Saturday, November 28, 2015

SPECTRE: MOVIE REVIEW



Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Money Harris, Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: The best Bond film since GoldenEye. Mr. Mendes’ best film. And one of the best of the year.
Genre: Action, Thriller, Mystery

              There is the old and there is the new. The gloriously stylish opening sequence, which gives way to a vertiginous tussle in a chopper over what looks like old Mexico, has James Bond fly over shiny new urban skyscrapers into the title sequence. It is the Day of the Dead, and the ease with which it establishes the narrative’s rhetoric around spaces – the old and the new, the new coming out of the old – had me rethink my stance on the worth of Mr. Mendes as a filmmaker. He has always felt sterile to me, and here he makes me realize why the best of James Bond might represent the absolute gold-standard in action-adventure cinema, which Spectre certainly is, and why Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas chose to describe Raiders of the Lost Ark as “a James Bond film without the hardware”. I will not want to put down the competition offered by the Mission Impossible franchise, or the Jason Bourne who-am-I quest, but neither of them understand spaces as well as Mr. Mendes does here, or Mr. Spielberg almost always does. Maybe, it is unfair to even ask of them – the Ethan Hunt films are exercises in stunts the spaces scarcely meaning anything more than a set-up – but Bourne’s version of memory represented by a what (plot) so much so that the hotel in Berlin almost doesn’t seem to exist on its own other than to serve as a place where events happened is certainly disappointing. Mr. Mendes understands the value of spaces, as a site of the conflict between the old and the new, as a site where history is shaped, and as a site where somebody like James Bond can find his past. That both history and James Bond’s past are inter-linked are not a matter of coincidence at all, and when we will have the luxury of a hindsight of fifty or so years, we might want to look at him just as we would look Dante or every such poet/academic ever since (say Mr. Todd Haynes’ I’m not There or Mr. Lech Majewski’s Field of Dogs) who has positioned himself at the center of the world.
              There is a meteor in the middle of a state-of-the-art information gathering-processing center, like Google’s World Brain project center, that itself is in the sort of middle of nowhere that reminds one of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the stagey showman that Mr. Mendes is (and not always in a good way) he has the antagonist literally materialize in the light from the darkness around. Mr. Waltz is one of our absolute treasures, and his Franz Oberhauser is the kind of character you are really curious to get into the head of. The guy written on the page is standard-issue, but between Mr. Mendes’s close-ups and Mr. Waltz reactions, we almost always seem to have a bit of a mystery before us who’s not quite Silva (The Joker, refreshing to have a bad guy not in it to just watch the world burn) operating in a I-have-no-value-for-my-life mode but he’s not entirely Hans Gruber either. The cut through this eye only intensifies the mystery, and Mr. Mendes chooses to concentrate on his reactions, giving us ample time to wonder what exactly is going on inside so much so that one can conceive Spectre to be an origin-story for him as much as it is a revelation for James Bond. But that is beside the point I’m trying to make here, because Mr. Mendes and Mr. Hoytema indulge in liberal usage of the long shot with so much to see, which is a delight when you wonder how somebody could have walked into a mountain-top alpine snow set clinic only to see a runway towards the top-right corner of the screen making one realize this must be a rich man’s place only to be rewarded with James Bond making an entry into a chase in a small plane. All spaces reveal, or it is almost their purpose to reveal (as any mystery has to) so much so that the plot almost seems subservient to these spaces. Mr. Mendes, surprisingly for a modern action picture, spends so much time in each of them because that is where he almost deriving the plot from, or at least manufacturing it around them. The spaces are not merely rhetoric, as they were in Skyfall, and have a terrific immersive quality to them. Of course, that is just my opinion – the old intelligence building versus the new intelligence tower across the river, which is definitely an agenda much in tune with the insecurities at the heart of Skyfall, or the glossy new Aston Martin against the old one (Aston Martin? pardon me, not much into Bond trivia) – but then there’s James Bond’s house, which feels less of a statement, like say Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho, and more like a den