Sunday, July 1, 2012

Supermen of Malegaon

Faiza Ahmad Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon comes as a much needed relief to the spate of mainstream films hitting the theatres every Friday. It’s a documentary film with a soul that will steal your heart away.
Supermen of Malegaon tells the story of a little town called Malegaon 300 kms from Mumbai. It’s not just the story of a town, but the people who make the identity of the town unique with their unflinching passion for cinema. Faced with communal strife between Hindus and Muslims, who live on either side of a river, there is no division when it comes to the love of cinema. A very ambitious Sheikh Nasir finds a way to channelize his passion into making films for the local audience. We see his huge collection of film posters and newspaper cutouts from Bollywood, Hollywood and world cinema.  He lays it all out and realizes - this is what obsession does to you. Nasir started to screen films at a video parlour for the locals to come and watch every Friday evening after a hard week of labour at the powerlooms. He learnt all about films in that parlour. Armed with a hancycam, he set out to make spoofs of Bollywood films until he finally decided to make a spoof of a Hollywood film - Superman. Faiza Khan’s documentary tracks the making of the film along with Sheikh Nasir and his crew, and everything that goes into their attempts at creating what they love best.
The biggest challenge that Sheikh Nasir faces with his endeavor is how to make Superman fly? With meager resources and limited technology, he only has his imagination and a few things he learnt watching the makings of a few films that he can put to test. So he decides to make a chroma screen by carefully getting a large green cloth stitched and a truck to haul it over. With this much done for special effects, the rest of it depends on his talent in making it work. Will he succeed? His equipments other than his handy cam include a bullock cart that helps him zoom into the villian’s eyes and a cycle to track his camera. His call word to action isn’t “action”, but “start”. Superman, a scrawny Shafique, shy and unassuming, but with big dreams is the perfect catch for the character with his lean figure and lightweight for all the stunts Nasir wants him to do. His heroine is cast with difficulty as the community is conservative and don’t allow their women outside their homes. It’s considered sinful to indulge in such outdoor activities. But in the end, cinema wins. And Nasir’s unrelenting efforts at doing what he loves as a hobby and an obsession brings a smile to everyone’s faces as it makes us laugh, cry and applaud all at the same time.
What this documentary does best is show a side of our country that we refuse to see. The lives of people from a small town with big dreams, and how they make their dreams come true to whatever capacity they can. It shows the conflicting nature of the two lives that they lead - one strife with poverty, limited means to sustain their families with jobs at the powerlooms, which is the main source of income for most of the population (where ironically the power shuts down for at least 8 hours everyday) and the communal tension that keeps anxiety high; the other is a fantastical and magical world of movies and stars and songs where one can escape into a universe far from reality and enjoy moments of laughter, sweetness, joy and love. An itching need to reclaim what is lost, a yearning to see much more than what their lives offer.
Faiza Khan’s sensitivity in portraying such a paradox is phenomenal. Her keen eye and sense of comic inference draws a fine line of respect, seriousness and earnest discovery. It must have been an uncertain and anxious journey during the shoot days, with no script in hand, but a conviction and drive to capture everything that was happening with Sheikh Nasir and his crew, along with constantly exploring, probing, understanding and in the process, forming a close relationship with the inhabitants of the town. An extremely unique attempt, and a very successful one at that. There is a certain attachment we feel to the people we see on screen, particularly Sheikh Nasir and Shafique who with their sincerity, innocence and honesty made me develop a fondness for them. Sadly, Shafique died of oral cancer last year. He has, however, made his mark in history with his courage and will be remembered. You want to see more and more of their lives and experience their journey, their struggles, their triumphs and tribulations and most of all, their pure passion for films.
Watch it for its loyalty, obsession, satire and for the celebration of the human spirit, in its purest form.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Separation

Tight and crisp are the words. Two hours of screen time that journeys through several levels of mindblowing complexities, layers of intense conversations, growing emotion and the pain of separation. Asghar Farhadi has done a phenomenal job of bringing together such an engaging story that would keep its viewer in rapt attention to watch the narrative unfold.

