24 February 2010

ZANJEER / THE CHAIN (Dir. Prakash Mehra, 1973, India) - Angry Young Men

Amitabh Bachchan as Inspector Vijay Khanna

The angry young man phenomenon that emerged out of the tentative screenplays of writers Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) in the 1970s was in part shaped by the Indian Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi that lasted between 75 and 77 yet predominately the origins of Amitabh Bachchan’s often repeated ‘Vijay’ persona was ideologically conflated with the anti-hero of the forties and Indian mythology. In Zanjeer, similarly like many of the angry young man films of the 70s that featured Amitabh Bachchan what remains strikingly magnified today is the exemplary quality of screenplays produced by Salim-Javed. Their work reached its epoch in Shakti that paired Dilip Kumar with Amitabh Bachchan, exhausting many of their creative ideas whilst leaving open the potential of continually reinventing the angry young persona for Indian cinema’s most culturally iconic of film stars. Watching Zanjeer today, it has been transformed through postmodern homage and imitation into a kitsch cinematic catalogue of star persona's, social anxieties and zeitgeist hyperbole.

The ultimate pleasure it offers an audience is situated in a nostalgic yearning for the masala cinema of the seventies. If Zanjeer was a revenge film and Shakti a film about father and son then Deewar’s rags to riches narrative seemed to be the one that offered the most visceral and provocative ideological connection with the state of Indian society; Deewar features perhaps the most realised of the Vijay persona’s as it succeeds in blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, upon its release Zanjeer may have been declared as groundbreaking in terms of the mainstream but the melodramatic gestures makes one firmly position this as a film that grasps traditions. The radicalism may have been in the volatile persona of Amitabh’s Vijay but around him, traditional forces constantly remind us that in the midst of such cynicism, an impulse to recognise the vitality of popular genres is what makes much of the work of Salim-Javed so instrumental to mainstream Indian cinema.

Here's a classic scene from the film in which Vijay and Sher Khan (Pran) lay the foundations to an enduring friendship:

16 February 2010

EK DIN PRATIDIN / A DAY LIKE ANY OTHER (Dir. Mirnal Sen, 1979, India)

Chinu (Mamata Shankar) is the sole bread winner in the family - it is a terrible burden.

Released in 1979, Ek Din Pratidin marked the beginning of a new phase in the career of Mrinal Sen yet in many ways this is far superior to his earlier work including Calcutta 71 and Interview. The story focuses on a middle class Bengali family in which the oldest daughter, Chinu (Mamata Shankar), is the sole breadwinner. One evening when she fails to return home, the family fears the worst. Events unfold over the space of a few hours and as the family awaits the return of the daughter, tensions amongst them come to the fore. The family lives in what is a large multi storey mansion and they pay rent to the despotic landlord who taunts all the tenants with the threat of eviction. The claustraphobic nature of the settings as most of it takes place within the confines of the house gives the film a particularly strong theatrical feel. Like Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara to which Sen pays explicit homage is the concern with which the film explores the position of the working woman in a new Bengali society and the forces of conservatism and tradition that threaten to destroy her reputation. Like the best melodramas, Sen looks at both women and family whilst suggesting how both seem to dysfunction in the face of poverty. The daughter's failure to return home provokes an angry response from the youngest daughter who accuses the family of harbouring a selfishness that exploits the familial sentiments of Chinu. It becomes shamefully apparent to both the father and mother that their daughters existence prevails solely to keep intact the structure of the family and to also sustain what dignity they have left.

The search for Chinu leads her brother to hastily visit the local morgue in which he comes face to face with accident victims. It is a nightmarishly shot sequence and tellingly illustrates how their dilemma is not an isolated one and exists in a wider social malaise. This is repeated later in the hospital when Sen has potential relatives and family members directly address the camera as they wait to identify the body of a dead girl. When Chinu finally does arrive home safely at dawn, the landlord reacts angrily by threatening the family with eviction, citing the failure to maintain a level of moral decency as the cause of their supposed transgression. Perhaps in the most overtly political moment in the film, the son reacts violently, condemining the landlord as a hypocrite and a symbol of conservative ideology. Ek Din Pratidin is a remarkable film, underlining Sen's urgency as both a political film maker and social commenator on Bengali society. I can see now why he is held in such high regard by critics and Sen deservedly earns his position alongside respective Bengali auteurs like Ray and Ghatak. Now that Ray and Ghatak have both been given their dues as influential and key film makers in the realms of Indian Art cinema, Sen's contribution and body of work still needs to be celebrated and analysed further. On a final note, Ek Din Pratidin was financed by the NFDC when the funding body was working at its peak. Currently, the NFDC website is asking for bids for the radical updating of their current website and also the introduction of a new VOD (Video On Demand) service. If both of these services come to fruition then it could potentially open up a whole new area of cinema and research that has often been inaccessible and marginalised.

