Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl, India (Hindi) 2019)

This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of ‘Bradford Pride’. It was introduced as the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. That’s certainly a claim that is worth unpacking, but first I need to outline what kind of film this is. It certainly belongs in the category of mainstream Bollywood, being a Vidhu Vinod Chopra production presented by Fox Star. (It was released in February this year and I wonder what is happening to Star with the sale of Fox to Disney?) It features three stars who span the history of Hindi popular cinema from veterans Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla to Rajkummar Rao as a representative of the younger generation. But it is a début feature for writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The central character, Sweety, is a young woman from the Punjab played by Anil Kapoor’s own daughter Sonam Kapoor. Ms Kapoor has had several leading roles in Hindi productions but whether she qualifies as a ‘star’ for mainstream audiences is open to debate.

These production details are important as the avowed aim of Shelly Chopra Dhar was to make a film which would present the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship not just to the urban multiplex crowd but also to the traditional audiences of small town India. As many scholars and commentators have noted, Bollywood’s biggest problem in recent years has been that split between sophisticated audiences in the Metros and the traditional concept of the ‘All India’ audiences across the country (or at least across North India). I’m not sure she has succeeded.

It’s tricky to discuss how the film was received in India. The film’s promotion seems to have tried to maintain the surprise while the impending release was already generating controversy. In 2018 the Indian Supreme Court made decisions which seem to guarantee a choice of marriage partner to all citizens, yet there are various state regulations and legislation for different religious groups. At least one IMDb ‘user’ complains about a lack of warning about the film’s content (she had taken her young girls to a screening of what she thought would be a family/romantic comedy).

Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) and Sahil (Rajkummar Rao)

The narrative begins with a family wedding in Delhi at which enough hints are dropped that Sweety has met the girl of her dreams in the form of Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, a Tamil actor making her Hindi debut). The film’s title refers to the song first used in the Anil Kapoor film 1942: A Love Story (1994) when he meets Manisha Koirala. The 1994 film was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I don’t know if the song title and memories of the 1994 film confused audiences but Sweety’s attraction to Kuhu must be kept secret. After the wedding, Sweety and her family return to Moga in Punjab where her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is the owner of a large garment factory. Meanwhile Rajkummar Rao is introduced in Delhi as Sahil, a struggling Muslim playwright whose latest play is in rehearsal. Sweety is visiting Delhi and comes into the theatre to hide as we realise later when her angry brother Babloo bursts in. Sahil feels compelled to rescue Sweety and a chase begins. I won’t spoil the narrative any further except to say that Sahil is clearly smitten with Sweety and she, unaware that he is the writer of the play she has just watched, tells him it doesn’t convey ‘real love’ which is always more ‘complicated’. This is our clue to what will follow. Sahil will go to Moga with a plan to win Sweety. We will learn more of Sweety’s backstory through flashbacks. There will be a comedy of confusion and ‘complication’ and a grand finale in which all will be revealed/resolved. In this respect the film seems traditional and straightforward. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much in noting that Sweety’s secret will be fully revealed in a public performance, so that the cinema audience will have the same revelation as the audience for the performance in the narrative. Intriguingly, the idea for the narrative is taken from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. The novel has twice been adapted for the stage and for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Joan Fontaine film. It was most recently staged in 2015. Once aware of this it is easy to see the narrative mechanisms at play in the Bollywood film.

A brief moment of contact between Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, left) and Sweety

As I left the screening, a group of four women in front of me were discussing the film and they seemed to agree that it picked up the pace in the second half after a slow opening. We had a few moments of dark screen where the Intermission would have been. The convention appears to still hold in Bollywood despite this film being only 120 minutes long. I’m not the target audience for the film but I doubt that it will have satisfied its intended audience, although there were some quite moving moments when a young teenage girl in the audience for Sweety’s performance is clearly affected by what she sees. I also thought it was quite clever to use the same actors for the younger Sweety in the flashbacks and as performers in the show. But there are two whopping problems. First Sonham Kapoor seems miscast. Bollywood has never bothered too much about realism but it’s difficult to take an actor in her thirties playing ten years younger. I have to agree with the many comments that she just doesn’t have the vital spark that this character needs. But perhaps that is partly because she barely gets to touch Kuhu in the film. An embrace and holding hands is more or less the limit.