The film tells the story of a family - Nader, the husband (Peyman Moaadi), Simin, the wife (Leila Hatami) and their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to shift to a foreign country for the benefit of their daughter’s future but Nader refuses, as he needs to take care of his ailing father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She asks for a divorce on the grounds of his unwillingness to move out with her, hence concluding that he doesn’t care about his daughter’s future. Simin arranges for a caregiver to take care of Nader’s father. The ensuing complications that arise due to this situation propel the rest of the film. From the ailing grandfather to the caregiver to her hotheaded husband, the film is a mélange that addresses issues of religion, trust, values, faith, understanding and misgivings.

A Separation brings to the forefront more than one side of the modern Iranian middle class family. It starts and ends with the law playing an important role in determining the course of the characters' lives. Simin is extremely concerned about her daughter’s future, and demands a divorce as Nader doesn’t want to co-operate with her plan. However, she can’t get a divorce until Nader gives his consent. The judge calls her issue small. For Simin, however, it is a big issue in her life, and her feelings are strong enough for her to pursue the choice she wants to make. The law doesn’t have place for feelings, and she is left helpless. At other instances in the film, we are not sure about what is right and wrong, especially when it concerns a person’s emotion, difficulty and distress. So what is more important? Knowing that your emotion is stronger than the actions you are allowed to take because of it? Or knowing that your actions are the end to whatever emotion motivated it? Does the law care for how you feel? Or are laws enforced to merely serve what is deemed the best judgement?

Hints of discomfort with the society are made when Simin says that she prefers that her child doesn’t grow up under “these conditions”. When the judge asks her what conditions, she remains silent. He also asks her if she means to say that all the children living in the country do not have a future. The caregiver Razieh (Sareh Bayat) calls to find out if it’s a sin to wash up an old man who has peed in his pants. Razieh is a religious lady and cannot swear on the Holy Quran if she has doubts. She fears something might happen to her family if she lies. Though there is no glaring criticism to strict Islamic law, these instances bring to the forefront the effect of certain beliefs on people’s actions.

All the characters have been portrayed superbly. Their interactions are extremely natural and feel unscripted. The dialogues are quick, reactions instinctive and emotionally driven. Simin and Nader are a couple who still love each other, yet have different judgments of the situation and hence are divided on what action needs to be taken. Simin’s priority is her daughter’s future and she thinks it’s wise to move to a foreign land where she can have a better life. For Nader, however, as important as his daughter may be to him, he needs to stay and take care of his father. He does not understand why Simin doesn’t want to live with him anymore, but her motive comes from an intention of wanting to give what’s best for her family. Despite Nader wanting the same for the family too, the couple simply cannot resolve their differences.

The dynamics between the other couple, the caregiver Razieh and her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) is interesting. Razieh is not as innocent as she comes across in the beginning, after she accuses Nader of pushing her down the stairs and leading to her miscarriage. We are convinced of her case until we see that she might have fabricated it for her benefit. However, we also see from where this comes, perhaps as a desperate attempt at escaping poverty. Her husband Houjat is short tempered and cannot bear the thought of the smallest harm done to his wife. He comes across as an extremely difficult and stressed person who needs a constant reminder to calm his nerves. He is also religious like his wife, but more domineering in terms of the hold he has on his wife’s actions that could have the potential of wrongdoing. Razieh hence keeps her employment secret from him, as she knows that he would never let her work in a household without the wife of the house present. This is another indicator of spiritual restrictions that prevent the couple from an open and honest communication.

The cinematography by Mahmoud Kalari is intimate. It brings us so close to the characters, that we see how they see and feel what they feel, helping us empathize with their personal and collective dilemmas. The music is unassuming and manages to create moods without being too noticeable. The final scene where Nadir and Simin wait outside to hear their daughter's decision of who she wants to live with, is the most moving scene in the film. They both sit on separate sides of a glass door, waiting, as the credits start to roll. The discomfort and pain of separation linger densely in the air as heaviness engulfs the screen.

Watch it for its brutal honesty, palpable confrontations, disarming motives, and for the depth, complexity and the cruel sting of separation.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


How important is spoken language in our daily lives? Most of us would think quite important. After watching Lucky at the Mumbai Film Festival, though, my idea of the need for a spoken language in order to “communicate” has evolved. Simply because the film teaches you how in order to know, it’s more important to feel, and a spoken language is not even necessary to understand someone.

