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Review – Prabuddha Dasgupta Exhibition at the NGMA (December 2015)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

The ongoing Prabuddha Dasgupta exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi has many riches to offer to fans of the late photographer’s work. A career retrospective, the exhibition serves as a cornucopia of both his personal and commercial work. Prabuddha Dasgupta’s work is bold, and suffused with the erotic. At the same time, Time, and its concomitant Death, seem like underlying themes. His abstracts and fashion work insist on the idea of carpe diem – on seizing the moment, while his personal projects based on Ladakh, the community of Goan Catholics, and Hampi, talk about Time in a different way. His final, and perhaps the most personal project, ‘Longing’,  brings Eros and Thanatos together in an erotic and, at the same time, elegiac aesthetic.

Most of Dasgupta’s fashion and abstract work is in lush black and white, and steeped with eroticism. A spiral staircase echoes the sinuous backbone of a nude placed a few steps away. The abstracts evoke the beauty, grace and sensuousness of the female form, while the nudes play with abstract ideas, with light and shadows, shapes and textures. Voluptuous close-ups of flowers tantalisingly mimic human genitalia, reminding one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. The aesthetic is minimalist, but the mood is baroque. His work for Ganjam jewellery consists of a series of suggestive and arresting high-contrast images, the deep blacks and bright highlights suggesting intensity and sexual passion. The few colour photographs too brim with sensuality, with saturated colours popping out. A model walks on a beach, her pink gown fanned out, like the inside of an oyster shell, or like a piece of silken human flesh. Another picture, suffused with red, has a model lying next to succulent fruit, the light reminding one of Gauguin. The mood is definitely carpe diem, to pluck the day, with no thought of tomorrow. 

 

 

The mood is quite different in the series on Ladakh. One looks up in awe at the sublime, at the vast spaces, the vertiginous mountains, the looming rocks. There is a sense of serenity, a calm, meditative, even spiritual quality to the photographs. But every once in a while you see echoes of his nudes in the sensual curves of the rivers and dunes. The photograph titled ‘Far east in Changthang’ portrays a sinuous curve of water on scorched earth, opening up both erotic and spiritual possibilities. The strong horizontal lines and vast swathes of dark skies lend strength, stability, and a certain solidity to the images. In Ladakh Time stands still. There is a sense of eternity, of transcendence, of the Immensity that lies beyond human existence.

 

Hampi, on the other hand, seems to be teeming with ghosts. The photographs of the ruins speak of Death, but also of the lives that once were lived there. The temple atop a huge rock still aspires to reach the heavens. The columns still ascend, clamoring for the sky. The whale like gargantuan rocks seem to contain reservoirs of potential energy, unlike the stillness of the rocks in Ladakh. In one photograph, water stagnates in the recesses, but the carved warriors and gods still animate the rocks. The sunlight makes geometric patterns on the ruins – some kind of Life still goes on amid Death. Time has moved on, but the ghosts still haunt the ruins.

The Goa photographs too are about Time and Death. Another personal project, the photographs seek to capture a community fissured between its Portuguese roots and Indian nationality. The pictures serve as a time capsule of a community frozen in time, with their distinct houses, rituals and accoutrements. There pervades a sense of melancholy, and images of decay abound. Withered old hands holding a Christ amulet, crumbling walls, even a child – a little flower girl – looks sad and mournful. There is an attempt to hold on to a disintegrating culture, and the sense of death and lamentation is never far away.

Prabuddha Dasgupta’s last, and perhaps most personal work, ‘Longing’, brings together the photographer’s preoccupation with Eros and Thanatos – love and death. Intimacy in a relationship is present in direct bursts of erotic passion, as well as through suggestion. Remnants of a shared meal, tousled bedsheets, clothes lying in a careless pile – removed hurriedly perhaps before lovemaking – evoke a certain narrative. The pictures abound in greys, unlike the stark, high contrast images of his earlier work. The textures are softer and intimate, not devoid of the erotic passion or drama of the chiaroscuro of the earlier work, but now suffused with a more calm aesthetic, a maturity, a stillness, a quietness that perhaps came with age. The juxtaposition of the images in this series points to a certain narrative logic as well. A ferocious fire devouring a field sits next to a serene photograph of a tent in another field – a quiet image of a protective cocoon. Both are part of this chronicle. Shots of hectic, frenetic activity are punctuated with shots of stillness, and the whole series is suffused with the melancholic. There seems to be sense of nostalgia for the present moment, a feeling that this is all too ephemeral, and will not last, along with a deep urge to hold on to life through the erotic. This eroticism is not the carpe diem celebration of his earlier work but an elegiac holding on to something that won’t last.. Not surprisingly the series ends on the photograph of a corpse like figure. This seems all the more sad, given the photographer’s sudden and untimely death. In fact ‘Longing’ seems almost like a premonition.

After a successful run the exhibition has been extended further. Here’s a rare chance to see a master photographer’s work.

 

This article was first published on the website takhty.in

The Best Graphic Novel of 2015 – Here by Richard McGuire

By Divya Sachar

 

 

 

The 2014 documentary Manakamana portrays a set of pilgrims going up to and coming down from an ancient Nepalese shrine in a cable car. The Space is static, by way of a fixed, unmoving camera inside the car, while characters come and go, giving us brief, unselfconscious glimpses of their lives. At first glance, Richard McGuire’s Here seems to have much in common with the film. The Space is fixed – a corner of a living room in a large house somewhere in the United States, where people come and go, talking often of the quotidian. Both, the film and the graphic novel seem non narrative, avant garde works of art on surface, but they both do have a certain narrative arc, as well as a meditative, even spiritual, quality about them. But while Manakamana still remains largely rooted in its ethnographic concerns, Here is a deeper meditation on time and memory, on love and loss. It is set not just in the here and now, but like a time machine, it spans millennia across the geologic time scale, and questions, and tries to answer, what it is to be human.