Bollywood stars Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are re-united in one of the sub-plots

The other reason why the central couple are not central is that the re-teaming of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla works so well. They play out several comic scenes and at one point I was almost hoping that the narrative would switch and explore the ‘feminisation’ of the Anil Kapoor character (whose mother stopped him becoming a chef and didn’t allow him into the kitchen because it isn’t ‘man’s work’). Rajkummar Rao is not really given enough to do (see Newton (India 2017) for one of his outstanding performances). As for the other ‘casting’, of Moga as a small town outside the Metros, I think that’s another missed opportunity, especially with Balbir as such an important local business person. The ‘real’ Moga appears to be a city of 300,000 people but the film representation could be anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point.

The music and dance sequences seemed OK to me but nothing special. I don’t regret seeing the film and I did enjoy many scenes but I can’t see this as a film that will break down barriers. It promises to explore the ‘complications’ of Sweety’s love relationships but barely touches the surface. I have written about a couple of much more challenging films from Malayalam cinema (The Journey 2004) and from Hindi cinema Margarita with a Straw (2014) and there is always the classic of late parallel cinema, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. I accept that these are three films made by ‘diasporic directors’ based in North America and that they are not mainstream cinema. In its review Bollywoodhungama.com lists several other titles and comes to more or less the same conclusions about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as I’ve outlined above. But it ends with the suggestion that “At the box office, its appeal will be restricted to niche urban multiplex audiences”. The review appears to have predicted correctly and after two weeks the title was declared a ‘flop’ in India (Bollywood box office analysts are brutal) even though it made 20 crore rupees in the first two weeks (around $2.86 million) in India.

Here’s a trailer (no subs) that demonstrates how Sweety’s ‘secret’ is kept.

A survey worth completing

The ‘Science and Media Museum’ in Bradford is conducting an audience survey. You likely have missed this. It does not seem to have been much publicised and I searched in vain on the Museum Webpages for it. I finally sent in an email request and received a link to the following:

NATIONAL SCIENCE AND MEDIA MUSEUM CINEMA MEMBERSHIP SURVEY

This has a fairly conventional series of questions; about attendance at Picturehouse and other cinemas: the frequency of screenings: preferences in terms of 2D/3D: preference for types of screenings: and, intriguing but also conventional questions aiming to help:

The Museum is keen to understand its visitors and what motivates them . . .

These are mostly tick boxes as well. It is rather boring and also includes questions about one’s age and the usual dubious list of what are called ‘ethnic categories’.

But there are three occasions where there are boxes for composed comments, which, with a little imagination, can be used to suggest matters about programming, titles and formats that one would appreciate. This may, perhaps, bring a little influence to the future programming.

The context for this is [as reported here] Picturehouse are ending their contract with the Museum at the end of October this year. We know three things about the Museum plans. They intend to take back the running of the three auditoriums; Pictureville, Cubby Broccoli and Imax. They have promised to bring in a filmgoers membership scheme akin to that run by Picturehouse; [ the point of the survey]. And they apparently intend to sub-contract the programming to an agency, but who or what is unknown.

At present the Museum’s two film auditoriums make the Museum one of only three venues in Leeds / Bradford that are capable of screening ‘reel’ films. And, despite the limitations of the Picturehouse programme, the venue has been one of only two that offer frequent screenings of art films, foreign language films [excepting Hindi-language cinema] and true independent productions. The other is the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. But the latter closes for up to twelve months in January 2020 as part of the major redevelopment. If you want to see any of the Cannes Festival titles that Roy has rightly praised it is likely to depend on the programming at the Museum. Otherwise it is trains or cars to Hebden Bridge, Sheffield or Manchester.