Directed by Avie Luthra, Lucky is a South African film set in Durban. It’s a story of an orphaned 10-year-old Zulu boy Lucky (played by Sihle Dlamini), who leaves his village to the city of Durban, to keep his promise he makes to his dead mother that he would do something in his life. He goes in search of his uncle, who his mother had told him would help him should anything happen. The uncle, however, does not seem too interested in taking care of Lucky, who wants to go to school.

The uncle gives him a tape that his mother had left for him. Lucky, in desperation to play the tape, finds a taperecorder in a neighbour’s house. The neighbour Padma (played by Jayashree Basavaraj) is an old Indian lady who lives on her own. The contents of the tape recorder determine the emotions that drive the growth of an unlikely relation between Lucky and Padma.

Padma initially treats the boy very unwelcomingly, as she has her reserves with his skin colour. But as time and incidents progress, she develops a fondness towards him, yet being cautious in her interactions with him. What is most beautiful in this odd yet endearing relation is the way they both start to talk to each other in their own languages. Padma speaks to lucky in Hindi and Lucky speaks to her in Zulu. Although both of them don’t understand each other’s languages, they still connect and develop a strong bond. The languages act as no barrier in their communication with each other. One particular scene towards the end is extraordinarily touching, where the silence that ensues after one says something to the other is remarkable in creating a beautiful mood.

The film brings to the forefront the need for love and longing to belong. Padma is a lonely old woman who lives in a land distant from her own, away from her roots and family. She may seem tough and cold on the outside, but inside lay a kind and honest soul, who is looking for someone she can care for. A sympathy is developed when we see her being nagged by black women early in the film, seen through the eyes of Lucky. Lucky on the other hand, has just been orphaned and is looking for someone who will understand his needs and is looking for love and comfort. In both these circumstances develops this fondness for each other, although both of them come from completely diverse backgrounds.

Avie Luthra delicately deals with issues of racism and communal hatred. Padma visibly has a dislike for the blacks, except that she softens her reserve with Lucky after she gets to know his story. However, her insistence on keeping her distance from him, and even refusing a hug from him, shows the deep-rooted fear and anxiety that lies ingrained in her mind. Lucky’s uncle admonishes Padma and even hurts her in the process, when he confronts her on taking custody of Lucky. He accuses her of being after the money that she would get from the government by claiming him and providing shelter. He addresses her as “you people” which is a clear expression of his indignation against the community of Indians who have occupied his land.

Sihle Dlamini’s character as Lucky is silent but strong and imprints an impression on the viewer with his quiet ways and resolute attitude. He drives the film forward. The film’s tagline “Sometimes luck has to be found” is apt to Lucky’s quest. He may not seem as lucky as his name suggests, but he has the courage to look for it, with his spirit and determination. He cries when he falls weak, but rises to fight for himself when he needs to. Despite having few dialogues, Sihle Dlamini has a very strong screen presence. His sometimes vacant eyes, his rare smile and quick actions are worth looking out for.

Jayashree Basavaraj as Padma is the perfect blend of a bewildered old woman living alone on high alert and a doting mother who misses her son and family. The transformation we see in her, as she grows more and more attached to Lucky is phenomenal, without being obvious. She retains her protective self for a good part of the movie, but with every passing encounter with Lucky, we see her weaken her guard and welcome him into her life. She gives a captivating performance and equally balances the chemistry of the film with the protagonist.

The film explores greed, hatred, love, possession, longing and above all the cultural and emotional journey of two lives. It shows two completely different worlds, one that is incongruent in the other, yet strangely finds space that intertwines at the level of the heart, where it matters most. Watch it for its wonderful story, its heartwarming moments and for its outstanding performances.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I remember how when I was a child, I would hear people admonish someone who was naughty or did something wrong as “shaitani”. You mustn’t be called that, because that would mean that you are a bad person. It’s almost the height of evil doing. And that’s what this movie is about. It’s about what happens when you continuously indulge in things that are not good for you, losing your sanity in the process. It is about how when you have to cover up for one mistake, you have to commit many more, that turns out to be a never-ending nightmare of bitter regrets and unimaginable actions.