 

Here is full of characters and narratives that appear, disappear, and at times re-appear, like fragments of memories, like lives lived earlier, like deja vu. What comprises a human life, it asks. Love? Death? Loss? People are often losing something – their keys, their eyesight, their lives – and these events are juxtaposed against a reality check comprising of vast expanses of prehistoric or futuristic glaciers and deserts sans human life. All of these mundane or momentous human moments are mere glimpses, flickers, in the march of Time. In fact humanity itself is a mere flicker, as we often enter time scales populated by other life forms, where human life and its grand projects are nowhere. “Where did the time go?”, a character wonders in 2014, just below a panel depicting the same setting in 3450 BC. An old couple fondly reminisce about how they met, and suddenly the scene moves to a jungle in the same space n 1623. The moment of remembrance is profound and then suddenly we are reminded of its banality, its sheer nonexistence in a way. “It happened so fast,” says a voice from another panel, from another era, while the old couple still reminisce. What is she commenting on? Life? A death? The act of falling in love? Meanwhile firemen douse a fire in the same living room in yet another time – another event that happened so fast.

 

Panels often do the job of playfully commenting on each other. A dog barks in 1986, while a dog owner in the next panel complains about the dog barking, when you realise he complained in 1954. He goes on: “It’s symbiotic, it’s a little ritual they do (the dog and the mailman), a little performance.” Meanwhile, in a side panel, there’s another little ritual going on: “Do you have your keys? Watch? Wallet?”, a wife asks. “Check,” the husband smiles back. The ritual is repeated, even as the couple age, and then both the couple and the performance disappear. There is a note of silent elegy in their absence.

 

The overlapping panels don’t just give the feeling of disjointed memories, and provide playful or ironic commentary, but the people often appear and disappear like apparitions in a dream. The narrative often takes on a surreal quality, with its parallel universes. “And life is but a dream,” McGuire seems to say, as he riffs on the children’s song ‘Row your boat’. “Merrilly, merrilly, merrilly, merrilly”, a celebrity sings on a TV show in 2015. Meanwhile a bison in 10000 BCE seems to be comfortably settled in the middle of a 1915 living room, with a young girl in 1970 sleeping right next to it. The panel placement is such as if the girl is dreaming of the bison. like a Magritte painting, perhaps.

 

Dreams are what inspired perhaps the earliest examples of cinema, and the dreamlike quality of Here seems to borrow much from cinema as well. In fact it’s perhaps no surprise that Richard McGuire is also a filmmaker, apart from being an animator and a musician. Here seems to owe much to Soviet montage, and one sequence, an almost dance like movement that happens between a startled pigeon and an equally startled young woman, reminds of Norman McLaren’s renowned short film Pas de Deux. In another example, a series of panels consists of different girls in a visual progression spanning a century, with their arms outstretched in dance, as if in one symphonic co-ordinated movement, much like film editing. In fact Kubrick isn’t too far off either. At times there are visual puns. Two bent figures – one in 1986, tending to her sofa; the other, in 1872, bending forward, her arms extended in the same way, tending to her cow. Cinema is all about the alchemy of time, and the rhythm in Here is deeply cinematic as well. At times panels move by in a frenetic pace, followed by an eerie stillness of a prehistoric landscape. It’s as if time itself stands still. Dramatic shifts in color palette and styles, from watercolor to computer aided drawings enhance the sense of dramatic shifts in time as well.

 

But Here is not just about tectonic shifts in time. No artistic work can be apolitical, and Here too refers to important events in history, but it is always through the consciousness of individual lives. Benjamin Franklin is present, less as a historical person, and more as a troubled father. In fact his argument with his son is echoed later, in a politely irritable exchange between another father and son, in 2005, perhaps the author himself and his ailing father. A 1943 radio broadcast asks its listeners to “stay tuned for an important announcement”. Politics also enters by way of the characters, for example, an interracial marriage in what is largely a house owned by white people. Lapses of memory are painful, but larger historical lapses of memory are worse. A group of archaeologists interested in Native American history visit the house in 1986. This house may have been built on a burial site, they tell the owner. In other panels drawn on either side of this same panel, stand a couple of Native Americans, from four centuries ago, listening attentively to something, perhaps to a call in the jungle. But the placing of the panels is not co-incidental. It looks as if the Native Americans are carefully listening to the archaeologist, listening to how history is narrated, or falsified, how collective memory is formed.

 

Life is a palimpsest, written and overwritten by individual and collective memory. And a lot is lost on the way – loved ones, dreams, hopes, histories. But life is also about remembrance. “What do you want to be remembered for?” a character asks. That’s how we and our loved ones live on, through memory, our own, and historical. Here is about loss and the ephemerality of time and of our lives on this planet, but it is never nihilistic. If anything, it is about memorializing, about remembering, and trying in our own little way, to stop, or perhaps delay Time ravaging through our lives. Paintings and photographs capture Time and preserve memory. It is an utterly human response to make sure that the memory of a particular life is not lost, even though the life has been snuffed out. A woman in 1870 asks her painter companion why he won’t paint her, while in an overlapping panel a woman in 1974 shyly poses in front of her mirror, aware of being looked at, and probably posing for a camera. The theme of vanitas is present, of course, and is also evoked by the various Vermeer paintings hanging in the background, but it is an utterly human longing to be memorialized. In fact, a few pages later, in 1930, we see a painting on the wall of the same living room, and we realize it is a reproduction of the panel in which the woman in 1870 asks her partner to paint her. Someone else did paint the two, looking at them probably from the window of the same house. The woman is granted her wish and she does get memorialized, though she may have never known it.

