Sunday, 11 November 2007

Life is Beautiful

Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which he has both directed and acted in, is one of the most remarkable movies I have ever watched. And I shall tell you why.

It's often said that laughter is the best medicine. Benigni tells you how: even Death shies away when it hears the sound of laughter. Laughter is hope: it is the warmth that keeps the heart going on when the dementors of gloom attack us. It's immensely difficult to laugh when you are surrounded by death, darkness, disease and gloom. But if you can, you have lived your life. Fred and George Weasley did so-- and therefore they remain one of my most favourite characters in Harry Potter.

The first half of the movie is a romantic comedy: a poor Italian Jew named Guido (played by Benigni) arrives in Arezzo and sets up a bookstore. He falls in love with a woman from a noble family named Dora, who is captivated by Guido's charismatic and funny persona. Guido makes you laugh at his innocence and eccentric behaviour, and then onwards you start immensely liking him. On Dora's engagement day, Guido elopes with her on horseback from the party itself, to the bewilderment of Dora's loud and rude fiance. Guido and Dora have a wonderful little boy called Joshua years later.

The second (and darker) part of the film is what makes the film truly remarkable. Just when you think that you've seen and heard all this before, Benigni subtly begins narrating his story of heartwarming hope and bravery. The whole Jewry in Arezzo is sent to a Nazi concentration camp: including Guido, his uncle and Joshua. Like a truly brave woman, Dora pleads to join them, and her wish is granted. Guido, the master concocter of stories, convinces Joshua that the whole concentration camp thing is all a big game and all the inmates are opponents, the first one of whom to accumulate a thousand points gets a big grand military tank as a gift (A funny and beautifully shot scene is the one where Guido bravely and confidently 'translates' the German general's orders to his son and the other inmates: laying out the supposed rules of the game!). But for that grand prize Joshua must obey his father. Time and again, Joshua comes to know that there's no real game, and that all the inmates must die at one time or the other: only to be convinced later by Guido that since all the inmates and their children are opponents eager to get the prize, they are trying to fool Joshua into quitting the game. Guido's assurance that they are leading the game further convinces the innocent, wide-eyed and endearing Joshua that Papa is right (Joshua therefore agrees to hide-- all the time under the happy delusion that hiding gets him and his father more and more points-- from the guards, who actually send the children to gas-chambers under the vague pretence of delousing showers). Of course, Papa's penchant to make instant stories and his fluid acting make it almost real for anyone to believe! And for that Guido deserves all the more praise. That after a gruelling and back-breaking day's work, he has both the energy, bravery, wit and humour to convince his son makes you fall in love with him. Just to cheer Dora's spirits up, Guido plays her their favourite operetta from a stray gramophone one particular evening.

Suddenly there's news everywhere that the World War II is over. In a last attempt to eradicate Jews, the guards round up the Jewish inmates of the camp and kill them. Guido asks Joshua to hide in a sweatbox, assuring him that it shall fetch them sixty points-- just enough to get them the tank, which will be presented to them the next morning. The cheerful Guido is killed by a Nazi, but not before he manages to make Joshua laugh heartily one last time. The next morning, the Allies enter the concentration camp to save the inmates. In a final grand scene, a US tank arrives and Joshua ecstatically exclaims, "It's true", as if all the doubts in his mind about his father's assurances (on the grand prize) have been cleared in an instant. Joshua and Dora find each other, with a graver and older Joshua's voice ringing in the background as the last scene ends: "...and this was his gift to me." And at that moment you realise that laughter is life, and life is beautiful in its splendour and mystery.

Benigni as Guido is par excellence. He'll make you laugh and cry all at once: laugh at his innocence, bravery and humour; cry at his sad fate. The supporting cast of actors is also good, especially the child-artist Giorgio Cantarini (who incidentally plays Maximus' son in Gladiator): you'll love the beautiful, expressive, inquisitive and innocent eyes he has inherited from his screen-parents. Not to mention Benigni, the superb director!

Two facts about this movie: Life is Beautiful is roughly the inspiration behind the Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee starrer, Ta Ra Rum Pum (which I have already watched). Secondly, this movie was the late Pope John Paul II's favourite. Watch it if you want to find the meaning of laughter and love, and the bravery that both need to be expressed. A timeless classic of human emotion.


