28 December 2009


It is not easy tracking down films directed by New Indian Cinema film makers like Mrinal Sen and Mani Kaul but whilst using YouTube to watch Satyajit Ray's 'Kanchenjungha' I was pleased to discover that a range of hard to find and obscure films have been uploaded. The range of materials is quite vast and a lot of the films are available to watch in HQ with subtitles. The negative is that watching a film on YouTube is not really the ideal context or format in which to engage with this kind of cinema. Another problem is that many of these films are either taken down due to copyright infringement or have parts missing to them. In addition, the subtitles for a lot of these films are inconsistent and can be hard to follow due to poor translation. Here are a few of the films I have come across and I hope to keep posting regular links each week so I can build up some kind of comprehensive list of what is actually available on YouTube:

1. Ek Din Pratidin (A Day Like Any Other) - Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1979

2. Kharij (The Case Is Closed) - Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1982

3. Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story) - Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1974

4. Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1973

5. Pratiwandi (The Adversary) - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1972

6. Bhumika (The Role) - Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1977

7. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (The Seventh Horse of the Sun) - Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992

8. Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) - Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981

9. Tarang (Wages and Profit) Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1984, NFDC

Shahani trained at The Film and Television Institute of India and was taught by Ritwik Ghatak. This film is available to watch for free at a video on demand website titled 'Jaman' - you have to register but it has a small library of hard to find NFDC funded films. Once again, the quality varies for many of the films.

10. Nazar (The Gaze) Dir. Mani Kaul, 1990, NFDC

Many of the following NFDC financed films are also available to watch for free and some for a small fee at the Jaman website:


Ek Doctor Ki Maut (Death of a Doctor) - Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1990

Ghare-Baire (Home and the World) - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1984

Dharavi (City of Dreams) - Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1991

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Salim The Lame) - Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1989

Yugant (What The Sea Said) - Dir. Aparna Sen, 1995

26 December 2009

SATYAJIT RAY, FILMMAKER (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1982, India) - In Search of Ray

Satyajit Ray - Indian cinema's most accomplished filmmaker.

My research into the work of Satyajit Ray has led me to conclude that both Chidananda Das Gupta’s study of Ray’s films titled ‘The Cinema of Satyajit Ray (1994)’ and Shyam Benegal’s documentary, ‘Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker (1982)’ are both exhaustive, well judged and absolutely essential explorations of Ray’s origins and evolution as a filmmaker. Benegal’s 1982 documentary was shot by his regular cinematographer Govind Nihalani and we see Ray at work (this was the period when he was recovering from his first heart attack) on the set of ‘Ghaire-Baire’ (1984) (adapted from a novel by Rabindranath Tagore) and also directing Om Puri and Smita Patil in the post production phase of ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance), a short television film (funded by Doordarshan, a key supporter of parallel cinema in the eighties) he directed in 1981. Benegal’s documentary begins with what is a largely observational mode and gradually leads to an extended interview with Ray – much of what he says is juxtaposed to a series of fascinating clips from what is an exceptionally broad oeuvre. Chidananda Das Gupta is also a filmmaker but more importantly he was a long time friend of Ray and together they established the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. I have read a number of books now on Ray but Das Gupta’s intelligent study is both very personal and grounded in an ideological discussion of his films, an element that continues to be absent from western academic texts.

1. The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta, 1994, Published by National Book Trust, India.

2. Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker - dir. Shyam Benegal, 1982; documentary

(this is available to watch on YouTube but apart from the interview which is conducted in English, the clips do not feature subtitles)

25 December 2009

VENGEANCE (Dir. Johnnie To, 2009, Hong Kong/France) – Hong Kong Noir

Johnnie To is recognised by many to be one of the finest genre film makers working in the world today. Now, this is not an understatement when one evaluates how the combined efforts of To’s prolific directorial career and the production company (Milky Way Image Company) he established with regular co-director Wai Kai-Fai in 1996 have helped to more or less sustain the Hong Kong film industry during one of their worst periods in terms of commercial box office success. His latest noir soaked hybrid ‘Vengeance’ is a Hong Kong and France co-production that continues a thematic fixation with revenge, friendship and honour amongst the world of professional hit-men. The moment the family is executed in cold blood we know with absolute certainty that who ever takes revenge is not likely to remain standing; this has little to do with contemporary morality and everything to do with genre mechanics. Conventions dictate certain death for the male anti-hero yet the presence of a figure like Johnny Hallyday who helped secure financial backing for the project would have played a role in opting for a warmer, upbeat ending. One could point to a predictability that permeates To’s body of work but with most genre films part of the pleasure rests largely with variation and difference. To’s cinema lives and breathes the universe of noir and the single biggest influence on his work continues to be the existential gangster films directed by French director Jean Pierre Melville. To is currently busy remaking Melville’s ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (The Red Circle) with Hollywood actor Orlando Bloom (either is inspired casting or simply crazy!) and it is of little wonder that ‘Vengeance’, which premiered at Cannes, is littered with playful references and intertextual allusions to another Melville film, ‘Le Samourai’. To originally pursued Alain Delon for the lead role of Costello but had to settle with Hallyday who stepped in after Delon expressed unhappiness with the final script. Hallyday is a cultural icon in France and he plays the aging hit-man with an effortless charm – his character also seemed like a variation on the gangster role he played in Patrice Leconte’s ‘L’Homme Du Train’.