with its shadows and lights. When Moneypenny (Ms. Harris) visits him, there is an air of intrigue, and the space is set-up for reveals. They are unknown and the atmosphere tangible, not yet shaped into a narrative until Bond arrives on some of them, and this is the very structure of an action-adventure film, walking from one mystery into another – the mystery being the spaces and not the plot. They are in a hotel in Tangier, and if ever there is a filler shot for passage of time that in itself is memorable – a pan from the seas to the hotel, almost as if we were in a different time of archaeological pursuits – it is this one. Bond wakes up, the midnight air so palpable as if in a dream, and the room obliges to reveal its secrets as if it were a treasure hidden in a canyon. And once they are revealed, and the mysterious past known, these places hold no intrigue and for obvious reasons. A lot of it is about the pure temptation a space holds (as if one could psychoanalyze the imperialist need to explore and conquer), its seductiveness if you will, and what is James Bond if not fetishist. You could wave your Marxist cards and thunder about an argument about the usual, and I would rather direct you to the moment where Lucia Sciarra (Ms. Belluci) asks Bond not to go to the conclave to which James Bond replies – I have to. This temptation, this curiosity, is irresistible you see, almost like death drive, and Bond staring at the events around the roundtable is an exhibition of nerve-wracking tension. You see, it is plain and simple, and the secret to the whole of action-adventure genre are the locations, not beautiful but mysterious, not factual but historical. No wonder they arrive at the station with nowhere to go, and waiting for that desert to reveal itself, and there is this gradual reversal of the trend – from Bond confidently navigating us through the spaces as in the glorious opening walk over the terrace to the room in Tangier to the station in the middle of the desert – and the narrative is sort of built around it. It is as if he were discovering a whole new world, and it is glorious, just as is the bird’s eye-view of a train calmly moving through the desert.  
              So when Bond chastises Oberhauser for his screens and his overelaborate voyeurism, you got to chuckle, and I’m not sure if it at the film or with the film, and you got to ask if what James Bond is doing hunting down places is so very different from Oberhauser’s cameras every which where consuming spaces into data and consuming it, or as a friend recently asked, is cinephilia so different from other forms of consumer activities, like travelling. Bond might seduce women, and Keith Uhlich in a rather wonderful review here calls it out for what it might be, but from Mexico to Rome to Tangier the spaces seduce him. Which might lead one to brand him, as Mr. Uhlich does here, an agent in perpetual forward motion, probably contributing to the dichotomy between the “serious” Bond (always looking at his past?) and the ridiculously amusing Bond (jumping to one adventure to the next), and when Oberhauser starts drilling through his brain in the middle of a super-white anti-septic room, you wonder if he will hit anything. You see, I wouldn’t want to make an overelaborate connection to Leonard Shelby (and Memento had a terrific feel for spaces), but Bond is the sort of character whose past has little meaning and the history around him is his identity. Reducing that past, or reducing that history, to a set of events carry little weight, because, and I might sound extremely corny here, Bond’s identity is not inside him it is around him. The trick is to deck up the surroundings, and let Bond be himself (whatever that is, a placeholder maybe?), and if that involves a stunning shot of him and Madeline (Ms. Seydoux) walking down the villain’s den as if on a ramp, so be it. Not that a moment as tender (Oldboy tender) as Bond asking to stop the screens from revealing to Madeline what happened to her father is not welcome, but Mr. Mendes, maybe rightly, chooses on both the occasions, the event and its echo, to close in on Bond. Maybe there is a little bit too much hullaballoo around the assassin’s morality thing, or maybe the point is that an assassin (when he arrives at Madeline’s desk I was reminded of Anton Chigurh visiting Llewyn Moss’ wife) is still more of a human than a drone dropping bombs. Or maybe, when the secrets are revealed the Bond I like loses all interest in it, and rather chooses the girl, and the car, and everything else that is material and an extension of him. Bond is his world, and before I go all Charlie Kauffman on you, I just have to talk about that walk. It is a punk walk, like Kevin Bacon’s, and I should have never been impressed by it. But here I am unable to remove it from my head.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

