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.