Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 May 2013
Utpal Dutt as the stranger (Uncle Mitra)
Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.
The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)
Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).
The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.
Posted in Bengali Cinema, Indian Cinema | Tagged: Satyajit Ray | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 23 April 2013
Riz Ahmed as Changez (centre back) behind Kiefer Sutherland as his boss on a trip to the Philippines to make a car plant more productive (and lose jobs).
You have to admire the chutzpah of BIFF programmers Tom Vincent and Neil Young in starting their festival with Michael Winterbottom and finishing it with Mira Nair. They are two of my favourite directors but both are almost guaranteed to cause controversy or to produce films that critics write about negatively (which is important for the success of specialised films). I wasn’t keen on the Winterbottom this time but the Mira Nair, though seriously flawed in some ways, was very interesting. The more negative reviews I read, especially from the US, the more I like it. To be fair though, the most sensible article on the film I’ve seen so far came from the New York Times.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid published in 2007. The script is by William Wheeler and Ami Boghani with some input by Hamid. I haven’t read the novel but I understand that it has been ‘opened out’ for the film – or perhaps changed in terms of genre. The protagonist identified in the title is Changez Khan, son of a Punjabi poet in Lahore who gets to Princeton and from there wins a job with a major US financial consultancy, becoming a ‘lord of the universe’ and rewarding investors while ruining the lives of workers around the world. Changez moves up the associates ladder at a rapid rate but is halted by the after effects of 9/11 and also by a relationship with the niece of his employer. He turns against his mentor, returns to Pakistan and becomes an academic. This story is told to an American journalist in Lahore in the context of the kidnapping of an American professor from the same university. We are asked to consider if the journalist is a CIA agent and if Changez has become a mujahidheen.
A number of reviews and comments I have read which are very negative have come from Americans who don’t seem to recognise that the narrative is from the POV of Changez, so the film works differently to those Hollywood thrillers about ‘terrorists’. Other negative reviews (including from the UK) criticise the film for lecturing/moralising or peddling clichéed liberal views and using characters as symbols for ‘big ideas’ etc. I have to admit that there are also reviews like this one in Slant magazine in which it is a South Asian in North America leading the attack. I don’t really go with any of these, though I can understand some of them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens in the UK in May and despite my misgivings, it’s definitely worth seeing. Riz Ahmed is excellent and so too is Kiefer Sutherland as his US boss. Many of the people I talked to after the BIFF screening liked the film.
The major problem in the film for me was the romance. Kate Hudson has been seen by many as being miscast. I’m a bit uncomfortable about this. She isn’t, in this role, anything like a Hollywood female star and I should applaud that. To put it bluntly, she isn’t a stick insect and she seems much older than Riz Ahmed as Changez. I should applaud the casting – and her playing – but it didn’t work for me and I just didn’t believe in her as the character she played. In many ways, the romance got in the way of the main story – but it was necessary to bring the issue of family into play. The importance of the family in Lahore is emphasised several times and for me the key scenes are in Istanbul. Changez and his boss are there to close down an Istanbul publisher which is losing money. Changez reveals some of his background and the publisher says he should be ashamed as the son of a poet. Later the publisher tells him about the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire – Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period. This seems to me a neat way of critiquing Changez’ position and I think that to criticise it as heavy-handed is ridiculous. Hollywood tries hard to normalise its promotion of Western capitalist values. Here Asian and Muslim values are being promoted by a character. What’s the problem?
This is another film which uses the horror of 9/11 as a key event in the narrative structure. There have been many such films from the West but relatively few that are seen from the perspective of a Pakistani character. The only other one that comes to mind is Yasmin (UK/Germany 2004). Because the event appears in the film, it seems to inevitably push the rest of the narrative into a security-based CIA thriller. I don’t think that this is in the novel and for me it spoils the film. I think what is interesting and enjoyable about the film is the struggle that Changez faces over competing ideologies and competing social environments. As he grows up he realises that he can be successful in the cut-throat world of international capitalism. He has the skills and the drive, but he attempts to combine that with a commitment to family that is threatened by the same actions. I think that narrative is compelling without the “is he a terrorist?” sub-plot which I found just made me angry. What would be interesting in terms of ‘reading’ the film would be to compare it with Indian films that similarly bring back successful migrants to the US and see what happens to them in a South Asian context. For example, Swades (India 2004) sees Shahrukh Khan return from his job as a successful space scientist to search for his childhood nanny in rural India.
