Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cinema in India: Sarkar Raj

Every time I sit down to write a film review it molds into something else. After watching Sarkar Raj it seemed natural to write about the film keeping the original in mind, and several other key aspects which forms its existence; something which most people fail to do. I realize, I can never write a straightforward review and proclaim something about a film based on half-baked ideas and facts, which most film hosts and reviewers in India practice. Even their sense of history is based on superlative facts about cinema, and their critical understanding is based on the formula - 'touch the surface' facts
(great cinematography, sleek editing, and shaky camera, weak script blah blah blah) without giving us what these things really stand for in the films, but that's another story... I'll save it for next time.

Here is the excerpt from my article on Sarkar Raj for Cinema without Borders:

Ram Gopal Verma had a fascination for the bullies of his class; their ideology to terrorize, control (by use of force and power) and have an arsenal of followers- has remained an important part of his oeuvre. The way his character behave, the way they are presented, and the “position” they hold in the world of Ram Gopal Verma film’s reflects his childhood enchantment with people who crossed the law or who considered themselves above the law. He belongs to the special group of “Video Generation filmmakers” the likes of whom include luminaries such as Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. However, unlike his contemporaries in “World Cinema” Ram Gopal Verma is not a formalist, and like most Bollywood filmmakers he believes in the power of stories per se.

The seeds of his Sarkar trilogy could lead to one of his finest film Satya. Wherein it seemed he would be one of the power innovator and director of our country. But today, exactly ten years after the release of the film, his stories of crime, punishment and exploration of the minds of the very same “bullies” of his childhood has turned redundant. Sarkar Raj epitomizes everything what is wrong with Bollywood films- complacent, plagiarism (in the form of “inspired” or loosely based), and death of mise-en-scene. First of all, technical superiority should not be confused with the quality of film. Just because you have great pencil, good sharpener, great rubber, amazing quality paper, does not make you a great writer. You can write, believing your writing the next masterpiece, and keep doing so due to lack of criticism (“Any form of art has a tendency to get complacent, and it’s the presence of critical school of thought, that has helped in the evolution of various schools of art), and we Indians severely lack a proper school of criticism since the suffocation, and the chilling air of compliancy is getting tighter each year, a similar feeling one can have in North Korea. Similarly one can make films all his life without understanding form, and even watch them in a similar vein. As one can enjoy a book without consciously noticing the literary style of a writer, and continue arguing on the style, themes and values of criticism and cinema with a generalized vocabulary concerned typically with distinction between “good” and “bad “films on subordinate part of cinema (acting, script) and not inherent to cinema (mise-en-scene).

The problem with the execution of the form, and overbearing necessity to “tell” is the major flaw of the film, and its predecessor Sarkar and the countless other movies being made in our country. For people who consider “Cinema primary goal to narrate” here is the basic storyline of the film: “Shankar Nagare (Abhishek Bachchan) has taken over the running of the family business and become popular as his beloved father Subhash Nagare (Amitabh Bachchan) popularly known as “Sarkar” (government). Anita Rajan (Aishwariya Rai Bachchan) CEO of an International firm has brought in a proposal to setup a power plant in Maharashtra. Shankar Nagare takes up the cause to establish the business, only to realize that the project is not easy as it seems; the plot is simply an exercise of cause and effect, and laughable by the end, since it tends to summarize the whole loose nuts and bolts of the film into an exchange of dialogues, gestures( fake ), and some teasers( two off-screen call in the film marks the end - one Sarkar calls for Cheeku his grandson, and the other of Anita Rajan calling out for a cup of tea in the exclusive mannerism of the family members. Had Ram Gopal Verma devised such schematic usage of space in the mise-en-scene during the film, and not at the end, then the story would be something else- since the end marked the “call” for more indolent filmmaking and redundant stories to come.

Sarkar Raj is built on the foundation of the original film released in 2005, which irrespective of all its flaws had some moments and was watchable- coherent to an extent. Even if the narrative was inspired; as it had glimpses of the leader of Shiv Sena; plagiarized aspects of Godfather- yet it could be forgiven, simply because RGV was dying to adapt this film to the Indian milieu. However, there is absolutely no plausibility for the cause of making this film. Call me obnoxious but this is an ostensibly bad film. Read Further

Friday, June 27, 2008

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray
Date of Publication: 2004-06-03
Language: English
Author: Amitav Ghosh

In 1989, during my first extended stay in New York, I was suddenly struck by a wave of Ray nostalgia. It was no coincidence perhaps that I had recently finished writing The Shadow Lines, which is, of all my novels, the one that more clearly shows the influence of Satyajit Ray. It struck me that Ray too had once been a stranger in this overwhelming city; that he too had walked the streets on Manhattan in Kolkata-bought shoes. One day, plucking up my courage, I made an appointment with the director James Ivory, who I knew to be a friend of Ray's. Later that week I went to interview Ivory, cassette recorder in hand. This is how Ivory described his first meeting with Ray, in the winter of 1960: 'I looked him up in Calcutta,' Ivory said. 'I had never met him. I had seen at that point, Pather Panchali ('Song of the Road') and Aparajito ('Undefeated'). I knew that Apur Sansar ('The World of Apu') existed and that sooner or later it would get to New York, but up till then it hadn't come. And then some Indian friends of mine in Delhi said that apart from the trilogy he had also made some other films in that time - the late fifties. They described Jalsaghar ('The Music Room') to me and that sounded like something I would love to see. Then I made kind of a long trip to Calcutta and went down to Puri and Bhubaneshwar and Madras. While I was in Calcutta I just decided to call him. Just to meet him, but also to ask if it would be possible to see Jalsaghar. My friends in Delhi said he was very approachable (which he was) and I just called him up. He was in the phone book, so I just called him up and told him who I was. He said fine, he would try and arrange Jalsaghar for me. We agreed to meet in a coffee house and I went there. He was alone and we talked.

