Monday, December 15, 2014

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Christelle Cornil
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Runtime: 98 min.
Verdict: More interesting when the economic situation provides for the backdrop to the family dynamic.
Genre: Drama

                Now, here’s the deal – because of the stage I’m in my career at the moment, where the office and the home are for the first time in my life are past having a dialog with each other and are now fiercely quarrelling, Two Days, One Night, is too close for comfort. Watching Sandra’s (Ms. Cotillard) slender body wade through those two days, across alleys, staircases, sidewalks, with the feet falling sideways, with her bent back and her tummy sucked in (the walk so closely resembles that of Maria Sharapova) as if there is the strongest wind that needs to be negotiated, achieves the effect of a class one synecdoche. Hers is a body in subordination, a site that is directly and apparently the space on which the film’s central drama/dynamic hinges upon and as much as the request is for her job, there is an implicit plea for her space too.
                But then, is she? I mean, is her body the site? Or is the site, the string that exists between her body and the table on which the kids and her husband eat the pizza or the bench where she and her husband Manu (Mr. Rongione) eat their ice-creams? Isn’t she much like Susy like Wait Until Dark (a home-invasion picture), whose personal space has been invaded by the very capitalist entity from which we’ve been brought up all our lives to separate our personal spaces from (the myth of work-life balance and all that), and whose husband is almost hell-bent to empower her. Trust me, I do not want to sound cynical but maybe empowering, much like money or sex, is actually an act of regaining one’s purpose in the beneficiary’s life and hence reclaiming that ego/identity space. To be at the source of one’s strength is to be that strength itself, and it compensates for the lack of family wage he is unable to muster and thus essentially becomes the master of the house. A what-if crosses the mind – (a) instead of a depressed wife, it was a kid (child labor) negotiating his way, or (b) it was the man himself – and would it have altered more in quality than quantity our reaction to the predicament. I might be thinking of Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma, and I also might be digressing.
                I return to Sandra, and wonder if she is the representative of the working class, and if it is her versus the system. Or, as the central premise goes, is it as simple as her and her co-workers pitted against each other by the unscrupulous capitalist entity, making it a case of pure working-class exploitation (the factory building might as well have a giant moustache to be twirled), and hers a tragic case of hopelessness ala High Noon? The film is indeed about her meeting all her co-workers and convincing them, individual to individual, like 12 Angry Men. But then, all of those individuals are defined by their families. In one case, it is a wife, in another it is a daughter and a wife, in another it is a wife and a baby, and so on and so forth. And thus emerges the broad outlines of my interpretation of the film rather being about the tussle between two social institutions powered by self-interest – the family versus the capitalist entity – and also a reason for me to change the paragraph.
                Now, because the Dardennes provide no time to understand Dumont’s (the owner of the factory) motivations, which is I suppose understood/assumed to be the capitalist’s greed/selfishness, let us talk about the Family, and the families. Let us begin, taking our cue from Heaven’s Gate list the families and their compositions one by one.

Sandra and Manu – husband (chef/waiter), wife, two kids
Juliette – husband (mends cars on the black) and wife             
Julien Lemmens – wife and a kid.
Kader – not specified (talk over the phone), probably plot-point to get Sandra motivated for the mission.
Mireille – divorced, with a new husband, starting life from scratch.
Willy – husband, wife and kids (number unspecified, but one daughter to go to college)
Nadine – has a daughter
Timur – has a daughter, and an unspecified family.
Hicham – wife and two kids
Yvonne – father and young son, both working at the same place. Representation of the proletariat family and generational workforce. Son seems to have a girlfriend, and since he drives off, could be considered as a case of nuclear family.
Miguel - ?, plot-point to get Sandra out of the bed.
Anne – husband, whom she leaves.
Alphonse – wife and daughter.
Dominique – alone at the door.