The Khan family in Lahore with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi as the parents and Meesha Shafi as Bina (Changez’ sister).
Mira Nair is both an Indian and a North American director who moves between bases in the US, Uganda (where her husband teaches) and India. This gives her a different perspective on issues than if she remained in only one location. She is arguably a prime example of a ‘transnational filmmaker’. Unfortunately this also means that she can be claimed or rejected by cultural critics in each territory. In one of her best films, The Namesake (India/US 2006) she explored the two cultures narrative through two generations of a family that moved from Calcutta to New York. That film was based on a story by Jhumpa Lahiri and my feeling is that if she had stayed closer to the story by Mohsin Hamid for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her Pakistani melodrama might have worked better. I’m not here promoting “the book is better than the film”, but I am suggesting that the added genre element of the CIA in Lahore weakens the narrative. However, shooting a story set in Pakistan presents a whole range of problems re funding and the logistics of the production. Most of the scenes in Lahore were shot in India (in Delhi) and the film has a significant Indian crew and cast. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play the parents of Changez (played by the British-Pakistani Riz Ahmed) and the film is edited by Shimit Amin, known in India as a director. Meesha Shafi who plays Changez’ sister Bina is Pakistani. She also contributes to the soundtrack. The other heads of department in the crew are mainly American and British. Disappointingly there have been mutterings about representations of Pakistan from India but it would not have been possible to shoot this film on the streets of Lahore. Mira Nair also makes the point that her family roots are in Lahore and in the context of the film’s central narrative it’s important to remember that the values that Changez has to consider are South Asian rather than solely Pakistani. The different paths for economy and society in India and Pakistan since 1947 were to a large extent determined by the imperial decisions of UK governments in the 1930s and 1940s and the development of US foreign policy since the 1950s. Mira Nair is reported as saying that she hoped that her film would “start a conversation”. I hope that it does and that it swiftly moves on from the problems of the romance and the CIA surveillance of Lahore to consider the issues about Anglo-American capitalism, alienation and the South Asian family.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Indian Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: BIFF 2013, migration, Mira Nair, Riz Ahmed, transnational film | 2 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 April 2013
Sarthak’s son looks up at the old house
Kolkata is a city steeped in memory and cultural history. The principal city of British India, it has over the last fifty years fallen behind Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in terms of economic development. But it won’t give up its self-image of ‘cultural capital’. 2011 marked 150 years since the birth of perhaps the greatest cultural icon in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore – the Nobel Prizewinning writer of poetry and prose and the great polymath of Bengali culture. The Sound of Old Rooms is both a celebration of Tagore’s influence and cultural legacy and an attempt to look forward to the future. Sandeep Ray’s film focuses on teacher-poet Sarthak Roychowdhury. The filmmaker made an earlier film about the poet’s family and here he uses some of the earlier footage to trace the life of his ‘character ‘ from his college days through to the publication of a book of his poetry and up to fatherhood in his early forties. The 72 mins film uses a variety of formats from 8mm film to contemporary digital video footage.
For anyone who became interested in the world of Bengali students and aspiring intellectuals as seen in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fascinating film. (But Sandeep Ray is not to be confused with Sandip Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.) But even without that background, audiences should quickly warm to the central character. Two of my favourite scenes concern the visits Sarthak makes to his literary agent/publishing broker. This wily character does a quick calculation on the margin of a newspaper page and agrees to find a publisher for Sarthak’s poems, confident that he will make a profit. Years later he appears to be hoarding the last few copies of the book which has nearly sold out its 500 copy print run and he tells Sarthak that Tagore didn’t have that level of success with his first publication. These are the kinds of scenes you don’t normally get in an arts documentary – the agent trying to open the bottle of booze that Sarthak has brought as a gift, Sarthak grilling the agent’s assistant to find out if there are secret copies. I like the reality of the writer’s life that the film presents. On the one hand, Sarthak has used up all his creative energy in producing this first book and faces the usual problem of how to follow it up. In the meantime he has to earn money giving home tuition and taking teaching jobs outside Kolkata. At one point he has to take empty beer bottles back to a shop and is dismayed that the return deposit rate has dropped. At other times he chides taxi drivers for trying to overcharge him by a rupee (a rupee is worth not much more than 1p in UK money).