So take the ten minutes, [it is about that], to complete the questionnaire and take every opportunity to write in favour of a varied quality programme of films.

Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, Japan 1995)

Yuichi and his new grandfather

This first fiction feature by Kore-eda Hirokazu is currently on re-release in selected UK cinemas following the great success of Shoplifters in 2018. The BFI ran a full retrospective of Kore-eda’s fiction output during April and May and there is a Blu-ray release planned for this title in a package with After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking due for release in July. HOME in Manchester is offering a mini-season of the first five Kore-eda films in the second half of June entitled ‘Of Flesh and Blood’. Maboroshi is playing at HOME on the 16th June.

Yumiko’s grief means that her mother needs to look after Yuichi. This low-angle static shot is carefully framed and composed to include the mirror reflection

Maboroshi no hikari, to give the full Japanese title, is an adaptation by Ogita Yoshihisa of a novella/short story by Miyamoto Teru. For his later films, Kore-eda has often chosen news events or has been stimulated by his own life experience. In this case, though the source for the narrative seems ‘external’, it also seems in line with Kore-eda’s interests. The title translates roughly as ‘phantom light’, ‘shimmering light’ or perhaps ‘a trick of the light’ and it refers directly to the details of an anecdote told at the end of the film. We first meet Yumiko as a girl living with her parents and younger brother in a dismal building in Osaka. She is helpless to prevent her aged grandmother leaving the house and never being seen again – she has told the young girl that she is returning to Shikoku to die. Yumiko sleeps badly after this and her childhood friend Ikuo seems to offer her only distraction. When we meet Yumiko a few years later she is played by Esumi Makiko as a tall and graceful mother of a little boy (Yuichi), still living in Osaka and now married to Ikuo (now played by Asano Tadanobu before he became very well-known in Japanese films). Yumiko still dreams about her grandmother’s disappearance. The couple seem happy together but one night Ikuo is killed while walking home along the railway track. Yumiko is devastated and puzzled. Why do people think it was suicide? (This isn’t a spoiler – the only information on the BBFC certificate shown before the titles simply states ‘suicide theme’.) Eventually, a good neighbour acts as a traditional matchmaker and introduces Yumiko to a widower with a daughter a few years older than Yuichi and mother and son travel across Central Japan to a small fishing village on the West Coast near Wajima. How will this second marriage work out? Will Yumiko emerge from her long period of mourning?

A long shot of the coastal village as Yuichi and his step-sister go exploring

I will avoid too many spoilers from this point on. I want to comment mainly on the visual style of this first fiction feature (after the director’s work in television documentary) and also on the ways in which it presents ideas to which Kore-eda may return in later films. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is more of a sense of the documentarist’s ‘observing’ eye in Maborosi, both in the street scenes, but also in the use of long shots and long takes. Towards the end of the film the long shots are expanded even further so we get to see a small ‘action’ within a long shot of the entire coastal village (from the heights above the settlement). Against these expansive shots, Kore-eda offers us interiors which all seem underlit and in which events often seem to play out very slowly indeed.

An Ozu ‘pillow shot’?

An example of a static shot of an empty room – possibly symbolic of loss?

Since he began making fiction films, Kore-eda has been subject to various suggestions by Western critics and scholars about his influences and particularly the possibility that he has been strongly influenced by Ozu Yasujiro. Kore-eda has responded by agreeing that he has studied Ozu but that he still isn’t sure what he makes of the films. Naruse Mikio has been the one of the 1950s ‘masters’ who Kore-eda himself has acknowledged. Kore-eda has also stated quite clearly that Hou Hsiao-hsien (an Ozu fan) and Ken Loach (as a filmmaker concerned with ‘social issues’) are two of his main influences. The social issue in Maborisi is the long-term impact of bereavement on the widow and her son. Yumiko cannot get past her memories of her grandmother and of Ikuo and this prevents her from helping Yuichi in his attempts to feel part of his new family. Fortunately he now has a step-sister a few years older and his new father seems a patient and loving man. He also has a new grandfather. The next door neighbour, a fisherman, is helpful too and in the village there is Tomeno, an older woman who still goes out to sea to catch crabs for her market stall. She is an important figure for Yumiko’s new family, but does she remind Yumiko of her grandmother? She is perhaps the first of the older women who populate some of Kore-eda’s later films.