So, except for the guys on the phone, who become plot-points for Sandra’s odyssey, and for Dominique who obliquely refers to his family when he says he is the sole breadwinner, all of the others are profiled via their families, bringing home a clear representation of the heterosexual workforce. That makes me wonder if bachelors, or guys with alternate orientations aren’t capable enough to provide a dramatic foil to the narrative strategy here, which is essentially about a woman who has lost her identity to the extent she is losing her very voice (at times literally) going through a journey of door-to-door of rejection and ego-destruction. All of us, or at least me, who have been rejected in job interviews, know exactly what I’m talking about, where your identity and worth become one and the same, and where repetition is the key. It is like part of you dies inside every time, for those few hours. And yet the next call fills you with hope, so that you brace yourself to die again. I sure am making it sound melodramatic, but when the job enters and disrupts the personal sphere and you so desperately need an exit, it does feel like that. And I’m also beginning to wonder what would happen if Interstellar and this one here were to swap narrative strategies, and if either of them would benefit any.
But coming back, would bachelors, or let us say guys with no apparent, or let us say obvious families, come across as needlessly selfish for they do not so desperately need that 1000-euro bonus? Because believe me, that is not true, for that very lack of obviousness, I’ve young guys in my office working from Friday evening to Monday morning with no time for home. These young guys, with their own dream of the bourgeoisie dream of families, are probably to us (I work in the IT industry) what women and children were to men during the early industrial age – cheap labor with twice or thrice the output. So, would their claim to selfishness be any less legitimate than say Hicham’s or Willy’s? There’s also a guy at the end, on Monday morning, Sandra meets in the locker-room, and by appearance he looks to be a bachelor. But then that’s not the point.
You see, the film justifies the selfishness of the people Sandra meets by presenting the needs of the family, which are for obvious reasons assumed to be absolutely necessary. The families, or the Family, is thus automatically absolved of any guilt, or at least of the guilt that is attributed to Dumont and his factory, and rather it is entitled to be selfish to seek the bonus (a welcome surplus, mind you) because it is necessary for their survival, since they seem to have planned their lives (like college expenses for the kid) around that surplus. I mean, the family never has enough, do we? It is a lovely little institution this, borne out of man’s inherent need to find a personal space and room of control beyond his own body, and encircled by a common factor – mostly blood, or race, or religion, or whatever. I’m no anthropologist, and these are mostly freshman efforts at theorizing, and family does provide man the satisfaction of thinking beyond himself, of caring for a body that is not him (philanthropy), and at the same time makes it all limited to the confines of his circle. It is the bastion of a moral framework he believes in, a private space that is to be protected from the public sphere’s ills but benefited by its riches, and in a way, he is having the cake and eating it too. It takes a great deal out of us, isn’t it, caring for our community – like say pooling funds to repair the building you live in, when you aren’t one of the owners as opposed to when you are on. I hate to put it this way, but the image before me is of a virus, that much like capitalism, can adapt to the societal needs. It could be extended, in a marketplace where home production is the key, or it can cut itself off and be a nuclear one, or it could exist in several forms. The essential bit is that it adapts and survives, and if free market applies the Darwin principle to the capital class, so does it should to the family.
So yeah, as sure as hell capitalism exploits the man’s need for this anchor, doesn’t family – broadly defined as an earning member(s) and dependents joined together by a common moral/religious framework – use it to survive and thrive in return too? Here’re a few questions then – aren’t Dumont and his factory comparable when they’re selfish enough to seek that bonus? Is Sandra, with her pitifully frail figure, a convenient representation of the family (as opposed to say Manu himself)? Are her travails about her locking her light-saber (family) with those of the other workers? Is it better, for say her community, if all the workers get their bonus, as opposed to her getting her salary, especially when the final moments suggest victory in (a) her finding her voice/stand and (b) her looking for a new job? Also, which selfishness is one entitled to and which one not, because mind you, we’ve no idea how good or bad Dumont’s factory is doing. Are the profits in place, or is he struggling to keep them up in this tough economic situation where everyone is fighting to survive? You see, that is what troubles me regarding Two Days, One Night – the representation of the workforce and the families, with their details listed above, as specific units, but Dumont and his factory given a short shrift by giving no details, and thus in a way making them a representation of the system (capitalism) itself, when the latter is as much a unit as the workforce and their families are. To pit a specific against a representation is to obfuscate the issue, and maybe even simplify it.   
               The way I see it, Two Days, One Night is about one unit (Dumont/Solwal) trying to maximize its position by exploiting the other units of workforce to get rid of a specific unit (Sandra), which in turn gets around propagating guilt-complex (a form of exploitation?) so as to get back. If it had been Mr. Cronenberg behind the camera, I would have got the opportunity to read Sandra’s (powered by Manu) movements across the length of the frame, in all directions and essentially haphazard, as a Jean Painlevé-like treatment of the proletariat family unit. Forget about the whole boxing match one round here one round there structure, and forget about the whole deal with suspense about the final score of the poll. What had me worried, throughout, was if Sandra and Manu would pull through together at the end of it. There were two kinds of spaces – the external ones at the doors, and the internal ones, in the cars or on the bench, or in the hospital ward – and the health of the latter was I suppose the narrative’s primary concern. What’s really lovely about all of it is that they are in one piece at the end of that weekend, and when she is speaking to him on the phone after the poll on Monday morning, you know the love has only grown further. Her face is the site, not of the capitalist exploitation, but of love fulfilled. I know Manu would be a very happy and contented man, and as much as Sandra is seen walking down to the road for the struggle ahead, I have the feeling that they are going to have what might be the best sex of their lives.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

INTERSTELLAR: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathway, Jessica Chastain, David Gyasi, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 169 min.
Verdict: Personal territory I would want to keep coming back to. Also, might just be Mr. Nolan’s most accomplished film yet.
Genre: Sci-fi, Drama

(Spoilers abound! I assume you’ve watched the movie because I’m not devoting any obvious space to introduce the plot as such.)

