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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.
My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.
Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.
I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)
I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).
At a time when Talking Pictures TV in the UK is attracting more and more viewers to its offer of popular British films from the 1940s to 1960s (and a few other goodies too), it’s worth asking if in another 50 years, film scholars will be studying the ‘popular films’ of the 2010s. They should because every film reveals something about the film culture which produced and consumed it. What can we learn now? On the eve of a possible ‘Brexit’ we might note that this British film attracted some investment from Belgian tax funds. I wonder if that will happen again in a ‘post-Europe’ British film industry? (Actually the Belgian company Umedia seems to have other UK productions on its books.) The principal production company of Fisherman’s Friends is British with a record of producing popular entertainment features that don’t involve the usual public funders, BBC Films, Channel 4 and the various regional funders. This counts as an ‘independent’ production in the commercial sense, though it is resolutely mainstream and conventional as a film narrative. Lastly, the film is distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors (EFD) which focuses on both US and UK independent features – and is prepared to support a wide release.
Fisherman’s Friends is one of those ‘based on a true story’ films, an unlikely music industry story which is easily turned into a social comedy romance. It is being generally treated as a ‘feelgood film’ or ‘one for the Oldies’. Neither of these is a totally inaccurate description but perhaps masks the interesting mix of elements. In 2010 a group of fishermen in Cornwall who enjoyed singing sea shanties were noticed by radio DJ Johnnie Walker and found themselves with a Top 10 album after a record producer gambled on their local popularity becoming a national phenomenon. They went on to make regular high-profile appearances, e.g. on the Glastonbury stage, and are still performing with slightly changed personnel in 2019.
The film based on the ‘discovery’ of the group inevitably changes some aspects of the story and grafts on a romance. A music industry figure played by Daniel Mays meets the group through a contrived storyline. The leader of the group is Jim played by James Purefoy and his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton) is a single parent with a 7-year old daughter. Alwyn manages a B&B. The plot creates an interesting triangle. All the singers are local fishermen in Port Isaac and many double as the local lifeboat crew. The structure of the comedy narrative refers back to Ealing with the arrival of metropolitan record industry people in ‘the independent kingdom of Cornwall’. The trip also highlights the presence of the British upper classes in Cornwall. Think Whisky Galore as the best-known example of this sub-genre. In this case there is also a visit by the fishermen to ‘that there London’ – possibly the weakest part of the film.
The weakness of the script is there in very cheesy one-liners (followed by the occasionally very funny line) and the exaggerated difference between Cornwall and London. The London we see is all about record company offices and hipster diners/pubs. It’s good to see that London is represented as the multiracial city it is in reality but the scene in which the fishermen sing an impromptu shanty in a pub and are cheered on by a largely young black audience is very odd. I’m suggesting that the filmmakers have some positive ideas but haven’t quite worked them through.
This is a film with a strong cast which also includes David Hayman, