Friday, 23 December 2011

Flights (of fancy) in chroma key

Malegaon Ka Superman with his heroine, dancing.

A novice in the world of filmmaking wonders how an essentially collaborative art succeeds in projecting a single vision - the director's. Not a cine-hippie with some reading of the auteur theory. A cloth-store owner, living in a remote town of Maharashtra, whose dreams are the stuff of cinema. Nasir Shaikh. Director of Malegaon Ka Sholay - the comedy remake of India's biggest blockbuster which became a runaway hit in its own targeted market. Having conquered the peak of India's commercial film industry in his own way the next step in his evolution is, of course, making a Hollywood-derived film. Malegaon Ka Superman.

Boasting the biggest budget ever Shaikh has worked with (about a hundred thousand rupees), he has decided to upgrade the "technique" in this film. Superman will fly - a feat which will be achieved by chroma keying. Played by an undernourished hand in a power loom (weaving is Malegaon's primary industry) called Shafique, Malegaonwale Superman seems earnestly determined to move onto bigger roles. His daredevil feats involve painfully balancing his body on bits of wood and bullock carts, jumping into cold water inspite of not knowing swimming (the kids he's meant to save somehow haul him up on land) and performing stunts that usually end up hurting him a lot more than the villains he's beating up (all of them have better physique). Production problems dog the filmmakers at every step - actresses are rare because Malegaon's conservative society does not permit girls to step out of their houses, the camera falls into water and nearly goes dead and Superman-ji is married off in between the shooting. Falling behind schedule means cost overruns - now here's something that connects the most frugal of film industries with the bulkiest and most moneyed. And yet Nasir is egged on by his love of cinema and the sheer joy of filmmaking to overcome these and stay cool.

Superman and I'm-in-trouble-man fly together. And yes, Superman wears uber-cool Hawaii chappals.
The insights are many. One of the screenwriters, Akram Khan, confesses how he started out thinking he'd write with his heart and yet how the final product is mathematical (to use his own word): coldly calculated bits of comedy, anti-climax, climax, action, songs, the works. In other words, the story of almost every commercial filmmaker who had set out with personal visions and slowly gave them up for success (there are echoes of this sentiment in a Dibakar Banerjee interview where he says how he too has been corrupted by the money-making machinery). And then the equally candid confession that only 20% of the original script and vision remains in the final product - in this Akrambhai only differs with Nicholas Ray, a far more rebellious and adamant fellow, in the numbers (Ray said 50%).

There are revelations which quietly seep through the cracks - the heroine of Shaikh's film talks about the strict restrictions on the womenfolk of Malegaon, how girls from outside town (like her) have to be hired at high rates ( she takes 1000 a day whereas the hero takes about a 100) to do the dances, love scenes and climaxes. In the midst of her interview, her phone rings - we deduce it's her boyfriend from the hushed tone, a confirmation comes when we hear several covert mwahs. A village elder comes to the shooting location, sees hero and heroine hoisted on wooden planks (they're shooting the couple-flying-together scene) and turns his eyes away from the blasphemous sight.

Then there's the near-ubiquitous talk of moving on to the bigger game - Bollywood. Everyone in Mollywood (for that is the name of Malegaon's direct-to-video film industry) has upwardly mobile dreams. Except Nasir Shaikh, whose dedication to family matters is absolute - the reason why he dissuades his younger (and equally cinema-crazy) brother from venturing into filmmaking. Someone needs to earn for the family. If one brother is indulging in his passions and losing money, the other must make up. The business is exhausting and unrewarding. An echo of Billy Wilder telling his audience that he'd prefer his son not to be a filmmaker - "it's too goddamn painful."

The film is completed and Shaikh re-opens his long-dead video parlour (where he learnt by watching the greats, as he says - Chaplin, whose Modern Times and City Light [sic] are in his collection; Arnold Schwarznegger, Jackie Chan, et al.) for a screening. Initial reactions are encouraging. Luck favouring the brave, Nasirbhai will probably move on to bigger projects. In Malegaon. Even if his crew moves to Mumbai.

Supermen of Malegaon (documentary), dir. Faiza Ahmad Khan, 2008.

P.S.: The film will have a second screening at Rabindra Sadan, 6 PM, 27th December '11 as part of the Kolkata International Children's Film Festival. Catch it if you can. More than a few guffaws guaranteed!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

In praise of a loser

I've been meaning to write a big, fat Indian Democracy post after recently finishing Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi, four years too late. Thankfully, that initial enthusiasm has subsided - thereby saving every one of my readers (?) from that familiar know-it-all (or at least, know-it-enough) feeling.