Memory must be a medium for love. Faith surely is fuelled by memory. I mean, if our movies have managed to tell us one thing it is that objects do retain the past as a narrative, transforming the commonplace present into a meaningful past, snatching history from the jaws of archival hegemony, as if it were closed and sealed forever, and make it personal memory, living and breathing, isn’t it? The objects this time around are books, and the bookshelf housing them, and dust, and a written word, and a watch, and a bed and a model spaceship. Even a sweater on the seat of the truck. I love the watch. It is a mass-produced thing, like so many other things, and yet, all my life, I’ve had an instinctive attachment to watches in the way I’ve associated my faith with them. You see, a coin is different, because it only responds, or talks, when you flip it, making it an object whose response is caused by us hence making us aware of its inanimate and mathematical nature, i.e. chance. It is, in many ways, a representation of our rationality, and a reminder of it. A watch, or a clock, is different. It’s always running, always doing its thing, and when I use it to make decisions, based on whether the second-hand is between 1 and 30, which is a yes, or it is not, which is a no, I feel as if I am tapping into a stream. I feel like I’m talking, and for a large part of my conscious life, the watch in my home was how God communicated to me and I communicated with him. The watch made sense. It is what kept me moral, and at this point in my life, when I am questioning the rationality of all of it, there is a huge part of me that so desperately wants to return to the simplicity or those days where I could just ask my watch. You could say I’ve issues in the upper part of my hemisphere, but my binary conversations with my watch – and it is incredible how I could reduce a whole set of stuff just by thinking about it in my mind and then seeking confirmation from that watch – will always be muscle memory to me.  
There’s a room here, a sort of personal temple, which probably makes it unlike the one in Stalker, that houses all these objects and thereby the memories, and towards which everything in Interstellar gravitates towards. This is a space movie which under the guise of travelling outwards eventually reaches inwards. It is the central figure here, this room, in the first act and the third act (I suspect, from a Bordwellian angle, this is a film with the three acts and an epilogue rather than four acts, but I will be happy to be proved wrong), absolutely absent in the second, and it becomes both the source and destination that Mr. Nolan shapes his narrative around. Cooper (Mr. McConaughey) keeps looking beyond the frame of that monitor searching for his little daughter Murph (Ms. Foy) and, or maybe in, that room, as if to create a new memory overwriting the older one where he left her to pursue the pioneer half of himself, and it seems to be stubbornly resisting that, growing more and more intense. Like the man in La Jetée, and like Graham Hess in Signs, Cooper, as Aaron Stewart-Ahn mentions here, becomes something of a prisoner of this memory space where only he and his daughter ever enter in the entire film. If the home, and the farm surrounding it, and the dust covering it come to represent the mortality of our existence that needs to be transcended (as when Alfred Borden knocks on the wall he is leaning on) via the pioneer within us, the room becomes the meaning we seek and the interpretation of our memories we construct – Interstellar gradually becomes the journey of a man marked for the rest of his life by a memory of the past.
At the same time, do not allow me to convey the impression that Cooper is some kind of variation on Scottie, obsessing over a memory image, because he’s not. He’s a prisoner of that conflicting emotion that drives all of Mr. Nolan’s guys, between the ambition and the domesticity, between the curiosity of the Langford double and the satisfaction of the kids and wife, for both are essential parts, and I probably should link to Mr. Jonathan Nolan’s interview where he articulates that predicament most simply and precisely.
There’re television monitors too, not skype (digital) but having the grainy monochromatic almost grungy quality of old video, and they are not live and do not allow two-way communication, thus becoming, like letters, information that has travelled and experienced the passage of time. They are memories, and for some strange reason, probably because Tom and Murph look up at it while speaking into it, they feel like prayers. Tom sharing his life into that little screen not knowing if somebody on the other is listening, and Murph pouring her heart out, and there is the unmistakable need of hope, of faith. Much has been said about Mr. McConaughey’s performance, none more encompassing than Danny Bowes defining him as the guitar string that resonates at the frequency of America, and all of that ought to be extended to Ms. Chastain. Mr. Malick made her the mother, and Mr. Nolan comes perilously close to making her the daughter, essentially bringing her to the center of it all. I remember the film, and I am reminded of her, just like the mere mention of The Mirror condenses the image of the mother sitting over the fence. It also ought to be said here that rare has been the occasion where such significant emotional sensual (in a purely platonic way) returns have been drawn from the head of a performer, and this here is one. If that wretched opening-closing shot in Gone Girl is abstracted misogyny, this here is all grace.
As always, I digress, and as always I use those words to pull myself back. To the room. Murph might be the room’s soul, for without her, the room almost doesn’t exist. She’s resisted and seemingly repressed the feelings (memories) the room evoked, and Mr. Nolan patiently builds the narrative, selecting his moments most carefully to switch between the space travel and earth, none more effective than the screen-switch from Cooper to Murph on the other side. Or a pan up to the clouds when Dr. Brand (Mr. Caine) visits Donald (Mr. Lithgow) at the farm , evoking the sense of loneliness and distance and disconnectedness. After the simple narrative pattern of this happened and then this happened of the first act (single line), and the this happened and meanwhile this happened of the second act (parallel lines), it is almost as if he seems to find within the moment Murph mentions the memories of her ghost and the image of Mr. Nolan’s daughter Flora (I suspected the little girl on the truck Murph sees is Mr. Nolan’s daughter, and the end credits told me I suspected right) the necessary trigger to weave all of it that memory space the film seems pre-destined to move towards. There is also the second video from Murph, questioning his intentions and thus questioning the faith and love, and that video causes the same kind of desperation that is most vulnerable because of the guilt inherent to pursuing one’s ambitions. He needs to get back to her, and to that room, and what follows is  unlike anything Mr. Nolan has done till now, for what seem to be mostly disparate this-here-and-meanwhile-this-here events on paper seem to be galvanized narratively finding a new meaning for Murph’s memory. Or Cooper’s. I won’t go into the details of the context, yet there’s probably no harm to be had in disclosing that on the one side of that shelf exists Murph and her memory, and on the other side her father both in and seemingly causing that memory. Or maybe, even caused by the memory.
It is heady upon reflection, and visceral in its immediate impact, with Cooper struggling to survive and trying to dock the ranger, and Murph seeking meaning to her faith in that room, each event seemingly shaping the other. Love, Amelia (Ms. Hathway) says, transcends time, and I think the conduit is memory. You see, memory is not fact, memory is not archived, and memory always exists in the present, being shaped and reshaped all the time. Leonard Shelby wanted to overwrite his memory, but unfortunately he neither had cross-cutting nor did he have Mr. Zimmer’s score. Most importantly, he wasn’t in a science-fiction, and I’m not implying the whole Cooper is dead and these are his dying memories scenario, because Mr. Nolan really wants to transcend the solidity of the world, and yet he is constrained by what he can perceive (Is it rigid, and if it is, is there some kind of relation between that and the lines – the books on the shelf, the sand, the contours of the robots, or the spacecraft, of the representation of the fifth dimension). His characters feel the instinctive need to touch the surfaces around them a lot, Cooper here mostly. The surface of the surveillance drone. Or the air of Miller’s planet while landing. The video screen. The handshake. Even the craft touches the frozen cloud and its legs the surface of the frozen ground of Mann’s planet. There’s this elemental almost perceptible quality he brings to Interstellar, in the texture of the close-ups, in the contrast of the wrinkles of old Murph (Ms. Burstyn) and Cooper, in the crops, or the dust, or the steam coming out of the coffee, or the fireballs crackling along the ship. We need to touch it to know it, I suppose, and as my dear friend Srikanth tells me whenever I start raving about my kindle, hey, we can drop those books on the floor!    
