Shanghai was released at the height of interest in the new Independent Indian film production cycle. Though the film managed a commercial Indian release it did not reach UK cinemas and I was frustrated not to be able to see it at my local Cineworld in Bradford. I recently unearthed it from deep in the bowels of MUBI’s catalogue. I’m not sure that MUBI has known what to do with some of its Indian acquisitions since this film has not been given the full treatment with reviews and extra material. In the end I was glad to be able to see it before it disappeared from the streamer.
My interest in this film was sparked first of all by its director Dibakar Banerjee. I had enjoyed his first film, the comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla! (India 2006) and then found his contribution to the compendium film Bombay Talkies (India 2013) to be the best of the four short narratives on offer to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema. Banerjee is an intriguing character whose career began in advertising and by Indian standards he has made relatively few feature films, having started in his late thirties. He seems to have continued making advertising films so perhaps that is how he gets his funding (but I note that this film also had some support from the NFDC – National Film Development Corporation). His films are generally received as being at the more commercial end of the Indian Independent spectrum. Shanghai seems placed as more controversial and ‘edgy’. The location for the film suggests a city blessed/poisoned by modern capitalist exploitation, something like Shanghai and its depiction as the great postmodern global city. It also occurred to me that the narrative includes elements similar to those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008) which gained recognition in the UK after winning the Booker Prize.
The film’s story actually has a rather different source, the 1966 Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was adapted a couple of years later for the Costa Gavras film Z (France 1969), a film made in Algeria masquerading as Greece that was a significant commercial hit and awards favourite. The original was based on the story of a Greek opposition politician during the period of the military junta in power in Greece from 1967 to 1974. This more recent Indian adaptation by Urmi Juvekar and Dibakar Banerjee features several scenes which match exactly those in the Costa Gavras film, but also some different themes and a slightly different tone I think. It feels authentically like an Indian political thriller – i.e. it is familiar from other Indian films. In the fictitious city of ‘Bharatnagar’ (or is it a smaller district/town in a wider urban sprawl?), presumably a state capital, a large business development project known as ‘IBP’ is being pushed through by ‘The Front’, a coalition of political parties on the right, headed by the state’s chief minister, ‘Madamji’ (Supriya Pathak). The project is clearly damaging for several groups of the poor and lower caste peoples whose land is being illegally re-possessed. A leading leftist figure Dr Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes to the city to speak to his supporters but the local ‘goons’ in the pay of the The Front are being organised to sabotage the meeting. When Dr Ahmedi comes out of the meeting hall where he has addressed his followers, a small truck is driven at speed knocking him down as he faces the mob. He will spend the rest of the narrative in a coma.
The Chief Minister institutes an investigation into the ‘accident’ and appoints an ambitious civil servant, T. A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) to head the enquiry. Meanwhile, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Dr Ahmedi’s former student in New York and his most ardent follower, is outraged and determined to uncover the corruption and the conspiracy that has put her leader in hospital. Her response to the hit-and-run soon brings her into contact with local videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) who has captured aspects of the events on a disc. Shalini also meets Dr Ahmedi’s wife (Tillotama Shome) at the hospital and the two women don’t immediately get on. These are the six principal characters of the narrative and the six lead actors. There is also a group of secondary characters who are the paid disrupters and in effect murderers/assassins. I won’t spoil the plot directly any more and I’ll turn instead to analyse the kind of film Shanghai develops into and how it creates meanings. It’s a film that does have some problems, at least for me, but overall it is very successful.
I struggled with the narrative a little because of the six lead actors I only know the work of Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome (who has very little to do, but don’t miss her at the end of the film). Both are associated for me with the ‘Independent’ sector of Indian cinema and at this time in 2012 Kalki Koechlin was in many ways the ‘poster girl’ of this new kind of cinema, partly because of her relationship with Anurag Kashyap, the leading writer-director of the Independent production movement. In his blog posting on the film, Omar Ahmed suggests that Koechlin is miscast in the film and she is indeed an odd character, especially because she seems to have been given a peculiar hairstyle (is it a wig?) that doesn’t suit her and she is required to be quite volatile in the frustration she feels in trying to uncover the truth. This means some almost melodrama acting is required that is sometimes even more disruptive than might be intended. I think part of the problem is the background information about her character which I found confusing. She is introduced as the daughter of a General who has been arrested and kept in prison on remand by the government. Dr Ahmedi is taken to her house as his base for the visit and there is clearly a strong attraction between the two of them. Later on, during her investigation, Shalini is assumed to be a foreigner or an ‘outsider’. (Kalki Koechlin is the daughter of a French couple living in Tamil Nadu but she is an Indian citizen and speaks French, English and Hindi.)
