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General Review

 | +Plus |

  BY Soham Gadre, Sudipto Basu, Anuj Malhotra, Gaurav Puri

 '...a very strange film', Rajat Kapoor's Aankhon Dekhi (2014)

'...an analog film made in the digital era'

 Aankhon Dekhi
 | Rajat Kapoor, 2014, India

I suppose the correct way of saying it is: Aankhon Dekhi is an analog film made in the digital age, a film about the past set in the present. A film on – and in – harmony. Of course, it is nostalgic – filmed in spaces as archaic as the haveli in Garm Hawa – but it is aware of the futility of nostalgia.

For all we know, the sense of community evoked in this puraani Dilli mohalla has long disappeared. And yet Kapoor grounds the relation of his characters to each other in this sense of camaraderie. Relatives, neighbours, family constantly infringe on the lives of one another but no one questions the other’s right to do so. Privacy, the basic tenet of modernist architecture, is next to non-existent.

Set against this fabric is Bauji’s journey, his personal search for personal truth. He won’t believe anything he hasn’t seen, heard or felt firsthand. The community responds to his eccentric decision first with amusement and mild derision, but pretty soon a small personality cult crystallizes around him. Bauji warns them not to follow him but themselves, find their own truth – a decision that inevitably leads him to a break from the collective way of life. When Bauji’s younger brother Rishi decides to move out of the house, he is also questioning the old ways – this sense of harmony – in parallel. Except Rishi’s journey is externalized, an outward transference of responsibility and guilt, while Bauji’s is internal (at one point, he stops talking altogether).

Aankhon Dekhi has some interesting parallels to Kapoor’s own Mithya, which is about the insignificance of objective truth (importantly, Bauji is not as interested in empirical truths: who India’s prime minister is matters as much to him as day-night cycles do to Holmes). A bit-actor is forced to impersonate an underworld don who looks like him. A rival gang has the kingpin silently killed and plants the lookalike actor in his place as the ultimate ‘insider’. Somewhere in between, the actor loses his memory and, as a unconscious method actor, believes his part completely. He becomes the king of the underworld until his associates learn who he ‘really’ is and kill him. Mithya is therefore about the falsehood of objective truth framed through this thing called cinema: itself a giant construction of different falsehoods.

Aankhon Dekhi is then an auto-critique of fantasy. Just as the movie hall burning up in the climax of Basterds is both an attempt at reversing the tides of history and a meta-commentary on the gullibility of the audience (the Germans being toasted inside after all believed in the heroic fantasies of Nation’s Pride), the very classical construction of Aankhon Dekhi is its counter-argument when juxtaposed with the ending – a thing of beauty and boldness – towards which the film has been building up even though we don’t foresee it.

A sentence achieves meaning when encountered with a pause and a shot achieves significance when it is cut. The opposition to the natural flow of time (entropic, dispersive) – embodied in classicism of composition, in the sense of community – culminates in Bauji’s euphoric choice of salvation. Nearing the end of his search, he faces the really tough question: how can he realize his dream if he doesn’t dare to try it? Therefore he flies, jumps off a cliff. Like all existential men he finds home only when he ceases to exist. “Everything’s here for you to see.”

Don’t believe in what I say until you’ve seen it. - SB

Director Rajat Kapoor isn’t shy about displaying who his idols are (the end credits begin with a “thanks” to Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani - two of India’s finest and most under-appreciated filmmakers), even if it may label him a ‘learned’ and therefore (undeservedly) ‘pretentious’ Indian filmmaker.

This is a very strange film, with a peculiar philosophy and I didn’t know whether to make heads or tails of it at first. The basic premise is that an old man named Bauji (a very multifaceted role for the talented Sanjay Mishra), has a revelation and decides to follow the anthem of “my truth will be the only truth” and “I will not believe anything that I don’t see with my own two eyes”. Now, this labels him as a madman among many in his community and sparks debate about perception. It also takes a major toll on his family and Bauji, day after day, becomes more self-destructive via this new-found ideology or “way of life” of his. He does attain a rather devoted following of several men, although at first one can’t really tell if they are following him ironically, or they’re seriously enlightened by his lifestyle.

