Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gulabi Talkies

Gulabi is no pin-up model, yet her smile still lingers in my memory even after the movie and the Osian film festival long ended. She seemed so rooted in the ethos of her culture that almost all her gestures in the film are universal in their portrayal and reflection on life. The way she ate, the way she talked, the way she walked and the way she behaved formed a ritual play of gestures and expression unlike any other. The foundation on which the film explores the duality of human behavior- setting a story of an individual against a large socio-economic and political scenario makes this a remarkable and a masterfully conceived film. This very theme also forms a major backdrop for the eleven odd films directed by the master Girish Kasaravalli.

Gulabi Talkies is a film in transit, where every second of screen time reveals something about who we really are, beneath it all. Gulabi who is an expert mid-wife is neglected by a number of people for being a Muslim woman, but she still manages to make a space in the heart for all. But space in the heart does not translate into “action”, and a number of issues prompted during the course of the film are due to the absence of this particular trait of our very own kind. And sometime when action actually occurs, the society forms a horde to pull down curtains on any form of freedom, other than the one formulated under the social framework. What we see on the film reflects the lives and rituals of thousand families who live on the shores, but what reflects in their social behavior and gestures holds true from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Gulabi leads a lonely life, her husband is happily married to his second wife, so she spends her time watching films, yet she manages to be fill every space she crosses with happiness and joy. From the opening shot of the film where we she her characteristic smile with the slight dimple on her left cheek down to the final shot of the film, she remains who she is: calm, complacent, happy, naïve and strong.

Gulabi Talkies is adapted from a book on women written by the Kannada writer, Vaidehi and the preoccupation of Vaidehi are well materialized on the screen, as she worked towards exemplifying through the written text- the social atrocities on women, and her very basic characters defied an act against the inflated male power ego. Girish Kasaravalli. worked with Vaidehi on the dialogues of the film, and even the smallest of conversation is full of echoes of love, sorrow, happiness and fears which are well carried from character to character. Gulabi who irrespective of having childlike naiveté in her expression has a solid inner soul to stand against various injustices still prevailing in this patriarchal dominated Indian society. Gulabi through her course of actions, gestures, defiance( by leaving alone) even after her husband abandoned her, forms an image of a post modernist woman who without the basic imagery of hollow looks, empty talks, and pro-feminist evocation achieves something which is still very much suppressed in the society. And the basic power of her could be felt in the young woman who runs away from her mother-in-law house to find her dreams.

To see Gulabi in action from being an expert mid-wife, to savoring the hyped dramaturgy of television, and to even cherish the act of watching the same movie again and again raises countless questions within us, especially the one related to the most important aspect of humanity today- “ Money”. Gulabi who loves films, works as a mid-wife, has a very limited living amenities and materialism but still manages to suppress all our living luxuries, simply on the single most important and almost forgotten human tract- “To actually be happy, and “really” care for others”. Even when the world collides and falls against Gulabi she manages to form a gesture of non-expression so that we never actually manage to see her sadness, since she does not wish to show it. Yet, when she utters the words of final optimism in the film, even a drowning man would struggle for one last minute against the waves of death for survival.

Girish Kasarvalli weaves a multilayered film almost flawlessly; allowing the opposition of so many distinctive planes (space) and time frame co-exist in harmony. That is a major reason why the film achieves the basic dynamic of being in a constant motion. Like the regular rituals of fisherman going out to fish which slowly becomes a conscious aspect of our own senses When such repetition finally reaches it’s end, the final outcome does not need the backbones of filmed drama to create a tension, but a mere exchange of dialogue highlights the collapse of basic live hood of people. For example, when the fishermen revolt against the authorities regarding the illegal allowing of Gulabi’s husband Musa to fish unlike the normal timings, despite of the fact he is Muslim, their own social standing and conscious cut-throat nature for live hood on the fundamentalism of religion takes a beating on being informed that the government has allowed foreign ships to fish on the shores. The scene not only establishes the basic social framework of people, but it also highlights the important political and economic standings. And such political and social overbearing did affect the lives of thousand fishermen in the region. Girish Kasaravalli’s layered narrative weaves such schematic question silently without being loud.

This scene is layered and builds on the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, which has lot to say about our basic nature, it also highlights how much we mistrust each other simply on the basis of such credos, and today this paranoia has exceeded far beyond our own control. Something that could also be felt in the way the women in Gulabi’s neighborhood behaved. Until the moment Gulabi did not have a color television most women did not enter her house, but when she received a color TV along with cable connection, slowly they all came in packs, first standing and watching from the door and window, and then moving inside her home. But it’s a finally a single gesture captured during a similar scene which showed the façade in the smiles of people, when a woman is combing her daughter hair, she touches Gulabi in some form only to be slapped by her mother not to do so. This single act speaks in volume regarding the large population of our society in relation to seeing people of different religion in such light.