The most intriguing character is Jogi. Emraan Hashmi, like Koechlin, is a well-known actor who is given a beer belly and other distinctive features to turn him into a ‘disreputable’ character. The character has a back story forcing him to leave home and move to Bharatnagar where he is now a videographer making money from filming anything that pays. His ‘bread and butter’ is cheap pornography made with his friend Vinod. He has got some work filming Front politicians and is always sniffing round any action. Jogi and Shalini will make a strange pair. Initially he wants to sell his evidence but later he will have other motives. Krishnan plays the Jean-Luis Trintignant role from Z, except that he is a very Indian figure – a career civil servant who takes his investigation seriously but is also drawn into playing dangerous political games.
The biggest difference between Shanghai and Z is arguably the former’s exposure of the corruption/incompetence of the police and the exploitation of the poor. Those who carry out the attack on Dr Ahmedi include one character who needs money to pay for the English lessons which might help him get a better job. Many of the poor will be removed from their homes and shipped to a re-settlement development out of town. They will not advance economically since it will become more expensive to commute back in for any service jobs that might become available. The poor who resist or who cause problems are easily eliminated by more paid thugs with the police turning a blind eye to the crimes. Although it is set in 2012, Shanghai seemed remarkably on the nose when it refers to corruption within the governing party – contracts going to friends of those in power without proper contracting bids. Now, what does that remind me of in the UK during the COVID pandemic? Several current British ministers need to be investigated on that score. Things in India have seemingly got worse in India as well since Modi won the 2014 general election and increased his majority in 2019.
Shanghai is only 102 minutes long but it packs in an enormous amount of plot – possibly too much. When I thought back over what I’d seen, I realised that there were aspects of the plot that I had forgotten. Included in that running time are two extended musical song and dance sequences. No subtitles for either I’m afraid, but one within the politicians/senior police officials etc. and one within the poorer community: I wish I had had more time to think about what they contributed. Whatever its minor flaws, I think Shanghai is an important film showing real ambition to present the genuine evils of the current political situation in India. The world really is a shitty place right now and this kind of narrative of exposure is needed more and more. If you can find it, Shanghai is well worth investigating.
Here’s the Hindi trailer (no English subs):
There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)
Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.
Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.
The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.
I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:
The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)
The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.
‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.
Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also, it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones. It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.
Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).
Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.
Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.
The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.
I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.
This French TV serial comprising 6 x 52 minute episodes is currently available on ‘Walter Presents’, the All4 strand offering foreign language drama in the UK. Set in 1962, this has predictably attracted some Mad Men references in the UK because it is set in the 1960s with close attention to period detail. It does have some Anglo-American TV references but I think it might be a little difficult for some UK audiences to read since it is set in the context of French politics in the early 1960s, a period of great turbulence and no little danger.
The ‘speakerine’ of the title is Christine Beauval (Marie Gillain), the principal ‘announcer’ on RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) the French public broadcasting organisation which in 1962 operated only one TV channel and four radio stations. TV broadcasting took much longer to develop in most of Europe compared to the UK and North America and Christine is more like the female presenters on UK TV in the early 1950s who added some glamour and personality to programming while imparting information about the days limited programming. RTF was a ‘PSB’ but unlike the BBC it was much more directly controlled by the French government and therefore a target for political activists. 1962 was a particularly difficult period for the new 5th Republic after President de Gaulle recognised the independence of Algeria, signing the Évian Accords in March 1962 with full independence being declared on July 3rd 1962. There was fierce resistance to de Gaulle’s action from the OAS – the paramilitary organisation set up by ex-soldiers who had fought against the FLN (the Algerian independence movement) as well as pieds noirs (Algerian-born French) and assorted fascists. Several attempts were made to assassinate de Gaulle, one of which formed the basis for Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 thriller ‘The Day of the Jackal’, adapted as a successful film in 1973.
