SIGHTS AND SOUNDS.

MEMORIA(2021)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has designed a personal travelogue of images and sensations so transporting that MEMORIA becomes an unusual exercise in going beyond the literal title. It isn’t memory alone but rather the journey of feeling displaced as a global traveller, pointing to no particular centre where it all began.

The elegantly propulsive Tilda Swinton masters control over her experiences here, as a mysterious aural element becomes the recurring motif of her insomnia-fuelled realisation. She is an English woman living in Colombia and the mystery of that sound she seems to hear traces her multiple interactions with the people around her, some related to her and others she stumbles along the stretch of her journey.  The director’s tact lies in how well he crafts her solitary moments as well as those definitive interactions, making them humble exchanges where Jessica isn’t another protagonist in a motion picture. In essence, she is a wanderer, explorer of the mysteries of life. Her relationship with these people, even if they last just few minutes, root her firmly as an absorber of what they have to say and share. The ‘sound’ and its source then get offset without occupying an uneven part of this scenario.




She meets her sister(Agnes Brekke) in a restaurant and the latter relates the anecdote of a tribe in the Amazon rainforest known to cast a spell on those enroaching on their sacred land, leading to many unexplained disappearances and even deaths. Her own illness from which she has recuperated gets intrinsically linked with her research on the same tribe even though she is not physically at the location as other capitalist corporations and their representatives. Superstition or a concentrated belief in the unknowable is of primary interest in this particular conversation. Weerasethakul scores by not revealing the exact nature of her illness or her professional background, choosing to foreground the folkloric tone, mythic aura around this native tale.

Secondly, her chance meeting with a doctor( Jeanne Balibar) at the hospital where her sister was admitted previously leads her to the world of anthropology where centuries old fossils are exhumed and probed. Her interest in discovering these intricacies leads her further to a site in the hills where excavation work within a tunnel grips her attention. History and culture hence get coalesced. The past, in the form of myths and legends, subsume the mysteries of a skull in a researchers’ laboratory as well as her exchange with her sister. These two especially aid in foregrounding Jessica as charting an anthropological journey of her own, given she’s not a native of the place she’s in and that the instances heighten the enigma of her own exposure to a ‘boom’ and shrinking auditory effect she is exposed to recurringly. It never, however, becomes an obsession as the present situation occupies her. Again, the lack of a personal background to Jessica becomes intriguing. The timeline here is the immediate present. Ditto that one stirring interaction with a doctor ( Constanza Gutierrez) who references Salvador Dali while delving into the possible causes of Jessica’s disorientation and insomnia.

There is empathy, a natural rhythm and tender concern to the dialogues in this screenplay, extending to Jessica’s meeting with the young sound engineer Hernan(Juan Pablo Urrego) who exposes her to multiple variations of the possible ‘sound’ she’s been rattled by. This scene is a clear standout in the way it is structured, with trickles of tension and discovery for our protagonist.

The world of sounds and sights dominates this narrative but never in the conventional dramatic capacity. Note the use of poetry in two scenes and how music enlivens the proceedings in two other instances.  Its realism is in how beautifully those cadences are captured with the use of natural sound and cinematography. That way, the psychological mysticism of the final half captures our attention like none other. Trauma of a local and an universal nature unfold in the words said and more so felt there.

***

Jessica’s meeting with a man also named Hernan( Elkin Diaz) in the countryside creates the most striking impact for any cinephile. The anthropological odyssey on her part intertwines with his salt of the earth musings on the way he has lived and views the world. The verdure around them, the calmness of nature enveloping them as if in a mutual embrace, fuses the physical reality of their human interaction and humble surroundings with a more metaphysical realm. It’s as if a source of telepathy made them come face to face. It also ties in with how the younger Hernan seems to be found nowhere or isn’t known by anyone around the studio where Jessica visited him. Diaz occupies the maximum running time in MEMORIA and his performance is on another level. Watch as he goes into a state of deep sleep, with his eyes open, as if in a deathly grip or trance for many unbroken minutes. This scene and the abstract nature of the final half run parallel with my viewing of Dea Kulumbegashvili’s BEGINNING and Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ THE ORNITHOLOGIST in the last few days. Which  is why cinephiles need to delve deep into these experiences that commerce-driven cinema can hardly offer to us.

This meeting of two seemingly unknown individuals and the imaginative prowess invested in that mystery, culminating with a spacecraft’s flight from an open space among the wilderness, and the panorama of the landscape and monsoon clouds, make MEMORIA a complex but reflective piece on the way fragments become whole or rudimentary in the telling of tales. The final half psychologically may unnerve and dismantle the stable structure of the film’s many interactions grounded in facts and realism. To me, they added to the element of mystery that began with the ‘sound’.



There’s a point among the final images in which a figure in silhouette, possibly Jessica, is writing while the hilly countryside can be seen from her window. Maybe, MEMORIA is a culmination of her unfinished novel where the real and the metaphysical plane of thoughts coalesce. It’s not about horror, fantasy or plain boxes of genre. It’s about the many unpredictable contours of our imagination. But for me, the humanity of this work arises out of its many interactions and spatial frontiers.



***

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022)

This is my first foray into discovering David Cronenberg’s cinematic provocations. To me, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE is about ethical dilemmas that have always been the science fiction genre’s propulsive mainstay, whether in text or visual on-screen imagery.

