THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT ALL.

HIDDEN(2020)



There is a reason why short-form and documentary storytelling can render a song of the spirit with such passion. Jafar Panahi’s HIDDEN is a testament to the renegade spirit that unites him with his daughter Solmaz and artist-friend-ally Shabnam Yousefi, armed with phone cameras, to find a gifted singer in a far-flung village in their native Iran. Their hope is to capture her voice, let her shed inhibitions within a dangerously conservative, dogmatic society and utilise her cloistered art to illumine their own efforts at finding a ray of light. This is art for the simple but ultimately groundbreaking purpose of shattering a glass ceiling, however futile or hopeless the pursuit may be. Their efforts somehow pay off but not before orienting us with the dreadful reality of how humans become literal ghosts when kept ‘hidden’ from plain view, without a voice, a face or a larger identity.

However, as grim as the pursuit is, there is the camaraderie among these three passengers in the car as they exchange thoughts without any hint of unnecessary earnestness or overbearing fear. These are facts of life for them and when fear becomes too much of a narrative choice for a society, it doesn’t bother practitioners of justice. It’s the car ride that is captured here and then the only source of hope that reveals itself with hushed whispers as the young singer’s mother lets the crew enter their home. In the end, only  the magnificent voice gets recorded, preserved, rescued from abject anonymity.

In that final moment within the eighteen minute capsule, this guerrilla-style filmmaking sheds its camouflage to capture a conscientious artistic release that lies behind a white curtain but comes like a haunting passage of personal liberty, telling us what living ‘on the other side’ acutely feels like.

***



HIDDEN is also more relevant since Mr. Panahi has been put behind bars by his government, his daughter has become his vocal representative worldwide while Iranian women have launched a revolution with their defiance against a government and social structure that has condemned them to just merely exist as ghosts under scarfs. While I was reading its synopsis, I wondered when a day of uprising and resistance would arrive for Iranian society. As my instincts always signal a foretelling, two minutes later I was watching visuals of women being persecuted but holding themselves boldly against authority in the nation.

I always believe in a kind of empathy translating to telepathy when one registers the pains of this world. HIDDEN and this team’s exemplary work gave me that.


***

UNAUTHORISED (2022)



Acclaimed actor Evan Rachel Wood is a performer who I’ve admired for the longest time, be it for her turns in LITTLE SECRETS, PRETTY PERSUASION, MILDRED PIERCE or in the absolutely riveting music videos for Green Day’s iconic WAKE ME UP WHEN SEPTEMBER ENDS and Brandon Flowers’ haunting CAN’T DENY MY LOVE. She has inherited a clear vision for the moving image, utilising her experience to now translate another iconic artist’s most recent output to the screen.

UNAUTHORISED is a short film of thirteen minutes that I stumbled upon in these past few days while watching Fiona Apple’s cover video for ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. It’s Evan’s and choreographer Angela Trimbur’s tribute to her successful 2020 album FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS, a work I have lapped up too, leading me to discover Fiona’s influential oeuvre that very year. There has been no looking back . So it’s a natural fit that the imagery and fluidity of the dance moves aid a larger storytelling arc that is riveting in its four-fold iteration here.

**



I WANT YOU TO LOVE ME has Ms. Trimbur in a beautiful embrace of the song’s innocence and jazz-like rhythm set to piano notes, with her solo performance in a room and hall while HEAVY BALLOON, a meditation on mental health and its repercussions, finds her being joined by three other female dancers who express resilience in the face of struggles, with an outdoor set. Here, mud becomes an element to let loose one’s primal nature, revel in its sensuality.

In the second half, FOR HER finds these ladies in a formation with a desolate backdrop, intimately but strongly confronting abusers with their gestures, in consonance with the words, while COSMONAUTS again focuses on Angela Trimbur’s nocturnal exploration of the self as if in a trance, being wholly committed to the music.



Each song hence is handled deftly and since Ms. Apple doesn’t subscribe to the well-worn formula of music videos anymore, UNAUTHORISED is a welcome and appropriate tribute to her innate vision that is comprehensive and yet deeply personal.

