27 April 2010

MY NAME IS KHAN (Dir. Karan Johar, 2010, India) - The Unapologetic Muslim and Post 9-11 Ideologies

The all too familiar concept known as the suspension of disbelief is far greater in the mainstream Indian melodrama than it is in most Hollywood films and when it comes to a film by Karan Johar it moves beyond the hyperbole and into a realm of cathartic sentimentality. My Name is Khan has been one of the major Indian event films of the year, underlining the continuing global popularity of Indian cinema. Compared to his previous work, much of which has been highly derivative, director/producer Karan Johar’s latest film seems relatively restrained. Most critics prefer to trash the reputation and criticise the artistic credibility of populist directors like Karan Johar but to date he has directed four feature films which certainly qualifies for a closer look at his work. The defining characteristic of these four films has been Karan Johar’s close collaboration with Indian cinema’s biggest contemporary film star; Shah Rukh Khan. The star presence of SRK has meant all four films have enjoyed widespread commercial success particularly with the NRI audience to which Karan Johar has been accused of pandering at the expense of an indigenous, domestic one.

With Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens) in 1998, Karan Johar successfully re-launched his father’s production company, Dharma Productions, which had enjoyed moderate success in the ninety eighties with films like Dostana (Friendship, 1980). The usual accusations of nepotism followed when Karan Johar’s entry into the film industry was on the film Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (The big hearted will take the bride, 1995) in which he appeared in a small role whilst supporting the director Aditya Chopra. This initial encounter with film making was instrumental in terms of establishing a team of key collaborators with whom Karan Johar would return to on many occasions. Most important was his introduction to both Kajol and SRK with whom we would go on to make three films. Equally significant was Karan Johar’s relationship with Yash Raj who initially acted as distributor of his debut film and with whom he has collaborated in the production and distribution of a number of successful films including most prominently Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow May Not Come, 2003) directed by Nikhil Advani. Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra’s close working relationship has meant that Yash Raj more or less dominates when it comes to the populist mainstream Indian film as a global brand.

Karan Johar (right) is one of Indian cinema's most successful directors.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the rise of Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and SRK run parallel with each other. Unfortunately, the critical reception for the majority of these films has been none too favourable. This continues to prevent a serious critical analysis from taking place of Karan Johar’s work. A lot of this hostility reflects a critical and cultural snobbery that exists amongst writers and academics towards the apparent ideological limitations espoused by populist cinema. Admittedly, some of the films Karan Johar has produced have been somewhat disastrous in terms of their glib ideological discourse and I can see why some would prefer to maintain a cautionary distance. However, this is exactly what makes My Name is Khan such an important evolutionary step in the career of Karan Johar as it operates in an explicit post 9-11 context. It is a contextual dimension which has been decidedly absent from the first three collaborations with SRK. In many ways, My Name Is Khan could be read as their first fully engaged ideological collaboration and also appears quite personal given SRK plays a Muslim character suffering from Asberger’s syndrome. Undoubtedly, the morality of the film is both a little simplistic and deeply sentimental but I am not entirely sure if we should let this emotionally manipulative approach detract from what is an unusually optimistic and perhaps even unconventional representation of a Muslim as the central character.

Prior to the film’s release, SRK’s comments on the IPL’s team selection in which Pakistani players were deliberately overlooked created a stir in the media, unleashing a torrent of sensationalist reporting in which SRK was criticised for his unpatriotic sentiments. It was enough to whip the right wing nationalist religious and political groups into a frenzy of misplaced protest. Writer and academic Vinay Lal’s comments are very illustrative here:
‘Shahrukh Khan, often described as the reigning star of Bollywood, is the most recent enemy of the nation identified by Bal Thackeray, the aging and agitated but still agile leader of the Shiv Sena. The sin with which Shahrukh is charged is none other than the suggestion, aired by some others as well, that the cricket teams which comprise the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have done an injustice to the Pakistani players by failing to make a bid for a single Pakistani player. Why the IPL teams did not make any such bid is an interesting question in itself, and what it says about the sentiments which predominate among the truly moneyed classes in India, is a matter that I shall have to leave aside for the moment. Shahrukh is alleged to have betrayed the nation by his remarks, but of course the matter is more complex. As a Muslim, he has always been suspect; and one of the canards to which the Sena subscribes is the view that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation. Shahrukh and the other Khans of Bollywood, Salman and Aamir, and now Saif Ali, have long been resented for their domination of the Hindi film world.’
Turmoil in the Great City: Shahrukh and the Shiv Sena February 14, 2010 by Vinay Lal http://vinaylal.wordpress.com/

