Gautaman Bhaskaran
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INDIAN CINEMA

Cinema In General

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Pans & Tilts…Beyond Bollywood favourites of 2007

Last week, I wrote about my favourite Bollywood films of 2007. This time let me take a look at my 2007 favourites beyond Bollywood. India’s only living auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan still swims and survives in a sea of big-budget movies,
Naalu Pennungal
aggressively promoted by Bollywood bucks and bigwigs. His latest feature, tenth in 35 years, proves his unwavering commitment to meaningful cinema that began with his first, “Swayamvaram” (One’s Own Choice), in 1972. A keen eye for detail, a remarkable feel for authenticity and an undying love for each of his characters have helped Adoor, as he is popularly known, to create celluloid excellence, which is at once refreshing, even rejuvenating, for it is so different from the usual song-and-dance Indian cinema. In Adoor’s films, real people exist, facing and fighting real predicaments in often complex situations, and these have endeared him to very ordinary cinema audiences, as they have to critical festival buffs. Therefore, his latest “Naalu Pennungal” (Four Women) in Malayalam – premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival – is sure to find a good market not just overseas but also at home, particularly in southern India.

“Naalu Pennungal” is divided into four chapters, each dealing with a different problem women face. The chapters, based on renowned Kerala writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s short stories, have one obvious link, women. But not so palpable is another commonality, which can be discovered only by paying undivided attention to the screen: the injustice heaped on this sex by society.

The first episode examines a prostitute’s distress when she and the man she chooses to live with are accused of illicit relationship and jailed. The woman who wants to begin a new life is ridiculed by the sentencing judge, and an obstacle is placed on her path to reformation and love. In the second section, aspersions are cast on a farming woman when her impotent (or is it gay?) husband sends her back to her parents’ home. In a disturbing night scene, we see the woman suffer terrible hurt and humiliation when he rejects her with callous words, ‘it is too hot”. This story is aptly subtitled “Virgin”.

The third part captures the angst of a housewife whose children fail to live beyond a few days or weeks after birth, and the narrative, touching upon sorrow and desire but subtly laced with humour, places the woman in a quandary as she fights the temptation to sleep with an old schoolmate if only to beget a child. We see the same lure in a spinster (Nandita Das) in the final segment, where she invites a man home, but hesitates and finally refuses to let him in. With her brother and two younger sisters married, she is left with little choice: either be a piece of furniture in a sibling’s home, scoffed at and used as a domestic, or sink into solitude.

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Buddhadeb Dasgupta is one of the last among India’s fast vanishing tribe of art filmmakers. He lives in Bengal, makes movies in Bengali and owes his debt to the region’s cinema greats, such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and still living Mrinal Sen. While Dasgupta studiously avoids creating anything similar to Ray’s work, and steers clear of Ghatak’s sentiment, the younger director often has been accused of making his movies overtly poetic. This is only natural, because Dasgupta is a renowned poet and to a lesser extent a novelist. The use of verse as a metaphor and the seemingly absurd make his films distinct from many others, and highly suitable for art-house audiences. Dasgupta’s latest, “Ami Yasin Arr Amar Madhubala” (The Voyeurs) – screened at the Toronto International Film Festival – may hold wider commercial prospects, appealing to viewers outside this discerning circuit, given the picture’s plot and its treatment.

The “Voyeurs” is a critique of the modern surveillance system that makes a mockery of individual privacy. At the very beginning, we are introduced to both the goodness and evil of the system. A hospital chief installs monitors to keep an eye on negligent nursing staff. Well, good, if they are for saving lives. But a little later, at a busy train terminus, a policeman gleefully watches on his screen a young couple smooching. Dasgupta pans across these scenes to take us to a young woman, Rekha’s (played by Sameera Reddy) room, whose window affords voyeuristic scope for men on a terrace across the street. This idea is developed into a close-up with sharper visuals when the woman’s neighbour, a strapping youth called Dilip, and his friend, Yasin, plant an “eye’ in her room for endless peep-shows on their little screen.