14 HOMICIDES: MOVIE REVIEW


Director: Jona Gerlach
Runtime: 34 min.
Genre: Documentary, Short

              Mr. Gerlach’s 14 Homicides settles down at the intersection of geography, of society, of language, of statistics, of memory, of journalism, and in my case media – or new media, I was watching the film and googling its events, which I would suggest is probably unadvisable – and suggests how history and maybe even rhetoric could be give some sort of shape. 14 Homicides feels like an alternate way of narrativizing a haunted place, and come to think of it what is the difference between a haunted and a historical place after all? Maybe the latter is a document of change, while the former has an event stamped on its very identity forever, and if we were to extend that logic, will be entering the area of difference between history and rhetoric, between memory and ideology? Mr. Gerlach presents 14 locations by way of static shots, all places with terrific immersive quality to them so much so that I would love to live in some of those and be around the others – suburban houses, superstores, apartment complexes – and the fact that haunted locations are more often than not spaces where domestic bliss has been overturned is not entirely lost.    
              There’s these static shots, and there’s a calm voiceover reading text (a lot of which I was able to find verbatim from different news sites) that intends to be a factual narrative of the events that occurred, all of them involving accidental cop shootings. These shots do not linger too long after the voiceover, linking the facts to the space thereby affecting their identities, and when the spaces start piling up with respect to the months of 2014, we enter the not-so-apolitical zone of statistics. Spaces where you or I could live a lovely little life almost seem to become hostage to a stream of events that feel more like an epidemic, contextualized and re-contextualized, by the time around them and the geography around them (all of them occur in Utah), and a clear enough rhetoric emerges even without the depiction or staging of an event. There are no people, just spaces and facts, and the grey areas that the initial text around the law governing a peace officer’s usage of deadly force merely alludes to is opened so wide these spaces seem to exist wholly and solely within them. Experts often refer to the disposition of any man-made structure – societies, SEZs etc. – and by the end of the year, these localities seem to assume the sort of disposition Mr. Lynch was not so subtle about in Blue Velvet. Mr. James Benning sure does come to mind, but while his landscapes are variables of time, Mr. Gerlach seems to suggest domestic places as hostages of their milieu.  