So yeah, Mr. Nolan isn’t implying that all of this is happening is some sort of head-space, because he is probably not even making that distinction. As long as we can touch, as long as we can perceive, as long as we’ve our memories, we’re in our realities. He tried to say the same thing with that damned ending in Inception but I believe he chose to focus on the wrong object, and he doesn’t make that mistake here by providing any sort of easy cynical ambiguities. I’m not really suggesting here that the spinning top is a cynical or gimmicky move as much as it is a filmmaker trying to end with his signature of what his beliefs are, but I would have wanted him to rather make a statement – maybe via a pan from the top towards Cobb. So yeah, Mr. Nolan needs reasons to believe, and believe he does want to. There’s nothing out there and nothing out here, except for us, and that his both humbling and moving. Two people fight in the middle of the icy planet in a bird’s eye-view shot that dwarves us to mere particles against the impersonal enormity of the planet, and yet through the score, and his framing, he finds humanity. Mann (Mr. Damon) is leaving Cooper to suffocate and die, and yet Mr. Nolan finds an over-the-shoulder shot of him looking back. There’s so much there in that shot, like the best of Melville, where we all understand each other’s perspective, for Mann is merely an extension of the pioneer part of Cooper, just as Tom at the farm is the domestic conformist part  (or whatever there is of it) of him. Mr. Nolan rarely, if ever, judges. Mann cannot watch, yet he turns back twice, part of him deeply sorry, part of him wanting Cooper to survive and a part of him rationalizing it all as necessary sacrifice for the larger good of mankind. I had tears in my eyes, and Mr. Damon is an incredible incredible actor. Wonder to Mr. Nolan is in a family pursuing a drone through cornfields, tragedy is in the shot of a man standing in the darkness behind a door waiting for 23 years – that shot of Romilly (Mr. Gyasi) is incredible in the way it both captures his loneliness by crushing it to a moment and a stance. A blip, in the enormous context of the universe. Grace, to Mr. Nolan, are people driving their vehicles in a file while migrating away from the dust bowl, sanctity to him is in those objects we perceive and send to our memory (it is interesting   mystery to him is in the diaphysical rather than the metaphysical, (cue: Mr. Carruth’s Upstream Color), in what we create as opposed to what is already out there (seldom has there been such scant disregard for spectacle provided by outer-space relegating it to the domain of purely functional), warmth to him is Ms. Chastain’s hair (I hope for purely descriptive purposes, this is considered Mr. Nolan’s The Tree of Life rather than the Kubrick film, because he seems to be interpreting/charting history as personal memory most clearly represented in the talking heads), in medium shots, in close-ups of faces looking at each other and up towards the sky, for the sky itself is empty and barren and indifferent and, well, just stares back. Gosh, do the clouds even move?
So yeah, I’ll want to disagree any theory out there that classifies this as a dying man’s wish, because I believe and I want to believe that what’s happened is Mr. Nolan finding a way through the genre he is working in (rationality) and through his technique, to actively shape and alter the memory and its perceptions, thus ending up causing the reality around. Cooper is struggling to survive gasping for air, and Murph once again sees Ms. Flora Nolan, and Mr. Zimmer’s score soars, almost causing her to feel something to push the jeep into the cornfields (almost mirroring the wonder of the earlier drone scene). Like The Hours, or Cloud Atlas, show us, cross-cutting causes the kind of exhilaration music often provides, because there is an inherent immediacy caused by the motion in it. The past becomes alive, and it feels as if anything might be possible.
In Mr. Nolan’s hands, across the barrier of space, it becomes an evidence of the transcendence of love. More than Memento, and maybe even more than The Prestige, there is an incredible union of form and content, and in that room, where Cooper is caught up in the memory space, and Murph outside desperately reinterpreting her memory, it feels almost as if the narrative is fuelling itself. Cooper watches those moments helplessly from the outside practically praying (like the video screens) across the bookshelf to be heard by his daughter and to be stopped, and it is one of the great moments movies have given us. He sees himself leave, and he breaks down, and in a classic usage of deus-ex-machina (as I said, narrative fuelling itself) TARS appears, both to provide context and to provide purpose (the transmission of quantum data). As Leonard Shelby did it all those years ago, the need is to rewrite those memories, or re-contextualize them so as to shift the guilt. This is where Mr. Nolan has made his most poignant and hopeful film yet, helping his protagonist leave the cage of individual memory and finding via love a way to not merely share the memory but essentially rewrite/repurpose them via those memory objects, rendering within them an associative sense and through them a meaning. It is terribly intimate moment, and Mr. Nolan plays it to the grandest most melodramatic pitch possible, wanting to celebrate this transcendence. He believes in the sanctity, for the room and its objects come to represent experience, aspirations, and identity, i.e. memory, and curiously that room with that book shelf and all its objects is not even present (or at least not shown) in the archived model of it on Cooper station. As Amelia says, migrating is not really finding a new condo.
               I want to come back to that room, and Ms. Chastain’s-Ms. Foy’s Murph, and their virtual absence from the final moments on Cooper station and beyond. I look back at the films I have unabashedly loved over the last few years (so much so that some of them are my passwords) – The Grey and its wallets, In the City of Sylvia and the unknown faces, Public Enemies and the trivialization, via history, of pursuits that probably were most personal, Moon and the commodification of memory – and I realize that memory is what kills it for me at the movies. The room is gone, earth’s gone and most importantly Murph has left it behind now that she has the closure and the comfort that it was her dad all along. And yet, amidst all of that there is just that tinge of sadness to the fact that Cooper just doesn’t belong to the present, on the station, where he meets the older Murph, her wrinkles a perceptible reminder of the passage of time, of a memory lost. Cooper has essentially seen three persons in his daughter, and when he feels her hand on her chin and closes his eyes, all I wanted to was to stop articulating it all and cry. She asks him to go, and in what might just be the most moving moment in all of his films, they seemingly share the memory of a new home to return to. It is a glorious declaration of our need for domesticity, of destroying loneliness. Cooper flies, to find Amelia, in the vastness of space, and I hope that wormhole is no longer there, for theory makes way for love and memory. After all, as Mr. Jonathan Nolan observes here, if science (nature) is enormous and formidable and indifferent, science fiction is always there to provide, in the form of a wormhole or a robot, the deus-ex-machina. It is so profoundly sincere and innocent in that hope of its that I want to cuddle up in the corner of my green room and cry. Mr. Nolan here has made a truly great film. More importantly, while I’ve always had boy-name for my future kid – Takeshi Kitano, with Beat being the nickname – I now have a girl-name too. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

