MUSICAL CADENCES AND CLASSIC FOOTPRINTS

CAN’T LET GO and SEARCHING FOR MY LOVE by ROBERT PLANT and ALISON KRAUSS.

Two immensely talented artists, veritable legends, make the purpose of these collaborations sweeter and instantly accessible.

A softness, rhythmic pulse dominate SEARCHING FOR MY LOVE and CAN’T LET GO respectively. I say it’s been a reward for me ever since I heard them at the very beginning of 2022. The same genial charm will be generated for discerning listeners.


MOHABBAT by AROOJ AFTAB.

A subcontinental artist who made waves by sticking to her mother tongue Urdu and reviving the essence of ghazals in pure earnestness, while based in Brooklyn, sure makes a positive case for global consciousness that breaks through language barriers.

Mohabbat by Arooj Aftab is a melodic delight, with the ripple of the guitars and her haunting vocals, making it a treasure. There’s a bittersweet trajectory here associated with love and its emotional pangs. It immerses us.

Three cheers also because her album VULTURE PRINCE is up for a Global Music Album Grammy while she has made it among the finalists for Best New Artist. Our fingers are crossed. It means so much when meaningful music is rendered in a language we grasp and is then taken to the world. Ms. Aftab has literally bridged borders in that sense.

BACKGROUND MUSIC by MAREN MORRIS.

Some of my favourite artists have a penchant for hardly compromising with their quality of music. Maren Morris falls in that prized niche.

BACKGROUND MUSIC is a mellow heartwarmer, full of empathy for the way success is ultimately fleeting and the real triumph is when our partners hold on to commitments made in the name of love and trust. I love that about it. Also the melody and Morris’ vocal ease is absolutely admirable and never divergent from each other.

KING by FLORENCE+THE MACHINE.

A slow burn is what KING finds Florence Welch and her excellent band providing us with. As also more than a share of honest truth. “I’m no mother/ I’m no bride/ I’m King”, these lines effectively tear down gender roles while probably playing with the skewed notion of a powerful, creative woman jostling for space in a man’s world in the titular refrain.

Then the simmer in the guitars and drums get more dominant and Florence lets her voice spread its range and layers. From a whisper to a full-throated display of freedom in confession, she wins us over.

*****



SUMMER OF SOUL(OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK.



A 50 year old concert film has been revived gloriously courtesy this classic Questlove documentary feature. It then makes the force of the music rescued contemporary and all-pervasive, in no small measure owing to the message of racial integrity involved in the performances.

So behold the electricity in Nina Simone’s rendition of a poem ARE YOU READY? or her dissection of race relations informing every aspect of day to day social and civic life in BACKLASH BLUES.

The Staples Singers then take the mantle on IT’S BEEN A CHANGE, putting up an united familial front with effortless charm. Mavis Staples further reaches up to heaven with none other than Mahalia Jackson on an improvised version of the gospel classic PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND. I’ve heard so many takes on this standard over the years, from the original version by Mahalia Jackson herself and then by the legendary Aretha Franklin. Thank God that I gave myself the chance to explore their music since the last many years; as listening to and viewing such an explosive live performance adds real grace to the overall experience. A true blue spiritual catharsis is occasioned by it.

I also loved the faster, funky version of the Marvin Gaye superhit I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE by none other than Gladys Knight and The Pips. It just makes your body respond in quick earnest.

Finally, I discovered the magic of THE 5TH DIMENSION for the first time as they gave the ballad AQUARIUS a real sheen while letting the spirit rise on LET THE SUNSHINE IN.

These are just a few among the overall wizardry on display in the film. So make an exception and listen to the original soundtrack of SUMMER OF SOUL. You will be instantly rewarded.

***

          HALL OF FAME


TAPESTRY by CAROLE KING.



2022 had been earmarked for TAPESTRY by CAROLE KING. I am lucky to hear all the songs, savour the album’s sheer simplicity of production, complete with pianos and guitars, and the innocence of the emotions involved along with the vocal performance. It is also structured in such a seamless way that the idea of cohesion fits the bill here as regards the tracks.

WAY OVER YONDER, SO FAR AWAY, IT’S TOO LATE, YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND ( a much loved tune covered innumerable times by other artists as Aretha Franklin and James Taylor), the original YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN, the title track and I FEEL THE EARTH MOVE all resonate with me.

Listeners, give this highly accomplished album a chance if you’ve not yet been exposed to its riches.


WHAT MATTERS MOST by BARBRA STREISAND.



In honour of Marilyn Bergman, one half of an iconic songwriting duo along with her better half Alan, I listened to WHAT MATTERS MOST for the first time, a Barbra Streisand staple that so far had eluded me. After all, the pair had given her such inestimable standards as THE WAY WE WERE and PAPA, CAN YOU HEAR ME? (off the Yentl OST), two of my all time favourites.

It’s just such a delicate, graceful, grateful tune, buoyed by the humility and practicality invested in the words.
As for Ms. Streisand, well, she can interpret human emotions like very few. She does the same here, with endless flair on this gem.

*****






MANDY by BARRY MANILOW.

Mandy has always been close to my heart courtesy its Westlife version where the Irish lads gave it such effusion. So for me, that is the gold standard. 

I was surprised hence as to how loyal it is to the Barry Manilow original, both in terms of the instrumentation and vocal finesse. Memorable fare in any iteration. Period.

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND by PETER, PAUL AND MARY.

