I had promised my readers that I would discover this lost gem sooner rather than later while writing about Smita Patil’s priceless repertoire. I did just that yesterday and it was such a moment of triumph for this cinephile and viewer. I believe it is what I strive for- to bring home-grown classics to public attention and rescue them from utter, abject anonymity.
TEEVRA MADHYAM, relating to a form or rhythm of Indian classical music that is sublime and subtle, is an apt title for this twenty minute short, directed as a diploma film back in 1974 by Arun Khopkar. As usual, Ms. Patil’s first ever screen appearance is a clear indicator of her innate restraint and graceful, almost fluid body language. As a tanpura player and practitioner of classical music, her stance embodies a sense of thehraav/ restraint perfectly. It is hence reflective of her peaceful state of mind and way of seeing the world. The first three and a half minutes expertly set the mis-en- scene where she plays her beloved instrument, settles into the mundane rhythms of the day in her modest room and listens to the sound of commotion and a passing plane. Her stillness and facial transparency are to behold. I also love how there is focus on the items in her room, symbolic of a modest living shorn of materialism. It is also how she is framed- like a modern day Saraswati sans the divine halo, without make-up, in turn showcasing her natural beauty with effortless ease.
That modesty and simplicity is revelatory of her alliance with her beloved’s( Nachiket Patwardhan) Marxist ideals, as I see it. Her stillness then holds an internal turmoil as her pursuit of classical arts is at odds with the beloved’s fight for justice and protests. It is captured so beautifully in the scene where she expresses how akin to the movement for justice giving him purpose, the tanpura gives her agency, peace. However, both their ideologies cannot be symbiotic. There is tension generated through that. The core for addressing these issues is subtle, never at the boiling point, just like these young lives on the verge of changes.
Cue the scene where she is the lone female in a meeting presided over by party members and the final one where her state of uncertainty is naturally integrated to the larger social churn of the day and age. To me, that one take of her changing eye movements and expressions while practicing the tanpura packs in so much of what her internal conflicts have to communicate on the surface. The vocal playback in the background befits that. She is at peace while practicing yet knows that she may have to renounce her creative gifts for the larger cause of social consciousness.
TEEVRA MADHYAM is ultimately about how women are often expected to cast themselves in a mould similar to the men in their lives, leading to them giving up their innate vocations. Also, how creative individuals have to recast their pure priorities in the practical realm of the world. It is hence stirring as a generator of multiple viewpoints even though there is no definite decision on the part of protagonists here to choose their future course.
Indian cinema has so many riches to offer and I’m glad I can contribute by reviving a conversation directed towards these unsung gems.
HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH(2020)
South African filmmaker Tebogo Malebogo grasps the very foundation of human desires with rare grace and beauty in his short film HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH.
The elements- with the wind, water and embers from a night-time bonfire- contribute, with immense sensual power, to this journey of realization for two men who discover that their hiking trip has provided them with a more open acceptance of who they are. The approach also lets their faces, bodies and eyes convey the language of desire with subtlety. Kudos to the two performers, Sizo Mahlangu and Thapelo Maropefela, for achieving that vision where each look exchanged and every caress bring them closer to an almost divine, intimately personal realisation within this verdant landscape. Akin to nature. Akin to a transcendental kinship.
I also love the cinematography by Jason Prins, music by Elu Eboka and editing by Petrus Van Staden. Special mentions must be made of how heaving sounds on the soundtrack mix in seamlessly with the native African beats while the clicking of the tongue while mouthing the line, ‘the men refused’ bring the defiant, natural rhythms of these two beautiful males to an open- ended resolution. To me, it’s a beginning that recognises that desire and attraction are fundamental human traits. They should not be held hostage by blinkered visions.
HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH hence is a work of beauty.
Thanks to MUBI’s eclectic and truly world class repertoire of diverse works, I finally watched three short films by renowned names. I had been in knowledge of these and so it was great to watch them from the comforts of my room on a weekend.
THE HUMAN VOICE(2020)
The first is Pedro Almodovar’s English language debut with this thirty minute capsule, based on Jean Cocteau’s almost century old play by the same name. That incentive gives his only performer, the chameleonic and simply brilliant Tilda Swinton, a bold chance to embody the self-awareness of a woman who’s on the edge. She’s isolated, lonely and in deep throes of a relationship that has dissolved.
The wordless beginnings and enraged center of this personal storm relies on gestural and expressive movements of the body. Swinton excels at them. But THE HUMAN VOICE achieves its titular poignancy by her verbal articulation of a deep-seated pain, of being hemmed in by a relationship where she has to overreach and apologize for its gendered trappings by being almost ‘the other woman’; I also was quiet affected by how metrics of a thin body structure, looks and ageism revolve around in this unbroken monologue. By playing an actress, she gives it a meta ethos and adds to the verisimilitude invested in the narrative.
