdom of Scotland from an early extinction.

Director David Mckenzie chooses to focus on the resurrection of the crown prince and without waxing poetic, he charts the rise of a nation’s conscience under its newly awakened king who scuttles his own deference to England to see it for the corrupting force it is. There is a time and place to court change. The gradual plan for change emerges in this screenplay and it is replete with the acrid smell of bloodshed and death.

The progression is handsomely mounted by Mckenzie in terms of imagery and an internalized charge of the slumbering spirit. It’s epic yet finds a cumulation of intimate, individual moments to reach the final stage of battle. Intrigue is promising when it joins hands with vulnerability and OUTLAW KING knows when to offset one with the other. It would not be wrong to say that the storytelling attempts to present a vantage point overlooking a place’s future vis a vis Robert overlooking Scotland as its king. The title refers to his status as one in the eyes of his opponents. On top of it all, like every great leader, he has formidable allies supplementing his mission for justice who end up uplifting the film’s bearings as they did the original era’s history.

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The trinity of Chris Pine as the titular historical figure, Florence Pugh as his wife Elizabeth and Aaron Taylor Johnson as James Douglas, one of Bruce’s greatest allies, is definitive of this dramatic presentation. It finds the flame of a post William Wallace Scotland in its quest for liberation from the all pervading British crown. In Mel Gibson’s highly definitive epic BRAVEHEART (1995), which I rate as one of the true life legends recreated on screen that totally gripped me, the Oscar winning actor- director essayed William Wallace as a Scottish hero daring the greater force. Outlaw King picks up the pieces from there, portraying Scotland as a country still on its path to realizing its fledgling destiny after he is executed, with his head impaled on a stake and put on display in the public square, in one of the most gruesome images from the screenplay . In the Brexit era, it holds water as a lesson from the past up for knocks in the modern world. The idea of independence on all basic fronts threatened by one block.

On the performative part, Pine is a natural presence, not overtly sensitive or exercising unnecessary bravado but is dignified and an unifier. A risk taker, he takes his time, with full preparedness to launch his crusade with his loyal supporters and this gradual metamorphosis is reflected in his arc. This approach is practical given the unpredictable stakes he was up against. An all out glorified king would be simply out of place in this scenario and would betray historical facts. The characterisation and impersonation of Robert by Pine stands in good stead then.

Florence Pugh, a phoenix of the contemporary cinematic stage, makes the most of an otherwise thankless part in a male dominated scenario and given the opportunities that were accorded to females back in the age. She imbues conventional beats afforded to her, as an appendage, with courage, dedication and fearless stoicism. As goddaughter of King Edward of England, her marriage of convenience to Robert and role as a nominal figure is solemnized but the sensitivity of the couple and a mutual passion for each other, also in terms of the uprising, is established in earnest. Elizabeth is an individual unto herself and the fact that Edward is not her biological parent gives her the neutrality to see him as the oppressor plaguing her overall domain. In a later patch, her social mobility and position as the queen is naturally integrated even in an extremely adverse condition as she raises her voice against the hegemony and which pardons her on account of her noble breeding from the horrors that commoners had to face, at the command of a whip or gang of brutal handymen of the English crown. This works in the favor of her progression.
She is unbending even when vulnerable.

Aaron Taylor Johnson, on the other hand, so good and realistic as prime antagonist in the richly textured NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), splays open the beastly violence of the mind here that he adapts after being denuded of his high ranking family and possession of land. As James Douglas, he vows to avenge his family’s death and becomes Robert’s right hand man. His gleeful laugh when vanquishing his opponents is an effective study in contrast with that of his leader. He is, in fact, Robert’s trumpcard in the campaign to reclaim his country.
So if Robert is the heart, Elizabeth the soul, James is the feral spirit possessed by the desire to redress ills in the fashion he knows best. As the opening scene from the trailer shows, he knows the ins and outs of exacting revenge and understands the complexity of the matter, sharing it with the king.

The other formidable ally being Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), who too leads from the front. His experience and unshaking fealty to the crown and country is a true measure of the powerful leadership of Scotland that is minimal compared to English armies of thousands yet prevails. Their performances are, of course, honed by Mckenzie to suit the part of authenticity.

On the other side of the spectrum, one can’t help but notice that the English king’s son, the Prince of Wales- Edward as vividly played by Billy Howle, is also a victim of his father’s overbearing attitude and hauteur. The image of the final battle featuring him has stayed with me. He struggles to get up after conceding defeat to Scotland, as if he’s almost blind, staggering literally to find his destiny, forever under the thumb of a dynasty he has to stake claim to. Nobody from his side comes to his aid. Our empathy is with him. Spurred on by his father to exercise aggression and berated even as the old man is on his deathbed, we realize how lonely and tragically wrought he has been all his life and the road ahead too is bleak. The epilogue tells us he was killed by his own courtiers later on as he received the mantle of King of England. It is a life dictated by tides of kingship, the toxic masculinity of monarchy and every brute effort by him is like a sideways glance to have his father’s approval, failing which he is made to feel inferior all the way through. Billy Howle gives an extra dimension to Prince Edward with his own touch. I responded to his dilemma. This is how male aggression is propagated in our world and again it’s a strain that is relevant to this day.

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Technically, I appreciated its period feel and eye for authenticity.

The indoors open to the outer spaces and the tracking shots along with many panoramic angles are well designed courtesy the cinematography.

It opens with the image of a burning candle. It becomes a symbol of the time for change that is fast approaching for Robert and his compatriots. It is reflective of a passage of introspection too, used as the only source of light in several night scenes where intense emotions rule the roost.

