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