Sudipto pondering said...

This is a commentary on a film, written by my close friend Sayantani as something of the sort of a Diwali gift. I just thought I might publish it as a rejoinder to my own film-review! Why not?


Anandi holds a bunch of flawless red hibiscuses in the small of her palm. It’s one of those placid rain washed mornings. A cool sweet breeze is sweeping the little town of Bengal running by the Ganges. The picturesque reminds the world of it’s forgotten delicacy. She’s standing on the terrace of a 3-storeyed white coloured baganbari oriented by high ceilings and strong imposing pillars. It had once been warmly populated by guests, friends, brothers and sisters. Presently, though, this place inhabits just three people- Anandi, her paternal uncle (her jethamoshai) and the gardener.

Holding the flowers, Anandi smiles affectionately at their beauty, feeling a mixture of emotions electrifying her entire self. Today it’s her birthday. She was awoken by a nightmare – a small girl is getting lost amongst a crowd at a village mela, “Aami hariye jachchhi re dada”- and the disturbing rings of the phone, only to find that it was Shekhar giving her birthday wishes. She caresses the green leaves of the Krishnachura tree that has been growing taller and taller since she has known it, it’s tops finally leaving behind the old house.

This is vaguely the opening scene of ‘Bhalo Theko’ and the complete film is frequently merged with scenes of this fervour that stirs a hidden beauty in your self. There are also a lot of practical problems that have been depicted in this cinema, ranging from the 70’s Naxalite movement to the rising evils corrupting the urban metropolitan life.

Anandi, portrayed by Vidya Balan, once lived in a full family constituting her parents, brother and sister. She is nicknamed as Budi by all. Anandi doesn’t talk very much. Most of the time she just sits appreciating the nature. She has a serene presence made felt with her enduring smile. She is simple and sensitive. Anandi had been very close to her brother, a jolly and full-of-life youth who was perhaps among the few who understood the spirit residing in her. He was extremely affectionate towards Budi. But with the rise of the young Naxalite movement, he got inspired by the Marx views of Communism and tended towards this vulnerable revolutionary movement. Unknown people, mostly young friends of her brother used to come to their house at unusually late hours. Anandi’s innocence sensed something was wrong with her brother: he used to be so much agitated those days and often stayed out of house for long hours extending upto days and months. She increasingly missed him and finally lost him- he got killed in his quests. Her parents died soon after this incident, unable to bear this shock.

Other than her brother, there was only another person who loved her person so much – a neighbourhood boy, younger than Anandi and well-portrayed by Parambrata Chatterjee. He was an unusually sensitive boy with wordful poetic eyes. (Let me call him Deep. I saw it so long ago, I don’t remember the names!). He wrote verses and read them out to her. He adored his Budi-di and Budi, in turn, showered her sisterly affections on him. In the former days, Budi’s birthday would be celebrated with tree plantations by her brother and her Jethamoshai, with poems instantaneously recited by Deep. Deep was in love with Budi’s sister (say Nilanjana) who on the contrary lacked depths. Nilanjana was ambitious and materialistic with simple thoughts and very crude philosophies. She hated her brother’s and sister’s “relating life with poetry” and craved for the so-called “normal” city life.
There was another man (say Shekhar, as referred before) who was in love with Budi. But he had different requirements that Budi couldn’t fill up. He often mocked at her “more-than-necessary-sensitivity”. He didn’t like Deep getting so close to her – he never understood the rhythm of souls that Budi and Deep had. Anandi loved Shekhar in her own beautiful way, but without expressing it too much in her words and actions. She liked it silent and hidden in her heart. Her love had no expectations, no physical desire, pure like herself. But, Shekhar restless and desperate found his right match in Nilanjana. They got married and together went away to lead a life in the very aristocrat Kolkata.