As far as the word ‘provocation’ goes, Cronenberg’s input here doesn’t rely exclusively on gratituous body horror tropes. It is tempered with the way our current fixation with technology and its prophetic prognosis for coming eras dictates our human discourse in the here and now. Be it A.I., sophisticated laser surgery skills, plastic surgery as a veritable empire of anatomical metamorphosis or even the prevalence of our visual crudity, equating misshapen bodies with public spectacles being transmitted from screen to screen in rapid succession. So CRIMES OF THE FUTURE has its blueprint in the here and now and predicates its compelling ideas around a world without pain, where organ donation takes on a transactional value while art becomes, as usual, a means of reaching out. Performance art is of particular sinuous and sinister quality in Cronenberg’s vision.



So the socio-cultural commentary is about a future that takes its vital clues from the present epoch of registering everything in terms of overexposure, be it scientific, quasi-logical concepts, mysteries of the mind or the body as a site of destruction and deconstruction.

I also felt that an appropriate amount of detachment was maintained as regards a cultural understanding where the absence of physical pain and voiding the inner core of compassion generated a clique-like mentality. Grubby sets, unflattering bodies and the erotic underpinning to every surgical act committed to weed out extraneous elements within the anatomy posits a humanity where intimate relations have ceased and a default mode of platonic cohabitation pervades.

***
This allegory is complemented by performances that have an icy, detached, clinical sense of things that have been normalized in our own apathetic state. Except for the strange sense of Kristen Stewart’s accent and mannerisms suggesting a Spencer hangover.




But the poignant ramifications of a child’s death makes way for a father’s turmoil, a powerful climactic performance art  where a surgeon’s inner maternal instincts come to the fore while toxic waste is shown to be ingested morally and literally by a populace trading death for constant reinvention. All under the spotlight of high-end technological gimmicks.

Hence, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE is gripping on all these counts. It’s the imagery and its import that is chillingly true the more you think about it, let it linger in your minds.

*****

HAPPY 75TH INDEPENDENCE DAY

This sketch, featuring the outlines of colossal national figures Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, is courtesy famed painter Jamini Roy. I use this to illustrate what true independence means to me, on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.

Let our independence be about creatively overflowing with ideas and selflessness for the present.

*****

WALKER-WANDERER

The world is a cruel place.
For him,
it was a matter of time
before his flight from
the godown
gave him freedom
at land’s end.
Half-grown grass,
clouds of foam on the river,
fireflies in suspended motion
telling him he could live here,
just live
but had to scavenge
among these litters
or eat raw fish
caught straight from the water.

He could cook them,
only if he
found enough fire
to last through tentative,
sundry nights.

This was a less cruel
part of  coming of age
and the scenery of the old,
storied school
was History and Time
in a nutshell for him.
It was open land
where five men came
to clean the river,
bathing, sleeping, washing
their marks of the day.
They lived here till sunset
allowed them to embrace
their damp skins,
soap each others’ bodies
and walk upland among
shingles,
low-lying trees
and bushes
to scan this horizon
as if for an unconscious vigil
before night entered
with the blue-painted
cargo trains on the sturdy bridge
and silence fell upon this piece
of rough and tumble land
like organs piping before Mass.

***

Walker-Wanderer
keeps his distance,
knowing wolves in the shape
of men
looking for young boys like him
at barren spots like these.
He hides
within the thin cluster of trees
that make a mini-forest
beyond these municipal limits.
It is the city still
and yet
so far from
man-made impositions.

Land’s end is a little like him.
Free
Naturally beautiful
and safe from crowds.

***

Walker-Wanderer
is lucky
to have darkness
as an enigma
as he moves about free,
unclothed
over shingles,
minor elevations
and goes into the river
to know what water
does to unburden
melancholy in those stark hours
where the body becomes
a resting place,
a parchment without words or thoughts.
Walker-Wanderer
takes these occasions
to lay on an elevated part
by the same river,
face down
as the moon glides like soft fingertips
over a body without a home
or burden,
a body without fear of immodesty
or exposure to the elements.

***

Walker-Wanderer,
there’s a rustle now
behind the bushes,
a medium form spying you
and your beautiful body.

His two fingers
are making shapes in the air
or is he
attempting furtive contact?
There’s just two of you
clothed by night chimes
and batters of desire
to know each other,
not too hard to discern.
These rocks have both your spots,
in this trough for contented loners,
in the middle of nowhere.

He is not a ghost’s form
because he is approaching you,
lucid and discernible,
not coming out of prolonged
shadows,
or a fog of hallucinatory
midnight dreaming,
in these intervening hours.

He stands now,
facing you
yet you don’t move
an inch.
You stay resting on your spot
by the river,
intent on not stirring
until this human contact
jumps out of its
figments
to become real.

Is his form
that of an intruding stranger?
Is he
fear
or horror’s figments
amassing its own body?
Is he a harbinger
of affection, love
even friendship
or a desire
kept half-lit,
half-burning
in isolation
where men can hold
each other,
either to smother affection’s
true rite of passage
or give in,
truthfully,
without violence and harm,
to something
approaching a recognised
common ground,
for laying next to each other
in peace and silence?

****

Don’t resist
Don’t revolt
when the body
moves in the direction
of water,
water that absolves.
Sleep side by side,
touch each others’ fingertips
and go face down
in the simplest gesture of repose
on the grass-covered mound
just above these smaller shingles.
Sleep like two
long-lost spirits
now finding their spot here,
without violence and harm,
back to approaching
a recognised common ground.