Shaitan, directed by newcomer Bejoy Nambiar came as a brave attempt at unearthing the underbelly of the Indian police, and the consequences of young, wild erratic lifestyles of the uber cool, rich city bred kids. Five friends, KC (Gulshan Devaiya), Dash (Shiv Pandit), Zubin (Neil Bhoopalam),Tanya (Kirti Kulhari) and Amrita Jayshankar a.k.a. Amy (Kalki Koechlin) are on a wild ride of drugs, drinks and all that spells trouble. A fatal accident completely shocks them and to cover that up, they are forced to device a riskier plan that they hope would save them from serving a jail sentence. The “plan”, however, proves to be too costly to their friendship, their faith in each other and in life itself. Life turns out to be one hellish journey that takes away their spirit, their hopes, their happiness.

Shaitan’s appeal lies in its ability to provoke the senses of the viewer, to make the unexpected come true, but only in certain sections. While the first killing seems real, the ones following that seem a bit overdone. The film urges one's senses and performs in these particular bits. The technical experimentations are fresh, but borrowed. Distinctly Aronofsky right at the beginning. I liked how he brought a twist in Tanya’s story. And how Amy got high in the shot of her against the wall. I liked how the remixed songs were played in the background of completely contradictory visuals. The songs did not come in the way of the film, neither did it disrupt the flow of the narration. It only added to the substance, sometimes loudly, sometimes subtly, but it played in a way that blended with the screen action. The chase scene is done with alacrity keeping the pace and pulse fast and intense. The accident is, by far one of the best sequences in the film. The impact, the silence, the heaviness - all combined to bring out the extent of its magnitude - that would determine the course of the rest of the film.

The film did not work for me for a few reasons. First its luck was pulled too far. The antics started to repeat itself, and hence felt overdone. The dialogues sometimes lacked an intelligence. The actors did a fair job, but other than Rajeev Khandelwal who played Inspector Arvind Mathur, there was a certain lack of depth in the other characters. Amy’s estranged mother and her devastated state of mind was explored well, yet failed to really come through. It lacked a history, and a solid build to the mother and consequently her state of mind. It tries to have an impact, but again, lacked a fineness. However, the last scene of the child in the tub pulls it off well. Arvind Mathur’s marital problems did not directly affect his screen presence, and the parallels drawn between his police life and his issues at home did not bring any major point to the forefront. There was a disconnect between these two selves.

The larger issue on which the film built itself on, the corruption of the Indian police force is not fully addressed. Yet its attempt to expose the flaws in the system and display how easy it is to make a "bribe" in order to keep a crime under the rug is admirable. Rajeev's character acts as the thread that tries to keep the credibility of the system intact. He is the fibre that runs through the film to connect the dots, to replace the missing pieces, to bring justice. Our society needs to wake up to these realities and stop taking corrupt ways for granted. If it can ruin someone else's life, it can very well ruin your life too. This is what the characters in the movie symbolize. They are the victims of a system gone terribly wrong. And one wrong system can turn into a vicious circle of many many wrong and awful consequences.

The characters were clearly inspired by real people that the director may have come across in his life. They had different shades and dimensions to their personalities. The overall message of the film stands strong in its desire to shake our fantastic thoughts of wild fun, and ground us to the grim realities of such dangerous turns.

Watch it for its edginess, its pace, and most of all, its compelling theme.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Black Swan

Aronofsky does it again. This time with greater grip, passion and spectacle. The Black Swan, in all its intensity took me on a journey of dangerous ambition, hateful competition, and disturbing mental trauma seen through the eyes of the victim - a ballerina.

Who would think the petite form of the ballerina could be turned into a bloody nightmare that haunts, disrupts and even kills? Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman is torn between her most private insecurities and her ambition to get the lead role of the Swan Queen. Personifying the conflict of good and evil in Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake”, Nina needs to fight the demons in her head that make her lose her mind. She sees competition in Lily (Mila Kunis), who has the qualities that she lacks, the sexuality and seductiveness that is required to play the black swan. Nina is a perfectionist, but only in technique. She can carry off the role of the white swan beautifully, but lacks the emotion and spontaneity that will carry the character of the black swan.