DEDH ISHQIYA: MOVIE REVIEW



Cast: Madhuri Dixit Nene, Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Huma Qureshi, Vijay Raaz
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: An intelligent film with an incredibly humane plea.
Genre: Drama

                Let us start with something that sounds like good old-fashioned hyperbole – it astonishes that Mr. Chaubey has only ever made two film, including this one here, especially after one were to parse the images he puts on screen – and then proceed to try and argue that the way it sounds isn’t remotely the way it is. As in, Mr. Chaubey might not be the best filmmaker we have, although he could be there very soon, he sure could be, through their density, up there with our best image-makers. Consider a moment at the very end of his debut film Ishqiya which I discuss here (and I was only disappointed by his choice because it end up as the film I wanted it to be), and its strict cutting out of the external world through stonewalls and a dimly lit room from what is the true essence of that picture – a husband and a wife and the dynamic of their relationship that surrounds them symbolized via the gas cylinders. Unlike his mentor (?) Mr. Vishal Bharadwaj’s recent offerings. Mr. Chaubey’s images sure feel organic to the story but are to be read as much as they are to be felt.
                Consider one here, towards the end, where Khalu (Mr. Shah) and Babban (Mr. Warsi) are bound in something of a warehouse, and they both (not us) see Begum Para (Ms. Dixit Nene) and Muniya (Ms. Qureshi) indulge themselves in bonding and playfulness that is, let’s just say, seems to cross the boundaries of mere friendship. Now, here’s where watching the film as late as I did with complete knowledge of the supposed relationship between the two women – apparently they’re lesbians – really helped, for as with most narrative twists, I was looking for evidence and I could find none. I was confused, until this shot came along, and in hindsight I consider myself so fortunate to have watched the film the way I did, for often I’m slow and I fear I might have completely missed the point.



                But let us come back to that shot, and parse that wonderful wonderful image. Khalu is hand-tied, and so is Babban off-screen, and to the left we see the shadows of Begum Para and Muniya together in a heap. As in, no daylight between them. Moments earlier both the males look with their brows raised as Begum and Muniya play together, leading Khalu to comment – Thand lag rahi hai, lihaaf maang le (It’s pretty chilly, should we ask for a quilt) – leading Babban to laugh. Over and above being a nod to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (more of which could be learnt here), and something that smacks of homophobia, what it also reveals is our need to classify things into brackets so that we can understand them. A green apple is an apple, and a red apple is an apple. It makes us less anxious, making the unknown familiar. Mr. Chaubey’s orchestration of the image and all its variables (and what they represent) is quite genius in the way he doesn’t show us the action, but turns the view on itself. The shadows aren’t Begum and Muniya, as much as they are our viewpoint of them, and Mr. Chaubey smartly and dare I say damningly turns that on us. As in Ishqiya, Khalu and Babban seem to represent something close to idiots, i.e. us viewers, who scarcely understand the world and its various dynamics. They’re journeymen, or like one of them travel-channel anchors, trying to discover (and in the process sell) the world for us, and as much as Krishna (Ms. Balan in Ishqiya) turned their (and our) perspective of her upside down, the shadowplay is desperately interpreted as foreplay by that comment from Khalu.
                And in this image from Mr. Chaubey, those shadows being viewpoints is not merely an interpretation. That is, it is not the prerogative of the viewer, but that these shadows are a part of a performance. It might be worthwhile here to mention that if not anything else, Dedh Ishqiya is all about performativity, especially of the gender kind, and all of its characters are caught in moments where they are exhibiting themselves to an audience, and thus conducting themselves accordingly. Allow me to share a few of these –

Here’s Begum Para being a dancer, and Khalu with all the chauvinistic entitlement one can attribute to such a moment, peeking through the door and appreciating the “feminine grace”. Also, that the performer is Ms. Dixit (whose identity/classification can be done on two counts – (a) dancing queen (b) million dollar smile – and I suppose I don’t have to tell you it is as much an appreciation of her talents as much as it is a straight-jacketing of her identity).  
   