 

In the end, human lives, and indeed, human existence itself, is a tiny speck in the history of the universe, and Here makes us aware of the terrifying smallness of being. But it is also about memorializing, of preserving the small moments. And it is significant that the book considers the seemingly trivial moments, the quotidian banalities of everyday existence, and places them next to the epic, the cosmic. The commonplace is accorded the status of the poetic, simply by being included. The tiny, faded lives that once lived quietly in a small corner of the world are returned their status, in a way, and accorded meaning by being given the pride of place in the narrative. “It’s a book!” scream out a group of people playing dumb charades. Memories are what form our identities, our conscious selves. We are but palimpsests, we are the books of our lives. In the end, a woman comes into this same living room, not remembering what she was looking for. Finally she does remember, and yes, it’s a book. The narrative ends on remembrance, not in loss. Here is an elegy, but it is not just about losing, but about gaining something. That’s what living is.

 

 

 

This article was first published on the website takhty.in

Film Review – Cities of Sleep (Shaunak Sen, 2015)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

Early on, in Shaunak Sen’s Cities of Sleep, which explores the world of sleep shelters providing refuge to the homeless at night, a child asks his father to tell a bedtime story. The tale that is recounted is the old hare and tortoise fable. The lesson learnt is, those who work hard win, and those who sleep are the ones who lose. The film then goes on to turn this fable on its head. In Delhi, where the homeless have no place to hide from the brutal winter nights, the winners can afford the luxury of sleep, while the poorest of the poor, the losers, are condemned to the nightmare of having no place to hide, of having to face the void.

 

Cities of Sleep makes for an easy comparison with Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. Much like the book, the film is about the lives of the poor in Delhi. Both, Sethi’s book, and Sen’s film, are peopled by colorful characters, and have plenty of humor, something many books and films about the poor fail to capture, busy as they are documenting their misery. Both have characters who are an entertaining bunch of liars and philosophers, poets and braggarts. And both Sethi and Sen do not look down upon their characters. There’s no room for pity and both are shorn of manipulative sentimentalism. (I’m willing to overlook that big close up of a toy in a child’s hands, a metaphor used somewhat clumsily to denote a particular character’s helplessness.). But unlike A Free Man, there is little sense of hope or the freedom that rootlessness can imply. The universe of Cities of Sleep is much darker, the atmosphere bleak and noirish, both in terms of color palette and theme.

 

Two protagonists emerge from the narrative. Ranjit, a former rickshaw puller who now runs a sleep shelter under a bridge, and Shakeel, a roguish man who begs for a living. But ultimately the film belongs to Shakeel, the more colorful of the two. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator, given to bragging, boasting, threatening, fighting, exaggerating, always performing for the camera. One of the few times Shakeel is not performing is when he breaks down after visiting his father. Shakeel, in a sense, is also a tragi-comic Everyman. His face is often racked with the sheer terror, the existential despair of being all alone out there in the cold, staring at death in the face. The enormous yawns of the sleep deprived Shakeel often evoke Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream.

 

Performing for the camera is not just Shakeel’s prerogative though. Ranjit too performs, with his ready, poetic aphorisms, and the grandiloquent claim of having saved a thousand people from suicide. His sleep shelter, where one can sleep while watching Bollywood films, evokes a quasi-utopian world amid all the poverty and squalor, of a protective cocoon of restful sleep accompanied by unattainable Bollywood dreams.  

 

Ranjit also talks of the relationship between sleep and cinema, and though the film deftly portrays the ‘economy of sleep’, its means perhaps are not cinematic enough. To be fair, editing a non-fiction film is never easy, especially when one is in the process of discovering the narrative as one shoots in an uncertain world. The essential nature of non fiction is to impose an aesthetic order on material over which one has little narrative control as the events take place in real time. The narrative of Cities of Sleep seems rambling at times. Characters are brought in for the colorful things they have to say but you don’t hear of them afterwards and they seem to get no narrative closure. The audio is cacophonous and one often can’t make out what is being said, and one has to rely solely on the subtitles. Technique wise the film looks much like a debut effort. However, what the film lacks in technique, it often makes up in its honest, non-manipulative and compassionate portrayal of the subaltern world of Delhi, and the freedom and candour with which the characters bare their lives.

 

In a significant moment, Shakeel, after a night of running from shelter to shelter for refuge, and failing to find it, politely accuses the filmmaker of not doing anything for him, of only being there to film him. The filmmaker, by including this moment, indicts not just himself, but the entire urban upper class to which he belongs, which also primarily comprises the audience of the film. The accusation is that this is a class of people who are not interested in the poor, unless it’s for voyeuristic, exploitative enjoyment of watching or reading about their vulnerability and misery, of poverty porn. The director later, in a discussion, clarified though, that he did help Shakeel, and responded to this question on camera, but kept it out of the film. This raises interesting questions about the power dynamic between the maker and the subject. Is an upper class director exploiting a poverty stricken man for the sake of art, or is this wily, though vulnerable, man performing for the camera, manipulating a better off person for survival? It’s an important ethical point, and the film does well to acknowledge the moment and ‘hand over’ the gaze, for once, to the subject.