The spirit of infusing new life to the classic songbook is present in this version of the original Bob Dylan poem, delivered by the trio whose gentle charm on LEMON TREE and IF I HAD A HAMMER reminds me of how music can forever retain its elemental purity. This one is no different.

WILDFLOWERS by TOM PETTY.

An acoustic guitar and Tom Petty’s voice are all it takes for WILDFLOWERS to make an impression. Its innocence is winsome.

THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK by SIMON AND GARFUNKEL.

This duo is etched in my hall of fame for such unforgettable tunes as MRS. ROBINSON, THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER. THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK was indeed ripe to be eventually discovered by me. I have been listening to it multiple times and its harmonies, melody and percussive quality are just so endearing. The communal refrain of ‘HERE I AM’ captures a chorus of male voices like none other, perfect in its union of vocal textures.

Also as it so happens with me, I found it accompanying a crucial montage in Ryan Murphy’s HBO film THE NORMAL HEART few weeks later.

YOU’RE SO VAIN by CARLY SIMON.

How can I not sing praises of this all-time classic tune that runs down on the art of snobbery and male privilege with such rich strokes and details? Listen to this Carly Simon tune to make it a favourite on your playlists.

KING OF SORROW by SADE.

This song’s title too, like Florence Welch’s latest single KING, to me, puts an independent woman’s trials and tribulations at the axis of a society governed by male dominant diktats.

KING OF SORROW, however, is a sureshot Sade yarn: smooth, linear in the vocals and putting restraint at the center of the Rhythm and Blues genre she excels in invigorating with her presence.

                ****

Halle Berry Is A Knockout In Her Directorial Debut

Netflix Halle Berry’s effortless craft and inimitable style of embodying the vagaries of life is admirable. Her predominant intersections of storytelling have been around race, sexuality and the power structures that sheer human determination can dismantle. Monster’s Ball, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Losing Isaiah, Their Eyes Watching God, Alex Haley’s Queen, Things We Lost in the […]

Halle Berry Is A Knockout In Her Directorial Debut

I am really grateful that my essay on Halle Berry’s impressive and emotionally rich directorial debut BRUISED has been published by SCREEN QUEENS.

COMPLEX BONDS PUT TO THE TEST

THE LAST DUEL(2021)

Ridley Scott’s latest feature stays true to his template of earnestly dealing with a period piece, this time  involving the politics of honour and its gender binaries.

THE LAST DUEL is a powerful work because it looks at timeless concerns regarding female autonomy in matters of the mind and body, with a passionate commitment to truth.

Over centuries, gender binaries have been reconstructed and redefined to come back to a place of instability again. This screenplay puts three people at the centre of a personal storm and gives them individual perspectives. It works because the disingenuity of the perpetrator is held transparently while the courage of the survivor to speak up and seek justice is absolutely riveting. It’s drawn from historical facts in medieval France.

This three act structure also gives it the urgency of how the case is approached by law, holding up a very contemporary mirror to politics of identity, shame and reason. Kudos to the principal cast, the staging of the conflict by reiterating key events and its Rashomon effect in coming to the bare truth.



One woman is opposed by law per se, is expected to keep an ordeal to herself even as her spouse is after his honour in the name of vindictive tempers and other women in her life offer her no empathy. It’s such a compelling film to let us know how humanity essentially doesn’t change in spirit over centuries.

Jodie Comer’s haunting central performance lasts till the very end even as a victory in the titular last duel marks her truth as one ‘divined by God’. The victory really isn’t hers when her spoken truth, communicated to others in earnest detail, means nothing as compared to a match of combat among two men. It never forgets how her honour is far from the truth of the matter, for a world blinded by patriarchy.

***

LUCY AND DESI(2022)

Nothing that any pop culture afficianado or fans of Desilu- the iconic team behind comedy gold- don’t already know about is sprinkled here in this documentary, directed by another comedic great Amy Poehler.

What makes it such a warm tribute is how it dissects the bond between the two titans, co-stars, business partners and spouses as one of eternal charm. One that time, changing moods or even divorce couldn’t really erase.

The premium should be on the word ‘partnership’ here and even though Lucille Ball is almost always the celebrated one, Desi Arnaz is reinstated as a trendsetting studio head who battled racism on his own part. Together, they are perfectly aligned to each other’s sensibilities. Individually too, they have strong instincts and creative acumen to spare.



In a year and a half period during which my discovery of I LOVE LUCY, THE LUCY SHOW and BEING THE RICARDOS has put them on a pedestal, LUCY AND DESI gives this classic pair another well-deserved tip of the hat without discounting their co-stars, writers and family members who all make up an indelible fabric. In fact, the collective viewing experience actually helped me appreciate this non-fiction retelling even more.

So watch this newly arrived title now on Amazon Prime Video.

***

FEAST(2021)

Dutch filmmaker Tim Leyendekker positions FEAST as a reflexive examination of all that is wrong with the idea of desire and physical gratification in our modern world.

The seemingly single-minded pursuit of sex leads to a real-life scandal in Netherlands. More shocking is the knowledge that three men actually used infected blood to endanger nearly a dozen other lives in the transactional set-up. What is striking is that all victims here are men. Which puts the onus on treating victims without a gender lens and taking their trauma seriously, not letting social norms get in the way.

