21 January 2011

DHOBI GHAT : Mumbai Diaries (Dir. Kiran Rao, 2010, India) - The Gaze of the City

Aamir Khan as Arun - a reclusive painter who draws his inspiration from the city of Mumbai.

Mumbai is one of the great cities of the world, drawing in film makers so they can use the dense urban landscape as a canvas on to which they can endlessly inscribe dreams, nightmares and anxieties. A microcosm of cosmopolitan and secularist narratives, Mumbai is continually re-presented in the fantasies of Hindi cinema as the gateway to contemporary success or failure. Like New York, the Mumbai milieu was made for cinematic reinterpretation and performance – the geography of the city continues to be contested in the imagery of the media and whilst the urban slum has become a popular frame of reference, it celebrates a metropolis like pluralism that is dignified. Opening with an interior shot of a nondescript taxi making its way curiously through the rain swept streets of Mumbai; Kiran Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat immediately takes up the first person perspective of the first of four characters, this one is making a home video using a camcorder. As the taxi moves past the overcast Marine drive with the sea gazing back at us in the distance, the vehicle stops and for a brief moment the camera films the excited actions of a group of Mumbai street kids who begin performing for the car as though they were in an Indian film. It is a snapshot of urban reality and repeats a restless rhythm familiar to us, an elliptical momentum that just like the city of Mumbai fragments the new and entombs the old – but this snapshot is just one of many micro stories glimpsed in the episodic art film structure adopted by the film maker.

Munna and Shai's relationship is complicated by a class divide.

A sincere art house film Dhobi Ghat is typical of Aamir Khan as a producer – uncompromising in its aesthetic agenda, distinctively marketed, economically budgeted, sincerely directed and confidently performed. Inter relating the lives of four characters which deliberately represent the spectrum of contemporary Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is a discourse on the city and its inhabitants. Played by Aamir Khan, Arun is a reclusive painter who grudgingly appears at the exhibitions of his own work. Somewhat of a womaniser, Arun guards his loneliness as it is the one thing that allows him to be creative. He transforms his pain and the pain of those around him into his work, deconstructing the private video tapes of an unhappy married woman leads Arun to shift from one place to another. A symbol of anonymity, Arun’s identity is in transit, nomadically connected to his refusal to become emotionally involved with anyone who attempts to reach out. Shai (the beautiful Monica Dogra), an investment banker from America who is visiting Mumbai as part of a sabbatical, is also suffering from a similar psychosis of rupture but unlike Arun who is a member of the city, Shai’s outsider status makes her a jaded symbol of the Indian Diaspora. She too is searching for a space from which she can create but her elitist trappings opens a level of discontinuity that prevents her from bridging an all too familiar class divide. A symbol of the authentic Mumbai urban slum, Munna (Prateik Babbar) works as a dhobi washing laundry for the middle class whilst pursuing an outlandish cinematic dream of becoming an actor. Unlike Arun who is an emerging painter and Shai a budding photographer, Munna’s gaze is altogether fixed in a stark reality from which he cannot escape – ideologically both Arun and Shai’s perceptions of reality are filtered through a shared visual gaze that is privileged. The final character, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly married Muslim woman, is part of the past, present and future whilst her gaze is hauntingly ubiquitous. Yasmin’s story is conveyed through a series of intimate video diaries that Arun discovers in his apartment – the videos detail Mumbai as a place in which the pain and suffering of women like Yasmin are simply rendered invisible.

Yasmin's story is conveyed through a series of intimate video diaries.

In many ways, this is a film about conflicting gazes; privileged and unprivileged gazes determined by the economics of the urban city. Dhobi Ghat is an admirable and radiant film and here are 10 reasons why you should see it:

1). The absence of an intermission

2). Munna’s dignity

3). The motif of the sea

4). The depiction of Mumbai as a city

5). The end shot; the candid tears rolling down the face of Shai

6). Aamir Khan willing to suspend his star image

7). This is an Indian art film

8). Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s wonderful score

9). The power and ambiguity of the gaze

10). It makes for a terrific directorial debut from writer and director Kiran Rao

The official website to the film is beautifully designed, easy to navigate and full of useful information including a press pack, videos and photos.

19 January 2011

BOSE: THE FORGOTTEN HERO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 2005, India) - 'Chalo Delhi!...'