The present post relates in, some sense at least, to democracy. It concerns a subversive musical-comedy that grabbed attention some months back with a couple of provocative trailers (NSFW).

The director of Gandu - Q - made an interesting documentary called Love in India (trailer) a couple of years back, which dealt with India's attitude towards love and sexuality. Love in India showed how Hinduism's mythical past is rife with innuendo, at ease accepting sexuality, even worshipping it - a practise which seems to have been shunned or sanitised by mainstream religion (though it survives in several folk, pagan and tribal customs). In the course of making his film, Q interviews an interesting cross-section of people - Nabanita Dev Sen (who tells us that our simultaneous acceptance of Radha-Krishna's illicit affair and the sanctity of marriage reveals a dichotomy - most hilariously manifest in what many of my college friends do: watch porn while maintaining a conservative stand on women having multiple relationships), several of Q's friends and relatives, married couples, folk singers, artistes and a distributor of B-grade films. The last gives one of the film's joyous, most cheerful testimonials. He describes how he sees many middle-aged women in seedy theatres, finding the cheap sleaze revolting, doing "chhee-chhee" and facepalms; but still stealing glances. That, he says, is definite proof of the elemental appeal of sex - even as we are ashamed of it, we just love it.

This provides us with a starting point in understanding Q's follow-up to Love in India. Kanti Shah - India's Ed Wood, our greatest peddler of lo-fi sleaze - makes films whose thematic concerns are trivial, but absolutely essential if we want to understand India's attitude towards sexuality. The Kanti Shah Woman is a prototype - who dresses vulgarly, usually beds all of the male characters in the film and ultimately pays for her sins with death (usually at the hands of some virtuous male character who was swayed and seduced by the vamp's charms). Film after film, this prototype is repeated, as is the plot. However, there is no explicit sex - the most daring bed scenes involve obese males unnaturally fondling young women accompanied by lots of panting. Most notably these films are never denied a CBFC (Censor Board) certificate.

But Gandu has been denied one. Q has been adamant about not bypassing the censor board and releasing the film directly onto the net because he wants to take the system head-on (there are repeated requests for downloads on Gandu's Facebook fanpage which have been denied by Q). I think he's still hoping and fighting for a mainstream release. When the Naya Cinema festival of Mumbai wanted to screen Gandu, they expected trouble from conservative political factions and applied for police protection. They were denied.

This selective pattern of denial recalls the sanitisation of our myths pointed out in Love in India. Sex is okay for public consumption when it is couched in vulgarity (lesson: "promiscuous girls are vulgar as well") and chastised by a twisted morality (the vamp dies, the moral universe remains untouched); but not when it is direct, naked, celebratory.

Meanwhile Gandu has been released on torrent in a Preview Copy stage (basically, without the sharpness and colour density of the original). My guess is that the makers released it themselves, just to keep the over-eager audience placated. The reaction from my peers, generally speaking, has not been good. Those whose interests were piqued by the trailers were disappointed by the film's lack of a clear narrative arc (usually expressed as "where is the story?") and its irredeemable protagonist.

It is worth recapitulating our mainstream A-grade cinema's attitude towards sexuality and transgression for a change. Bengali cinema has had its fair share of "grittiness" recently, but in 9 out 10 cases where degenerate behaviour has been shown - the character has been given some sort of a victim motive. Sexuality has been touched, but mostly safely - the recent Baishey Srabon showed a couple living in, but their love was all about rolling around aesthetically wrapped in bedsheets and (then a direct cut to) a post-coital smoke.

The real departure Gandu makes from its precedents is not so much in what taboos it has broken, but in the way it has. Contrary to allegations, the film does have a story  - young boy doesn't like his fucked-up existence, finds a friend in a rickshaw-wallah, and escapes in drug-trips - but its protagonists are far removed from any of the cushioning comforts usually offered by mainstream cinema. True, Gandu - the protagonist - suffers from a victim complex, but his actions far exceed any justified reaction to his environment. The extended full frontal sex scene is not a wimp trying to forget his sorrows in lovemaking, just a sexually liberated guy trying to top his trip. The film's numerous rap numbers are wickedly humourous - personally speaking, they were more than enough compensation for the occasional indie film hipness - and work excellently as subversive critiques of our socio-cultural values. The very lack of dramatic narrative works as subversion of our demand of a "story".