Here, moments later, Begum and Muniya perform together, and Khalu and Babban peek together. Performance being watched by, well, a performance. 



Crudely speaking, boys and their toys. Crucial here, Mr. Chaubey’s composition. 


Men standoff in a circle, while women gather in a circle. In the night. 


Men, aside from peeking through dusty windows, also wax poetry, for it is their prerogative to appreciate. 


                Now, I do hope that these moments have provided some kind of context as to what that film is all about – we are all performers, performing to the idea of an identity created by society culture and history. Mr. Chaubey’s great move, both via the script and via his staging, is to classify sex as an act, as a performance. In that way, the irony within the scene is not slight as most of the irony in movies is these days, but heavy and bordering on tragic. On the face of it, Khalu and Babban are tied, but by turning it into a flat image by superimposing the performance on the viewer, Mr. Chaubey’s makes the performers prisoners of their identities.
                Does this fly in the face of Freud’s pleasure principle? Rather, I would say, it argues for it, for sex is a desire, but a performance is an act that communicates with the ego. Leonard Shelby was indulging in a broad performance of an avenging husband for he wanted to satiate his ego, i.e. his identity of himself. Thus performance is ripe enough to use as a manipulating device, and our culture does make sure that our desires are strongly dictated by our identities, which in turn are shaped and classified by that culture. Muniya makes sure to manipulate Babban, for his identity (alpha male) is intermingled with his desires (heterosexual male) so much so that there’s significant confusion over there. Mr. Chaubey implicates Babban too, when he kinda cuts the sex from the frame, and instead zeroes in on him early in the film. 


So yeah, what he intends to say is to want the id and the pleasure seeking impulses not to be hijacked by the pressures of identity. Begum Para and Muniya are thirsty, and when the two are running away, hand-in-hand, towards freedom, all they seek is to quench their thirst. That they drink straight from the bottle sticking it into their mouths, or pour it into a glass and sip it is their prerogative. In fact, even they are thirsty might just be our assumption. Dedh Ishqiya sure has a twist in its narrative, but the twist isn’t that Begum Para is not an aristocratic woman, or that she and Muniya are lesbian lovers. The twist is that their identities and desires and pleasures are far different from what their society attributes them with, or even forces onto them. Mr. Chaubey never concedes, and in his determination to not include anything gratuitous or indicative, all he wants to say is that two people can mean the world to each other without us wanting to throw in desires and sex into the mix. Here’s a thoughtful filmmaker for you, and I tell you, they come so rare.





Thursday, October 09, 2014

HAIDER: MOVIE REVIEW



Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Lalit Parimoo, Irrfan Khan, Narendra Jha
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Runtime: 162 min.
Verdict: A tad disappointing, but the mother-son relationship is its own film and Mr. Bharadwaj surrounds that masterpiece with stuff a hack could arrange.
Genre: Drama

