30 April 2011

SADGATI / DELIVERANCE (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, India) - High and Low

Om Puri as the impoverished lower caste Dukhi.

Pikoo (1980) and Sadgati (1981) were short films Ray directed for television, marking his shift into the 1980s and both acting as precursors to his 1983 full length feature Ghaire Bhaire. Whilst Pikoo was made for French television, Sadgati was based on a story by writer Prem Chand whom Ray was familiar with from his adaptation of The Chess Players and funded by Doordarshan, a new state run television company. I have yet to see Pikoo and have read from Andrew Robinson’s book that it is a film about the gaze of an innocent. I hope I can see it on a good print one day. Sadgati, translating as Deliverance, lasts for fifty minutes and contains very little dialogue yet is as accomplished and powerful as his masterworks including even The Apu trilogy. The story is located in rural India in a small village and concerns the relationship between a lower caste tanner Dukhi (Om Puri) and a Brahmin Priest Ghashiram (Mohan Agashe). Before his daughter is married, Dukhi needs the approval and blessings of the Brahmin Priest to set an auspicious date but when Dukhi goes to ask Ghashriam to come to his house for the ceremony, the priest takes it upon himself to exploit Dukhi’s predicament by forcing him to complete various chores. Having instructed his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) and daughter Dhania to anticipate their arrival with food, Dukhi complies with the orders of his master, the Brahmin Priest. He begins by sweeping the outside of the house then lifting sacks of wheat but when it comes to the ardous task of chopping firewood, Dukhi comes undone. However, Dukhi’s sorrows are made much worse when Ghashriam catches Dukhi asleep in the afternoon sun exhausted from fatigue and hunger. Incensed by Dukhi’s apparent insolence, Ghashriam berates him and forces him back to work. In one last moment of desperation Dukhi attempts to chop the wood but having had nothing to eat all day and suffering from an illness, Dukhi falls down dead. Panic sets in for Ghashriam as the removal of Dukhi’s body becomes imperative if the high caste villagers are to carry on as normal but none of them can touch the body as this would mean becoming contaminated in some way. Ghashriam sheepishly pleads to the lower caste workers to remove the body but they ignore his command in light of another fellow worker who was witness to the painful destruction of Dukhi. Such are the horrors brought on by village orthodoxy, Dukhi’s corpse becomes a symbol of rural depravity and the caste system. When Jhuria discovers her husband is dead she breaks down and mourns his loss but even she cannot move his body. Finally, to avoid being directly implicated in the death of Dukhi, Ghashriam using ropes, and using a stick to touch the body, drags the corpse away from the village, dumping it in a field of rotten carcasses. In a final act of vitriolic caste politics, Ghashriam decontaminates the ground upon which Dukhi died and corpse lay with droplets of holy water.

What is brilliant about Ray’s approach to the story is that it all plays like a piece of silent film. Unfiltered, prolonged and detailed throughout, the neo realist tone is poetically evoked by the incredible rhythm of the narrative over which Ray has terrifyingly precise control. Whilst Ray was critical of what he saw as a New Indian Cinema in love with European art cinema, the work of Shyam Benegal was one film maker that impressed Ray in many ways especially his command of actors that included Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil with whom he would also collaborate. Ray has said himself that his early films were not political and whilst he was one of the first Indian film makers to turn the lens on the imperfections and wonders of village life, Benegal’s rural trilogy beginning with the seminal Ankur in 1974 offered a somewhat radical politicisation of rural cultural values. In many ways, Sadgati should be viewed as a reply by Ray to his contemporaries at such a particular moment in time, proving quite brilliantly that polemicizing such political discourse did not necessarily equate to great storytelling and cinema. I got the distinct impression whilst watching Sadgati that Ray was inadvertently responding to the directors of New Indian Cinema as if to articulate his own vehemently angry and outspoken ideological position on the politics of rural India. Ray had originally intended to make a documentary on the issue of child labour but was met with opposition from the government which was trying to actively discourage and effectively prevent film makers from representing such deeply important social issues like poverty on screen. Sadgati was a response, small scale though, to such critics alike and the fact it was filmed in Hindi for a television audience seemed to suggest Ray was reaching out to a much bigger audience. Interestingly, all three of the main leads including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe were all regular collaborators with Shyam Benegal and their collective presence offers a concrete link to such cinema. Ray takes a very visible observational approach to the action and the camera rarely moves, resulting in a stillness that complements the slow and at times languid pace of village life. Sadgati is available on DVD in the UK as part of a 3 DVD set released by Artificial Eye.