But the film is also about Sarthak’s family and the old three-storey building in which they have always lived. We meet his parents and eventually his wife Ritu who Sarthak met at university. Sarthak’s father is mostly in the background but his mother and Ritu feature strongly. Sarthak’s relationships with the two women in his life are structured around tradition and modernity. At one point he reminds Ritu that she has come to live in Sarthak’s parents’ house just like his mother and his grandmother before her, but at another point he says “we got our Masters in friendship, now we’re working on our PhD in relationships”. Ritu and Sarthak’s mother are both strong characters and very likeable. The film is full of fascinating juxtapositions. In the cluttered old house with little more than a bed and some bookshelves, Sarthak and Ritu happily slurp bowls of Maggi instant noodles and in an old bar they discuss Gayatri Spivak (and Jacques Derrida in a taxi). At other times we see them taking train trips in much the same way as those characters in the earlier Bengali movies. Ritu teaches full-time up until the birth of her son. The birth changes the lives of Sarthak and Ritu and this is the film looking forward – even if the whole family will still be listening to the sounds of old rooms. Sarthak wants his son to be aware of the memories in the house even as he looks to the future.
This documentary has been very successful around the world and there is a useful Facebook page detailing its progress through various festivals. The filmmaker also has a website.
Here’s the trailer:
I found the film fascinating and hugely enjoyable. Sarthak is the filmmaker’s cousin and he participated in the production as well as being the subject. This relationship is only evident in the ease in which Sandeep Ray is able to present the events of Sarhak’s life on screen. There is never a moment when we feel that we are voyeurs or that the scenes are being manipulated for the camera. There are snatches of his poetry throughout and a music score by Sion Dey. I’d like to see the film again to get a full appreciation of both the poetry and the music. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.
Posted in Bengali Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Indian Cinema | Tagged: BIFF 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 April 2013
The second of Bradford’s presentation of some of the landmark films of Indian cinema, Mughal-e-Azam, is a little easier to write about than Kalpana, but only because it conforms to aspects of Hindi popular cinema. As a production it is out on its own. The print we watched on Pictureville Cinema’s big screen was the 195 minutes print held by the BFI and last screened widely during the BFI’s Imagine Asia season in 2002. The print was in pretty good condition and appeared to be colour stock. The mainly black and white image thus had that grey-blue appearance. There are two key sequences in the film in colour, one just before the Interval (which therefore had a colour title) and the other at the end of the film.
Mughal-e-Azam is perhaps best described as an epic ‘historical romance’. The gigantic production is reputed to have taken ten years or more to bring to the screen – so long in fact that Indian cinema had already begun its conversion to CinemaScope and Technicolor by the time it finally reached cinemas (this explains the black and white Academy ratio format with colour inserts). It was for a long time the most expensively produced in India and the money is certainly there on the screen. I’ve never seen studio sets quite as lavish as these. The story is set in the court of the third great Mughal Emperor, Akbar who ruled most of India from 1556 to 1605 (the empire would be at its most extensive under Araungzeb in the later 17th century). Many commentators have noted that this was roughly the same period as Elizabeth I in England and there is certainly an Elizabethan drama feel to the film’s narrative which deals with the Emperor’s unruly son Salim who is sent away to war at age 14 as a cure for his indolent lifestyle. On his return as a warrior he defies his father over his love for a ‘maid’ – a dancing girl in the court troupe. He refuses to give her up, claiming that his love is greater than his need for power or glory. But eventually he goes to war against his powerful father with all the consequences of family feuds amongst the powerful. The Emperor is played by the magnificent patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, the father of Raj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar is Salim and the girl, re-named by the Emperor as Arkanali (‘pomegranate-blossom’) by the beautiful Madhubala. Salim’s mother the Rani (Queen) is played by Durga Khote.
The black & white Academy frame – avoiding ‘colourisation’ in the DVD.
It’s not difficult to see why the story – or at least the context since the film narrative is myth rather than historical fact – is so important in terms of Indian national identity. The film actually starts and ends with a map of India hovering over a model layout of an Indian landscape (strangely clunky in a film where set design is otherwise fantastic). The map seems to speak as ‘Hindustan’ about its history. Not only did Akbar reign successfully for so long but he also promoted at least the sense of religious tolerance. His marriage to a Rajput princess and the inclusion of Rajput warriors as his close advisers and guards allows the film to portray both Islamic and Hindu ceremonials and rituals. (The Rajputs were the great warrior caste of Hindu India and provided the majority of rulers of the ‘princely states’ in Northern India.)