Revolutionary, leader, politician, humanist, socialist, Marxist, communist; Subhas Chandra Bose was a remarkable figure in the struggle for India’s independence. Director Shyam Benegal’s exceptionally researched historical biopic has an undeniably epic sweep complemented by a towering central performance from the wonderfully talented Marathi actor Sachin Khedekar – it is a faultless and charismatic turn by Khedekar exuding a defiance constantly expressed through his impassioned voice. Had Benegal not been at the helms of this project it is more than likely casting would have been a point of conflict for any other director up against the cynical economics of the box office. In a way, casting is what ultimately compromises the sincerity of recent historical films including Jodha-Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey – both had the potential to be great films but the emotional and cinematic baggage brought by mainstream stars (who are weak actors) jeopardises audience engagement. If you are going to make a historical film that should be both didactic and entertaining then cast it properly even if this means turning to non professional actors. Of course the problem with this scenario for a producer is that the film may fail commercially but sometimes it is worth taking a risk so that the material does not lose its creative integrity.

However, the danger Benegal seems to have faced with dramatising the extraordinary intricacies of Bose’s learned life is a continuous deference to the performance of Khedekar who appears in virtually every scene. The film steers clear off providing a complete overview of Bose’s career, leaving some personal aspects including his childhood and the formative relationship with Gandhi in the background, and by focusing on what are the most controversial years of his life Benegal constructs a narrative dominated by the politics of revolutionary struggle. The emphasis on ideological debate makes this more of a political film than a conventional biopic and whilst the very nature of the subject matter cannot fail to adhere to some of the more crowd pleasing elements of the biopic genre, namely drawn out speeches and epic crowd scenes, the ideological significance of bringing the story of Bose to film and governing an authentic voice for him is immeasurably an achievement in itself.

Admittedly, much has written about Bose now and his position in the history of India’s fight for independence has become a point of celebration today. Benegal’s regular scriptwriter and collaborator Shama Zaidi approaches the narrative in three distinctly structured parts. The first part explores his escape from British house arrest in Bengal, entering Afghanistan and finally arriving in Kabul under the identity of a Pathan. Affectionately known as ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) by his friends, the first part also gives us an insight into his family life in Calcutta whilst the political threat he posed to the British establishment remained more volatile and revolutionary in its ideological stance than Gandhi’s passive position. Bose believed that India’s independence could only been achieved through violent uprising and an open call to arms; independence had to be absolute and not waged through protracted negotiation with the powers that be. In many ways, his hope of an intellectual awakening amongst those Indian soldiers subjugated by the British Empire fails to transpire. Instead, the Indian National Army that he attempts to build into a mighty military force with a strong ideological agenda falls apart and he duly acknowledges that perhaps Gandhi’s belief in civil disobedience was ultimately the most moral and just path to achieving an independence that could be regarded as dignified.

1938 - Bose as President of the Congress Party with Gandhi.

In Part Two, Bose finds political and military sympathy from the Germans, Italians and mostly notably the Japanese who encourage the expansion of an Indian National Army that could potentially be used as a force of liberation. In Nazi Germany, Bose meets with Adolf Hitler and though he denounces their racist policies he sees the liberation of India as the ultimate goal, thus in a way temporarily tolerating the Nazis to build a political platform for propagating the desperate need for a national army. His time in Europe also sees him falling in love with his personal secretary, the Austrian born Emilie Schenkl, whom he marries and has a daughter with. The endless meetings underline the lengthy negotiations and discussions that went on with both the Germans and Japanese in terms of granting political recognition to Bose’s make shift Indian government in exile. For me, Part Two is the most ideologically fascinating as it does not shy away from exploring the dubious political relationships Bose forms with both the Nazi Party and the Japanese, implying he was willing to forge uncertain political alliances so that the aims of achieving independence could be met at any cost.

With the escalation of World War II, the early promises of full military and political support never transpire and this forms the final part of the film, examining in detail the attempt to put together a formidable army and push through Burma to arrive in India. Whilst Bose’s dream of complete independence through military opposition ends sourly, it is the inspirational refusal to compromise both politically and personally that imprints itself on the conscience of the Indian people. It is still not clear how Bose exactly died. Whilst many argue he was killed in a plane crash due to a technical fault, some say he was assassinated and others contest he went into hiding. Benegal opts to reiterate the stance that Bose was killed in a plane crash but the film seems to hint at the possibility of a political assassination orchestrated by unnamed nation(s). Bose's death is surrounded in mystery and deserves to examined in length in another film whilst on another point the life of Bose would arguably work well as a documentary.

Sachin Khedekar as Bose the military leader of the Indian National Army.