A monologue, by nature, is a deeply personal distillation of private thoughts and desires. Even as we are trapped in a hard place, the literary form gives us power to own our strengths and flaws, to examine our collective human pulse. This short triumphs by dint of Swinton’s dialogic interplay between those two poles. I also loved how the constructed set within a studio further accords it with the artifice and meta ethos of the actual filmmaking process. Which fits in fairly with its theatrical roots and nature of dialogue delivery, a style that directly engages with the camera and audiences.
THE HUMAN VOICE, hence, examines the fragile nature and sense of being rudderless in a sea of isolation, befitting its actual shooting during the pandemic months in 2020 and extending to its effect on our consciousness, given its intimate nature in a post Covid reckoning.
THE STAGGERING GIRL(2019)
Luca Guadagnino has a sophisticated style to imbue his 34 minute short THE STAGGERING GIRL with. Beyond its obvious nod to the fashionable precedent of Italian house Valentino, given its nature of being a collaboration, I was swept by its melancholy tone, colours, expert cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and music by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Again, this can be a seemingly futile exercise in preferring style over substance but to this viewer, the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship marked by frissons of memory, toggling between past and present, made an impact.
It’s because I could see an artistic resonance in the daughter’s( Julianne Moore) struggles to care for a mother(imperious Marthe Keller) who lives in another continent while penning her memoirs; even as the mother, now aged and without vision, is steadfast in her painting pursuits and is fiercely immune to being mollycoddled. Privilege, luxury and the fleeting nature arising from both can be gauged from the imagery here that is beauteous and yet is built around shadows and darkness of dimly-lit spaces, implying the way memories burden us. Or even breaks in recollections. The mother holds on to these are mementos while the daughter faces the consequences of harbouring fear and guilt for the free-spirited senior anchor in her life. Note that one scene where Mia Goth as the younger version of the mother talks about the nature of vanity and the cult of appearance to her daughter, clearly showing her elitist leanings. It’s a conversation that’s relatable to so many women, the idea of image consciousness and body types imprisoning two generations.
I was also fascinated by how the younger( Mia Goth) and older selves of the duo coalesce, in and out of the protagonist’s musings, to immerse us in her memory. Kiki Layne is another enigma, a ghost- like figure who stands in as the inner voice for the daughter especially, a visual metaphor for the mystery of life that connects her with her maternal core and literary outpourings. Kyle Maclachlan, as the only male representative here, is effective in his inimitable way, as the caretaker somehow helping the older woman to hold on to her legacy as an artist.
If anything, Moore’s expressive transparency is intimately attuned to the tone here while Marthe Keller reminded me a lot of her character from THE ROMANOFFS episode THE VIOLET HOUR, down to the green-hued sky as a visual motif in one striking instance.
Watch THE STAGGERING GIRL for its dash of emotional truth packaged in effective interiority. Interpreting its content is a reward for viewers.
Fear of the ‘other’, a stranger entering our lives when we are at our most vulnerable has been a central motif in Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmography of interior horror. Cue the avenging and quietly ingratiating characterisations by Barry Keoghan as a teenager in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and by Emma Stone as a have-not plotting her entry into a notoriously depraved, upper class moral landscape in THE FAVOURITE. They are strangers to their own downfall until reality smacks them in the face and human hubris and manipulation overrule reason.
Lanthimos employs the same brand of interior horror and absurdism to his 12 minute short film NIMIC where a man’s encounter with a stranger on the subway leads to a psychologically arresting, miniature portrait of fear of the unknown. A fear that drills itself in with running themes of impersonation, breakdown of gender binaries and stalking.
I like how the daily actions committed by the man( Matt Dillon) such as boiling of an egg, subway ride, performance as a cellist and habit of holding his better half( Susan Elle) close while sleeping are all reiterated by the lady( Daphne Patakia)
Patakia is excellent here with her perpetual wide eyed expression being robotic and horrifying, creating a clone effect and equally gifted is Hollywood veteran Dillon as the man whose anxiety gives him a sleepwalker’s droll look.
To this writer/viewer, the politics of gender neutrality and loss of an all-pervading male hegemony are deconstructed within the pithy, chilling ten minutes of its runtime. The music and cinematography similarly create a jarring effect, as if the existential crises of our times were being drilled into our minds without a concrete societal resolution to the established norms. Especially in the domestic sphere.