22 August 2010

SALIM LANGDE PE MAT RO / Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1989, India) - Remapping New Indian Cinema

Pawan Malhotra as the lovable rogue 'Salim The Lame'.

The more I am acquainted with the breadth and innovation of parallel cinema the more I am convinced that this is a film movement of equal ideological and aesthetic significance to the often celebrated European new waves including most influentially the Nouvelle Vague. However, by labelling the New Indian Cinema movement as parallel to that of the Hindi mainstream has somewhat distracted from the considerable authorial achievements. Some film makers have tended to be critical of the term parallel cinema and it is hard not to see why such a label seems a little of the mark when one seriously considers auteurs like Mani Kaul, Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shanani, Kamal Swaroop and Shyam Benegal were attempting to not only renegotiate the cultural agenda but reconstruct the discourse of cinema and in a way akin to that of the French New Wave. However unlike neo realism or the nouvelle vague that has a clearly identifiable time frame in which one can isolate a set of films that share a common aesthetic and ideological agenda, new Indian cinema, a movement started in the late sixties was still arguably producing new regenerative work and innovative auteurs late into the eighties and early nineties. An economic and political adjunct was central to the emergence and acceleration of new Indian cinema in the 70s yet if is true that most cinematic movements tend to be reacting against a cultural and cinematic orthodoxy then perhaps the political events of the Naxalite movement and the Indian emergency were two notable catalysts for the consolidation of such a reaction.

The major problem when it comes to discussing a film movement is that an authorial approach tends to elevate the work of a select few at the expense of what becomes by default a group of marginalised directors. This of course is made doubly worse by the canonising of certain works and auteurs, thus making it even more problematic when it comes to formulating an adequate picture of a film movement like that of New Indian cinema. Arguably it is the work of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen that continues to dominate popular discourse on the development of such a movement but the emergence of democratic criticism on the Internet mainly through blogs has attempted to offer what is a sustained revisionist and alternative analysis. Still no major or definitive work has been published on New Indian cinema - perhaps Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s encyclopaedia on Indian cinema has come the closest with their expertly researched and intelligently written entries on many of the major film makers and key films. However, the encyclopaedia stops at 1992 and a revised edition has yet to be published. In his latest book Remapping European Art Cinema professor Mark Betz talks of the evolution of European art cinema as an institutional practice. One could argue that a similar phenomenon occurred with the emergence of state sponsored cinema during the late sixties.

Director Saeed Akhtar Mirza's contributions to parallel cinema are often overlooked.

Director Saeed Akhtar Mirza was born in Bombay in 1943. His father Akhtar Mirza was a noted scriptwriter who wrote the screenplays to mainstream Hindi classics such as Naya Daur (1957) and Waqt (Time, 1965). Similarly like many of the parallel film makers Saeed Mirza spent some time in advertising before absconding to make films at the FTII in Pune. It was here that Mirza with K. Hariharan and Mani Kaul founded the short lived Yukt Film Cooperative, helping Mirza to direct his debut feature Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1980). Prior to his directorial debut in 1980, Mirza spent 1976 to 1978 directing a series of documentaries with a strong socialist agenda including The Problem of Urban Housing (1977) and Slum Eviction (1978). The Yukt Film Cooperative struggled to raise financing for many of their heavily politicised projects and managed only to make two films including Ghasiram Kotwal (1976) which today is recognised by some as an extraordinary avant-garde film. For a low budget experimental film Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan attracted widespread critical acclaim and was awarded the FilmFare award for Best Film (Critics). In 1980, Mirza directed the dark comedy Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (What Makes Albert Pinto Angry?) about a garage mechanic (Naseeruddin Shah) who dreams of social mobility. The film was equally praised for the striking degree of verisimilitude and ‘Mirza later acknowledged that the film, which addresses India’s minorities, is set in a catholic Bombay milieu because at the time he lacked the courage to deal with the Muslim issues.’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 414)

Mirza's 1984 film Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! features many parallel cinema regulars including Naseeruddin Shah.

By now Mirza’s films seemed to a clear sympathy with the plight of the urban oppressed and the centrality of the youth trying to rise above their designated place in society would become a common motif. Bhisham Sahni, brother of celebrated actor Balraj Sahni made his acting debut in Mirza’s 1984 satire Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (A Summons for Mohan Joshi). A stinking rebuke of a corrupt judicial system, Mirza continued to experiment with Brechtian devices put this time focused his attention on the anxieties of the Indian middle class caught up in the tides of economic change. It was around about this time that Mirza along with Kundan Shah ventured into television, producing the critically acclaimed TV series Nukkad (Corner) which ran for 39 episodes and featured a cast made up of talented actors such as Pawan Malhotra. Nukkad’s focus on the lives of the Bombay youth would prove to be a fertile narrative for Mirza’s next film, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame, 1989).

