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General Review - Independent Releases

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  BY Ankan Kazi, Sudipto Basu and Anuj Malhotra

Goynar Baksho | Aparna Sen, 2013, India

Aparna Sen’s new film maintains the aspirational epic-canvas of her last film Iti Mrinalini. Based on Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel, the film cuts across three generations of women in a decaying feudal household in Bengal before and after Partition- until 1971- who manage to wield their presence and also assert a fair modicum of power through the canny use of a box of jewels. ‘Presence’, however, must be understood here with some amount of complexity; for the earliest wife- a widowed ‘aunt’ (Moushumi Chatterjee) of the new wife Somlata (Konkona Sen Sharma) dies and becomes an absence, a ghost and, subsequently, guides the latter through a safe transition from the empty preenings of stultified landlordism to a necessary embrace of supposedly shameful bourgeoisie occupations like running a shop selling saris and also love and sex. It’s impossible to ignore discourses of (regime) ‘change’ in Bengali cinema in its present historical moment and Sen’s film presents several calamitous circumstances that could attend these sudden changes; but ultimately, the film casts its vote unambiguously on a narrative of change-as-progress, believing as it does- without much historical introspection or, at least, ambivalence- in a golden age that is just around the corner. By keeping your eyes on the prize- money, in other words- everything else falls in line eventually, we are led to believe; including the struggles of the ‘mukti bahini’. This ham-fisted political undertone might mar the viewing experience, especially as it has very little else of merit to offer. The visuals are staid but not terribly memorable and one might find Saswata Chatterjee’s performance, clichéd as it is, the only saving grace next to Konkona’s pitch-perfect grip over her own character. It is the finest achievement of the film by far. [AK]

Sourav Sarangi, 2012, India

Tracing the lives of a community of people who inhabit sandbanks (or ‘char’ in Bengali) in the Ganga peninsula near the India-Bangladesh border over several years, Sourav Sarangi (Bilal) explores ideas of home, nationality, permanence and belonging in his second film on river erosion (the first being a scientific documentary called Bhangon).

His point of departure – and the closest thing to a protagonist in the film – is Rubel, a fourteen year-old boy who struggles with his school studies when he doesn’t smuggle rice into Bangladesh. Smuggling – mainly grain and the cough syrup Phensydyl (banned in Bangladesh because of abuse), but also lighter goods like cheap electronics – is second nature to the people living in Char, who travel in the dark between the two countries tackling snakes, quicksand and border security forces.

But instead of focusing on just Rubel, Sarangi charts the fates of these people through their interpersonal relationships as also their connection with the shifting islands they live in. The river changes its course every now and then, so the community must take apart their houses, find a new island to live on for a few months and rebuild everything from the same material (the bricks, roofs etc. are carefully dismantled so that they may be reused as much as possible). This unending cycle of uprooting and settling down and the uncertainty of their geo-political identity are in harmony with the river; with its sense of constant flux and foreboding (the region is prone to devastating flash floods). Their relation to the outside world – a world of discordant, leapfrogging modernity – is peripheral but mainly through cellphones and TV, the harsh sounds of which play against a background of nature’s quiet.

Char recalls the films of Ghatak intimately not only because they’re about people in limbo between two countries, between a past and a future, coping with a permanent sense of physical and emotional loss, but also because Sarangi’s structure is derived from an epic tradition of storytelling – character trajectories are cyclical and narrative moves forward in a series of cumulative diversions. There are long static takes capturing the erosion of the sandbanks that seem like low-budget appropriations of Malick – a deconstruction/reconstruction that is mirrored in the how the characters react to their shifting environment. Sarangi achieves this grand scope by travelling to the islands over several years, interviewing and following its people around until he has a bank of individual-yet-interconnected moments; so that he can carve a ‘story’ out only while editing. Char feels vividly real for the same reason – the repetitive intrusions into the everyday lives of Rubel’s people dissolves the barrier between camera and subject after a certain while; the crew becoming an acceptable part of their environment. [SB]