The pressure only mounts with Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who dreams of her daughter’s success, and lives to see her become a great dancer. She is strict when it comes to discipline and performance. Her character also has hints of dark shades right in the very early stages of the film. Although she acts as Nina’s support system, she strangely also drives her to desperation and fear. The other voice that increases Nina’s need to be perfect is her dance teacher Thomas Leroy (Vincent Casel), who with his autocratic hand, pushes her to bring out what she lacks most - her sexuality. He gives her exercises that will help her discover herself and get more comfortable in her skin. Nina simply does not know how to handle this. How will she free her mind and repressed body, amidst the leering eyes of her mother who allows her no freedom?

Nina’s darkest fears translate into a living nightmare where she confronts what she sees the way her mind perceives it. Her world overturns when her dance takes over the air she breathes, the movements she feels and the voices that she hears. She sees herself in everything that haunts her. Her face becomes her fear, when it reflects itself at the most unexpected moments. Will she become the force that drives her to perfection? At what cost? And whose?

The movie is replete with Aronofsky style camera angles and movements all the way. His signature style of walking along with the character in quick successive steps especially reminded me of his earlier film Requiem for a Dream. Like how Jennifer Connelly leaves the apartment and walks out into the lift and out into the rain, Nina too, after a horrific sight, walks devastated towards us, as the camera moves with equal pace and urgency as her. This I find a unique experiment in Aronofsky’s cinematography. Also in this movie, the camera swirling and dancing around Nina as she finds her way across the performing space lends to a spectacular visual treat.

The soundtrack is one of the most dominant forces that lead the film. The background score by Clint Mansell takes the movie to a level that speaks the turmoil of Nina. Like in all other Aronofsky films, Mansell has delivered the best, bringing out the theme, the tune of emotions and the physical moods of the characters.

In a mix of genres, the Black Swan hits you somewhere but you are not sure where. It merges what you see and what you believe to have seen. It takes storytelling to a different level where the character’s quest to prove herself becomes the biggest threat when it overtakes the stability of her mind. It wipes out all doubts of unlikely possibilities because what our heart feels may not always be what our mind sees. It is a complex game of reality and dreams, an exploration into the deepest and darkest abysses of oneself and the fight to overcome the numbing pain. Like The Wrestler, here too there is the passion for a career, and beating all odds to find true happiness in doing what one loves most. But not without conquering a war that will take everything out of you, even your sanity.

Not everything needs to be explained with a practical reason. Neither does this ending. Watch The Black Swan for its beauty, tragedy, intrigue and exhilarating passion.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Social Network

At an age where everything happens at the click of a mouse, and we swear by what we read on our social networking sites, life seems to revolve around the computer screen and all the time we spend in front of it. From updating status messages to uploading unlimited photographs to sharing our common interests, our social world is getting defined by how we like to portray ourselves online.

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher is testimony to how such an idea of developing a website that has grown as enormous as The Facebook has come to rule our lives. Jesse Eisenberg, who remarkably plays the character of Mark Zuckerberg shows us how the world’s youngest billionaire came to create a social networking site that proves to be a revolutionary finding. Unlike his character in Adventureland, Eisenberg is more nerdy, less socially active, and focused on his genius finding. The movie is the tale of rewards, and the complications of lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg. He is accused of stealing an idea, and we see him fight through the case with resolve and confidence.

The film meant many things to me. First, the phenomena of Facebook itself. What had started as a mere revenge stunt in college, turned out to be something that people couldn’t get enough of. From rating college girls based on their hotness, to its popularity lending to the growth of an entire social networking site where people not just got to post a profile of themselves, but also got to know others who they may be interested in.

We search for names and faces. It is the virtual meeting point and place to interact and get to know people we already may have met. It is like a dictionary of a person we want to get a quick update on. Today, rather than exchanging phone numbers, a person’s name is enough to track them down on Facebook. It’s the ideal way to stay in touch. More than e-mails, or phonecalls, the Facebook is the most convenient way for me to keep in touch with my friends. There is no obligation, the internet is an open book, and Facebook is the social meeting site. I not only get to say hello to my friends, but I also get to see their photographs, statuses, and all the updates that I’d like to know. It is addictive. It will take you to unlimited opportunities of connections. What better means for communication?