25 April 2011

GIU LA TESTA / DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (Dir. Sergio Leone, 1971, Italy) - Once Upon A Time...In The Revolution

Christopher Frayling who appears to be the singular academic authority on the cinema of Sergio Leone has been relentless in his quest to promote the film maker to the echelons of great directors. The Dollars trilogy were some of the first films I came across on late night television especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly which was shown on the now deceased BBC2 Moviedrome show fronted by the legend that is Alex Cox. Thankfully all of Leone’s films have now been restored back to their original length. Whilst the relatively few films he managed to direct are all revered today, the one that seems to stick out and which continues to be overlooked is the 1971 Zapata western Giu La Testa which was released in America under the absurd title of Duck, You Sucker!. Whilst today the film seems to go by the more marketing friendly title of A Fistful of Dynamite (an attempt to cash in on the success of the Dollars films), the film was released in France under the title of Once Upon a Time In The Revolution. Not only does the French title for the film allow us to position the film as part of another trilogy including The West and America, it seems more appropriate given the film’s content is highly politicised as it takes place during the time of the Mexican revolution. Frayling remarks that the French title was coined specifically to cash in on the leftist radical politics of Europe during the late 60s. Giu La Testa is by far Leone’s most political work and really should be viewed as a precursor to many of the themes he would go on to explore in his magnum opus Once Upon a Time in America. Leone’s team of regular collaborators including both scriptwriter Sergio Donati and composer Ennio Morricone contributions should not be overlooked.

Aesthetically and visually Leone seemed to come of age with Once Upon a Time in the West but it was with Giu La Testa he really formulated and offered his strongest ideological point of view to date. Dealing with the politics of revolution, Leone presents us with a political ideal that is both ugly and treacherous whilst the class struggle remains visible as ever. Whilst Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is somewhat sceptical of revolutionary politics, his interests rest solely in robbing a bank and when he meets a dynamite expert and on the run IRA terrorist John Mallory (James Coburn), Miranda sees an opportunity for easy money that invokes the chaotic spirit of Tuco (Eli Wallach) from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Many have labelled this as a comical western which may in fact be reworded as a political satire on the failed politics of the 68 generation. Miranda’s deliberate distancing from the duplicity and lies of revolution gradually lead to his political reawakening and eventual reconstitution as a nullified yet committed believer in the cause. If Mallory’s death at the end acts as a final statement on the use of violence in extending the political cause and challenging the status quo then the freeze frame on Miranda’s traumatic expression reveals an authorial and very personal rejection of radical revolutionary politics.

24 April 2011

UDAAN / FLIGHT (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwa, 2010, India) - Breaking Away

Most of the comings of age melodramas originating from Indian cinema have tended to have any emotional discourse corrupted by all manners of cinematic hyperbole. This gamut of unpleasant exaggerations have included parents as one dimensional caricatures, the urgency to equate adolescence with sexuality – resulting in the traditional and deliberately overplayed falling in love scenario which leads to an illogical series of song and dance sequences, the need to overpopulate complex emotional situations with too many characters, the derisory notion that comic relief is enough of a presence to sustain the argument for entertainment value and lastly and most importantly, the financially motivated presence of stars who bring with them potentially disruptive star baggage and connotations. Like Ishqiya, Udaan is yet another directorial debut and it is surprisingly assured in many ways. The director Vikramaditya Motwa has worked previously before as a scriptwriter and assistant to both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap who also shares a credit as producer and co-writer. Whilst songs are included, they are not signposted in any particular way except for perhaps the final one which is when the film suddenly spills over into sentimental celebrations. Udaan is a coming of age film, thankfully rejecting many of the traits I have outlined above and allowing the narrative to deal strictly with the intelligently depicted relationship between Rohan, a teenage boy, and his abusive and controlling father. When Rohan is expelled from a prestigious boarding school in Simla, his return back home leads him on a journey to discover what exactly he wants from life. At first Rohan’s father comes across as the typical patriarchal disciplinarian with a fixation for rules and authority but their fractured relationship eventually reveals a man who cannot love anymore and who views his two son’s as a burden rather than a lifelong embrace.

It’s not hard to determine what exactly makes Udaan work well as a film – a good, solid script with strong characterisation. If we were to come across a character like Rohan, played brilliantly by the relative newcomer Rajat Barmecha, in another mainstream Indian film then he would be lacking the inner life and psychological depth needed for us to experience and attempt to understand the confusions brought upon by adolescence. Additionally, by giving Rohan aspirations to become a writer, it gives the film an added literary weight and makes the conflict between arts and engineering much more charged, thus constructing a kind of battleground on which we witness an ideological clash between the values of tradition and the iconoclast reverberations of youthful creation. Critically Udaan was well received upon its release and has won many awards though most of those are invalidated by the sheer sham of Indian film award events and ceremonies. Whilst Rajat Barmecha is the main lead and gives a compelling performance, he is equally well supported by two of India's most prominent TV actors - Ronit Roy and Ram Kapoor. I think this was a wise casting decision because star baggage would have simply distracted from the thoughtful narrative and characterisation. Udaan is a fantastic youth film with a universal morality at work; it’s hard not to like.