The parallelism with Robert’s coronation ceremony and Prince Edward being annointed as army commander and in the solitary moments centered on Robert and Elizabeth works well.

The same goes for the battle scenes and one particular instance of brutal execution meted out to one of Robert’s brothers.

**so the composite whole is etched out with burning agency and the thought hangs at the back of our heads that civilization has prospered by dint of conquests, blasphemy and cold blooded pursuits, as I had said earlier. The ambivalence of empires hence occupies the bigger picture. OUTLAW KING achieves that timely, universal portent of temporal structures and the way History commands Chivalry and Courage by hands of War.

I found it impactful with the salient points being the performances by everyone, landscapes, composition of scenes down to death sequences accorded to the ageing monarchs of both countries ( played memorably by veterans James Cosmos and Stephen Dillane) as coils of mortality wear these two childhood friends and temperamentally different patriarchs down. Ditto the accolades for its musical score and closing moments of mayhem, bedlam and reflection.

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The idea of a nation equivalent to its people is attested here. As I have always believed, we can never know the exact truth as historical subjects are no more with us but the creative medium somehow manages to imagine them with fierce agency. OUTLAW KING is a fine example as in two hours, it creates a snapshot of a historical era.

It’s another important milestone for NETFLIX as a premature veteran in the filmmaking sphere, for the director fresh off his HELL OR HIGH WATER success and for the sensible scope of history resuscitated on cinematic platforms as this film released simultaneously in theaters as well and rightfully so.

The medium doesn’t matter here. This is a stirring showcase.

*****

NOTE : This article originally graced my essay collection A LETTERED SOUL on Wattpad.

WE CALLED HER SOUL

The Medley, the online journal of OSTRACA, the literary society of English Department, Hansraj College, Delhi was gracious enough to accept my poem for publication in their second issue. Here I share it with all my readers again.

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Prithvijeet Sinha, a resident of the ever shining cultural beacon Lucknow, has finished his MPhil in English from the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow most recently and has been contributing his works to various publications like Gnosis, Cafe Dissensus, Reader’s Digest, Confluence among others besides publishing his poetry and articles on Wattpad and his blog, An Awadh Boy’s Panorama. The trinity of music, literature and cinema has kept him afloat. He believes that committing to writing and reading is a gift without substitute for the mind.

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We Called Her Soul
2 minute read

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Look down, little baby

there she sleeps in that modest, open casket,
inhaling all her graces and hallelujahs
in her serene passage to the good Lord.

a heaven stirrer.
the virtuous, the excellent was in her name,
know her name was soul.
ARETHA, we called her.

Here she is,
not frail of limbs or disavowed of good health anymore
but an universal chanteuse now, invoking a thousand voices of body and soul.
tell her in spirit to sleep well and relieve one last blessing,
and make you the first supplicant to spread the word,
of the glory of the kingdom that she sang blissfully about.

Her daddy preached,
pearls of wisdom forming a bridge to enfranchisement,
stirring the first twelve notes in her
and a papillon rose.
How glorious her own share in this world then,
to be raised as a hierophant
and unite diverse hearts of a thousand secular congregations.

Blessed be the baby,
for you kissed her forehead and touched her feet
and in this last mass,
call her queen, call her grandma, call her the singer of mortals and anoint her in the order of love and reverence.

What life is bigger than the soul then,
what can death defeat in her?
Hair, face, limbs and adornments all subsumed and consumed by the voice that I made my own,
and passed it down to your mother
and now it rests with you.
The virtuous and excellent one.
ARETHA, daughter of the most high.
She smiles at you and her vocal cords chime in yours.

*****

Author’s Note: This is a tribute in free verse to the great Aretha Franklin who has influenced the poet like no other. Her name had Arabic origins meaning virtuous, excellent and her father, a famous pastor named C. L Franklin, was her idol. She grew up in the invincible environs of the church and rose from the heights of gospel singing to meld the Lord’s way with secular musical temperaments, eventually being hailed as The Queen of Soul. This poem is imagined as a sort of brief remembrance by one of her backup singers who has seen life and times with Aretha and intends to pass it down to her little grandchild.

*****

CROSSES AND KNOTS : SUBCONTINENTAL PARTITION CINEMA

I am grateful to the team of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, a digital cross continental magazine that has published my article on the Partition of India as part of its issue on the subcontinental division of 1947. I have looked at it through the prism of cinematic and literary representation. In the vitiated atmosphere of our current times, the cultural appropriation of hate finds its legacy in the past pogrom and how humanity refuses to learn from history.

I am grateful for Cafe Dissensus Everyday too, the organisation’s blog that has published my articles on Satyajit Ray’s Devi and my poem SALTED MUD CAKES in 2018. Hence every opportunity matters.

Read this article and share your thoughts. Here, I have used paintings by Amrita Shergill and Edward Munch to posit the immensity of pain that such narratives entail, an universal reality that binds our world.