What is hard to come to terms with in the film is absolutism with which Bauji prescribes to his views… at first you think “good for him!” when he says he refuses to follow all the rules and regulations society has set for religion (Hinduism in this case) because there is no evidence of God even existing. But then, he also starts to doubt the existence of gravity and that the world is round, and your thoughts automatically become “ok, never mind, this guy is a complete idiot”. He is at once, Socrates(“the only thing I know is, I know nothing”) and a senile old fool.

This film can be seen as a clever mocking of Rajkumar Hirani’s idealistic diatribe cinema which basically champions the ‘average ignorant male’ forming truths around something he himself doesn’t understand… but in Hirani’s films of course, this central character is never revealed for the fool that he very well is, which is a shame, but it’s “Bollywood”.

 I feel like Kapoor only hints at this, but was aiming for something a bit deeper though a lot of the film is focused on the toll a personal lifestyle has on family. The irony is that Bauji kind of pisses everyone off because he is free-thinking one minute (he refuses to do morning pooja, which prompts his wife to plead to God to forgive him) but then a traditionalist the next (he wants his brother and the whole family to live together under one roof). - SG

A Million Ways to Die in the West | Seth McFarlane, 2014, USA

A parody of the ol’ Hollywood Westerns provides McFarlane to explore three abiding interests: historical context, cartoonish violence, and Mel Brooks (remember Blazing Saddles?). It is subject matter that is fertile for his sensibilities – and yet, it isn’t. It’s one of those classic cases of cinematic regrets, the could-have-beens; the setting of the film in itself seems to play into his hands –absence of modern medicine and hygiene, the lawlessness, dust in your lungs, literally anything can cause murder in the West – this is comedy gold. So why does McFarlane choose instead to center his entire movie on the most pedestrian, boring, drab, and predictable plot known to man? The film is the conventional comedy-through-anachronisms, past seen through the present’s lens: the running gag here being the absence of medicine in the 1800s.

It is reduced thus to McFarlane’s standard ‘stand-up-comedy’: the backwardness of the 1800s, the unimaginable horrors that turn funny when looked at from a distance, and a couple of cute Family Guy-style cutaway gags. This might have been a great television episode, but the longer duration exposes McFarlane.  - SG

Edge of Tomorrow
 | Doug Liman, USA, 2014

If anything, it reveals that movies aren’t very sure of themselves anymore – in this era of mutation and resemblance, specific qualities of distinct forms percolate into one another, but it seems that no other form is as undecided on its own nature in the present as cinema; which is perhaps why the question, ‘what is cinema’ (as opposed to: ‘what is cinema’) is asked so often these days, and busybodies everywhere are trying to arrive at an answer. This may also explain why young cinephiles withdraw to the silent cinema – atleast there, they find a definite answer and some assurance, or to its classical era – because well, films made sixty years ago seem to be cinema. Anyways, Liman doesn’t have any answers either. He abandons the possibility of simulated, hokey tension that most modern Hollywood, system-obsessed blockbusters embrace through the declaration of a dire consequence that a character may face if he fails – these films are permeated by the sinister prospect of death, loss, imprisonment, confinement, damage to honour and obviously, global apocalypse. No such fear is manifest in Edge of Tomorrow, where the lead protagonist has endless opportunities to pursue his singular mission – and as the film has us believe – without running the serious risks of insanity, of boredom, of agony or of disillusionment. But in its disregard for character psychology and the resulting substitution with the declaration of a singular, grand mission (that must be fulfilled, for whatever purpose, who cares), Edge of Tomorrow is not unique. It shares this interest in entirely design-based qualities with other recent films: Escape Plan (architecture, difficulty levels), Snowpiercer (levels, the pursuit of an answer, a mission) and Inception (levels, sub-levels, a final objective).