 

 

This review was first published on the website takhty.in

 

 

 

Film review – Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

One is not sure how to address Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses. It claims to be a feminist film, and genuinely seeks to be one at times, but clearly panders to a male audience in a titillating way. It is a call to arms to women, while citing trite misogynist cliches like women being women’s worst enemies. It seeks to be different in terms of genre, in that you don’t come across mainstream films that abound in independent and successful female characters, but it uses aesthetic means straight out of your little handbook of cinematic cliches. As much as the film thinks it’s a rebel, it turns out to be a pile of banalities. Not all is lost though; the performances, at times, can be quite engaging, and there are a few genuinely funny and touching moments.

 

The film begins by introducing all the characters from the ensemble cast, and their travails as women caught in a patriarchal society. The camera is repeatedly made to tilt down to focus only on the women’s breasts and buttocks. This is clearly manipulative, in the same way as rape scenes in ‘80s Bollywood movies, seeking to pontificate on societal ills while titillating the men in the audience. I’m guessing the filmmakers would defend it as the “male point of view”, but it’s difficult to believe that these shots (thankfully restricted only to the early parts of the film) are not supposed to act as bait to lure in a male audience possibly uninterested in watching a so-called feminist film. I’m also sceptical of a shower-dance scene which doesn’t leave much of the actress’s anatomy to the imagination. The other women in the film are entertained by this, but one wonders who the real audience this scene panders to is. To be fair though, this scene is somewhat balanced by giving the eye-candy treatment to a male actor as well.

 

The film is a call to arms to all women, and seeks to give a violent and reductive solution. I don’t have a problem with the solution, really. Not every film is obligated to give the perfect solution, and every artist is well within his or her right to suggest a provocative answer to a malaise holding society in its grip. The problem is, the film tends to reduce and oversimplify practically most of the narrative. Subplots get resolved rather conveniently and character transformations occur rather magically. The film loses a real opportunity when it seeks to show a moral change in Sandhya Mridul’s character. She is the aggressive owner of a mining firm, and at loggerheads with an environmental activist (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Needless to say, all acrimony is suddenly forgotten and a rather hurried and unconvincing resolution takes place which lacks authenticity. Moreover, practically all of the characters are highly self aware. Sure, these women are all victims of an unfair society in some way or another, and they boldly seek to redress that, but don’t these women have any flaws? The film is dialogue heavy, and there’s nothing wrong with a talky film, but a lot of the dialogue is very self aware sermonizing of how things ought to be. Don’t look for subtextual subtleties or nuances here. This is no Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids or a Thelma and Louise.

 

The film seeks to be progressive and politically correct but is often, anything but. If anything, it is terribly classist. It’s not just hip, rich, educated women who face problems, but working class women too, it says. The character of Lakshmi, the maid, too has issues, right from ‘eve teasing’ to a lingering court case. She joins in in the conversations of the rest of the gang, from a distance, but is never really integrated into the fold. She is a loyal little happy camper and gets rewarded for a transgression by two – not even one – slaps by her employer. None of these successful, intelligent, etc, etc, women make much of this, or even censure their employer friend, and the maid is soon won back by a tokenish gesture of affection from the employer.

 

What salvages the film at times is the performance by the actresses. There is palpable chemistry between the performers in some of the scenes which lifts the film, but this too is not consistent. Some of the scenes seem improvised and the director has probably workshopped with the actors. His work with the actors does show, but the performances are not backed up by a good script. Post intermission the performances seem to get weary and the film begins to sag, rescued temporarily by Adil Hussein’s intense screen presence. But the film’s simplistic solutions continue. A six year old shoots perfect pictures of criminals which answers a conundrum and you’re expected to believe that. Ultimately the premise lacks authenticity and there’s only so much a rousing rock music score can do to indicate girl power. And the director’s armchair feminism goes only so far.

 

A note on the censors. Every few seconds words are bleeped out. This happens the most when the girls are all bonding and having fun. Clearly the censor board is uncomfortable with female sexuality, as seen in the countless suggestive thrusts and heaving bosoms in Bollywood films. The board lets go a near naked shower scene, but bleeps out the word ‘rape’. Yes, a rape occurs, and nowhere is the word used. The board is that scared of female sexuality. Suffice to say, clearly the censor board is a bunch of a******* and f***** up c******.

 

 

This review first appeared on the website takhty.in

 

 

Film review – Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (Nakul Sawhney, 2015)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

 

A few days ago I was rudely woken up at 230 am by what seemed like distant war cries. “Jai Sri Ram”, the voices screamed. It turned out to be a BJP rally in the dead of night. The incendiary tone was unmistakable, and slogans like “Jai Bhavani Ma” (also used during the Gujarat riots) were being bandied about amid warnings of  “jihad”, “aatankvaad” and “nahin toh aaj Bihar, kal saara desh”. The rally went on till 4 am and was clearly held illegally. One can’t use loudspeakers after 10 pm in Delhi, and this brazen act, more so because it was a stone’s throw away from the ruling Aam Aadmi Party’s office, could not have happened without police complicity. It is clear that the BJP has begun preparing for UP 2017.