Then move about
together,
one after the other
or alone
over the cushioned grassland
when monsoons
take subdued charge
and the river’s foaming clouds
overflow beyond irrigation tunnels,
leaving behind a water body
where you see your faces
for the first time
in an image away
from mere suffering.

Become nature
till the green
colours this unity
among only two.

Let them see you both
as cowherds,
rag-pickers
or naked walker-wanderers.

I see you both
as a world away
from ghosts
that line
abandoned solitary tracts
beyond these municipal limits.

That should suffice,
for now.

***

JUNGLE SPIRITS, RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS, RIVERS OF GRIEF .

THE ORNITHOLOGIST(2016)

Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ 2016 feature is essentially about the titular bird watcher’s innate connect with nature, a fearlessly innocent bond with an unspoilt, beautiful expanse of land, complete with its flora and fauna, that makes for an observant, enchanting and close to documentary realism.

This bond suffers a cleave as an accident within this reserve of natural landscape renders him unconscious. As he wakes up and is aided by human support, the innocence, piety of this space comes under the spell of a fervour for faith, fraudulent and hypocritical as it is, from his fellow mortals, numbered and isolated as they are. Visual motifs in THE ORNITHOLOGIST too mimic this progression. Human arrival has a way of encroaching on and tending to conquer nature’s truthful unraveling in itself. That is the way events, episodic in their placement here, unravel as solitude and contentment sought among birds and the scenery for Fernando eventually make way for the stone cold impositions of uncivilized human nature.

It’s in how the two pseudo-religious girls who revive him end up tying him with ropes and plotting sinister outcomes, in how the seemingly innocent shepherd by the name of Jesus turns out to be a grifter of sorts while three enigmatic hunter women and the ominous presence of men in costumes who stoke danger with their nocturnal rituals involving fire blend in the absurdity and apprehensive veracity of this extraordinary jungle odyssey. Man is the ultimate beast and the subtlety of that realisation is contained within the screenplay. Fernando is the observer, walker- wanderer and only source of sanity in this saga where myths transmute to surrealism while the bounds of mental receptions buoyed by isolation take an unpredictable turn in the final half.




A forested area positioned with lifelike replicas of wild animals, a derelict villa or church with biblical imagery in terms of sculptures, a tunnel from where the protagonist passes through and a dove whose point of view looks at the protagonist in the image of another man are just some of the other standouts here.

In my opinion, that passage through the tunnel, the tense musical cue and use of light are all in the service of a horror that pitches the ornithologist as a discoverer slowly unraveling. Post this ominous, portentous reckoning in the dark, barriers of life and death, fantasy and lucidity, even pure reason  become opaque and a lot less interesting in the final stretch. But until then, there’s a beauty in the journey of survival undertaken here, an effusion of the senses in more instances than few while the contours of becoming a literal ghost when far from civilization, in the lap of nature, is quietly propelled without sensationalism. Paul Hamy as Fernando is a vessel imbibing his surroundings and he succeeds in this elemental, naturalistic, sensual manner befitting the spirit of exploration, warts and all.



****

IRMA VEP(1996)

All the cinematic works constituting this essay have a direct relationship with the spaces that individuals occupy and are defined by. Each instance is different and unique.

In Olivier Assayas’ IRMA VEP, the film within a film trope presents a fly on the wall or direct distillation of those basic structures that go into the making of cinema itself. So the film set is a mental and interpersonal space. It’s often one that alienates the lead protagonist of the film not just because she’s an Asian megastar thrust into the world of French cinema’s iconic trappings and stilted translation. Maggie Cheung plays her naturally and without guiles or expectations. She plays herself so that’s another block of ego that is broken as far as on-screen interpretations go.

She is the lead here but is mostly peripheral to the people involved in production duties except as the unusual casting choice rather than as the international figure straddling global sensibilities. Given the expert staging in this film within a film conceit, she is a work in progress to these native creative souls. An individual performer who disarms and instantly charms with her humility, her willingness to let go of luxuries and be at ease with the people around her, whether she’s taking a subway or cab ride with them en route to her hotel.  Seen objectively, the shooting schedules and cast of characters across the board on IRMA VEP are frantic at their worst and begrudgingly sincere at best.



Monsieur Assayas shoots his film in unbroken takes where each interaction makes sense. It is almost like a documentary. In a way, Maggie is the unlikely star portraying a character who is quintessentially French especially given Irma Vep’s almost century old positioning as a pop culture phenomenon. Then there’s the affixation of art and commerce, the fact that arthouse ideals have to be mired with the concept of pulling in more mainstream audiences. The social and cultural expectations put her not as a direct casualty of the director’s choice but as someone who gives in the hours and is then booted out of the production at the last minute owing to the ethnic and national barriers some intellectuals say she poses to the authenticity of Irma Vep.

I loved Cheung here just as much as in Wong Kar Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE which I enjoyed watching just a few months ago. A great scene is where she employs the method acting mechanics to sink deeper into the latex clad anti-heroine and negotiates the space around her hotel, to ultimately give in to her impulses and be drenched in rain, on the balcony. She is tired and has overslept the next morning. Her disorientation is felt by us as the director who hired her quits, the production is stalled and she eventually gets a ticket to fly back to Hong Kong.  It’s a heartbreaking scenario.