'He was immensely tall; he was probably the tallest Indian I have ever met and that seemed symbolically apt. He had a kind of straightforward majesty about him; he was obviously a king, but he was an approachable king. We were friends all his life as long as he lived. Whenever there was something he needed we tried to help. He always helped us. When there was some tremendous thing that would happen to us in the course of our own moviemaking in India - for instance when Utpal Dutt was put in prison [for his Maoist sympathies] while we were making the Guru he helped to get him out. He called up or wrote to Mrs Gandhi and said this is a disgrace, this shouldn't be allowed - things like that.'

I asked Ivory what they had talked about at that first meeting. ' He was waiting in the coffee house,' Ivory said, ' while the censor was seeing Devi (the coffee house was in the shadow of the Metro Cinema). Then somebody came from his staff and said that Devi had gone down well with the censors. He was kind of nervous about it because of the retrograde view of Hindu life at its most superstitious let's say. He was afraid they would make him cut it. But no, it had gone down all right, and he said, would I like to come to the premiere of it, which I did, so I saw the film at the premiere and I was also introduced to Sharmila Tagore, who was very young then. And then he arranged for me to see Jalsaghar so we went to the studio in Tollygunge where he made all his films and he sat next to me and translated for me at important moments. I thought it was a marvellous, marvellous movie and I jumped up and told him so at the end. He was surprised that I thought it was so marvellous. He said, well, he thought technically it wasn't so good, wasn't quite up to the mark. I said well, it didn't strike me like that and I asked if there were any plans to show it in the west for I thought people would really like it. He said no, he didn't have any plans. It had been shown at the Moscow film Festival but the Russians didn't like it because they thought it was decadent and that had discouraged him. I said, I thought he might get a different reception in the west if he pursued it. It was released here in the fall of 1963, and as you know a few years ago it was released in Paris and it was a tremendous success - ran for a year or something.'

Ray was to collaborate with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant on two of their films: he wrote the music for Shakespearewallah and helped with the editing of The Householder. I asked Ivory how the collaboration had come about. 'After The Householder was edited,' he said, 'it still seemed very unwieldy, not very nicely done, I didn't really have a very good editor - by this time I had met him [Ray] and I asked if I could bring the film to show him. He said sure come on. So Ismail [Merchant] and I climbed on the train - we took the Hindi version of it, all those cans, there must have been 24 cans or something. We went from Bombay to Calcutta with all that film. He saw it and liked it - he thought there was something there to work with. I asked him whether he could give us any suggestions about the cutting and he said, yes. He would recut it, but he didn't want me to interfere while he was doing that. He said let me have a go at it, I'll do it my way, you can be in the editing room if you want to be, when we're all done you can change it if you want to, that's your business, but let me do what I want to do. So then he and his editor Dulal Dutt recut the film. They took about four days, and gave it a new shape. It was he [Ray] who suggested that it go into a flashback form.

'Ray was always awfully generous with his time, always, always. I don't know how he did it; because there were always many many people there, who wanted things done, people who just came to catch a glimpse of him and so on. How he had any kind of life of his own and how he made his movies I don't know.'


Pather Panchali , to my mind the greatest of Ray's films, was completed in 1955. It premiered not in Kolkata, but in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. This is how it came about: in 1954 Huston was on his way to India to scout locations for 'The Man Who Would Be King', when he came to hear of a young advertising-executive who was making a film on a tiny budget. By the time Huston arrived in Kolkata, the film had been stalled for several months, because of a lack of money. At the time of Huston's visit the dominant genre in India was the Bombay film. Ray's work took Huston by surprise. It was apparent from the rushes that this film belonged in a different order of film-making. Huston was quick to recognize the genius of the work. He viewed only twenty-minutes or so of the film, but recalling the occasion in 1987, he said: 'I recognized the footage as the work of a great film-maker.' Returning to the United States, Huston's reports of the film were instrumental in persuading the Museum of Modern Art to send Ray some money. MOMA's advance went a long way towards the completion of Pather Panchali.

Hollywood had long cast a binding spell on Ray: he was an ardent admirer of such American film-makers as John Ford and Billy Wilder. Although he never worked there, Hollywood came to play a peculiarly serendipitous role in his life; never more so than when one of his idols, John Huston, made it possible for him to complete Pather Panchali. And thus it happened that this most famous of contemporary Indian films premiered not in Kolkata or Mumbai, but in New York. It was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in April 1955, to a small invited audience.


Pather Panchali was released in the U.S. (by Edward Harrison) in September 1958 at New York's Fifth Avenue Theatre. The release was the occasion of Ray's first visit to the country: he was then thirty-seven. The reception of the film was by no means uniformly enthusiastic. As Ivory describes it: 'There was a famous review by Bosley Crowther which was meant to have been such a putdown. I read that again the other day and actually he was trying to like it. He was baffled, he made false assumptions, he didn't really know what to say, but he had to admit that he knew or felt, somehow, dimly that there was something great there and he better not say something too bad about it. And apparently there were many many people who wrote angry letters about his review.'