I’m not so sure if this is one of Benegal’s greatest achievements but I do feel that Indian cinema as a whole needs to continue making films of such historical importance as it not only revisits the struggle for independence but constructs history through indigenous eyes. Benegal is supported by a cast and crew representing some of the finest talent in the industry, including stunning cinematography by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, editing by Sreekar Prasad, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, costumes by Pia Benegal, a solid supporting cast, and of course A. R. Rahman’s moving soundtrack made up of 19 tracks including instrumentals. The song that sores is ‘Azadi’ which is sung beautifully by Rahman and patriotically rendered by the pen of Javed Akhtar. Oddly enough for such a prestigious picture that received international acclaim, it is very difficult track down a copy of the film on DVD. However, it is regularly and encouragingly shown on some of the Asian TV channels. I do hope a distributor is brave enough to pick this one up one day and give it a proper 2 Disc release including a making of and interviews with the cast and crew as it deserves a much wider audience and appreciation from film academia.

16 January 2011

RAJANIGANDHA / TUBEROSE (Dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1974, India) - Love and Truth

Prior to the first of many 1970s collaborations with under stated comic actor Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee’s directorial debut in 1969 Sara Akash was positioned along side Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (Mani Kaul) as part of the New Indian Cinema movement. However, the unexpected commercial success of Chatterjee’s 1974 female melodrama Rajanigandha helped to open up a new space which would subsequently be referred to as middle cinema. It is significant that Willemen and Rajadhyaksha label it distinctly as a low budget art house film yet the presence of Amol Palekar and Basu Chatterjee both attract a contradictory categorisation. Similarly like Ankur, released a year before in 1973 and also made on a low budget, continues to be argued over in terms of its status – is it an art film or an example of middle cinema? Born in Rajasthan, Basu Chatterjee like Shyam Benegal and many other film makers of his generation came to film making through the non educational route. Chatterjee’s early career was as a cartoonist for a tabloid newspaper but like his contemporaries he was a reverent cine-phile, helping to establish the Film Forum Society in 1959. Prior to his directorial debut, Chatterjee assisted Basu Bhattacharya on the box office failure that was Teesri Kasam (1966). Directors Chatterjee, Bhattacharya and Mukherjee in the 1970s would come to be regarded as a potent triptych, defining the identity of the Indian middle class. Admittedly, the only reason mainstream Hindi cinema, namely the Bombay film industry, was attracted to the triptych lay in the profit motive of low budget films at the box office.

Based on a short story Yahi Sach Hai by Indian writer Manu Bhandari, the title of the film Rajanigandha takes its name from the tuberose flower/plant used in perfumes. The love triangle is one of the most common narrative situations featured in Hindi melodramas and whilst it is difficult to label Rajanigandha as strictly melodrama the emphasis on feminine anxieties is concretely dealt with in the figure of the ideologically conflicted Deepa Kapoor (Vidya Sinha) torn between her affections for the two men in her life. Whilst Palekar’s sympathetic and laid back Sanjay offers security and a sense of compassion, Deepa’s former lover Navin (Dinesh Thakur) whom she spurned for political reasons resurfaces, reigniting a longing which she thought she had long overcome. It is hard to imagine that so many romantic Hindi films still use this formulaic narrative set up but of course the disparity in terms of formalism between the triptych of middle cinema and the many contemporary imitators is vast. The complexity of emotional states Deepa passes through gets to the heart of an important ideological truth – the politics of dissent are easy to ignore when dealing with the politics of love. The two seem to be incompatible in contemporary melodramas yet it is their co existence in Rajanigandha is what gives Deepa’s struggle to decide whom she loves the most an altogether more truthful periphery.

11 January 2011

NO ONE KILLED JESSICA (Dir. Raj Kumar Gupta, 2010, India) - The Power in Delhi

I had been looking forward to this one given director Raj Kumar Gupta seemed to show some promise with his debut Aamir but like most Hindi films of late this falls short of expectations and in many ways descends into a melodramatic sentiment un-keeping with the first half of the film. Based on what is arguably one of the more controversial murder cases in Delhi involving the indiscriminate slaying of model Jessica Lall by the son a powerful politician, this slickly made dramatisation by UTV Motion Pictures is undoubtedly well intended especially given the pedigree involved. Yet it seems to me a case of a film star hijacking what could have potentially been a far greater film had they agreed to maintain a distance and show some restraint. Of course, I am referring to the unconvincing performance by Rani Mukherjee who whilst dominating the second half of the film in an attempt to underline the media backed campaign for Jessica's injustice smoother's any sense of social indignation with a sustained bout of overly pretentious liberalism. The makers of the film should have really kept the focus with the character of Sabrina Lall as actress Vidya Balan excels in the role of the benign sister forced to struggle with the bitter realities of power relations running throughout the entire establishment.