With the resurgence of Hindu nationalist ideology in urban cities including Bombay in the eighties and nineties, Mirza responded to the demolition of the Babri Masjid by directing what would be his last film before taking a hiatus that would last for an incredible fourteen years. Released in 1995, Naseem (The Morning Breeze), focuses on the relationship between a 15 year old Muslim girl and her aging grandfather (Kaifi Azmi) who symbolises the secularist India that was starting to fade away. In a recent interview Mirza had the following to say about why he felt the need to make Naseem:
‘I made Naseem in the year 1995, it was an insane time in our country with riots everywhere. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was the last straw. Naseem was almost like an epitaph. After the film, I had really nothing to say. I needed to regain my faith and retain my sanity. So I decided to travel around India and document it on a video camera.’
Naseem (1995) featured a rare screen role for noted writer/lyricist Kaifi Azmi.

Mirza has returned to film making with Ek Tho Chance (2009), a portmanteau film on contemporary Mumbai. Most of Mirza’s key films are available on DVD as imports through various specialist websites but his extensive documentary work remains very much in the dark. His documentaries would certainly solidify a case for his importance as a key auteur in the evolution of new Indian cinema. Though I have said that many of his key films are available on DVD I did struggle to get hold of them, resorting on two occasions to an on-line website that streams specialist films including a handful of NFDC works.

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame, 1989) is Mirza’s most personal film as it attempts to get to grips with his own identity as a Muslim. Whilst both Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem are films that can be interpreted as a reaction against the re emergence of Hindu fundamentalism, the pseudo documentary style makes the representation of the Muslim community altogether more unique and convincing when positioned next to the dominant representations perpetuated by mainstream Hindi cinema. The central character in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro plays up to the archetype of the streetwise, lovable rogue. Gang culture is the only means by which an identity can be forged and subsequently used to resist the values of mainstream Bombay society. Salim, played with a riotously anarchic streak by Pawan Malhotra in his breakthrough role spends his time making ends meet by acting up the role of a local hoodlum. Made around the same time as the urban crime film Parinda (1989), Mirza’s sense of milieu is devoid of any kind of cinematic romanticism and the decision to shoot in the working class district of Mumbai foregrounds the iconography of the street to take on a wider symbol of class struggle.

The humiliation of unemployment - Salim's father struggles to find a job.

The referential nods to Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) makes the grimy yet tragic character of Salim appear as more than just a representation of the disaffected Muslim youth. Salim is a dreamer, struggling futilely to erase his scandalous acts of thievery through moral reform. His entire identity as a Muslim is a fragile one, shaped by wider social and political forces which due to his illiteracy appear as monolithically oppressive. Aslam, a possible suitor for Salim’s sister Anees, who works slavishly as a poorly paid proof reader for a newspaper attempts to educate Salim. Aslam argues that communalism and the rapidly developing problem of urban ghettos benefits only the elite and those in power, underlining the discord between Muslims and Hindus will remain perpetual as long as the oppressed harbour their silence. At home, the economic and social situation for Salim is despairing given the tragic death of his older brother Javed in an accident at work has left the family in a state of trauma. With his father having been made unemployed, his mother works tirelessly as a part time seamstress whilst his sister dreams of getting married to Aslam.

The educated Aslam attempts to speak to the moral conscience of Salim...

...but like Accatone it is only in death that lies some sense of salvation for poor Salim.

The call for tolerance, understanding and religious harmony is advocated strongly through the sequence in which a film maker screens a documentary on the political realities of communalism. Ethnic violence was quite high at the time of the film’s release and with the cataclysmic events of Ayodhya only a few years away, the politics of nationalism that lurk sinisterly in the background seem to make a direct ideological correlation between Salim’s poverty and the endemic religious hatred propagated by the state. Salim does choose to reform at the end, taking up a legitimate job and arranging his sister’s wedding, but his death that comes at the hands of an old enemy bleakly suggests that the Muslim community in Bombay exists precociously on the precipice of life and death.

13 August 2010

BUONGIORNO, NOTTE / GOOD MORNING, NIGHT (Dir. Marco Bellocchio, 2003, Italy) - The Murder of Moro

Marco Bellocchio emerged with the modernist Italian film makers including Antonioni, Bertolucci and Pasolini during the sixties and though their brand of iconoclasm was reacting against the establishment they could not outrightly reject neo realist tendencies. Whilst Antonioni and Pasolini are no longer with us and Bertolucci seems to have for some inexplicable reason gone into semi retirement, Bellocchio is one of the remaining directors of the original Italian art cinema movement still working steadily today. Of late, with Vincere, which I still have to watch, he has undergone somewhat of a resurgence beginning with his 2003 political drama Good morning, night.

On the morning of March 16 1978 former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the Christian Democratic Party Aldo Moro was kidnapped by members of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse), a hard line Marxist Leninist political organisation. In the ensuing gun battle to abduct Moro, five of his bodyguards were murdered. Moro was on his way to attend a key parliamentary meeting between members of the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats so that he could help finalise the details of a collation that he referred to as the 'historic compromise'. A comprehensive manhunt took place to recover Moro and many appeals were made for his safe release. After being held captive for 54 days, on the morning of May 9 Moro was executed by his captors.

