7 September 2013

Notes on Contemporary Indian Cinema 1# : August 2013


Pizza is a Tamil film pointed out to me in an article by K Hariharan titled ‘After the Cinema of Disgust’ in which he discusses the ‘renegade New Wave Tamil Cinema’. Hariharan focuses on three films in particular; Pizza, Naduvula Konjam Pakkathu Kannum (Some Pages in the middle are missing), and Sudhu Kavvum (Thou shalt Not Gamble). All three films are marked by the presence of Vijay Sethupathy, a new face in Tamil cinema. It is unlikely any of these films will be distributed in UK cinemas. In fact, all three films are already available on DVD in India, having been hits at the box office. Having seen very little Tamil cinema, director Kartik Subburaj’s Pizza is a genre piece that mixes supernatural idioms with postmodern twists. It is a skillfully crafted narrative in which Michael, a frustrated twenty something who delivers pizzas for a living, conspires with his girlfriend to concoct a genuinely gripping ghost story for personal reasons. Made on a low budget, Pizza was a sleeper hit in Tamil and is already being prepped for a Bollywood style remake. Actor Vijay Sethupathy is superb in the lead role and it is not difficult to see why he is being singled out as an emerging talent in the Chennai film industry. Although Hariharan says none of these films make any explicit connection to the wider reality of Tamil society and exist in a prism of self contained internal narrativity, Pizza is a film that transcends any cultural barriers since it speaks in a voice familiar to us from a shared understanding of genre conventions. In fact, it would be more suitable to position the film as an example of Tamil indie cinema.

The influence of Tamil cinema is notable in mainstream Hindi films and Raanjhanaa (Beloved One, 2013) saw the Hindi debut of Tamil star Dhanush in the lead role of a jilted, doomed lover. Shot digitally, Raanjhanaa is arguably director Anand Rai’s breakthrough feature. Whilst his previous film Tanu weds Manu was a sleeper hit at the box office, Raanjhanaa evidences a more ambitious approach to the idioms of the Bollywood romance, combining politics, caste and religion to create an emotionally convincing love story reaching for a tragic apotheosis. Unlike recent Bollywood love stories in which the on screen chemistry has been somewhat lacking a certain spark, Dhanush and Sonam Kapoor are perfectly cast. A. R. Rahman offers a terrific soundtrack while Abhay Deol pops up in a key supporting role. This may be a traditional narrative but it is a rendition that could be construed as classical.

Gattu (2012) may come across as a didactic piece of cinema but its sentimentality necessitates an empathy for the orphaned street child of Gattu who spends his days obsessing over kite flying. Perhaps most inspired is Gattu’s comical infiltration of a school so he can reach his dream of bringing down a kite named Kali which reigns supreme in the skies of the local area. His time at the school as an imposter results in a series of exchanges with the school children that is handled with great sensitivity. In many ways, Gattu could also be labelled as an example of contemporary neo realist cinema since it deals with the humble in the framework of what is a very simple tale. The mechanics of sound have been coldly explored in films before such as The Conversation, Blow Out and most recently Berberian Sound Studio.

Shabdo (Sound, 2013), a Bengali film written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly navigates a similar world of film sound with a story about a Foley Artist who loses his grip on reality because of an unhealthy obsession with Foley sounds. This is a psychological drama that offers a compelling view of the Bengali film industry, taking you behind the scenes and detailing the painstaking processes that a Foley Artist goes through to reproduce and record the soundtrack for a film. Unsurprisingly, what I enjoyed most about Shabdo was the rich sound design, used brilliantly as an extension of the psychological disintegration of the Foley Artist.

Aparna Sen is a key figure in Bengali cinema, having started as an actress then later becoming a director. Her latest feature, Goynar Baksho (The Jewellery Box) is a supernatural ghost story set after partition. Sen has said that this is a film she has dreamed of making for a long time but rights to adapt the novel prevented her from doing so in the past. Much of the narrative unfolds in the ancestral home of a prestigious Bengali family which is evocatively recreated and anchored in the figures of a recently deceased widow and a dutiful housewife (Konkana Sen). The supernatural element which sees the ghost of the dead widow communicating with the housewife is both comical and poignantly depicted. In addition to the comic register, Sen is less successful when it comes to bringing to the mix a premature tale of repression in the character of the housewife. Although, this idea of two people who love each other but are kept apart by social norms is given a generational sweep, such a narrative strand is added much too late for it to develop fully. Nonetheless, Goynar Baksho features terrific performances and is certainly one of Aparna Sen’s most idiosyncratic films.

Director Rajkumar Gupta’s breakthrough came with the underrated Barah Aana in 2009 for which he wrote the screenplay. His directorial debut, Aamir, showed promise with its compact narrative and prescient theme. Aamir was followed by No One Killed Jessica, a UTV production, signalling Gupta’s entry into the mainstream. His latest film, Ghanchakkar (Crazy), sees him reteam with Vidya Balan. On the surface, it tries to be a playful film with an noirish urban story featuring familiar crime idioms like memory loss and a missing suitcase full of money but the desire to be edgy is nothing other than an aspiration that rambles profusely and then disintegrates into cataclysmic cinematic absurdities. Emraan Hashmi’s continuing attempts to alternate from his romantic lead star image in films like Shanghai (2012) and Ghanchakkar certainly proves he has a nastiness lurking within him that needs to be exploited more often. One of the major problems with Ghanchakkar is the running time. Had this film been more taut by shaving off thirty or even forty five minutes, it may have been more engaging. Overall, it is a disappointing film but I have to admit, the ending was somewhat of a surprise and welcoming to see filmmakers seeking to export ideas often found in Indian indie cinema to a mainstream context.

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