The third political force in France at the time was the French communist party (PCF). In this serial, the management of RTF is associated with control by the Gaullist government. The only communist I’ve come across so far is a journalist at RTF who is clearly sympathetic to the unions in the building. Christine Beauval is married to Pierre (Guillaume de Tonquédec) who is Head of Information at RTF and therefore technically his wife’s line boss. However, the head of the TV channel overall, Darnet, is an enemy of Beauval and is competing with him to head a new venture, ‘Mondovision’. This refers to a broadcast link with the United States via the new Telstar satellites, the first of which was launched in 1962. The satellites enabled live TV links between the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Canada. The series shows US personnel arriving in Paris and this was high level stuff having implications for NATO and in particular the rather different ideas of the French and British governments towards the alliance. The BBC were in charge of co-ordinating the transmissions.
This is the background but the initial focus is on a disturbing series of events featuring the Beauval family. Christine, as the most familiar face of RTF programming with a large fan base, has received threatening letters and has been subject to quite frightening ‘stunts’/’accidents’. Her 18 year-old daughter Colette has got involved with an older man, a politician (the Minister for Information played by Grégory Fitoussi), and finds herself in a difficult situation when she joins a schoolfriend to go to a party which turns out to be not what she expected at all and puts her in a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile her older brother, whose parents managed to prevent from serving in the army in Algeria, has become interested in supporting the OAS because he has friends who have ‘disappeared’ while on military service.
This series of events (and more I haven’t spoiled) has happened by midway through the second episode and I’m hooked. We seem to be in a crime thriller and political intrigue all worked through a family melodrama and one of the darkest moments of French post-war history. Some 2,000 or more people were killed in attacks on Maghrebi people, representatives of the state/public sector and indeed anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the OAS. This mix is reminiscent of the three series of Forbrydelsen/The Killing (Denmark-Sweden 2007-12). It is also reminiscent, in a different way, of the recent UK drama serial The Trial of Christine Keeler (UK 2019). The early 1960s saw a series of sex scandals in British politics. The final ingredient in this already potent mixture is the issue of women working in the TV industry and the sexism they face. Just as Christine is looking to move into a form of broadcast journalism at RTF, a new threat to her position appears in the form of a young ‘pretender’ to her role as an announcer. Isabelle (Barbara Probst) claims to be 23 and she is what the older men in charge at RTF think of as a ‘looker’. She is also very bright and highly skilled at deception. What is she up to?
From what I’ve seen so far, this is a polished production by France Télévisions (RTF’s PSB successor) with a standout performance by Marie Gillain and good use of locations and period detail. The French New Wave films in the early 1960s were later accused of avoiding many of the political issues of the period (much as RTF in this series avoids ‘unpleasant’ news stories) but I was pleased to get a sense of various French film genres in this serial. There are certainly strong indicators of the crime and political thriller films in this production. When I looked up Marie Gillain I realised I had seen her as one of the SOE resistance fighters in Les femmes de l’ombre (Female Agents, France 2008).
Since I started this posting, I’ve watched two more episodes and therefore four out of the six episodes and the serial is holding up well. I now see that because Christine is the central figure, the position of women in France in the early 1960s is becoming increasingly central. The series is written by a large team of four men and three women and directed by Laurent Tuel. I recommend the serial but I’m struggling with All4’s use of adverts, seemingly thrown across each episode almost randomly, presumably to persuade us to have them removed for a monthly fee. This isn’t the way to go about building your audience Channel 4!
I couldn’t find a subtitled clip, but here is a French trailer without subs, giving a good idea of the serial in visual terms:
Party is one of several ‘parallel cinema’ films that are now available for streaming in the UK via MUBI’s Library. It has been very difficult to see these films in anything like a decent print for many years and it is good to have this new opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since I last tried to summarise what was meant by ‘parallel cinema’ and ‘New Indian Cinema’ in the 1970s/80s. Since then, Omar Ahmed has worked hard in the UK to find film titles and scholarly work around them. His blog at ‘Movie Mahal’ and his writing and PhD research is now a very useful source of both background and reviews of specific titles. His review of this film is here. I’ll try to approach the film a little differently in an attempt to use it more as an exemplar.