Thirty-one years later, in Columbia University's Butler Library, I dug up a copy of an interview that Ray gave to Howard Thompson (of the New York Times) on the day of the release. Ray evidently made quite an impression on Thompson: 'A strapping swarthy chap, with strong features, he (Ray) talks like a realistic poet, without the slightest foreign accent, looking fresh from the American gridiron.'
Thompson continues: 'On the day after his arrival he (Ray) stepped inside a fashionable hotel dining room, comfortably clad in occidental garb, and gamely stooped to let the head waiter pin on a Plaza tie. Presently, wearing a casually alert expression, the big rangy Calcuttan sat at a table, opening a package of cigarettes with long, tapering fingers. He had been up early, he said, just walking, camera in hand, an old habit of 'an old film fan''.

This is how Ray described the filming of Pather Panchali to Thompson: 'We shot in and around Calcutta, then had to stop for six months because I was flat broke. I even sold part of my record collection, some old seventy-eights of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - and part of my wife's jewelry, not that her mother knew. All that was shown again to the same [financiers]. No reaction. Then a year's gap'.

Ray was able to continue filming only because of an unlikely intervention: a powerful West Bengal politician, reputed to be 'close' to one of Ray's aunts, authorized a grant from the state government. He was under the impression evidently, that Pather Panchali was a documentary about community development.

In response to a question about the future of Indian film, Ray told Thompson: 'I don't know if our pictures generally will ever spread to a world market, though we have two or three young directors with the right ideas. Our industry centers productionally in Bengal, Madras and Bombay, but those from Bengal are better, more serious. As for why you don’t see more of ours - well, we have our own problems and we’re not so sure Westerners care.'

'The generous mouth widened slightly', Thompson continues. 'Do you?' he inquired. The penetrating brown eyes twinkled pensively.''


Looking back now, I am more than ever aware of the part that Ray played in shaping the imaginary universe of my childhood and youth. I see this even in such details as my interest in science and science fiction; in ghost stories and the fantastical. One of my favourite Ray films to this day, remains Paras Pathar ('The Philosopher's Stone'), a neglected masterpiece that deserves a place of honour in the canon of surrealist cinema. When I saw Agantuk ['The Stranger', in which the main character is an anthropologist] I began to wonder whether my interest in anthropology too, owed something, perhaps subconsciously, to Ray: I recalled suddenly that references to anthropology go back to some of his earliest work, starting with the African mask in Apur Sansar.

Ray's influence extended even to the material world that I inhabited in my early years; a world which he formed to a quite astonishing degree through his influence on typography and through his visual style - a style that was itself a development on the distinctive design traditions of Bengal. That he could exert such great influence was due in part to the fact that his work extended and developed the legacy of the generations preceding his. His greatness as an artist is in no way diminished by the fact that he was a rivet in an unbroken chain of aesthetic and intellectual effort that stretches back to the mid-nineteenth century - a chain in which I too am, I hope, a small link.

Ray was for me, not just a great artist; he was something even rarer: an artist who had crafted his life so that it could serve as an example to others. In a world where people in the arts are often expected, even encouraged, to be unmindful of those around them, he was exemplary in his dealings with people. This was, I think, one of the reasons why he was able to sustain his creative energies for as long as he did: because he refused to make a fetish of himself. As a student I had heard him speak on several occasions: it always seemed to me that there was something very private about his manner. I had the sense that it was by holding the world at arm's length that he had managed to be as productive as he had. This was a stance I respected then and respect even more today, now that I am more aware of how easy it is to be distracted by the demands of public life.

Ray was consistent in fighting off the pressures of the wider world. After the success of Pather Panchali he was feted by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. It was a measure of his integrity that he never allowed their praise and attention to distract him from his own projects. Unlike many other film-makers in India, Ray consciously avoided seeking government financing for his projects, preferring to raise the money from commercial sponsors. He was always deeply aware of his audience in Kolkata and gloried in the discipline they imposed on him - primarily that of keeping his work accessible. This meant that he could never permit himself the luxury of avant-gardism in the manner of his European contemporaries such as Fellini, Bergman and Godard: nor indeed did he ever want to. To the end one of his greatest strengths was his ability to resolve enormously complex plots and themes are resolved into deceptively simple narrative structures.

My favorite Ray story is one I came upon soon after I learnt of the appalling human cost of Werner Herzog's ' Fitzcarraldo'. Once, while filming an overhead shot, a falling piece of machinery gravely injured a studio-hand who was working on one of Ray's sets. Ray never used an overhead shot again.


In 1992 when Hollywood awarded him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Ray was so ill that he received the award lying in his hospital bed. The scene was broadcast on TV and when I saw it I realized that Ray's illness was so serious that he might not recover. I had always assumed that I would meet Ray one day, but I had never made an effort to seek him out. He was such an integral part of my imaginative world that I'd fought shy of meeting him face-to-face: what can one possibly say to someone to whom one owes so great a debt? In 1989 and 1990 I had had several telephone conversations with him. In one of them he'd told me that he had greatly enjoyed my first novel, The Circle of Reason. Now I saw that it was I who had been remiss in expressing my admiration and gratitude. In light of his condition this assumed a sudden urgency. I decided to write a letter to Ray, asking if I could visit him. My letter began:

Dear Mr Ray,
I have wanted to write to you for many years now, but have always put it off because I knew it would not be easy to say what I wanted to...

It ended:

The Japanese have a custom which allows people to pay homage to artists they admire by standing outside their houses, alone and in silence, until they are invited in. You are the only person in the world for whom I would gladly do that...

The letter was dated February 6, 1992. I gave it to Shri Nirmalya Acharya, a close associate of Ray's and himself one Kolkata's legendary literary figures (now sadly deceased and much-missed by all who knew him). Nirmalya-babu promised to hand it to Ray once he was well enough to read. Alas that day never came: Satyajit Ray died on April 23 1992.