But Assayas gives IRMA VEP a feel, an orientation of authenticity where a film set functions not as a bastion of creativity and art per se but is overruled by clashing egos, unrequited desires, jealousies and petty rivalries. It’s mostly affable even with the simmers of negative energy felt throughout.  The casualty then is the outsider who is desired, condescended to one moment as an exotic wunderkind and is made the ‘other’ just as easily. Talent goes out of the frame. That way, the cultural commentary is subtle and runs deep. In a world of consumption, we are all dispensible, even the most celebrated icons. IRMA VEP gives us that strong understanding.



***

BEGINNING (2020)

Cinema is a psychological space. A space where unresolved emotions and traumas find a canvas to be represented implicitly or with sordid details, all to crack open the shells which affect our collective unwillingness to engage with the ‘truth’. If this statement makes a strong indication for why we cinephiles hold on to hope for cinema with each new affecting work of art that skews closest to our living truth,  BEGINNING is a concrete example.

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s drama set in her native Georgian hometown is a study of life-long grief and resignation that festers like an untended wound, to then get internalised with any hue of trauma that we have been holding close to our experiences.





This is again a work that is pitched, and powerfully so, at the intersection between mental and locational spaces. The supposed lethargy of its pacing and unbroken long takes all help its framing of a trauma that is often unseen and unexpected. We are able to be drowned in the unraveling of its protagonist as she grapples with a savage attack at the church she presides over, motivated by an opposition to her faith. She gets away unscathed there. The war at home, with an overbearing other half who doesn’t give her individual space to be herself and constantly tries to overplay his own role as a man of faith, social relevance and her rescuer of sorts from her former life as a struggling actress, makes her go under.

The lion’s share of her unraveling creeps in our skins and cores as physical violation by a stranger possibly masquerading as a policeman investigating the hate crime at the church guarantees an implosion. The trauma cannot be expressed openly or shared, be it with the men in her life or even her own mother who is burdened by the failure of having another younger daughter lose her education and future prospects to pregnancy. Each life is marked by a burden, colossal and soul-sapping. Corrupt officials who already have not acted upon the violence at the church cannot be an alternative either. One among them, possibly, now is a serial offender, having done the deed twice.

BEGINNING is a study of that implosion where faith, society and family close in on you from all sides. The vastness of nature then too imprisons further. Watch this one to be haunted forever by the imagery of purple flowers and rocks by a river where a child is seen and then the space becomes the site for a sexual assault. Or that eight minute scene where our beleaguered protagonist rests her head on Mother Earth and goes into a deep meditative state, a trance that’s at once akin to a peaceful death and an extended moment to unburden her grief and trauma.


Violence is borne by human nature. The spaces in and around home constructs a study of mental implosion here, made more stark by their juxtapositions with the natural landscape. There is children’s laughter in this scenario and communal gatherings. But the individual soul is singed. A leftover in a society where pain is too costly a commodity for the patriarchy. That’s why it haunts us.

*****

LIFE IS A MICROCOSM OF OUR EXPERIENCES.

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS(2020)



Eliza Hittman had already secured a place as a keen observer of the internal worlds of adolescence and young adulthood with her first feature. That was 2017’s no-nonsense BEACH RATS, a work of acute observation, probing the behavioural downsides of working class homes, the teenagers who occupied a hyper-sexualized culture and were often rightfully adrift in finding their identities. Harris Dickinson’s growing pains and sensitively etched dilemmas about navigating the mirror house of sexuality as its protagonist was refreshingly unsentimental and piercingly aching. BEACH RATS hence was what ‘coming of age’ actually means devoid of sanitized plots and overwhelmingly emotional stakes. One individual life was the focus and ended up becoming a mirror for countless others, tipping its scales between apathy and empathy with its implosive tension.




It’s no surprise that Hittman follows that up with another individual odyssey on the part of a teenager, this time a young girl from small town Pennsylvania who leaves her already scattered and apathetic home for New York City. Her mission at hand is deeply personal. Actually, it’s a pursuit, a point of self-discovery that will determine her choice regarding her body. It’s the autonomy to decide for herself as nobody else would probably intervene at this hour of crisis for her, on her behalf. Like her previous feature, Hittman gives her protagonist the agency to decide and take a stand without any grandstanding conflicts from others or society at large. The microcosm of her world is directed at individual choices, capturing teenagers at a tender point where they cannot remain children nor can they fully become adults. The world around them has already made them renounce their adolescence by dint of a predominance of sexuality that bears little nuance or complexity regarding consent. Hittman makes NEVER RARELY… a different kind of vehicle for steering the conversation towards this personal choice for a young girl, looking for abortion after an unwanted and unexpected pregnancy.

****


Living in a world of apathetic men, the details of her constricted social radius are conveyed in subtle moments. Like when she sings at her school function and a boy disrupts her performance and then makes her uncomfortable at the restaurant with the same casually sarcastic, indifferent expression. The workplace is no different where she and her genuinely caring and naturally affable cousin are sexually harassed by their employer. Or dynamics of her home life can be taken as the strongest example where two younger siblings have diverted her mother’s attention from her completely while her male partner is dismissive of the teenager, the oldest girl in the family. So she has learned the ropes of living with a void within her. She clearly understands she cannot share her experiences with anyone. Her cousin’s support then is without employing falsified words and more of an extension of sharing her gender and all the components that come naturally to them both. She is the unassuming moral support during the course of this journey to the big city.

I truly appreciate the manner in which it is not so much about the reactions here as it is centred on dealing with a life-changing possibility. The interactions with officials and doctors at clinics have an almost documentary appeal because they need to be about dealing with a situation that is implosive and wrenching to millions of women and young girls. Being forced into a point of physical transformation and mental investment by oftentimes degradation, zero consent and other forms of sexual abuse makes this case for ‘choice’ paramount.

The screenplay is filled with moments of navigation within an alien space, that is New York City, as also an universal reckoning with being women in a big, bad world. Instances of being flashed in the subway, pursued without reciprocation by a fellow bus traveller all constitute the fabric of how both young girls feel and view a culture that only looks at them as sexualized beings and precious else. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder lend utmost respect, credibility to its overall temper of negotiating with individual choices and faint hope here. There is a tender moment where interlocking fingers becomes a single act of acknowledgement as each other’s only source of support. Of course, the scene which illuminates the film’s title within the confines of an abortion clinic packs in the background, present state of mind and universal struggles invested for the protagonist. Hittman approaches her individual arc to bring to the spotlight every other case along similar lines.



In an era where the overturning of Roe v/s Wade has created ripple effects, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS came to my mind as an example to uphold the value of choice in our sexist and ethically manipulative society. I’m grateful to have watched it. It’s deeply personal, stripping away the aura of shame, prejudice or judgement about a pressing issue without discounting the buried core of trauma or the camaraderie that makes its composite whole so powerfully unforgettable.



Finally, I cannot finish this off without holding the merits of its sound design and cinematography in high regard. These technical aspects are so naturalistic that a subway ride or a check up at the clinic and even the beeping of the monitor moments before ‘the procedure’ here let us be emotionally and mentally invested, not just as viewers but empathetic individuals.

Another haunting image shot from a distance, from the other side of the road, is that of a demonstration by religious groups which the cousin is privy to. We don’t know if it is outside the abortion clinic or just another act of countering status quo through faith and its fiats but that framed glass portrait of Virgin Mary in the centre and the crowd of people sure captures the essence of what has been primarily responsible for overturning Roe v/s Wade currently.



***

BHUVAN SHOME(1969)



I had watched the first twenty minutes or so of this refreshingly tasteful classic twice in the past. Due to paucity of time, I was unable to watch any further. That was rectified few days earlier when Mrinal Sen’s bitingly funny, observational and technically innovative BHUVAN SHOME made its way to MUBI and I divided watching the two halves over two days. That it is freely accessible on YouTube makes it all the more special for any cinephile.

K.K. Mahajan’s naturalistic cinematography here has an unique disposition towards unraveling the protagonist’s personal temperament and journey along with capturing the natural beauty of rural, seaside Gujarat complete with its stark dunes, village huts devoid of ornamentation, bullock cart rides and of course the birds who come to fascinate our often misunderstood middle-aged leading man. In this location, he is akin to a clean slate, beginning anew and afresh, away from his reserved, fearful and caustic personality in the eyes of others, as a railway officer with impeccable character and zero tolerance for corruption or bureaucratic laxity of any kind . He is a tourist, wanderer, unlikely hunter and absorber of people and places.

Mahajan’s camerawork always becomes interiorised with the characterisation in each New Wave classic he contributed his artistic credits to. BHUVAN SHOME, along with Mani Kaul’s USKI ROTI/ OUR DAILY BREAD, shares his black and white cinematography, the same year of release as also the betokened distinction of heralding India’s much-cherished Parallel Cinema omnibus. I’m so lucky to now be a part of this cinephilic history as viewer and writer.



BHUVAN SHOME is a fascinating character study of one man( the always great Utpal Dutt). He is a Government Man. An Everyman. An Ordinary Man. His predilection for following rules and the credo of honesty is legendary, inviting much ridicule and derision from the famously corrupt government apparatus but never inviting a volte-face or justification on his own part. This constant hankering and attempting to curry favour with him has obviously made him irritable, sharp-tongued and edgy. Almost distant as he seems to be the only odd one out in this sea of compromises and under the table negotiations. One of my close relatives once told me that government jobs have a way of sucking the life and youthful vigour out of men so much so that they seem to prematurely age. Bhuvan Shome is a good way of justifying that observation.

However, instead of dwelling on his moral infallibility as a straight jacket, Mrinal Sen, one of the few original auteurs, makes it a comic blast. He utilises animation, Amitabh Bachchan’s famous baritone, freeze frames, asides (ala what we only seem to know from FLEABAG) and zooms to inject a lively character to the proceedings. He succeeds handsomely owing to the economy of his execution and the right composite of emotions and reactions. The funniest bits revolve around Shome’s cart ride, his flight from a raging bull and his bemused tempers at watching a village girl ride atop the same bull, now restrained by her, like a veritable princess of this sanctuary. The humour hence is observational, never intended to be here for the sake of it.



Bhuvan Shome takes on a colour of empathy, interpersonal charm when the same young village girl( a young and eternally delightful Suhasini Mulay) opens up her simple world of gratitude, love for birds and animals and plays host for the senior figure she has encountered in her village. She is educated, can restrain bulls, hunt and be a practical voice of reason. Shome’s natural paternal core makes him feel content in her innocent company. Essentially, given his honest stature unsullied by corruption or wheeling-dealings, he is just as innocent as the teenager. In her, he finds a daughter figure he never had. Her care, banter and one on one talks with him over the course of a single day gives this simple screenplay a glow of camaraderie that’s truly earned. The quirks remain such as when he discovers the photograph of the young man he has suspended at work in the room, implying he is the girl’s better half and especially when he has to assume the position of a tree to catch a bird in sight.