It’s chapterised and never uses sensationalism to drive its point home. Beginning with an official putting on gloves and picking out each item retrieved from the site of these crimes, time is of the essence here. The camera rolls and captures details of the case, to unravel its many layers. Or they can be taken as offshoots of an investigation. 



Actors recreate conversations of these three men at the helm while also watching the reel and reflecting on their actions. It’s definitely a meta moment, blurring lines between fact and fiction. Then there’s an interview each with a particular victim and with one of the accused respectively. Disturbing psychological aspects tumble out while sordid details of seeking closure for one’s unfulfilled desires juxtapose with still bodies on lakeside and parks and a scientist dealing with plants talks candidly about the nature of blood transfusions and viruses.

A police interrogation involving a victim further leads us to the conclusion that judgements elude none, gender no bar. Also that the politics of sexuality can be crooked and full of empathy but never at the same time. 

FEAST hence presents multiple perspectives, avoiding titillation and hysteria for quiet moments of observation regarding human behaviour. Shot in silhouettes, natural light or with hazy shots of bodies running parallel to a narrative of physical violation, it has a stark quality to it that ultimately becomes haunting. Cautionary. Deeply affecting.

***

LOVE, SURVIVAL, RESTORATION.

CHAPAAK(2020)

Meghna Gulzar creates a paradigm of presenting a real life story with as much empathy and realism as possible, completely doing away with sensational inputs. In CHAPAAK, the titular splash of liquid, also pointing to a sudden reflex or movement, is the axis around which cultural dogmas, justice and most importantly, individual agency to effect change is brought to our notice. As this writer, like millions, has followed the trajectory of our national ‘SHEROES’ over a decade and more, it becomes empowering to know they were not alone in bouncing back.

Laxmi Agarwal’s story as an acid attack survivor, woman and activist then becomes a blueprint for shunting out shame or resentment. Hence putting the onus of accountability on the perpetrators, as it should be.  We cannot change regressive mindsets or the man-made cult of appearance. But we can put up a fight, knowing the legal rigmarole can last years. It is all here, with a special shout out to the lawyers, journalists, active supporters and social workers who eschew the stereotypes associated with their respective professions or even gender to make Laxmi a stronger person. It is a travesty of humanism itself when certain kindred, in a fight for justice, have to declare themselves ‘ethical’ per se.



CHAPAAK packs in all those sociological factors with tact. I applaud the whole team for investing in the roots of misogyny and a continuum of injustice being raged by wrongdoers. Also for showing Laxmi and her peers as fully formed individuals who don’t let a dark past overshadow a pursuit of happiness.

Thank God for a work like this to exist, in a country where heavy handed biopics and stormy platitudes muddy the waters of filmmaking with a purpose and even actual social consciousness on the ground.

***

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE(2000)

The roads and walls of erstwhile Hong Kong, as presented in Wong Kar Wai’s swooning ode to an unfinished love story, are very similar to Calcutta or even old Lucknow. Similarly claustrophobic are the living interiors of the apartment in which the protagonists live, so closely held together that one could share neighbours’ breaths or gasps.

In essence, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE devises an universally applicable moral dilemma for its two protagonists who have been hitched to their respective partners but realise their ‘worse halves’ are cheating on them with each other. Cue a screenplay reveling in the quantum of one’s limits of interaction where obvious desires clash with society’s prying eyes. It’s a sweet and profound friendship cut short by too many considerations and an unhealthy internalisation of guilt.





The common motif in so many lives is that we end up meeting those we identify with at an inopportune moment. Everything changes due to the timing of that realisation. We carry on with building up memories of what could have been.

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is a mirror image of millions of broken hearts who found that taking a chance on a love worth fighting for came with risking the established status quo. It made me feel helpless. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung come with characterisations here worth savouring for the pain and spark of commiseration. Quietly memorable is when they roleplay their spouses and still cannot bring themselves to replicate their betrayal of trust. The fragility of bonds here rely on the language of looks alone. On the hesitant pangs we bear.

***

WHITE AFRO(2019)

We live in a world where the very term ‘culture’ is a sham, its skeletal remains reeking of rank capitalist racism. Ask those flippant foreigners who land up on Eastern shores to collect flocks of hair from impoverished residents to make quick bucks.

WHITE AFRO utilises a public service advertisement as cultural commentary, with X ray vision dominating the process of acquiring an Afro hairstyle, cleverly symbolic of the inhuman, dangerously numbing manner of all appropriation. Watch this short to know the cruel forces that end up making our very physical legacy a matter of profit and marketability. Its in your face commentary is all the more powerful. You feel it is just another dry factual presentation. Then the blatant words and advisory startle us.



***

BESSIE(2015)

Queen Latifah is raw, armed with an insatiable passion for life and guarding her corner of selfhood as Bessie Smith.

Before MUDBOUND made me a definite Dee Rees admirer, this was the work that came as a promising springboard. I watched it for a second time few days ago, after my initial tryst around the year of its release on HBO.

It’s a bittersweet trajectory of a legend. But some scenes stayed with me over the course of six years, reiterating their impact even now. Like how she is immediate in her physical rejection of any kind of racism, whether it’s telling a New York phony how white people in the South let you get big as long as you don’t get too close. In the North, it’s vice versa. As also when she courageously confronts Klan members keen on violence at one of her big tent shows in the South. Her stature and sheer physical force is visible in Latifah’s convincing presence. She doesn’t suffer fools.  Her singing prowess, on the other hand, completely justifies the blues icon.




The raw and unblemished portrayal here is then its biggest asset that is counterbalanced by the way time and tides of change propel her from the face of dejection to a place of contentment and artistry. The other cast members ably ride to the occasion.

**
SUMMER OF SOUL(OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED, 2021)

Thank God for this undisputed classic. Yes, I’ve said it. This is not just a documentary, it’s cultural restoration of the highest merit that will be quoted as a gold standard of filmmaking.

The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, wiped out from collective historical memory, is a rally cry against systemic racism; racism that allowed this treasure trove to be in the trenches for 50 plus years. This feature length work wrests control of a lost narrative now made unforgettable to every discerning viewer. For this pop culture afficianado, it was a heaven-sent gift on a Sunday evening.




It’s not everyday when you get a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson join forces, Nina Simone let the truth prevail like a veritable Goddess on stage while having Motown, gospel, R&B and African/ Cuban roots influence a melange of sounds, figures and overall diversity.

A special shout out to editor Joshua L. Pearson for letting inevitable social commentaries and backgrounds of the day and age bristle to life beyond the soundbites and archival footage. That electrifying rhythm pervades the live concert unity of SUMMER OF SOUL. It’s ultimately a spiritual release. To catch the rhythms of these voices and bodies reclaim a cultural heritage.

Watch SUMMER OF SOUL now.

*****

MEMORABLE LIFE PORTRAITS

DEVI AHILYABAI(2002)

“DEVI” AHILYABAI Full Movie | Watch on EPIC ON: https://youtu.be/3lQLofQNN7U



Thanks to EpicOn, the wonderfully diverse streaming service of Indian infotainment channel EPIC, I had the opportunity to discover this impactful biographical portrait of the great Ahilyabai Holkar. We have, very obviously, heard legends about this queen of queens from Central India whose humility and acumen helped to establish a rarefied air of feminist valour in the Maratha kingdom. To see it portrayed with such finesse, with such simplicity of execution makes it rewarding for discerning cinephiles. This is not the historical take that immerses us in epic platitudes or grandiloquent visuals. No, this maintains the down to earth tonal quality of a woman who kept her humble roots intact even as a ruler, eschewing the supposed air of her station with a spirit of ‘karma'( work ethic) and righteousness of delivering justice even when faced with invasions.

Episodic in quality and yet coherently held together in terms of narrative, DEVI AHILYABAI is elevated by a wholly convincing performance by Mallika Prasad. She embodies the looks, ruab( grace and dignity) and vocal register of someone who blended the common good with impeccable administrative duties while also riding out to war in full armour without batting an eyelid. In her restrained and simultaneously fiery characterisation, she bears semblance to the historical figure we read about so fondly. She is excellent in each frame, whether refusing to accept communally divisive politics all too reminiscent of modern-day rhetoric or being headstrong when an opponent dares to send an army of thousands to intimidate her on account of her gender.





Other memorably etched turns are by Sadashiv Amrapurkar as the revolutionary progressive father in law who always saw in her the zeal to break through constrictions of gender and let her come into her own without interjecting; as also by Shabana Azmi as her mother in law who is there to give her a non-judgmental voice of support. It is all so heartening that such examples of unbiased equality came from pages of our past. Yet then and now, they can be so few and far between in deed and spirit.

Directed by Nachiket Patwardhan and Jayoo Patwardhan ( the former of whom was the male lead in Teevra Madhyam on which I had written recently), it uses actual locations of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh and mostly stages scenes in interiors to let this dramatic effect be one of ideals and actions, not just lofty words or figures of beauty.

I, hence, highly recommend this unknown NFDC backed gem to reach your radar.

***

THE MAKING OF THE MAHATMA/ GANDHI SE MAHATMA TAK(1996)

This is a Shyam Benegal classic. An underrated one at that. To me, on a second viewing of THE MAKING OF THE MAHATMA after having seen it on the Epic channel on television few years ago, I found it a true to life portrait of the almost obstinate path of virtue that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi took to find himself as an individual. Devoting this screenplay to unearthing linear and complex contours of his experiments with truth while in South Africa for twenty two momentous years, marked by patient struggles, is no mean feat.




Mr. Benegal, ever the consummate filmmaker, explores his unique coming of age journey with subtle momentum, simple strokes of courage of the people around him. At the same time, giving both Rajit Kapur and Pallavi Joshi the impetus to shine as a family unit whose bond is constantly tested by Gandhi’s single-minded pursuits. That obstinacy is also revealed with all-too human edges that can often be hard on multiple counts for others. Watch this work to uncover those layers.

Every movement towards change comes with sacrifices and bearing the brunt of authority. This work does it without malice or hagiographic outlooks. It also informs us about his efforts to pluck out racism in his adopted homeland and the true nature of an integrated diaspora invested in claiming dignity for itself. It is a collective act. It is acknowledged as such in this instance.

***

MILDRED PIERCE (2011)

Watching this beautifully written and directed miniseries brought me to a point of renewed appreciation about Todd Haynes’ attention to detail and emotional articulation.

MILDRED PIERCE is, of course, about the titular protagonist essayed impeccably by Kate Winslet, her downward and then upward trajectory in an economically challenged era and the price of success one receives when personal relationships gobble up all the hard work and industry. It’s a delicate balancing act to constantly align these strands. Here, it is a seamless process of life choices and experiences being defined by the people who make or break us.