Note: As I said, dear reader, if you happen to watch this film on your laptop rather than at a screening it might be advisable to refrain from seeking further context and information than is being already formulated, for it only adds to the rhetoric. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

PREM RATAN DHAN PAYO: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Salman Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Deepak Dobhriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Armaan Kohli
Director: Sooraj Barjatya
Runtime: 174 min.
Genre: Drama, Romance

              From what I remember, the impression I was provided by elders around was the Ms. Bhagyashree was the focal point of Maine Pyar Kiya. And if memory serves me well history Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was a complete Madhuri Dixit show. I have Raja as evidence. I wouldn’t vouch for its authenticity but I do remember Mr. Salman Khan complaining about not winning the Best actor award for it in 1994 and his reasoning was that since it was the biggest hit of the year he had to be the best actor. Don’t ask me, because I even remember Mr. Pramod Moutho using the same weird-ass reasoning to claim his right to the Best villain award for Raja Hindustani. And that is not the point. The point is that, for whatever reasons, Mr. Khan was almost never the focal point in his two biggest collaborations with Mr. Barjatya, and the whole Prem thing is something that has been cooked ages after the fact. Now, I do not want to go all meta on you and this film, but Mr. Barjatya, who, if not anything else, is pretty alright crunching emotions on a large-scale, seems to be least concerned with run-of-the-mill dramatic events and corresponding closures. See, there are spoilers and I don’t think so you need to be warned either. Read on, I say.
So Mr. Khan is in a double role here, one a Prince by the name of Vijay and another a small time stage actor Prem, and Maithili (Ms. Kapoor) is engaged to the former and over the course of the film falls for the latter. When the time comes for one (Vijay) to do the obligatory right thing and hand her over to the other (Prem), Mr. Barjatya seems to feel almost too cool to go all melodramatic on us, say like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and end it all with a grand embrace. Rather, right before the cut away from the scene (it is as a matter of fact the last moment of drama before the obligatory closing song), she is still in the same frame (a sideways shot) with Vijay, who now looks exactly like Prem. That’s it. No movement from one post to another. Either is alright, Mr. Barjatya seems to tell me. And when I think of Mr. Khan’s character in a palace full of mirrors trying to find a way out of his own reflections, the film seems to practically beg for a meta-reading I do not in the least want to oblige it with. But I guess Mr. Barjatya is not providing us with that option because I think he is quite unhappy with Mr. Khan’s present larger-than-life image. He probably doesn’t like his moustached avatar (Dabangg) and all the alpha-male antics around the women he is courting. Maybe Prem is an extension, a sort of compensation, a character who in his overall moral framework completes him, and he doesn’t like the fact that what ought to be the actor’s defining character is being overwritten by several others so different in their essence. I don’t know, I might just be pulling stuff from my posterior, but the set-up, a variation on Bawarchi formula, is painfully simple – a patriarch’s dysfunctional domestic set-up needs glue (Mr. Barjatya and his marketing team probably missed an opportunity to have the Fevicol/Fevistick brand in there somewhere, thank you very much). The variation is that the patriarch is played by Mr. Khan, and the glue is played by Mr. Khan too, and in moments when both of them are on screen the latter feels as if he were some sort of a spirit, so feeble in his presence, so devoid of the narcissist streak, so single-minded in his purpose in the narrative. As opposed to the popular understanding, Mr. Barjatya’s films don’t uphold conservative values – his thought-process is probably too run-of-the-mill to do that – and instead what his narratives do is undermine (I wouldn’t want to go as far as subvert) and hopefully reverse traditional customs and rituals. More often than not, Mr. Khan’s Prem has been the agent – in Maine Pyar Kiya the whole Mere Rang mein Rangne Wali is as close to an agreement to full-blown pre-marital sex you are going to get in Mr. Barjatya’s films, which has an interesting parallel here, once again closely linking the not-so-much outdoor-but-not-so-much-indoor space with moral frivolity (don’t almost all this flirtatious activities happen in such sort of spaces), and the whole act of wearing a favorite revealing dress be some sort of response I can’t sink my teeth into; in a world where the parents would meet-and-greet before proceeding with a match, Mr. Khan’s Prem courteously went ahead and decided to find his own in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. The point here is that Mr. Barjatya’s films, as were many others’, are essentially liberal and we don’t have to burden him with the task representing family values and traditions. For him they are just the framework within which he can carve his romance and be naughty. What is a strict no for him though is for somebody to woo his women by the size of their masculinity, ala Jeevan (Mr. Mohnish Behl in Maine Pyar Kiya) shooting pigeons and exercising a display of control, and I guess I can suspect that is how Mr. Barjatya sees his alter-ego’s distortion into the present larger-than-life image. So he gives that image an impersonal palatial complex, rigid traditions, dysfunctional family and everything else we cannot really afford to connect with, and proceeds to introduce the alter-ego he believes as the catalyst of change. A sort of supporting member in his own narrative. Which is alright, except for the fact that the whole film feels distinctly like a concept trying its level best to have the vigor to metamorphose into a story, whose cause is not helped in the least by the half-written dialogues. Mr. Barjatya could be outrageously gifted in profiling walking figures under the light, his compositions consisting of vertical lines supplementing the slender figure of Ms. Kapoor still make the half-screens in multiplexes look tall, but for our generation at least, the sound of the convenience of an English word within a predominantly Hindi sentence quite simply breaks the illusion. The residual feeling here though is of something that is slight, or maybe light, and the melodrama just does not have the heft. Maybe by design, or maybe Mr. Barjatya was running through the motions. Or let me put it this way, if this were the 90s then Mr. David Dhawan would be feeling little to no compulsion to make a comedy out of this premise.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Oliver Laxe
Director: Ben Rivers
Runtime: 98 min.
Genre: Experimental, Drama