7 February 2010

GHARE-BAIRE / HOME AND THE WORLD (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1984, India)

This is the first film I have seen from what is deemed the final phase (1983 – 1992) of Satyajit Ray’s career and undoubtedly Ghare-Baire is one of his most ideologically complex works. A lot of this complexity extends from the historical context of Bengal at the turn of the century. Admittedly, researching the likes of Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha and many other great Bengali film makers underlines the cultural impact of the Bengal renaissance on cinema. Ghare-Baire was another skillful adaptation of a novel by Tagore, exploring the decisive nationalist movement ‘Swadeshi’ in which foreign goods, mostly British, were boycotted as a response to Lord Curzon’s politically motivated decision to partition Bengal along religious grounds and effectively put an end to the united front. The active political resistance as symbolised in the Swadeshi movement becomes entangled in a ideologically inflammatory debate between Nikhil Choudhury (Victor Banerjee), a wealthy landlord, his naive wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) and Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee), a revolutionary leader propagating the national boycott of British goods.

In many ways, Ghare-Baire finds strong parallels with Charulata, another Tagore novel, in that the actions of the male characters are largely determined by a bold feminist causality. Sandip’s attempt to convince Nikhil to endorse the boycott of foreign goods is met with disapproval. He argues that those involved in the movement, namely the Bengali middle classes, have at their means the status to become political whereas those who depend on the trading of foreign goods as their only source of income cannot afford such a compromise as it would mean self destruction of a livelihood. In a 1982 interview with Derek Malcolm, when questioned about the contemporary political relevance of Tagore’s book today, Ray had this to say:
‘It is important in our present confused situation to make films of classics, just to inform people of what happened. And what happened was really quite simple. These were Hindu landlords in a predominately Muslim area, and the political leader, unlike the zamindar, does not think Muslims are part of India. He is fomenting trouble between the two communities. But more than that, he is calling for a nationalist movement that would react against the British. It was primarily a movement based on the middle classes and calling for such things as the wearing of specifically Indian clothes, which was absurd because there was often no substitute in the shops. It was bound first to cause trouble and then to peter out.’
Satyajit Ray: Interview, Derek Malcolm, Sight & Sound (Spring, 1982) 106-9.
Taken from Satyajit Ray Interviews, Edited by Bert Cardullo, 2007

Soumitra Chatterjee as Sandip, the nationalist leader of the Swadeshi movement.

In many ways Sandip is a classic demagogue, appealing to the emotional sentiments of his followers whilst using the idea of political resistance as a pretext for religious persecution. This plea for communal tolerance came out of Tagore’s own reiteration of non violence during India’s struggle for independence. Interestingly, when Ray was criticised for neglecting to give a sustained voice to the lower classes that we encounter in the film, he tellingly pointed them into the direction of Sadgati (Deliverance), a blistering critique on the caste system which he made in 1981 for television. Ray was around sixty when he made Ghare-Baire and it was whilst making the film that he suffered his first heart attack. A few of Ray’s films after Sadgati were financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) including Ghare-Baire which also featured one of his costliest budgets.

2 February 2010

THE DRIVER (Dir. Walter Hill, 1978, US) – ‘The streets were dark with something more than night…’

Isabelle Adjani and Ryan O'Neal in 'The Driver'.

It was Kent Jones who claimed with great validity that John Carpenter was American cinema’s last great genre film maker. This might also have been true of Walter Hill when he was working at his peak in the eighties and for whom the western genre was a continuous source of inspiration for many of his films set in the contemporary milieu of the urban city as nightmarish metropolis (The Warriors). Of late, Walter Hill has become more synonymous for his association with the popular HBO western series ‘Deadwood’ which he helped to create, triggering a cycle of recent American revisionist westerns including the likes of ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. If one was to surely mention his 1978 film ‘The Driver’ to an audience today then the likely response would be skewed into the direction of a popular video game which was based on the original film. Though the term existential crime thriller may sound vaguely pretentious it nevertheless provides one of the clearest ways in which to define Hill’s accomplished and taut 1978 mood piece. However, the moral uncertainty that unites the figures of the criminal and the cop in the film are not simply sustained by genre permutations.

A closer look at the film unveils a complex interconnected matrix of intertextual signifiers. Much of this is due to cinematic homage on part of Walter Hill yet the film’s connection to the past and it’s influence on the present provides what is a missing link in the evolution of the existential crime thriller, suggesting quite strongly how the parameters of mainstream American genres continue to be broached and appropriated for the expression of cinephile concerns. It would be worthwhile to dwell on these intertextual signifiers and explore how Hill’s film absorbs a range of influences, giving the film its minimalist style that reflexively echoes the work of European auteurs and classical Hollywood cinema.