22 April 2011

ISHQIYA (Dir. Abhishek Chaubey, 2010, India) - Rural Noir

It’s hard to believe that this is director Abhishek Chaubey’s debut given the confidence, maturity and assurance with which he handles the material. Chaubey’s emergence has been under the tutorage of Vishal Bhardwaj, a film maker who like his contemporary Anurag Kashyap is not afraid of blurring genres and mixing visual styles whilst grinning mischievously and rubbing his hands with glee. A lot of the energy and zeal generated by Ishqiya comes largely from the chance to send up many of the often redundant values and conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema. Firstly, our heroes played by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi are certainly not heroes as they fumble through life and rely foolishly on a streak of duplicity familiar from the universe of film noir. Secondly, the love interest is neither loving nor interested in dancing as a spectacle for the men around her. Instead Krishna played by vampishly by Vidya Balan is neither a femme fatale nor a symbol of innocence – she merely wants an explanation from her deceased husband. Thirdly, like all great femme fatales before her, Krishna’s sexuality is manipulation but in this case it leads to the formation of a love triangle in which affections are transferred into a friendship. Finally, by situating the story in the geographical context of the rural village, Chaubey explicitly draws on influences ranging from Shyam Benegal to Satyajit Ray. However, what makes this such a memorable and imaginative experience is the enduring nature of the characters which are imbued with a real affection – the three main leads deliver exceptional performances and whilst the denouement is a little predictable, the camaraderie forged between them clearly leaves it open for a sequel that for once might actually be justified. It is worth mentioning that Ishqiya also benefits immensely from a terrific soundtrack including one of the most melancholic Indian songs of recent years – the Gulzar penned ‘Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji’. In terms of narrative interruptions, it really works a treat. Everything else about the film including the editing, cinematography and sound design is spot on. I have no idea why I didn't come to this one earlier but I know I will return to it again soon.

21 April 2011

TAXI DRIVER (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976, US) - Omniscience

The Scorsese-Schrader-De Niro Taxi Driver has resurfaced yet again on the blu ray format with a plethora of additional material. The blu ray transfer makes for an astonishing improvement on the existing DVD of the film and what really jumped out at me which didn’t before was the clarity of the neon signs that act as a visual marker of Bickle’s descent. (dvdbeaver has a technical breakdown) I’m not going to comment on the critical value of the film as pretty much everything has been said and in many ways articulated quite strongly for the film’s significance to American cinema in the 1970s. One recurring visual/compositional motif is the repeated use of overhead shots throughout the film, culminating in the famous final reverse sweep through the apartment at the end. Both Schrader and Scorsese have examined and re-examined the impact of religion on their perceptions of reality and the overhead shots could be interpreted as a shared expression as it points to an omniscience which has its distillation in the line, ‘I’m God’s lonely man…’

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3 April 2011

NORWEGIAN WOOD (Dir. Tran Anh Hung, 2010, Japan) - Chaplinesque Connections

I'm not sure if it is the writer Haruki Murakami or director Tran Anh Hung responsible for the cinematic allusion to Chaplin's 1936 masterpiece Modern Times in which the little Tramp inadvertently takes up the cause of the proletariat by picking up a flag which falls off the back of a vehicle. It probably isn't deliberate on the part of both artists and in many ways the intransigence of Toru Watanabe in the sequence from Norwegian Wood offers a stark comparison to the animated pantomime of the little Tramp. Additionally, Toru's distance from the political turmoil of the Sixties might suggest disaffection but in both instances they are two people who could easily be swept up in the throes of historical change and transform into agents of political change. What interests me about the two sequences which are separated by such a period of time is the way in which film makers today unconsciously recreate images from the memories of cinematic past, refashioning them without knowing into a ghostly present.

1). Modern Times (1936, Dir. Charlie Chaplin) - The Leader

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2). Norwegian Wood (Dir. Tran Anh Hung, 2010) - The Beatnik

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SAPPHIRE (Dir. Basil Dearden, 1959, UK) - Closures and Ruptures

Here are some of shots from the closing sequence to Basil Dearden's 1959 film Sapphire. The film explores ethnic tensions in 1950s London. I'm not so sure how well it deals with race relations with some of the politics and representations having dated somewhat yet I found it so strange that it was a film directed by Basil Dearden of all film makers. Nevertheless, Sapphire is one of those British films that offers a lot to talk about and argue over especially as the film was made just after the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.

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Here are a few links on the film: