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

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.

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.

*****

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.

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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.



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