***

SAFAR/JOURNEY (2014)



Some say that it’s the journey, not the destination that matters in the end. For some, it’s the other way around. In Pratyusha Gupta’s simple and effective short, its title becomes apt to the way life-experiences and the people around us affect our evolution.  Here, it is the journey and the destination, both, that appeal to the sixteen year old protagonist. The two people she finds herself with are not only wiser and on diametrically opposite sides of behaviour but are far removed from the world she has left behind through her own willpower.

The short begins with the girl in a room and a loud knock on the door, with a hostile voice asking her to open it. The editing is crisp and sharp, choosing to bypass that past remnant to have this girl, Gouri, start over with the job of a stay at home, 24 hour domestic worker at a Parsi lady’s( Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal) home in Bombay. The diurnal schedule, activities and words spoken by her employer maintain the rhythm of that evolution. She is moving ahead, changing her fortunes, one humble day at a time. Given her employment, she doesn’t have time to dwell; she doesn’t want to.

Eventually, the lady’s Man Friday and taxi driver( Vipin Sharma) shows her a paternal core which comes naturally to him and which she understands as genuine even as a brief outburst at an otherwise comely Irani restaurant gives him a glimpse at the life she escaped.

Shweta Tripathi, now a bona fide performer with such stellar credits as MASAAN and MADE IN HEAVEN, has eyes that express such multitudes, an ageless face and a body language that readily adapts its milieu. Her mostly silent reactions let her emote with an inner life. The other two veterans give her able support. So that the closing taxi ride with all three of them becomes a journey, a start, a renewal where the present is the most hopeful place to be rather than the locations passed or the city that they call home.



****

EASTER EGGS(2020)




Nicolas Keppens’ Belgian animated short EASTER EGGS is a stark depiction of teenage and the emotional mood swings it obviously derives from. I watched it once, in its unbroken fourteen minute runtime on MUBI this weekend. I kept returning to its images in my mind and felt more and more affinity towards its realistic touch. As I said, this is a stark tale without any of that Disney melodrama one associates with animation works in general. It’s a short so it is able to present its concerns with compassion, without unnecessary exposition and above all with an interior gaze.

EASTER EGGS is about two boys who experience that adolescence can be an alienating ride, often driving even best friends apart. One wants to outgrow this phase where he’s still a child but doesn’t want to be one while the other is innocent to a T, still engages in pranks and sheds tears when hurt by the way his buddy seems to chide him for being ‘such a baby’ and leaves him stranded, expecting him to grow up. A trip to a local restaurant and the quest to find its deceased owner’s pet birds occupy a strand of the storytelling here.

Suffice it to say, both buddies find introspective moments when alone and the final minute brings them together, with the birds returning and surrounding them as they lay asleep side by side. Keppens’ direction is complemented by the voice work of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard winner Victor Polster( of GIRL fame) and Rik Verheye, its unsentimental tone and the bright use of colours and imagery never eclipsing the transitional period in this bond of amity between two boys.

To act one’s age or to be mature and wiser beyond the years is a dilemma that adolescence riddles us with. This miniature riff on friends coming together to acknowledge their deep affinity to each other and as an unit will thus be universal to viewers. We have passed through these motions and know how accurate Keppens is in capturing the boredom and confusion of those years when the spark of childhood is almost threatened overnight by the arc of ‘coming of age’





***

Uncanny References to a Real Life Icon Make for an Impressive Yet Lacklustre Outcome in ‘Beauty’ – Screen Queens

https://screen-queens.com/2022/09/02/review-beauty/

My expanded essay on BEAUTY, a portrait of a Whitney Houstonesque star, has been published by SCREEN QUEENS.

Read it and share your thoughts.

VARIETY AND VERACITY

TWO DRIFTERS(2005)



The art of impersonation reaches a whole new and disturbingly complex reckoning in TWO DRIFTERS, occupying a psychological space where survival instincts and mental traumas for a single, working class woman(Ana Cristina de Oliveira) drift away into a numbing state of complicity. On the other hand is the deeply aggrieved lover(Nuno Gil) who witnesses her unraveling while grappling with his own.

Of course, the tension here hinges on melodrama but quietly unravels with moving passages that detail the omnipotent presence of the dead young man( Joao Carreira) for his mother( Teresa Madruga), his soulmate( Gil) and then gets intertwined with that of a young woman now claiming him as the love of her life, the father of her unborn child and becoming obsessed with his posthumous apparition in all their lives.