 

Nakul Singh Sawhney’s ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ explores the ramifications of exactly this kind of  vitriolic election strategy employed by the BJP. The film documents the consequences of  the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and analyzes what caused them in the first place. The communal riots have practically destroyed not just the secular fabric of the area, but have also demolished the economy running on the fuel of sugarcane farming. Farmers rights have been seriously affected, and it’s the poor who are bearing the brunt, while politicians reap electoral rewards. The film works as a document of the ruins left in the wake of the riots, both material, and emotional, and asserts its solidarity with the working class. Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai has been criticised for its romantic solution of utopian communal harmony but that’s not a problem, in my opinion. It is the director’s point of view and not every film is supposed to give solutions.

 

Amid an interview and narration soaked chronicle, what struck me the most about the film was the narrative held together by an eloquent, though somewhat underused, metaphor of the Camera as Witness. The Camera sees and documents what the Establishment does not want you to see, and three examples of this somewhat bind the three acts of the film together. The first time round the crew is asked to stop the camera by a BJP politician, clearly uncomfortable with his hate speech being recorded. The second time round, in an eerie echo of Patricio Guzman’s Battle of Chile, the cameraman himself is shot dead while shooting, and ends up recording his own death. (In the case of this film though this footage was borrowed from a news outlet.). The third time round the police starts filming the filmmakers themselves. In this scene the Camera as Witness metaphor goes on to become even more powerful and complex. The police begin filming videos of the aggrieved Muslims as well, who are already complaining to the filmmakers about justice not being served by the police. The Camera is now being used for intimidation, and not just a chronicler of truth. The Camera as Witness is a compelling symbol for freedom of speech, and alarmingly enough, the filmic metaphor actualised into tangible, physical reality when goons of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP, arrived to attack the screening of the film at Delhi University recently.

 

But apart from this powerful metaphor, the film suffers from bouts of the ‘Show and Tell’ approach. A man says he drives a rickshaw and the camera cuts to a rickshaw. Moreover, abrupt cutaway shots break the rhythm of the film. The film could have also been tighter, and the middle section gets tedious, with too many dull talking heads. I also had trouble getting the rural accents, and had to watch the film twice just to understand what some of the people were saying. English subtitles would have helped immensely. The film succeeds as documentary journalism but one wishes there would have been something more cinematic in it to succeed as art.

‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ joins the annals of the Indian political documentary, but lacks the narrative sophistication of say, an Anand Patwardhan film. This does not in any way take away from the importance of the film, which is a great piece of documentary journalism and ought to be watched.

 

 

This review first appeared on the website takhty.in

Film review – Caste on the Menu Card (2015)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

Caste on the Menu Card, a short documentary made by five students of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences as part of their curriculum, has become famous for being barred from screening at a film festival by the I&B Ministry. The film has been uploaded on YouTube and can be watched here.

 

Caste on the Menu Card is primarily about exclusionary politics and the relationship between caste and meat consumption. The argument is that vegetarianism belongs primarily to upper caste Hindus, while lower castes consume beef, pork and other meats, and that the State is foisting its casteist agenda on minorities. The film includes interviews with historians and academics, and even a “cow therapist”, and also touches upon debates in universities about the availability of non vegetarian food items in university canteens.

 

Caste on the Menu Card is very clear about its point of view, and makes its point in a fashion that is direct, bordering on the brusque. A student exercise, the film is not very sophisticated in the way it presents its argument. Pulling out quotes, from Chomsky to Vivekananda, doesn’t make for a very convincing exercise, in filmic terms. There’s nothing wrong with a polemical film but much could have been done with the visuals and the editing and the same argument could have been buttressed with a more sophisticated and subtle narrative strategy. The argument taken up is a complex one and more needed to be explored and perhaps 20 minutes do not do justice to it. In the end the cumulative impact of the film seems more like an attack on vegetarianism rather than casteism, with one student saying he receives a culture shock whenever he eats paneer. The film also includes the clumsy seeming rap song (“Beef, pork, chicken / All I really want is some beef, pork, chicken.”) Why chicken? Is that too unavailable? 

 

But then again, perhaps it’s a sign of the times that in a general atmosphere of shrill right wing political rhetoric, the dissenting answer too has to be loud and shrill. U

nfortunately the film lacks sophistication and ends up feeling like an amateur filmmaking exercise. Random cutaway shots of fruits being sold in the market seem clumsy. Students dancing and prasad being distributed at a Ganeshotsav don’t look like very sinister enemies, visually speaking. Perhaps the young filmmakers could take a leaf out of, say, Anand Patwardhan’s book, in terms of making convincing political arguments with a sharp understanding of film language.

 

In the end, Caste on the Menu Card has a political point to make, but lacks narrative sophistication. But go ahead and do watch the film anyway, because just as a nanny state ought not to be telling you what not to eat, a nanny state ought not to be telling you what not to watch either.

 

Directors: Ananyaa Gaur, Anurup Khillare, Atul Anand, Reetika Revathy Subramanian and Vaseem Chaudhary

 

This review was first published on the website takhty.in

Film review – Titli (Kanu Behl, 2014)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

Perhaps one could call Kanu Behl’s much lauded Titli a feminist film. Very much about gender, Titli questions the very idea of masculinity in Indian society. Strong performances (from a primarily amateur cast), an unsentimental portrayal of Indian poverty, an excellent screenplay and a debutante director who knows his technique, mark this film as refreshingly different from what arrives routinely in Indian cinema halls.