Beautifully shot, much of the action alternates between the neonesque streets of Hong Kong and Macau whilst similarly like ‘Sparrow’, the seductively iconic use of umbrellas, rain and slow motion work to produce an aesthetically stylised surface that borders on the sublime. The plot itself is unsurprisingly formulaic but this is more than compensated by the charismatic presence of Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and other To regulars who deliver dependable performances. Though Melville’s shadow lingers considerably over the work of both Johnnie To and John Woo, the elements of the western genre and particularly the films of Sergio Leone also play an influential role in how we read many of To’s gangster films. To’s is remarkably consistent for a director of genre and ‘Vengeance’ proves how today being labelled as prolific does not necessarily equate to a discrepancy in terms of quality film making. In addition, no other film maker (except for perhaps Michael Mann) quite like To really knows and understands the dynamics of filming a shoot out without the making the slow motion appear pretentiously redundant. To is simply not just a film maker - his involvement in producing numerous Hong Kong films with co-director, Wai Kai-Fai, for their commercially successful production company (almost a mini studio) has meant his position in the film industry is very significant in terms of influence and prestige. ‘Vengeance’ is likely to join the company of To’s previous films that include ‘Exiled’, ‘Election’, ‘Sparrow’ and ‘Mad Detective’. Like the films of American film maker Michael Mann and David Fincher as well as John Woo, the absence of women surely points to a masculine moral code that finds a shared affinity with both the gangster and western genre. Like Melville, To presents a primitive and virtually instinct mode of masculinity yet this is precisely what makes it so alluring for contemporary audiences – men out of synch with the rest of society.

21 December 2009

KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) - 'Why accept a life of endless submission?'

The title to Ray’s first film in colour shares its name with the third highest mountain in the world. It is perhaps the least seen of his films and the original negative has unfortunately been damaged beyond repair. However, in 2008, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the digital restoration of the film from the copy of the master negative which were recently discovered in the US and UK. Sandip Ray (Ray's son) who is also a film maker has said that 95 percent of the black and white films directed by his father have been restored by the Academy. It is encouraging that film preservation does not solely limit itself to great American classics, extending its reach to film makers like Ray. Film preservation and restoration of this kind is also likely to allow scholars, academics and fans to reappraise the work of Ray, with a much more concerted aesthetic consideration.

Andrew Robinson’s definitive work on Ray offers one of the best explanations for the film’s relative obscurity:
‘Kanchenjungha’s distribution abroad suffered from its difficulties at home. In the US Edward Harrison released it in 1966 to mixed reviews. In Europe it went unseen, bar one festival, because, it appears, its producers failed to make available a subtitled print. Those critics who did manage to see it with subtitles, felt it would have run well in Britain; it shares much of the appeal of the later Days and Nights in the Forest. That view was confirmed by the appreciative response to its British television premiere in 1988.’
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, pg 136.

I managed to watch ‘Kanchenjungha’ via YouTube (through a PS3 streaming to my TV) – it has been uploaded in ten parts including subtitles which seemed to flash at me constantly. I am assuming this is either a VCD copy or an old VHS print and whilst the sound is slightly distorted, the image itself is acceptable. Indian cinema scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes that ‘the film is remarkable for its use of pastel colours’ but ‘existing prints do not always reproduce Ray and Mitra’s intended colour schemes’. Ray did not experiment with colour again until the early seventies when he directed ‘Ashani Sanket’ (Distant Thunder) in 1973. Similarly like Kurosawa, Ray’s minor films are just as fascinating and accomplished as the major films championed by the critics and academia.

A multi narrative family melodrama, the film was also significant for marking Ray’s first original screenplay and perhaps it is of little surprise that he chose to focus on the lives of an upper class Bengali family, dominated by the arrogant figure of a wealthy industrialist and staunchly conservative patriarch, Indranath Roy Choudhury. I would argue that this film firmly belongs in the company of Ray’s female melodramas including ‘Devi’, ‘Mahanagar’, and most strikingly ‘Charulata’ with which it shares a sympathetic feminist concern. However, Ray’s experimental use of an ensemble cast, several overlapping story lines and real time narrative signalled a shift away from the rural context of his previous films. The subtle and understated manner with which Ray deals with human relationships is complemented by the shifting weather patterns, providing a concern with how nature determines mood.

The narrative largely focuses on the self determination of Indranath’s daughter, Monisha. The family excursion to the hill station at Darjeeling is organised so that Monisha can meet a possible suitor (an engineer who has just returned from England) her father has chosen. It is an arranged marriage and one that the mother secretly disapproves because she does not want her daughter to face a similar life of unhappiness. The mother is played by Ray regular Karuna Bannerjee (Apu’s mother) and her relative silence (until the final moments of the film) articulates her submissive position within the family. However, this being a family melodrama, disruption emerges in the form of Ashoke, a young student who strikes up an unexpected friendship with Monisha. In addition to the emerging relationship between Monisha and Ashoke, Ray also interweaves the stories of the elder daughter, Anima and the spoilt son, Anil. Anil (played effortlessly by Ghatak regular Anil Chatterjee) is represented as the mischievous playboy who models himself on popular Indian film stars. Ray seems to critique the superficiality of the movie business with Anil’s boisterous and impulsive character. Whilst Anil’s character is arguably utilised for light comic relief and to probe the eccentricities of the family structure, Amina’s disintegrating relationship with her alcoholic husband provides an embittered contrast to the innocent relationship between Monisha and Ashoke.
'The underlying psychology of the film derives in large part from the setting. In order to understand the effect of that on the characters we have to appreciate what Darjeeling means to Bengalis. In 1912 Sukumar Ray compared it to Bournemouth in a letter from Britain, mainly because of the steep roads they share, but the analogy could be taken just a little further: people visit both places to escape the big city, and they behave differently in them from the way they do at home. ‘Darjeeling is something very special for Bengalis,’ said Ray, ‘because you have the sea at one end of Bengal and the snow-peaks at the other. In that narrow waist of India you get the full range of landscapes.’
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, Pg 137