The Indian Constitution gives us the right to freedom of speech, but qualifies it with the clause that one cannot cause offence to anybody. This, in effect, nullifies the right. (I am offended that people take their right to be offended as the right to ban the offensive.) Gandu is just the sort of litmus test India must pass if it is to remain a democracy.

P.S.: An interview with Q which throws good light on the sort of films he believes in. Also, I hope some people will go ahead and check out Love In India. Punk art is awesome, alright, but it's better to see things in a calmer state of mind.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A shout out for internet pirates!

A new bill called the E-PARASITE act is being debated in the US House which will give governments, courts and corporate biggies the power to shut down any website which is infringing on their copyrights (of course, according to their own decisions). This is even worse than the existing legislation that allowed websites to take down content deemed copyright-infringing and save itself from legal action. In effect, anything the overlords want us to pay for, we have to - if we really want to use it.

I'm going to argue against this mainly from my vantage point: i.e. as someone in a modest Indian town with a deep interest in matters of the world, and especially, cinema. It is no big secret that Indians don't have even middling-decent DVD rentals or arthouses where one can pay agreeable money to watch a decent variety of cinema. The local DVD rentals in my place keep only safe bets: blockbusters from Tolly, Bolly and Hollywood, a huge stock of b-grade Hindi and Bengali cinema (which, surprisingly, has a steady market), a nominal amount of "art cinema" (the big names in Bengali would be something like: S Ray, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghose etc.) and large stocks of porn. Kolkata is somewhat better off than Durgapur, of course, but one only gets the theatre experience when the odd film festival comes to Nandan (not counting private screenings). The stores in Kolkata are also somewhat better off - I frequent the Music World on Park Street just to check out what titles they have on the shelves - though they usually keep the Certified Classics only. Thankfully, they're getting somewhat brave and bringing some rarer stuff - besides the usual Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini et al - I've spotted the odd Olmis and the Dardennes. The gist is this: for a young, impressionable student in Durgapur/Kolkata interested in cinema, the options of getting a steady and healthy supply are still underdeveloped.

Now, let's do some preliminary mathematics to show why the internet saves me from film-ic ignorance. Due to the recent boom in telecommunications, even a mofussil like Durgapur has excellent broadband connectivity. And for around 800 to 1000 rupees, one can get a connection with no limits on data transfer. Basically, a 'free' ticket to share whatever files you want to. Thanks to a very well-developed file sharing web on the internet, I have access to whatever cinema I want. Everything from 1920s German horror to the latest film playing on the festival circuit is within reach if you have found your way around the net. So whereas I can only get three or four DVDs at most with a 1000 per month, I can (and do) download somewhere around 20 to 25 films with the same outlay.

Does this mean I won't buy DVDs at all? I will, but only a few I have already seen and loved - and when I have the money to spare. The way I see it, I'm not cutting down on the business of the corporations at all: it's a choice between not being able to buy and not buying it. My question is - why should an artiste mind if he's reaching out to a wider audience? As far as I know, corporations take the major chunk of sales profits anyway. For the artiste it's a choice between a little more money from royalties and sales profits (and that too is debatable: most filesharing proponents won't buy stuff as heavily as they share) and a huge, well-distributed audience. It's not without reason many bands are releasing their albums for free on their websites - they have already realised that their earning from sales amount to only about 10% (the rest coming from shows).

The internet is also more egalitarian, free from censorship. In one notable example, Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi released his 2009 film on censorship within his country - No One Knows About Persian Cats - on the internet as it could not shown in theatres. (Many similar underground artistes thrive because of the internet.) Now if a site like Pirate Bay - which hosted a copy of Ghobadi's film - were to be shut down because some bigwig corp in USA decided that it had also hosted one of its copyrighted films, then Ghobadi would be shut out of circulation. This is one reason why this new act, if it were to be passed, would be disastrous for democracy. To put it succinctly: for the First World with its various alternatives to showcase art, the internet may be a nefarious parasite eating up business (a claim which is debatable as I've pointed out). For us Third World citizens with no decent DVD rentals and arthouses, it means the death of culture altogether.