              We have a desert, and we have a few cars driving through. There is another mini-vehicle seemingly filming them and giving them directions. Obviously we are watching this whole thing. But when the figure of Mr. Oliver Laxe narrates a riddle against a backdrop of white, and the next cut to what seems like a white desert (Sahara) is so hard and the match on the color so true that one feels Mr. Laxe practically vanishes. We see three figures walking across the desert and the screen, in what seems like black hooded dresses, humming some folk song, and the whole moment has narrative written all over it. They walk slowly, as a tribe would, for civilization (especially urban) is aggressive. More so against nature. We create a perception. Mr. Rivers gives us a cut. To a guy singing some folk song, and this time around his hooded robe is just plain sandy brown with some design. Not reductive black. When he completes his song, the camera pans down and the guy gives a thumbs up. Now, I believe a thumbs up is essentially European, and at the very least a symbol of a civilization that just doesn’t sit well with these slow-moving folk-singing tribes. So yeah, we have our first anachronism. You see, there is always the unmistakable air of privilege that walks with the agent of civilization. I traveled once to this village in Konkan, some 50 odd km from Pune, as part of a NGO team, carrying Dettol soaps. We spent a few hours there discussing with those people on how to educate their kids and how necessary it was to have a good bath, and preferably with those Dettol soaps, which we gratuitously distributed. Those folks were watching us do our thing, while we were conducting ourselves. Between our dressing and our confident demeanor and the very fact that we had “invaded” their territory and were “concerned” about their way of living, we had “privileged” written all over us. I was acutely aware of this tension, and in no small measure disgusted by it. There was a certain sense of lack, if you will, on the part of the villagers, just as was will those sex-workers in Kamathipura when Ms. Ashley Judd paid them a missionary (not catholic, but AIDS awareness) visit a few years back. There was guilt too, probably on my part, and if you were to imagine my predicament, you would have essentially two sets of eyes – one watching us, and one watching “them” watching us. The otherification is probably inevitable. What is essential though is the affirmation of the identities, because for us to be us they need to be them. This staging though is alright inasmuch as we are lost in our performance of privilege as agents of culture and unaware of any other set of eyes other than the one intently listening to us. The expectation is that Ms. Judd speaks about AIDS and the sex workers listen, or the sex workers speak about their lack of knowledges and maybe even their plight and Ms. Judd listens. But, if we have an alternate set of eyes intently looking at this conversation being performed, and the camera is distracted by it we probably have something of a breakdown.
A simple variation is where the tribe performs the rituals while we/agents arrive to “understand” the alien culture, and approximate it. The agents remain in their privileged position of anthropologists (filmmakers/documentarists) and connoisseurs of rituals as long as they are performed. But if one of them throws a thumbs up, or say flips-a-bird, or say just turns around and starts watching the camera or starts watching the agents watch the ritual, you have a Matrix-like anomaly to the proceedings. The reductive narrative of the ritual doesn’t align any longer, and one is acutely aware of the disruption in the whole dynamic. We are watching them watching us. Just as the sanctity, or let us say efficacy, of the missionary’s rite is disturbed, the filmmaker’s rite – i.e. filmmaking – goes for a toss too. I mean, broadly speaking, filmmaking would mostly contain less of a “capture” (don’t so many filmmakers love that word?) and more of a restaging of events so as to validate them as the established truth, and more importantly use that truth to underline the essential difference between the one filming and the one being filmed. The agent of civilization has the right to stare, while the performer (tribe) has the duty to perform. You could say, it is exploitation of a different nature. I will say, just about now, I guess, the opening shots of the cars and the film-crew feels like an essential afterthought to homogenize narratively the dissonance that follows next.
              Let me describe the dissonance, and then arrive at the whole description from an extremely literal point-of-view. While the author is effectively “wiped-out” from the screen, instead replacing it with a white desert with folks dressed in black we have an eye (camera, perspective) that is finding a space (real, mythic) which can affirm the identity of the subject, thus confirming the identity of the observer. Those folks sing, and they are a homogenized spectacle, if you will. Homogenized by the music of that song, I suspect, and Mr. Rivers seems to be searching for that one true note not only in the space but in the sounds too. The note of affirmation. But it all feels labored, the strain already felt (just as I am searching for that one key moment for transformation). You see, I haven’t seen much of Mr. Rivers and the tension between his rejection of the material as straight up representation is pretty evident in the manner in which an alternate meta-camera (as in the opening scene) watches the other performers watching the filmmaking unfold. But is it arrived at here, in Morocco, while making The Sky Trembles, or if it had already been arrived at, as if declaring that this is just a necessary state of affairs, I don’t know.
A main actor yells – “The Sheik has gone” – while others sit and watch and laugh. While the fiction cinema tries to pretend to be some kind of ethnographic documentary, there is the third eye trying to make sense of this tableaux, this dynamic between the agent the tribesman and the unwritten/unmentioned deal to maintain the illusion while it breaks down. We see a ritual being performed over a dead body, at a comfortable distance, and there is a certain degree of harmony there between the observer and the performer. But Mr. River cuts to a boy, seeing us seeing them, and the harmony is disturbed. Are we capturing a ritual, or are we seeing a performance? And if the latter is essentially symbolic in nature (and not real), would it be better served both aesthetically and morally to indeed simulate the whole ritual by means of a fake dead body (for some reason there are empty plastic bottles which will make an anachronistic entry later), and by reenacting the whole tableaux including asking the little boy to see us see the ritual again? Will that compensate? Will it find the point of truth? We are in a Charlie Kauffman kind of a self-reflexive environment trying to ascertain what is feeding of what, and I feel the need to share this amusing gif just to approximate the whole dynamic. For the whole of the initial section, that little girl is us.