The day of Satyajit Ray's death was like none that Kolkata had ever seen before. When the news began to spread, a pall of silence descended on the city. Next morning hundreds of thousands of people filed past his body, braving the intense heat. In the evening when his body was taken to the crematorium, the streets were thickly lined with people standing in silent vigil. Many held up placards which referred to him as ' The King'. The whole city was sunk in an inexpressible sadness: everybody knew that an era had ended, and with it, Kolkata's claim to primacy in the arts. The city was orphaned: its king was gone and there was none to take his place.

I wandered the streets for hours that night, watching the silent crowds, reading the placards. I was surprised by the depth of my own sense of loss. Yet I was conscious also of an immense sense of privilege, of gratitude, that having been born in Kolkata I had, in some small way, been endowed with a special entitlement to Ray's universe; gratitude at having had his work to illuminate my surroundings and my past. This is what the narrative arts do, at their very best: they shape the world as they relate them. To this day Ray's work is one of the main anchors that moors me - often despite myself - to the imaginative landscape of Bengal: indeed, to the essential terrain of my own work. Amitav Ghosh
June 3, 2004

Amitav Ghosh (born 1956), is an Indian-Bengali author and literary critic known for his work in the English language.

The article is posted from the above source. We will keep following up with more rarer essays, reviews or features on the blog from India( writer, filmmakers, critics) and also more translated works.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Enduring Images:- Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

Time has always wiped away insipid, imitative images made for non-creative purposes. Such knowledge gives strength to those of us who decide to delve into the secret second world that exists deep in our dreams and to send signals to the world through images which very often are personal and pure. BUDDHADEB DASGUPTA writes.

For a long time now, our collective consciousness has been increasingly surrounded by surrogate images of life as the politician or the ad-man would have us see it. They are intrinsically dull. They do not excite us, inspire us or communicate meaningful experiences of life to us. They are created and seen more from the point of view of consumerism than as an expression of ideas from one who has the vision of a poet.

This trend is dangerous. Already, meaningful images are being shunted to the sidelines while transparent or imitative ones have been force-paced onto a fast-track. These are more acceptable now as they are instantly communicative and demand no extra attention from those who see them. But they lack the strength to return to the viewer’s reverie, and soon get lost in oblivion.

However, images which might seem to some to be too complex and non-communicative, may lead others to mysterious journeys into the world of true creativity. I am ready to return to the images in the early paintings of Bikash Bhattacharya or Satyajit Ray’s film from the fifties to the mid-seventies for countless times. Yet the images they created later on are not meaningful to me. They have no redolence. They fail to contribute anything to that secret second world from where a person returns to write poems, compose music or create enduring images.

In a creative process where the forms of expression are through images, one must journey to secret second worlds that one can still find in nature, in music, in great poetry or even in mysterious silences and through ones’ own experiences with time and dream. A painter or a filmmaker tries to relate those images directly or indirectly with their themes of expression and shape them to that form wherein they have lost their origins and, with definite identities, have become the images of the creator.

Myths, sometimes unknowingly, contribute a great deal to giving such images their separate identities. In the indelible death scene of Indir Thakrun in Pather Panchali, the director simply shows us a vessel rolling down into a pond. The unique meaning of this scene can immediately be identified with the Hindu tradition of breaking an earthen pot when someone dies... and symbolically releasing the long-pent soul. Ray’s Devi is another example, particularly the last scene. In some of Ritwik Ghatak’s films mythological names have deliberately been given to the female characters. Ray and Ghatak made a significant contribution to the liberation of Indian celluloid images from a state of mediocrity and lack of expressiveness.

In many of the films of Bergman, there are scenes directly related to Biblical myths. The myths of Islam have frequently been fielded in the films of Mohsen Makhmal Baf of Iran. There are similar examples in films from other Islamic countries. Even in the works of some of our important painters, myths mysteriously dominate the images. From Abanindranath Tagore to Ganesh Pyne, religious myths can repeatedly be traced. In recent years, folk and tribal images have strangely dominated the imagery of painters like K. G. Subrayanan, Madhbi Parekh and Jayashree Chakrabarty. Folk and tribal myths have also inspired some film directors.

In Ghatak’s Ajantrik, we have seen the images of Oraon tribes. In Kanchan Sita by Aravindan, tribal motifs have been used to tell a story from the Ramayana. A viewer without any knowledge of these myths as reflected in different forms of the images may not identify them and in the process fail to respond to them. If he is a culturally ill-prepared professional critic, he often negates or condemns those images and attempts to destroy them forever for his readers.

The concept of universality of images comes from a confused notion of distance. One can reach a far-away place within a short time by flying, but he cannot change the distance. Truffaut failed to relate with the celluloid images of Pather Panchali and left the theatre half-way through. He did it because he had never experienced such images. Years later, Truffaut sat through the film and made some encouraging comments on it. But did he really identify those images, or did he just say something for the sake of saying something? Images, when not personal, can always be identified with religion, history, country, region and finally with language. So a set of images offered by a particular religion or a region always bears a separate identity as they are rooted to a particular culture and ethos. A painter or a filmmaker who is part of that culture uses them knowing full-well and almost intuitively their significance. He or she has grown up with those images and can identify them consciously or subconsciously.

A filmmaker can also go beyond such images and create ones which are purely personal and can only be related to his own time and his own dream. The paintings of Rabindranath Tagore are an example of how images can be related to a personal time, consciousness and subconsciousness and finally to a dream. They must have come to us straight from that secret second world where he actually lived. But such images also reflect the crises of the contemporary human situation as comprehended by a creative person. In the self-portraits of many great painters, the pain and anguish of their faces can be related to particular situations of their times. The personal images certainly reflect the inner core of the creator and contain the essence of the human situation in which he lives and creates. The images in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are equally personal but can always be identified with the first-hand history of images created by people of a different culture, religion and country.