Her maternal ferocity and the boy’s mother’s own loss coincide. Veracity and heterogeneous ideals too get in a complex knot. By the end, gender roles and sexual fluidity all converge here. All the while making us possessed internally with this downward mental spiral for an individual who is manipulative, distraught but equally begs our attention to her status in a world of neglect.

For other discerning viewers/ cinephiles, it is also the only Joao Pedro Rodrigues feature with the most use of music, including instrumentals of Joni Mitchell’s eternally beloved BOTH SIDES NOW and the iconic Breakfast At Tiffany’s theme.


***

FALLING LEAVES(1912)



As a discerning cinephile, I had read so much about pioneering director Alice Guy Blache over the years and I cannot be grateful enough to MUBI programmers for making this silent title available to us. A charming yarn about a young child’s wish for her ill older sister’s recuperation from consumption ( or tuberculosis which claimed so many lives back in the day), it is also about the scientific temper that is necessary to counter the certainty of imminent death for the one suffering. A kindly doctor’s medical practice and cure ultimately come to the family’s rescue. Dava( medicine) and Dua (Prayers) hence both work as miracles when in unison. In just twelve minutes, all of the pathos, possibility and joy is captured.

A hundred and ten years old film, it still retains its innocence and purity, charming us with the central motif of hope above despair. FALLING LEAVES also attests to the eternal power of O. Henry’s classic short story THE LAST LEAF which serves as an inspiration.



***

STAR BESTSELLERS EPISODES (1999-2000)

EK SHAAM KI MULAQAT/ AN EVENING’S RENDEZVOUS



Irfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Himani Shivpuri and Raghuvir Yadav are four legends who occupy the frame together in this forty plus minute short, from the acclaimed STAR BESTSELLERS anthology canon.

What I love about the storytelling here is how true it is to the milieu captured; the mansion, its middle class landlords and the tenants, the latter’s working class livelihood, the camaraderie with the landlady that charms the woman while confounding the man who is drawn to her and exhibits typical gender traits even while dismissing other men’s misgivings about her.

EK SHAAM KI MULAQAT is a naturalistic depiction of behaviours, mannerisms, social conventions and how spuriously we judge women. The volte-face that comes for the man(Irfan) when his own better half is found to be harbouring a secret then shatters his burgeoning attraction for ‘the other woman’ whom he had thought to be a fair catch. That metaphor of not leaving the back door open takes on a subtle meaning, never intended for overstatement.

Appearances are deceptive. That foreground roots this short in a realistic mold even as the final twist comes. The performances are excellent.


ARTH/MEANING

I found this short’s title to be particularly interesting as the triad of complex relationships invokes Mahesh Bhatt’s seminal ARTH(1982), especially given the fact that the protagonist is a film director on the rise. The sublime differences being that she’s a woman and is in a live-in relationship with her screenwriting paramour.

The focus here is on the pressures of proving her worth in a male-dominated scene while buckling under them. This anxiety of work creeps into her relationship, given the fact that her screenwriting partner is out of work and is abusive. A very real and lived-in feeling of this high-anxiety paradigm is given a subtle treatment, with the protagonist’s work life and point of view occupying this impressive narrative.



Even her attraction towards and healthy creative partnership with her cinematographer, a dapper and easygoing man who honours her vision on her first major directorial duty, is handled with sensitivity, be it her eventual one-sided love for him or his willingness to open up his own seemingly forbidden love for another man, to only her.

The interactions are natural, the stakes of these bonds designed around circumstances while apathy is never part of the overall equation. For me, personally, it was a treat to watch Amruta Subhash in one of her early roles. She was always proficient and had put in the years to create an omnibus that now includes enhanced visibility and critical acclaim . ARTH proves that in spades.



FAT CHANCE

Fat-shaming is such an intrinsic part of our global culture and cult of appearances that we become internalised participants even when our heart isn’t intent to condone the discourse around its pervasive cruelty. What happens then when cupid strikes a couple where the lady is conventionally slim and beautiful while the man is plus-sized? Obviously, social diktats get in the way even when both share an intrinsic mutual respect for each other that circumvents those whispers, stares and cues of disapproval.