The film was marketed and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Shiv Sena disrupted screenings of the film in India with attacks on cinema houses. Vinay Lal’s comments position SRK as an Indian Muslim who has never disguised or masked over his religious identity yet the family image of SRK in which the mandir and mosque co exist side by side constructs a truly secularist and progressive idea of Indian society that admittedly offers one of the best explanations for SRK’s worldwide appeal and iconic status as a popular Indian film star. The recent mainstream Indian event film has tended to be a film of two halves and My Name Is Khan follows a similar formula in which the first half is dominated by frivolity whilst the second descends into despair. Whilst the film remains faithful to Karan Johar’s sweet and sour dichotomy, it is the much wider post 9-11 context explored through the character of Rizwan that transforms this into the ideal vehicle for examining anxieties, fears and dilemmas confronting the Muslim community in America and the West. Much of the film’s sincere yet simplistic ideological drive hinges on the mantra, ‘My Name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist’, adopted and regularly articulated by the Forest Gump like Rizwan Khan. This unapologetic approach becomes a rallying cry when Rizwan sets out on a journey across America to meet the President so that he can defend his Muslim identity and counter the xenophobic attitudes which have taken hold of society after the aftermath of September 11.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the film rests in its problematic and stereotypical representations of the African American community that Rizwan meets. Many of the sequences in Georgia made me feel slightly uncomfortable as I am certain Karan Johar and the writer could have easily stayed away from perpetuating regressive African American representations. Much of the film is constructed around Rizwan’s journey and the conventions of the road movie genre feature strongly in the narrative as he is brought into contact with a cross section of the Muslim community including the fanatical and extremist aspects. Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans is also referred to explicitly and yet again I am not too sure this aspect of the film in which Rizwan leads a fight to help the abandoned people of a small town in Georgia convincingly fits into the narrative.

Nevertheless, both Chak De India and My Name is Khan have offered a different spin on SRK’s star image as both films have found him playing Muslim characters and both films have tried to explore the relationship between his on and off screen image. Chak De India was the first film to fully explore SRK’s Muslim identity in the context of a new Indian society, responding to the claims of Hindu Nationalist parties like the Shiv Sena ‘that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation.’ (Vinay Lal, 2010) In this context, SRK has admittedly been quite open in the deconstruction of his star image and with My Name is Khan, we see him offer prayers and even appear in the confines of the Mosque, a space which has been defined by the media as somewhat fanatical and unsafe. In a way, My Name is Khan may not have appeared as a risky commercial venture given the fact it has become the biggest grossing Indian film worldwide but on closer scrutiny and especially with SRK playing a fully drawn Muslim character, audiences who preferred the romantic and secularist hero could easily have stayed away.

The influence of popular American films including Forest Gump and Rain Man is evident throughout.