Images narrating a tale are more readily acceptable than those which tend to become obscure because they refuse to narrate. Non-narrative images run the risk of getting rejected immediately as they are non-traditional and so have not been previously experienced by their viewers. But narrative images can rise above themselves and be stunningly and successfully different from the traditional, expected, run-of-the-mill structure that the narrative may seek to impose upon them! The films of Dziga Vertov or the images in Bikash Bhattacharya’s early paintings are examples of this.

The state and the media have generally promoted images which are transparent, derivative and often lifted from second or third-hand experience. They do this deliberately because of the mass, easy acceptability of such images and to divert the attention of the populace from their true crises. These things have short-term commercial value. But Time has always wiped away insipid, imitative images made for non-creative purposes. Such knowledge gives strength to those of us who decide to delve into the secret second world that exists deep in our dreams and to send signals to the world through images which very often are personal and pure.
(Courtesy, The Statesman)


Director's Profile

Merchant of Dreams

One of the the primary goals of the blog has been to share some important essays, article written by prominent filmmakers of our country, earlier we had Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s words on John Abrhaman, and now Buddadeb Dasgupta on the enduring power of images. Hopefully, soon enough we will having more translated works and articles posted.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Naalu Pennungal(Four Women)

The screening of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s film Naalu Pennungal(Four Women) was an event to remember, especially because the master himself was their to introduce his film, and answers question (sadly, most people, left once the screening got over), but I managed to ask a question, to which the master obliged, and even Nandita Das- one of the chosen few outside of Kerala to work(act) in his film.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan has remained a shy person ever since his college days. Perhaps, unlike most filmmakers he prefers his movies to do the talking, but I noticed few important things which has remained a strong presence in all his films; his films are deeply rooted in the tradition and history of Kerala also his movies are honest representation of the era, the people, and the characters he portrays on screen.


Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the veteran Malayalam director grew up reading the short stories of T. S. Pillai, one of the towering figures of Malayalam literature, his short stories were a stark portrayal of the society he lived in. Since everything he saw, he felt, he witnessed became a part of his stories. As T.S. Pillai presented the realities of life, as it stood, from the day to day vagrants, to the complexity of social feudalism. Everything in the fictitious world felt just like living and breathing the atmosphere he talked about, and his stories achieved the status quo of social –realism.

The narrative of the film, Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) is derived from four different short stories set in 1940s to 1960s Kerala, India. The thin line binding all these four stories is the central woman figure whose impression from the first to the final tale is that of growth, mark and progress of women in South India; told in such sublime and humane manner that most people would miss the subtle nuances of this remarkable film. Yet the film is not feminist in nature, since Adoor Gopalakrishan is more concerned in portraying the era and the fine details it holds regarding the rituals, patterns of society than just to present a story regarding the power and will of womanhood. Irrespective of the fact, that he took his liberties in exercising what should be seen and what remains unseen( the missing text) and what remained- the earthly nature of the film, which in all due, is as much powerful to what is portrayed (the role and growth of the woman).

The narrative progresses on a very harmonic scale where each story from its beginning of The Prostitute (Padmapriya) , which is about a woman who decides to get married and eventually imprisoned for not having the right documents for marriage, a proper home to live and background to show. In the story of ' The Spinster (Nandita Das)' a woman irrespective of having all materialism evoked in the first story remains on her own- free, independent, and without the need of the man; a social implication thought to be the most important grail for the survival and protection of women.

The two stories in between of The Virgin (Geethu Mohandas) and The Housewife (Manju Pillai) function as catalyst to help the woman progress and evolve from the first to the last tale. The Virgin is about a woman who gets married to a man, and who until the end of the short remains busy in his own rituals of life: watching films, business, and his mannerism of eating, but does not touch the woman. And the preceding story of The Housewife, is about a woman who is childless only to be visited by her childhood friend who insists on helping her bore a child; yet she remains elusive to his demands. All four stories though distinct in its nature are connected through patterns and rituals directly reflecting the everyday realities and social condition of Kerala.

What then binds all these four short stories into nuts of progress and absence when seen from the impressionistic view of a woman? It’s the slow digression of the man from the muted presence to the final exclusive absence that functions as the common motif which binds these four short stories together. The first story where the man though taking up The Prostitute as his wife is nothing but a utter reflection of her fate: no home, no shelter in short a very much muted absence of her own existence, when the story moves to The Virgin, the man here though possess a dominant presence through the story yet remains mutually elusive to provide solace and love to the woman.

In the story of The Housewife the man becomes a neglected catalyst of impotent, where the woman irrespective of keeping on with her virtue kept swaying between the “other” and her “virtue” though she keeps with the virtue by the end of the film; but her mere absence in the final shot as the camera pans across, along with the last lines of the story shows the shine of regret when she staggers the line “ I’m stressed”, after she declines her classmate offer to bore her a child.

And by the time the film manifest into the final stage of The Spinster the theme and pattern are very clear; as here, the woman has grown, through tides, experience, and virtue and eventually reconciles with the belief- that a man is not necessary for her survival, keeping out the final knock or call of the man whom she wanted to swing and the borders of chastity. Eventually her final decline closes the chapter of this remarkable film, since it’s not the woman who has progressed but the humane (soul) in her which has grown stronger. Since for a woman to live alone, even today, is a herculean task, something which society does not see eye-to eye. Perhaps, nothing much has changed that’s the reason even though the story is set in an era long gone, it still resonates very much the way society stands- poor people and underprivileged are still crushed each day, and women still remain the two dominant figure of the male psyche “mother” and the “whore”.