YouTube has already been taking down videos that attracted notices from corporations for copyright violation. As someone pointed out, their filtering mechanism is very random. Mashups, parodies or video essays featuring snippets of copyrighted material are often taken down, whereas whole scenes from those very films/music videos survive the treatment sometimes. This has already resulted in people shifting from YouTube to Vimeo (which has a somewhat more sensible stand towards copyright violation), but the implications are bad. As it stands now, you have to pay corporations big money even if you want a snippet (which should ideally be allowable for free as per Fair Use policy) in your work. This is just strangling of creativity; financial arm-twisting. I hope sense prevails and the internet - the only place where we can speak of global culture and cross-breeding with some amount of truth - remains truly free.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Blowup: how close can you get to a subject?

Antonioni's Blowup takes a murder mystery premise and cleverly subverts it. It concerns us with a fashion photographer in the London of the Swinging Sixties, Thomas (David Hemmings), who happens to think he has witnessed - accidentally captured on camera - a murder. And then it abandons the narrative necessity to "solve" the case: instead telling us that we can't be too sure that we saw something (recalling Heisenberg's principle more than anything else).

The film is permeated by a sense of sly humour. An early scene captures Thomas doing a photo shoot with real-life fashion model Veruschka, and Antonioni plays out the scene with a strong subtext of sexuality. It is as if the photographer and model are engaging in virtual intercourse; complete with lines like "now give it to me, really give it to me, my love" and a mock-up of post-coital exhaustion. Much of Veruschka's sensuality is coldly calculated. Glossy surfaces housing empty beings - Antonioni's major theme, the connecting-thread in his whole body of work.

Thomas wanders into a park, sees an unlikely couple - a middle-aged woman with an elderly man - and out of both boredom and voyeuristic curiosity starts shooting them. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) notices, comes to Thomas and demands that he hand over the roll of film to her.
He refuses, promises to send her the photos later. He is followed back to his studio by the woman. She repeats her request, even makes a sexual advance as 'payment', but is interrupted. Interruptions are the film's building blocks. Antonioni's characters don't really have deep-seated motives, a philosophy to live life by. They're empty pages coloured with fancies as they come.

Thomas goes to nightclub where The Yardbirds are playing. Jeff Beck's guitar processor starts malfunctioning; in a fit of rage he breaks his guitar (mimicking the antics of Pete Townshend) and throws the broken fretboard to a rapturous, drugged crowd. There is much pushing and shoving as fans try to get this souvenir. Thomas grabs it, runs outside and throws the fretboard on the pavement. A fellow standing nearby picks it up, examines it (of course, not knowing that it is Jeff Beck's) and throws it down again. Two points to note: 1) Thomas really had no reason to grab and run away and just did it to disappoint the others, and 2) that a thing, once stripped from its context, does not convey any meaning. The first gives us a guide to understand the psyche of Antonioni's characters (Jack Nicholson in The Passenger decides to exchange his identity with a dead, similar looking man without any apparent motivation). The second gives us the thumb-rule to understand his films. There is hardly any sequence in an Antonioni film that would stand on its own merit - you cannot talk of scenes unless you connect it with the others.

The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who wanted the roll of film back visits Thomas. He hands her a fake and develops the photographs he took in the morning. As he pins the photos side by side and examines them he thinks he has unwittingly caught a man being shot down. To get a clearer look he blows up a part of the image. There's a lot of noise - graininess - so we can't be exactly sure. He seems quite certain though.

The mise-en-scene here deserves special mention. A photo of the woman looking away while she embraces her lover becomes a sort of reaction shot.
But whereas the reaction shot is traditionally used to reinforce the illusion of reality*, Antonioni subverts by not clearly showing the object that draws her attention. The camera pans from the still (shown above) to the wall where a blowup of the fence she seems to be looking at is pinned. (Illustrated in the following screenshots)
The resulting visual joke is that the woman is looking from the confines of her photo to the bush and fence shown in the adjacent photo. But we still can't see what she's been looking at**. The other - larger - subversion here is of a close-up. Originally the close-up was invented because objects could not be fitted completely into the aspect ratio of the frame. Hence a part of the object or person was shown, and the camera was sometimes moved to capture the whole part by part. This largely worked as a synecdoche (i.e. the part representing the whole). But whereas the classical close-up clarified or emphasized intent, Antonioni's close-up says that the deeper we try to go the more the object of our concern disintegrates ("blowing up" in a deliciously ironic sense). It also serves as self-criticism: Antonioni's films being basically probing character studies done in a minimalist manner.

