Without much ado, I launch headlong into writings on some of the most interesting Indian cinematic choices of the past year. They all prevailed in more ways than one, resisting convention and compounding their assets to engage viewers. Real life issues then appropriately took centrestage and proved why cinema is a veritable mirror of the times.
The whole paradigm of unexpected serendipity courtesy a near death experience and the fangs it spreads around youth finds its most central, sombre representation, ever, in OCTOBER.
The tale of Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) who asks for her colleague Dan( Varun Dhawan) before falling off a balcony at the five star hotel where they both train in unfurls the humane magic of silent communication, the one found in everyday gestures and selfless insights. It gifts us with an unique platonic bond built around care and concern and this alone makes it one of the most essential narratives brought to cinematic consciousness, far from male – female binaries and transcending the sheer breadth of the four letter word.
The irony of the hospitality field is there as a thrust where insiders either get too inured to courtesies and protocol learnt by rote or strictly adhere to detachment with the routine. OCTOBER beautifully creates an original middle path that ultimately winds down one of sheer integrity. What it establishes in the wake of Shiuli’s physical stasis is that comatose / specially abled people are not part of some statistic. Compassion is the need of the hour and this film’s communal spirit is truly a benchmark, so utterly realistic and life affirming it is even if there’s certain darkness at the end of the tunnel.
In Dan, we find the everyman we must aspire to. One who puts others first and there are plenty others like him I know of, including and not limited to my parents. Here, he departs from prototypes of a young, reckless male as well. Writer Juhi Chaturvedi, a true auteur of the Indian screenwriting pantheon, tells us softly, sensitively that we don’t necessarily have to be of a certain, advanced middle age to be alert to others’ pain. That age specific stereotype is broken here and I believe it is so fitting as the facts are culled from life.
In fact, there are no water tight compartments in Shoojit Sircar’s worldview, which is ultimately like a stream of free flowing consciousness. Every drop of each effort counts.
Kudos to Banita Sandhu for conveying the immobility, resignation of her helpless condition so well and to Gitanjali Rao, a maternal figure overseeing the slow passage towards her daughter’s truth, in a stark portrayal of receding hope. As for Varun Dhawan, he’s sweet, a natural at essaying the innocence of a young heart and the curdled melancholy that gnaws at us when we leave behind conventional wisdom. God bless this team.
A mentally challenged old man transported across the border as part of an exchange programme, who falls dead on no man’s land when he realizes his native village falls on neither sides (TOBA TEK SINGH) ; A restless father finding his daughter in an evanescent state in a hospital bed, watching over as she unties the knots on her pants when the doctor asks him to open the window, implying the cyclic violation that has befallen her ilk (KHOL DO/ OPEN UP) ; a woman who pushes her pimp to death, only to observe sustained sleep denied to her (BOOH/STENCH) and that extant touch of unintentional necrophilia and tragedy as a man kills and indulges in anarchy post riots, realizing that the woman he had violated was a dead corpse, confessing the same to a shocked better half (THANDA GOSHT / COLD FLESH)
The fugue like awakening of a post Partition Indian subcontinent was so earth shatteringly wretched and humanity had reached such a lowly stoop that only a writer with the guts to spare like Saadat Hasan Manto could write those tales. His stirring writings, penned with a first person exposure to a society’s beastly nerve, will always be upheld by me as the ultimate form of uncompromising expression. His salvation in holding a mirror to the world made him court liberals’ admiration and notoriety on the part of pea minded intellects. Like every true artist, personal propagandas of others threatened to break his back.
MANTO marks a timely passage, circa 2018, of how stark realities always get arrested in time warps where truth, like naked flesh, is dismissed as some concept drummed up for controversy, especially when the writer dares to harp on sexual /physical mores.
Saadat Manto was divided by shifting loyalties of a bifurcated people who had perhaps divorced themselves from the ideal of a free land long time ago. It emerges that nothing was ideal even back then, so what if from posterity’s lenses, older times expressed allegiances to a simpler, purer form of living. If so then horrors of Partition had never even materialized.