However, one could argue that this would never have happened given the expensive marketing campaign and the anticipation generated by such a prominent event film. As for Karan Johar, the family melodrama dominated his first three films but with My Name is Khan he seems to have finally shifted the focus to characterization and a concerted, if not simplistic, attempt at ideological engagement with contemporary political and social issues. Nine of the ten highest grossing Bollywood films in the UK feature SRK, underlining his dominance as India’s leading film star. In the UK, SRK’s films tend to outperform most of the major Bollywood releases and it is of little surprise that My Name is Khan has performed exceptionally well at the box office. The negative of such hegemonic star dominance is that alternative and independent Indian films rarely get a look in when it comes to distribution. The current worldwide gross stands at $36 million (box office mojo figures) which is very impressive but I am not sure if this could have been more considering the potential cross over nature of the film. In terms of its technical aspects, My Name Is Khan is just as good as most major Hollywood films and I think that the Hollywood studios are still waiting for the moment when a Bollywood film finally does cross over on a scale comparative to that of Slumdog Millionaire.

25 April 2010

INDIAN PARALLEL CINEMA - An Introduction (1969 - )

Most academics and scholars are in agreement that 1969 is probably an accurate starting point in terms of pin pointing the beginnings of parallel cinema with Mrinal Sen's FDC financed Bhuvan Shome. However, the end of the movement is far more problematic to isolate as the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) continues to support indigenous and emerging film makers in terms of financial support. Though key film makers of the parallel cinema movement including Mrinal Sen are no longer active, exceptions exist in the form of Shyam Benegal.

With a low budget, no stars and the absence of any songs, Ankur (1973) truly was an unconventional Indian film. Benegal’s social critique even bypassed the newly established FFC for funding, finding an unlikely partner in Blaze, an advertising company with which the director had close ties. With direct access to cinema exhibition across India, Blaze Films was established as an independent production company and distributor. Benegal says he was the one who approached Blaze with the idea of directing a feature film and their willingness to act as both producer and distributor was critical in breaking the monopoly of mainstream Hindi cinema by rejecting many of the established rules and helping to popularise the art house film as a commercially viable movement. Academic Madhava Prasad underlines the political relevance of Blaze as an independent distributor,‘Sensing the existence of a market for a cinema different from the popular as well as the ‘middle class’ variety, [Blaze] engaged one of its ad-film makers, Shyam Benegal to direct Ankur, thus inaugurating the commercial exploitation of the political dimension of the FFC’s aesthetic project.’ (Prasad, 1998: 130)

With the unexpected commercial success of a film like Bhuvan Shome which performed tremendously well for a low budget art film, Blaze sensed that the emergence of a middle class audience versed in the language of European cinema could potentially evolve into a lucrative niche market. This hunger for the art film was qualified in the success of Ankur, cementing the development of a parallel cinema with which both Benegal and Shabana Azmi would become synonymous icons. However, the conditions for a new realist cinema spearheaded by Benegal were in no way a sudden phenomenon. The core argument for an alternative mode of cinematic address had originally been touted by the IPTA, a leftist theatre organisation that found many of its members actively involved in using film as an ideological instrument. However, the state’s subservience to Hollywood imports and a reluctance to heed the advice outlined in a 1951 report by the S.K Patil Film Inquiry Committee delayed the inevitable emergence of an indigenous parallel cinema. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1994: 25) says the 1951 report highlighted ‘the shift from studio system to independent entrepreneurship’ whilst also recommending ‘major state investment for film production, the setting up of a film finance corporation, a film institute and archives.’

The monopolisation of the distribution and exhibition network by the major film making hub in Bombay would have definitely had an influence on why exactly the report was ignored as the recommendation for state investment would have raised concerns amongst many of the major producers who were not willing to share a market in which certain films would have favourable support from the government. State sponsored cinema even today tends to provoke a strong reaction amongst some directors who argue that such a situation in which the political values of the state and those of the film maker co exist is problematic in that the two will inevitably come to a consensus, thus diluting and compromising the ideological purity of the film’s initial aims. Of course, this might be true of countries in which the ruling government does make use of ideological state apparatus like cinema as a means of circulating dominant values but the films that have been financed either partially or fully by the NFDC arguably share a leftist perspective that runs contrary to much of the conservative rhetoric espoused by consecutive Indian governments.