The treatment in FAT CHANCE is so beautifully illustrative of both- the matter of fact being of the man’s weight bearing nothing on his amiability, talents or charm while also dealing with his own inferiority complex, familial tensions with an overprotective mother who knows how the world is at large and his efforts to lose weight for a healthy change. It’s tied in with self-esteem, image and the history of generational obesity on his side of the family.



A point of concern comes when the couple witnesses his uncle getting buried in an undersized coffin. This being the logical days of the nineties, his dietary habits don’t turn him into an Adonis with six-pack abs overnight. The triumph commences with shedding seven kgs in the first place.

I loved its handling of a prickly and all-too recognisable issue and the way the central couple’s love triumphs after the trials and tribulations of what is, in the eyes of the world, a mismatched union. This is how a story of such stirring import is handled and performed without causing offense or discounting the prejudices and hypocrisies that so many encounter for being different.

While watching this, I was reminded of how this will fare alongside THE WHALE, at least the play, which has largely come under fire for perpetuating harming stereotypes around fat-shaming and obesity in general.



TRIPTI



Rajit Kapur’s direction in SHURUAT/ BEGINNING, the second episode in this anthology series which I’ve written about, built a world of possibility, with its solidarity among females even after legal separation in a marital unit create fissures and awkward silences. The strength accorded to the distraught daughter in law by the mother in law is beautiful. His second entry in this series of shorts takes the baton forward for progressive change.

TRIPTI destigmatises our general perceptions around mental health, domestic abuse and a culture of silence and repression which women from educated, cultured, middle class families endure in the absence of real intervention from any social agent.

Rajeshwari Sachdeva is that voice of change who acts as a fierce agent of liberation from all of the above listed points. Her fierce determination, however, is directed at detecting and then letting her older sister( Mita Vashisht, excellent as usual in a subtle turn) see how her marriage is nothing but a sham perpetuating cover-ups, physical abuse from her altogether absent and unfaithful partner and trauma. In the process, the two-way legacy of trauma on the part of her recently widowed mother( the titanic Surekha Sikri) is also cleared. Denial then transmutes to acknowledgement and an eventual change of heart commences.

Again, the believability of the interactions, the admixture of tenderness and irritability, pathos and constructive action is held together with a feminist rationale.

***

OM(1986)



John Smith’s three minute short is all about how the order of appearances has a way of designing iconographies while often concealing blase truths.

A man robed in saffron(John Harding) enunciates the titular chant, it buzzes like a dozen bees, all in medium shot, a close-up. Then a hand of the off-screen barber(Mark Stevens) with a blade begins shearing his remaining hair. The final seconds reveal the ‘monk’ to be actually clothed in normal attire under the saffron-coloured cloth and smoking.

The screen fades to black. In those precise minutes, we are enraptured and the nature of miniature filmmaking finds a purposeful charge.



***

How Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Face to Face’  Gave me Identification with Trauma

Read this essay which is deeply, profoundly personal to me especially in regards to its articulation of feelings and visual identity and share your thoughts.

My essay on Ingmar Bergman’s FACE TO FACE, a personal choice owing to my identification with its respectable handling of mental traumas, has now been published by SCREEN QUEENS, a publication that has always stood steadfast to validate its writers’ experiences.

https://wp.me/p45b1a-726

A DOG’S LIFE

Befriending him would have not cost a penny.
The price of admission into his world
just an instinct to be
a child of compassion,
all laws of the universe
beginning and ending
with the soft pats on his head
and his constant companionship,
walking side by side with us.

Such may have been his life.
A short, uneventful one.
I say uneventful
because his nature’s truth
is a shared community
among his always curious
and unprejudiced brethren.

They would have howled in
anonymous mourning
while the others among us
cursed at it as bad omen,
now that night had set
and not even one needed to
retire for the day
with someone else’s burden.
Then the corollary of a species in decline
discarded death of the one
absolutely in thrall of our conscious
need to be good to him.

****

It’s a surprise
he went like he was
never wanted by this world.
Born an orphan,
gone like a leper.

Teeth gnashed in pain,
nostrils round and flared up at us,
crashed by some rotating wheels
that never stop for any mortal body
and hardly anticipating
that running across a seemingly empty road at night,
long before midnight’s coalition of excess,
would end with that most dreadful shriek of his kind,
a kind curating nightmares
about the base instincts of our like;
to hurt and leave,
to not even pause
and ponder the slow decay
and our casual obsession
with making life a sport
badgered by our nihilisms.