I love how the self-made Pierce is characterised to salute all such individuals who didn’t let class consciousness or societal judgements bog them down. Instead, they made their way even with initial apprehensions. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood are similarly excellent in conveying the thanklessness of certain offsprings who constantly make parents question their own merit. The same degree of excellence can be attributed to the cast in general.

Success is a roller coaster ride and personal equations have a way of getting in the way of faith in one’s own abilities. MILDRED PIERCE recognises that; also that judgements are mostly borne out of what others provide us with. I loved the period details, the expert cinematography, music and ethos, they all aid in putting the universality of human dilemmas right at the centre with such tact and care.

***

THE NORMAL HEART (2014)



Sometimes, a battle is hard won. Sometimes, it is elongated. We battle prejudices and go on believing in a good fight for whole lifetimes. But every challenge has to be countered with courage to break the chain. To be heard. To speak. To let actions and words come from not just a place of anger but pain and hope suffused together. God bless those who take the frontlines to get justice for whole communities, generations and societies.

THE NORMAL HEART translates all that to put LGBTQ+ lives and the stigma around AIDS in the spotlight, informed by true historical fights in the 1980s by some undying advocates of social justice. Put in a cast this well-rounded comprising the likes of Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and Joe Mantello among others and the intent translates to a potent vision.



This is an absolute must-watch. Period.

***

SILENCES, ALIENATION AND CAMARADERIE

USKI ROTI(1969) & NAZAR(1990)

Any Mani Kaul work of art has produced an aesthetic, internalized, subconscious effect on me. His images have a haunting way to speak louder than words as articulations of what should be said to dramatize an individual life simply doesn’t interest him. Hence, the ultra slow burn of his filmmaking sensibility which creeps up on us like a tendril left to grow to an enormous length, revealing the passive resignation to which we are subject to. That slow burn as regards the fate of two women caught up in loveless and clearly non- existent marital relationships give USKI ROTI and NAZAR a passage of time;  there’s an internalized gravitas equivalent to the way marriages, more often than not, continue to entrap strangers in a bond mooted by social convention and which becomes a post meant to be left vacant for womenfolk. Desires die out and they are blinded into actually being dutiful to a person who doesn’t even see her as anything other than a distant shadow. One who is the factual other half. No real definition is accorded to her station in this scenario.

They, hence, become the ultimate blank slates as their male counterparts either entrap them for their own needs, as a youthful trophy akin to the antique items comprising the husband’s shop in NAZAR , or keep them waiting on a never-ending leash as in USKI ROTI where a simple and unwavering wife’s walk to the dusty highway, for the sake of her husband’s daily share of food, becomes a thankless tryst with her inferior status in a patriarchal set-up.





                  ***

These are works of extraordinary realism and tell us that instead of fabricating ghost tales for our own mythmaking, we must look at how we voluntarily end up making spectral figures of the women in our lives. Women who wait throughout foggy nights, dusty afternoons in the open, witness another kindred’s death by suicide or jump to their own deaths in a haze of anonymity, with no real witnesses to their final unraveling. All these images are realised with striking visual power in both works.

In Nazar, Mr. Kaul, taking the brokenness of dialogues similar to the adrift nature of nightmares or uneasy dreams influenced by guilt, gives an open window of an apartment building in Bombay the feel of a haunted house. Or the young wife’s(Shambhavi Kaul) entry to a stationary boat on the seaside a quality of taking her inside either as in a shelter or a prison, two traits visible in the apartment too that she calls home. Iconic maestro Zia Dagar’s rudra veena punctuates many passages here with an appropriate musical ethos.



USKI ROTI is, to me, a work that rouses us with the sheer power of its imagery, blending fabrics, minimalism of dialogues, interior spaces, faces and hands in a dissection of repressed adult lives married to mundanity and a lack of emotional or sensual reprieve. Balo, the protagonist’s tale of patience has no payback just as her younger sister’s(Richa Vyas) alienation and fear of siege from a rowdy villager has no shield to be offered to her. For both, there is no actual return to security other than the circle of everyday in continuum. It’s bleak and uncovers the inversion of actions where the men indulge in indiscretions while the women’s movements through time and space are suspended in a zone of almost liminal resignation.



                 ***

Looking at Balo’s long walks through fields and general open spaces, I was taken back to my train journeys or drives across the countryside where every lone figure I could spot was an enigma, seemingly occupying a remote ghostland. Their private lives elusive and their immediate position entirely unknown. Only we can see them from a distance. Balo(Garima) here becomes a manifestation of those unknown figures whose lives are exactly the same as our own. Of course, the ending in USKI ROTI brings a reunion between Balo and the elusive and unattainable Sucha Singh, her husband; a moment where we feel her determined zeal has paid off. Of course, there is hope for her, a tender touch from him means a lot to her but the preceding pattern of silences and alienation has already been set. So no false promise is doled out. Even in the 1990 feature also featuring eminent filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and the inestimable legend Surekha Sikri, it seems that affection is sneaking its way in the central relationship but then unresolved silences reign supreme.

On the other hand, the location of dizzying heights vis a vis the open window of the apartment in NAZAR made me realise how from my fearless fascination with high altitudes to experiencing a swerving motion and mild vertigo in the same spaces, life has taken me to uneasy ends following many unpleasant unravelings. So both these have a deep psychological intertwining with my state of mind. That’s why they produce such a hypnotic, realistic spell. As they will for discerning viewers.