Benu The Guide |
Abhra Aich, 2012, India

Shot over one day and night with a consumer-end DV camera, this portrait of an out-of-work tourist guide in Ayodhya Pahar, Purulia (occasionally a Red conflict zone) is also a casually anthropological document on the Santhal adivasis who have lived in the area for millennia and a slyly political film. Benu Sen is a middle-aged man whom Aich knows from his previous tours to Ayodhya Pahar. On the last trip Benu-da – as he is addressed throughout – had taken Aich and his friends to the hilltop on Buddha Purnima (the full moon day in the month of Baisakh) when Santhals traditionally celebrate a community feast. The shoot allows Benu-da a brief return to his former life of relative privilege – he accompanies the small group in their climb towards the sacred hill. All the while the camera rolls, capturing dialogue as the new journey retraces the old. Benu-da is one of those people whose faces are inherently cinematic: a fact the director utilizes effectively by training the camera on him even when there’s a lull in the conversation, which gets the talk rolling again. Personal histories share space with remarks on the region’s socio-political state, recounted on the move. It helps that there’s no underlying design to the film – Aich stays in the moment throughout, reacting to situations as they arise. In filming an impromptu adivasi dance he moves the camera in rhythm with the dancers, avoiding critical distance, fusing camera and subject. A man being spoken to continues staring at the camera long after the exchange has ended. Whereas convention dictates a cut at this point, Aich holds the shot long enough for the fourth wall to be broken: an instinctive feel for rupture that transcends the staid realism of the film’s tone. [SB]

Upstream Color | 
Shane Carruth, 2013, USA

It is not enough to declare that Shane Carruth’s first film since Primer is somewhat elliptical. It is saturated with moments of pure abstraction and the entire film is constructed with a certain lapidary grace. Sharply shot scenes merge with flowing Nat Geo-like compositions. The narrative- the bare bones of it, as it were- concerns a woman called Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is abducted and injected with a parasite. She is then made to undergo an experimental existence (like in Dogtooth) and taught to live according to the hermetic ideals of Thoreau’s Walden. The parasite is then transferred into the body of a pig and she is abruptly released. In many ways, it seems that her life (and a new relationship) begins to parallel that of the pig-relative. They go through the vicissitudes of loving and hating and, finally, an act of violence that, surprisingly enough, brings them (her and the pig) closer together. The film is open enough to invite all kinds of speculations- theological/authorial (through the enigmatic character of the abductor/ foley artist), post-religious or even as an immanent, base reminder of our closer and more ‘natural’ relationship to animals than ‘higher’ subjectivities as so many sci-fi films will have you think. It also opens up, oddly enough, sympathetic lines of inquiry for pigs in earlier films- think of Porcile (Pigpen)or Benny’s Video. It is easier to sympathize with Julian in the first instance (!) and adds a further layer of horror in the latter instance to the family’s senseless killing of the pig, which inaugurates the possibility for Benny’s terrible act of violence later in the film. Carruth acts (he also shoots, edits, scores, operates the camera and writes the script) in the film but Seimetz’ performance is extremely commendable. [AK]

Gaarud |
Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni, 2008, India

There seem to be two Umesh Kulkarnis – the feature filmmaker who works steadfastly in the realm of realism and turns out acclaimed, commercially successful “accessible” cinema (Deool) and the short filmmaker who boldly experiments with tone and form, stripping away dialogue and narrative conventions till they are punctuations in the mood of a film instead of its raison d’etre.

Gaarud is his most formally striking experiment – a study of a room in a seedy railway lodge mounted as a seemingly continuous sideways tracking shot fading into and out of darkness beyond the walls (forming little chapters). The camera moves across the same space from different vantage points as boarders come and go. All of India seems to have passed by – modest traders, prostitutes, couples covertly making out, loners unsure of their desires, a small group of travelling entertainers, a man on the verge of suicide, young friends, someone is search of spirituality. There are nascent, untapped stories in these characters; yet Kulkarni doesn’t stop the camera. The suggestion of these stories is what he is interested in: the small time which the camera takes to cover the length of the room is the window into these people’s lives we have. There is no way of knowing if it is the same room in each segment except by studying the furniture in the room, like the repetitive appearance of the faded green-and-white jug and glass on the windowside table which acquires a sort of Ozu-like spirit set against the essential frugality of the décor.

What is surprising is the tonal variation (and thereby thematic unity) that Kulkarni manages with the same set – something he arrives at by careful ordering the sound design and the camera angles across the segments, achieving an illusion of a single take that is broken only if you strain to notice that there are complete fadeouts in between. A similar tension is maintained in mise en scene. The chapter on prostitutes places them at variable distances between foreground and background, their postures conveying emotions; the density of this scenario contrasting with the one where the camera travels across an empty room washed by sunlight. Kulkarni is almost as interested in the dramatic potential of spaces as he is in the glimpses of everyday life. [SB]