Taking just under ten years for the government to respond to the recommendations of the report, in 1960, the film finance corporation was established by Nehru with a remit that centred on supporting good quality films through financial assistance in the form of low interest loans. Admittedly, at first the FFC initially aligned themselves with established directors in the film industry, backing in particular Satyajit Ray. Rajadhyaksha argues that the commercial success of Bhuvan Shome was the turning point, encouraging the FFC to fully support ‘low budget, independent films’. The acceleration of loans between 1969 and 1979 made to over fifty films launched the careers of numerous directors, leading to a vibrant and politically conscious cinema. Though the FFC continued to face a virtual embargo in terms of distribution and exhibition, Prasad (1998: 127-8) argues that ‘the middle class movement in the mainstream industry was strong enough to prompt a suitable expansion of exhibition outlets’. This was subsequently supported by opening the first FFC art house cinema in 1972 whilst ‘in many cities, new theatres with reduced seating capacity were built specifically for the middle class film’. (Prasad, 1998: 127-8) Simultaneously, the promotion of film culture through the emergence of film societies coincided with a new cine literate middle class audience.

Another equally significant factor often overlooked when contextualising parallel cinema is the decision taken by the government in 1971 to reject the renewal of a ‘5 year contract for the import of Hollywood films.’ (Prasad, 1998: 190) The dislodging of Hollywood’s domination was useful in opening up a new area of indigenous cinema as it meant Indian film makers no longer had to face the indignity of subservience. Even in light of today’s American hegemony, India is one of the few nations in which the domestic box office each year is made up of home grown films. Ironically, it was Satyajit Ray who was the first to personally criticise the idea of a New Indian Cinema arguing it was merely a pretentious euphemism connected with Godard and the French New Wave. Unlike Benegal and Nihalani who considered themselves ‘middle of the road’, the experimental and avant-garde cinema of European influenced Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul represented the fringes of what had evolved into a rich national cinema. The drop in Hollywood imports inevitably led to a greater opportunity for indigenous films to negotiate with exhibitors. It was around this time in 1973 that Blaze released Benegal’s debut Ankur, scoring an unexpected commercial success.

It was during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 75 and onwards that the FFC faced its first real crisis. An investigation by The Committee on Public Undertakings in 1976 criticised the FFC for an art film bias and also failing to choose projects that stood a chance of turning a profit at the box office. As a direct consequence of the investigation, the FFC had to adopt a new ‘aesthetic criteria for future film funding including human interest in theme, Indianness and characters with whom we can identify.’ (Rajadhyaksha, 1998) In 1980, the FFC merged with the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation, becoming the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). Two years later, the NFDC was involved in co-financing Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982) and throughout the early 1980s, it experienced it’s most instrumental and productive decade, distributing a catalogue of quality Indian films that have come to be regarded as the high point of parallel cinema. This period of prominence includes award winning films such as Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, Govind Nihalani, 1980), Anantram (Monologue, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1987), Ardh Satya (Half Truth, Govind Nihalani, 1983), Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Take, Ketan Mehta, 1980), Chakra (Ravindra Dharmaraj, 1980), Ghare-Baire (The Home and the Word, Satyajit Ray, 1984), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Who Pays the Piper, Kundan Shah, 1983), Khandhar (Mrinal Sen, 1983), Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1988), Sati (Aparna Sen, 1989) and Tarang (Wages and Profit, Kumar Shahani, 1984).

It was in the nineties that Indian cinema started to change yet again with both the family film and image of the romantic hero revived in the films of new stars like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. Today, the NFDC continues to support Indian art films and still finances a number of films year each year. However, growth of independent production companies, the rise in cinema screens and the dominance of television have obscured the role of the NFDC. Even the leading light of parallel cinema Shyam Benegal turned to UTV Motion Pictures, a newly established international production company, for the production and distribution of his 2008 comedy film Welcome to Sajjanpur. No equivalent art-film movement as that of parallel cinema exists today but the new wave of film makers including Ram Gopal Varma, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap certainly acknowledge the realist aesthetic of auteurs like Benegal, Nihalani and Shahani on their own work.