 

Titli, a young man from Delhi’s lower middle class, seeks an escape from his oppressive family and environment. But The Family – his violent brothers and a wraith like father – just won’t let go. Titli dreams of buying property in the booming real estate sector of aspirational India. In a surreal, vertiginous dream sequence he climbs up the stairs of an under construction building while the ghost of his dead grandfather – a framed photograph – keeps falling in the way. The brothers routinely resort to carjacking and when things go awry it is suggested that a woman be brought in as a front to fool unsuspecting car owners. Women are treated as commodities, and the film holds up a mirror to patriarchal India. But the women in Behl’s film are no wimps. In the midst of all the misogyny they file for divorces, fight for their rights, refuse to have sex on the first night with their husbands, and are sexually open with their lovers. Titli is married off to the shy and awkward seeming Neelu but she is adept at turning tables. The two strike a deal – Neelu will pass off her dowry Fixed Deposit to Titli while he will grant her a divorce and make sure that she ends up married to her boyfriend Prince.

But what the film is really about is masculinity. The slight framed, boyish looking Titli, with a name as effete as that, has his Dream, but both his Dream and his attempts to recover his masculinity are thwarted by his dominating family. In fact the under construction towers that the film abounds with seem phallic symbols of aspiring, masculine India. Furthermore Titli’s wife is in love with someone else and we watch as Titli is helplessly emasculated. He silently drinks a beer while Neelu uninhibitedly flirts with Prince at a party Titli chauffeurs her to. The shadow of his beer bottle constantly falls on his neck like a knife. In the end Titli does recover his masculinity, while his father obsequiously acknowledges him as the new Man Of The House. But this masculinity is different from his brothers’ violent machismo. Titli’s recovered masculinity comes with love and respect for his wife. He owes her an apology, and perhaps this is director Kanu Behl’s way of exorcising his own post-divorce ghosts.

 

Behl’s aesthetic strategy consists of juxtaposing contraries to create conflict. The short, thin body frame of Shashank, the actor who plays Titli, bristles and seethes with violence and rage that may seem unlikely from someone who looks so slight. The violent, wife bashing brother Vikram, played brilliantly by Ranvir Shorey, is capable of touching tenderness. Another way Behl puts together contraries to create new meanings is the scene where Tilti decides to break Neelu’s arm with her consent with a hammer. The scene plays out like their first act of making love, though the actual wedding night was a disaster. Violence, with tenderness and concern, go hand in hand. The strategy of putting together contrasts extends to the rhythm of the film too. The rhythm of frenetic activity, created either through dialogue or mis en scene in the family scenes is often punctuated by the slow, languid rhythm of the patriarch (played by Lalit Behl to silent and ghostly perfection), as he calmly dips his biscuit into his tea, even as the world seems to be falling apart in front of him. The father, as Titli says in the end, is the real villain, and Lalit Behl plays him like a cool, calm and dangerous underworld don, much like Don Corleone in The Godfather. In fact The Godfather is referred to in the end when the father is lit up like Marlon Brando in Coppola’s film, with his eyes obscured by shadow to make him look all the more sinister. Irony is further created when the father effetely offers to cook for Titli. The pitting  together of contraries finds its way into the excellent sound design too. Gurbani plays on the car radio as the brothers practically murder the car dealer. And the holy azaan plays on a mosque loudspeaker when Titli and Neelu strike their Faustian bargain, creating delicious irony.

 

The film also employs doubles to make its points. In terms of violence and misogyny, Titli is no different from his brothers and is in effect, a watered down version of his own brothers. Two birthday scenes witnessed by Titli, set in opposing economic milieux work as doubles too. The first one has the elder brother Vikram holding his little daughter while his wife wants a divorce. The other one is with Neelu’s boyfriend Prince holding his own little daughter while celebrating his birthday. Prince is living the dream Titli wants to. While the former scene is set in squalor and erupts with violence, the latter is as picture perfect as an advertisement. But while there is overt physical ugliness and violence in the former, in the latter, ugliness is embedded within, in Prince’s betrayal of both Neelu as well as his own wife.

Contrasts and doubles find themselves in the visual design as well. The crumbling structure that Titli and his family inhabit is lit gloomily, signifying Titli’s claustrophobic entrapment, but he finds himself enmeshed even in the large spaces of the mall and parking lot where he aspires to buy property. Towards the end, in a large under-construction room, the construction rods rise up and are reflected on the gleaming floor, in effect creating a cage around Titli. The oppression and loss of freedom is not just restricted to the dingy house. And once Titli realises this, he literally vomits out his transformation.

 

In the end, both Neelu and Titli ‘come of age’ and all seems well for a moment. But Neelu has a permanent fracture. The violence has been done and there will be consequences. The ghosts of the family still remain, much like the dead grandfather’s framed photograph that keeps making its presence felt. You can run from everyone but yourself. The gritty, grainy Super 16 film images create the right atmosphere for the seedy underbelly of Delhi, and the editing is taut and flawless.

 

 

 

This review was first published on the website takhty.in

Film review – The Tribe (2014)

By Divya Sachar

 

 

The Ukrainian film The Tribe, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, is one of the major successes from Cannes this year, and is not an easy film to watch. This isn’t necessarily so because the film is completely in sign language, sans even subtitles. What makes it difficult is the brutal, anarchic world it portrays, much like The Lord of the Flies, where the big ones prey on the little ones and even the innocent are capable of transforming into vicious monsters. All layers of civilization have been removed and corruption and bestiality lie at the very heart of human existence.

