Sunday, July 21, 2013

SHIP OF THESEUS: MOVIE REVIEW





Cast: Neeraj Kabi, Aida Al-Kashef, Sohum Shah
Director: Anand Gandhi, Vinay Shukla
Runtime: 139 min.
Verdict: Reduces beliefs and existences to ideas and concepts. Sort of like a highlight package.
Genre: Drama

                Considering the title, is Mr. Gandhi doing nothing with the structure of his narrative, or you know the identity of his narrative via his various elements? If the intention was to deal with the Theseus paradox merely at a diegetic level, then (a) the movie doesn’t so as much deals with it as much as describes it, and (b) every movie ever made, or every narrative ever told does deal with causality and thus refers to the paradox. I mean, narratives are all about identities, don’t you think, and were it not for those men who tattoo the words – “Mera baap chor hai” – on little Vijay’s arms, would he have grown up to be the man he was. Thakur Baldev Singh claim to fame in popular culture is all about his chopped arms no? In The Dark Knight, was Harvey Dent always Two-Face, or did circumstance replace one identity with the other? Who’s Alfred Borden? Why does Mr. Gibney have to dwell on Bradley Manning’s identity crisis? What I’m getting at here is every film ever made and every story ever told is about identity, more so at a spiritual level, and when Ship of Theseus sort of reduces this question to a more materialist and literal one, with organs and all, I’m wondering if an opportunity has been missed. An opportunity to not merely dwell in the identities existing in the diegetic world but to understand the identity of the object at hand itself, i.e. the film.           
For instance, is the film sum of its three stories? What would happen if I were to remove one of them? What would happen if I were to change the order in which they were narrated? What happens if I were to replace the characters of one story with those of one of the others? What would’ve happened if it was shot on film? This interview with Mr. Pankaj Kumar here tells me precious little. What happens if the film were black and white? I’m asking these questions because a structural understanding of the identity of a movie and experimenting with that identity would’ve probably given some sort of credence to a movie that calls itself Ship of Theseus. The way I look at it, the paradox of Theseus can be attributed to the diegesis of every movie, and thus Mr. Gandhi’s film owed its identity (its title or whatever) to be a meta-reading. I understand, I’m seeking a critical path not much appreciated where I’m asking a movie to be something it is not. In my defense, in this particular context, I believe such an argument is necessary.
Nevertheless, we come back to the movie. And come back to the more acceptable practice of dealing with a movie on its own terms. In this case, the diegesis. Let us begin with the story of Maitreya (Mr. Kabi), a monk quite uncompromising in his ideals. Ideals that seem to have been reasoned out and thought over. His audience is not the mass but the political and scientific elite of the society, the section that can cause an argument. With his round spectacles and gaunt presence, he walks everywhere and reasons with everybody. Sort of like a proxy Gandhi. He walks barefoot, through rain and rugged terrain, and every perpendicular composition Mr. Gandhi offers of him, as he keeps marching across it, impresses upon us his intransigence. He wakes up in the night and walks amidst rain and sun to make it to the high court and fight his case against pharmaceutical companies guilty of ill-treatment towards animals. From shot to shot, through the thin layers of the dhoti, Mr. Gandhi pins Maitreya’s figure against his surroundings, the latter merciless and the former relentless. We see his body, and the bodies of his fellow monks, and the physicality and belief are not because of each other but in spite of each other. So when irony causes his liver to break down and potentially seek the very allopathic treatment he fights, he resorts to a quasi-hunger-strike. It is a harrowing passage in the film, his physicality slowly but surely eroding, his abdomen sinking, and lesions all over him. One’s reminded of Hunger, and even if one’s not, the film’s preceding dynamic between the body and the belief somehow takes an about turn. He starts hallucinating, and one feels the resolve of his beliefs seem to be eroding just as fast as his body.
Now, dear reader, we are talking about beliefs here, we’re talking about faith here, not in an external source but faith in one’s self, and here Mr. Gandhi, for what I believe to be entirely conceptual/thematic reasons, equates the self to the hard tangible body. I’m not sure that’s how Bobby Sands would’ve seen things, and from Mr. Gandhi, whose compositions and lighting suggest a whole lot of intangible in every shot, this focus on the body somehow feels false. The initial dynamic that suggested a belief emanating more from within somehow, to my disappointment, stands negated. That’s not the deal-breaker though. There exists within the narrative his antithesis in the form of a bright young cynical lawyer Charvaka (Mr. Shukla) whose purpose is to argue with Maitreya and lose it thereby suggesting the latter’s well-thought-through ideology, and in the process indulging in a little wit and a lot of Linklater-esque idea-bombing. In numerous conversations between them Maitreya always has the final word until the very end where his body has given up on him and Charvaka comes up with another of his idea bombs and delivers a monologue about the dubious nature of identity, equating identity with body. Maitreya doesn’t reply thereby giving the impression that Charvaka has finally scored, and the narrative seems to confirm this by having the monk give up on his belief and finally seeking refuge in allopathy. He bails out of the frame while his would-be death-bed stays there, providing a uniquely what-the-fuck moment. Did we really need Charvaka and his idea bombs? Weren’t Maitreya’s struggles with his body enough (read: Walker)? Here’s a man whose faith is directed inwards and thus vulnerable. I mean, compromising on the self is a pretty easy temptation don’t you think, and it is a considerable subject on its own to not need a Charvaka idea-bomb us some mumbo-fucking-jumbo about bacteria ala the doctor explaining anterograde amnesia at the start of Ghajini, and pretend to be the catalyst? Maitreya’s beliefs didn’t deserve a contrast, and if at all it was really necessary to question them, I would’ve rather Mr. Gandhi engage in a proper conversation.
As in, engage in a deeper understanding. As opposed to conceptual variations of the same element. These vignettes deserve the full-blown treatment, not merely skimming through the surface. Consider for instance the predicament of the blind photographer Aaliya (Ms. El-Kashef), a genius who takes supposedly incredible pictures, who likes to believe that she has complete control on her craft, and is thereby completely responsible for the art that comes out of it. She’s blind, and she seeks sounds that inspire her. Sounds which stoke her imagination, an imagination which she carefully reduces to the sum total of it variables, and it is these variables that she arranges to take her pictures. Serendipity is something she doesn’t abide by. She undergoes a cornea transplant, and her imagination is replaced with sight. What I have described above is a concept, a situation, and Mr. Gandhi goes hardly beyond this concept to understand the underlying beliefs, the absurdity of existence and the toll it takes on an artist. It is said that constraints is what makes the craft cause the art, and Mr. Gandhi’s rendition of this situation seems to barely acknowledge the nature of the twin constraints here – the presence/absence of sight  - forget dealing with them. What we rather get is standard-issue frustration with loss of inspiration. For a person so possessive about her control, would she so meekly cave in to this new change? Mr. Gandhi instead sends her from the kitsch of everyday life to the kitsch of the mountains, and here he and Mr. Kumar cause a little neat little contrast through their compositions. While Aaliya, in her blindness, is within the center of the frame, i.e. her world, i.e. her art, there is a marked orientation once she is in front of the Himalayas. The mountains stand majestically towards one end of the frame, as if like the cinema screen, and she towards the other. There is a chasm, and one might even be mistaken to feel that these are some sort of composite images, the truth being that Aaliya’s craft seems to have bid her goodbye and all she could do is see rather than capture. The question is, now what? The problem is, I’m no closer to Aaliya then I would have been to a Wikipedia description her. While the transformation of beliefs and character, both with Aaliya and Maitreya are complicated situations that do not in the least warrant a temporal compromise, the damn thing here feels like a highlight package.  
The case of the stockbroker, Navin (Mr. Shah) is sure a step up, more detailed than the others (probably owing to the fact that Mr. Gandhi probably lived through most of it, which is fine. I’m all for ideas, I seek them and Mr. Gandhi’s film does that have a lot of them. But what I seek even more desperately is cinema, and I’m not so sure Ship of Theseus is quite there yet. Images yes, but temporality no. He can cause moments and he cause images, but he seems to be writer filled with ideas and not a voyeur filled with desires. Navin here is such a sweet example of convenience, reducing the stock-broker to some kind of ethic-less stereotype without even taking the character on his own terms. A convenience that is easily caused by having characters with the express purpose of reciting the dynamic rather than showing it. When these guys, all three of them, are linked together through their parts, witnessing the images of their donor, it was almost a blatant self-precious nod at the dynamic between the movie and us. To that I say, dear reader, if you want to shake me and stir me and you know transform me, it better be with more than just a set of ideas. 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