There is an almost organic growth to the overall film which is linked with the foundation on which the film is based: representing the pure essence of Kerala and its people. Although, the visual style of the film gives it a very lush look and it’s remarkably appealing, but the organic growth and the relation of the intricate pacing of its characters are directly linked with the music and rituals of the society. The music of film directly infuses the sound of nature in the film. Adoor Goplakrishana has always worked with a detailed sound script, making sure that each element of sound echoes the pureness of the actual filmed space, so irrespective of the dramatic music cues, the beauty lies in the listening to the diegetic sound of the omnipresence of the crooning of the crow, the signing of the koel, the chirping of other birds and several other nature creation and habitat form a core part of the nature of Kerala( like the common motif of the boatman rowing through the backwaters, where the sound of the oar hitting the river bed, and the silence, gesture of the characters along with the presence of nature, makes its all to beautiful). Something we take for granted each day but such moments are presented in the film with such poeticism that each scene emotes the freshness of the leaves, the smell of the freshwater lakes, and the cycle of food habits shown with full color and pattern in the film.

It’s such small details which make the film special; the passing of time from one short to the other can only be understood when one pays a close heed to the dialogues or patterns of rituals within a scene. For eg: the shift from The Housewife to the The Spinster can only be judged by the opening dialogue of Post- Independence India or how the knot is tied by woman, or how two distinct marriage in two stories The Virgin and The Spinster highlights the jump in time (the first where the marriage is shown sitting, the latter on a stool) .

It’s such small details which forms an coherence of his mise-en-scene; in how organically it progresses between space and time. Even the acting which appears natural because of his ability to mould his actors as part of the environment without even giving them a proper cue or script, and just detailed gestures, a certain “pattern’ of delivering the linguistics (a reason he never prefers to take an actor other than from Kerala) since the cognizance of the culture the film is being made is important.

This gives him the freedom to put his actor part of the surrounding space, so that once s(he) adapts to the surrounding the mis-en-scene helps in creating unison between the space and the subject, that’s when the “star” disappears into “the actor” a common folk, someone whom we bump into everyday. However, Nandita Das who played The Spinster was an exception; she did not belong to the South Indian milieu, but she blend perfectly in the role.

Similarly, the way he treats his characters as part of the crowd rather than giving them a central space; which most movies mutually reserve for them marks a special contrast in his mise-en-scene. Another important scene at the beginning of the film shows a clear picture how he treats his subject with a certain amount of objectivity; where he is capturing the realities unfolding; rather than puncturing the realities before him. When the Prostitute decides to pick stones for a good living, for more than two minutes of screen time we are treated with a montage where there is almost no presence of her (yet her absence) makes her presence much more powerful.

So when she is finally revealed after a couple of shots, we are aware that she has been working hard, and what is shown is pure work and endeavor taking place, without pinning us into facade of watching a filmed space. Any other film would have began with an establishing shot of the subject or move towards them, but this is one core difference how Adoor Gopalakrishnan treats his subject- to mould them part of the surrounding space, even if, it’s bifurcated by the choice of angle or gaze. But it’s this gaze and angle which makes his mise-en-scene special, where even when dealing with a fiction he is treating his subject as part of everyday reality, transposing an era to the current time and space without losing out on any details something he owes to his vast experience in documentaries and the improvisation and delation of Kathakali.

Four Woman is a special film in all disciplines of the cinematic art form, whether you watch the film as an onlooker who is mere witness to the incident; a passer-by who hears about the incident; or an active participant( who takes a stand by looking into the incident( the mise-en-scene), each and every form would in turn be special, because of the universal appeal this films holds. Not only in its global nature regarding the treatment of women, but also how we humans behave, whether we stay in Kerala, New York or Paris. But the only difference is the slides of liberation and the mind set of the civilization, which though separates our linguistics and cognition, yet keeps us made of the same substance- earth, water, fire and air.

Cross-published on Cinema Without Borders

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ORE KADAL: In search of sea within

Supriya Suri

Directed by
Shyam Prasad.
Meera Jasmine,
Ramya Krishnan

ShyamPrasad, having achieved kudos for his first film Agnisaakshi, for which he received the National Award, ventured into his third project with Ore Kadal, an adaption from a novel Heerak Deepti writen by Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhya. His films usually deal with themes, that of, love and redemption.

The book might have been written way back, which Satyajit Ray once dreamt of making into a film, it was finally by Shyam Prasad that the novel was put on screen but with a modern touch. It was not something new for the director since all his past films were an adaptation from a novel or play.

The film had wonderful performances by the very well known Mammootty and Meera Jasmine; both of them have also been winners of the national award. It talks about the growing relationship between two people, Dr. Nathan, an economist, also an alcoholic and Deepti, a simple middle class house wife. It was not quite surprising out of a woman, leading a simple life, living in poverty to fall for intelligence. Her fall was more of physical leading onto an emotional one. While on the other hand, Nathan still believed in living an isolated life, without love, busy with dealing the issues of poverty and finding solutions for them. Soon the values and the ethics dawn upon Deepti, when she confesses his love for him and Nathan is still running away from love, she decides to never meet him again. And the movie raises questions about the pathos in a relationship? Whether having a physical relationship is a sin or not? How does a human decide what’s right in this world and what’s wrong? What are the restrictions that are imposed in a relationship? The question of betrayal and loyalty and trust. Well this movie is more a film that evokes questions than delivering a message.