In one sense the narrative seems to split in two with the interior world of Yumiko and the external world of the village in which Yuichi and his step-sister can play quite safely, protected by the other villagers. While Yumiko’s narrative is very dark, Yuichi’s looks forward to similar scenes by the sea in Our Little Sister (2015). Esumi Makiko as Yumiko made her first film appearance in Maborosi at 28. She had been a volleyball player and a model. She appears mainly in sombre clothes throughout the film with long, narrow skirts and long tops. She doesn’t say a great deal and mostly she wears her hair down. In the final sequence, Kore-eda seems to be playing with ideas about the traditional Japanese female ghost figure (though the figure of Sadako in Ringu was still a few years away from making such figures very familiar in the West). Watch out for Yumiko sitting in a bus shelter – you’ll need to look carefully!

Yumiko’s point of view as her grandmother leaves . . .

. . . and her last sighting of Ikuo

But the same shot here shows a happy Yuichi and his step-sister exploring the village

I can’t get too far away from the Ozu comments, especially since there are some shots in the film that remind us of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, especially those which are ’empty’ of human figures. But there are also static shots that tend to have a more symbolic or metaphorical function. For instance, there is a repeated static long shot of a figure walking away from the camera, either through a tunnel or under a bridge or arch. The figures are mainly silhouettes, moving from the dark into the light. There is an obvious connotation of a ‘portal’ to another world, but the third such shot shows Yuichi and his step-sister enjoying exploring the world of his new home village. Nakabori Masao is a cinematographer who seems to have worked over several years with the same director, Jissôji Akio, on a series of genre pictures before Maborosi. I haven’t seen any of these films but they don’t immediately suggest why he might be chosen by Kore-eda. I’m assuming that the director expressed his requirements very carefully and the results are astonishing. I’ve already hinted at the tone of the horror/ghost story film and there is a general sense of mystery surrounding the dominant feeling of loss, but also the strengths of family. Chen Ming-chang, who I assume to be a Taiwanese film music composer, is responsible for the film’s haunting score (apologies for the inevitable pun). He had previously composed scores for two Hou Hsiao-hsien films. Again, the score is unusual and seems to have generated a great deal of interest as a soundtrack album.

I think I’ve spent more time going over scenes from this film than any other I’ve seen for some time. I have the original UK DVD which in the early 2000s, before my immersion in Kore-eda’s later work, I found difficult to watch. Having now seen it on a cinema screen and researched the film’s background and reception I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an astounding fiction feature début. It’s now plain that Kore-eda’s interest in ‘family’ stories is introduced here, but there is also a focus on memory which will feature in the next two films (a documentary, Without Memory (1996) and After Life in 1999). I now realise too that the documentary August Without Him (1994) about the first Japanese man to announce he had AIDS was an important experience for Kore-eda, pushing him towards fiction as a form to allow him to explore his interest in humanist narratives. Kore-eda’s narrative control in Maborosi and the way in which sound and image are used is extraordinary. Although he didn’t write the script, Kore-eda appears to have embraced it as his own. His original aim was to become a writer before he switched his interest to visual arts. After this film he became both the scriptwriter and the editor of all of his films.

Maborosi is essential viewing as Kore-eda’s first fiction feature and as a standalone film narrative that demonstrates the director’s commitment to his work. In one of the most perceptive contemporary reviews, Mark Sinker in Sight and Sound, July 1996 suggests that Kore-eda presents a film with all the trappings of a severe art film – the long static shots, the use of only natural light, the very careful framings etc. – but sometimes shifts to the delights of the details of daily life for the family and the occasional glimpses of the comic possibilities of the presentation. In the later films, it seems to me that the visual signifiers become less pronounced and our empathy with the characters begins to develop more through the writing and the performances. With each film, it seems that Kore-eda hones his skills as one of modern cinema’s finest humanist directors.