Each single space on which the stories is layered, and the characters, form the basic diegetic function to highlight the condition and plight of such people; we can witness the strong presence of social realism in Girish Kasaravalli’s mise-en-scene. The camera in most cases is mere observant of an ongoing action not dynamic and neither anticipatory static, but it functions more like a microscope used to observe the organism taking shapes and breaking away from unison. Sound plays an important aspect of the mise-en-scene especially through the use of diegetic medium of modern communication: radio and television, to show the various façade and veils of hypocrisy of human kind. Like how the women would never want to enter her house but would do so only on the presence of television in her home or the sudden return of her husband to her home just to see the television. This very act not only laughs at the way we humans are – to neglect the very living social organism and be a mere remote to the reproduction of mechanism.

Even the opinions expressed through the medium (media) affects the nature of human behavior. When Gulabi is walking on the street two small boys surround her asking for donation (on behalf of the Kargil War), when she declined, a man standing on the road offers them the donation and utters: “Why, would they give” in such a single act of dialogue the whole function and mentality of our society is condensed, especially the act of blindfolding on beliefs and stereotyping religion, caste, culture and creed. Like the whole notion of Indian marriage, where the family thinks that the parents have to get their daughters married to a “ rich” family to provide all happiness- an open act of prostituting usually hidden on various layers of protecting our still bourgeois and traditional values.

If it is Girish Kasaravalli who gave the film its basic fabric of living through his conceived mise- en- scene, then its Umashree who plays Gulabi gives this whole filmic space and time its life. She is the heart and soul of the film and it’s her energy which makes the engine run from beginning to end with full vigor, whether it’s her simple gesture of stealing a movie poster to stick on her hut, or simply sitting cross-legged to watch the television in her home. She brings Gulabi from the written text to screen alive, and it’s in the hands of a master that the written text does not akin to theater or literature but achieves a degree of pureness belonging solely to Cinema. It is ironic how the tides of plot take turns and moves about, but whatever the consequences and actions were taken; it resonated to who we actually are, and people like Gulabi have become rarer to find each and every day. Since the very act of being a “rebel” is against the basic norm of “society”. And even this society actually exists on a hollow bone, since what matters for them is very much to “self”, yet we always wonder why we so afraid of what others have to say about us, instead of existing individually and working towards others.

Gulabi Talkies is a remarkable film, which most of us would never actually get to see outside few chosen circles or in the home state of Karnataka. I was lucky enough to catch the film on the big screen in a festival- sadly the only place left for such works. Similarly when Gulabi part ways on boat to never land, the people are not bothered where she goes, but rejoice that the television would remain with them, and when two old ladies sit trying to switch on the television in an empty room…Girish Kasaravalli’s camera observes their basic ignorance from the outside, not only laughing at the eavesdropping of the ladies who had doses of comments on their regular off-screen voyeurism, but at the same highlights the mere hollowness of our souls in our own quest for materialistic spiritualism.

Cross-published on Cinema Without Borders

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na: Waiting for Godot

We often went to the movies. The screen lit up and we trembled…But more often than not Madeleine and I were disappointed. The pictures were dated, they flickered. And Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly. It made us sad. This wasn’t the film we’d dreamed of. This wasn’t the total film that each of us had carried within himself...the film we wanted to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live.

Paul, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin‑féminin

Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is a film of the 21st century, born under the eyes of the producers, marketed viciously under the lens of the PR team, hyped and buzzed to such a state that one is made to believe this one would be different from everything else being made in the country. But like many of its similitude’s in Bollywood, this film too is just a marketing gimmick. It does not have the naïve innocence or even a well carried narrative like QSQT(Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak), neither does it have well laid characters like Dil Chaatha Hai, nor does it have any foundation on which innocent love could be explored; something which this movie was to deal with, and to top it all, even the idea to slight alter the narrative with flashbacks serves no purpose, in short , its just another movie, another feel-good- Bollywood- film, but even in that department it’s a let down. Therefore, when the girl to whom the pure innocent and greatness of the couples love (Imraan Khan and Genelia D’ Souza) was narrated; she kisses them on their arrival (as she appear overwhelmed with the power of love); but it just seemed too rigid and fake, because the photographic character felt empathy towards their love, but this could not be felt outside the cinematic space, I personally, as an audience, felt a scorn for being cheated, after all, from the opening disorienting camera movement, with loud chatter, sudden zoom –out- shots, and quick cuts; we could guess what to expect- same old story, and same old mise-en-scene.

Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is about Jai Singh Rathore a.k.a Rats (Imraan Khan), a Rajput who doesn’t believe in violence and Aditi Mahant a.k.a Meow (Genelia D’Souza), a cute and violent girl. They are the inseparable friends in college who everyone thinks are happily in love. Things turn ugly when their parents decide to get them married, and they realize they are just friends. And never did they think of each other as lovers, so what follows next is something which has been repeated in Bollywood film chronicles ever since the dawn of our cinema and exactly in the same mannerism. I wonder why so many ingredients and sub-plot are inserted without purpose, instead of just exploring the duality, complexity of human nature especially the “youth” the film set out to depict.

The film is supposed to be a coming-of-age tale where the promises, insecurities, and the ever fleeting nature of love, friendship, the desire to seek and realize when one is young were to be shown- something one believed from looking at the trailers: the pepped up Jazz theme song, the semblance it had to our everyday realities, and the freshness it projected, but I didn’t know I would be duped. Except for few comic setups involving the trio of great actors: Naseerudin Shah(Jai’s dead father), Ratna Shah Phatak (Jai’s mum) , and Paresh Rawal(police inspector), the whole film is made up of witty lines, which sometimes are good, cute exchanges of names and gestures and, plot, which is pure laughable. Since, the film is a mixed bag; it tries to be funny; it tries to expose hidden emotion, and it also tries to capture the zeitgeist of our generation: through the use of lingo, setting and plot. But the reality is that it fails on most counts.

It is not a film about “youth” since even before their college lives could be explored- our characters graduate, leaving a void to explore the dead time and moments related very closely to our lives. And even their bonds of friendship are mainly narrated, but never shown building up, so we are already placed with paper cut characterization whose development through the films is stagnant. The entire college life is summed up in one single song and brief fight scene, which is mainly used to establish the characteristic of the protagonists, otherwise nothing much else happens in college. Hence the “graduation party” appears extremely plastic and one dimensional. Read Further

The article is an excerpt from my review on Cinema Without Borders web-zine

Friday, July 4, 2008


Directed - Govind Nihalani
Cast: - Naseerduddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri Winner of 6 Filmfare awards (it meant something back then)

Twenty minutes into the movie, and most of my friends started flinching in their seats, “Is that how a, ‘typical’ Indian art film is supposed to look and feel?” one of them said. I didn’t have an answer, how, an art film is supposed to look, but proposed to let the movie go on; since this was not the first time I had been screening films (originals) in our little flat here in Delhi, which usually followed up with some healthy discussion on the movies. When the film finally ended, most people in the small cramped room, didn’t say a word - but the very same friend who questioned the legitimacy of art, and laughed how Om Puri looked in the film, said in a very grave tone voice, “Nothing much has changed ever since”, true as he said - and he was absolutely right in his cumulative evaluation of the film- Nothing much has changed since the 80s when the film was released, and even today, the society functions large on crushing the morale and integrity of the weak, and succeeding on the plight and exploitation of the poor, and this very theme, layers of meaning and questions form the core of this remarkable film.

The films we seldom see on screen are very closely related with the realities of our lives, which most people tend to overlook. Personal problems are more important than the problem of others, which is valid, but one should not turn blind eye on matter other then our own. No wonder we see things in a long shot, but the day something happens to our sons, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, grand fathers, everything moves in an intricate tight close-up. This film does the very same, to slowly bind you into a tighter shot, from the film’s opening which is an interplay of close-up, and moves around the stoic face of Bhiku Lahanya( Om Puri) to the final freeze-frame of the film, where Public Prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri) and Advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni (Naseerduin Shah) have a very important conversation, which in two-three minutes of screen time, summarizes the socio-political history of our society, and show the deep-black-hole which is still inflicting us.

The film begins where most Hindi films would have ended or used as a tool within their narrative fulcrum to seek revenge, vengeance or simply ponder about mindless actions. Bhiku Lahanya (Om Puri), an Adivassi, has been convicted for the murder of his wife (Smita Patil) seen in the film in fragments, and beautiful as ever, and Advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni (Nasseruddin Shah) is defending him on behalf of the state, that provides lawyers to people who cannot afford the fees. Prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri) who, though from the social backward caste has rose to prominence as a Senior- Respected- Public Prosecutor, and he is standing right against Bhaskar Kulkarani who is defending a case for the first time, and who also happened to be the son of a prominent lawyer under whom Dushanae had worked and learned the nuances of the craft.

Each of the central character in the story holds and stands on their will and testament of morale - Bhiku Lahanya never speaks through the course of the film, the only time he ever really shows an emotion is when he lets out a cry, howl of helplessness in a very important and pivotal scene in the film. Bhaskar Kulkarani though portrayed as a rather clumsy and coward a number of times, holds on the principle of defending his client and standing for them, irrespective for what may come to him, by the end of the film, a major and an important character development and trace one sees in him, and Prosecutor Dushanbe irrespective for all his care and concerned for Bhaskar does not flinch and inch from his own idioms and principles regarding social changes and jurisdiction for him is a game of evidence and accidents.