Deepti continues with her life and Nathan goes on travelling for work. She gets pregnant and is about to give birth to Nathan's child. After his return, she does go to meet him in a hope. His refusal to her once again gets her more firm this time to never come back while he is still oblivious about his own child. Deepti gives birth to a girl, but finds it extremely difficult to overcome her guilt, the fact that she’s unable to share such a thing with anyone around her. She deals with the entire situation inside her, the sense of being loaded with something that needs to be off a her mind and shared with someone, her rejection of being loved the way she wanted to be, gets her mentally unstable and she goes on to recover through a medical treatment.

While she's on her trip to recovery, Nathan goes through his life major transformation and starts changing as a human- indulging more and more into alcohol. He feels the need of being loved by someone, he realizes the isolation he was living in, that how important it is in a society to be with another person, how interdependent we humans are, and to live one needs another person to be happy. He waits for her, there's a sense of longing.

After her recovery, Deepti returns home with a promise's to live a true and an honest life and that she’s learnt from her mistake to not get into such a thing again. She starts leading a normal life, and finds strength in God by praying everyday. Soon Nathan visits her and she resists by not opening the door, but finally looses all her strength, indicated by the broken god pictures we see all over.

At last she again breaks her promise and returns to Nathan, where he reciprocates to love, commitment which he once rejected. The movie deals with a possibility of falling in love after having the physical relationship first.

Ore Kadal is a sublime, powerful and refreshing filmmaking- where the treatment allows the film to transcend boundaries, and the film proves, yet again, that their is plenty of good films beyond Bollywood.


Friday, June 6, 2008

The Opening of Misty Beethoven

Directed by Radley Metzger (as Henry Paris)
Produced by Radley Metzger
Written by Jake Barns
Starring Constance Money, Jamie Gillis
Jacqueline Beaudant, Gloria Leonard Terri Hall
Music by George Craig Gioacchino Rossini

How do you categorize a film considered to be one of the greatest ‘hardcore’ adult film ever made? Since, Pornography is everywhere; today, and it’s available in all forms, and desires, at the click of a button. Somewhere down the line, the latitude of ‘making love’ has been bastardized into a single act of ‘excessive’ arousal through a medium of fake emotions, close cuts, and stimulating male gaze. And having seen the film in an era where ‘pornography’ and its inherent dimension are omnipresence, and somewhere down the line, we ourselves, have become an object of gaze. Since everyone is looking for the ‘real’; something which gives them the power to witness intimate encounter beyond their own capacity, but at the same, allows them to fulfill their desires.

In between countless such films, and materials, where does this film exist? First of all, on surface, this film differs in key areas from every other film in this genre, and at the same, it sublimates the overall notion of being stereotyped into this genre perse. The Opening Of Misty Beethoven has sleek set design, features an interesting plot line, has a relatively higher budget (this is evident in the entire film, through the various location: Rome, New York, Paris, the art deco, the costumes, the lighting, camera).

One of the fundamental differences between this film and countless other films in a similar genre is that it never presents the whole set –pieces (stages of sexual encounters) as a catalyst for excessiveness. Every encounter felt like an act of desire, without the phony impression that what you watching is made just to stimulate you. Instead it gave the feeling that what you watching will stimulate you, but at the same time, there is a plot to follow, you listen to the characters (for the first time, the volume was on a considerable level while watching such a film, because they needed to be heard). This is one of the first Porn films to have composed music, and during a key moment, a very interesting song elevates the rhythm and pace of the whole scene.

The film begins with a sleek intercut and moves rapidly in with varying degree of streamlined editing from rhythmic jump cuts, to well choreographed mise-en-scene( sequence shots with rhythmic montage dominates the overall pacing of the film. This is largely due to the genius of Radley Matizger who directed this film under a pseudonym, Henry Paris. It was his background in editing and directing, as well as, his know of, cinematic technique and influence that he could present a film as The Opening of Misty Beethoven with such professionalism and vision. Yet, I’m sure; this film would offend a lot of people (I mean not everyone can see it with the same eye, even though, behind the veil, it’s all there). Perhaps, there is an underlying fault in the film since it tries to amalgamate two distinct poles: porn and quality where no matter how ‘great’ are its attributes it would still not be able to gain the respect.

The basic plot of the movie lies in training Misty Beethoven (who the sex expert Seymour Love finds in a theater) into a super prostitute (he keeps tipping her, and there is a an entire montage dedicated to her training regime) to seduce a dirty magazine mogul in an annual ball, but what follows in an annual ball after sheer glances is something which I personally had never seen on screen, the first pegging. I know, not everyone, even today, could digest such a film (by ‘digest’ I mean, create a sense that what he is watching is a ‘solid film’ and not just an act of pornography). Since this is something which is extremely difficult in today’s world' with mass proliferation of images both sexual and asexual (which in all its norms is still trying to entice (though with the absence), that people don't have the time to read between lines, and everything is bluntly categorized between ying and yang erasing any trace of the middle path. Though the plot and the overall concept of the film is derived from the Pygmalion mythology and My Fair Lady it still manages to branch out and invent an own idiom of progression (by taking the ideas of these two tales and infuses them with a tale much myriad and dense, and by all accounts liberating, and taboo breaking.

Their is a distinct imagery which is recurring in this film; the image of the passion and desire of woman, oozing and enjoying through every minute of the intimate encounter- this is something one does not see in mainstream or porn films. Since a lot of movies tend to turn ' women' desires and fulfillment into male testosterone, where the basic ' image' of the women, the harmonic sound of their ' voice' is turned into a catalyst for men stimulation. And this is another ' key' area where this film shines in portraying woman enjoying one of the most important aspects of living, without the pretence nature of faking everything, due to the conscious presence of the ' gaze', and the every conscious predicament to satisfy.