Shot in a pseudo documentary style, Bellochio’s film focuses on the relationship between members of the Red Brigade and Aldo Moro. Much of the narrative unfolds through the conflicted eyes of the female member of the group, Chiara, played by luminous Italian-Iranian actress Maya Sansa. Unlike her fellow comrades who are committed to the notion that only by executing Moro, the class enemy, can they succeed in undermining the negotiations for a new collation and prove their political sincerity, Chiara begins to seriously doubt if their actions will simply be viewed as another form of terrorism.

Bellocchio inter-cuts the sequences in the apartment with actual news footage, constructing a period in Italian history marred with political uncertainty and a catastrophic disillusionment with the values of mainstream institutions. Though Chiara finds that her ideological commitment to the Red Brigades ultimate political aim of Marxist revolution remains intact, Moro’s degree of humanism not only takes her by surprise but finds her sympathising with the view that violence and death hold no measure of constructive political validity other than shock value. In one particular instance, Bellocchio makes powerful use of the Po Valley sequence from Rosselini's Paisan (1946) to suggest Chiara's political beliefs are tied up in the memories of a cinematic ideology that stretches back to the painful sacrifices of the Italian partisans during World War II. Overall, Bellocchio's political drama is an intimate one and Moro's death is represented as both a political inevitablity and an empty revolutionary claim for Marxist ideals.

8 August 2010

THE ELEMENTS TRILOGY - Directed by Deepa Mehta (Fire, 96 / Earth, 98 / Water, 05)

Director Deepa Mehta's elements trilogy is arguably one of the key works of Indian cinema. Water, the final film in the trilogy, deals with the plight of Hindu widows in colonial India during the emergence of Gandhi as a leader. In the final sequence, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) takes Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), the child widow, to the train station so that she can meet Gandhi. Overwhelmed by his humility, Shakuntala races madly along the train platform and manages to pass Chuyia into the arms of Narayan (John Abraham). As the train moves away into the distance, the camera holds on Shakuntala's paralysed figure. Change has certainly arrived but the laws of patriarchy remain static. A poignant ending to what is Mehta's greatest achievement as a director.

6 August 2010

AISHA (Dir. Rajshree Ojha, 2010, India) - Lost in Austen

Jane Austen's literary classic Emma was inevitably going to be the given the Bollywood treatment one day considering that the boy meets girl scenario is not uncommon to the narrative discourse of popular Hindi cinema. Predominately a vehicle for newcomer Sonam Kapoor who stars in the lead role as the bratty upper class Delhite, Aisha is a harmless and non offensive chick flick. With so many love stories regularly chewing up the multiplexes, Aisha just about manages to rise above the pedestrian with the help of talented artists including actor Abhay Deol, editor Sreekar Prasad (one of Hindi cinema's finest editors) and the up and coming music composer Amit Trivedi. Produced by Anil Kapoor and his daughter Rhea Kapoor (nepotism rules) they have clearly been wise not to prolong the melodramatic entanglements and adolescent musings to a hysterically inflated running time. Knowing when to reach the ending in a Hindi family melodrama seems like a challenge in itself these days with many mainstream films opting for an infuriating and unreasonable number of false endings.

Ideologically I'm not sure if Aisha says anything particularly profound or of any notable significance other than the class divide that has existed for centuries in most societies. Marriage, relationships, family and love all show up in equal measure, demonstrating that films like Aisha which may deliberately allude to art house inclinations are ultimately subjected to the cinematic necessities of convention. Though this has been built up as a contemporary updating of Emma it is clear to see we have been here before with the hugely unmemorable Hollywood film Clueless. Of course it is obvious to the discerning cinema goer that it is from Clueless and not Emma that Aisha takes most of its inspiration and youthful energy. Abhay Deol as the soulful and caring Arjun remains largely in the background but in many of the scenes with Sonam Kapoor the two lack that certain chemistry which can help to maintain the convictions of the weary spectator who has seen one too many dim witted love stories. Aisha may actually be one of the first romantic roles Abhay Deol has completed since his meteoric rise as the alternative face of Hindi cinema. As for Sonam Kapoor, well, she lacks screen presence (the girl next door image isn't really working for her either) and in many of her scenes her inexperience reveal a superficial engagement with the dynamics of the role she has been selected to articulate.

A lot of popular Hindi films jump schizophrenically from one location to the other offering an infantile series of holiday snaps and though Aisha does something similar it refuses in many ways to surrender inexplicably to NRI sentiments by maintaining a consistent connection with the wealthy prism of Delhi's elite. Aisha like Raavan and other major releases of the year have disappointed in terms of both invention and conviction. Technically, many of these films including Aisha have been spot on and perhaps this is the reason why they have not been dismissed outright by the critics. Compared to the embarrassing debacle of Bride and Prejudice, another Austen updating, Aisha might be considered somewhat of a competent achievement. However, like most Hindi films of late it is both instantly disposable and unmemorable. Overall, Aisha is a well crafted film which of course is absolutely vital if Hindi cinema is to compete with the technical sophistication of Hollywood but the absence of ideology is an aspect of the film that slightly perturbs me. I'm not really sure how Aisha will fare at the box office given the film's marketing approach has wavered towards the middle class multiplex audience. Nevertheless, it deserves to be a commercial success given the fact that this is one of the few recent mainstream Hindi films to have been directed by a woman.