23 April 2010

THE GHOST WRITER (Dir. Roman Polanski, 2010, France/Germany/UK) - 'If we meet any terrorists, I'll text you.'

Pierce Brosnan plays ex Prime Minister Adam Lang whilst Ewan McGregor is the unnamed ghost writer.

With the furore enveloping Polanski’s possible extradition to face trial in America, his latest film The Ghost Writer has become a timely reminder of the way in which the oeuvre of an auteur as distinctive and respected as Polanski can offer a cathartic commentary on personal dilemmas that have characterised his private life. The Ghost Writer is an impressive political thriller that finds Polanski revisiting familiar thematic territory and along the way invoking the memory of films like Chinatown whilst articulating a prescient discourse on contemporary politics. A skillful adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel, the figure of ex British Prime Minister Adam Lang played with the appropriate degree of smugness by Pierce Brosnan is an unmistakable shadow of Tony Blair. Holed up in his isolated post-modern bunker on the shore of Martha’s Vineyard and vilified by the media at large, Adam Lang struggles to finish his memoirs. Help comes in the form of a ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor, who is hired to assist Lang.

Polanski's latest film is set in America but was shot entirely in Europe.

However, this being a film by Roman Polanski dedicated to the influence of Hitchcock, our ghost writer uncovers a sinister political conspiracy that involves Ruth Lang, wife of Adam Lang. Olivia Williams delivers what is a tour de force as the manipulative yet susceptible wife and it is her calculating nature that gives the film it’s particular edginess as a superior mainstream thriller. The sense of isolation, entrapment and that hypnotically pleasurable voyeuristic gaze which Polanski has made his own resurface throughout what is equally a very austere piece of cinema. In terms of its political discourse, the ideological engagement centres closely on aspects of Tony Blair’s legacy that has attracted widespread notoriety including the so called war on terror, the illegal detention and torture of suspected terrorists, the war in Iraq, and crimes against humanity. Some critics have compared The Ghost Writer to Frantic, a sharp Parisian thriller directed by Polanski in the eighties, which is another exercise in Hitchcockian delight but unlike the ending of Frantic which rings somewhat hollow, Polanski's latest triumphs in striking just the right note of discontent in the chilling denouement.

9 April 2010


BOOT POLISH (Dir. Prakash Arora, 1954)

CHAKRA (Dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981)

SALAAM BOMBAY (Dir. Mira Nair, 1988)

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2008)

Salaam Bombay; Krishna/Chaipau looks on helplessly as Sola Saal (Sweet Sixteen) is driven away.

Produced by Raj Kapoor in the same year as his masterpiece Awara (The Vagabond), whilst Boot Polish takes its aesthetic cue from the neo realist influences of De Sica, in particular Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), the ideological tendencies echoes Chaplin's sentimental treatment of poverty. Much has been made of who exactly should be credited as director of Boot Polish. Though Raj Kapoor produced the film, it was somewhat of a personal project as it brought together the more conventional elements of Indian melodrama with neo realist aesthetics which had already left a notable impression with Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land). Prakash Arora who had worked as an assistant director to Raj Kapoor is credited with Boot Polish but it is the only film he ever directed. Arora may have been at the helm but with Kapoor simultaneously directing his muse Nargis in Awara, such an epic undertaking must have decidely prevented him from acting as director on Boot Polish.

