THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019)
It is heartening to announce that I finally watched this beautifully resonant, socially timeless work of pure art from debuting director Joe Talbot, a work I was determined to experience in its visual and sonic whole. Thanks to its availability on Netflix India, my wish was granted few days ago.
The premise of this autobiographical work is based on a concept of home as personal sanctuary and that makes it special to me. I know what it feels to be bereft of a home of one’s own, as my family home was usurped by a conniving paternal relative and we had to reconcile with occupying a rented flat for a period of almost two decades. The emotional toll of that period and the loss of a familiar generational abode is deep and affecting for each family member. To equate that primary loss with unresolved trauma will be appropriate on multiple levels.
In THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, Jimmy Fails too understands the pangs of losing his beloved childhood home that goes back to two whole generations. His predicament is doubly poignant as his identity as an African-American adds layers of racial complexity. His home is now part of San Francisco’s gentrified neighbourhood so that even when he does occupy this beloved abode with his best friend ( Jonathan Majors), others who are endowed with a different skin colour and hence a supposed ‘cultural superiority’ eye him with bewilderment. He is drifting through life owing to his place in the world, governed by status quo. The loss of a space to call his own has solely contributed to that feeling of disintegration. A good heart and optimistic love for places and people can hardly fill that void.
Trust me, I could absolutely relate with this tale and its repercussions on any discerning viewer who has even come close to knowing what ‘dislocation’ means psychologically in the first place. This depth of understanding and treatment of one’s home as repository of memories hence holding ‘sentimental value’, a term I grasp so intimately with my own lifetime so far, is beautiful.
But this one has grace notes, humour and a fidelity to relationships grounded in humility, such as the one between Jimmy and his father( Rob Morgan), between his best friend and his grandfather ( Majors and Danny Glover) or the one of easy camaraderie that Jimmy shares with his aunt( Tichina Arnold)
Jonathan Majors tilts the mirror towards his own quest to fulfill his best friend’s wish to repossess his home, investing his arc with hope, uncertainty, an inherent artistic eye and unwavering courage. In reality, it’s their mutual love for each other that defines this film. It’s also a showcase for the beauty of having sensitive males around us who go beyond the usual tropes of bonding with each other. I was touched to behold such collective tact and care in the direction.
Of course, it’s sonically and visually stunning yet never in a picture postcard manner. Emile Mosseri’s music, editing by David Marks and the cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra illuminate the personal prism from which this enchanting city with undulating geographical heights and depths as also multitude of personalities come to greet the protagonists. Cue the angles, the resolutions and the kinetic use of music in the beginning where both men skateboard through the diverse landscape of this city by the bay, their collective home. Home is where their heart truly is even as Jimmy’s claims that his own grandfather built the elegant home brick by brick back in the 1940s is open to interpretation by the ending. To me, it is a statement on how the minority communities are always erased from our cultural lexicon and their contributions taken away. It’s a conceit and reality on the part of Jimmy Fails himself, owing to the autobiographical imprints of this narrative, that stays with us. It’s history seen through a personal prism.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is pregnant with meaning and insights. It celebrates its bittersweet sunchrony and trains a melancholic-hopeful sensibility towards more than just statistics of representation. In the whole process, this screen treatment deals with feelings, letting them sing and go with the flow. Which is what makes this real to reel transformation a genuine heartwarmer.
TARPAN( THE ABSOLUTION), 1995.
If you want to understand the true aesthetics of magic realism, look no further than diplomat turned director K. Bikram Singh’s TARPAN( THE ABSOLUTION)
As illustrated so pivotally here as also on Pedro Almodovar’s VOLVER(which I wrote about few months ago), that mode of storytelling never possesses an empty stance in terms of fantasy but emerges from the weight of social realities, often uncomfortable ones, hence challenging the stability of gender and interpersonal equations. So it’s a mode of enquiry as also a movement towards piquing our interests. It’s a device used well in literature and theatre and this screenplay honours those benchmarks, especially the latter in the way it stages, in a gradual process, the unfolding of the titular absolution, for various individuals occupying a village in Rajasthan.
The central conceit is cleverly delineated: a couple( Mita Vashisht and Ravi Jhankal) must visit another village and clean up an unused well in order to cure its unnaturally ailing seven year old daughter. The polluted water of this well and the eventual exorcising of ghosts, literal and metaphorical, through its purification is a commentary on the evils wrought by gender, class and caste differences. Watch it to know how the well is a metaphor, symbol and site of residence for all those who were wronged by others wielding power in their given circumstances in the past. Myths and folklores get subsumed within the auspices of magical realism here.
I particularly like how the same cyclical rhythm of conducting the action transpires. The man( Ravi Jhankal) goes down to the well, experiences an epiphany within the deep water, comes up retrieving one item such as an old trinket, a bracelet or even skeletal remains and then the dead person’s exploitation at the hands of senior prefects of the village is unraveled. Flashbacks recreating that sordid past are rooted in unflinching realism and social consciousness between the haves and have-nots. Then the ghost emerges amidst smoke to address the congregation. This is preceded by a ritualistic prayer and incantation by the wrongdoers and other village seniors. Guilt and their share of complicity hence has never eluded them and they all strive for recompense.
Watch these intensely created pieces to be enthralled by the backstories and then the final breakthrough where water squirts out like catharsis, rescuing the ailing girl’s health. TARPAN is uniquely realised and upholds its theatrical staging of the resurrections of ghosts, then juxtaposing them with on-location shooting to posit a generational stream. It confronts history, melding the past’s legacy with our present reckoning.