Manto, as played by the profoundly accessible Nawazuddin Siddiqui, relays the fears and in turn fearless irony that every writer as individual and vice versa strives for. Through the golden years in the Bombay film world, the friendships with leading lights of Progressive Writers’ Association, a bond unlike any other with wife Safiya (au natural Rasika Duggal, one of my favourites) to a friendship with rising star Shyam Chaddha ( Tahir Raj Bhasin), it’s juxtaposed with the naturally endowed transitions of his written tales. They emerge from the silently roiling interior space of the nation and the man, monologues of a contentious time that didn’t shy away from the brash, brusque deteoriations of the mind.
Director Nandita Das, one of India’s renaissance figures, showcases the man behind the many exhortations of freedom who’s graceful, broken, respectful of his wife and peers and is so struck by his best friend’s words, uttered in a fit of rage post the 1947 pogrom, that he decides to leave his beloved Bombay. Hence, the journey into the other side and search for identity in a nation wrought by two burnt hands. As is revealed later, Shyam too passed away early, probably from pangs of heartbreak.
Some of the country’s finest performers coral their creative juices, some of them being Rajshri Deshpande as the great progressive feminist and Manto’s soul sister Ismat Chugtai( who received higher education from my hometown Lucknow) , poet laureate Javed Akhtar as a defendant in court, theatre thespian and my city’s very own Salim Arif as the judge presiding over the obscenity charge in Lahore, to Chandan Roy Sanyal and even the eternally versatile Rishi Kapoor as a sleazy producer ( yes there were Weinsteins in the classic movie epoch too)
They shine as most of them are well versed in intricacies of the man, of the Urdu / Hindustani language in which Manto wrote and hail mostly from the rich theatrical backdrop of post independent India.
The heart is an isolated island and so the alienation of a writer with one foot in a society that prescribes his pros and cons and a family life enriched by the sometimes silent strength of spouses find a voice here. I have to say without Safia, there can be no Manto just like his championing of even perverse, distorted truths is a lesson a modern world needs to preserve with acute loyalty.
Manto, hence, marshalls all of the team’s collective sensibilities to craft a series of images, words and internalizations that attest to the power of storytelling sans frontiers.
NOTE : IN DEFENCE OF FREEDOM, Das’ prelude to this final work, a short film, is a great companion piece. As a writer and a person, I could share his concerns and the sensitivity of Das’ recreation is a feat in itself.
This is the rare feel good feature in a long time that fires us up emotionally while addressing an unknown condition called Tourette’s Syndrome. Which begs the question, ‘does it unintentionally make us chuckle owing to the grunting sound the protagonist makes, the definitive symptom of the said condition?’ No it doesn’t, rather it sensitises us about how to approach every different personality and quirks of fate as modern enlightened human beings.
Rani Mukherjee is her usual natural self as a teacher with the backlog of multiple rejections over the years and a determination that rivals her many degrees. She overcomes the first beat of the ‘individual with a condition’ to posit the world of difference teachers and principals can actually make. Her eye of the tiger descriptor is effective and unique here.
HICHKI also scores as it attempts to implement a judicious sense of learning vis a vis chances for the marginalized within elite educational institutions beyond mere lip service.
The kids are all spot on and so is the social scrutiny on molding enterprising young minds, in the vein of our former President Kalam’s kid friendly outlooks.
It’s a crowd pleaser with a conscience and culled from ground efforts of some truly remarkable leaders. The real hiccup is in not making inroads for progressive change. HICHKI turns outcasts into survivors in the mold of real life achievers.
The burning question is, do such inspirational showcases as these really only get concentrated in discussions and appreciation or do positive actions see the light of day by those who are motivated by the agency portrayed on screen?
It’s soothing to hear classical instruments and musical numbers beautify the sublime backdrop of this gem that, to my relief, found a limited theatrical release in December. Its protagonists dress traditionally, talk in muted tones and observe dignified stoicism in difficult patches. But this Indo – German co- production takes many steps further in its lyrical approximation of everyday life scripts and middle age love, rooting it in its Indian ethos completely, oblivious to any pretentious influences.
In Once Again, Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi embody the quiet heartbeats of individuals who strive to find their footing in the greatest urban jungle of them all- Bombay. The city, as we all know, is a microcosm of the people and these two more than make the cut through small moments rife with a lifetime of experiences.
ONCE AGAIN tells us how to lend credence to life at every stage. It’s universal in the best sense. Yes, it also casts Rasika Duggal, one of this era’s beacons of excellence, in a supporting arc.
FOR NOW, I will be limiting my list to these four. The others will follow in upcoming posts.