For some inexplicable reason, Antonioni actually shows a gun sticking out of one of the bushes, and later, a corpse lying beside a hedge when Thomas revisists the park in the night. Which seems strange given that Antonioni has been trying to bury the deterministic trait in classical literature and cinema uptil this point. (An alternate reading might be that Thomas really did spot the truth but has no concrete irrefutable evidence to back his discovery.)

Perhaps this is overcome, and explained, by the celebrated finale. A group of anarchic teenagers, dressed as harlequins, show up the film at several points. This group now arrives at a tennis court just outside the park which was the "crime-scene". They mimic a game of tennis. But between themselves the excitement and enthusiasm in this make-believe game is real, as is their match. Thomas looks on, amused. Then the invisible ball gets out of court and the players insist that Thomas throw them the ball. 

Now that he has participated in their make-believe, he can hear the sounds of the tennis ball hitting the ground and the rackets (before this, the match is played out in silence). This is unusual given that the film never uses non-diegetic*** sound except in this scene. All of Herbie Hancock's wonderful jazz score can be heard only when the radio or the record player is on. Antonioni's daring use of sound makes us conscious of the illusory nature of cinema: which resembles and comes to life (the non-diegetic becoming diegetic) only when there is communal participation and suspension of disbelief (in the cinema theatre).

The final sequence of the film shows, in a long shot, Thomas standing in the field. His image slowly fades away. Thomas is unreal - a character in a make-believe medium. The camera lies. Did Thomas' camera lie too? And does Antonioni's camera lie when it shows us the corpse?

*A typical Hollywood trope is to cut next to a POV - if one shot shows A (in the frame) looking at B (out of the frame), the next shot shows B (now in frame) from A's perspective.

**The viewer who wants to see for himself if there was a murder or not must understand that the photographs are taken from a single point in the park - where Thomas was hiding behind a tree - and that is our reference to determine directions.

***In simple words, diegetic music/sound is one which is being played in the space being exhibited, i.e. the music/sound belongs to the "world" of the film/play. Non-diegetic is when the sound does not belong to the space in focus.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Discreet Charm of The Narrative

Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie holds the promise of a "proper" (classical) narrative throughout its length but doggedly fails in keeping it. Here is a film that pretends to head for the centre, all the while running off into tangents. It is almost as if Bunuel is trying his best to control his surreal urges and make a conventional, conformist narrative feature; but yields repeatedly to his playful, naughty side.

Gone is the sort of openly rebellious, distinctly surreal imagery that populated his early work (Un Chien Andalou or L'Age D'Or). There is an air of naturalism and realism in the proceedings: hints that this film may follow the cause-and-effect logic of classical narrative. We see one of the characters - a high-ranking diplomat - smuggle cocaine in his luggage. A lady promises a priest that she'll narrate the story of her faith to him. Bunuel throws around these nuggets with exquisite care. He has the diplomat explain in detail how he managed to smuggle the stuff in. But there's no follow-up. It appears the director has lost interest in the sort of conventional film his handiwork is headed towards, so he turns his attention to another little incident, follows the narrative thread for a while, and diverts his attention yet again.

The running gag of the film is that a group of high-class socialites sit down to dinner several times but never actually finish it. Bunuel's own little joke is luring his viewers into believing that Discreet Charm is a conventional narrative. Like his protagonists, we never get finished with the "story" - our dinner. It eludes us before a normative conclusion can be reached.

Discreet Charm is as much a critique of complacent, disengaged entertainment (the sort that Hollywood has always readily served up) as it is a hilarious parody of bourgeois manners (with some typical Bunuel targets thrown in for good measure - bureaucratic, military and religious). At a restaurant, the three ladies of this film ask for all sorts of beverages - tea, coffee, water - but the waiter informs them that none is available. Nothing in Bunuel's film is readymade for easy consumption.

One sequence in the film is shown thrice, being the last as well. It has the motley group of socialites walking endlessly through an empty field. Bunuel's parting statement is cheerfully nihilistic - coming from nowhere, going nowhere. It is a wonder a film so mischievous and rebellious in its opposition to Hollywood's values of filmmaking won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Reflections of life in cinema #2

Blasphemy and the holy cows of religion:
While browsing through a wikipedia entry on well-known cases of blasphemy, I came across this particularly interesting scenario where Gillian Gibbons, a British lady teaching in Sudan, was tried on charges of naming a teddy bear "Muhammad" in class. Yes, you read that right.