That stretch of the road
right before the school
where I spent eight formative years
of my own
was his safe haven.
The place he could always fall back on.
His humblest site for rest and dreaming
being under the tamarind tree,
outgrowing the green expanse
of the golf course
from where it sprouted forth,
like an all-comforting friend
or unaffiliated sibling.
That part made up his chosen family
among others like him.
Small, puny angels
who had yet to cross the first hurdle
of a year on earth.

****

My prayers are for the one
who possessed the good graces to put him on the side of the road,
on the spot
where he lived
and belonged
for most of his days.
I saw him collected atop a thin
plastic sheet.
The only refuge for him.

His rehabilitator must have felt the pain of his untimely end shoot up
in his spine,
the uproar of ants on his breathless body
and hovering glitches of flies,
would have been too much for him.
The facts of this life,
for him
unable to placate himself after this unlikely,
open burial,
must have broken his heart.
He would have loved the little one
even if on occasional encounters.
They may have walked together,
the little one’s pace
and stride always a little more animated
even on his worst days.
The big one’s stooping shoulders
and uncomfortable gait
marking even days without incident.

***

Without a name,
his last wishes existing in
forgetfulness
and knowing nothing of
how death is just a breadth away
from living consensus,
his body has disappeared.
Eaten in full by
the underground world
or reduced to nothing but bones
chewed by some other.

Such was his life.
Delivered to him
by none of our hands.
Taken from him
in the heat of the night
when corruption’s free will
overwhelms all creatures great and small.

***

And I’m just an observer.
However, his final shrieks
mark my mind’s nights
of restlessness.
Because I see life
as a cataclysm orchestrated by us
and my future forecast
is for all things innocent
to find a space
away from here.
Sleep, sleep,
little babies.
Don’t wake up
to face this world.
It has been sold to a lumpen
share.
Rest in peace then,
my darling companion
who could have been rescued by me
if only I knew
he would meet a dog’s death.






PRIMAL SCREAMS OF FATE AND SILENCES THAT SHATTER VENEERS.

DAHAN/ CROSSFIRE (1997)





A woman( Rituparna Sengupta) cornered by an unruly group of men gives out a primal cry for help. That scream, a cry emanating from her molestation in an area opposite a metro station, in the perennially crowded Calcutta, is ignored by almost every passersby, be it men or women, pedestrians or those seated in cars. Everybody is a viewer. Almost a voyeur by default, if not by choice. Nobody wants to be involved in the chaos, the noise and mayhem of being in an unruly situation and Rituparno Ghosh’s DAHAN thrusts us in a social order where turning away from a scene of crime is preferred by us. The fear of becoming a part of that charged atmosphere which already haunts our visual senses is primal and inescapable. Human corruption and gendered mindsets are at the core of how we live.

So when a courageous school teacher (Indrani Haldar) intervenes, roughs up the hooligans and rescues a fellow lady citizen from the worst without fearing the consequences, a fascinating and brutally realistic character study materializes with all the maturity that we expect from a Bengali feature. We come to realize that despite the accolades, felicitatory words and media coverage of her bravery, patriarchy will upend her agency. While the survivor is given her only share of comfort by her sister in law( Mamata Shankar). Her in-laws are indifferent, her husband becomes a beast of his own accord with the shadow of his inability to rescue her and societal taunts inflating his ego further. Her own parents’ concern is dimmed and drowned out by an engulfing class difference on the other hand. The subtle and often recognisable hues of these relationships are captured with precision by Mr. Ghosh and his team.



Soon, the thirty seconds of fame for the humble and practical school teacher, the fame of being a braveheart, a role where others clearly condescend to her most of the time and which she doesn’t want herself, citing her intervention as a basic civic duty at best, make her a pawn. Her own paramour uses her exalted status to gain an overseas stint from his company, a complementary benefit of sorts to their conjugal bonds for the future.

