Not Just Bollywood: 2019 opens tomorrow with a rare screening of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy of films addressing political and social issues in Indian society. Deepa Mehta is an example of one of the important ‘diasporic’ or ‘exilic’ directors who have offered radical perspectives on Indian cinema and society through their films. In this respect she joins other important filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Gurinder Chadha. I don’t want to discuss the differences between ‘exilic’ and ‘diasporic’ here, only to recognise that for various reasons these filmmakers have been trained in and worked in other film industries/film cultures but have travelled to India to make Indian films with Indian stories. In the selection of six women who have directed films in India for this mini-season, three of the others, Dar Gai, Anu Menon and Rohena Gera, have similar experiences of training and living outside India.
Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar before moving as a child to Delhi and eventually graduating from Delhi university. In 1973 she emigrated to Canada with her husband, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. In Canada Mehta developed a career in documentary before moving into TV drama and eventually feature film production. In 1991 she directed a a Toronto-set film Sam and Me which featured an Indian family and the actors Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey as cast members. The latter two of this trio would become important in the Elements Trilogy when Mehta travelled to India to make Fire set in Delhi in 1995. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also featured in Earth made in 1998 and Water, completed in 2005. This last film, proved to be so controversial as a production that it had to be delayed and re-started, losing some of the other original cast members.
Deepa Mehta discusses the background to the trilogy in this Canadian interview which looks back on the selection of Water as the Canadian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2007:
She explains that she didn’t expect that the films would become controversial and that what attracted her were the stories themselves. She saw them as women’s stories, stories about women’s choices or rather the lack of choices that women in India have. The stories are set in different time periods and in different parts of India, but all three stories explore social issues still relevant today. Mehta suggests that she now sees that these kinds of stories are controversial in societies experiencing ‘hyper-nationalism’ because people are encouraged to attack anything that threatens a sense of a set national culture, they feel uncomfortable about anything that wants to question or set up a ‘conversation’ about what has happened and what might need to be changed. The interview was in 2017 in Canada and she refers to Trump’s America but it could be Modi’s India or Johnson’s UK right now, so she’s right to say that the stories are universal.
Fire, the first screening on Wednesday 11th September, offers a story about a young woman Sita (Nandita Das) who travels to Delhi to marry Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) but soon discovers that he has a mistress and no interest in his bride. Sita finds herself in a household of two brothers who share a shop. Jatin rents out videos and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a grocery business. Ashok, for different reasons shuns his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the two wives find themselves caring for Ashok’s elderly bed-ridden mother with the servant Mundu. The two women turn to each other for a real relationship. Deepa Mehta wrote the script herself but Wikipedia references Gayatri Gopinath as the source for a suggestion that the story is inspired by Ismat Chughtai‘s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). Fire is a Canadian film made as a co-production with India. The story and the cast are Indian but the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is British and editor Barry Farrell is Canadian – both also work in the US. On the other hand the music is by A R Rahman and other creative posts are held by Indians. The film’s dialogue is mostly in English. This choice is not that unusual in India and places the film in relation to some examples of what was known as ‘middle cinema’ in the 1980s in India and what is sometimes included under the heading of ‘parallel cinema’. The film to some extent ‘crossed over’ to a wider potential audience in India because of the subject content. Lesbian relationships were rare in Indian cinema at this point and this attracted protestors and attempts to shut down cinemas screening the film. One aspect of the narrative that was not so accessible for audiences outside India was the ‘play’ with the traditional depictions of Radha and Sita in the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Mehta appears to have possibly reversed the qualities of the two traditional characters.
Earth carried the title 1947: Earth in India, a direct indicator of its setting during the final weeks leading up to Partition. This story is an adaptation of a biographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa first published in the UK in 1988 as Ice Candy Man and the later in the US (1991) and India (1992) as Cracking India. Lenny is an 8 year-old girl in a Lahore Parsi family. She is recovering from polio and his very close to Shanta a young Hindu woman from South India employed as the household maid but seen by Lenny as her ‘Ayah’. Shanta is played by Nandita Das and the voiceover of the adult Lenny is delivered as narration at certain points by Shabana Azmi. The production is in many ways similar to Fire (so there is the same mix of Indian and European/Canadian creative personnel), but there are two differences that might make it more meaningful for Indian audiences (on top of the fact that the subject matter is so important in the history of India). First, the central character of the Ice Candy Man is played by Aamir Khan, already a leading Bollywood star and second, the dialogue features Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati with English only spoken by Lenny and her parents. The film was India’s Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 1999.
The Parsi family are close to the British in Lahore and are not part of the growing rift between the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in the city. The narrative cleverly weaves a story of romance through the events with Shanta being the object of desire for both the Muslim Ice Candy man and the Hindu masseur. The film must have felt personal for Deepa Mehta who was born in Amritsar only a few years after Partition and she must have heard the stories of anguish for those displaced into either Indian or Pakistani Punjab after the line was drawn and so many were killed. The trains arriving in stations full of those killed after attacks had come from or were going to cities like Amritsar or Lahore. I think Earth may be the film that affected me most in the trilogy. In a sense there is nothing ‘controversial’ in the film, except that it stirs memories and introduces younger viewers to the calamity that was the British partition of India. It does, however, also relate to the contemporary ‘communalism’ clashes in some parts of India.