Every joint (film) has a hinge (main character) which flows in a certain pace and time (narrative), and for this particular film the core narrative revolves and moves around the young advocate Bhaskar, played brilliantly by Naseerdudin Shah, simply because he brings in the naïve clumsiness one usually has when starting fresh on any project, and at the same time, the zeal and enthusiasm for change (young blood) is superbly reflected in the way the character has grown and reflected in the film. Since this is Bhaskar’s first case as an advocate, he does not leave any stone unturned and moves around everywhere on his indispensable bicycle to really form and solve the bits and pieces of the case. Incidentally from the very first, we as an audience are aware, how Bhiku Lahanya has not committed the murder, especially after details regarding the exploitation of the ‘Adivassis’ are seen and heard as the film gradually progresses, and the bits and pieces of information form the overall condition - socially and politically are witnessed.

Govind Nihlani has always worked with an existing novel, play, story; in this case by Vijay Tendulkar, but though the pre-occupation of the text has always been presented in the films, but at the same time his narrative is based or rather he as a filmmaker, weaves a certain alignment of formalism as barracks around which the core themes are grounded. It’s this balance of form and content which gives this film its sheer powerful energy; it functions as the engine of the film and gives the film its major horsepower to run: The trial session, investigation, the procedure, everything is not laid out in how a typical Hindi film session would work. He plays around and goes on details of a court procedure, this is the first Indian films I have seen; where the court procedure really feels like one - not many people sitting in the crowd, without the clichéd order-order, and the same recorded dialogues and procedures of thousand of Hindi films - which remarkably have been more often than not, based on similar themes or even more profound; but lacked the vision and the individuality and creative force of a creator to shape any of them. And rather is driven by a star, market or a certain genres typical to our Cinema.

Bhaskar Kulkarni rides around with his bicycle, which forms a close bond not only with the central character, but with the audience too, I for one, really formed an intimate connection with the humble bicycle, it just reminded me of a time and era long gone. And most of the time his ride forms a certain ritual, a pattern, whether he visits the social worker, who quips about revolution, the editor of a local newspaper, or meeting Bhiku Lahanya parents. Even meeting Bhiku Lahanya and asking him to speak really forms a collective dimension of narrative realism, since it’s not only about dealing with relevant powerful message seeking socio-political topics which makes a film profound - it’s how you build the foundation of each film. This film too is built on certain parameters of ritual and repetition; every card session in the film amongst the - Prosecutor, Politician, Doctor, head of Police and Contractor becomes a play of triviality of truth and deficit, between the real and façade.

Every word spoken, every laughter, every card thrown on the table echoes and mirrors thousand countless situation which exist as an unison between such group of men - whose goal to protect, serve, and their oath of truth flows down the drain when each of them take their respective roles and stand in their own temples of judgment. And finally it’s not anyone to blame, after all, it’s a long tradition of exploitation. Bhaskar search for the truth, his confusion, his anxieties is really shown in an amazing sequence shot which moves at such a beautiful pace of a song playing on the radio(digetic), one realizes how much the importance the whole case has got for him. This is one of the most non-dramatic powerful sublime moments in the film, away from the horror, the message, and the power and it really highlights the power and balance of mise-en-scene which Govind Nihlani weaves masterfully in the film.

The film can never be complete without mentioning the remarkable performance by Om Puri (Bhiku Lahanaya), just to emote without saying a word is a remarkable feat in itself. And he does it with remarkable composure, whether his surreal dream of his dead wife, his tryst with helplessness - seeing his wife being raped is so well portrayed, that one cannot help wonder how such a great actor has come down to doing all but mindless comedy roles. Govind Nihalani too has long moved away from such films into more masala-mainstream films to satisfy the orgy of mass audience. Perhaps, he does not believe any more in the power of questioning, searching, provoking, forming, creating, but giving or selling himself to the audience.

The film carries a powerful message, it shows and highlights very hair rising and throat choking moments. It plays and moves with the interplay of lights, and every block of movement within the space is Govind Nihalani’s attribute as a master filmmaker, but irrespective of carrying around with so much power, message, and a dire critique of the society we live in, it’s the small movements, gestures, moments, that make this a film a mirror which reverberates the world we live in. The court procedure, the card session, the bicycle rides, the naïve passion, the rigid society framework, the stoic weakling, and its ritual and repetitions that make this film even closer to the world and people us meet and events we read about. The characters in the films are reflection of our own lot, free from clichés, stereotypes and free from obligation, except that of, the repetition and the ontological framework of our very own kind: The way we are, and the way we shall be, come heaven or hell.

Rating: *****

- This is a re-post, as the review which was posted earlier, got deleted due to some technical reasons.