Formidable performers like OM PURI, DINA PATHAK, REVATHY, VIJAY KASHYAP, MANOHAR SINGH, SAVITA BAJAJ, ANANG DESAI, RAJENDRA GUPTA, LALIT TIWARI, VIRENDRA SAXENA and PAWAN MALHOTRA add heft to its arresting whole.
CHAR ADHYAY( FOUR CHAPTERS), 1997
Now that I have completed the cycle of watching all of auteur Kumar Shahani’s feature films, CHAR ADHYAY(1997), his last work in all these years, was notable for its precise style. As also for his focus on the act of walking as marking a movement through time and space, with Vanraj Bhatia’s music beautifully utilising the sitar to evoke an appropriate period feel and the non-diegetic use of nature imagery mingling with the sorroundings within which pre-independence Bengal’s fight for liberation simmers with angst and unresolved moral tensions. It is a cause not for inviting irony or a simplistic contradiction but one of unstinted realism, naturalistic in tone and execution.
Bengal in the 1930s etches a landscape for Shahani and his team of expert technicians, including cinematographer du jour K.K. Mahajan, to which they contribute their own quietly effective impetus and arthouse imprints. For that reason, Bengali and Hindi dialogues merge seamlessly without the need to announce those moments of transition. The linguistic adaptability is actually an extension of Shahani’s all- encompassing vision of India, only this time it is set in the Eastern state at a particularly hostile, culturally specific point in time.
Like KHAYAL GATHA(1989), the first few minutes are imbued with exposition in his inimitable style, a series of images that bear no narrative coherence, setting the stage, in turn, for what is to come. The core of this film is derived from the conversational quality between Nandini Ghoshal and Sumanto Chattopadhyay, lovers and freedom fighters who exercise the intimacy of a profound bond even amid violence, orchestrated by their fellow compatriots and by themselves. The foregrounding, however, is on their moments together where deep truths and irreconcilable dilemmas occupy their locational spaces. Shahani’s debt to the foundations of theatre are found in the lighting, setting and gestural articulations here.
Every now and then, a shooting, a burning village and cries of those caught in the throes of these local infractions are shown, brought to the screen quietly without exploiting the severity of the matter. This juxtaposition or singular presentation of each scene works very well for a viewer who wants to experience the events in a more practical light.
For me, CHAR ADHYAY is like caesura- a film that shows us a break from the middle or focal point of the story and ethos. So that words of endearment and nervous energy between the central pair, their non- verbal meetings in a train, a teenager’s preoccupation with building a bamboo cage for pet rabbits or a young woman swinging by a tree and nature imagery in general become accommodative of everyday actions that we continue to pursue even as our era is rife with sectarian emotions or nationalistic propaganda. To the discerning eye, hence, this work will be relevant in our own era. As also for its eye for detail that brings the past and present together for the protagonists, in a delicate delineation of personal choices in the name of rasthra (nation), leading to unsavoury consequences for them.
DANCE LIKE A MAN( 2004)
This film, based on the iconic play by Mahesh Dattani, is a multidimensional story rich in the social realities of urban India.
The title itself makes it crystal clear that a male dancer’s pursuit of classical form of Bharatnatyam is one in a minority mould thus challenging social norms at their most extensive. His partnership, both on the creative and personal front, with his wife is then one of oppositions- they have to wrestle with the financial aspect of being creative individuals as also counter sexism in individual capacities owing to that vocation itself. Gradually, her pronounced success invites more contours.
Mohan Agashe as the parental figure is another pivotal part of the picture- he is celebrated as a social reformer but displays the same brutish, intolerant hostility towards his own son that he probably counters on a public front.
He is also dismissive of the classical form practiced by his daughter in law, claiming it to be descended from courtesans. The complexity of that statement is another strand altogether, reflecting cultural nuances that were man- made in the first place.
All of these negative strands are obliterated and hence the purity of the art form is rehabilitated when the couple’s daughter enters this generational field and shows early signs of greatness. Success and the lack of it, gender norms and interpersonal relationships are dealt with delicacy by director Pamela Rooks, working from a script by Mr. Dattani himself. All of it is set to stirring musical and dance recitals that transcend the web of conventional thinking to emerge as a liberating form of artistic integrity.
But DANCE LIKE A MAN is compelling because it shows human endeavours at their most blase and vulnerable. Performances by Shobhana, herself an excellent practitioner of classical dance and a choreographer here too, and Arif Zakaria elevate the script while sitar maestro Anushka Shankar is surprisingly effective and openly expressive in her acting turn. She’s very good with the dance recitals too. So is Samir Soni as her supportive and effervescent fiance.
All in all, I highly recommend this one.
BY THE SEA(2015)
Within the laidback silences of this tale is a compelling look at familial disintegration, voyeurism and the erotic impulses of a couple’s unraveling hitting hard owing to pronounced loss. The return to a place of common and mutual intimacy earns its share of poignancy. Watch as Angelina Jolie resists her husband’s proximity and the way they are distant figures and yet are bound by years of togetherness to make attempts at reconciliation. She is particularly impactful at portraying the effects of withdrawing into one’s shell where an inner implosion gets channelized through reticence in actions and almost non- verbal articulations.
It’s a patient, weary road and Jolie, doubling up as screenwriter and director, mimics that developmental inertia with a careful eye for people and places that revel in quietude. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together craft some stirring scenes of a journey that is never really resolved but reaches a place of interpersonal exchanges, no matter how laconic they are.
To me, BY THE SEA is an engrossing drama on adult relationships.
NOTE: all these Indian films that I’ve written about are available in HD and with excellent sound quality on EPIC ON, the application of EPIC CHANNEL. It’s a proper treasure trove for all those seeking Indian arthouse classics. That’s where I watched them.