It is not surprising that both John Carpenter and Walter Hill are in agreement on the influence of Howard Hawks as their male protagonists seem out of synch with contemporary society. Their mere existence is signified by an attachment to a nostalgic and primitive view of American society in which the resistance to conform was a potential source of male identity. Perhaps more so than Carpenter, Hill’s preoccupation with a moral code which his male characters in particular are absolutely dependent upon is also an aspect of the western genre that becomes conflated with a Hawksian regard for an innate belief in professionalism, integrity and most importantly, self respect. This is evident in the central character of ‘the cowboy’ (Ryan O’Neal) who treats the role of a getaway driver as one of great social defiance and non conformity. Not only does he invest a disconcerting level of professionalism and sincerity into his work as a driver but the distance he maintains from mainstream society positions him as a rebel. To defend the validity of the moral code upon which the driver depends also elevates his status beyond those around him including the insidious and troublesome police detective played by Bruce Dern.

Melville’s oeuvre was extensive and whilst he had considerable range, his specialism was undoubtedly the crime film genre and ‘Le Samourai’ is today the quintessential Melville film. Hill has said that ‘The Driver’ was a reworking of ‘Le Samourai’ and of course this is reflected in the virtually silent and enigmatic figure of the driver who similarly like Jef Costello (Alan Delon) in Melville’s film also espouses contempt for the law. We even find Ryan O’Neal’s character imitate the blank facial expressions of Delon and his alienation is an aspect of his life that he never wants to reject, instead viewing it as another means of appearing anonymous. In essence, none of the characters in Hill’s film are particularly appealing, in fact, one could argue that they are all flawed in some way and I guess this makes it infinitely more problematic in terms of audience identification. On many occasions, the references to ‘Le Samourai’ are very explicit and Hill’s control over the pace of the film, which unfolds eloquently, also mirrors the minimalism characterising Melville’s films.

Walter Hill started out his career as an assistant director to Peter Yates on the classic crime film ‘Bullitt’. In addition and perhaps more importantly his collaboration with Sam Peckinpah on the ‘Getaway’ in the 1970s established what would become a lifelong authorial fascination with the western genre. With ‘The Driver’, Walter Hill relocates many elements of the western to an urban city environment whilst the conflict between the cop and the criminal replicates a classical thematic collision of ideals. Ryan O’Neal is referred to as ‘the cowboy’ who by mocking his ability to outsmart the police also stresses his marginalized status in society. The film represents the driver as having no attachments whatsoever – the thrill for him resides purely in being able to outsmart the law and also oppose the establishment. The western origins resurface quite strongly in the final moments of the film as Ryan O’Neal succeeds in outsmarting the law and his walking away suggests how the cowboy may have faded from our screens but whose ideals of a solitary existence still remain visible in the image of urban modernity.

The influence of Walter Hill’s film on the work of Mann especially in regards to the construction of the alienated yet dedicated professional loner often goes unacknowledged. Though Hill inherits an austere tradition from Melville who in turn borrows liberally from Japanese samurai mythology, the driver’s adherence to a punishing moral code and lack of emotional attachments prefigures Mann’s morally ambiguous anti-heroes. Ryan O’Neal’s sharply suited, ice cold character is a virtual template for Vincent in ‘Collateral’ and also mirrors Frank in ‘Thief’. One could go back even further, tracing a linage to films like ‘Bullitt’, ‘The Getaway’ and ‘Point Blank’ in which the male characters seem prisoners of a system that offers minimal validation. However, the criminal in many of Mann’s crime films are punished for transgression. This is a very traditional and perhaps even conservative means of preserving social order but in Hill’s film, the criminal is offered a way out whilst the absence of sophistication or skill in the figure of the egocentric police detective makes the character of the driver/cowboy altogether more noble and revolutionary in his intent.

Having already touched upon the film’s relationship with the western, another explicit genre link is with the morally decrepit universe of film noir. The film adheres less to the thematic traits of noir and more to the stylistic signifiers in the form of downtown Los Angeles, neonesque bar rooms, grubby apartments and a fixation with the night. Particularly striking is the film’s use of the desolate city streets of downtown Los Angeles which acts as an impressive visual backdrop for many of the visceral car chases. Yet again, this echoes the work of Mann and especially ‘Collateral’ whilst also predating ‘The Terminator, another film which similarly transforms downtown Los Angeles into a dystopian urban nightmare. This was Walter Hill’s second film as a director and coming in under just ninety minutes; it is a superlative exercise in genre film making. As for Hill, the poor guy still hasn’t been given the recognition he deserves.