Party is a film by the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani. Born in Karachi in 1940, Nihalani’s family moved to independent India after partition and he later attended one of the first film schools in India in Bangalore. He then began work as an assistant to the legendary V.K. Murthy, the cinematographer who worked with Guru Dutt in the 1950s. Nihalani took on cinematographer roles on the parallel films of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s before his own directorial career began in 1980. Party is based mainly on a Marathi theatre play with a script by Mahesh Elkunchwar and it was financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). This public funding and Nihalani’s background are two indicators of parallel cinema and a third is an extensive ensemble cast list including several names associated with this type of cinema.
In some ways, Party is a familiar genre narrative, a form common in many developed societies where discussion of politics and the arts meet in middle class gatherings. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally Potter made The Party (UK 2017) and there are other films discussed on this blog which share similar elements. However, the mix of Indian literati and journalists, actors etc. takes place in a Bombay house under circumstances that are significantly different to those in the UK and where demographics are very different. The politics of inequality, the persistence of caste, communalism and the very real violence of political resistance set up an environment in which an upper middle class drinks party is not the same in Bombay as it might be in London or Paris or New York. (It is difficult to discuss Indian society using the socio-economic class definitions familiar in the UK. The hostess of the party is the daughter of an eminent lawyer – a national leader and ‘Cabinet Minister’.)
Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) is a widow who hosts a party in honour of a playwright, Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has won a literary prize. She has invited a range of other writers and their spouses. She has inveigled her daughter, who has a small baby but not a husband, to join the party. Meanwhile her son invites his own friends to a smaller party upstairs where they drink and listen to Western pop/rock music (including the Irena Cara track ‘What a Feeling’ from Flashdance (US 1983) – I wonder what or if – this might have cost?). It soon becomes apparent that there are several conflicts waiting to erupt among the party guests, some of which are sexual/marital but most of which involve politics. There is also a considerable intake of alcohol. Inevitably this is a very ‘talky’ film with relatively little chance to develop an expressive visual style. There is a short section at the beginning of the film setting up the party that finds the various characters in their ‘home’ environments and the house itself is a useful location with staircases, mirrors and a garden which allows some possibilities such as a classic mirror set up in which a character might look at their multiple reflections in adjacent mirrors.
The two major pressure points in the film seem to be firstly the status of women – the writer’s wife who has turned to drink and given up her career, the hostess and her daughter who clash painfully, a young woman who oscillates between flirtation and Marxist dialectics. These conflicts are also connected to the central discourse of politics and the purpose of art. The central character of Barve is revealed as egotistical and something of a fraud whereas the young poet Bharat (‘India’ in Hindi) is passionate but weak and naive. In the last third of the film, these various conflicts are thrown into relief by the late arrival of the journalist, Avinash, played with enormous energy by Om Puri. He has been injured during a protest by tribal peoples against an illegal central government development and he has news of the character everyone has been discussing – the poet Amrit who has done something practical in attempting to help the tribal community in their resistance.
Om Puri is remarkably powerful in these scenes, privileged by the camera, with a compelling speaking voice and his iconic rough and ‘lived in’ face. Everyone has to listen to him. I don’t remember Puri from the small group of parallel/’New Cinema’ films I saw in the 1980s and I only became familiar with him in the last 20 years of his career across independent and mainstream Indian and global cinema, so this was a highlight for me. Similarly, Amrit makes only a fleeting appearance in Party, but it is significant that he is played by Naseeruddin Shah, like Om Puri, an actor who began in films like this and who has over time become an iconic Indian actor, thankfully still with us.
Party is a well-written play with an array of interesting characters. I would pick out the hostess as perhaps the central role. Over the course of the narrative she is criticised and becomes more self-aware. She is a tragic character bit she comes across as more sympathetic than the writer who recognises that he is a fraud but is still prepared to milk his position.
MUBI’s print of Party is a restoration of a film in colour and Academy ratio – common for many films of this kind, some of which might have gained their best audiences via screenings on the Indian PSB TV channel Doordarshan, another indicator of parallel cinema since relatively few cinemas would take the films. The film’s dialogue is in Hindi most of the time but there are significant exchanges in English which would limit the TV audience I suspect. In recent years the same level of English dialogue is found in some more mainstream Hindi films Generally it looks OK. It’s very pleasing that MUBI has made its Library available in this way and I look forward to re-engaging with more of the history of the ‘alternative cinemas’ of India.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs):
Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.
The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.
The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.
The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.
Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)
Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download.