              Mr. Rivers isn’t having much luck finding the one musical note either that gives his film that point of truth it is looking for in this land. It is fake all around, and acutely aware of it. The lines spoken by the actors (natives) do not satisfy the filmmaker’s references. The subtitles aren’t present and we aren’t sure whether what is being spoken has any meaning. It is just inconsequential sounds. While the folk songs try and create for immersive homogenized cinema, even in long shots where folks climb down/up a hill, the spell is broken whenever we hear every day noises causing us to appreciate the diversity within this setting and the utter failure of any homogenizing endeavor, the disillusionment towards which is complete when an accident and a crowd and several vehicles on a tar road seem to provide the kind of organic material (with blood? A symbol?) that Mr. Rivers is searching for in the desert.
              Now I hope you understand the predicament here, and I seem to have spent a whole lot of words describing it. But just to give a point of reference, who I believe is Mr. Rivers’, or for that matter the filmmaker’s (here, played by Mr. Laxe) brother from another mother – Mr. Quentin Tarantino – we need to imagine how he probably would have felt staging his alternate-history ritual in Django Unchained through genre-tropes. Is he actualizing/rewriting the history via the fantasy of representational/fictional cinema? Is he aware that his set of eyes viewing and rewriting history are just as important as the narrative involving the black Django? I suspect he is, acutely so as a matter of fact, and he releases this tension (partly as a variation of the above, partly as identifying himself as the representation of a white man) by inserting himself as a performer to be given equal opportunity to be exploited by history/cinema/narrative/ritual and thereby literally exploding (read: purging) out of it.
              The filmmaker, probably disillusioned by the efficacy of filmmaking as a tool to find the point of truth to complete/affirm the truth, seems to walk away assuming the role of a white man in search of the territory on his own, in a truck, leaving behind his film and allowing himself to be an object in Mr. Rivers’. The tension is greatly eased, it is just his eye lost in the reality of kids playing soccer and a girl clanking rocks against each other pursued by Mr. Rivers’ camera, gears click, and the adaptation of Mr. Bowles’ A Distant Episode follows. The filmmaker’s tongue is sliced (his language, the basic unit of any culture is taken away), and by covering his entire body in a robe of tin can lids, he is just as much a performer as the natives are in their black hooded robes. The whole dynamic is now reduced to an easy binary – them versus him – and the accentuation of the otherification of the natives only serves to emphasize the truth in the narrative – of a white man captured in a foreign land, exploited and sold as a slave. The story is now about him, as it always was, for it never could be about them. Ethnography gives way to fiction, or maybe something even more, say a snuff film, and when we see the filmmaker running away from it all, from his own narrative, from this space he came to let us culturally approximate, we know it is nigh impossible. It might be terribly symbolic, maybe a tad poetic when we think of it against the opening shot, but for some reason, I find the utter helplessness a tad moving.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