Facebook has now crossed the boundaries of age, countries and continents. It has become a global networking arena. A site of reunions, discussions, personal thoughts, mood descriptions, photo sharing, laughs, memories, triumphs and defeats. It has come to define our existence in the real world. Are we who we portray on our Facebook pages? Or is it a place to reclaim what we wish to be seen as? A drug that may not cease to satisfy, it can be a bug as big as the virus we fear most. We need to learn how to keep it away. While it is a pathbreaking instrument to bring the world closer, too much time spent on it can result in a virtual social life. Only.

The Social Network will show you the genius behind it all. Watch it for a story that is as real as I write this, and as fast as your mind is thinking about your next status update. Yes, you are bitten by the Network.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Conversation

Your auditory senses couldn’t be more alert. The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 has one of the most engaging sound tracks that will grip you in a way you cannot forget.

Establishing a unique sound aesthetic right from the beginning, the audio dynamics is quite striking with its ability in itself to build a relationship of the protagonist Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman) and the other characters in the film.

There is a noticeable discord in the various sound elements that has a stereophonic quality, which subsequently builds a certain auditory disconnect from the visuals in the film. The scene that struck me the most is the one from where Harry leaves the office after collecting his money. As he leaves down the elevator and asks Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) about what they will do to the two young people whose conversation he had recorded, there is a slow and steady drumbeat that starts and increases momentum as he walks out in the open and is frustrated with himself for the kind of work that he does and his guilt that something might happen to the couple. The African drumbeat exudes a feeling of building action, of an impending climax. Then there enters a voice that plays in his head that acts as both non-diagetic (as the source is not from location) as well as diagetic since the voice is from the character’s mind who is in the narrative sphere. The drumbeats subside as soon as he hears in his head the repeated line “He’d kill us if he got the chance”. At this point the drumbeats fade to be taken over by the sound of the wind in the background. As he hears the voice of the girl singing “red red robin”, we hear the sound of the wind overpowering the tense atmosphere. It is at its most heightened volume when the recorded voices of the couple say the time, day and venue of their next meeting. Also there is a discreet screech of the electronic recording as we hear these voices, distinguishing it as the same recorded voice that is playing in Harry’s mind. There is a certain expansiveness that is created with this sound design of the wind, the voices and the sounds of the recording.

Following this, we only feel silence of the interiors of the hotel room and the occasional sounds of the city outside as Harry inspects the room. Once he enters the bathroom, the atmospheric sound quietens and the sounds of his equipment as he sets up the path to listen to the voices of the other room progresses. We hear his slow breathing, the flush, the cement that gets cut into, the shuffle of his body as he settles and the vibration of the volume control box of his audio device. At a distance, we hear far away voices from the other side of the room that slowly gain in volume to become clearer and closer. As the conversation gets heated up there is suddenly a screeching rewind sound that brings the voices to an end. Harry gets up in anger and we can hear his heavy breathing. Then all that is audible are the hollow voices that resonate from the other room. As they continue to argue, Harry shuffles around restlessly and we hear the sound of the balcony open. In an instant there is a loud, jarring and disturbing scream along with a loud bell sound, as Harry hallucinates and sees a murder. This has a powerful impact on the viewers as much as it does on Harry. The scream continues on a higher but softer pitch along with the bells chiming as the sound of the television that Harry puts on overlaps it. The sound of the bells continues as the scream transforms into an ambulance like a wail in Harry’s head. This I believe is one of the most powerfully simulated auditory hallucinations.

The clever overlaps in sound and the closeness that it brought me to what Harry was feeling is what I greatly admire. It brings the theme of invasion of privacy quite intensely. Harry lived hearing the voices he recorded, feeling what the voices were feeling, traumatized by the emotional implications, and most of all, his lonely existence.

Walter Murch’s seminal creativity with the sound effects has given the movie its personality and its purpose. The embedded conversation recordings, the innovative use of diagetic and non-diagetic sounds, the intense background mix, and the deafening silences are what makes it an absolute must to study the artistic value of sound with the film’s storytelling.