*****

Café Dissensus
Crosses and Knots: Subcontinental Partition Cinema
Café Dissensus
6 days ago

By Prithvijeet Sinha

*****

Love/Hate. Unity/Division. Peace/War: It seems without the onus of practicing these time-honored binaries, our social lives would be devoid of a central truth. It is wisdom on our part to know that the imperceptible workings of the human mind have been instrumental in fanning divisions over centuries and when I adopt or even so much as enunciate the term ‘subcontinent’, an image of division becomes instantly recognizable with its other graver cultural synonym. PARTITION – an event of life-altering magnitude that etched in no singular terms the brutality of mankind. 1947 was the year when we realized that clinging to the weight of one ideal was foolhardy and skipping from one to the other was the need of the hour. We made our choices then to hoodwink death sometimes and to cut our own corners, little knowing that our collective tragedies resonated in our individual churnings. In the presence of such vitiated tempers, humanity learnt the bitter tyranny of never managing to abide by a single principle to survive. Who knew that these binaries would compel us to resort to hate-mongering and its chiseled weapons would continue to saw the very flesh of democracy (even seventy years down the line) in various forms. The personal choice inevitably then became a political tool with serrated edges.

We have better sense to know that when political maneuverings add fuel to the fire, an ordinary individual, who has suffered some personal dilemmas of his own, resorts to using simmering hostilities and communal tensions to stoke a divisive order that is beyond imagination. It resides in ruins of not just facts and memories alone. All the same as we put together this skeletal idea of Partition, we have to reiterate how the dialectic of hate has become a commonality, an occupation for partisan workshops of the modern era. Make no mistake about it as it’s no longer even relegated to a state or a pan national boundary. That illusion of insular societal complexities of a particular nature has been completely shattered in these Trumpian times. Today, we are ready to air our own private dirty laundries muddied with delicate ethnic and communal filigrees to a globalized mirror of refractions. The sharp edges of shame are left behind in the process of peddling these divisions and without realizing as much, this personal streak becomes disturbingly political. Be it man or woman, aged and children, today this is the worldview that sums up our collective humanity consonant with our general, exclusionary, egotistical make up.

Then what is the part that the victims adopt in return? Those who have been wronged and splintered by opportunistic agents of division? Which of the binaries do they adhere to? Exactly which political/personal strain do they lean on? Go probe into the deep, ye soul / for in the landscape of 2018, what state of responsibility do we stand by as the past comes crashing disgracefully to the present? This is the finer-point I make keeping aside the narratives, the touch of pure evil and vestiges of truth we recognize with the Partition. If we reel in the subsumption of our essentially divisive times then I believe we have to hark back voluntarily to the same universal strains that go into constructing manmade Holocausts as these. If this is indeed how far we have come then we are only apprehending treading further on the path of more strife and bloodshed even as both words occupy our consciousness by the diurnal clock. With our modern currency of indiscriminate passions stoking a new civil era of disengagement with the politics of peace, we prevail as a Partitioned society, in the face of this overt majoritarian syncretism we rally around. You see, this churning is really deep-seated and claustrophobically internalized.

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As my critical framework is built around the narrative of Partition, for me the agency of art vis-à-vis cinematic image and the written word is the one that has made me look at Partition as a tragedy as also the trickle effect of complexities affecting people across these border lines. If you ask me then I will say that a famous painting by Amrita Shergill, titled Group of Three Girls, comes to my mind. This painting was modelled on the rural women of Punjab, the very state that oversaw horrors of Partition and history has informed us how members of the fairer sex had to undergo physical agonies and emotional scars galore. There can be no sanitized appendage to what they went through but this portrait of three woebegone young women, huddled together in a stooped down position and their saturnine features along with Shergill’s use of their dress colors against a damp, sooty backdrop, makes me look at the unexpressed patches of a prior communal life as it was painted a good twelve years before the Partition pogrom. Just like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, it relays a power of suggestion of the coming and the past experience particular to the location and people involved. The particular then morphs into the universal. Was the wan and downcast expression on the women’s faces a part of any pre-existing strain hidden in crannies of anonymity? We’ll never know but I have always felt their faces, rather the mobility of their countenance even in case of a lack of expressions projected on the canvas, made an unwritten past merge with the recorded tales.

My experience of Partition was via history books. I was ‘informed’ about this episode in distant history. I got awakened to it when as a twelve-year-old, I came closer to inspect the turnaround the event occasioned. I watched Pinjar (2003), which was based on the novel of the same name by Amrita Pritam, and the fate of Puro hit me in the gut. As a woman betrothed to be married to a sensitive young man, she is abducted by Rashid who wants to avenge a past misdeed by her forbears on top of contentious land disputes. Puro is made to borne the stigma. Rashid may have ventured on the path of retribution but he does not outrage her modesty. As a Muslim who is made to be the Other, his anger has hardly settled down but he realizes the implications of his actions on Puro. What seems more impossible is how her family disowned her. Her pleas that she is untainted fall on deaf ears as she is driven away. In her fate resonates the fate of millions of women who were abducted and raped during the Partition mayhem and were treated as a ‘stigma’ by the custodians of honor. Puro converts to Islam and the loss she endures is horrific. Her tale seems to encompass turmoils of gender, religion and land that is eternally at the center of every conflict zone.

The same echoes are to be found in the Pakistani drama Dastan (2010), based on the novel Bano written by Razia Butt. While the protagonist in Pinjar was a Hindu woman and in Bano a Muslim, the fate they share is the same. The theme of rupture, loss of home, sense of alienation has been realized with rare sensitivity. The essential loss of innocence in the wake of a new nation’s dawn reveals that the society remains as fractured as it was before lofty ideologies had a field day. Ultimately, the women of the soil who were hailed as its heroes were torchbearers of its stunted beginnings and future generations indebted to half-informed truths.

Perhaps, we find the most nostalgic and powerful narratives of the Partition, the plight of Punjab and its women in Amrita Pritam’s Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu. Amrita Pritam’s poem in Punjabi speaks of a land fragmented invoking images of iconic poet Waaris Shah and the Chenab river.

