More musings on some of the greatest cinematic works to influence me over years, including those hailing from 2020.
DELHI 6(2009) and EKLAVYA-THE ROYAL GUARD(2007)
In peak winter season, at the commencement of 2020(or maybe it was late December, 2019), I revisited two of my favourite films of the late 2000s era, the timeline in which I was a school student and was striving to discover more experimental works to aid and abet my personal choices in the realm of art. I was always proud of the Indian film industry then more than at anytime else because it had such rich stories to convey, with such an inclusive and universal character of its own.
Take DELHI 6, for example, as it collects the distinct flavour of an anthology within a composite screenplay in such an interesting and timely manner that mini-tales emerging out of the bylanes of the old, walled location of the title pit tradition against modernity and vice versa. As I watched it again, I could feel its nature of addressing sectarian conflicts/ religious partisanship to be straight out of the current RAM JANMABHOOMI conflict. With allegory, theatrical acuity, satire and symbolism as its creative weapons, it boasts of a dream ensemble bringing multiple generations of actors together and makes sense as a quintessential Indian tale, generating the local even within the country’s capital city. It’s a diverse array indeed and powerfully adept in its diagnosis of society.
EKLAVYA: THE ROYAL GUARD
This carefully constructed screenplay is meticulous in its evocation of a princely estate in Rajasthan and pits the past against the present, with traditional mores paving way for a modern outlook on what it means to be responsible for precedents set by our ancestors. The serpentine shadows, slow burn of revelations and graceful performances fit into the larger picture of intrigue within aristocratic citadels.
Suffice to say, EKLAVYA, like DELHI 6, benefits from its primacy of location and like the latter deals with class tensions and hegemony of relationships. It has a cast consisting of India’s finest including Saif Ali Khan, himself a scion of the princely estate of Pataudi. Each scene, each colour palette and of course its earnestly fertile Shakespearean ethos is earned and minimalistic. The mighty Amitabh Bachchan is the sentinel of dutiful tempers and upholding truths here. Without him, this tale based on the ancient Indian myth of EKLAVYA will be nothing.
In times of LOCKDOWN where we rely on the tenacity of families more than anything else, there’s nothing better than watching a Hrishikesh Mukherjee family ensemble.
An exponent of everyday, educated middle class units with their cadences of witty conversations and intelligent narratives, the director is at his very best on KHOOBSURAT where evergreen star Rekha plays a happy go lucky proponent of joy in her sister’s marital household governed by strict decrees of the matriarch (legendary Dina Pathak)
Immensely charming and a must for everyone, KHOOBSURAT(BEAUTIFUL) has a timeless innocence about it and shows us the depths of understanding and happiness beneath the most stern surface appearances. They truly cannot create stories like these anymore.
The present can often be an unreliable narrator of our complete journeys, especially when we associate the weight of past actions on the part of our parents.
TIGERTAIL, released this past Friday(10th April, 2020) on Netflix, bears the marks of first and second generation experiences among an immigrant Asian-American family disintegrating in the absence of warmth and lack of words exchanged, in short by the taciturnity of one’s closest relations.
These silences of internalized truths, regrets and a lack of communication bind them as part of a fraught bond between father and daughter, between man and wife, a continuum stretching to generations. An effort to fill in gaps is found towards the end patch of TIGERTAIL and a slow process of catharsis is triggered by trial and error. There are no grand overreaching elements here which keeps it relevant and uniquely relatable. The detached ethos reflects, in turn, the distance of years.
It is a quiet film, inspired by so many true journeys and sought after for its realism and poignant design. It will reverberate for so many families universally.
GUILTY, for me, is almost as powerful as 2016’s eternally game-changing PINK. It is set among the youth and takes not just a social vantage point but a clear interest in the patriarchal mindsets that are ever- ready to exonerate males because that is usually a point of convenience for everyone. No amount of advocacy or awareness about something as severe as non-consensual sex (and sexual assault, in general) can truly make our general public discourses refrain from questioning the survivor. That is the mental make-up inherited by our youth and GUILTY captures that fact unsparingly.
Flitting between lies and half truths as it often is with complex cases like this, the screenplay launches its laser beams at the idea of privilege, elitism and the cultural impact of the ME TOO movement.
I laud it as here the survivor( AKANSHA RANJAN KAPOOR) refuses to be trapped by a false sense of shame and modesty because the onus is not on her even as she is outlawed owing to her so called dressing, brash behaviour and other such pre-judgements. Which makes the final judgement all the more powerful for exposing the accused. GUILTY is a contemporary film cuing the lingo, sensibilities of the times and suggests how one ripple and a bold stance can change equations for survivors even when society largely remains unchanged. That responsibility has to be shouldered by both genders.
Shyam Benegal is not considered a national treasure for nothing and TRIKAL (PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE) is his underrated masterwork that reached for far more than just aesthetic perfection or formal accessibility of the issues.
With a screenplay rich in behavioural and socio-cultural accuracies of the vibrant Indian state of Goa, TRIKAL is poised at a post colonial epoch for the people represented here. Love, loss, intrigue, inter-generational clashes unfold in the backdrop of a prominent patriarch’s death and a fair dose of dark humour, magic realism and horror are integrated with political barbs.