Years later, in the present day, Deep still visits his Budi-di and often amusing at the fact how very little she has changed with time. Anandi continues to live in this little town and her paternal uncle, her Jethamoshai (played by Shoumitra Chatterjee) gives her most of the good company. She is not married. She doesn’t need to. She is in love with the nature and the trees. She can’t be captivated by any man or in that sense by any worldly temptation. She is not haunted by any kind of emptiness or desolation. Like the Mother Earth, she welcomes anyone wanting to give her love and anyone wanting to hurt her is gladly forgiven. She has a paradise of her own: the touch of the wet bark, the wet leaves and flowers- all fill her with a wonderful ecstasy as if each of them hides a warm beating heart beneath.

Nilanjana and Shekhar have come from the city to visit her on her birthday. The city-life-complacencies have made Nilanjana more matured and she sometimes repents for what she has lost. Gazing at Anandi, simply dressed in a printed cotton sari as usual, untouched, unmoved by the social pollution, laughing playfully with their kid, she addresses her sister, “Shobai bodle gelo re didi. Tui kintu ektu-o bodlali na…”. When the night has fallen low, Shekhar, Nilanjana and their friends sit with wines and drinks. They are steadily becoming drunk and jeering loudly at nothing in particular. Anandi doesn’t like all the noise, she grimaces –
- “Aami hariye jachchhi re dada… Eto lok… aamar khub bhoy korchhe… aami hariye jachchhi re dada…”
- “Dhur boka, harabi keno?”
-“Ki jani?? Loker moddhei to manush hariye jaaye…”

She embraces one of the trees amidst the night and prays –“Tomra Shobai Bhalo Theko…”
(The film ends with a beautiful poem recited in the background.)"

Anonymous said...

Dear Sudipto,

Well,what a coincidecnce! I was watching that film "Life is Beautiful" just a few days back and the same feelings had sparked me too! In fact, I was planning to send you something on this film. Well, it inspires the world a lot towards goodness and happiness and well, a lot of other things which you have already said and I assure you I wouldn't have been able to put it this well. Truly speaking, for a few moments after watching the film, I was shaking with an enormous optimistic energy... I hope everyone likes it.

And, about this film "Bhalo Theko", for me it means a lot! Not beacause people can read it (not in the least, somehow), but because - I can't explain - it has brought a lot of warmth to me (lot more than that)... I'm emotional, so I can't say more (believe me, it's choking me)...

Anonymous said...

Dear Readers,

When I had given it as a gift to Sudipto, I had intended to put into words the broad view that the film “Bhalo Theko” tried to depict. The whole essence of the film (and I believe any film) lies there. It wasn’t a review actually. Hence, I didn’t go to the so-called technical sides of this film. Obviously, judging the effect it had on me, you must understand that everyone attached with the film has worked with complete devotion. But, it clearly has a pronounced difference between watching it at the Nandan Theatre (which I was lucky enough to do) and watching it on E-TV Bangla, collaged here and there with insensitive commercials – the spell is bound to break.

Anyway, “Bhalo Theko” has been directed by Goutam Halder (whose wife is the well-known theatre actress Sohini Halder). He has threaded the different strings of Anandi’s life in no less than a stunningly remarkable way. The photography is done by the well-known fresh comer Abhik (something), who worked in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and in Patalghar. It is for the photography alone that people will remember this. There has been no song used in this film, except Anandi’s jethamoshai occasionally shown on riyaaz of some ragas. Shoumitra Chatterjee is remarkable as the idealistic uncle in this film, talking slowly and knowledgably. His presence alone brings a glow to the scenes. I have an increasing admiration for this actor. It seems his technique is achieving a magical divinity as he is aging more and more. Vidya Balan with her stealing smile does the wonders. It’s her first film, so her image is unglorified, fresh and untouched. She has been dubbed by a beautiful voice which I fail to recollect as belonging to whom (forgive this insolence). Vidya Balan was awarded the best Debut actress in the Andolok Purashkar. Parambrata was younger than he is now and so is Rimjhim Gupta, playing Anandi’s sister. Both look wonderful. But, I’d say maturity has its own beauty.

I beg pardon of my readers if they find the detailings wrong (I approximated whatever I saw mixing them partly with my emotions), but I suppose the theme is okay. And moreover my whole point was to pass on the positive spirit that’s connected with the story. Hope I have been able to convey myself rightly.