LOOTERA: MOVIE REVIEW




Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Ranvir Singh, Barun Chanda, Vikrant Massey
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: There are momentary pleasures. But what starts as a politically intriguing tale, swiftly descends into a terribly narrated tacky melodrama.
Genre: Drama

(Warning: The below passages contain spoilers!)

The old man does come across as the haughty bourgeoisie, blissfully ignoring political upheavals in the land, always believing the new times would never overrun his own except in the best of ways. We do seem to have come a long way from the hammer and sickle of Mehboob productions. Here is a zamindaar not intoxicated in his power, not exactly the tyrant we have come to expect after numerous such depictions of the class, but someone lost in his own era. Shatranj Ke Khilari does come to mind. Here’s man not greedy. Here’s a man so uninterested by money that he doesn’t take a moment to point towards his accountant for any matters of finance. Here’s a man who’s been breathing the luxuries of a life free of want, a life always seeking the pleasures of art and aesthetics. To him, his orchards might be synonymous with beautiful landscapes. You might want to label him a collector of aesthetics, and if the socialist streak of the new times and its new administration robs him of his collection under the reason that the art belongs to the nation, it sure does make me a little uncomfortable. I’m all for sharing, but when the treasury department folks come about, snatch from him his collection, I have to admit I was a little conflicted. I mean, share with whom? With them, for whom the USP/wow-factor of some of these sculptures and artifacts is that they are made of some super-costly material. Or with them who believe a movie filled with “picturesque landscapes” is an artistic triumph. There are several questions here about the 1% v/s the 99% that would provide some serious fodder for an interesting debate.
I come back to the old man. He cuts a forlorn figure. Probably the only thing he prides greater than his collection is his daughter, and in a desperate stroke to establish his royalty he announces her marriage. What comes about then right at the stroke of intermission, in the manner in which Lootera reveals the truth behind the treasury department and the marriage, deftly bringing about the multiple narrative elements into one single whole, through some glorious montage, juxtaposing the destroyed old man on the chair with the young man he had put his all his hopes on, is as tragic as tragedy gets. The old man’s eyes and the daughter’s eyes and the young man’s eyes. It is heart-breaking on several levels, but most importantly it completely extinguishes any opportunity of any debate I was referring to above, and instead makes the film completely apolitical. But then that’s just me, and we might do well to ignore me.
And come back to the old man. Who, we know by now, is not exactly the picture of emotional strength, and is dead. Leaving in his wake a daughter who dutifully makes the transformation from chirpy and naughty to depressed and lonely. Also with some kind of tuberculosis where one has asthmatic attacks (wonder if anything like that exists?). Oh yeah, also in Dalhousie, which is the last place one wants to be if one has a respiratory disorder. Unless one is on a death wish, which Pakhi (Ms. Sinha) does allude towards once. Trouble is, she does expect the young man, Varun (Mr. Singh), to turn up and informs the local police as well. So, what exactly is she, and what is her internal state? Does her subconscious secretly expect Varun to turn up one day, and is she sort of repressing it? After all, from her perspective, Dalhousie is the likeliest place for her to meet him again. But then, she does admit to the cops she has no ill-feelings towards him and she only wants to forget and move on. Then why Dalhousie, where the mathematical probability is high, more so when the screenwriter himself is banking on them to meet here again. Does she seek revenge ala Ishqiya (which would’ve been something)? Not in hindsight, and she has grown too weak. Not because of depression, because in Dalhousie she would be expecting him anytime. That would mean her state of mind would be up, and not down, and definitely not moving towards death, thereby implying her ailment is something acutely physical, and she would have to be fighting it to stay alive to wait for him to come back into her life. Which makes me all very confused, because she admittedly wants to move on. Two things then. One, she’s an idiot, and two, her predicament doesn’t qualify to draw inspiration from O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, which relies on simple clearly-defined dynamics to draw its emotions.
The former is what causes within me immense dejection. Here’s a man who has not merely betrayed her love but destroyed her innocently ignorant father, a crime which makes him near irredeemable. That he has carried on with his life, and that he still continues to pursue his criminal endeavors confirms his status as a hateful scavenger, which does spice up the narrative pretty well to invoke her contempt. Yet, he earns her trust and her love by merely making a few cups of tea and a few meals, and performing a couple of nurse-jobs. She offers little by way of resistance, there’s precious little by way of strong feelings, and it’s just all terribly meek. Little by way of grace, if you know what I mean. While the screenwriters ignore logic and invoke the cops only to their convenience, it is the readily available point of redemption that annoys me. Varun earns nothing. For no particular reason the housemaid stops turning up. For some reason the doctor stops turning up. For some reason the cops do not guard the exit from Pakhi’s guesthouse. And in spite of all this, Mr. Motwane doesn’t realize that sacrifice works best when its beneficiary learns about the act not merely after it is done, but learns it with us. And a sacrifice works best when the person performing the act has everything to lose. Looper, last year, had similar problems. Sacrifice is an act of grace, not a last ditch attempt at redemption when everything else is lost. Jai never letting Veeru know the secret of the coin and us learning of it along with the latter is what makes Mr. Salim and Mr. Akhtar such great story writers. The act is presented simply and clearly without the need of flashbacks or Jai’s voiceovers or any explanations. We all realize it collectively.
Here, (a) Mr. Motwane fails to reduce the act to its bare simplicity, thus having to present a long-drawn sequence of the act being performed. Now, this sequence has two problems – one, there is inherently little by way of stakes because Varun is already a goner (cops waiting for him) and two, he doesn’t exactly have to walk on a bed of fire or sit through a snow-storm to get the job done. Now, (b), after the act, we’re a little confused as to what it was, i.e. did he do it daily (the threads suggest so), which means these are real leaves? If they are, why does he need to paint them every day? Or if it is just that one day, which if it is makes the act pretty trivial, right alongside making tea and meals and giving injections. And (c), we know of the act before the beneficiary does, thus divorcing us of her perspective, and when the emotions draw on her (which they very conveniently), she stands alone on the screen. That’s not how stories are ended.