In many ways this is the kind of narrative – and the kind of film – that were it a British or American film, I would probably avoid at all costs. Why then was I held for over three hours? I think it is a mixture of the exotic (no matter how global in outlook you wish to be, the exotic always has an allure), the spectacular (the sets in colour and with the myriad of reflecting mirrors are superior to anything else I’ve seen and many sets match the almost expressionist qualities of Kalpana), the beautiful dialogue (even in translation the Urdu poetry works), the history and the star performances. But above these, perhaps, is the music and the dancing. I think there are around a dozen songs – more than in contemporary Hindi cinema. By the end of the film I think I was hypnotised by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing and Madhubala’s dancing.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema | Tagged: BIFF 2013, historical romance | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 April 2013
Kalpana is unique. There has never been a film like it since its release in 1948 and it is unlikely we will see anything similar in the future. The title means ‘Imagination’ in English and what goes into the film is staggering – direct political statements, all the dances and much of the music of India – and a story too. The film took several years of work by its creator Uday Shankar and acts as a form of autobiography for the artist-dancer. Uday Shankar was born in 1900 into a Bengali family. His father was a barrister who had studied at Oxford as well as Calcutta and Uday travelled with him to Europe in the 1920s where he met and worked with leading Russian and British dancers and where he studied art in London and Rome. Uday’s project came to be the incorporation of aspects of European dance as they appeared on the theatrical stage into the classical and folk dance forms of India. He toured Europe and North America as both a dancer and choreographer. (His younger brother, Ravi Shankar joined him on tour as a teenager – later Ravi became famous in his own right as a musician and composer.) In 1938 Uday opened an arts centre in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas to which he invited leading dancers, musicians and filmmakers such as a young Guru Dutt. The centre lasted just four years before the funds ran out. It was at this point that Uday headed south to the Gemini Studios in Madras to make Kalpana.
Uday Shankar spent many years making Kalpana in Madras. The film was made in Hindi, but for five years another feature was being made in the Gemini Studios in Tamil that included spectacular dance and action sequences and which has been seen as ‘borrowing’ ideas from Shankar’s filming. Chandralekha, the first Indian film to receive a genuine ‘all India distribution’ (in Tamil with subtitles) in 1948 was a massive hit, but Kalpana was a flop at the box office and Uday Shankar made no more films. We are able to see Kalpana today because of the World Cinema Foundation and its restoration project. The restoration was completed at Bologna in 2012 and very grateful we all should be.
When Kalpana is described as a ‘dance film’ it means that this a film about dance and with a story told through dance. The narrative is told as a long imagined film narrated by a writer trying to sell a script to a producer. The story is about a visionary dancer (played by Uday Shankar himself) and his struggle to fulfil his dreams. The scenes detailing his childhood and early attempts to stage his shows are dealt with so quickly and with such economy they become almost surreal. Shankar sets up a narrative in which there are two women competing for his love. One is played by Shankar’s wife Amala and that narrative plays on melodrama coincidence. The other woman he meets during a storm in the countryside and both women will follow him when he sets up his arts centre in the Himalayas. Hanging over him all through is the accidental death of an impresario. The sexual rivalry and the threat of prosecution are played expressively in the dance sequences which make up most of the 155 mins running time. The long final sequence comprises the show that Uday must put on to try to raise the funds needed to keep the centre running. This is where the ‘double-play’ of the film narrative and Uday’s real-life story come together. The third major theme of the film is its plea to the Indian people and the Indian government to fund the arts because without them the nation has no soul, no identity. The film actually begins with a bold statement about the artist’s intentions – and clearly he is not worried about offending the holders of the purse strings.
Uday Shankar and (I think!) Amala Shankar
I’ll pick out just a few of the features of the dance sequences (since I have no real knowledge of dance as an art form). I recognised that there were many different forms. I think I recognised Kathakali dancers from Kerala and there are folk dances, one of which from the far North East of India is used to illustrate how middle-class Indians have lost sight of their own culture and misread the dancers as ‘African’ because of the impact of Hollywood’s presentation of the exotic. Each of the dances is choreographed in both the sense of the dance steps and movement for the camera in relation to the elaborate studio sets. This choreography is sometimes quite comic. I’m not sure about the ‘staged’ fist fights and face-slapping earlier in the film but there is a deliberate jokery around the use of drums of different sizes and shapes which drive the rhythms of the dances. I don’t know enough about Indian cinema in the 1930s to judge whether Shankar was drawing on earlier cinematic forms from the sub-continent, but I was struck by how elements of the film overall, especially in the location of the arts centre made me think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (which may well have played in Madras in 1946-7) and of course, The Red Shoes. Shankar could not have seen that film in time but he would have been, like Powell, knowledgeable about the classical dance culture of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m sure also that there are elements of German expressionism in the sets. What is clear is that it is possible to see some of the same ideas in the films of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt in the 1950s.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the film was its handling of political questions. Started around 1942 in wartime India (when dance troupes in Assam were threatened by Japanese invasion) but not released until 1948 after independence, the film picks up on all of the nationalist fervour and the idealistic hopes for the future. The India depicted in the film is an undivided India and the stress is upon everybody being represented. (In Hindi films of the 1950s and 1960s I have noticed a distinct prejudice against the South.) At the start of the final sequence as the visitors are arriving at the arts centre, they are allowed in only if they are wearing their ‘native costume’. A few British in suits are allowed in, but not middle-class Indians. Another Indian is turned away because he is wearing a European-made shirt. The princes, the rich Maharajas who come (and who the dancers hope will contribute millions of rupees) are forced to duck and crawl through a tiny entrance. The more money they pledge the more Shankar mocks them – they pledge money because of the sexual allure of the dancers, not because they appreciate the culture of the dance.
If this becomes available on Blu-ray or DVD I urge you to get a copy. I certainly need to watch it again. Bravo Martin Scorsese and the WCF and bravo BIFF for showing it.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Indian Cinema | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Dance | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2013
This print restored by the BFI provides a glimpse of the possibilities of ‘global film’ just before ‘hegemonic Hollywood’ began to exert its control with the coming of sound. German filmmaker Franz Osten had already worked in India on two films with Bengali actor-producer Himanshu Rai – Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) 1925 and Shiraz (1928). These were the fore-runners of modern co-productions. Osten brought in German crews and the backing of a German studio (Ufa). According to IMDB, two British studios were also involved. The script seems to have had both German and British input into what was initially an Indian story scripted by Niranjan Pal who with Himanshu Rai would eventually set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 as one of the major studios of the sound period. The British contribution seems to have been ‘supportive’ since the main creative and technical roles were undertaken by Germans and Indians. Much of the film was shot on location in Rajasthan.
The 2006 restoration includes a Nitin Sawhney score that I was a little wary of at first but eventually I found worked very well. The camerawork by Emil Schunemann is excellent and at one point he gave us a stunning tracking shot seemingly out of nowhere. The film’s title neatly describes the narrative which involves two kings who are cousins, neighbours and inveterate gamblers in a period before the arrival of Europeans. It’s all fairly predictable stuff in the sense that they compete for the hand of a beautiful girl with one of them rather more devious than the other. But the story isn’t the main attraction – with 10,000 extras, footage of tigers in the jungle and ceremonial elephants, palaces and stunning landscapes, this is an action melodrama (the two terms once meant the same thing). One thing that struck me about the camerawork was that several of he compositions can be seen as being imported from German cinema and then incorporated in later Indian popular cinema narratives. I’m thinking in particular of some of the fight scenes on cliff tops and a couple silhouetted on a mountain skyline. The spectacular German cinema of the 1920s was very interested in the ‘exotic Orient’ with Murnau travelling to the South Seas for one of his early Hollywood titles in Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang in aspects of Destiny (Germany 1921). (He would later return for his two-part film The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1959 based partly on his script for another 1920s film.) What we see in A Throw of Dice I think is not so much a German view of India as an example of the potential of Indian cinema to take the technical skills and creative vision of Osten and Schunemann and use them in developing the Indian cinema that would flourish in the 1930s.
Before the main feature (74 mins), BIFF elected to show an extract from Raja Harishchandra, the film usually taken to mark the beginning of Indian feature films in 1913 (and therefore the key film for the 100th Birthday tribute). The film was originally a ‘four reeler’ of 3,700 feet running around 48 minutes at silent speeds. Producer-director-writer Dadasaheb Phalke had travelled to Germany and to the UK to acquire the skills and the technology to enable him to become the first Indian filmmaker of note, completely in control of his own productions in Bombay. Later he founded Hindustan Films, but the company struggled and Phalke’s brief career which should have flourished in the 1920s was cut short. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the founders of the film industry in Bombay and the Indian genres of the ‘devotional’ and the ‘mythological’. The extract was presented from Blu-ray and there seem to have been problems in transferring the material (I think that the original was lost in a fire at the Film Institute Archive in Pune). I confess that I found what was presented was quite difficult to follow but in 1912 when Phalke was making the film, cinema worldwide was in a state of very rapid innovation. To pick out a few points, there is still a reliance on what might be termed ‘proscenium arch’ shots with a tableau of characters as if on a stage, some occasionally looking at the camera. There are special effects and it is possible to see links to the Ramayana (Phalke is said to have been inspired by Christian narratives). The main plot involves a king who loses his kingdom and his wife and child through various accidents and by deceit but who then recovers them because the gods wish to reward him for his moral integrity.
There is a documentary on Phalke and the making of the film on YouTube (it’s not the ‘complete film’ as it claims) and it’s interesting to see the variety of comments (including the surprise shown by some Indians that Indian cinema goes back so far). Well done to BIFF for showing this and giving us all a chance to consider the whole 100 years.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema, Indian Cinema, Silent Era | Tagged: BIFF 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2013
‘Happy Birthday Indian Cinema’ started with a recent Indian ‘festival film’. Director Manjeet Singh gives some of the background in this interview from the Abu Dhabi Festival in October 2012 which is well worth reading. His inspiration for this, his first feature, was his childhood memories of the annual Ganesh festival in Mumbai. The film’s title refers, I think, to the large figures of Ganesh carried to the beach by each district (somebody please correct me if I’ve got this wrong) during the festival and the protagonists are two of the boys from the Lalbaug district of the city in what is essentially a neo-realist film. It will remind many audiences of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (India/UK/France 1988), but inevitably Singh has had to field questions about Slumdog Millionaire – which aren’t really helpful except to allow him to explain why it is so difficult to submit an Indian ‘independent film’ to international festivals. He argues that most festivals have only a limited number of slots for South Asian films and that increasingly it is the Bollywood studio backed ‘indies’ which usually get those slots. The fact that Mumbai Kings got a slot at Toronto is clearly key to its international circulation. Singh himself is largely self-taught in terms of filmmaking with only a short course after his engineering degree according to this Toronto ‘Talent Lab’ interview. However, he did work in the US as an engineer before moving back to Mumbai – which means that presumably he earned some money and learned about North America. He got his chance to make the film partly through the support of the Film Bazaar programme in India, although he had to find the funding himself, including via ‘cloud-funding’. His next project is going to be discussed as part of the L’atelier Programme at Cannes in May 2013. He seems to have several script ideas put together over the last few years. But for now, how does Mumbai Kings look?
I think my overall impression is that this is an enjoyable film which does give a sense of what it might be like to live on the outskirts of an Indian metro city. It looks right and importantly sounds right. The sound mixing is a bit rough at times but that possibly helps in the realism effect. Singh shot the film on a digital SLR camera and he used mainly non-actors from the district. In this sense it is a neo-realist film. There is a music score for the film which is used extensively in some scenes. This doesn’t invalidate the neo-realist tag but I think that the social issues, those ‘real life’ incidents that drive a neo-realist narrative, are perhaps not developed enough. The source of narrative drive is a violent father and the impact his behaviour has on the rest of his family. I think that you could argue in the film’s favour that it leaves the issue ‘open’ as to what will happen in the future, but I worry that this will exclude the film from wider distribution in India – though it certainly works in a festival setting.
The film also made me think about other communities and other settings. For instance the Ganesh festivities were sometimes reminiscent of the sequences set in Little Italy that appear in Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films or of the carnivals in Trinidad or Rio. Although Lalbaug is in the centre of the city, the boys seem to play in the outskirts, so they find streams and hills where the skyscrapers of the city are not visible and I got a sense of being in a city like Hong Kong – with the bustle of the metropolitan centre, yet films being made only a few miles away in the hills. This feeling was intensified by the way in which Singh included little set pieces when the boys steal some potatoes or when a lyrical music-backed sequence shows them bathing in rock pools. I think I’m suggesting that the film seems to represent a kind of global mega-city environment. Is this an ‘independent’ or ‘festival film’ that might have been made in Mexico or Brazil or Taiwan? That’s quite a big question and it may indicate a danger for filmmakers like Manjeet Singh. I think it is important that his films get seen across India. Indian cinema(s) are changing but they want to change on their own terms, not as sanctioned by film festivals in the West. It’s a real dilemma but here is a filmmaker with talent and determination who should be supported. I hope he gets the openings he deserves.
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