Melodrama proves to be the perfect vehicle for Ray to probe the contradictions, despair and false hubris that dictates the lives of the upper class Bengali family. Unlike Ghatak who regularly used the family as a metaphor for partition, Ray’s study of family is more conventionally related to class, the representation of gender and especially tradition. What does stand out in terms of aesthetic considerations in regards to framing and composition when comparing the film to his earlier films is the illuminating and modern use of negative space – at times the empty silences, awkward glances and isolation of characters within the landscape reminded me of Antonioni and in particular ‘Red Desert’, (1964) which was also embraced for its expressionistic and inventive use of colour.
'The father, Indranath Roy Chowdhury, played to perfection by Chhabi Biswas, is a bully of a type that no longer quite exists in Bengal with the passing of the generation that served the British Raj, but his general outline remains only too familiar. Ray shows very little sympathy with him – not because he assisted the Raj and made himself rich, but because he is a philistine who has suppressed his wife and regards his own daughter as a marketable commodity.'
Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989,Pg 138

It is Indranath who is finally viewed as the underlining cause of the unhappiness and anxiety experienced by mother and daughter. His sense of class superiority is attacked by Ashoke, a symbol of the Bengali middle class, when the downtrodden graduate bluntly rejects Indranath's grudging and despicable offer for employment. In many ways, Indranath and Monisha are two very familiar archetypes; the patriarchal bully and the repressed daughter, which reoccur throughout the family melodrama. It is unfortunate that Ray never made more films in colour yet his cinema is one that has become synonymous with realism when in fact the gentle tone and naturalistic rhythm of a film like 'Kanchenjungha' is more in line with the work of Ozu.

Recommended links:

Satyajit Ray - The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989



(Satyajit Ray, Ray’s Films and Ray-Movie By Ashish Rajadhyaksha)

17 December 2009

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE (Dir. Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom, 2009, UK) - Disaster Capitalism

Now famously disowned by writer and investigative journalist Naomi Klein, 'The Shock Doctrine' which was broadcast in September of this year on Channel Four follows in the footsteps of recent highly charged political documentaries like Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9-11'. Co directed by Matt Whitecross and British iconoclast Michael Winterbottom, the documentary succeeds in many regards to articulate the core political arguments of Klein's theory of 'disaster capitalism'. However, two aspects of the documentary seemed to work against it, namely the monotonous voice over and the short running time. One could argue that Klein's work would have been better suited for a series of mini documentaries rather than resorting to the simplification of what is a dense narrative. Beginning with work of economist Milton Friedman, the documentary adheres to the detailed case studies disseminated by Klein in her book including the US backed coup of Chile in 1973 that resulted in the overthrow of Allende's democratically elected government and coming right up to date with the shock and awe tactics of the Bush administration in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. All of these examples of disaster capitalism prove that the basis of contemporary capitalism rests largely on the need for vital shocks to the system which have resulted in the enforcement of deregulation and privatization as normal practice. As a vehement political essay, 'The Shock Doctrine' makes for sobering and intelligent viewing.

13 December 2009

HARRY BROWN (Dir. Daniel Barber, 2009, UK) - Caine's Reverence

Michael Caine as 'Harry Brown'.

Touted as Michael Caine's last leading role, 'Harry Brown' was released a few weeks back with critics making comparisons with Eastwood's 'Gran Torino' which also saw an aging film star taking up the socially dubious yet morally intriguing role of the crusading vigilante. Produced by Matthew Vaughn who was responsible for the instantly forgettable British urban crime film 'Layer Cake' which starred Daniel Craig post James Bond phase, 'Harry Brown' follows in the vein of a series of sensationalist urban youth films. This paradigm includes 'Adulthood', 'Eden Lake' and 'Donkey Punch', films that offer variations on British youth culture but seem to be fascinated with the prescient ideological centrality of feral youth. Primarily a star vehicle for Michael Caine, the film reworks the enduring screen image of Jack Carter by preying upon our nostalgia for iconic British anti-heroes. This is director Daniel Barber's second film and though it is competently directed it is a film that rests largely on the shoulders of Michael Caine who remains a compelling actor to watch and one of the last British icons. Towards the end of the eighties, Caine's career entered what would become his most unproductive and unmemorable period. Though it is problematic for most mainstream British actors with an international profile to maintain consistency, Caine was fortunate enough in the mid nineties to get his career back and track and thus begin a late renaissance in what has now become a prolific and rich acting career. His credibility as a performer and a box office draw was restored with supporting roles in films like 'Blood and Wine', 'The Cider House Rules' and 'Little Voice'. 'The Quiet American' in 2002 reiterated Caine's enduring screen presence and reminded audiences and critics alike of his understated performance style.