This is interesting, because this narrative scheme based in levels and sub-levels creates opportunities of little failures and successes, often parallel to each other – but unlike say, in a classical, linear film, there is no real danger anymore, because failure at one level may be corrected or compensated for by a success at another, or like in Edge of Tomorrow, where the narrative itself displaces the debris of a failed past from its path until the space is now cleared to deposit a new event. Needless to say, this is similar to the endlessly renewable and replenished nature of a saved game slot in a video game – the parallels here to video games here are too obvious at large, but the most significant perhaps is that, much like in a video game, there is no real consciousness (of character, geography or event) that pervades the universe of the film, except that of the user, who exists outside of all of this, mindful only of the eventual objective of the entire exercise. These films enable the notion of ‘user experience’ (hitherto employed only in conversations about digital technology that permits interactivity) to enter conversations about cinema – a viewer is not meant to engage with the film in primal terms: pain, fear, hurt, sadness – but instead, is encouraged to acquaint himself with qualities such as the current level of difficultly, susceptibility to failure, angle of attack, time taken to accomplish a mission. In this, qualities of traditional ‘cinema’ – say, mood, passage of time, atmosphere, immersion – are all substituted instead by ideas loaned from other media: reset buttons, cheatcodes, cut-scenes, stages, point-systems, modes and growing acclimatisation with the always similar world of the film. - AM

| Gareth Edwards , 2014, USA

While films like The Day After Tomorrow deal with meteorological catastrophes that are beyond human control, and Pacific Rim pose a situation that demands direct human intervention (make monster to fight monster), Godzilla is a film that poses an ethical inquiry: “should we interfere, or not”? This, as I said, is unique to the Godzilla franchise, since the entire purpose of the monster’s existence is to, as Dr. Serizawa says, restore natural balance. Serizawa even draws a lateral connection with the other films of the same family, he says – ‘The problem with human arrogance is that we think we can control nature, when really, it is the other way around. Let them fight.’ This conscious policy of non-intervention is interesting, an admission of powerless is ofcourse, rare in Hollywood cinema. It also assures us that there will be no significant interaction between humans and monsters (except hokey parallels).

The movie then becomes the journey of Ford doing “whatever it takes, Captain” to save the city and reunite with his family. The monsters meanwhile are simply reduced to natural disasters, background storms which occur through the night, destroying the city with smoke-breaks in between.  

The final image is crucial in reinforcing human impotency in the face of a natural calamity: Godzilla simply crawls back into the ocean, a destroyed city in his wake, not even a buoyant splash as the water calmly opens a slit and lets him in. This is the final statement then, that this wasn’t really a monster movie at all; it was, instead, a disaster film, one about humans coping and dealing with an unstoppable force of nature, which comes and goes on a whim (just like the franchise) – what will you do about it? - SG

The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, 2014, USA

From the moment Emmet Brickowski (fantastic name for a lead character) appears on screen, we realize that he is essentially an embodiment of the American college graduate:  consumed by cheesy sitcoms, spending exorbitant amounts of money on coffee, and trying hard to fit in with his new coworkers. He realizes however that he is ‘The Special’ - the single most significant human being to ever exist. Here, the joke is in the implication of vocabulary: ‘ever’ (like ‘epic’, is an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to Hollywood’s interest in the absolutism of an individual or object, ‘the one ring’, The Matrix, or Terminator) and that he is the only person who can prevent an Armageddon.