Nevertheless, the parallels between Awara and Boot Polish are most evident in the representation of slum life as both offer what was considered at the time a realist depiction. Whilst Awara is a prestige project concerned with class conflict, Boot Polish constructs a socialist agenda focusing on a sentimental representation of street children, slum life and child poverty. All of these apparent social ills tie in with an optimistic inclination fostered by Nehru's secularist and reformist vision for a new Indian society in which children are in control of their own destiny. Of course, much of this Nehruvian sentiment finds its way into the music of Shankar-Jaikishan and the lost and found narrative motif which even today finds sympathetic acknowledgement in films such as Salaam Bombay and most strikingly, Slumdog Millionaire. Ashis Nandy's comments seem to illustrate a number of crucial points in regards to Indian cinema's repeated and continuous fascination with the urban slum:
'The right metaphor for the Indian popular cinema, alias conventional, commercial or Bombay cinema, turns out to be the urban slum. Ratnakar Tripathy, who first suggested the metaphor to me, seemed to hold that both cinema and the slum in India showed the same impassioned negotiation with everyday survival.'
Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum's Eye View of Politics, Ashis Nandy, 1998
Oxford University Press, India

Arguably, the urban slum acts as a forceful allegory for the reality of the dispossessed and the social disparity that exists in many societies not just India. One can trace the influence of a film like Boot Polish to Mira Nair's 1988 Salaam Bombay! in which the street kid, Krishna or Chaipau as he is referred to by the adult world, struggles to earn a measly 500 rupees so that he can return to his village and be reunited with his family. On its release, Nair's ideological intentions were attacked by many critics with some accusing her of exploitation and failing to address the the contexts of poverty. I'm not sure if I agree with this line of argument as Nair unveils a reality that makes a lot of the middle classes nervous and perhaps even accountable for their motivated decision to marginalise and distance those millions which have generally been denied a voice. It was as though Nair's response to Gayatri Spivak's seminal post colonial critique titled 'Can the subaltern speak?' was an unequivocal and resounding yes! In 1988 Salaam Bombay! worldwide commercial success earned it the title of India's first cross over film yet of course this led to further accusations yet again directed at Nair's deliberate attempt to make a film aimed solely at a middle class audience in the West.

Boot Polish; produced by Raj Kapoor and released in 1954. The two orphans in the film were played by child actors Rattam Kumar as Bhola and Baby Naaz as Belu.

However, Nair's influences can clearly be traced back to the neo realist traditions of post war Italy whilst also arguably owing a considerable debt to the direct cinema documentary movement that emerged out of America in the 60s. Unlike the romanticism inherent in the images of urban slum life in Raj Kapoor's stylised production, Nair's approach rejects many of the classical rules, embracing non professional actors, location shooting, an episodic narrative structure and most importantly, an observational approach that echoes a faith in documentary as truth. In what is a further twist of postmodern irony, the street children in particular are shown to both appreciate and mock popular Indian cinema through a colourful reinvention of the lyrics and dance numbers to Bollywood songs.

In many ways, the cinematic representation of the urban slum is tied to the lives of street children and poverty. Both Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981) and Bunuel's Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950) are also important films in the development of what is today commonly referred to as slum cinema or the street urchin film. More recently, the international success of the Latin American film City of God (Mierelles & Lund, 2002) revived critical debate in how the slums should be represented and if the criminal elements are deliberately romanticised. It is not hard to see how City of God appropriated a gangster stylisation and thus ensuring its appeal with the youth. Interestingly, for all its stylisation, a film like City of God does not shy away from ideological confrontation as it does seem to provide some sharp analysis of why the slums exist and how they ultimately imprison the youth. However, the slither of optimism as underlined by Rocket's elevation out of the slums is a sharp contrast to Krishna's painful imprisonment in Salaam Bombay! The realist treatment of slum life in the cinema of Raj Kapoor and Mira Nair arguably found its most populist, sentimental and celebrated evocation in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. Interestingly, Loveleen Tandon who shares a director's credit with Boyle on the film worked as casting director on three of Nair's films (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and The Namesake) whilst also having been part of the art department on Deepa Mehta's Earth (1998).

Chakra (1981) was released the same year as Babenco's Pixote and is one of the most authentic and undiluted cinematic representations of the urban slum.