With 'Harry Brown' Caine reconstructs the viciousness of Jack Carter in the context of a London housing estate that pits him against the apathy of gang culture. Tabloid trash might be one way of describing the sensationalist nature of Barber's film, stylising the aesthetics of social realism so not to be accused of abandoning a British linage. The film attempts to use the guise of the routine revenge thriller to superficially address quite important social ills plaguing the urban ghettos of inner city London but the narrative cannot but help refashion sequences from a range of influential vigilante films including 'Taxi Driver'. As a vigilante revenge thriller the film seems to work quite well and whilst Emily Mortimer looks out of place, the dependable Liam Cunningham shows up in somewhat of a predictable role. Films like 'New Moon' and 'The Hangover' continue to point to a trend that indicates how expendable stars are becoming to box office commercial success and whilst critic proof films like '2012' give credence to the diminishing role of star power in the face of high concept cinema, a film like 'Harry Brown' confirms that the star vehicle as a commercial cinematic ideal is unlikely to face extinction for years to come. Today's reality is that very few contemporary stars have the on screen presence and charisma often associated with the likes of Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Caine is unpretentious as they come and for that alone he should be revered.

11 December 2009

2012 (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009, US) - End Game

It was obviously very wrong of me to underestimate the stupidity of mainstream blockbusters by singling out the atrocious 'Terminator Salvation' as the benchmark of this year when in fact that much coveted prize must surely be awarded to Roland Emmerich's '2012', the latest in a long line of monstrously over inflated disaster films that have performed exceedingly well at the worldwide box office. With Cameron's much awaited 'Avatar' on the horizon and costing up to $500 million including marketing spends, '2012' is bankrupt high concept cinema which fails to even muster together a credible line of dialogue in what is a ridiculously overlong narrative. Featuring one of the most exhausting narrative expositions committed to celluloid, Emmerich's absence of talents left me in a state of temporary numbness which was made altogether worse by John Cusack's woefully sickening facial contortions. The only moment the film garners a shred of credibility is when we witness the gratifying annihilation of Woody Harrelson (a terribly unconvincing bearded hippie) by a shower of volcanic debris. At least they got one thing right about the end of the world.

EXTRACT (Dir. Mike Judge, 2009, US) - Counter Corporate Culture

Jason Bateman as Joel, the owner of an extract company.

With ‘Extract’, American director and writer Mike Judge returns to the familiar territory of the workplace. Alongside Richard Linklater, Judge seems to have developed a knack for representing the contradictions of Middle America and in ‘Extract’ like ‘Office Space’ it is corporate assimilation that he critiques through the prism of social satire. Joel (Jason Bateman) is the proud owner of an independently controlled extract factory but he can do little to hide the painful disintegration of his marriage. When a corporation offers to buy him out, Joel’s plans go awry when one of the workers at the extract plant is involved in a freak accident, resulting in the castration of one of his testicles. This being a Mike Judge film, the loss of a testicle triggers a lawsuit by the worker, which in turn helps Joel to make the decision not to sell the company and maintain the dignity of his workers. Like ‘Office Space’, ‘Extract’ also suggests that resisting corporate assimilation and ensuring that the workplace is democratically sustained is a process of common sense.

In contrast to the alienated, pacified worker drone of ‘Office Space’, ‘Extract’ shows an ideological unity amongst the workforce strictly because the absence of a dictatorial and suffocating hierarchical management has been replaced with style of leadership that is much more intimate and humane. If Judge continues satirising the workplace with the venomous brand of social and political satire he has cultivated over the years then his oeuvre might one day offer one of the singularly exclusive Marxist critiques on corporate capitalism that has emerged from the mainstream comedy genre. It is of little surprise that Mike Judge’s films are criminally under rated and often misunderstood by mainstream film academia and the Hollywood dependent review system as he repeatedly questions dominant ideals. Jason Bateman continues to prove he has exemplary comic time whilst Ben Affleck's minor role as a hippy confidante means a sort of muted redemption for his putrefied career as an actor. So far this film has not been scheduled for a UK release.

7 December 2009

AJANTRIK / PATHETIC FALLACY (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1958, India) - Man and Machine

Kali Bannerjee as Bimal, a man obsessed with his car.

Preceded by ‘Nagarik’ (The Citizen) which only got a release after Ghatak’s death, his second film ‘Ajantrik’ is the quirky story of one man’s undying love for his car, a 1920’s Chevrolet affectionately referred to as Jagaddhal. Ghatak says that he procrastinated over the story for twelve long years before making it into a film. Arguably one of the most idiosyncratic art films to have emerged from the fifties, ‘Ajantrik’ utilises a remarkably layered sound design and unsentimental narrative approach to produce a poignant and funny depiction of the awkward relationship between man and machine. When asked in an interview of the films most personally satisfying for him as a director, Ghatak chose to highlight four in particular including Ajantrik referring to its ‘brevity of expression and for certain technical achievements’. Film critic and academic Jonathan Rosenbaum go as far as to draw some enlightening parallels with the work of Jacques Tati:
‘I have no way of knowing if Ritwik Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it…There’s a similar association made between Bimal (Kali Banerjee), the cab-driver hero of Ajantrik, and his own broken-down car. The fact that this car has a name, Jagaddhal, and is even included in some rundowns of the film’s cast, also seems emblematic of this special symbiosis.’