Vidya Balan is currently one of the best actresses of her generation but one does feel the commercial demands placed on stars leads to dubious career choices - both Hey Baby! and Kismet Konnection saw her look uncomfortably out of place in the company of medioctry whilst Ishqiya hinted at a distinct edginess absent from many of the mainstream actors. Both Nutan and perhaps more interestingly Madhabi Mukherjee comes to mind when deliberating over Vidya Balan's abilities as an actress. She is largely wasted in the second half of the film and one can clearly see a contest was played out between the two main leads in terms of screen time - it is of little surprise Rani comes out on top given her box office prowess but I'm not so sure if this was the right decision. Swearing (with most of it bleeped out for dramatic effect), smoking and a chic bitchiness emerge as superficial traits that mark Meera’s crusading journalist as yet another heroic one dimensional cinematic anecdote. Whilst it may be acceptable to argue that Meera is supposed to be unlikable as the unsavoury politicians that we come across, her presence in the second half of the film literally devalues the credibility and sincerity constructed initially with what is a mildly compelling reconstruction of Jessica’s murder.

Had this taken a more Rashomon approach to narrative storytelling it might have made more of an emotional impact but instead it chooses to adhere to a familiar path in terms of the family melodrama. Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of the film sees a twist of cinematic irony ring true when a passive Delhi audience spurred on by the youth activism witnessed in a screening of Rang De Basanti initiate a candlelight vigil to be held as a mark of anger at India Gate. In addition, the media’s role in helping to elevate the injustice of Jessica’s flawed and corrupt trial to a national level poses some serious questions on the relationship between politics and the mass media which on many occasions privileges sensationalism over the much maligned concerns of the oppressed. Another noteworthy ideological proposition is whether or not the media should discard any sense of objectivity and personalise those news stories which are close to certain journalists own ideological agenda. No One Killed Jessica is director Raj Kumar Gupta's second film and whilst it falls short of his debut, it tries nobly to do justice to the memory of Sabrina Lall - yet another victim of the ruling power elite.

8 January 2011

SILVER LODE (Dir. Allan Dwan, 1954, US) - Politics of Shame

Pioneering American film maker Allan Dwan’s filmography as a director on IMDB lists 428 films. With a career beginning in 1911 and lasting until 1961, Dwan made every kind of film imaginable. Whilst much of his work in the silent era is now either lost or simply unavailable, Dwan’s reputation as a director of poverty row cinema, similarly in the trajectory of Edgar Ulmer and Raoul Walsh, respectively demonstrates his position as a consummate ‘metteur en scene’. Perhaps such a Bazinian label can be somewhat disingenuous given the ideological strengths of the western Dwan made in 1954, titled imaginatively Silver Lode, and today celebrated by the rigour of cine-phile culture including most notably Martin Scorsese. Sharing a plot similar to its predecessor High Noon, Silver Lode elevates itself out from beyond genre limitations, angrily shaping the idea of an innocent man accused of murder by a U.S. Marshall and the town folk into a distinctively political allegory on the machinations of McCarthyism. As a study of mob law mentality it is unforgiving and vitriolic as Lang’s Fury, representing a strain of demagoguery that poisons both morality and democratic principles. Dwan succeeds in creating and sustaining an atmosphere of paranoia through the camerawork which like High Noon makes creative and daring use of the long take. Interestingly, by morphing from a western into allegory, Dwan constructs an ardent plea for a social and political tolerance which was somewhat absent from the America mainstream during a period of strong anti communist sentiment.

7 January 2011

AAKROSH (Dir. Priyadarshan, 2010, India) - Caste Politics

A remake of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, Priyadarshan’s transfers the politics of race relations to that of caste in the ruralism of Bihar. Hailing from Kerala, Priyadarshan forged his career making a string of commercially successful comedies in Malayalam with actor Mohanlal. Including his extensive output from the eighties, Priyadarshan has to date directed over eighty films and is perhaps one of the most prolific directors working in the world today. I have not seen any of his films with Mohanlal, many of which he has remade since his shift into the Hindi film industry, but Virasat (The Inheritance) which he made in the nineties is one of my favourite Hindi films and might actually feature Anil Kapoor’s best performance. Aakrosh is a stylised attempt to bring to light to the continuing cancerous existence of caste politics and honour killings in rural India. Ideologically, the discriminatory and brutal caste divide encountered by the two officers, played by Akshay Khanna and Ajay Devgan, in Bihar uncovers predictably an insipid collusion between the police, religious elements and landowners in which law and order is dispensed independently and at will.