Of course, Boot Polish and Salaam Bombay! are two just two of many examples of Indian cinema's attempts to confront and represent the reality of slum life. I have nearly finished watching Chakra (Dir.
Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981), an example of parallel cinema and it is probably one of the more authentic and brutal depictions of the urban slum I have come across. I will come back and look at Chakra as an example of slum cinema as it seems to be a key film in the parallel cinema movement. Equally important is Sudhir Mishra's Dharavi which I have already discussed in a previous post. However, it seems appropriate to finish with another comment from Ashis Nandy's (1988: 11) essential essay on the importance of the urban slum as an ideological backdrop:
'The slum may or may not be ugly, it may or not symbolise absurdity, but it always has a story to tell about the state of the vitality, creativity and moral dynamism of the society that defines the relationship between the slum and suburbia.'
This seems to explain why the urban slum continues to be a repeated point of fascination for film makers as it offers a vitally important ideological opportunity to explore Indian society as a microcosm whilst also offering the marginalised with a credible voice with which to articulate their frustrations, dreams and nightmares.

4 April 2010

L'ARMEE DU CRIME / THE ARMY OF CRIME (Dir. Robert Guediguian, 2009, France) - Revising The Past

The official UK poster to the film.

Most of the critical response to this World War II resistance film has unfairly centred on the director's decision to apparently surrender narrative coherence and dramatic tension to the ideological demands of characterisation. Such a criticism seems to want to side step the revisionist approach adopted by French director Robert Guediguian in his representation of the underground resistance. The decision to not only politicise the resistance but more importantly to excavate a truth that focuses on the contribution of those groups who have typically been marginalised in the representation of the French resistance in cinema is what gives the film its main strength, 'Most earlier Resistance films downplayed the contribution of foreigners, Jews and communists, preferring an image of unalloyed Gaullist patriotism.' (Peter Matthews, Sight & Sound, Nov 09: 50) An ensemble film, Army of Crime, was released in 2009 after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. It has been deemed a commercial failure in France and I don't know how it fared in the UK but it was given adequate distribution, appearing in many of the arthouse cinemas.

The infamous Affiche Rouge propaganda poster used to demonise the resistance as terrorists.

Taking its cue from the meditative narrative pacing and sombre stylisation of Melville's Army of Shadows (1969), Guediguian's film focuses on the Affiche rouge (red poster), a propaganda poster distributed by the Vichy French and Nazis featuring the faces and names of the apprehended 'Manouchian group' along with the damning slogan: 'Des libérateurs? La libération par l'armée du crime! "Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime!" Led by exiled Armenian poet Missak Manouchian, the group's official title was Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d'œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI) and they were branded as terrorists in an attempt to put an end to the resistance movement which continued to gather momentum and support from all sections of French society including immigrants, Jews and communists. The film opens with the names of the 23 members who were put on trial and executed read out aloud as they are literally escorted to their deaths. Vividly shot and impressively acted, Guediguian's film can safely be positioned alongside Rachid Bouchareb's Indigenes (Days of Glory, 2006), another equally significant revisionist French war-time film. It comes as a disappointment then that Army of Crime hasn't found the critical or commercial success that it deserved as an important step in the re-representation of French historical reality. However, it is definetely worth seeking out on DVD.

3 April 2010

BIFF: Widescreen Weekend -- ALIEN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979, US/UK) – ‘I admire its purity…’

The famous chest burster sequence with John Hurt as Kane.

It was a real pleasure to be able to watch Scott’s masterpiece on the big screen for the first time. The 70mm screening got under way with a brief introduction by Tony Earnshaw, the artistic director of the 16th Bradford International Film Festival. John Hurt collected a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BIFF and in his talk he admitted he had not seen Alien since he shoot it way back in 1979 and also challenged the myth that none of the cast members knew what was about to unfold in the famous chest burster sequence. Alien is clearly one of Ridley Scott’s best films and a hugely influential genre film. Combining science fiction with horror (the slasher sub genre most obviously), the distinctive element that makes Alien such an enduring genre film is primarily Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger’s imaginative design for the alien creature (receiving an Oscar for visual effects) which impresses even more in light of today’s unconvincing and unoriginal computer generated constructs.