On the most basic level Ghatak imbues the car with a riotous personality that comes to symbolise wider ideas including that of technology, the machine age and above all, rapid modernisation. Such are the affections Bimal harbours for his battered Chevrolet, his presence and existence becomes defined by an innate attachment. One could definitely label this as a road movie, with Bimal’s episodic journey across the plains of the Ganges delta providing some illuminating compositions of rural landscapes. However, it is the observation of the Oraons tribe through the elaborate dance rituals that offers a glimpse of Ghatak’s personal ethnographic fascination with marginalised cultures and people – a preoccupation underlined in an article titled ‘About Oraons: (Chotonagpur)’ written in 1955 by Ghatak and a short ‘preparatory test film’ which he shot whilst filming ‘Ajantrik’. He had hoped to make a film on the ‘life of the Adivasis of Ranchi region and on the Oraons of Rani Khatanga village’ but this like many other ideas were never realised due to financial difficulties and an uncompromising approach. The on screen depiction of the relationship between a man and his car has a critical linage running throughout Indian cinema. Here are a few examples that come to mind:

1. Ajantrik - 58, Ghatak

2. Abhijan - 62, Ray

3. Taxi Driver - 76, Scorsese (I couldn't resist)

4. Dharavi - 91, Mishra

5. Taxi No 9211 - 06, Luthria

Cinema and I, Ritwik Ghatak, 1987, Published by Ritwik Memorial Trust

26 November 2009

SUBARNAREKHA / THE GOLDEN LINE (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1962-1965, India) - Elliptical Elation

Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation's with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.

The triple jump cut in Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha'.

However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.

The opening to 'Mean Streets' - Scorsese's use of the triple jump cut.

22 November 2009

KURBAAN / SACRIFICE (Dir. Renzil D'Silva, 2009, India) – Regressive Politics

Problematic in many different ways, the latest from Karan Johar, 'Kurbaan' raises a number of ideological points:

1. It makes for regressive cinema.

re·gres·sive - opposing progress; returning to a former less advanced state.

2. Godard was right about mainstream popular cinema and its film makers. (April 1959)
‘Your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t even know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is…’

‘And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema…’

The above quotes are used in ‘The Altering Eye’, Robert Kolker, Oxford University Press, 1983 but are taken from ‘Godard on Godard’, Tom Milne, New York: Viking Press, 1972, pp. 146-47.

3. Advocating religious and racial tolerance whilst subscribing to the dominant point of view is a social and political contradiction. Here is what writer George Monbiot had to say about Ridley Scott’s xenophobic representations of Somalis in the 2001 film ‘Black Hawk Down’:
‘The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals inspired by Enya. The American troops display horrific wounds. They clutch photos of their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies, killed cleanly, dispensable, unmourned…’
Both saviour and victim, George Monbiot, The Guardian, Jan 2002

What is the difference between the xenophobic representations of Muslims compared to that of Ridley Scott’s racial stereotyping in ‘Black Hawk Down’? Very little, if any, would be my conclusion. 'Kurbaan' backs away from showing us the context of terrorism; instead it asks us to simply listen to the absurd sentimental banter of fanatics who relay their stories with tears and predictable Sufi chants. Though the Islamic terrorists may be victims themselves, we are offered no physical representation or narrative time to explore their resentment. In the end, it is the Americans who we see bloody and wounded, victims of an unchecked fanaticism.

4. Ritwik Ghatak was right about the state of mainstream Indian cinema:
‘People are changing. Things are changing. Times are changing. If you on showing some kind of trash ad infintum, there is a limit after which people will not go with you. Besides this, people are having experiences in their own lives and they cannot be satisfied with the old hash for long now. So either, one should get rid of set formula of hoodwinking the people, which is extremely difficult for unimaginative producers and risky too, or one should come clean, striking harmonious chord with contemporary urges, which can only be done by really creative and conscious artistes…'
What ails Indian film making, Ritwik Ghatak, Cinema and I, 1987, Ritwik Memorial Trust

5. Film reviewer Taran Adarsh had the following to say about the film 'Kurbaan':

‘On the whole, Kurbaan is the most powerful film to come out of the Hindi film industry in 2009, so far.’


Not only is this misleading in my opinion, it simply proves that Internet websites like India FM/Bollywood Hungama are inextricably tied to the very fabric of populist cinema and repeatedly fail to be critical of major film releases each week. Unfortunately, vital journalistic imperatives like impartiality, autonomy and independence become invisible when faced with tent pole films – to write ‘critically’ would inevitably mean limited access to the glamorous world of Bollywood. (Is 'Kurbaan' a critic proof film?) However, a little honesty and pluralism might attract much needed credibility for film reviewers like Taran Adarsh who can shape populist audience opinion. The other thing that makes me suspicious of IndiaFM/Bollywood Hungama is its increasing acknowledgement in the opening titles of major Indian releases; it is merely an extension of Bombay cinema’s metamorphosis into a hegemonic corporate entity.

6. Exploitation or serious social concerns?

Is it right to merely keep exploiting the sensitive and prescient issue of international terrorism for mainstream commercial purposes or do films like ‘Kurbaan’, ‘New York’ and ‘Faana’ realistically and convincingly debate such concerns? Indian cinema seems to have had more critical success with exploring domestic terrorism in films like ‘Dil Se’, ‘Aamir’ and ‘Black Friday’ then one’s which deal with 9-11. Part of me feels that films like ‘Kurbaan’ are merely exploiting an issue that has largely been made prominent by the media and offering very little in terms of concerted ideological engagement. Producer Karan Johar is merely reacting to the idea of topicality which in essence is what most producers tend to do but this does not seem to answer the crude and dominant stereotyping.