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Actually, barbed wires can never really snap shared experiences and indeed Pinjar and Dastaan are replete with memories of a united land. In fact, filmmakers from both sides have on countless occasions risen above a perceived air of indifference and collaborated on the similitudes that the two countries share. A case in point would be Wirsa, a film that speaks about companionship and assimilation amongst Indians and Pakistanis in a diasporic setting. The music of maestros like Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, fusion bands, the popular channel Zindagi are constant reminders of a common cultural ethos which highlight the sheer absurdities of sectarian and communal divisions in a post-Partition epoch.

Two recent films, Ramchand Pakistani and Khamosh Paani (both made by Pakistani filmmakers) subtly explore the legacies of contestation that Partition spawned. Ramchand Pakistani, directed by Mehreen Jabbar, is set in post-Partition Pakistan and explores the plight of hundreds of prisoners who are languishing in cross-border prisons (Kulbhushan Jadhav and Sarbjeet Singh are examples of such victims). In Ramchand Pakistani, a Hindu father inadvertently follows his seven-year-old son into India; this makes them Pakistani infiltrators and hence susceptible enough to be put in jail. The two stay in prison for several years until they are released and go back to their ‘home’, Pakistan. Not every story has a similar turn of events.

More incisive narrative about Partition-spawned complexities is Khamosh Pani, directed by Sabiha Sumar. It’s a purview of the continuum of the Partition. In it, Kirron Kher plays a woman who resides in her village Charkhi which after 1947 lies in Pakistan. A Sikh woman who refuses to accept being killed by her own father to save her ‘honor’ from Muslims, she leaves home and chooses to stay in Pakistan. She is no longer Veero but rather Ayesha, a widowed woman who then witnesses the Islamic fundamentalism that consumes and claims her son who has morphed from a gentleman to an extremist.

Partition, for me, is a phenomenon that continues to echo in every single instance of extremism, bigotry and ethnic and sectarian ‘othering’. Lynching, hate crimes abroad, even a look of distrust and disgust. All of these commingled to generate the single greatest human purge just years away from the Holocaust. Remembrances go back to how the Partition was deemed by historians as the ‘Indian Holocaust’. The fabric of suffering and loss reverberates across distances, eras and personages. Till today, my mind shudders, imagining the breadth of loss of property, home, hearth and a way of life that defines this mass exodus.

Generations later today we witness a strong nostalgia and yearning for the days gone by as represented in the Google Search advertisement where long-lost friends are united by their respective grandchildren. These experiences assert the past in the presentness of Partition as well as a desire to overcome the rupture.

The opening of a Partition memorial in Amritsar, safeguarding remnants of people, attires, even structures of homes and various paraphernalia, clearly demonstrates that all cannot be forgotten or lost forever. There’s a life that exists outside public enmities and just small talk. It defines our triumphs, tragedies and life scripts with all the complexities we carry on our shoulders. For a lifetime and generations beyond.

Reference

Haq, Zia. “Nayar, optimist, defender of civil liberties, dies.” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), 23 Aug, 2018.

Bio:
Prithvijeet Sinha is an M. Phil. (English) student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow and is an avid reader and writer. Since 2015, he has been publishing his poetry, essays on popular culture, music and cinema on the worldwide community Wattpad and on his blog, “An Awadh Boy’s Panorama: Tracing Words on These Filigreed, Discerning Fingertips”. He also contributes regularly to Reader’s Digest, GNOSIS journal, Café Dissensus Everyday, and Forward Poetry UK.

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ROMA(2018) : CLEO’S HEARTBEAT ECHOES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD.

Three days ago, I had written a post on this acclaimed Mexican cinematic gem that gives credence to the idea of universality as much more than a global construct. The dramatic presentation of a woman’s personal journey, the family she serves for and the state of societal churning in the country around early 70s Mexico embraces nostalgia and the art of remembrance like no other. It goes without saying that it was not enough to write a single post as I wanted to share few other salient features that captured my attention vis a vis its unflinching realism and diurnal poetry.

Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA is now a globally recognized masterpiece that revels in its intensity, warmth, love for the nurturing roles of mothers and surrogate mother figures indispensable to middle / upper middle class structure and the silence of its emotionally animated frames. Yalitza Aparicio’s turn as Cleo, the facsimile of the nanny who practically raised Alfonso and his siblings, is one for the ages and a definitive artistic benchmark that comes once in a lifetime. For all true blue worldwide cinephiles, it’s a blessing that Roma’s universal nature has broken through the clutter of arthouse boxes a sensitive and humanistic work as this usually espouses, something which in a commerce driven epoch would have underestimated its beauty of purpose. Roma has overturned the odds to examine class, gender, society and represent cinema at its purest, a microcosm of realistic values. As my title says it all, Cleo’s heartbeats echo throughout the world. Cuaron and Yalitza’s collective Midas touch goes beyond the immediate era of setting to shed light on the textures that make life worthwhile even amid a million heartbreaks. The fabric of humanity is enough to sustain us.

*****

In the absence of a background score and the emphasis on naturalistic images, long takes and sound, Cuaron finds the natural sustenance for his vision in the silences laden with meanings and a life force that is definitive for him and us. I personally feel by employing a black and white palette, he taps into the very personal pulse of our memories. Come to think of it, whenever we think of the past, a random moment in time, a monochromatic image leaps out of our mind’s multiple crannies. The faces, places all come without a colour scheme to the mind’s eye and a sepia toned singularity pervades. I feel that way as I’m sure many others do. The memory is stronger and those who populate it hold centrestage. In ROMA, cinematic realism is paramount.