DAHAN which references a burning sensation, an incineration of the soul after suffering trauma, is powerful as it frames its scenes with the surrounding sounds always affixed to the exchanges among people. So the chatter of an active school during recess is present when other colleagues praise the braveheart. Others are more naturally attuned to the churning of emotions in the negative space. Such as the playing of devotional songs during Puja season in the locality, foregrounding a tense domestic spat within four walls of a home and of course the bedlam in the opening moments affixed with a teeming marketplace and cinema hall as well as the traffic aid in the verisimilitude of danger lying in the least expected places.

That pervasive element of patriarchal values also pinpoint every good and bad occurence with the ladies’ good looks, as when the school teacher receives such a remark by a colleague, attributed to her predominance in print and broadcast media. The survivor of the assault too is constantly questioned about her real intentions. Her good looks tend to occupy centrestage. Which shows how reductive, blase and vulgar we are as a species. Sensitivity to others’ plight is simply out of our radar.





***

DAHAN, however, is a dramatic representation that identifies the inner strength both women possess. Others around them, like the teacher’s wise and compassionate grandmother accord it a wholesome outlook supplemented by experience while one of the assailant’s bethroted exhibits a circumstantial imprisonment where her own choice is clouded and erased by her family’s affluence, corruption and influences that rattle justice. What others say is a huge motif in our lives. It is the same complexity that drives this rousing screenplay.

The end is all about breaking free and deciding one’s own choice where one woman’s relocation to Montreal and the other’s insistence on traveling alone are symbols of a greater resistance to social sanctions that never care for our well-being. Haldar and Sengupta’s National Award winning performances help that joint epiphany to break forth with certitude. It is a cruel world. We need to be our own upholders of self- esteem. Ultimately, we walk alone to actualise our true selves. The cacophony then becomes silent strength to overcome the odds. The crossfire then is doused to raise a phoenix in our hearts and minds.

It’s the ethical dilemmas that make DAHAN a mirror image of our daily struggles.



***



ASUKH/ MALAISE(1999)



If surrounding noise and sounds were integral to understanding the chaos of DAHAN then a deadening, suffocating silence is the running theme in Rituparno Ghosh’s second ’90s feature ASUKH that is written about here.



Within that silence emerges an universally resonant tale about the bonds of tenacity that hold a familial unit of mother, father and child together. Even as her work commitments get the better of her, the daughter never wavers in her love for her parents. Even as her irritability worsens with the stress and speculations of those around her, she always sits down for her last meal of the day with her father. Which is especially endearing. I also love that Debashree Roy’s meta casting as a major cinema star is never overblown. She is the same down to earth individual when signing autographs for a comely nurse attending her mother in the hospital and the simpleton wearing glasses at home.

Age and personal commitments have a tendency to mar the flow of relationships. The passage of time itself is an ensnaring entity. So when illness enters the room, emotions run at a higher tangent and the silence is gradually dabbed with more open communication.

Thank you Rituda for these communicative passages, blessed with such honesty, for the performances by Saumitra Dada, Debashree Roy and co., Aparna Sen’s poetic narration and the intimacy of real issues that is achieved. Transparency flows in sustained notes of introspection. ASUKH then becomes a warm labour of love, a memory worth cherishing.




****

THE HUMANS(2021)






Stephen Karam’s big-screen adaptation of his own play by the same name makes it clear that the onus of earnestness is pretty high. That’s what it takes when you have to title your work THE HUMANS. But isn’t that the side-effect of being born as flesh and blood mortals? The constant pinch of reminding the world that we are human, with glaring and gaping valleys in place of peaks and always in dire straits at inopportune stages. We ourselves have to be shaken out of our stupor to know that we are not capable of functioning as super-competent all-rounders always.

The claustrophobia of an apartment divided into an upper and a lower portion is congruent with the pace. A relocation and a Thanksgiving dinner get coalesced here. Personal and professional matters naturally enter the proceedings. As we humans very well know, celebratory gatherings are often far away from being that. They are often events where we cross the thresholds of repression to spill the beans.

This family at the center of THE HUMANS consists of three generations. Ailments from dementia and colitis, personal setbacks as a lack of a career upswing for one sister and being fired from a successful firm owing to a chronic physical condition for the other sibling hang together along with one young man’s hiatus from a career and normal life owing to a long battle with mental health issues.