In the film, the terrorist Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) hails from Pakistan and the film seems to suggest that 9-11 was carried out by Islamic extremists from this region yet this historical engineering obscures the reality that most of the hijackers who orchestrated and carried out the twin towers atrocities were in fact of Middle Eastern origin. (Michael Moore argues this point endlessly in his documentary polemic ‘Fahrenheit 9-11’) Karan Johar argues that his film is a ‘love story’ and merely entertainment yet this does little to prevent the misleading representations of Muslims in the film from affecting the dubious ideological intentions of those involved.

7. The absence of secularism.

‘Kurbaan’ promotes a very dubious, if not reckless, political message by demonising Muslims and it subsequently rejects secularism for a culture of fear and religious anxiety. I’m not sure if such a slighted message fits in with the progressive and liberal attitudes of film makers who have tended to exist on the fringes and margins; Ritwik Ghatak being an illustrative example.

‘There can be little doubt that it was Jawaharlal Nehru, more than any other political leader of the Congress, who fought for secular principles in post-independence India. His triumph was complete, or so he thought, when India adopted a new constitution and declared itself a republic on 26 January 1950. Its new constitution was the longest in the world, but more importantly it was totally secular in character. There was no state religion; there was a complete separation of state from religion; schools were to be run on secular principles; there were to be no taxes to support any religion. All citizens were equal before the law and anyone could hold the highest offices of state; religious liberties were guaranteed to individuals as well as associations. The preamble had a distinctly social-democratic flavour. It promised all its citizens: ‘Justice, social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity…’
The Nehru’s and the Gandhi’s, Tariq Ali, 2005, Picador, pg 83.

If religion is a form of repression and an instrument of social and political control then it is not good enough for films like ‘Kurbaan’ to continue examining the affects of international terrorism without providing a graphic and contextual exploration of how American hegemony and imperialism creates poverty, subjugation and daily humiliation for the millions of oppressed who do not have a platform or voice with which to articulate their frustrations.

20 November 2009

BAKJWI / THIRST (Dir. Park Chan-Wook, 2009, South Korea) - Strangers in the night

Song Kang-ho is one of South Korea's most popular film stars.

Is Park Chan-wook an iconoclast or is he simply aspiring to be the next Tarantino? That was the question I kept coming back to whilst watching his latest film. Or perhaps it is wrong to equate him with Tarantino when he surely is a film maker who follows more in the vein of someone like Shohei Imamura; provocative, controversial and stylistically prescient. Actually, the imagery of Seijun Suzuki in films such as ‘Branded to kill’ and ‘Tokyo Drifter’ also come to mind when trying to trace a cinematic linage through the poster boy of Hallyu cinema. The other thing about Park Chan-wook is that his films don’t seem to be the event that they once were. Gone is the fanfare and publicity that came with his vengeance triptych. Though still celebrated at film festivals (‘Thirst’ predictably went down the traditional Cannes route before attracting critical acclaim) ‘Thirst’ arrived at UK cinemas almost under the radar, as if distributors were smuggling in a Trojan horse of sorts.

With all his films one can find very little to criticise in terms of technical achievements as his grasp of camerawork surpasses much of mainstream American cinema, which is often trying to imitate him. However, I was slightly disappointed with his allegorical retelling of the vampire myth. A note about vampires; their infiltration of popular culture in the form of the troubled youth ‘Twilight’ movie franchise and American imports like ‘True Blood’ has emerged as a response to the gloomy recession. If the disillusionment of the seventies is anything to go by then maybe we should prepare ourselves for a cinematic renaissance. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely as an aspiration when considering how the latest bombastic high concept juggernaut ‘2012’ (starring John Cusack?!) has only just triggered a renewed interest in the dormant disaster movie genre that plagued the mid nineties.
'This film was originally called "The Bat" to convey a sense of horror - after all, it is about vampires. But it is also more than that. It is about passion and a love triangle. I feel that it is unique because it is not just a thriller, and not merely a horror film, but an illicit love story as well.'
Park Chan-wook, Director’s Statement

‘An illicit love story’ is perhaps one way of reading a film that wraps itself in the conventions of the vampire film. Park Chan-wook says it was Hitchcock’s film ‘Vertigo’ that got him interested in film making, providing a rich starting point in terms of attempting to trace intertextual links and the influence on wider auteur concerns. This idea of metaphysical possession so often repeated in the Vampire myth is not unlike Scottie’s (James Stewart) attempts to reconstruct the vision of Madeleine that he obsesses over. This being Park Chan-wook, the love story broaches a taboo – the relationship between a priest and a young woman is eroticised and played out like an operatic melodrama whilst the film’s strangely predictable ending is lifted from Del Toro’s ‘Blade II’ sequel. I’m not sure if Park Chan-wook made this film purely out of reaction to some of his long time critics who felt he was anti-genre. By taking on the most universal of genres, it is hard not to see why the film has been one of the biggest hits at the Korean box office this year. However, closer interrogation reveals something insidiously clinical about the construction of Park Chan-wook’s films which makes many of his characters quite emotionless and very difficult to identify with – one becomes distanced very easily and adopts an observational spectator position. With ‘Thirst’, empty surfaces prevail and one is left deliberating over the declining critical status of Park Chan-wook as an auteur. However, the film did give us one of the best film posters of the year:

17 November 2009

MEGHE DHAKA TARA / THE CLOUD CAPPED STAR (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1960, India) - Aesthetics of Realism

The aesthetics of realism feature notably in the work of Ritwik Ghatak, rigorously disseminated in the austere compositions of landscapes. The allegorical motif of the train segregates and divides transparent histories, haunting Nita (Supriya Choudhury) in ‘Megha Dhaka Tara’ so that the trauma of partition becomes an infinite process, possessing her completely.