The BFI’s new trailer for the film:

Where Hands Touch (UK 2018)

Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) and Lutz (George MacKay)

Amma Asante has completed three more films since her first, the remarkable A Way of Life, appeared in 2004. That film won prizes as a small independent production but struggled to find an audience outside festivals and a limited UK release. Belle in 2013 brought her to the attention of North American audiences and a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. A United Kingdom in 2016 continued her move towards international co-production and a bigger budget with two major stars in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Each of these three films dealt with issues of identity in unusual circumstances and they proved difficult projects to get made despite help from the British Film Institute. The films were not without their critics but they did win prizes and some very enthusiastic audiences. Because Belle was a narrative that dealt with issues arising from the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century it proved the most attractive to African-American audiences. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanaian filmmaker who has moved from acting to scriptwriting and writing-directing. She has very clear ideas about the kinds of stories she wants to put on screen. She has proved determined to present these stories in the most accessible way she can and each of her films is strong in terms of cinematography, editing and art direction. Equally, she draws strong performances from well-chosen casts. I’ve been impressed by all the films but there are critics who find her stories too conventional and lacking in sophisticated ideas. I don’t accept those criticisms but they have been there and I must admit to my concerns prior to watching Where Hands Touch. I was forced to watch the film on VOD just three weeks after its UK release because I couldn’t find it locally in cinemas. The film was released first in North America in September 2018, seemingly for only 3 days in 103 cinemas. In the UK it opened on only 5 screens and the following week was on only one. The distributor, Spirit Entertainment is mainly known for DVD/Blu-ray and VOD. Could the film be as bad as these indicators of a lack of faith in cinema distribution suggest?

I’m relieved to say that many of the criticisms from North American viewers and some critics are either malicious or just silly. There have also been some very enthusiastic responses, but there is something about the film that perhaps doesn’t work. Nevertheless, given the subject she has tackled, this is another win for a brave filmmaker. The story of how the film came to be made and the historical basis is laid out on Amma Asante’s website. I’ll just include a brief summary here.

Leyna is a ‘Rhineland Bastard’, the daughter of Kerstin (Abbie Cornish)

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 included the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland which would last until 1930. The French Occupation Forces included 25,000 to 40,000 ‘colonial troops’. A significant proportion of these soldiers were Tirailleurs sénégalais, West Africans from various African territories in the French Empire. Some of these men married local German women, but many babies were born to unmarried mothers and these became known in Germany as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Wikipedia quotes the British historian Richard Evans who suggests that these children comprised 500-600 new ‘Black Germans’. Where Hands Touch focuses on a teenage girl who grows up as one of the 500+. An important point to note here is that the children of a married couple automatically took their father’s nationality, but those born ‘out of wedlock’ took their mother’s nationality. When the Nazis came to power and began to implement policies designed to secure the ‘racial purity’ of ‘Aryan Germany’, they at first had more problems with the Rhineland Bastards because they were German citizens. But after 1937 they adopted a policy of forced sterilisation to prevent any further ‘mixed marriages’ (not only involving Black youth but also Gypsies and others deemed ‘non-Aryan’).

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

Leyna Schlegel (Amandla Stenberg) is a bi-racial girl of 15 in 1944 and still living in the Rhineland when her mother hides her to prevent her arrest by agents who would no doubt find ways to force her sterilisation. Leyna and her white little step-brother Koen are then taken to Berlin where they must try to be ‘invisible’. Leyna will eventually find it impossible to stay in a Berlin school and instead will move into factory work with her mother. False papers keep her safe and she starts a relationship with a young man she meets. He’s in the Hitler Youth, just like every Aryan child, including Koen. In late 1944/early 1945 Berlin is a dangerous place and it’s inevitable that Leyna will be arrested at some point. What will happen to her?

