7 September 2014
There is a moment in Filmistaan that finds Bollywood film buff Sunny held captive by a Taliban inspired terrorist group in a Pakistani border village. It is Bollywood night in the village and local film pirate Aftaab is screening ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ to an audience of excited kids and adults. The village is rapt by the images on the small television set. Sunny, who has tried but failed to escape earlier in the day, is under armed guard and imprisoned in a small room. As the film plays, Sunny instantly recognises the sounds of a Bollywood classic, and speedily begins to pre-emit the dialogue, reciting many of the famous lines and recreating the gestures with the zeal of a true Bollywood fan. Sunny pleads with the terrorists to let him out so he can watch the rest of the film. They do so. At a crucial point in the film, and since this is a pirated copy, the sound cuts out and a vital piece of dialogue is missed that could be key to the narrative outcome. Aftaab tries repeatedly to replay the moment but the sound still cuts out. Luckily, Sunny, having seen the film countless times, remembers the dialogue, and re-enacts the moment for the pleasure of the village. They all rejoice and continue watching the rest of the film. In this beautifully judged sequence, juxtaposing a surfeit of vatic social-political ideologies including terrorism and national identity, cinema emerges as the true leveller, wiping away notions of borders and belongings that divide and propagate a perpetual enmity; Bollywood intervenes, imagining a new space in which the homeland is a singular, escapist entity. Nitin Kakkar’s directorial debut is a smartly honed satire that reiterates yet again the vibrancy and intelligence of the current wave of new independent films. Filmistaan received the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 2013 and critics in India have uniformly praised the film. Filmistaan could be grouped in a cycle of contemporary Indo-Pak border films such as Ramchand Pakistani (2008) and Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (2014) that question the legitimacy of partition and raise further concerns to do with nationhood, history and film.
Shahid announced Mehta as a filmmaker who has certainly evolved quite dramatically over the years. His early career as a director is best forgotten, producing some unforgettable run of the mill films. Perhaps it was the incendiary subject matter of Shahid that pushed Mehta further than ever before. City Lights, his follow up to Shahid, is a remake of Metro Manila, which is a relatively recent film that garnered critical acclaim. I haven’t seen Metro Manila so can’t really comment on the remake angle. However, and thankfully, City Lights is an official remake of Metro Manila, with the producers having paid for the rights. The plot of City Lights, a struggling family from Rajasthan migrate temporarily to Mumbai so they can prosper, is cliché ridden as they come and makes the producers appear frightfully short-sighted in their desire to imitate a narrative trajectory that is overly formulaic. Whereas in Shahid the directorial style favours a more static, character centred approach that refuses to sentimentalise the human drama, City Lights sees Mehta tip back into a familiar over stylised aesthetic that relies on the most basic contrivances of melodrama. I would preferred to have seen the narrative especially in the city unfold through a female perspective but Mehta fails to capitalise on many narrative situations which could have potentially offered a far greater ideological dialogue on the relationship between migrant workers and the city of Mumbai. What we are left with is a return to the village, reiterating the reactionary politics of 1940s and 1950s like Do Bigha Zamin that warn against the dehumanising nature of the urbanisation. Unfortunately, City Lights becomes just another tale about the city without saying anything particularly insightful about the urban experience. I wanted the pain and distress suffered by the family of three to have been visualised and relayed with so much more force and conviction. Instead, displacement, unemployment and poverty is masked by the visual gloss of the eye catching and at times distracting cinematography. Had Mehta utilised a more neo realist approach then I could have seen City Lights succeeding more often than it does. Perhaps the saving grace are the terrific performances especially Rajkummar Rao and the scene stealing and underused Manav Kaul.
30 August 2014
The Bioscope, an early film projector, created by Charles Urban in 1897, is the magical invention that forms the basis for Keralan director K. M. Madhusudhanan’s visually imposing feature. Bioscope explores the suspicions aroused when local man Diwakaran introduces moving pictures to a village. The film portrays the early power of moving images, detailing the elemental clash between tradition and modernity in the context of a colonial India. The Bioscope, a feature of travelling fairgrounds, suggesting the cinema of attractions, is recreated in the inquisitive faces of villagers spellbound by the hand-cranked phantasmagorias projected on a rudimentary white canvas. Madhusudhanan seems acutely hypnotised by this image, the hesitant gaze of the villagers as they watch the films, uncertain how they should react. Juxtaposed to encroaching modernity are the quotidian regularities of village life that depend on rituals. The very idea that photographic technology can capture the essence of life and thereby the soul of an individual is a fear exhibited in the village, positing the Bioscope as a violation of the sacred, disturbing the equilibrium. Such embryonic unease about technology, that film steals the shadows of people and conceals within it the undetermined is extenuated in the death of Diwakaran’s mute wife. Diwakaran's desire to bring the power of film to the village is gradually challenged and ultimately disrupted by an impossible orthodoxy. Since this is a film about film, the saliently reflexive cinematographic style is articulated by bold, striking visual compositions of spatial imaginings in which the villagers are depicted in synchronity with the pastoral milieu. Madhusudhanan says Bioscope is the first in a trilogy of films dealing specifically with the origins, evolution and impact of film in Kerala. Perhaps most striking are the abstract compositions that linger in our cinematic memories, courtesy of DOP M. J. Radhakrishnan.