11 November 2009

UN PROPHETE / A PROPHET (Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2009, France) – Iconic Ascension

Jacques Audiard's fifth film as a director returns to the male psyche.

The systematic failure of the neo liberal and embarrassingly transparent French establishment to offer an inclusive policy of constructive social integration has fashioned an absence of mythological imagery for the French Arab youth. All cultures and social groups should unhesitatingly draw from a shared mythology but if one cannot relate to such myths then a natural resentment lingers that inevitably leads to a poisonous alienation. Kassovitz’s activist polemic refused to gloss over such cracks in the fabric of society and the political resistance of a film like ‘La Haine’ invoked a fiercely sentimental radicalism denied to such disaffected youth. Audiard’s compelling prison melodrama is comparable to Garrone’s ‘Gomorrah’; both elucidate a primitive masculinity that demands a voyeuristic gaze and wider sociological problematic – ownership is what makes those on the periphery dominant masters of human exploitation. In the context of Audiard’s ascension narrative, the voracious metamorphosis of the slave to the master in the prison system produces a quasi-religious ‘prophet’.

The harsh nondescript concrete walls, cold steel edges and fake plastic furniture are familiar iconographic elements of the prison genre yet their inclusion reminds us of a disparaging mise en scene recognisable in most facets of daily life including the workplace and even home. Prison as a microcosm of racial and class inequity suffocates Malik (Tahar Rahim), subjecting him to a litany of brutal masochistic rituals but the internal strength he draws from his constant humiliation creates an indifference in terms of his political position. The metaphysical dimension surfaces in the most benign of feral imagery, the deer; hurtling through the dreams of Malik whilst smashing across the windscreen as a reminder of the sincere, magnified abstractions generated by art cinema. Intellectually scored by Alexandre Desplat and anchored by what is a marvellous ensemble of unsentimental performances, Audiard’s fifth film as a director attests to his unrivalled status as one of the pre-eminent European auteurs at work today.

31 October 2009

DHARAVI / QUICKSAND (1992, Dir. Sudhir Mishra, India) - 'They all say, that I'm in a great hurry...'

A NFDC-Doordarshan Co Production

"Much of our cinema, even its so-called modern, alternative strand, is too referential. It thrives on imitation. It is not really our own cinema. We have to learn to break free and do our own thing," he [Sudhir Mishra] argues.

Hindi cinema's radical mainstream, Saibal Chatterjee, June 09 http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/jun09/jun091.asp

Should an auteur be judged on the near impossible criteria of consistency or should one simply stand back and simply accept that most film makers can only really ever become accomplished, credible artists if they remain true to themselves. Consistency as a demarcation of a film maker’s authorial status is perhaps arbitrary when considering how virtually most directors unhesitatingly alternate between the personal and the banal. Sudhir Mishra continues to be plagued with what is an inconsistent body of work, wavering from ambitious mainstream failure to realist political cinema. His 1992 parallel art film ‘Dharavi’ set in the slums of Bombay and starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (social realist favourites) certainly suggests a consistent authorial approach yet his status as an influential film maker is undermined by an unevenness in terms of narrative structure that characterises a number of key films.

When exactly the parallel cinema movement started and ended is largely unclear because of the reality that an art cinema has tended to exist alongside the mainstream, popular outlets in the film industry of most countries. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974) and M. S. Sathyu’s ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) certainly seem to act as definite starting points, signalling the birth of a new phase in the emergence of what would be dubbed ‘parallel cinema’. Though Sudhir Mishra has found it deeply problematic to make films on his own terms, ‘Dharavi’ was indicative of a movement which had peaked by the end of the eighties, occasionally producing a handful of noticeable art films in what was a largely commercialised nineties cinema. Perhaps this is why ‘Dharavi’ falls into the category of what is labelled as an unmemorable nineties art cinema.

Yet with the recent international success of stylised films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘City of God’, which have arguably popularised the imagery of slum poverty, Mishra’s realist morality appears wholly convincing and appropriately suited to depicting the lives of a marginalised underclass without resorting to the artifice of sentimentality or an overly constructed escapist narrative in which characters get the metaphorical chance to punch the air in glib satisfaction. A co production between NFDC and Doordarshan, ‘Dharavi’ revolves around a lowly taxi driver, played superbly by Om Puri, who dreams of starting his own business so that he can elevate himself out of the slums alongside his frustrated wife (Shabana Azmi), aging mother and naive son.