The extended opening sequence with water on the tiles and the eventual reflection of the window and a passing aeroplane in the puddle is carefully captured, suggesting a passage of time for the working class exemplified in CLEO and the day to day basis for continuity for them. A cycle of ubiquitous labour is affixed with the fact that in a stratified class establishment, the lives of domestic helps and their contributions is a crucial part of my nation too, so in your face it’s impossible to imagine a world without them.

To the observant eye, CLEO is a picture of humility but then does she have any other option besides passive resignation? Selective erasure of those not born into privilege is upended by bringing CLEO to an omnipotent circle of the screenplay, as it was for Cuaron and his family and it is offset by the love and trust that is mutually mined as part of this extended unit where her employers are empathetic individuals who stand by her as she does. Empathy is a running stream here, divested as it is of grand illusions.

Looking at Cleo’s unraveling in ROMA, I hark back to a stirring special feature in a recent edition of READER’S DIGEST titled MY FAMILY’S SLAVE, about the generational role of domesticity thrust on one woman who served the author’s family for decades, from Phillipines to USA and the tragedy of her own sterile personal life where only in her old age she is able to go back to claim her roots in the country of her birth. A complex thread binds these two for me and accentuates the realism of the cinematic word.

*****

Some crucial salient features from ROMA:

** CLEO is a short statured, bird like woman and one gets the impression that she is middle aged. But in the moment where she is in the room with her beau Fermin, youth glows with iridescent innocence on her face(Yalitza is around 26-27 in real life) and for the first time we realize she has a life of her own.

** when the family gathers at its wealthy friends’ estate in the countryside for Christmas , the atmosphere is one of great camaraderie, indicative of the communal marshaling of yesteryears. I can’t help noticing that today, kids, in contrast, will be seen hanging their heads over touchscreens.

Since Mexico experiences an annual summer, with not a trace of snow, the provenance emerges as the hottest during Noel, enough to make way for a forest fire, one of the pivotal sequences in the film.

*****

** Birth and death echo throughout as in the family’s rebirth after Sofia ( Marina de Tavira) takes charge of the household. This is after her professionally successful husband Antonio deserts her for a younger woman, leaving her with the responsibility of four young children. The family resurrects itself as the mother infuses new lease of life into it without thumping tables and melodramatic concessions while CLEO becomes the light guiding them after her own failed pregnancy.

CLEO too faces abject abandonment by her boyfriend Fermin and a scene with the backdrop of riots following the Mexican Revolution is designed around the twin aspects of death ( as gunmen sorround the area) and life ( her water breaks and she is rushed to the hospital)

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in modern cinema comes here as she delivers a stillborn baby and holds her for the last time, a progression charting the doomed fate of her love life and motherhood. This scene comes with no observational swell. The ebbs and lows of these lives are rooted in pin drop silences exhibiting introspection and the power of suggestion. In one single take, her fate is sealed. I still remember the sensation of absolute numbness I experienced, watching this scene and the horrifying intimacy of the encounter on the woman.

The scene at the beach where she rescues the younger children from a high tide is both a Lazarus image ( my term for instances of life threatening events getting overturned by a person’s intervention) and an arc for CLEO to echo her own role as a mother figure to them, days after she loses her own. You have to watch the film to know how effective the parallels and simultaneous currents are. When she tearfully declares to Sofia that she secretly wished her baby never came to be born, her pain and struggles are internalized in her overwhelmed state after emerging from water. The sound effects capture the liberating and suffocating force of the sea waves. A continuum of suffering was what she may have never wanted for her child, especially a girl.

** Finally, the elements occupy an important space in some of the best montages, in a film where every image has been imprinted in my mind and soul.

WIND and FIRE – as in the scene in the forest around the countryside estate where they go for Christmas is alighted by a fire.

EARTH – when CLEO stands at a panoramic vantage point around the same estate, overlooking a vast acre of farm land and reminisces about the smell and sights as an extension of her own village. Also the underdeveloped mud soaked path of Fermin’s village and the open expanse of the ground where he receives his training.

WATER – as in the beach, one of the most beautifully shot extended sequences carrying the wealth of meanings and the permanence of life.

In ROMA, each part is given enough time to be embedded in our consciousness and it never lingers beyond a point. Hence the power of the images. In my opinion, only ASHA JAOER MAJHE( LABOUR OF LOVE) , an Indian Bengali film of profundity with no dialogues or background score, embraced the micro within the universal with such poetic fluidity in recent times. Such was its magical aura in which single, stationary takes like that of the sunset portrayed an extraordinarily intimate perspective from the filmmaker’s lens. A looking out and internalized center coexisted in the narrative, a facsimile of its extremely realistic retelling.

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ROMA ends with the Indian words ‘Shantih, Shantih, Shantih’. Its quiet but propulsive, internalized storytelling finds a perfect denouement. It maintains continuity with the final shot of an overhead aeroplane as in the beginning. Life, actually, comes full circle in ROMA both from the prism of memory and recollection as a form of therapeutic, cathartic structure.

#this essay also simultaneously appears on my essay collection A LETTERED SOUL on WATTPAD.

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CLEO’S SONG OF THE SOUL : ON ROMA(2018) .