VISAARANAI (INTERROGATION): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Dinesh Ravi, Aadukalam Murugadoss, Samuthirakani, Kishore Kumar G., E. Ramadoss, Kayal Anandhi, Misha Goshal
Director: Vetri Maaran
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: Turns audience empathy into a moral question. Middle class self-righteousness turned around on its head. Comfort of moral privilege replaced by the uneasiness of perspective.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Crime

              There was this young and I suspect unprofessional actor accompanying Mr. Maaran on his screening of the film at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival, and when asked about why he chose whom he chose to play the part, Mr. Maaran’s deceptively casual answer was – the audition involved screaming while being beaten by dummy lathis (obviously) and his screams were the most convincing. In media we use the term Telepresence, or Presence, which International Society for Presence Research defines as –
“Telepresence, often shortened to presence, is commonly referred to as a sense of ‘being there’ in a virtual environment and more broadly defined as an illusion of non-mediation in which users of any technology overlook or misconstrue the technology’s role in their experience.”
This presence, if we were to break it down even further, we would have engagement, spatial presence, social realism, and perceptual realism, and so on. An intuitive reflection will probably mark many of them to be more a variable of sound rather than the image. If we were to take a gun fight in a street, and break it down essentially on a gut level as to what causes us to ‘be there’, if you will, we might agree that more than the image the factors such as engagement and spatial presence and even perceptual realism have seemingly to do more with the quality of the sound at hand rather than the quality of the image. Alternately, for social realism, I believe, the image, or more specifically the content of it as opposed to its quality probably does the trick.
              Now, I watch two fiction films from India (not that this grouping makes any sense or provides any insight whatsoever, and it is merely a pseudo-construct to start a point) – Chauthi Koot and this one here – which use sound in interesting ways to exaggerate the presence, and Mr. Maaran is hardly interested in showing what happened. You, dear reader, your presence is very much needed for Visaaranai to be what it wants to be, which is to not merely record a specific set of events and indulge in self-righteous moral posturing (as Talvar does), but to understand and attempt to deconstruct, very much like a Michael Sandel moral experiment, the various dynamics to a simple issue of lock-up torture. He reduces his narrative to a handful of locations – a police station in Guntur, a court, a police station near Chennai and a middle class locality – and toggling between a ‘socially-realistic’/’perceptually-realistic’ image detailing provide for him a platform from where he can modulate our degree of engagement (presence), and thereby our moral response, by amplified/subdued sound detailing.
              Several keywords then, we have here, and let us try and understand the ones concerning the images before we arrive at the modulation. Mr. Maaran provides us on a placard what seem to be facts about Tamil Nadu immigrants in Andhra Pradesh, and proceeds to morning 4 .a.m. shots containing a lot of movement, where Pandi (Mr. Ravi) cycles his way to a provision store where he works. On the way he stops to drink tea (image) and comb his hair at a barber shop near a railway station (sound, for all we hear are the announcements off-screen), and these establishing details if you will, are essentially observational in nature – of behavior, of process, of locations – providing for a degree of sympathy (bathing and cycling at 4 a.m. to open a shop). We’re thus removed, and privileged (I may be presumptuous here, but the degree of engagement will be more towards the sympathy end of the spectrum rather than the identification, and also I’m an outsider), and can indulge in judging his behavior. Hook.
              We further see his interactions with his shop owner while taking the keys, and a girl who is a housemaid (Ms. Anandhi, the archetypical damsel in distress), and his heroic overtures towards the latter are cute, especially when she returns the gaze. It is important for Mr. Maaran for us to be there, to have an investment without identification, and a reaction that is more of a “that-is-so-sweet” variety. Mr. Maaran’s images are still lit in the golden hue of streetlights, whose lack of brightness, at least for me, suggests an appropriate shade for social realism. We were sympathizing the economic plight, and after the personal details, we care. I say, line.
              And just about then he pulls the plug off the social-realism treatment and has Pandi and his friends arrested by the local police. The images have greater contrast between light and shadows, and there are mostly shadows. He has the platform almost ready here now, for the images are freely moving between social realism and perceptual realism, our sympathetic and judgmental sentiments generously flowing, and here’s where he decides to amplify and contrast his sounds. Not since Raging Bull have there been punches and blows so visceral. Mr. Maaran’s sound designer does deserver a bonus and a hike, not merely because the body contact is more felt than seen (there isn’t a great degree of visual evidence) but because he amplifies such social indicators as the sounds of a shoe or the raspy voice of the cop. It is a brilliant detail, one which yanks us out of our observation tower and locks us within the chamber (complete and utter immersion), and the cop letting every syllable of every word be properly shaken by the growl in his voice, it is indeed frightening. We cared, and between that voice and their loud wailing screams, we are scared. So much so that a crucial narrative juncture, of the cop lashing Pandi at his house, is entirely predicated on the interplay between the sounds – of the lashes, of Pandi’s screams, and of that of his friends. Sinker.
              In my eagerness to describe Mr. Maaran as a filmmaker of supreme skills, I might be risking him being branded a provocateur yanking our moral strings, which I ensure you he is not. His concerns are human, not sentimental, and his endeavor is not to proclaim that the middle class morality is keen on self-righteous judgment, but to deconstruct our reactions and possibly highlight that beneath that veneer of sympathy/identification/envy dynamic there is a degree of apathy, an removed reaction to what is essentially an interplay of events if you will, that probably allows systemic tortures to happen at the first place. The cop beating Pandi is not the starting point, and Mr. Maaran takes to another police station, which is lit entirely under fluorescent lights, with almost little to no shadows, allowing more spaces and thus a far greater degree of movement. It is a different form of representation of social realism, again toning down completely on the sounds while pushing Pandi and his friends to the periphery, while focusing on another event involving now a rich man and a seemingly influential person (Mr. Kishore), whose personal detailing involves indulging in threesomes. He provides for both a poetic and narrative counterpoint to Pandi – he has no backstory, his demeanor is “arrogant” (i.e. little by way of screams) – and the essential contrast in our emotional reactions, one for whom we don’t really care about all that much having readily made a judgment and one for whom we want to essentially run away from it all. There are two floors here, upward movements and downward movements, movements aided (cops) and unaided (Pandi and his friends escorted by the cops while they clean it), rooms with cops conspiring and rooms with Pandi and his friends, and the dynamics that are drawn here remind me of Mr. Altman’s Gosford Park. The spaces assume a personality, far removed from the cut-and-dried light-and-darkness moral simplicity of the police station in Guntur, and while we cry tears of such jolly compassion when a female cop (Ms. Misha Goshal) mediates, a similar action in this police station near Chennai evokes significantly different reactions out of us. Again, Mr. Maaran isn’t a what-if filmmaker, and his concern is the human collateral. The system is people, not one person easily demonized (again contrasting with the police station in Guntur), and it is a lovely sight (I think I mean refreshing) to see this system trying to pin down Pandi and his friends while they always seem to make a resourceful run. It is one such run, set amidst a sewage in a middle class society during the night, that is one of the great scenes, purely from a functional (read: skill) viewpoint, and in its density. The police stations are external to us, but the society is when the action has invaded our territory. We no longer have willfully entered the chamber, and the event is now amongst us, whether we like it or not. We could be curious, and so doors open, and close. A biker stops, and when the cop asks him to bugger off, he drives away. And I think Mr. Maaran, if not already a master, is at least a master in the making. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

CHAUTHI KOOT (THE FOURTH DIRECTION): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Rajbir Kaur, Gurpreet Bhangu, Harleen Kaur, Kanwaljit Singh, Harnek Aulakh
Director: Gurvinder Singh
Runtime: 115 min.
Verdict: Off screen sounds and close ups create a world of paranoia and inversion. The real narrative (collateral) of the 1980s Punjab is home invasion.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