Much of the film’s accomplishment lies in the fact that it intersperses its commentary with instances of kiddy humour. The humour itself is of a biting variety, drawn mostly through the film’s observation of the parallels between the troubles children face at school, and those faced by the adults at the workplace. It is also a film full of interest in engineering and invention: Emmet conjures a ‘Double Decker Couch’, a Chekhov Gun everyone scoffs at, but an object that redeems itself through a utility even it creator had not envisioned for it. The Lego Movie is interesting in that it combines observational wit with smart satire. - SG

Rangbhoomi | Kamal Swaroop, 2013, India

'...a montage of gradual decay makes the background', Kamal Swaroop's 'Rangbhoomi'

It’s popularly known that he himself declared ‘Phalke is Dead’ (for cinema) in a newspaper in Bombay and left for Varanasi in 1920, where Phalke stayed for two years and wrote his last play Rangbhoomi. The play is considered to be autobiographical in part. Mostly myths fill this part of his life. How then, does one reconstruct a history, or rather a chapter in biography that is incomplete! Probably “through the artist’s works,” says an elderly man to two youngsters from Swaroop’s troop in Varanasi in the film.

Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi uses Phalke’s work to reconstruct the Varanasi chapter of his life. The movie forms part of a larger project: Tracing Phalke, which started in 2006. Swaroop, and his troop, have come to Varanasi to ‘restage’ Rangbhoomi. As Swaroop starts reading ‘scene 1, para 1’ to his crew, the film begins. He is sitting in the centre of the stage, which looks like a set run-down or half-done.

A similar montage of gradual decay makes the background for most part of the film. It is as if something is against this whole idea of reconstruction, keeping the researchers out of clues. They chase it from street to street, ghat to ghat, in libararies, at chai-stalls...

A situation in the film: Did Phalke stage the play in Varanasi? Researchers are looking for evidence. They come to meet a man in the Marathi colony who, they learn, has a collection of old newspapers. Alas! Most of his collection was drained in floods last year. Whatever remains has been donated to the library nearby. In library there are piles and piles of paper and pulp. The camera watches the searching hands as they go down through the years in the piles: 1924, 1923, 1922, annual chronicles in juicy-yellow starch; the layers of pulp flitter as camera looks in silence. The scene is energetic: as if a constant force from below is eating the past year by year. What if this movie was planned a year later? However, to their relief they find an ad of the play.

Such situations are few. The film operates on three levels: the real, the surreal and the mythical – all of them flowing seamlessly into another. At one level, Swaroop—the narrator of the film—talks to people, talking to them the camera moves back and forth in these worlds as if trying to collect the stories that make the many histories of Phalke.

A scene: People are talking inside a strip of shops. In front of the shop, outside, sit many old men looking above the shops. Swaroop is sitting in the left corner of the the roof (and the frame), as Raja Harishchandra is screened on the wall behind. He talks to them about the movie. It is as if history is cramped up in corners and spaces—like the absent first floor that makes room for the screening. When the floor would be constructed, the wall that became the screen will be gone.   

‘Is cinema a mask or my reflection?’ - this question troubled Phalke the most; ‘what is the function of cinema?’ Swaroop conducts a similar discussion with a group of the ‘past’ generation. He says, ‘if I see a river on screen, I will associate it with the one near my house.’ The story on the screen, in many ways, becomes the story of the eyes watching it. Do the eyes see their reflection or do they use the film to mask their aspirations? The film offers no answer. Swaroop doesn’t even pretend to. Instead, he asks: do we see the real Phalke or the Phalke, ‘the Father of Cinema’? And seeing that do we see the insecurities of a questioning mind or answers of a supposed auteur?

Rangbhoomi is the struggle of a man unsettled by the rituals of the society. The questions he asks and the worldly answers—and their absence—leave Sangeet Rao, the protagonist of the play, puzzled and frustrated.  

Where the play’s reading brings out the inner and outer conflicts of a man: God, Religion, I, family, society; the discussions reveal the abject reality of Phalke; while the search makes him a lost ‘object’. As the reconstruction reaches 80th minute, Phalke and Swaroop identities are no longer distinct, as one narrator takes over the other: one bearing the other’s burden. For now, Phalke is a memory, an advertorial, a conversation, a thought, a mystery above all. However, what he is not is the celebrated father-figure, far from it. 

Rangbhoomi is a non-feature; an exercise in exploration. The film can be seen as the process of historical reconstruction. For the untrained and students, it is a lesson in how to unearth and revitalise a dying story of a history that is fading away. - GP