Shot in natural light and boasting of an ensemble cast, it is flawed but so innovative in its use of cinematographic intimacy and music that the storytelling becomes one complete package. It is in a zone of its very own, theatrical and sometimes jarring, just like the various moods and voices it undertakes to address. All of it is balanced by a sense of nostalgia and the meditative passage of time.
I watched this celebrated slice of life drama on NETFLIX three days ago and it was rewarding as a viewing experience as there was no artifice in the treatment, so liberally and eloquently did it borrow from everyday concerns. Truly, it is made in a manner that encompasses the evolving timeline of the 1970s as also spills over to this day and place.
The protagonist ( a wonderful Vidya Sinha) is a woman of her times, with the agency to choose her own trajectory when it comes to work, love, torn between her first love (Dinesh Thakur) and a cheerful present paramour ( Amol Palekar), and supplanting her roots from Delhi to Bombay to give heft to her post-doctoral career. Her interior monologues captured in freeze frames and the lilt of two background songs perfectly create the texture of a life gently approaching with its confusions and complexities towards a young person, unencumbered by the influence of a dominant male hegemony and managing to hold its own.
Whether it is her working best friend, her interactions with people from the advertising field in Bombay or her own views, it is universally applicable to any era. The best films do that. RAJNIGANDHA (TUBEROSE) uniquely sways to its pragmatic melody and is a must watch.
Director Neeraj Ghaywan has crafted one of the most humane documents of our times in his debut feature that won a special commendation at Cannes. Set in one of the world’s most ancient cities Benaras, it puts two young people( RICHA CHADDHA and VICKY KAUSHAL) at a parallel course where their respective identities bring them chastisement and some deep-seated shame for no real wrongdoing of their own. Societal prejudices invade their personal spaces. Yet a burning passion for liberation and courage to confront those complexes make them rise above their present status.
SANJAY MISHRA, SHWETA TRIPATHI and PANKAJ TRIPATHI are channels that funnel their compassion to these personal narratives and give them a welcome outlet for self-forgiveness and hope. Hence, a rebirth of sorts is accounted for those with no real material comforts.
Life and death are at the heart of MASAAN. The former is there as a ripple, purifying souls struck by the burden of conventions, just like the holy Ganga. It’s a beautiful intersection of souls.
Mahesh Bhatt has always put his own shortcomings and vices as central conceits in his filmography. DADDY is no exception, rounding out his 1980s run of personal recollection with another hugely effective dramatic presentation of his own struggles with alcoholism.
He stages a casting coup by putting his own daughter POOJA BHATT as the sobering influence here while the great ANUPAM KHER is Bhatt’s proxy representative for his darkest days, tracing his descent and then painfully gradual rise to achievement. It starts on a shaky foundation of tonal inconsistency but the bond between Father and Child takes over and evens the telling with stirring sequences and fundamentally truthful dialogues.
Also watch KAASH(1987) by the same filmmaker tracing a similar tale with equal parts innocence and vulnerability.
In LADY BIRD, Greta Gerwig sculpts a film that is like a picture book curated with care over years where each photograph triggers vivid memories of times in our adolescence when we loved, fought, chastised and felt alienated, all of these and more beginning from the familial home and spilling uncontrollably to the diving point at high school.
There isn’t one moment here that didn’t speak to me personally and LAURIE METCALF, TRACY LETTS and LOIS SMITH have such wisdom as senior prefects watching over the young ones like SAOIRSE RONAN, BEANIE FELDSTEIN.
After AN EDUCATION and JUNO, LADY BIRD captures those best and worst years with striking grace. That it’s based on Greta’s own life makes it more resonant as a storehouse of memory.
NOBLEMEN, HAMID (2019)
Two different films showed two sides of the coin regarding a child’s psychology, at the point where unblemished innocence is confronted by the larger world’s hostility and challenged by conflicted bunkers of adult authority. One takes a dark turn provoked by senseless violence and toxic masculinity while the other finds the last sunshine even amidst closed borders of emotional engagement. Both frankly discuss taboo subjects and we are the wiser for them.
The underlining pursuit is to stir us intellectually and allow us to review the kind of environment we wish to create for our younger generations. Alas, we fail because we pay lip service to even our own offsprings’ well-being. NOBLEMEN and HAMID need to be watched for that realization to dawn.
THE REVENANT is a beast that’s subdued and tactical, opting to hinder the more feral of his lot with unexpected resolve, clawing his way through death, starvation and the elements. He happens to be a flesh and blood human on a quest to explore the wilderness and the man who betrayed him, consigning him to the chill of winter.
The naturalistic, transcendental tone of this survivalist drama is breathtaking. Be it the titular character being mauled by a bear, saddled on a horse and falling off a cliff , imagining his Native American wife in the Dream Hour or taking refuge in an animal carcass, this perilous journey is spiritually cleansing and pits one man’s struggle against the moral impotency of another fellow being.
Stanley Kubrick, the original maverick, made his imprint with this lavishly mounted epic. His envelope pushing resume followed this spectacularly noble take on a civilization’s fight for dignity.
It has fully embodied emotions, bravado, relationship arcs and the kind of cast that commits to the many ravages and glories of history. Watch it and tip your hats to the great KIRK DOUGLAS who lived long through a whole century and another and left us this year for his heavenly abode.