He doesn’t end up shooting the bird, the lovely young girl gets to look after it and, in turn, leads him to mellow down and not be so stringent in life at all times.

Cue the use of a classical vocal with the shot of the railway tracks, the use of the camera within a freeze frame to suggest the girl riding a swing and the beautiful symmetry of birds in the sky.

BHUVAN SHOME is an unusually light-hearted ode to self-discovery. I recommend you watch it for the execution, photography, excellent performances by the leading duo and its impressive editing choices, always in consonance with the speed and rhythm of personal exploration for Mr. Shome.

***

REQUIEM FOR LOST CHILDHOODS, WORLD ORDERS AND TESTAMENT OF SHEER POETIC IMAGERY.

THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES(1969)

Being in thrall of Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul’s excellent reinvention of the documentary form in such works as KHAYAL GATHA, MAATI MAANAS, DHRUPAD and SIDDHESHWARI etched the way for me to appreciate Sergei Parajanov’s visual tableaux form in THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES. Mr. Shahani has obviously watched Sarajanov’s oeuvre as his testimonials will show.

For me, as a cinephile in constant search of the most unusual idioms and styles of presentation, this European masterpiece unveiled a flux of such richly original imagery, I felt joy and utter enchantment by it.

Taking as its spiritual cue the life and works of poet Sayat Nova, THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES stages, in the most intimate and mystical manner, a whole series of painterly images that are static yet never mundane, in movement yet blessed with the dignity of gestural and expressive dynamism . His eschewing of a conventional narrative is also a springboard for him to utilise secular components, cultural aspects particular and universal especially objects, costumes and settings and at the same time the space and time continuum of theatre. Puppetry, mime and folklores become essential ingredients in this compact mix.  For me, its best passages deal with the idea of peace and war, life and death, a world of lush human accoutrements offset by spare monastic livelihood.





Among some of my favourite images are of the fabrics and their colours being unforgettably received by the viewing eye, the reenactment or should I say encapsulations of Sayat Nova’s texts through intricately performed tableaus by a single actor in various avatars( Sofiko Chiaureli), eschewing gender conformities and roles, the almost biblical import of him as an adult surrounded by lambs and his final passage from mortal life to the other realm signalled by the same gestural and expressive dynamism that defines this screen treatment.

These are just a few among the whole of this extraordinary work of sensual reckoning. It’s spiritually uplifting, recreating the origins of cinematic vocabulary through its non-verbal cues and intertitles, and bears a special place for cinephiles owing to its impeccable restoration by Martin Scorsese fronted World Cinema Project.

There’s something rarified about the purity of viewing human bodies and actions, in a visual form where they are absolutely separated from the psychological and physical pressures of ‘presenting’ themselves as would be fit for audiences. This work captures them with patience, an eye for foregrounding details within each frame and places them in locations where the artifice of carefully coordinated movements get transmuted in the service of sheer poetry. Poetry was Sayat Nova’s calling and spiritual forebear. It is the hallmark here. How lucky am I indeed to have received its polished, transcendental treasures.

THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES has exclusively been released on MUBI so I urge all cinephiles to watch it.





*****

A PRIVATE WAR(2018)

Matthew Heineman’s A PRIVATE WAR  sets the stakes for a life-script shrouded by the very visible fear of death. Marie Colvin, intrepid reporter and fearless war correspondent, pierces our expectant gaze by observing, writing and genuinely upholding the ideal of telling people’s stories within those rings of fire. She pierces through the defensive walls of fear to believe in her job’s integrity. As played by Rosamund Pike, Ms. Colvin’s posthumous reckoning in our public sphere recognises that it’s not gender or the fear of death that defined her. It was her zeal to go where very few would.  Martha Gellhorn and our very own Barkha Dutt join her ranks as bravehearts who went within the maelstrom of man-made conflicts and covered the devastation even as bombs went off and the very real infernal haze of their surroundings captured the flipside of peacetime and political wrangling.

A PRIVATE WAR puts us at the very heart of these situations. For Ms. Colvin, it’s never a mad zeal to pursue a story. It’s to put a human face to tragedies the general public is spared of. She wants us to know that there is a domino effect of each life lost and each city razed to the ground. War is a global catostrophe.






Clad in an eye patch( with her eye injury sustained during a dangerous stint in Sri Lanka’s civil war years) and with sometimes wobbly steps, her haunting mental worldview and vulnerability is genuinely upheld here, particularly in a scene in the rehab where she pours her heart out to her long-time associate Paul(Jamie Dornan)

We are jolted by her experiences and observations throughout. Yet the final stretch of this screen treatment manages to capture the essence of not just her unwavering spirit, of transmitting the human cost of war from one of the world’s most treacherous locations but how death is literally knocking at the front-steps for her and her colleagues. It’s poignant, wrenching and utterly realistic. The dust and annihilation of a civilization then grips us beyond the tick, tick, boom sense of Colvin’s lifetime being recounted from the final tryst in Syria, in flashback.

****

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE(2017)

Lynne Ramsay’s gripping screenplay for YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is essentially a requiem for lost childhoods and fragmentary lifetimes/livelihoods.