The heart is a restless vessel, unable to remember or retain every detail. But some linger and get lodged in the most intimate iota of the mind. Those little moments are more than precious and when they emerge from the nostalgic purview of childhood, where the whole world is an oyster, no matter what, the translation is more panoramic, bittersweet and synchronous in terms of memories.

Director Alfonso Cuaron finds his one true vessel of memories prevailing over a lifetime of further memories and beyond in ROMA, the year’s definitive masterpiece that I have been lucky to watch recently. Thank you Netflix for allowing cinephiles around India to be struck by the abiding fidelity to cinematic recreation of true events and inspiration on the part of Cuaron. The streaming service is officially now a harbinger of universal emotions, setting a precedent unlike any other ever in history in which our global similitudes become prominent by the day. Stories need to be told and when they are kissed by the moist imprints of real life influences as in ROMA they transcend boundaries in a profound sense. Don’t think the favourite listings and critical word of mouth are just faint praise : there is genuine poetry in the film at every turn and mind you, it’s the same kind that we encounter everyday when we pause to take a breath, count our blessings and profess love for kindred who go beyond blood bonds. Imagery of life itself is a gift unto itself.

The above written first lines express the same sentiments I share about the lingering images of realism and remembrance that I have been unable to drain off my mind after watching it. They have been all created so mellifluously; just thinking about how beautifully a personal vision can be adapted is in itself an exciting idea. Here, it becomes an honorable, extended series of montage that transforms the real to reel- actually the most potent, genuine recording instrument to boot, in my opinion.

The image of soap suds and water over the floortiles is one such image that I have retained ever since I saw the teaser. That prevalent image of domesticity opens the film and maintains the continuum of the everyday chore for close to three minutes . This seemingly static action is much more than what meets the eye. To me, it signifies a lot of things. Of memories being washed away, created anew from the vantage point and intimacy of innocent childhood and further adult resources as in the instance of Cuaron who addresses the centrality of one woman who, in hindsight, was the glue holding a family threatened by disintegrating forces within and to an extent outside. The closing credits acknowledge her with a pithy ‘To Libo’. The tale here honors her resilience and those of countless other individuals in an unforgettable stream of montages . To me, they are silent warriors of fate navigating the said and the unsaid and everything in between. That woman is Yalitza Apiricio vis a vis her by now classic turn as homekeeper and nanny CLEO, the facsimile of the mother figure who practically raised Cuaron and his siblings in 1970s Mexico City.

In another, the washing of the tiles by none other than Cleo can point to the nonchalance of manual labour and the thanklessness of societies able to afford domestic services. We don’t know where real life ends and inspiration begins in the iteration in ROMA but suffice to say, it’s stirring in multiple ways.
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ROMA is named after the tony neighborhood of Cuaron’s life, one of the most posh localities still of Mexico city. Its pivot is Cleo, the eyes and ears who unobtrusively seeps through this upper middle class household like water, stagnant in her dictums and routine yet free flowing in her progression through the everyday. Hence Roma subsumes the emotionally emaciated spaces of CLEO. That extends to her child like stature( as in her small build) and the larger one within the ethos of the household and society. Of The Native voice that has slipped down the rabbit hole of history and memory and has been relegated to the shadow . CLEO, however, becomes the focal point and refuses to occupy marginal back benches of the family’s personal history. Her own is one dotted with a predisposition towards challenges. Yet she marches on and prevails in her own way. For all of the concerns of racial cultural appropriation about the lesser status of Mexican Native populace, it’s a glaring truth that modern society too has given them the short shrift. As is the case with Native Americans in USA, Maoris in New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia and countless tribes in India et al. Limited chances. But individual self hood goes above and beyond narrow limits. Cleo is one such individual.
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ROMA has CLEO take the reins of the plot as the actual soul of a home bursting with the energy of four children and two tensed parents, encounter the sudden pain of an unwanted pregnancy as her boyfriend deserts her and the social ramifications of the Mexican revolution in a scene that paves the passage for the stark sense of alienation and tragedy endemic to those not well off or equipped enough to defeat coming blows of life. But then it is a tale about everyone of us, applicable to all as the circumstances of the world are corollaries of our own. We make the world and its composite whole.

Towards the second half, there is a naturally attuned sense of the division within our society and of that portrayed in the film, of celebrations within the friend’s estate where the family goes to ring in Christmas. The traditional underground party which Cleo attends is an effective demonstration of the upper/ lower binary and it sounds contrived but is handled with grace and great care, organic to the milieu and is more universal than we would like to accept it as.

Three sequences make Cleo’s reckoning as a domestic help painfully clear- one where she is made to make a beverage just when she has finished most of the work and settles to watch a comic show on television, another when the lady of the house( an excellent Marina de Tavira) , chased by ghosts of her crumbling marriage, reprimands her, venting her anger on her and the most poignant is when she visits her boyfriend to inform him of her pregnancy. “fucking servant”, these stinging words, coupled with his misogynistic threats of violence to her and the unborn baby, are enough to shake her (and us) to the core.

My cherished moment is one where she pretends to play dead with the youngest child of the home, who dotes on her and is clearly her favorite, on the balcony, under drying line of clothes. This is symbolic of the wretchedness of her routine, the exhaustion that she may want to escape, a simple child’s prank underlining a quiet moment alive with so many contexts and sensations.
Nature coexists with the human emotions in a synthesis of great power. I reckon the child is none other than Cuaron himself from his childhood days, a child given to make believe and a heightened imagination that he disseminates to CLEO.