Water, by contrast, was taken to be a direct challenge to Hindu traditions and appeared at a time when the ‘Religious Right’ was growing in strength in India. Deepa Mehta wrote this story herself with some dialogue written by Anurag Kashyap. Later Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with Mehta again and wrote a ‘novelisation’ of the film. The film should have been shot in 2000 in Varanasi as the location (as Benares) in 1938 where a young child is taken to a house of widows after the death of her adult husband. Hindu traditions decreed that widows must live away from the outside world. The protests turned violent and the film’s set by the ghats was destroyed. A deeply upset director was offered permission to shoot in neighbouring states where the BJP was not in power such as West Bengal and Bihar, but she decided to postpone the shoot. In interviews she has said that she was too angry to continue and that shooting a film fuelled by anger would damage her artistic vision. Eventually she decided to move the shoot to Sri Lanka five years later. This worked well for the production overall but she lost the opportunity to cast Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das for a third time. The younger and older women’s roles went to Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas. Lisa Ray had appeared in Deepa Mehta’s earlier Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and was just beginning to attract attention from Indian filmmakers. Seema Biswas is probably best known to UK audiences as the lead performer in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994).
The narrative involves a meeting between the child widow and a law student follower of Gandhi. This is Narayan played by John Abraham from Kerala who, like Lisa Ray, had been a leading fashion model and was only just established as an unusual leading man in Hindi cinema. But if Lisa Ray and John Abraham raised a few eyebrows in India, the veteran star Waheeda Rahman playing Narayan’s mother was a re-assuring presence.
I wrote about encountering Water on its UK release in an early posting on this blog. I don’t want to repeat those points here and I may have different responses now but the post is worth visiting, partly to follow the links to other writers at the time. As the interview above indicates, Water was a big hit in Canada and is seen by many as Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement. Its reception in India was more mixed but it had champions as well as detractors. It will be interesting to see what the audience at HOME makes of the film today when contemporary films have become much more explicit and challenging about the abuse directed at women in India which is so deeply rooted in the society. Having recently watched Article 15 and The Incessant Fear of Rape I’m sorry not to be able to attend the HOME screening of Water on Wednesday 18 September and gauge the reaction.
The trilogy is a major achievement by Deepa Mehta and this is a timely screening for the three films.
I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.
He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.
If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.
Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!
Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?
The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:
a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’
That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.
After starting to watch five features and completing three I was a little disappointed with ‘My French Film Festival’. The three films I watched all the way through were OK, but not really ‘special’. I’m glad I was able to see them but I doubt that they will open in the UK. Fake Tattoos was my last film before the festival closed and at first sight I didn’t expect much. But it was wonderful! A sweet romance between two young people that came across as ‘real’ without any form of contrivance or genre pressures: I loved this film.
Les Faux Tatouages is a Canadian feature, another Québécois treasure to add to those breakout films by Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, Philippe Falardeau etc. a few years ago. (I noted that a couple of the actors in the film had also appeared in Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011).) I’m not sure why Les Faux Tatouages is in a French Film Festival as it seems to be a 100% Canadian production, but it is a French language film (and it’s presented in 1.66:1).
The film opens with dialogue over a black screen. Only towards the end of the film will we realise what this dialogue might refer to. When the first images appear we are in an off-licence where Théo (Anthony Therrien) is buying beers on his 18th birthday. Downing them quickly round the corner he joins the crowds heading for a concert. Afterwards, in a late night café, he’s chatted up by Mag (Rose-Marie Perreault) who admires his fake but well-drawn tattoo. Théo is at first reluctant to respond to her advances but Mag is persistent and they end up back at her house. In the morning, Théo is uncomfortable meeting Mag’s mum and her little sister. Will he try to build a relationship? He’s 18, she’s 19. They seem well matched but there is a darkness about Théo (whose only colour choice appears to be black).
What follows is a slowly developing relationship which is totally convincing. The dialogue is beautifully written and feels ad-libbed. The two young actors had some previous experience, but mainly this is a first cinematic feature for writer-director Pascal Plante and many of the other cast and crew members had only limited experience. The film is not fast-paced. Plante and his cinematographer are quite prepared to let scenes run and Théo pauses before he speaks. The two young people both play the guitar to each other and music is a shared passion for them, though they like different types of music. (I’m not competent to discuss the selections in the film but my guess is that these are authentic music fans.) Accepting each other’s tastes is an important part of building their relationship. This isn’t a genre film as such so there are no rom-com like narrative devices and no real climax to the narrative. This kind of film just creates a glow of pleasure for me. In a way I want it to end (in the way this one does) so that I can really enjoy basking in its affects. It’s a relatively short film at under 90 minutes.
I said that we do find out about the mysterious dialogue at the beginning – or at least we are shown a scene which the dialogue probably refers to. It explains something about Théo’s behaviour and why he has to do what he has to do. But in keeping with the rest of the narrative it is something important but not necessarily terminal for his relationship with Mag. The other aspect of the film that is thankfully not concerned with genre is the fact that most of the characters we meet are ‘nice people’. Both Théo and Mag are with their mothers as single parents and both have sisters – Théo’s is older and takes him out for a drink. Mag’s is much younger and playing with her brings out Théo’s artistic and caring nature. He wants to become a tattoo artist and the possibility is one of the few conventional ‘drivers’ of the narrative.
Both the leads in the film are attractive but not conventionally so. They play their roles very well and I was happy to spend time with them. Fake Tattoos was well received at Berlin in the 14+ section of the festival and at other international festivals. As one of the IMDB reviews suggest, this is just the kind of film that should do well on VOD platforms. So please do a search across whatever streaming platforms you use and try to track this down. And look out for more from Pascal Plante.