              Mr. Singh’s backgrounds here are hazy and out-of-focus. He isolates people within spaces, and between the lighting and framing – of medium shots of a group of cops talking at a railway station, or two guys waiting for a train – he seems to provide the same sort of demarcation between light and darkness, between security and insecurity that the old television serials on Doordarshan would do. He doesn’t give us any establishing shot of the railway station itself, of a continuous space so to speak, almost limiting the breathing space available around to a bare minimum. There are several shots through a door towards the outside ala The Searchers, and while Mr. Ford’s shots felt like a view from a telescope with considerable amount of breathing space for they had depth of view that was aided very well with the nature of the geography – the details of terrain – Mr. Singh’s lack depth and the monochrome green of the crops provide for a lack of detail that seems to essentially open up the house like one were to open a cardboard box. The house here feels flat, like two parallel lines pretty close by with seeming danger beyond the foreground and unknown in the background. I admit, I have never been to any rural place in any part of India, and I also feel that Mr. Singh’s Chauthi Koot is, in its form in its concerns and thereby in its very essence, a home invasion film.
              There is another enclosed box in the form of the ticket collector’s compartment tagging along with the rest of the train at its rear end, and it has a window through which we see the passing tracks on which the train is running. There are people sitting inside that box, after having sneaked/pushed their way in in spite of the ticket collector’s rejecting their earlier requests to let them travel, and Mr. Singh cuts this group – of two friends, a Sardarji whom the friends meet on the station, of two guys travelling from before – into little pockets. And on the off occasion he does bring them together, the grouping is so tight it lacks air. Earlier, we see those two friends, Jugal (Mr. Kanwaljit Singh) and Raj (Mr. Aulakh), walking and then running towards the station in a series of tight frames, and all of it creates a significant distrust for the space around. One of those friends happens to provide the essential service of framing the primary story of Joginder (Mr. Suvinder Vicky), the patriarch of a home seemingly in the middle of nowhere and with a fierce dog for a pet. It is a home that was built to be near the farms, a motivation I presume driven towards reassurance. But it is Punjab in 1980s and Khalsa members would be moving in the night to escape the cops and the army. They are not to be trifled with, and between the close-ups of Joginder’s fuming eyes and the off-screen barking of the dog, where one wishes it forget its barking duties from time to time and not bother the travelling Khalsa members, the controllable space (if home can be defined thus) seems to be shrinking all the time. There’re the cops too, and when they run through the house tearing it apart looking for god-knows-what you realize Mr. Singh, has inverted the overall dynamic of what constitutes domestic security. Every time the dog barks the walls seem to become that wee bit thinner. There is an off-screen sound of a bullet too, just as there is the off-screen BBC radio report on Operation Blue Star. And amidst all this, Home is no longer what it was, and it stands there naked just like the trailer in The Hills Have Eyes. Which makes you wonder if your home is where it belongs. Or you belong to that home in the first place. Or maybe, just maybe, it is better to have the ideological clarity of a dog and know for sure where your allegiances lie.  

Sunday, November 01, 2015

THE IMMORTALS: MOVIE REVIEW


Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Runtime: 52 min.
Verdict: Fetishizing objects rather than their history. Amoral and problematic.
Genre: Documentary

              The filmmaking here is hacky, and when Mr. Dungarpur, in his cringe worthy nostalgic voiceover iterating for the 100th time his love for it all, claims that he waited for several moments for Mr. LV Prasad’s movie to fire up on the 70 mm screen only to cut to the screen a couple of moments later rather than a couple of moments before, you do realize that his claim that it was all done in haste is merely an understatement. I would want to concede the benefit of the doubt as far as the filmmaking is concerned, but to color museums/objects/archives under a solemn shade of nostalgia is, as Patricio Guzm├ín Nostalgia for the Light, or Mr. Alexander Sokourov’s Francofonia would tell us is a problematic retelling of history. Mr. Dungarpur, after Celluloid Man, feels the need to do away with talking faces and instead to narrate a history of Indian cinema through a few objects. Like for instance, Dadasaheb Phalke’s abandoned car (gracing the film’s poster), or letters from Jean Renoir to Ramanand Sengupta. Noble and presumably harmless intentions, at first glance, but this is the exact approach that papers over the true ideology/meaning/significance of an object in historical terms. It reduces history to facts and numbers, and thus assumes the role of the subtlest of propaganda tools in the hands of the prevalent authority. A crude example I used elsewhere, but a shopping mall or a skyscraper from a renowned builder comes with its own context and its own significance as a representation of the state of affairs. But focusing on its essential function, which in the mall’s case is to presumably be a place for all sorts of shopping, or in the case of Mr. Jagdish Raj’s several police uniforms is to highlight he played several cops, is to rid them of their context and what they essentially represent. 150 years does not leave a building merely as an important building from a different era. I might not be a lefty, but a little bit of ideology goes a long way in differentiating history from facts, for the amorality of the latter is not merely harmless, it is the very root of nerdy nostalgia concealing the apathy typical consumerist behaviors like cinephilia or fetishist collection of artifact for artifact sake represent. Those two chess players in Shatranj Ke Khiladi had no idea how to deal with their history, and I am not sure if the lost reel of Greed or a rare poster of some film is necessarily different. This kind of examination is dead on arrival, the kind of examination that I suppose governments/regimes/authorities all through history have looked forward to encourage for it is in essence all so self-congratulatory.