The imagery here is such that the nature of the protagonist’s burning soul, adjunct with his covert job as an agent of justice frequently rescuing abducted girls from the sordid underbelly of human trafficking, delivers an emotional wallop. The screenplay is spare, minimalistic and instead of employing ready reckoners of gore and thwack of slick action, enters the psychology of Joaquin Phoenix’s man on a mission.

His lovely bond with an ageing mother is on a collision course with the tumult of having served in the army possibly during the Iraq or Afghanistan stints. That recurring image of a young girl’s body in her dying moments is like a rattle through his own physical being that never lets him forget the humanity of his station or of innocence lost. The sound design and ominous staging juxtaposes these with recollections of  his own childhood where domestic violence was rampant at home.




Hence, the imagery here blends those two strands- of his professional self and the internal world of a seemingly tough man out to save a senator’s daughter from the clutches of trafficking.

Among the images that stayed with me, few are as follows.
The senator and a governer running for higher office are put in the same frame. Their expressions meld to show that both have equal responsibility for the young girl’s fate. The protagonist clicks photographs for a group of young girls together. Then the teary-eyed face of one of the girls and the intensity of Phoenix’s look intimate us that she is one of the many he has rescued. A woman with bruises on her face stands next to Phoenix on a railway platform. The ubiquity of violence of varying degrees against women gets under our skin. The only difference being that publicly he cannot do anything for an absolute stranger. Or the infantile, asinine song playing at the private house holding the girl, intimating us of visible ways in which sexism operates at a basic level.

The most haunting passages are where he gives his murdered mother a watery burial, almost drowns himself with her body and at the last minute lets go of the stones in his pockets and comes up to the surface. A distinctly Virginia Woolf- like melancholy motif colours this part. Then towards the end, upon discovering the abuser’s throat has already been slit by the young girl he must rescue, he breaks down, to be comforted by the one abused. Her loss of innocence and his paternal core become one to inform that emotional breakdown.

Which brings the realisation that we may all attempt to be catchers in the rye, doing our best for safeguarding children and women, but our conscience is forever haunted upon discovering an evil culture that scandalizes and sexualizes the youngest among us, preying on their vulnerability. This core of vulnerability sets Phoenix’s seemingly average Joe apart from other wooden avengers.  Jonny Greenwood’s music heightens the palpable sense of tension here.

***

MYSTERIOUS SKIN(2004)



All that I’ve covered in my preceding reflections amply sum up the overall tempers of Gregg Araki’s unflinchingly honest look at sexual abuse, meted out to two boys when they are not even ten years of age.  Their experiences scandalize and alienate them at the same time. The recourse for recovery is wildly different for both. Trauma’s lifelong edges cut their minds and souls as also the promise of youth.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN is a particular tale about their experiences but is a cautionary tale and wake up call designed for absent parental figures as also for those who think that abuse  exclusively entails a site for exploitation of women and girls.

I was warmed by its honesty, bonds of affinity in the aftermath of life-changing arcs and performative aptitude. Rare is a work of cinematic art that raises its head above cliches and unevenly handled points of earnestness. MYSTERIOUS SKIN is a rare, poignant rejoinder to conservative scenarios as it recognises the very human cost of abuse without drowning itself in a cynical base. Sentimental outcomes are not where it arrives at. It haunts us, leaves us looking for signs and probing our own experiences to know what distinguishes the appropriate from the opposite.



***

EMBERS OF DESIRE, INNOCENCE RECLAIMED AND BONDS OF TENACITY.

Thoughts in verse on the visual imagery and storytelling arcs of some gifted works I have recently had the privilege to watch, in the given order except AN UNFINISHED LIFE, one among my very favourites I have cherished for many years.

***



PETITE MAMAN(2021)

Amber and maple shades
are like us,
twines of emotions
overcoming grief.

At the eleventh hour,
childhood’s miracle
reenacts the lost passages
of two lives
now divided by
an often salient bond.
How about we resurrect
our shared innocence
as mother and daughter
in the image of best friends?

How about I be the ghost writer
of this fable
and make you return
without a heavy heart
and take away
this token
of an unattainable timeline
that we can claim
as our eternal truth?

We were friends.
We only have to remember that
for all days to come.

AN UNFINISHED LIFE(2005)

Sprawling acres
Wooden hearts
Limp souls
and frayed ties.

A child redeems them,
unties the chains around our bodies
and the raving madness of
promises we make to each other
when hit by an undetected enemy.

Grief and longing are spread out
unevenly on human acres.
A little kindling can do so much
as to restore the balance of
failed words
and warm resolves.

It will lead to the spot before
spring
and the melting of hearts.



****



PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE(2019)

At first,
it was a smudge on the canvas.

The waves by the shore
lapping up our tentative first steps.
Candlelight
playing with shadows of a desire,
to be with a known figure
of reason,
rationale,
amity.
Amour.

Then the fire came,
the inseparable
thrust of this world came,
to tell us art was more than
a face preserved in time.
It was a legend we
preserved
for our
ineffable bond.

Now the canvas
is ours.
To bask in the glory
of what we had.
The glory of an union.
A communion.
A credence only we can share.

BENEDETTA(2021)

Blasphemy
is mine.

The miracle of
my flesh and blood
is mine.

My love is kind,
uproarious
and unsettling.

My prophecies
far from deliverance
and yet
apart,
spitting fire on vengeful
ires
and hypocrisies’ belaboured
edge.

Take me as I am.
Deliver me from the evil
that so easily disguises itself.
For we are who we are.
I
among the outcasts
who once received favour.