There are sweet moments, bonding and disagreements, laughs and tears, escape from thorny issues and brushes with a recent past for all involved. All in the naturalistic vein of how they all unfold for each one of us. Kudos to the element of verisimilitude maintained here, from the low lighting, spare and unfurnished interiors to the use of inhibiting spaces that restrict movements and a freedom to communicate. This is another reality about family ties: we often withhold more than confess or confront.





***

The performers, comprising of two young stars, a theatre legend and three Oscar nominees, all rise to the occasion and make this compact capsule of relationships one to remember. Personally, Richard Jenkins’ undetected PTSD, from the time of being privy to 9/11, and his haunted looks stayed with me. It’s a potent reminder of how much goes unnoticed under the surface of our psychologies. His final breakdown in a solitary space and the haunting use of darkness that closes this feature encapsulates all these lives in general. It is how the rose-tinted gloss to familial ties get subverted and, in turn, accomodated realistically.

****

A WORTHY COLLAGE OF MULTIPLE EMOTIONS.

STAR BESTSELLERS (1999-2000)



This anthology series that aired on Star Plus India has now become legendary owing to its compact, down to earth storytelling. Those qualities pretty much were hallmarks of the 90s to 2000s era where even as the national economy opened up and created veritable opportunities for an urban, global-centric youth, a sense and penchant for simplicity was maintained in real to reel life transformations.

STAR BESTSELLERS is one among many series/films showcasing the golden era of filmmaking ethos that I go back to often. In fact just last year, I had watched and then written about one of the gems from this very series titled KABAAD, a heartwarming tale centring on the bonds of affection between two marginalized individuals- an elderly lady longing to go back to her home in a moffusil town and a scrap collector. The ending still gives me emotional goosebumps. Surekha Sikri and Raghubeer Yadav- two greats- were stellar in their veracity and socially attuned to the cadences of everyday conversation between two humble human beings.




Here, I continue that pattern and share three standout episodes from the anthology that manage to be charming, realistic, poignant and, in one particular instance, haunting passages into the heart of modern society.  All under fifty minutes.

It’s also a blessing that episodes of this series are now available in good definition on Disney+Hotstar while a few not uploaded there are up on YouTube.

***

FURSAT MEIN AKA DAYANAND PHIR BOLA( AT LEISURE/ DAYANAND SPEAKS AGAIN)

The certifiably great Irfan Khan is at his very best, complete with his poker-faced comic timing as an elderly man who is an unusual Good Samaritan. Using his powers of persuasion and affected authority, he intervenes whenever an instance of wrongdoing occurs around him.

Whether it’s a middle-aged lady being made to pay a higher amount for her regular share of grocery, a young fine arts student being harassed by a spurned pursuer, a restaurant owner firing the protagonist’s best friend, an expert chef of nearly forty years, due to its transition as an Italian fine dining spot, when two louts threaten them to leave their seat in the park or even imparting better sense to a young millennial man about the way fast food itself is a byproduct of capitalist tempers and its addictive impact that we fail to identify.



With its use of light humour such as the protagonist using seemingly self-printed cards to intervene in moments of crisis for the common man, as an authority figure in that particular area, a sharp commentary is made on the way economics and social webs pervade our diurnal interactions. It’s this simplicity and eye for detail that give it depth.

Particularly of interest are his interactions with the young painter( Bhumika Chawla) who he encourages to create but also teach others who are artistically inclined, thereby not just striving for her own individual expression, and his own daughter (Mita Vashisht). The latter is a particularly poignant exchange where his communist ethics don’t let him stay with her or her better half, both of whom work in the corporate sector, while her concern for him in old age extends itself to the point of admitting him to a special home for the elderly in Lonavala.

Also endearing is the friendship of a lifetime between him and his best friend. As they meet in the park daily, akin to a decades long ritual, all the strands come together with affable charm. Watch this one to grasp how artistic reflections on being sociable and of value in a world where self-interest rules the roost must be presented.




****

TELEPHONE

This episode directed by Shabnam Sukhdev is a psychological thriller with a strong visual motif, intimating us of society’s exploitative view of vulnerable women and the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces accorded to them.  At times, an almost noirish mood is present with its use of shadows though the story unfolds mostly around daytime, thereby subverting conventions of its telling.