It turned out there was a boy named Muhammad in class; and she had named the teddy after him, not the Messiah. Which should have effectively buried the case. It didn't. The charges brought against her were "insulting religion, inciting hatred, sexual harassment, racism, prostitution and showing contempt for religious beliefs". Pretty much logical thinking, isn't it?

It's of course further debatable what exactly is wrong with naming things after the Prophet. Where exactly is that a slur? People name their children after personal idols or icons, and that is always a mark of showing respect. Mind you, this is still argued from the POV of a rational believer. For an atheist, the whole idea of arguing and bickering over, and creating rules about an artificial human construct - God - seems like absurdity squared. One, the whole thing is obviously a hoax - meant to give you a false sense of security and order when there is none. Two, you have self-appointed guardians who set rigid rules and guidelines to ascertain the existence and propagation of this deceptive idea.

Contemptuous sermons at several mosques drove around 10,000 people in Khartoum, armed with swords and machetes, to form processions and ask for immediate execution of Gibbons. All for naming a silly teddy bear "Muhammad". Makes me wonder what a truly harsh critic of organised religion must be facing in these overbearingly conservative societies.

Monty Python and their attitude towards religion:

One feels, as Kubrick did while adapting the straight thriller Fail Safe to Dr. Strangelove, that certain aspects of human existence are so bleak and despairing that the only possible way of staying calm and opining in a rational manner is to make fun of it. Kubrick's vision of a nuclear apocalypse thrives on a complementary relationship between the degrees of humour and bleakness. The teddy bear incident infuriates me so much that I find citing the frivolous Monty Python sketches the best way to deflect the irrational strains of anger (since blind religion itself feeds on the gaps in rationale).

The Pythons were, of course, no strangers to making fun of religion. Life of Brian satirised the irrational religious fervour, containing among other things a scene where a mob kills a man because he believes the common man Brian not be a messiah. Brian himself doesn't!

What however seems most relevant is the witch-burning sequence in Holy Grail. A group of villagers take a suspected "witch" to a village headman seeking his approval to burn her. In a characteristically Python-esque way, Bedevere (the village headman) establishes "logically" how the woman really is a witch. In a world where a woman can be tried for naming teddy bears (charged with "inciting... sexual harassment, racism and prostitution" among other things), one can easily be proved to be a witch because she weighs equal to a duck on a faulty balance. Reality, as ever, trumps fiction in its capacity to bewilder.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Brake ke baad: Pharmacists furious with doctors for bad handwriting

New Delhi, April 15: The Indian Medical Association received a notice from the Indian Pharmaceutical Association a couple of days ago. IPA has issued a demand that a compulsory course on handwriting be introduced in all medical courses throughout the country.

When contacted, an IPA spokesperson said, "We have received thousands of complaint letters from chemists around India regarding the illegibility of doctors' handwriting. Just recently a chemist from Kolkata wrote to us saying that he has been sued by a customer for deliberately giving the patient a pill he was allergic to. The doctor refused to accept responsibility for the mistake, saying he had recommended the medicine with the possible reactions of the patient in mind. The cause of confusion was his barely legible writing. The Kolkata chemist is frustrated and furious that he has to bear the brunt."

The publication of the notice is expected to delight all Indian pharmacies who have had to put up with bad handwriting for decades. The complaint letter from IPA demands that the handwriting course be introduced in at least two semesters of the medical degree and that failure in the subject be treated with a seriousness at par with that reserved for the 'important' subjects in medicine.

The news however failed to delight Mr. Banerjee, a resident of Kolkata. Mr. Banerjee was positively delighted to receive a missive from his son's school - the teachers had complained that they could not read little Rahul's handwriting at all, and therefore had to mark his papers on conjecture. The senior Banerjee was absolutely sure that this could only mean one thing - his son was destined to become a doctor. Little Rahul was also a little crestfallen. He could no longer scribble a "medical prescription" in his own handwriting and claim that he missed class for a nasty stomach ache.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