In a film where the eponymous character muses over the materiality of death and how it is merely a passage not towards reincarnation but towards re-materialization, as a cup maybe, it is pretty poetic when that very character fails to find even a shred of the person’s body he loves most. I do not exactly remember, but he probably doesn’t even get blood. All there is left is sand and the debris left from the explosion. That person, made to completely vanish from any kind of material existence that could provide a sense of closure, is Haider’s (Mr. Kapoor) mother Ghazala (Ms. Tabu), and her death starkly contrasts with that of the other woman in the film, Arshi (Ms. Kapoor), who despite having shot herself in her head, arrives mostly in pristine condition (except for a mark on the right side of her temple) in that very graveyard so as to facilitate a passionate-bordering-on-the-maniacal embrace from Haider. The climax is set in, of all the places, in a graveyard, and Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic, for although Haider might not be a treatise on death it sure as hell is surrounded by it. Or, maybe, it’s like a hallway to death, with no other exit door.  
What next after death, then? What is in store, in hell for instance? What treatment awaits to the next of kin of who have been branded terrorists, by the country and its authority? This question of post-death seems to preoccupy Mr. Bharadwaj’s mind the most, and like Dante’s trip into the depths of hell, the narrative here provides for dead people to speak their fate and for sinners to try and atone. What should then be considered Ghazala’s fate, and will she ever be able to tell her side of things? Or, has she already explained herself and maybe even justified her life when she kissed her kid? On his lips. In Mr. Bharadwaj’s universe, where women have their identity hinged on how the men around perceive them (“The girl who can steal from (betray) her own father, how can she be trusted by anyone else”, Omkara (2006)), where women either conform to the society’s norms (Arshi) or stand antithetical to the societal notions of femininity, it is interesting how Arshi dies just as the way she lives, pure and complete. As in, all in one piece. As in, her identity intact. Ghazala, on the other hand, has been defragmented into so many pieces, like T-1000, that it is probably impossible for her to be reconstructed.
But then, here is the interesting part. Unlike Nimmi (Maqbool) or Dolly (Omkara), who along with their identities also had their eventual fates hanging on that perception, Ghazala shapes her own fate and all the events about her. Which is somewhat heartening, in the same way Ishqiya was a few years back, and Dedh Ishqiya is now. Because for all the raised eyebrows that are caused by the mere mention of feminism, as Miriam Bale puts it here so simply, it is at the end of the day a movement borne out of a belief that male supremacy for thousands of years has created systems and values that must be recognized and destroyed restructured. Ghazala is the one playing the moves, or reacting to the circumstances with moves, and in her wake, every male and thereby every social structure about her seems to be lost. Of course, it could be easily argued that the manipulative femme-fatale cause-of-everything is a trope that has existed in our mythology since ever. To which one might counter, Ghazala’s moves, her intent and her emotions were always tethered to one thing and one thing only –her son.
Although I’m no good at this, here’s where I roughly sketch a mapping between the representational elements of the narrative. There is the father, Dr. Hilal Meer (Mr. Jha), who as the opening events suggest (as if Mr. Meer himself penned them from his perspective) is surely not a traitor but a humanist, understands the separatist sentiment, and doesn’t blink an eye in aiding them. There is Khurram (Mr. Menon), who is mostly about self-preservation and self-promotion and the judgmental negative shades about him are because he seems to have no significant ideological stance. Yet, he dearly loves Ghazala, and when all the men are running away from her in her final moments, he, along with Haider, is the one running towards her. He could be considered as a representation of the pro-authority (India) self-preservation elements.
Ghazala, and pardon me for this mostly eyeroll-inducing mapping, probably represents the soul/spirit/sentiment of the land, and in Haider that land sees the future. The flashbacks show moments where the mother is running behind the son, and where the son is mostly idolizing his father, via polishing his shoes. A simple enough synecdoche for a patriarchal system. The whole oedipal dynamic is hardly the stuff of subconscious here. Her running behind Haider is later mirrored in the present when he walks out of his uncle’s house in search of his father, and as I said, Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic. So, the patriarch is always about his ideology and ego, echoing through the judgmental old-testamentesque undertones to “Allah will take care of Haider”, and one might readily and rightly assume that the patriarch would have no apprehensions if Haider would take up the arms for what he believes to be the right cause.
And here, via the mother, whose selfishness is only account of her son, and whose one true love of her life is that son, Mr. Bharadwaj brings home the whole eye-for-eye-makes-the-whole-world-blind lesson into the narrative. The twist, if I could label it thus, is that Ghazala, who all through the narrative seems inclined to do anything for personal gains, and who is provided a mostly gratuitous moment (doubling as a misdirection if you will) during Khurram’s “coronation”, is and always was all about her son and him finding an exit out of the graveyard.
And here’s where I reveal my indulgence, and pull the rug, when I say that this is exactly the kind of problem I have with these kind of narratives and their deification of the feminine form, because in a roundabout way Mr. Bharadwaj has asked of his female character to conform to her role in society and stay true to her representation (as the land). Mr. Irfan Khan has labelled the film as the modern Mother India, and rightly so, but that label to me is some kind of backhanded compliment. As if to say, and this is a classic underpinning of most of our mythology, a woman can never think of herself and still be in grace.
This kind of certainty of both intent and action, especially for an adaptation of a play whose very soul is built upon the indecisiveness of action due to the uncertainty of events, probably robs the narrative of a few pleasures and indulgences that could have been continued in the comments section of movie-boards and blogs. Haider has a brilliant monologue of the uncertainty of his predicament, and it is a remarkably moving moment. The casting of Mr. Kapoor seems a masterstroke, for we feel the confusion of a little boy thrust with the weight of patriarchal responsibility. Yet to squander all of that for reasons I am not sure of (I’m sure Mr. Bharadwaj can think beyond his leftist politics), when several (and needless) pains have been taken to include the mostly useless Salmans and the incestuous vibes from Liyaqat (Mr. Aamir Bashir) towards Arshi, is probably beyond me.
But beyond all the issues with theme, which of late I find mostly uninteresting, I’m disappointed with the overall craftsmanship at hand. I mean, isn’t the low-saturated blue the default for terrorism-prone Kashmir (Yahaan)? There sure are some striking images, but the structure of the narrative is another weak-link. We could indulge in another Bordwell-style analysis when the film is released for home-viewing, but what I felt is that there are quite simply too many scenes crammed together whereby the plot takes precedence over the emotional arc of one moment/scene. I think we might learn on another viewing that any scene that runs for less than say a minute can be edited out, like for e.g. the thing where the two Salmans stop the police van to pick up Haider, so that the dramatic arc of the stronger ones could be prolonged. Also, for a man who made Omkara, where the opening shot of the legs reminded me of the best of Sergio Leone, Mr. Bharadwaj here really seems to be unimaginative on the style-front. Roohdar (Mr. Khan) is given a thunderous introduction (like Mr. Sunny Deol was introduced to change the proceedings in Damini), and then he proceeds to fast lose that thunder by overplaying that background drum again and again, to the point where it becomes a very annoying choice/theme/cue/agent for purpose in this narrative about indecisiveness. I might be wrong here, but I suspect Mr. Bharadwaj of now is more suited for something as crazy and rip-roaring and imaginative as Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola rather than straight-faced Shakespearean adaptations, which he can probably oversee a protégé direct.  