None of it is more striking than in the opening minutes where the lead protagonist drives around a serene countryside, enters a tunnel on the highway where her car breaks down and her cellphone reception isn’t available. From here on, her sequestered positioning in the hands of a world ready to ensnare and prey on her vulnerability gets a chilling and hauntingly realistic delineation.



Eventually landing at a remote sanatorium housed within a sprawling colonial building, with open spaces, her position as a single woman only begging to communicate with her better half with whom she shares a deep yet fraught relationship, more of emotional distance than animosity or even bitterness, unravels. Psychological spaces here are of utmost importance. The telephone is a symbol. A metaphor.



Some of the best scenes here are where the head doctor, Mr. Nakhate, lets her believe she can open up to him about her frustrations and insecurities with his calm demeanour, only to play with her mind, her shock and bewilderment of being trapped in an unknown place, among other mentally scarred people, begging to be let go. He and the head nurse plot to bring her down through tranquilisers, pills and the emotional trauma of being sexually exploited by the latter. The power of suggestion and sinister imagery help us in achieving empathy for this young lady as her mental health is moulded and recreated to make her one among the many patients here. A sophisticated guinea pig among other helpless many, isolated from the world.

That final scene where her reunion with her partner (Raj Zutshi) ends with him fearing and simultaneously sympathising with her sorry state, certain she has devolved into mental despair after being disillusioned with their on-off dynamics, even wanting to recoil and run away from the horror of it all, is a blistering commentary on how women will always be cursed with the infected viewpoints of others. Easily presented with a distorted vision of who they are. Where their silences, vocal outpourings and even protestations all come under the masthead of  some kind of ‘madness’; hence, his promise of visiting her each week is an open-ended one. So is her future, as a prisoner of a corrupt socio-medical-psychological complex.

Kitu Gidwani, a performer who I’ve written about several times, is excellent here, attributing every psychological scar to the circumstances she is caught up in, where her own choice is zilch. You’ll be haunted by a gender-bending inmate’s dance in the balcony, by the shrieks and close-ups of these women, by the way they all witness the protagonist as she is pulled away and then physically used by the female nurse off-camera and by the final waltz, in a shabby, congested room allotted to them.

They just can’t make them like this anymore.


****

SHURUAT(BEGINNING)

The end can often be the beginning of relationships. It can also sustain a life-long friendship between people who are traditionally seen as antithetical to each other’s well-being: a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. This is where SHURUAT/BEGINNING sheds stereotypes to build a beautiful bond between these two women who both are at a crossroads of their lives.  The concept of chosen family cannot find a more suitable example than this.

A divorce by mutual consent between partners who never had any ill-will or rancour against each other reflects in the phone call he makes to the lady’s house in the presence of his mother, where he knows the latter has gone to visit her. A mother- in- law bonds with her, full of natural ease that even legal separation cannot bind in complicated knots. While the older lady second- guesses her own role in perhaps not being as responsible towards both individuals whom she loves dearly, the young lady battles depression as also experiencing financial freedom through work.



The crux here is in how simplicity, innocence and pure hearts can mend broken ones, positing a break away from social stigmas and replacing them with sheer goodwill.


Rajit Kapur’s direction here is sensitive, mature and way ahead of the times given it was made twenty years ago. But I feel only our individual choices can make us combat regressive straitjackets. Move ahead of the times.

My biggest takeaway from this episode was the breath of fresh air that was Sulbha Arya’s excellent supporting arc as a doctor, family friend and guide. She helps us see that just because two people are separated doesn’t mean they are broken, that her best friend Urmila shouldn’t be guilty of anything. She is also a defender of Sameera’s freedom as a single woman, egging her to exorcise her own guilt and shame. To live life alone or with someone is a choice. Her peppy, practical presence thus helps to ground the beloved central duo’s bond further, elevated by the performances of real-life mother-daughter pair Sushma and Divya Seth. In fact, Ms. Arya’s presence also helps to destigmatize the thorny issue of abortion in the final exchange.

Maturity is of the essence here and a solidarity pervades this trio. I loved it and have revisited it today again.

PABLO, MY AMIGO- A SKETCH

Basically, this is a fun and friendly token of the ‘good spirits’ that occupy my days, in little spurts here and there.

During few free minutes while in the office some days ago, I sketched Pablo, the best friend I never had, putting a face to fictional musings. He could be from anywhere, any background.