15 "Chhobi" in 15 Minutes

Abhigyan-da, now a good friend of mine, requested me a couple of days back that I make a list of 10 Bengali films, both old and new, which are worth seeing. Well, obviously it has been a hard time making such a list. A lot of good works and some of my favourites have been left out (with much heart-ache, I must say! :P). I’ll violate two conditions though: I’ll list 15 films, instead of 10 and I’ll, for now, talk only about old films, i.e., the black-and-white-era. Also, these are among those which I’ve seen and so, this is absolutely my opinion. But, I have tried to be as unbiased as possible. I’ve also tried to bring as much diversity to my choices as is possible. No two films are thematically the same, as far as I can see. I’ll leave the often-seen-obvious-great-works-that-have-received-enough-recognition (like the ‘Apu Trilogy’, the Goopy-Bagha series, ‘Charulata’, ‘Nayak’, ‘Meghe Dhaka Taara’, ‘Galpo Holeo Shotti’, ‘Kabuliwala’, ‘Saptapadi’ and probably a few others):

1) Teen Kanya (director: Satyajit Ray, year: 1961) – A classic collection of three short films. All the basic elements of drama (humour, poetry, horror, romance, psychology, coming-of-age, relationships, time…) are so innately combined to give perhaps one of the world’s most memorable art forms.

2) Jana Aranya (director: Satyajit Ray, year: 1975) – A clever take. There have been many stories portraying the struggle of youths to find a job in Naxal or post/ pre-Naxal period, the earnest desire to make a proper living, ultimately finding a not-so-good offer with a happy-sad “atleast I’ve got something” feeling, the psychological pressure on a middle class family owing to the fear of losing security, and so on. But rarely has a film been made central characterising a man so utterly common! He is unromantic, uncharismatic, uncomplicated, un-plottable, un-philosophical. But, he is uniquely conscientious. A great find, Pradeep Mukherjee, is one of the most under-under-rated actors in the world film industry.

3) Jalsaghar (director: Satyajit Ray, year:1958) – A must-see to grow a universal view of the world. Even the autocrat or the aristocrat might have a softer, weaker mould hidden beneath several layers. The power, the aura, the luxurious ways of amusement (from smoking the pricey tobacco to arranging the royal festivity) – all are linked with an odd sense of childish possessiveness and of course, pride, a super sensitive pride. A hint of fall brings devastative remorse (shade comparable with that depicted in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Sunset Boulevard’). Mind-boggling work with psychology!

4) Kshaniker Atithi (director: Tapan Sinha, year: 1959) – A tale so sensitive can’t be said in a simpler way. Only someone like Tapan Sinha could produce such magic perhaps. Great cast selection! Nirmal Kumar says most with his wordful eyes. It leaves a ‘songful lull’ long after it is over, if there can be any such thing.
It makes the viewer re-discover the many bits of precious shattered glass that cover his path, some of which can’t be retrieved again, some of which can still be collected...

5) Ajantrik (director: Ritwik Ghatak, year: 1958) – A very important subject, but has been rarely worked upon: man’s relationship with machines. I think, I don’t need to say more to the people here reading this on Facebook or on the blog! :P But, yes, this film is about how much a machine can become the part of our very selves. I think most people of the 20th – 21st century will connect to this film a lot. Enjoy!

6) Ahwan (director: Ardhendu Mukherjee , year: 1961) – A tale of simplicity, of the wish of “giving” amidst and despite utter poverty, of the mindlessness of the thousand divisions in the society and of the inexplicability of those rare relationships that know no beginning nor any end. Watch this film for the very old lady, wrinkled, toothless and bent with age, who has abundant affection stored in her being, but very precious few to shower it on.

7) Jhinder Bondi (director: Tapan Sinha, year: 1961) – A royal film, both in terms of subject and treatment. Can be a million-budget film if made today, but still the effect of the original, which had a budget that will embarrass modern producers, can’t be reproduced. The cast is superbly selected, once again! And, all the actors, away from their comfort zones (except Uttam Kumar perhaps, who doesn’t have to work much hard to be in the skin of the characters he plays here and as usual he is easily cool), have done their bit perfectly. The backdrop of the film, i.e., the Rajasthani royals, is very rare in Bangla cinema but is done with all the required √©lan and elegance. A sumptuous bit of art. Just lap it up!

8) Thaana Theke Aashchhi (director: Hiren Nag, year: 1965) – Rarely there has been such a neat work done on a highly complex mystery plot. Behind a man’s irreversible misery, that’s so huge to bring him to the brink of taking his own life, never is any one man or any one factor responsible. The entire society is. In fact, we might unexpectedly discover each of us responsible for the utter distress of that person (yes, quite in the Hitchcock-ian style). The unveiling of each such encounter with our victim might strike us – those with a wee bit of conscience, of course – with a wave of shame and guilt. And, we actually never know when we might come face-to-face with those cruelly honest and insightful eyes behind the black rimmed spectacles someday, which will reveal our “sins” to us! Watch this film to know why the fans of Uttam Kumar have turned the same.