I will write another post on ROMA. For now, the images and Cleo’s omnipresence have captured my heart. It’s reminiscent of the cinema of auteurs like Satyajit Ray who found the beautiful in common crannies of existence and Alfonso, who I have admired owing to his brilliant work on HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and GRAVITY, finds a pedestal of the diurnal to give CLEO / LIBO a worthy spotlight.

** This post simultaneously also has been posted on my collection A LETTERED SOUL on Wattpad.

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LOVING (2016) : THE EYES THAT SAW TRANSFORMATION

Here I will share my views on LOVING(2016), the Jeff Nichols directed drama that recreates the historic but subdued life of the Loving couple which paved way for interracial union in a racially charged America of the 60s and by extension other hues of forbidden relationships for the future found a voice . Surprisingly, it’s the silences on Mildred and Richard Loving’s part that spoke louder than words.

It’s a tale old as the hills – of societal stigmas – and as timely as any of yesterday’s headline. Again, compassion, compromised as it is under dire circumstances, finds its greatest significance in the approach of these two as individuals. Released in the contentious year of 2016, it marked a correlative with the urgent racial signposts the country passed through and a whole society that grapples with it diurnally must make the effort to abide by the LOVING’S humane story.

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*** Right below is the iconic still of the real life couple taken by LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet and its recreation as a pivotal moment in the cinematic retelling .

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Look at the above picture : how it is almost like an ideal snapshot of mutual bonhomie, reflecting the everyday life of people who have committed themselves to years of union. But as much as pictures express a thousand words, the frayed edges of personal lives can disappear in the moment where man and wife or any two people sharing a deep bond come together. This was an unrehearsed shot, particularly beautiful for capturing the rare image of the LOVING couple which was on its way to create history unbeknownst to it so far.

The laughter disseminated while watching a comic skit on television and the natural tenderness exhibited while resting his head on his wife’s lap is childlike and endearing, for the two knew what it meant to live in a contrarian mold and be suffocated as a familial unit owing to the cruelty of man made decrees. That’s the crux of LOVING, the quietly evocative work that finds cinematic traction under Jeff Nichols and his consummate team.

The moment above appears after the first half as the couple settles into the rhythm of change; for change is an idea slowly approaching them as Mildred and Richard Loving had been, quite literally, in the eyes of the storm and settled for relative anonymity until the Life Magazine assignment vis a vis Grey Villet arrived at their doorsteps and the higher legal echelons of America recognized the sanctity of their interracial union. A sanctity questioned by law, by blabbering mouths and which uprooted them from their families, friends and hearth in segregated Virginia state ; the center did not hold them. The idea of home eluded them as soon as they decided to spend their lives together, not long after Mildred announced she was expecting their child and Richard brought a large acre of land in their native town to build a home of their own and proposed to her.

Taking the plunge legally in Washington state, all their dreams of a peaceful existence changed when policing authorities barged into their room one night , led them out and arrested them. Their crime being lawfully cohabiting as man and wife, a concept the powers that be had struck down on the basis of race eons earlier, taking it as the word of God, it seems . Incarcerated and put in separate cells, with little regard for Mildred’s condition, they are harassed and mentally subjugated until they surrender to the decrees of the law and are exiled to another state outside Virginia and outlawed so that they can never enter their provenance together or stay maritally as an unit. The punishment being harsh convictions and immediate sentencing if they dare to do otherwise . In essence, the serrated edges of fear are used as instruments of further hate mongering and prejudice to break this dignified couple’s spine.

The sheer absurdity of human logic.

The mind numbing discrimination.

A saga that, till today, has been inked by instances of similar propaganda.

Is this what humanity strives for? Is this the final yardstick for interaction with fellow mortals?

The questions we ask continue to stream forth, unabated but sometimes concrete answers lie not in immediate reciprocation or rhetorical stances but in the unraveling of a joint partnership. LOVING realizes that predicament of the couple with quiet grace when essentially they should have stomped on the far ends of the earth to be granted justice. Quietude is their refuge. They have no other resort. No shelter from historic conventions or accumulated wisdom ( that breeds toxicity in a democratic, diverse culture) . It’s significant for any and every nation then to stress upon the basic standards of a righteous life.

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These opening minutes hit us in the gut. Intense love and immense pain commingle, while the silently civilized veneer of those following protocol breaks spirits as their deeply entrenched aggressions have a field day.

The scene with Sheriff Brooks ( Marton Csokas) denouncing the Loving’s neighborhood / community of mixed heritage, whittling it down to being born in the wrong place, is just the kind of rationale sought by those who have not let personal wisdom vanquish generational racism by way of herd mentality. We know the time to make amends for someone of his ilk never really comes. Csokas expertly makes him a man of duty and he believes his area of morality is sacrosanct beyond doubt.

Nichols portrays them as mere marionettes under the spell of centuries old, draconian laws ; the difference being they hardly come above those placid waters to see the LOVINGS as beloveds, man and wife, a couple or even as peace abiding citizens eking out meagre, modest livelihoods, owing to their hardscrabble working class background . The fragility of the AMERICAN DREAM is exposed, the lofty ideal emerges as a polar opposite in letter and spirit for its own inhabitants. For those who like to live in the so called elongated frisson of the past, the free nation as a construct is revealed to be fraudulent and chants of A FREE WORLD then is absolute only in an utopian vacuum. It’s a spare truth in these times as we revert to our old insensible, stupefying ways. As a real world narrative recreated here, it’s crushingly universal as walls threaten to crop up at every juncture and mending fences becomes more difficult across the vast multicultural board.