On its release, feminist film academic Carol Clover positioned Alien amongst the cycle of slasher films released in the 70s that included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Superficially, it is not hard to see why Alien is regarded as a strong example of the slasher film as slowly one by one the crew are stalked and killed by the alien. This seems pretty conventional and it is but Alien is one of the few science fiction films that has been made over the last 30 years which can be regarded as somewhat pluralistic in its extensive range of interpretations it offers audiences. Alongside Scott’s other great science fiction film Blade Runner and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien is one of the most discussed and analysed science fiction (though it does borrow liberally from the classical narrative structure of the slasher film, Alien is arguably predominately motivated by recognisable science fiction tropes) films, having generated a canon of philosophical and sociological academic literature.

In one more of the intriguing and pertinent ideological angles, Alien was the first time Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is shown in conflict with the corporation. Made at the tail end of the 70s, Alien like many of the best science fiction films tapped into popular anxieties, fears and concerns prevalent at the time including feminism, militarisation, corporate power and gender relations. Mother, the computer that controls the ship is a highly intelligent system built by the company. Her symbiotic partner, the pathological android Ash (Ian Holm), colludes with the company to ensure that the alien creature is brought back safely. It is Ripley who makes the chilling discovery when Mother reveals that the crew are expendable and that the alien must be protected at all costs. Ripley states that the company have intentions of using the alien creature as a military weapon and of course Ash has been championing their cause from the moment he breaks quarantine regulations, allowing the alien on board. In her seminal essay ‘Feminism and Anxiety in Alien’, Judith Newton offers one of the clearest ideological elucidations of the film’s criticism of corporate hegemony:
‘The company in Alien represents capitalism in its most systemized, computerized, and dehumanizing form, a fact ironically enforced by the name of the company computer, Mother.’
In reality, the insidious conspiracy between the company computer and the android construct a ruthless extension of corporate hegemony which is much more damning and vindictive than the Alien creature itself because the profit motive is one easily identifiable in our own world. If Ripley is the only remaining survivor of the Nostromo (excluding the cat) then an additional ideological suggestion is made whereby corporate capitalism can only be challenged and stopped by a woman. However, Judith Newton is not so convinced by the Utopian gender representations:
‘The second fantasy is that white middle class women, once integrated into the world of work will somehow save us from its worst excesses and specifically from its dehumanization.’
The notion of popular genres like science fiction offering ‘utopian fantasy space’ in which gender relations are worked out with relative ease is also supported by the work of Susan Sontag who talks about ‘the imagination of disaster’ in relation to science fiction cinema:
‘Sontag argues that science fiction are about the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess. And it is the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction lies. Sontag goes on to argue that these images and scenarios of destruction serve two complimentary functions. First, they work to explore the deepest anxieties about contemporary experience. Second, they are strong moralistic fables that in their representations and resolutions provide a utopian fantasy space where all problems are easily solved.’
Against Interpretation, 1994: 209-25, Vintage Press, London

Arguably, the conflict between Ripley and the company, between the workers and the corporation are ‘easily solved’ with the destruction of both the android and the company computer resulting in a belated triumph. However, the Alien films as a collective whole do provide one of the more subversive and plural readings of the relationship between gender representations and mainstream American genre cinema. Ripley’s conflict with the fictional corporation of Weyland-Yutani reached its climax in the much maligned and misunderstood Alien 3 (Fincher, 92). In the final sequence of the film, Ripley is confronted by the corporation but she chooses to commit suicide, refusing to surrender the alien foetus and ultimately defying assimilation into corporate life. Currently, Ridley Scott is attached to direct another Alien film for 20th Century Fox but I’m not sure why he would choose to return to a phase in his career that should be kept at a distance from the creatively bankrupt remake syndrome plaguing Hollywood.