The Opening of Misty Beethoven is surprising in all departments. The actors could act, the cinematography was crisp, the art direction minimalzed yet sublime, the costumes par with most mainstream films, and the topics it dealt with; from adultery to homosexuality were far ahead of its time, everything in the film evokes ‘ quality’ and it stands as a solid film. The opening dialogue of the film sums up the entire mood, gesture, attitude of the whole film, when Seymour Love talks to Misty Beethoven for the first time”:

“What’s you name”, Sam asks.
“Misty Beethoven,” she replies
“Is that your real name?”
“Misty isn’t my real name,” she tells him. “I changed it to sound more important.”
“From what?” Seymour asks.
“Dolores Beethoven.”
I should have guessed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rediscovering the Gaze: Dhrupad


While watching Mani Kaul's Documentary – Dhrupad, where one of Dagar brothers is reciting a raga and is completely focused, but suddenly he [vocalist] becomes conscious of the camera and people around him. He looks directly at the camera - the gaze [not a deliberate one, but the director kept this as it is] transpose the master from a world outside our realm into a mere human being, as if, to show, that he is vulnerable as much like us. The Camera captures the ' Gaze', and disrupts the unison that the Master instills between him and heavenly blessing, here he becomes a mere subject being photographed and captured
Realism - subjective or orchestrated?

The Documentary starts with a Sutradhar [played by young Vinod Nagpal, a Talented Actor].the director’s intention are to describe/elaborate a classical form of music - Dhrupad.whenever you are making a documentary, usually the practice is to describe/lecture/demonstrate/educate the viewer. It is as if one is viewing something from a distance - Realism? Subjective & orchestrated - recording reality (usually we assume that parties involved in a documentary are not aware of the camera recording their activity, [natural?] but infact they are) - that gaze provides objectivity [although momentarily] to this documentary. Did this ‘Gaze’ just happened, or was Mani Kaul, who himself a trained teacher and practioneer of the art form, placed deliberately. Since, this is the only standing point in the Documentary when the whole atmosphere of transcendence- the ragas, the purity, hangs on becoming who we are.

Gazing and seeing someone gaze upon another provides us with a lot of information about our relationship to the subjects, or the relationships between the subjects upon whom we gaze, or the situation in which the subjects are doing the gazing. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device called the Interrotron which allowed his interview subjects to make direct eye contact with Morris while simultaneously looking directly into the filming camera. It allows the film's viewers to maintain eye contact with the people in Morris' films, giving what some describe as a more intimate acquaintance with them.

Scroll down to watch the Documentary, and read the ‘ Director’s Excerpt.

Rediscovering the Gaze: Dhrupad


(Realism- Subjected or Orchestrated?)

While watching Mani Kaul's Documentary – Dhrupad, where one of Dagar brothers is reciting a raga and is completely focused, but suddenly he [vocalist] becomes conscious of the camera and people around him. He looks directly at the camera - the gaze [not a deliberate one, but the director kept this as it is] transposes the Master from a world outside our realm into a mere human being, as if, to show, that he is vulnerable as much like us. The Camera captures the ' Gaze', and disrupts the unison that the Master instills between him and heavenly blessing, and here he becomes a mere subject being photographed and captured.

The Documentary starts with a Sutradhar [played by young Vinod Nagpal, a talented actor].The Director’s intention are to describe/elaborate a classical form of music - Dhrupad. Whenever you are making a documentary, usually the practice is to describe/lecture/demonstrate/educate the viewer. It is as if one is viewing something from a distance - Realism? Subjective & orchestrated - recording reality (usually we assume that parties involved in a documentary are not aware of the camera recording their activity, [natural?] but infact they are) - that gaze provides objectivity [although momentarily] to this documentary.

Gazing and seeing someone gaze upon another provides us with a lot of information about our relationship to the subjects, or the relationships between the subjects upon whom we gaze, or the situation in which the subjects are doing the gazing. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device called the Interrotron which allowed his interview subjects to make direct eye contact with Morris while simultaneously looking directly into the filming camera. It allows the film's viewers to maintain eye contact with the people in Morris' films, giving what some describe as a more intimate acquaintance with them.

BD.Garga on Dhrupad:

Dhrupad, a 72-minute long film which features two famous masters, the Dagar brothers of Dhrupad school of Indian classical music, is truly a pioneering work in the sense that nothing quite like this had been attempted before. It not only captures for us, and posterity, the magical quality of the two great masters' voices, but provides a valuable clue to the evolution of their art with its beginning in tribal music; Mani Kaul puts forth the argument that tribal music had two aspects: one concerned itself with ritualistic hymns and the other related to changing seasons, as also birth, marriage, death, etc. While the folk music stayed in the villages, the ritualistic music evolved into classical music and moved to the courts. In a simple yet effective structure, the film opens on the historical monuments at Gwalior, Agra, Amber and Mandu to the accompaniment of veena* recital. It is in this setting that the great Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar explains the intricacies of Dhrupad style. The concluding passage of the film is on a panoramic shot of Bombay as the music reared in the courts of princely states undergoes a subtle change in a vastly different, industrialised milieu. Shot with immense love and care for tone, texture and colour, it is a landmark film.

B.D. Garga
In "Cinema in India", Vol. II, No. 2, April-June, 1988, pp. 32-36..

Mani Kaul.
Scroll down few posts to watch the Documentary.