 

The Tribe is set in an institution for speech and hearing impaired students. A shy and cherubic teenager, Sergey, joins the school and finds himself in a place opposite of what one would expect of such an institution. What should be a helping, orderly and supportive environment turns out to be a visceral universe – a feral world peopled by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, robbers and the gratuitously violent. Sergey survives in this dog eat dog world thanks to his fighting skills, but a certain innocence still sets him apart from the rest.

One wonders if love is at all possible in this dystopian world. Sex is hurried and commercial, and the women seem to cheerfully submit themselves to being commodities. But bang at the centre of the film is a long scene, shot in a single take, that begins like a typically commercial sexual transaction between Sergey and the female protagonist Anya, but evolves into a tender act of making love. Nevertheless, love is still a complicated thing and it is never made clear if Anya genuinely cares for Sergey or just the money he brings. In fact worse is set in store for this relationship ahead, but that would be giving away too much.

 

All the scenes take place in sign language, and initially the silence can get disconcerting but it is to the filmmaker’s credit that the film keeps you engrossed, even if you can’t quite put a finger on what exactly is going on sometimes. In fact the occasional incomprehensibility actually ends up at times adding to the film by making it suspenseful.

 

Needless to say, the film is bold and audacious in terms of both form – with its practically non existent soundtrack and long, unbroken takes – and content – in privileging the universe of the silent ‘other’, while othering the mainstream film goer. But this is, of course, no sentimental drama about what it is like to be disadvantaged. The silence reinforces a sense of oppression and entrapment. And at the same time it is a humanistic privileging of the ones who have had a hard time making themselves heard.

In fact, hark back to the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests from a couple of years ago and the throttling of the Ukrainian people’s voices (although the revolution eventually was successful), and you get the gist. The film is politically allegorical and the filmmaker uses silence not as a gimmick but as a potent political and aesthetic tool. One of the scenes in the beginning is a Geography class that shows Ukraine as part of Europe. The political agenda of the film begins right here. One of the teachers, who is also the chief pimp, prostituting his students, is probably a stand-in for big brother Russia. He looks much like a goon, and tellingly perhaps, is killed with the very weapon he has helped built in his woodwork class. And the weapon is a hammer, no less.

 

The film does not shy away from long, unbroken takes, and this often makes the violence unbearable to watch. There is an especially gruesome abortion scene in the film. But the director is careful not to shoot close-ups of the violence which would have made the scenes exploitative. The camera maintains a cool distance instead. The sound design is from the point of view of those who inhabit the universe of silence – almost completely muted, except when enhanced at strategic points.

 

The film knows its “genre”, the young ‘coming of age’ drama, and makes references to several films of that ilk like Trainspotting. But there’s an added delight in actually spotting ironic mis en scene references – of joyful and ‘innocent’ films about childhood and youth like ET – The Extra Terrestrial, or the boisterous and youthful comedy – The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. One fight scene takes place much like a children’s video game. However, in terms of story and atmosphere, the director seems to owe a debt to Michael Haneke.

 

One of the most remarkable things about the film is that the cast consists entirely of amateurs who are also hearing and speech impaired. The Tribe is bleak and unsentimental, an unsparing account of what lies at the core of human nature that also doubles up as a Ukrainian political allegory. It’s a difficult film to watch, but there’s no reason to miss it, if you want to see what an aesthetic tour de force is like.

 

 

This review was first published on the website takhty.in

Film review – Forest of Bliss (Robert Gardner, 1986)

By Divya Sachar

 

Anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner, who was also the founder of the Harvard Film Study Centre, which has produced films of exceptional artistic genius, died last year. Gardner’s films have had a deep impact on documentary practices but he is little known in India. In fact his seminal 1986 film Forest of Bliss, about Varanasi (then Benares), has hardly been seen here. The film works on multiple levels – as an ethnographic document about the industry surrounding death in Benares, as well as a deeper philosophical reflection on the nature of existence.

 

The film begins with a quote from WB Yeats’ translation of the Upanishads:

“Everything in this world is eater or eaten

The seed is food and the fire is eater.”

The quote works two ways. Apart from the Hindu belief in the co-existence and circularity of life and death, it also represents the film’s mostly nihilistic view of life – nasty, brutish and short – a vicious Darwinian struggle till the cruel inevitability of death takes over. The film shows Benares unsparingly and in all its squalid glory, but these very shots double up as dystopian symbols. A dog cries in its last throes as it is attacked by a feral pack of dogs. It’s literally a cannibalistic, dog eat dog world, where even sparrows peck at the ashes of the dead. People look for valuables among the bones of the cremated, while a rich local businessman fights with presumably a group of mourners over money. A lengthy shot of this corpulent man lustily eating his food reminds of Brueguel’s illustration The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish. A priest takes a holy dip in the Ganges while at the same time a dog tears a corpse floating in the river apart. This is not just a depiction of the alarming lack of sanitation (and Modi’s Varanasi today is no better), but juxtaposes contraries – the spiritual with the material, death with life, faith with the grim, tangible reality of existence, all of these co-existing and creating deeper layers of meaning. Shots are pregnant with multiple connotations. Men walk, bent by the weight of logs on their shoulders, visual reminders of the Sisyphean struggle that life is, and then they throw the logs down at the river bank, evoking the casting off of the mortal coil at the holy river. Similarly an oarsman rows with all his might but the boat doesn’t seem to move, however hard he toils.