Also, now that I think about it, there isn’t really much difference between the two characters who commit suicide, isn’t it? So why the distinct fates? Arshi was a reasonable rebel who would ask “tough” questions about torture to the army but mostly gullible before her father, in which case, I’m not sure the purpose behind her killing herself other than guilt. But, for what? Am I missing something when I brand that act meaningless, as opposed to Ghazala’s which had a higher purpose? I started writing this with these two characters in mind, and now I’m not sure where I am. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

QUEEN: MOVIE REVIEW




Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Rajkumar Rao, Lisa Haydon, Mish Boyko
Director: Vikas Bahl
Runtime: 146 min.
Verdict: Mr. Bahl lets the ideology govern the narrative rather than the other way round. Things, i.e. the “little” moments on which he builds his narrative upon, thus feel a little pre-processed.
Genre: Drama, Comedy

                My first visit to Kuala Lumpur was couple of years back. There is not much to the city, I might be tempted to say, not much of a personality one might hold on to. It is bland. Well, mostly, you know, until one is in the city center and surrounded by the Petronas. You walk around and find it staring back at you from behind other buildings. You feel like you’re walking in circles, walking away, walking towards, covering streets, going past buildings. And yet it is there, behind two buildings. You look to the right of a building, and it is there. You look to the left of another, and it is there. Staring down at you. They are not vertical as much as they are vertiginous. For a moment you feel the path to the sky is bent. It is intimidating. Maybe even borderline scary. I don’t know why. I don’t even know why I am reminded of Godzilla, and although I sought that same fear from Empire State, I wasn’t intimidated. Mr. Bahl’s Queen has one such moment, where Rani (Ms. Ranaut) is running from and, I suppose, unwittingly running towards the Eiffel tower. The guerilla-style improvisation-filled filmmaking that Queen displays in abundance serves it best here, with the front plane harshly juxtaposed against the seemingly curved nature of the backdrop, with the frame slightly tilted, somehow reminding us of the city-bending-on-itself shot from Inception, a shot that I now interpret as an essentially literal version of this fear the vertiginous nature of the city puts into us. You see, my memory of the Petronas is not anamorphic, or shall we say widescreen. Widescreen inspires magnificence, I suppose. My memory is kinda square in its aspect ratio. Maybe even a rectangle standing on its width. I hope you get the picture. I don’t have much space neither to the left or the right, and that memory is interlocked with claustrophobia of some nature. When Rani ran shit-scared, looking back to see if the Eiffel tower disappeared, it might have been a touch melodramatic for you, I suppose. But dear reader, I had goose-bumps all over me, and it is moments such as these I seek more than anything else from the movies.
                It is only a moment though, and unfortunately for me Mr. Bahl contextualizes Rani’s fear within the memory of a promise from her fiancé (Mr. Rajkumar Rao). But that is my problem and not yours. And certainly not Mr. Bahl’s. What Godzilla is to my memory is her fiancé’s promise to Rani (my context feels a tad idiotic), and the curious bit is that they seem to evoke a similar response. What doesn’t feel like my problem though is that Mr. Bahl’s film is a tad too contextualized, not within the framework of its own memory-filled cause-effect narrative, but within the framework of its ideological response. Is it a nod, a verifiable declaration of a problem statement, when elderly women at a wedding try to learn a dance step from Cocktail that kinda heralded the moment of self-discovery of its chief female protagonist? Are there echoes of Veronica in Vijayalakshmi (Ms. Haydon)? Is the fleeting and thus strictly supporting nature of every other character a statement of intent on Mr. Bahl’s part? One that essentially states that women don’t need men to approve of their identities and one which Mr. Bahl seemingly holds on to via the resolution he provides to his narrative?  If that is the case, which I feel it is, I don’t much care for all that feminist nonsense, and my non-ideological response would be that these ideological narratives do not understand that it works both ways. As much the women need guys to approve of their identities, the men need their approval to confirm their egos, and it is just basic arithmetic – Approval – Identity = Cost of Commodity. I mean, as long as we’re living in a capitalistic society, societal approval is essential. I should leave it there then, I suppose.
                Instead, what has me rather curious is Rani’s state of mind when she decides to go on her honeymoon all by herself. Cocktail did provide its protagonist a practical reason via a throwaway piece of dialog, one based in emigration to the west, and that was probably the only moment that dealt directly with economics amidst all of its other shenanigans. Here, Rani and her father run a sweetshop. They are businessmen. Cancelling a trip and all the associated tickets and bookings would probably salvage some money, and I want to assume that I’m not entirely wrong in believing that saving this money might be somewhere close to the top on the list of priorities as far as damage control (post failed-marriage ceremony) is concerned. Still she leaves, with her father’s consent, which means there’s a bit of stubbornness in there somewhere. The same stubbornness she displays when she desperately clings on to her handbag in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Queen celebrates this stubbornness that is probably the key to its protagonist’s self-discovery, but at the same time, much like most movies around us, steers clear of making any mention of economics. Of the financial costs that are being overrun here. We never are aware of the actual numbers, making the emotions of the narrative palatable for us audience who wouldn’t be distracted. And even though, we still might have been convinced that it was all worth it even if we were made aware of the financial conditions, it somewhat troubles me that the narrative conveniently buries the financial loss to the family and how it affected the overall proceedings. More so, when we begin to consider how essential the framework of a globalized world connected not merely by the convenience of travel but also by the existence of Facebook is to Mr. Bahl’s ideological stance.
                But that is probably a minor gripe against what is my second-favorite part of Queen­ – the present continuous DNA of the narrative, which kinda mirrors in the way the Facebook-timeline epilogue not merely summarizes the film but also highlights Mr. Bahl’s essential rule of not providing any grand closure to the proceedings. In fact, apart from the return of the ring and the obvious immediate satisfaction derived from it, there is nothing that suggests that Rani’s life has found a parking. Much like the Facebook-timeline’s northbound drive, Rani’s life is still on the move. And my favorite part? Ms. Ranaut. It is somewhat of a gimmicky performance at certain moments, I do concede, but boy does she have the devil in her.