**

SWALLOW(2019)

This is another tale of alienation, imposed silences that mire a beautiful young woman’s induction into society after marriage. Reminiscent of a ’50s housewife, the lead protagonist in SWALLOW is more of a statement, a wallpaper or an object for her partner and in-laws rather than a full-bodied individual. The hollow import of affluence and affected mannerisms is given a slow burning urgency here. Her implosion and dangerous tryst with the concept of ‘control’ by swallowing inedible objects has indeed a psychological unraveling. A shrink eventually intervenes but some deep-seated traumas can hardly find rehabilitation through mental analysis alone.

Emotional stasis from her maternal and marital units leads us to eventually discover a dark aspect regarding her parentage. This ties in with her own impending motherhood.

By the film’s third act, her escape from the confines of one home into another, where she meets her biological father, makes way for a resolution that gives her physical autonomy over the body she chose to fill with sharp objects. The real horror here is in how much we neglect a young life for all its worth. As the lead, Haley Bennett truly delivers a performance that is precise, expressive to the core and catches every nuance of her open-ended journey.




I also like how commonplace dialogues are employed to portray the stereotypes of most of these so-called unions our society upholds as essential.

**

CRY MACHO (2021)

To cap off this part, I hold a special roll of honour for the eternally gifted Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial, featuring him in the lead along with the promising Eduardo Minett.

I really liked its gentle and straightforward story built around a road trip from Mexico to Texas, the dynamics of bonding and how it seeks to demystify the hollow terrain of manhood in our current times.

Kudos to one of my all-time favourite artists for bringing nuance to a characterisation that he can pull off with elan out of thin air. Also for keeping my faith in the Western genre in its modifying forms. But the real winner here has to be the rooster who is Eduardo’s companion. He is named Macho and there’s an unusually memorable shot where he walks with swagger between the two males towards the sunset.





***

AN ARRAY OF SHORTS- PART 2.

ANDREA ARNOLD SHORT FILMS

Three short films by director Andrea Arnold, better known now for helming a modern adaptation of Wuthering Heights and American Honey, stay true to the gritty realism of British lives on the periphery of social visibility. A commonality is that nothing is tidied up for cinematic effect and perhaps the format of short filmmaking is endowed with the liberty to show it as it is. Brevity is a particular trait that is hard to muster up anyway. Arnold masters that elusive quality in these examples.

First in the order of my viewing experience, DOG(2001) ended up becoming a powerful work which looks at the perverse foundations of human cruelty through the eyes of a teenage girl. Fed up with her life of poverty and rough surroundings, she goes out with a guy. The boy sees her as nothing but a ‘body’ to be exploited for his own pleasure. A dog who she smilingly catches sight of on the way is present at a crucial moment where the boy may cross the line with the girl. The girl laughs innocently on seeing the canine. The boy then unleashes his bestiality on the dog. Witnessing this brutal act alerts the girl to leave the spot, rush back home and later grunt like the very animal who she saw silenced. In a world of humans embodying every beastly attribute that we accord to other non-speaking creatures, she has that bark to resort to. As if both of their pains have combined to show them as the subalterns susceptible to evils of society.

Truly powerful, conveying the worst frustrations of living as a have-not and battling with multiple forms of emotional battery. Cruelty towards animals indeed is the last straw to end one’s association with a fellow human being who perpetrates or participates in the act. DOG hence is gripping.




Next I watched MILK(1998) where a young woman loses her new born barely moments after he/she is brought to the world. Refusing to attend the baby’s funeral, the titular element- in this a lactating mother’s milk meant to nourish the child- becomes central to her post-partum, post traumatic trigger. As when she is in the bath and notices that the nurturing element remains a part of her body while the mortal who was supposed to feed on it is no more. It’s a delicate, pithy moment so crucial to her journey. Only a female director could have captured it with such sensitivity.

The climax may be shocking on a conventional level to some but its impact is powerfully reminiscent of the part where Rose of Sharon feeds her mother’s milk to a dying, starving man as a last measure of humanity, in John Steinbeck’s novel GRAPES OF WRATH. Here, the moment is imbued with pain of a profound level. Grief and all its contours get their due here within ten minutes or so.

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The final short was the Oscar winning WASP, a heartfelt, realistic 25 minute capsule about a single mother of four, a young woman who probably entered an unlikely phase of struggles brought on by poverty, living on meagre means and worrying about where the next meal or financial assistance will come from in her teenage. Or perhaps that’s the life she has known all along since she was born. 

There are flaring tempers, uncouth words and actions but all that emanating from a socially and economically underdeveloped milieu (or just basic human nature under duress) has a counterpoint with the spunk of everyday survival. The bond of love among parent and four children still withstands this daily grind. It’s all in the conversations, the genuine warmth, so life-like and honed by Ms. Arnold from her own observations. It also reminded me very pleasantly of THE FLORIDA PROJECT as the mother is in the process of growing up herself and learning the meaning of familial responsibility, with no one to share it with her or give her credit for making it to another day for her children.

I also appreciate the pull towards reconnecting with her first love, a schooltime mate, and how hunger and its ramifications mean she has to snap back to reality for her kids. No real resolutions abound or even an answer to a lop-sided social structure. Kindness and a fragile sense of security close the frames here. The titular wasp then becomes a symbol of childhood, innocence, apprehension and hope. Even a recurring motif of the gritty surroundings.

Watch it to be absorbed by its empathy and no-nonsense lens of portraying adult lives bound with an incomplete trail of lost childhoods.