 

The film itself acts as a memento mori – a reminder of death – and abounds in imagery that evokes it, not just visually, with the constant presence of logs of wood for cremation, the scales to weigh them, carrion birds, etc, but aurally. The soundtrack abounds with the rhythmic arrangement of the haunting sounds of oarsmen rowing boats, evoking the toil and agony of life. Another ever present sonic leitmotif is of logs of wood being chopped, and at one time the refrain of “Ram Nam Satya Hai” reaches an almost violent crescendo.

 

And yet, there is life. A new boat is consecrated in much the same way as an old body is given a send off. The two actions are intercut with each other to point out the similarity, and both the boat and the body are gently pushed into the river. Life and death don’t just co-exist, they are each other, as is believed in Hindu philosophy. If life leads to death, then death is a new beginning, and the holy river makes this alchemy possible. Elsewhere, film songs play and children play games, oblivious to the burning corpses around them. The kites soaring towards the setting sun beautifully evoke the idea of souls ascending towards heaven. But then again, death is always round the corner. Dying is business as usual, and people cheerfully go about their ablutions and work, indifferent to and unperturbed by the fact that they too will fall dead one day. It’s almost comical to see the fat businessman mentioned before, receiving a luxuriant massage as he dozes blissfully, oblivious to the presence of death. Gardner juxtaposes this with shots of birds trapped in cages, clamouring for freedom. This man too will be a corpse one day.

 

Structurally, the film depicts an entire day in Benares, from sunrise to sunset, though of course it’s been shot over several days. The structure, in keeping with the themes of the cyclical nature of existence in Hindu philosophy, is also circular. The film begins and ends with the same shots – feral dogs, flying kites, people enveloped in fog on boats – perhaps they have lost their way, or perhaps they have received salvation and found it. One could interpret this structure in a nihilistic way too. One has made this entire journey through the film and ended up in the same place as before.

 

The film eschews the familiar markers of conventional documentaries – talking heads, narration, et al, going for meaning created simply by the masterful arrangement of shots and the soundtrack. In fact Forest of Bliss is a masterclass in film editing. It’s high time one stopped seeing documentaries as journalism or merely as “issue based” educational films, and began seeing non fiction cinema as an art in itself. Gardner made this film nearly three decades ago but it still stands out amid the clutter that goes for non fiction filmmaking, especially surrounding documentaries about India. It certainly isn’t exoticising the Orient but giving a frank sociological (and metaphysical) account of Benares then – and since not much has changed – Varanasi now.

 

 

This review appeared first on the website takhty.in. 

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon – By Hong Sang Soo (Korean, 2013)

Nobody--Daughter-Haewon-2012_18Warning: Spoilers ahead. It’s best to read this piece after having watched the film.

 

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is a gently comic look at its protagonist, Haewon, a young acting student. Through the film, Haewon is shown sharing a warm relationship with her mother, being pursued by successful older men, being hated by her friends for being rich and aristocratic (neither of which she actually is, though she might wish to have been), while almost everyone repeatedly tells her how pretty, and what a good, brave person she is. Her married ex-lover and teacher Professor Lee still loves her, and throws jealous fits when he gets to know she has slept with others when they were not dating. (Professor Lee is the one who had broken off the relationship.) Eventually he is ready to leave his family for her, but Haewon, being wise, breaks it off, while he sheds copious tears.

 

She also somewhat ‘reluctantly’ lets out the secret of her affair with Professor Lee to her friends (in fact, she is dying to tell people about it; perhaps it feels claustrophobic to keep it to herself), and a miracle too happens in the course of the film with “mind control”, while her accomplished suitor has a chat with, implausibly enough, Martin Scorsese. Intercut throughout these scenes are shots of Haewon either sleeping or writing.

 

Most, if not the entire film, is Haewon’s daydream, or perhaps the class assignment to “prepare two scenes” that her fellow student informs her about. The hint, that Haewon is a compulsive dreamer, is given in the first scene itself, when, out of the blue, she bumps into Jane Birkin who, surprisingly enough, tells Haewon she resembles her daughter, the singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Haewon confesses she would do anything to be like Gainsbourg. In fact it’s as if Haewon wishes she were someone else, perhaps Charlotte Gainsbourg herself, while wishing Jane Birkin to be her mother. Once it’s made clear this was a daydream, we cut to the same location, the street where Jane Birkin walked, and see another woman, in similar colored clothes as Birkin. But this woman is Asian, shorter, different, and turns out to be Haewon’s practically estranged mother. (They haven’t met for five years.) Haewon’s idealistic fantasies explain just how lonely she really is — she is nobody’s daughter.

 

One of the best bits I liked about the film are the clumsy, amateurish, and at times rather randomly motivated zooms and pans. The film, as I said earlier, seems to be largely another film, set inside the aspiring actress Haewon’s head. There’s a running gag on smoking and unextinguished cigarettes lying on the road — perhaps a funny and rather pointless effort at symbolism by the young film school student. In between there are meditations on how all secrets are revealed by death, (“Death resolves all”), perhaps the kind of ruminations expected from a young artist. The film itself holds the opposite to be true — death only shrouds everything in secrecy. We know nothing about the lives of the men who built the fort Haewon frequents.

 

Only in the end do we realize that much, if not all, the film is a fantasy (or a film school assignment). And it would perhaps require a second viewing to see how the scenes, with all their carefully realized nuances, are actually in Haewon’s head. It is significant perhaps, that Haewon is an actress, someone who constantly needs to be somebody else. There is gentle, ironic comedy at her expense, and a sense of her loneliness and sadness, and one almost feels like patting Haewon on the head and saying, “There, there.”