The politics of caste has been dealt with by most of the major Indian auteurs including notably Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal; Benegal’s work is particularly seminal in this context. Priyadarshan freely admits that whilst Aakrosh does deal with a serious yet largely invisible social problem, the demands of commercial cinema means the parameters of ideological engagement are somewhat constrained and defined by genre determinants. Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession, 2008) perhaps indicates Priyadarshan does have that capacity to move fluidly between mainstream and more personal, independent projects. For a detailed analysis of Kanchivaram, read Srikanth’s entry on his blog. Aakrosh should have found an audience given the film is a technical triumph and puts together some memorable fast paced action sequences. The ending is marred though by a terrible oversight of ideological fantasising.

THE AMERICAN (Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2010, US) - Time to Retire

Clooney tends to attract a lot of resentment from the mainstream film press. Well, to begin with he doesn’t care what the critics have to say and secondly, his active liberalism has meant he actually chooses his film projects carefully. His ascent from television land has been extraordinary and whilst initial commercially safe films like The Peacemaker, Batman and Robin and One Fine Day seemed to indicate the makings of a pedestrian star image, the collaboration with Soderbergh on Out of Sight in 1998 made him do one of the more interesting and creative U turns in Hollywood film history. Clooney never looked back and with Soderbergh as a creative partner, he continues to make films that actually matter to him whilst also ensuring they are made well. Taking shelter in the rural solemnity of Italy, Jack (Clooney) is a hit-man trying in vain to finish one last job. Interestingly, a lot of critics have been disappointed with Corbijn’s second feature film following the incredible success of Control. Like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, The American similarly revels in American 70s cinema in which studying the character was far more important than developing some kind of linear, coherent plot line. Director Corbijn refers to his film as a western and additionally it reminded me greatly of the crime films made by Melville in colour including both Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai. Nevertheless, the western and Melville may be evident but Clooney’s hit-man waiting for the inevitability of his death is a devilishly familiar accent inherited from the morbid fixations of film noir. Like all great noir films, this is a film about death and time.

ODD MAN OUT (Dir. Carol Reed, 1947, UK) - Man On The Run

Whilst I continue to rant and moan to myself and those I know about the current misery of the UK film industry and the seemingly lack of quality cinema from Britain, the work of Carol Reed comprising of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man certainly suggests it was and still can be a possibility that an auteur based approach can flourish when given the right circumstances. Though Reed’s later work arguably fell short of his critically appraised films in the forties, his reputation as one of British cinema’s great film makers rests largely on the masterful overtures of The Third Man; a film which in my opinion is much stronger both ideologically and aesthetically than the Welles film everyone continues to point to as a benchmark – Citizen Kane. Odd Man Out unfolds over one night in the city of Belfast and sees a badly injured member of the IRA named Johnny McQueen, played to noirish perfection by James Mason, trying to evade capture from the police. Less political and more of an expressionistic nightmare, the cinematography by Robert Krasker offers a vivid exercise in lighting and camerawork that rivals the work of John Alton. A deeply fatalistic film, the politics of the Northern Ireland conflict emerge gradually and subtly through the episodic narrative. Timeless in every way.

UP IN THE AIR (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2009, US) - Flying Solo

This one took me somewhat by surprise. I had maintained a distance on Reitman’s latest film, bypassing it at the cinemas but I’m wondering if that was the right decision now considering how much of the ideological sentiments on display evocatively tap into the current economic slow down. Clooney is excellent as the disreputable guy who flies from coast to coast firing employees or should I say making redundant those apparent workers who are no longer economically viable. Much of Reitman’s style is characteristic of contemporary American independent cinema but the real exceptional quality is the screenplay which bristles with a satirical edge often missing these days from the American comedy genre. The supporting cast made up of Farmiga, Kendrick and Bateman are particularly brilliant whilst the ending in which Clooney as the over polished Ryan Bingham sees the self destruction of his masculinity is nothing short of bitter sweet. Yet again Clooney proves he is one of the most accomplished actors of his generation.