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But. But. Still. A life like that of the Loving couple is far from being a brief interlude in the larger churnings affecting society. Far from the madding crowd of systemic racism, first settling for years in faraway Washington and then in a remote farmland in Virginia to evade prying eyes, the duo’s interiority reflects in the externalized sphere where others constantly do the talking, and in turn, their marital bidding in mid 20th century America. These are the voiceless voicing their truths through years of intimidation, wait, langour, hope and above everything else, unparalleled dignity. Actually, the slot of history makes them commit to these as much as a personal nature that doesn’t subscribe to conflict. That gnawing injustice and frustration makes LOVING provoke us. Then it prods us towards a more enlightened consciousness. They continued to follow a normal life script but Mildred kept her hope aflame on most trying days even as Richard kept his on a leash. But he was in perfect unison and spiritual tandem with his beloved better half during the legal process of transformation.

It’s ironic that two people with literally such a saccharine surname and worldly fortitude were made to bear the brunt of history. Jeff Nichols finds the intimacy and something elemental in the human spirit that survives despite internalized odds.
The turning points in this static continuum come as Mildred’s friend, buoyed by the Civil Rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr., motivates her to write to then senator Bobby Kennedy, who recommends their plight to the Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer decides to take their case. It is a gradual, painstaking process where trust is earned step by step by those on the other side and the larger world wakes up to inequities that are all too in your face. Nick Kroll as the lawyer Bernie Cohen begins an ambiguous journey on a false note of diffidence, misplaced confidence, perhaps even condescension but gradually his sincere work towards building their profile comes to define the Loving’s future and that of the society. His ever smiling demeanor traces that progression of motives and action competently. He could not be more different in approach than Bill Camp’s earlier lawyer who quotes the draconian laws of Virginia and is a product of his times, rendering the Lovings asunder and with absolute hopelessness in a cyclical contraption of the land. Bernie along with Phil Hirschkop ( Jon Bass) made the deliverance sweeter for the Lovings.

The other landmark that both lawyers helped in achieving was the LIFE magazine shoot by Grey Villet. This helped promote the commonplace ideal of life for the Lovings, matter of fact yet operating on coming ripples of expectation and one fundamental right: the right to love, marry and spend life with another, race or colour no bar.

Oscar nominee Michael Shannon makes his presence felt in a guest appearance.

*** The real Grey Villet (below)

***** His iconic picture that he mentions while conversing with the Lovings.

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That said, the storytelling may not be effective on a first view and boils things down to an incidental chronology. But Ruth Negga, who received numerous nominations and wins, including an Oscar nod, and Joel Edgerton embody the Lovings through their internalized communication. Their eyes do the talking, in individual, private moments and when in each other’s presence, through thick and thin.

Ruth is truly a performer of extraordinary sublimity. It’s a new benchmark in screen presence. Her abilities are very similar to those of the silent film era and her beautiful eyes hold so much of the world seen and felt. Joel is brusque in appearance but is just as sublime. The other performers like Terri Abney who plays Mildred’s sister and Alano Miller as Rich’s eternally loyal friend are very competent as are all the others.

At times like in the mid section, you suspect their bond has suffered an irreparable setback owing to circumstances and then one economical moment together, sans dialogues, renders this transcendental relationship firm. I think they were always meant to occupy some metaphysical space of their own and after combating such adversities, they aligned their spirits more strongly.

That’s the magic of this screenplay. Gradually in the course of the running time and informed by the timelessness of the issue of interracial bonhomie, especially marriage, we realize why tropes of storytelling will not do here. The uncompromising fealty to the true life tale posits the kind of integrity filmmaking achieves once in a while.

The Loving’s seemingly passive but expressive countenances are canvasses of fear and concern. Of persecutions seen and conditioned. Yet their love is their religion.

Furrowed foreheads.
Suppressed cries of the soul.
Whispers of mortality.

THE FEAR THAT THE PERIOD OF PERSECUTION WILL STRETCH FOR A LIFETIME.

God knows it is the truth and continues to be so for many to this day on varied counts, personal and political melding in an unholy whole.

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By the end, two lines of dialogues stayed with me. One when Mildred tells Grey, “we may lose the small battles but win the big war” – a picture of pragmatism, composure and silent resolve and when Richard tells Bernie before the final court verdict, “tell them I love my wife”, when asked what he would like to convey to the Supreme Court. Simple people with simple, pure resolves, given to no unrealistic expectations or sloganeering. Yet their individuality shone as they won the case and led to the abolishment of draconian laws, paving the passage for interracial unions and those of every other hue.

Finally, images of Hattie McDaniel, the legendary Mammy from Gone With The Wind, the first Oscar winner of African American origin who was denied frontseats during the ceremony and Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American Best Actress Oscar nominee, immortalized by Halle Berry in the 1999 HBO movie INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, visit me. Women/ individuals who got raw deals. In a Loving victory, we funnel their backlog of racial experiences and the future where greater representation is offset by racial dissonance, exemplifying the simultaneity of our world.

Couples of every hue who have ever encountered stern opposition under cultural fiats will go back shaken, feeling cathartic and deeply affected by Jeff Nichols’ LOVING (2016)

The film opens with Mildred. She is the pivot of a historic life that lived in the shadows of muffled resignation. Perhaps it was so as she outlived Richard who tragically passed away, seven years after the judgement in their favour was passed. Their love prevails through her and their struggles. Their grace prevails in the here and now.

*** this article is also on my Wattpad collection A LETTERED SOUL.

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