9) Marutirtho Hinglaj (director: Bikash Roy, year: 1959) – One of the bravest and most difficult projects in Indian cinema. The story of a group of poor pilgrims who undertake a very difficult terrain in the wish to reach the “blessed spot” some place far away that they believe will get them salvation. Some very ordinary people like us are put to a series of indomitable tests. We see how some overcome them, while some fail. The huge amount of heart and dedication that is involved in this semi-epic is perceptible and is almost contagious. Watch this one just for the experience!

10) Bikele Bhorer Phool (director: Pijush Bose, year: 1974) – A remarkable film that brings out the eternal contrast between the young and the free on one side, while the mature and the limited/ bounded on the other side. While the former is fearless, the latter can’t afford to ‘dare to bare’. Due to years of struggle (and often by regular practice) against the odds, many layers of skin have covered their (the ones in the latter group) natural selves. They have learnt what the world can put up with and what it cannot. This “learning” is called maturity. Watch this again to understand The Uttam Kumar factor.

11) Neel Akasher Niche (director: Mrinal Sen, year: 1959) – A very affectionate story, drafted with a sadness strange to Bangla culture. A promising debut of course, for it made the permanent space for The Mrinal Sen, who later went on to develop a style, very different from his start, distinct to him. A very sensitive take on the refugees, on the ‘pain of compromising’ with the arrangement of living away from the homeland you love so much and how we suddenly find the shadow of our lost loved ones in someone practically “alien”, how we find a cross-road on a “foreign” land very familiar or how an unknown river reminds us of one back at home. After all, poverty, discrimination and war bring the same kind of distress everywhere. A very poignant tale!

12) Kaancher Swargo (director: Yatrik (Tarun Majumdar, Sachin Mukherji and Dilip Mukherji ), year: 1963) – A Bangla film noir. The story of a promising surgeon lost in the despairing pool of failure to gain a degree. But, can anything really stop him from applying the knowledge and the skill he possesses to save many hundreds of lives? How important law is when a man is dying? How important a stamp is when real work needs to be done immediately? Dilip Mukherji, an actor seldom appreciated, does most through his silent yet dignified grimness. A theme that surely demands a lot of importance even in contemporary times.

13) Dweep Jweley Jaai (director: Asit Sen, year: 1959) – One of the most touching and empathic tales in Bangla cinema. The best performance of Suchitra Sen undoubtedly. The director has revealed a very measured sense of drama in this film. Even melodrama is there, but very briefly and strongly. This is not only the story of an exceptionally kind nurse, or a dutiful human being for that matter, but of the general Indian lady.

14) Chupi Chupi Ashe (director: Premendra Mitra, year: 1960) – There have been many better works on crime and detection than this one. But, no other film like this one sent a chill down my spine. Very few films in Bangla have been made on serial killing. (In fact, right now I can’t remember another one except ‘Jighansha’.) Very few Bengali films have made the audience fear the murderer. In some way or the other, it has been the general tradition to justify the killer and draw a generous amount of sympathy from the viewer. There is a reason shown, of course, but very much like that in Hitchcock’s ‘The Shadow of a Doubt’: too skewed.
Crime lovers can try this!

15) Palatak (director: Tarun Majumdar, year: 1963) – It is an anecdote on the joy of losing oneself among all that is natural and true. And, I think, that one line will do. :)

Most of these films are from the genre ‘drama’, are content-based works and were primarily made with “commerce” in mind. Music is one of the basic elements (both as songs and as background music) of these films, the medium that links the various nuances of the story in one unbroken garland. Again, many of the directors of the above films are scarcely named, scarcely known, scarcely remembered. But, the above list may roughly be an eye-opener to the question “why the golden age was golden age” that probes many bright young minds of today. Most of these films were hits in their times, signaling an average good taste residing in the then Bangali mass. Almost nil-resourced (‘resource’ includes money, access to capital, innovative mind in technique and style, eyes for detailed perfection, probably a sharper sense of art et al) and nil-equipped, in as many ways as possible, these film-makers made magic just because they had the mind-heart-and-eyes worth living! So, anyone earnestly wishing to know the “Bangali sentiment” may refer to the above list.
Happy seeing! :)