LIZZIE(2018)

Dreadful evenings set in
with a wilful calm.
Dry blood’s splotches
on the walls
set us apart.

Shush the striking of the midnight hour.
It is a dreadful time
to recall
the outrages
that we were subject to.
The doors that were held ajar
and the hands
that crept up on
hidden parts of our
still pristine souls.

Now the blood is on your hands.
The burden of a crime
on the poisoned chalice
that all drink from
before leaving us
with survivors’ modesty.



FAR FROM HEAVEN(2002)

Paradise had been lost
long before a scarlet scarf
drifted away
from suburbia
and made the last train’s departure
less furtive
and more prone to
leaving a lump
bigger than
the ideas we hold dear
before we see them
bite the dust.

Paradise was here
and the long
cascade of torments
and desires,
flowing along
these residual embankments,
stay.

The moral of the story
sways
and loiters.
The superficial truth
cloisters.
A woman’s work left as a remnant
by a depleting lake.



***

I also switch to the prose form to write briefly about two new releases on a prominent streaming platform that I watched on successive Saturdays.

HALFTIME (2022)

This documentary on a year and a half in the life of multitasking superstar Jennifer Lopez hugely receives its badge of merit from the pithy format. That period from 2019 to pre-pandemic months of 2020 covers the whole gamut of her various artistic triumphs without losing its focus on the physical toil that is a natural corollary as well as her personal investment in the Super Bowl performance that spoke directly to immigrants worldwide.

There are other inescapable elements central to her image such as her body type, appearance, identity as one of the most influential Latinas in the world as also aspersions cast on her singing and acting career, doubts she has slayed with each turn. The ugly spite of ageism too joins the conversation as her 50th birthday becomes a none too invisible yet unobtrusive thread to her career defining turn in HUSTLERS and multiple award notice, including the scrambling and genuine road towards receiving an Oscar nomination.




Within the hour and forty minutes, we get a personable, candid portrait of the individual who has come to define her life choices and by extension a generation, in fact multiple generations, through them. HALFTIME gives her an exhale and holds her accountable for almost three decades of sheer hard work and breaking stereotypes. Watch it.

***

BEAUTY (2022)

From the trailer itself, it was evident this Netflix original feature was an unacknowledged, unofficial portrait of a singing superstar who we know as THE VOICE, also the figure behind the best-selling soundtrack of all time. You know who she is so there has to be no unnecessary room for speculation.

BEAUTY is more of an impressionistic portrait of the beginnings of that VOICE and treads the territory of expectations, familial strains and the first steps towards a glorious future.  It covers fairly humble grounds. Grounds where pressures of maintaining a facade are supreme while passive-aggressive manipulative levers pull and push the titular protagonist around a culture of opportunity.

Gracie Marie Bradley and Aleyse Shannon are almost identical to  singing superstar Whitney Houston and her best friend/ manager Robyn’s real-life tenacity as best friends and lovers. Over the last few years, two documentaries WHITNEY and WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME? have especially delved into that aspect so the repressed embers are no longer hidden.





Andrew Dosunmu, the director, gives his screenplay written by Lena Waithe, a swooning, jazzy pulse, a gestural articulation that never lets us hear the voice but rather observe the impressionistic stillness of this particular atmosphere. The central romance benefits from that approach. However, BEAUTY ultimately becomes an exercise in futility because the abrupt end-point comes with the protagonist’s first major television appearance. Hence, this could have benefited if the runtime was longer or if it was the fledgling first half of a miniseries.  The potential of it is undone by the one and a half hours of runtime along with the increasingly lethargic pace.
The internal worlds and motivations too become very single-minded. 

What I take away from this work are the scenes with Niecy Nash and Giancarlo Esposito as the parents, the two best friends and soulmates defying gender binaries especially with their artistic collaboration and Sharon Stone as the industry head.

There is a lot that could have been expanded with more effective stakes here. Unfortunately, BEAUTY ends up becoming a cipher even with the all-too recognisable back story of an absolute icon and its aesthetics.

***

TRISHNA/DESIRE

Take a closer look
from these wide open windows.
Never was it necessary
for only lust
to close its fists,
slither away
and lay inside
closed, darkened rooms.

Bonds can be multiple,
novel,
often so simple and lucid
that human maneuvers
and a whole life’s agonising weight
cannot bind them in knots.

Some knots have to be opened.
Some threads don’t have to
overlap or get entangled
with each other.
They remain liberated,
free from the necessity of dictated
experiences.

***

There is or isn’t every worldly desire
in us
but an internal echo
that we identify as our very own.
Those of us
who pay no obeisance
to pleasures of the flesh.

For we have taken
as our figurehead
a God
who is found
among the winds,
the birds,
the innocent cackle
of being children at heart.

Recognise us.


****

Turn towards us
and see.
Life wills itself
to move out of closed rooms
and shuttered windows,
to breathe free,
liberated
without holding us captive
to the surrender
of putting hands
on other bodies,
or making us
desirous of a heavy consequence.

Our souls
then
fly skyward,
like a boundless kite
against heavy currents
of the day and age.

Our souls fly
skyward,
onward,
desirous of nothing
and yet everything precious,
like a vagrant heart
true to itself.


***


This poem is an honest and humble attempt at personalising my existence as an asexual, aromantic individual within a world of binaries and hypersexual cultural totems. May all the ‘aces’ find representation in these words.