Combining a wonderfully atmospheric feel for authentic locations and an unpretentiously realist visual style, the film preys upon the prescient idea that mainstream entertainment in the form of popular cinema is both a diversion from confronting real man made problems in society and also a worryingly powerful distortion of inner ambitions. Mishra’s illustrative and inspired use of dream sequences which act as a projection of Om Puri’s opportunist fantasies features the presence of Madhuri Dixit as herself. The late Renu Saluja’s influential skills as an editor (a key figure in the parallel cinema movement) are evident in the tightly edited montage sequences depicting the visceral taxi journeys through the streets of Bombay, the original and appropriate use of slow motion and perhaps most significantly in the ideologically suggestive juxtaposition between reality and dreams.

Alternatively, Mishra’s film can also be viewed as a sociological study of male anxieties. Once all sense of moral dignity has become invisible to Yadav (Om Puri), a ferocious and uncontrollable anger stirs within the people of the slums who retaliate with violence, collectively resisting the sense of outrageous exploitation being committed in front of their very own eyes. The denouement may seem a little far fetched yet one suspends disbelief largely because the social oppression visible in the slums of Dharavi cannot remain repressed forever. However, nothing really changes for Raj Karan Yadav (Om Puri) as he reverts back to driving a taxi, confirming how survival and those like him are to an extent dependent on the democratic illusion of social mobility which is crudely propagated by the unattainable imagery of cultural icons like film stars. Mishra seems to be saying that the escape offered by Madhuri’s glowing red Saree may be infinite but at what price must this illusion be sustained?



Here in my personal opinion are some of the finest films of the last ten years. I have chosen to categorise them under four clear areas - Hollywood, World Cinema, Indian Cinema and British Cinema. That may seem a bit odd for what is supposed to be a list of the best films I have seen over the last ten years but I found it very problematic and nightmarish trying to narrow down what was an epic short list of potential films. I suspect over the coming weeks I will be adding to this canon with lists focused on genre, independent cinema, great performances, directors who have shown the most consistency, etc. The films listed appear in no particular order.


Fincher's most mature and ambitious film to date.

1. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) - If only all films shot digitally could look as beautiful as this.

2. The New World (Terence Malick, 2005) - A lifetime worth of imagery.

3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) - The most politically radical film of the decade?

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) - Brad Pitt shows he can act.

5. Sunshine State (John Sayles, 2002) - John Sayles is America’s finest Independent film maker.

6. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002) - Genre film making at its best.

7. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) - Enigmatically bold.

8. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2005) - Los Angeles noir.

9. Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005) - The first and only Hollywood film to humanise a suicide bomber.

10. Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000) - A history of a people.

Honorable Mentions:

11. Goodbye Solo
12. Elephant
13. Michael Clayton
14. The Mist
15. The Dark Knight
16. Into The wild
17. Munich
18. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
19. The Yards
20. Requiem for a Dream


Haneke deals with the colonial guilt of France.

1. Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005, France) - Unflinchingly prescient film making.

2. Time Out
(Laurent Cantent, 2001, France) - Dehumanisation of the work place.

3. Che: Parts 1 & 2 (Steven Soderbergh, 2008, Spain) - A staggering achievement and with subtitles too.

4. Three Times (Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2005, Taiwan) - A film about relationships.

5. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, 2007, Germany) - Trapped in two worlds.

6. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009, France) - France's finest film maker is Jacques Audiard.

7. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006, Romania) - Political satire that bites.

8. The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2004, Germany) - Youthful anti establishment musings.

9. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008, Italy) - Neo neo realist cinema.

10. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) - The Hallyu.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006, Germany) - A political thriller for grown ups.

Honorable Mentions:

11. One, Two, Three – Belvaux trilogy
12. In The Mood For Love
13. The Child
14. Consequences of Love
15. Let The Right One In
16. Beat My Heart Skipped
17. The Return
18. Still Life
19. Uzak
20. Robert Succo


Mira Nair's 2001 film won the golden lion at the Venice film festival. It is still her warmest film to date.

1. Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001) - Patriarchal anxieties in postmodern India.

2. The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, 2001) - The close ups on Irfan Khan's eyes.

3. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) - Youthful political ideals.

4. Aap Tak Chhaappan (Shimit Amin, 2004) - Nana Patekar is the Lee Marvin of Indian cinema.

5. Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003) - Macbeth Bhardwaj style.

6. Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006) - Revolutionaries.

7. Sarkar (Ram Gopal Varma, 2005) - Amitabh Bachchan.

8. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001) - A beautiful homage to the cinema of the past.

9. Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004) - Proves why Kashyap is one of the finest Indian auteurs.

10. Raincoat (Rituparno Ghosh, 2004) - Devgan and Rai's best performances to date.

Honorable Mentions:

11. Swades
12. Yuva
13. Company
14. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
15. Khosla Ka Ghosla
16. Manorama Six Feet Under
17. Water
18. Eklavya: The Royal Guard
19. The Rising
20. Johnny Gaddar


Ken Loach's most successful film to date.

1. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach, 2006) - Loach's greatest achievement as a director; the most accomplished political film of the decade.

2. This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) - Tolerance.

3. Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002) - Truth.

4. Hunger (Steven McQueen, 2008) - A film about textures.

5. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) - Finally, a worthy British horror film.

6. In This World (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) - Escaping impoverishment.

7. Dead Man's Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004) - A powerful revenge tragedy.

8. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002) - The silent minority.

9. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) - Superior genre cinema.

10. Yasmin (Kenneth Glenaan, 2004) - Belonging.