The story takes a dramatic turn when Rekha discovers Dilip’s crime, and in a series of twists, Dasgupta touches upon Islamic terror, mistaken identity and police brutality that claims the life of an innocent man. Set in the midst of Calcutta’s/Kolkata’s teeming millions, the movie, though minimalist in dialogue, tends to be somewhat expansive in imagery. The recurring scene of men carrying wooden furniture on the streets appears distracting, implying somewhat sloppy scripting and editing. One fails to understand why the film should have gone into areas like terror, diluting in the process what Dasgupta had set out to tackle in the first place, the intrusiveness of camera.

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Lenin Rajendran, probably the most poetic director in Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) cinema, loves to use music and dance to narrate his stories, though the style is very different from a Bollywood work, where songs often stand out like a sore thumb. His 2000 film, “Rain” (Mazha), conveyed the agony and ecstasy of a village temple singer, and his unrequited love. Weaving folk and semi-classical tunes into the narrative, Rajendran created moments of sheer passion and a memorable movie. His latest, “Night Rain” – which competed at the International Film Festival of India in Goa’s capital city, Panaji – is a modern tale of contemporary dance and internet romance.

Tipped to do well even in the commercial circuit, apart from the run it is likely have in several festivals, the movie opens with 23-year-old Meera (Meera Jasmine) surfing the net to find a husband, and 30-something Harikrishnan (Vineeth), fitting her bill. The initial coyness between them soon evaporates, the anonymity of the net encouraging them to get intimate with words. He is a modern dancer, and Meera finds herself drawn to his rhyme and rhythm. However, when they step out of the virtual world, she is shattered when she sees him paralysed waist down, a result of a recent plot to maim him in the dancing arena.

There are some magical shots of contemporary dancing, liberally drawing from Kerala’s martial arts and folk music. Tastefully choreographed by Vineeth, who is a trained Bharatanatyam artist, and Chitra Iyer, a professional singer (who plays his teacher, Mohini), the dances enrich the dream like sequences the director uses to draw us into an unreal existence, where hopes are woven around falsehoods. Several nights scenes capture the melancholy of Meera and Harikrishnan, whose unfulfilled sexual desire lends itself to public curiosity and ridicule. Kumar’s camera helps create this illusory world through soft and sensuous lighting.

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First-time director Samir Chanda adapts a short story by Bengal’s renowned poet and writer, Sunil Gangopadhyay, and turns it into a sensitive portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. Setting the film in a village in the eastern Indian State of Bengal, Chanda uses the lush green landscape and the virgin beauty of the countryside to narrate the tale of a river on whose banks grew Anjana/Anu (Shweta Prasad). A motherless child affectionately parented by her postmaster father, Darakeshwar Bhattacharya (Mithun Chakraborty), she is bubbly and spreads joy in the neighbourhood. In fact, the narrative has more about her than the river itself, the title being somewhat misleading.

Pregnant with messages – such as the value of female education (still a burning issue in rural India), the evils of tobacco chewing, the rigidity of the caste system, the divisive forces of religion and the bugbear of bureaucracy – the Bengali language movie nonetheless goes beyond these to tell a poignant story of a father’s fight to immortalise his daughter’s name. Gripping enough to even attract non-festival arthouse crowds, it scores with its plot and visual imagery.

When college-going (the first girl in her village to do so) Anjana or Anu, as she is fondly called, dies on the banks of the river she adored, her grief-stricken father begins a crusade to rename it after her. He hits a wall with an unfeeling bureaucracy and a political system that might change any number of other names, but not of this river. Recounted with touching simplicity, Tale of a River -- competing at the International Film Festival of India at Panaji in Goa, is not so much the story of flowing waters as it is of flowing feelings, those of a distraught man struggling to keep alive the memory of one person who mattered in his life.

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Tailpiece: Benazir Bhutto will be immortalised on the silver screen. India’s Mahesh Bhatt is all set to make a picture on her, and Shabana Azmi would essay that part.

(Webposted January 9 2008)