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MEETING THE MAN: JAMES BALDWIN IN PARIS(1970)

The intellectual vigour of Mr. Baldwin, a consistent confronter of prejudice, is in steadfast form in this documentary short.

He’s explosive in his verbal articulations of historical mindsets that steep him and his peers in racist light even when he is away in the freer environments of Paris, his home for twenty two years at the time of the film’s taping. The questions posed to him are bluntly inelegant, ill-informed and cliched. Redundant, in short. Baldwin’s dignity and grace under fire hardly wavers because he had reconciled with the ugly truth years ago.


A historical perspective colours even moments of unbridled camaraderie with friends. What sets this short apart is the fact that director Terence Dixon lets his ignorance too pass on to posterity along with Baldwin’s immediate legacy caught on camera. In form, it is an extended interview. In agency, it’s a pure face of how things were on both sides of the camera lens.

Watching Baldwin in form and with implosive anger took me back to the spirit in works like ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI and MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. I’m sure they all fit in powerfully with the man’s words of courage and truth.



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‘Teevra Madhyam’ (1974): A Voice That Remains Muted Yet Animated – Cafe Dissensus Everyday

https://cafedissensuseveryday.com/2022/02/21/teevra-madhyam-1974-a-voice-that-remains-muted-yet-animated/

My previously published essay on the underrated, almost lost classic TEEVRA MADHYAM has been published by Cafe Dissensus Everyday.

I am so grateful to the team as more discerning viewers and readers will discover this rare gem.

AN ARRAY OF SHORTS



TEEVRA MADHYAM(1974)

I had promised my readers that I would discover this lost gem sooner rather than later while writing about Smita Patil’s priceless repertoire. I did just that yesterday and it was such a moment of triumph for this cinephile and viewer.  I believe it is what I strive for- to bring home-grown classics to public attention and rescue them from utter, abject anonymity.

TEEVRA MADHYAM, relating to a form or rhythm of Indian classical music that is sublime and subtle, is an apt title for this twenty minute short, directed as a diploma film back in 1974 by Arun Khopkar. As usual, Ms. Patil’s first ever screen appearance is a clear indicator of her innate restraint and graceful, almost fluid body language. As a tanpura player and practitioner of classical music, her stance embodies a sense of thehraav/ restraint perfectly. It is hence reflective of her peaceful state of mind and way of seeing the world. The first three and a half minutes expertly set the mis-en- scene where she plays her beloved instrument, settles into the mundane rhythms of the day in her modest room and listens to the sound of commotion and a passing plane. Her stillness and facial transparency are to behold. I also love how there is focus on the items in her room, symbolic of a modest living shorn of materialism. It is also how she is framed- like a modern day Saraswati sans the divine halo, without make-up, in turn showcasing her natural beauty with effortless ease.

That modesty and simplicity is revelatory of her alliance with her beloved’s( Nachiket Patwardhan) Marxist ideals, as I see it. Her stillness then holds an internal turmoil as her pursuit of classical arts is at odds with the beloved’s fight for justice and protests. It is captured so beautifully in the scene where she expresses how akin to the movement for justice giving him purpose, the tanpura gives her agency, peace. However, both their ideologies cannot be symbiotic. There is tension generated through that. The core for addressing these issues is subtle, never at the boiling point, just like these young lives on the verge of changes.

Cue the scene where she is the lone female in a meeting presided over by party members and the final one where her state of uncertainty is naturally integrated to the larger social churn of the day and age. To me, that one take of her changing eye movements and expressions while practicing the tanpura packs in so much of what her internal conflicts have to communicate on the surface. The vocal playback in the background befits that.  She is at peace while practicing yet knows that she may have to renounce her creative gifts for the larger cause of social consciousness.



TEEVRA MADHYAM is ultimately about how women are often expected to cast themselves in a mould similar to the men in their lives, leading to them giving up their innate vocations. Also, how creative individuals have to recast their pure priorities in the practical realm of the world.   It is hence stirring as a generator of multiple viewpoints even though there is no definite decision on the part of protagonists here to choose their future course.

Indian cinema has so many riches to offer and I’m glad I can contribute by reviving a conversation directed towards these unsung gems.

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HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH(2020)

South African filmmaker Tebogo Malebogo grasps the very foundation of human desires with rare grace and beauty in his short film HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH.

The elements- with the wind, water and embers from a night-time bonfire- contribute, with immense sensual power, to this journey of realization for two men who discover that their hiking trip has provided them with a more open acceptance of who they are. The approach also lets their faces, bodies and eyes convey the language of desire with subtlety. Kudos to the two performers, Sizo Mahlangu and Thapelo Maropefela, for achieving that vision where each look exchanged and every caress bring them closer to an almost divine, intimately personal realisation within this verdant landscape. Akin to nature. Akin to a transcendental kinship.






I also love the cinematography by Jason Prins, music by Elu Eboka and editing by Petrus Van Staden.  Special mentions must be made of how heaving sounds on the soundtrack mix in seamlessly with the native African beats while the clicking of the tongue while mouthing the line, ‘the men refused’ bring the defiant, natural rhythms of these two beautiful males to an open- ended resolution. To me, it’s a beginning that recognises that desire and attraction are fundamental human traits. They should not be held hostage by blinkered visions.

HEAVEN REACHES DOWN TO EARTH hence is a work of beauty.

