Saturday, 24 May 2014

Two Existential Men: Une élégie à Jef Costello et Bauji

Jef Costello is an embodiment of purpose (another ‘f’ doesn’t serve any). His working-class living quarters are exemplary in the precise functionality of everything – all the water bottles lined up neatly on a shelf, a medical kit just in place. Even the canary in its cage has a function in Jef’s universe, as we learn in the course of time.

Jef's worldview in a key image.

Some of this dedication to the obsessive ordering of the physical world till it fits a worldview comes, one may surmise, from J-P Melville’s private search for symmetry. Therefore the consistent sameness of the colour palette in his late colour films (light blue/gray/light ochre) – especially here in Le Samourai or in his last film Un Flic – an ironic minimalism that establishes Melville’s moral universe even before the films have really begun. What doesn’t have purpose in the scheme is meaningless – therefore the near-comical effect of having Jef visit his ‘girlfriend’ only when he needs to establish an alibi.

Melville’s vision of a world that runs on its own rhythms of planned action is exact in ways Tati would have found comic. a.) Jef goes to a run-down garage to have the number plates of a Citroen changed, doesn’t exchange a word with the man there, hands him money and gets a gun in a total of about five movements. b.) One of Jef’s rock solid alibis is with a group of professional gamblers. He goes there after the job, cops come to pick him up ostensibly for a “routine checkup”. When Jef heads out, Melville stays back in the room with his camera for the coup de grâce. One of the gamblers who was pretending to take a nap while Jef killed time in his place comes back to the table, picks up his cards and the gentlemen resume the game at once with clockwork precision. The ‘arrangement’ is well-oiled. Everything in Jef Costello’s universe is.

On a metaphysical level, the very plot of Le Samourai is concerned with restoring symmetry in a world where something has gone off-register. The pianist – the only witness who saw Jef at the crime scene – doesn’t identify him at the police station. Jef doesn’t receive his dues from the people who hired him and gets shot at because he’s become a perceived danger. Until he figures out these aberrations he can’t let go.

Hence the entirely appropriate conclusion – Jef revisits the location of the first 
violation, this time exactly prepared for what is coming. A samurai without his master must dictate the terms of his existence. When he has been cornered he should know what to do.

Bauji, in his puraani Dilli mohalla, surrounded by the bustle of community. When he realizes that rumours about his daughter’s boyfriend are unfounded, he takes the simple-minded but radical decision not to believe anything he has not experienced first-hand. He gives up his job at a travel agency; how can he convincingly sell the charms of foreign lands when he hasn’t been to these places? Pretty soon a small cult gathers around Bauji, intently following every utterance and gesture he makes in a futile search for the ‘truth’. For a long time Bauji takes a vow of silence, finally making up his mind to let his daughter marry the boy. But all through the marriage ceremony he’s caught in a strange kind of sorrow, the reason for which doesn’t become clear until the very end. The end which takes his metaphysical drive to its necessary logical conclusion. How can Bauji know the true joy of flying until he has tried it?

This whimsical world with its inherent chaos is not for men of single-minded vision. The existential man achieves meaning - finds home - when he ceases to exist.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Apur Panchali: validation required

This must be the worst way to do it.

Kaushik Ganguly’s Apur Panchali is purportedly a fictionalized biopic/tribute to Subir Banerjee, the child actor in Pather Panchali. Banerjee played that one iconic role before settling down to the life of an everyman due to financial/social circumstances.

Ganguly’s film dramatizes Banerjee’s life – in flashback – by drawing parallels to Apu. And that is precisely my point of objection; it takes an enormous amount of disrespect for the ordinariness of the everyman to define his existence solely in relation to a cultural touchstone. This is the highest form of veiled elitism; if Subir hadn’t played Apu you could be pretty sure there wouldn’t be a film of his life. Irony being – and I don’t expect the filmmakers to understand this – the story of Apu is moving precisely because it could be, and was, story of anyone from a certain background.

Ganguly takes a lot of pain to establish how Subir Banerjee shies away from any mention of Apu – as I imagine he actually must – but the supposed empathy with this reticence is betrayed by the whole parallels business – some of them so overtly forced you’d have to strain your imagination – a dubious bit of the pilfering of Ray’s legacy that has been continually perpetuated through the years by Bengali filmmakers. Oh, the subtlety!

The silliest bit of the fictionalizing – mandatory “based on a true story” warning; and that always is a warning! – is when Nemai Ghosh, the stills photographer of Ray is being interviewed about Subir. Ghosh says something cursory before saying he has a photo of young Subir. Picks up one from a stack full of actual prints from the sets; a photo of Parambrato! (Who promptly plays his part with all the gravity that comes from someone knowing how he’s a cultural icon and everything – as the actor Parambrato, and the character Subir/Apu. The older actor, Ardhendu Banerjee, is far more sensitive, getting a lot of everyman nuances just perfect.)

As if to rub the point in, about how beautifully Ray-like Subir – and by extension this whole film – is you have the background score (an almost note-by-note copy of tribute to Ravi Shankar’s Pather Panchali theme) playing endlessly, trying to squeeze out that last teardrop stuck in the corner of your eye. Emotions on rent from The Greatest Indian Film. Go on, weep some more. For Bengali cinema is dead.