In the House (Dans la Maison) | 
Francois Ozon, 2012, France

In Ozon’s new film, he revisits some of his regular complications of the patriarchal family with their distinct  homosocial possibilities while maintaining his darkly comic vision. A professor of literature at a semi-genteel lycee finds his life thrown out of whack- slightly, and then suddenly, a lot- when a student starts writing sardonic but cannily observed sketches of a friend’s bourgeoisie family and their daily lives. The sketches seem only mildly intrusive at first, but then they start becoming more sensational and gripping as the professor and his wife- who runs an art gallery- get sucked into the events. A neat but not entirely unexpected twist in the end keeps the story alive. Fiction and its endless possibilities for queering any given pitches is the motor of the narrative and we watch as it unspools steadily, entangling the discerning professor in the process. The film wears Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema on its sleeve and reposes much of its potential on the disruptive, teenaged stranger-figure played very ably by Ernst Umhauer. Kristin Scott Thomas and Emanuelle Seigner provide support. The film is perfectly watchable but it is certainly not as great as some of Ozon’s earlier works like Criminal Lovers, 5x2 or Sitcom. [AK]

4:44, The Last Day on Earth |
Abel Ferrara, 2012, USA

The title of the film fixes historical and geographical co-ordinates for the event it depicts; in that, it reads like the beginning of a diary entry or a radio-log. The film in itself takes a definite interest in similar particularisation (and isolation) of its central conflict: it is world apocalypse, but it seems to be happening only to a certain couple in a certain apartment block. These are individuals who must deal and grapple with a constant inflow of images in a world where screens (of varying shapes, sizes, etc.) have laid siege upon their universe – a television blares, a live feed streams in, a video buffers, the facsimile of a human face is manifest on a video-chat programme. The individuals in the film exist not as actual physical beings, but as transmissions, mere electric signals from a device that reproduces the contours it sees in front of itself. This is an earth where characters exist only virtually; enslaved as they are to the melee of meaningless visuals that they are bludgeoned with. In that, Ferrara, the crude-poet, the vulgar-philosopher, cannot but lament the lack of faith in a world where only what is visible can be trusted, while what is invisible is open to speculation and ultimately, rejection. In the end, the apocalypse arrives; there is a massive power-cut that shuts down all devices and wipes broadcast off of all their screens – and that’s it, that is the end of the world. 4:44, The Last Day on Earth is Ferrara’s private ‘death of cinema’ film – a film where the ‘end of image’ means the end of world.  It begins with a black screen, which fades to grey even as credit-cards appear over it and the final shot fades to a gentle white – an 80-minute long documentary about a world where colour and images eventually drain out. [AM]

To Let the World In, Vol I. and II. | 
Avijit Mukul Kishore, 2013, India

This is a well-intentioned project that suffers from the nature of its production: a film commissioned by Chennai Art Fair as a scrolling marquee of the various artist-names who exhibited at the fair during its 2012 edition. The roster-checklist structure and the time-limit means that Kishore can only permit each artist a mention, a brief interview, and a quick slideshow of their work – the problem then is of allotment, as opposed to of architecture – all details must be fit in, as opposed to engaged with. This means that Kishore, whose earlier films, Snapshots from a Family Album (2004) and Vertical City (2011) are not minor accomplishments, is forced to abandon exploration of the subject-at-hand and instead, contend only with a trifling mention. Various artists appear one-by-one, in queue on cue, and discuss their work briefly – but the rundown-as-film structure means that a proper historical or social context is not established for their work, resulting in a feeling of art that seems to exist as if in some sort of social vacuum. The film burns in slowly and establishes in extensive detail the period of sixties and seventies, when various upheavals began to cause a coagulation of different artists into cohesive units that were working together for a common goal – a glorious period – but then, it accelerates, catches fire and goes till a point till it finally burns down. There are brief mentions of the rampant urbanization, the skewed male-female ratio in the art-community and the need to assimilate pop-icons into art as guiding forces behind the work of these artists, and yet, the film merely gleans over these associations, taking them per se at their word, instead of attempting a true, meaningful engagement with these claims of inspiration. There is also a sincere attempt in the film to establish the Babri Masjid Demolition of 1992 as an event of transformative caliber for a generation of Indian artists – this is an interesting insinuation for a generation that often laments the lack of a personal holocaust – and yet, even this gradually fades into a non-point over the duration of the film, existing as all other details do in the film: a mention. Perhaps the ambition of the project required a larger, spacious structure – a mini-series or a multi-episode project similar to the ones mounted by Mark Cousins recently or Jai Chandiram during the eighties public broadcasting era. And still, the film does exist as a valuable document-cum-directory of various essential Indian artists – a starting point, if nothing else; that is admirable since sometimes, that is the most any film can aspire to be. [AM]