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Thanks to MUBI’s eclectic and truly world class repertoire of diverse works, I finally watched three short films by renowned names. I had been in knowledge of these and so it was great to watch them from the comforts of my room on a weekend.

THE HUMAN VOICE(2020)

The first is Pedro Almodovar’s English language debut with this thirty minute capsule, based on Jean Cocteau’s almost century old play by the same name. That incentive gives his only performer, the chameleonic and simply brilliant Tilda Swinton, a bold chance to embody the self-awareness of a woman who’s on the edge. She’s isolated, lonely and in deep throes of a relationship that has dissolved.

The wordless beginnings and enraged center of this personal storm relies on gestural and expressive movements of the body. Swinton excels at them. But THE HUMAN VOICE achieves its titular poignancy by her verbal articulation of a deep-seated pain, of being hemmed in by a relationship where she has to overreach and apologize for its gendered trappings by being almost ‘the other woman’; I also was quiet affected by how metrics of a thin body structure, looks and ageism revolve around in this unbroken monologue. By playing an actress, she gives it a meta ethos and adds to the verisimilitude invested in the narrative.



A monologue, by nature, is a deeply personal distillation of private thoughts and desires. Even as we are trapped in a hard place, the literary form gives us power to own our strengths and flaws, to examine our collective human pulse. This short triumphs by dint of Swinton’s dialogic interplay between those two poles. I also loved how the constructed set within a studio further accords it with the artifice and meta ethos of the actual filmmaking process. Which fits in fairly with its theatrical roots and nature of dialogue delivery, a style that directly engages with the camera and audiences.

THE HUMAN VOICE, hence, examines the fragile nature and sense of being rudderless in a sea of isolation, befitting its actual shooting during the pandemic months in 2020 and extending to its effect on our consciousness, given its intimate nature in a post Covid reckoning.

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THE STAGGERING GIRL(2019)

Luca Guadagnino has a sophisticated style to imbue his 34 minute short THE STAGGERING GIRL with. Beyond its obvious nod to the fashionable precedent of Italian house Valentino, given its nature of being a collaboration, I was swept by its melancholy tone, colours, expert cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and music by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Again, this can be a seemingly futile exercise in preferring style over substance but to this viewer, the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship marked by frissons of memory, toggling between past and present, made an impact.



It’s because I could see an artistic resonance in the daughter’s( Julianne Moore) struggles to care for a mother(imperious Marthe Keller) who lives in another continent while penning her memoirs; even as the mother, now aged and without vision, is steadfast in her painting pursuits and is fiercely immune to being mollycoddled. Privilege, luxury and the fleeting nature arising from both can be gauged from the imagery here that is beauteous and yet is built around shadows and darkness of dimly-lit spaces, implying the way memories burden us. Or even breaks in recollections. The mother holds on to these are mementos while the daughter faces the consequences of harbouring fear and guilt for the free-spirited senior anchor in her life. Note that one scene where Mia Goth as the younger version of the mother talks about the nature of vanity and the cult of appearance to her daughter, clearly showing her elitist leanings. It’s a conversation that’s relatable to so many women, the idea of image consciousness and body types imprisoning two generations.

I was also fascinated by how the younger( Mia Goth) and older selves of the duo coalesce, in and out of the protagonist’s musings, to immerse us in her memory. Kiki Layne is another enigma, a ghost- like figure who stands in as the inner voice for the daughter especially, a visual metaphor for the mystery of life that connects her with her maternal core and literary outpourings. Kyle Maclachlan, as the only male representative here, is effective in his inimitable way, as the caretaker somehow helping the older woman to hold on to her legacy as an artist.

If anything, Moore’s expressive transparency is intimately attuned to the tone here while Marthe Keller reminded me a lot of her character from THE ROMANOFFS episode THE VIOLET HOUR, down to the green-hued sky as a visual motif in one striking instance.

Watch THE STAGGERING GIRL for its dash of emotional truth packaged in effective interiority. Interpreting its content is a reward for viewers.




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NIMIC(2019)






Fear of the ‘other’, a stranger entering our lives when we are at our most vulnerable has been a central motif in Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmography of interior horror. Cue the avenging and quietly ingratiating characterisations by Barry Keoghan as a teenager in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and by Emma Stone as a have-not plotting her entry into a notoriously depraved, upper class moral landscape in THE FAVOURITE. They are strangers to their own downfall until reality smacks them in the face and human hubris and manipulation overrule reason.

Lanthimos employs the same brand of interior horror and absurdism to his 12 minute short film NIMIC where a man’s encounter with a stranger on the subway leads to a psychologically arresting, miniature portrait of fear of the unknown. A fear that drills itself in with running themes of impersonation, breakdown of gender binaries and stalking. 

I like how the daily actions committed by the man( Matt Dillon) such as boiling of an egg, subway ride, performance as a cellist and habit of holding his better half( Susan Elle) close while sleeping are all reiterated by the lady( Daphne Patakia)

Patakia is excellent here with her perpetual wide eyed expression being robotic and horrifying, creating a clone effect and equally gifted is Hollywood veteran Dillon as the man whose anxiety gives him a sleepwalker’s droll look.

To this writer/viewer, the politics of gender neutrality and loss of an all-pervading male hegemony are deconstructed within the pithy, chilling ten minutes of its runtime. The music and cinematography similarly create a jarring effect, as if the existential crises of our times were being drilled into our minds without a concrete societal resolution to the established norms. Especially in the domestic sphere.



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