Leyna has a “German name but not a German face” according to her teacher

Commentary

In one sense, this is a family melodrama with an emphasis on the drama. It is also a romance, a very dangerous romance. But in many ways the ‘action’ in the narrative is of less importance than the complicated questions and difficulties that surround Leyna’s sense of who she is. What is this identity in Germany in 1945? Leyna maintains that she is German. She has no other Black friends and no role models (her father disappeared some time earlier, when she was an infant). When she visits Lutz (George MacKay) he plays her a Billie Holiday record from his father’s collection and shows her images of female jazz singers. Leyna is thrown by this, she has had no chance to think about her African roots or about an African diaspora in America. Lutz is looking forward to being sent to the Eastern front. He wants to fight and to protect his country. But both Leyna and Lutz will have to deal with the questions of what it means to be German when they find themselves caught up in questions about how Jews are being killed in the camps.

Christopher Eccleston as Heinz, the father of Lutz

I think that the central problem with the film is that Amma Asante started to write a story when she discovered the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and the more she discovered, the more historical facts and issues she tried to include. There is an interesting analysis of ‘Black Germans in Nazi Germany’ by Professor Eve Rosenhaft on the Amma Asante website and we can see the clever way in which Asante has woven into the narrative all the questions and problems discussed. But in wanting the film to speak to mainstream audiences, Amma Asante has also chosen to develop a romance. A focus on emotional relationships has been Asante’s strategy in each of her films and generally I think it works well, but in this case it feels as if there isn’t enough room for the romance itself as well as all the other issues. It may be because the project has been so long in the making. It should have been Amma Asante’s second film – she felt very driven by a search through what she saw as the neglected history of Black people in other parts of Europe. But she couldn’t raise the finance to make the film until she’d had the successes of Belle and A United Kingdom. I’m wondering now if when she finally got to make it, she tried too hard to explore all sides of the story? The film is already quite long at 122 minutes. It may be that it would have worked better as a TV serial like Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013).

There are two issues here that might explain the less than stellar reception the film has received. I’ve indicated Amma Asante’s ambition and the possible problems of structure and the sheer scale of the narrative. It isn’t the fault of the actors  Amandla Stenberg, fresh from her triumph in The Hate U Give (US 2018) (a film under-appreciated in the UK, I think) is excellent and George Mackay works as well as he can with the script. Unfortunately for UK audiences there is the feeling that he’s been 19-20 for quite a long time now after roles in successful British pictures such as Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Pride (2014) – he was approaching 26 when he played Lutz. I think his efforts to ‘act younger’ make him possibly weaker as a character. The rest of the cast includes heavy-hitters such as Abbie Cornish as Leyna’s mother and Christopher Eccleston as the father of Lutz, an interesting character who fought in the 1914-18 war and who now wants to simply survive the war and protect his son, using his relatively senior position. Between the four central characters Asante does manage to represent a range of attitudes and feelings amongst ‘ordinary Germans’ in a very difficult situation. But this is something that audiences (still) might not be ready to accept. The history of the war and the Holocaust is too often reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and not conflicted characters who aren’t sure how and why they should act. I like the fact that the script makes clear that Lutz risks all for the romance – it is as dangerous for him as for Leyna.

This second issue about audiences and how they might understand, sympathise with or identify with characters is the most difficult challenge of all. There is also the decision to use English dialogue with the central characters mostly speaking without a noticeable accent, while some of the minor characters do. I’d be interested to see the film with a German cast or with a dubbed German soundtrack (as was the case with the recent Trautmann/The Keeper).

I hope my analysis hasn’t put you off wanting to watch this film. It’s an important piece of work and Amma Asante is a director who always produces interesting and valuable films. Finally, I wanted to mention the work of Remi Adefarasin, one of the few Black cinematographers in the UK. It’s good to see him as an industry veteran supporting Amma Asante and presenting Amandla Stenberg so beautifully on screen.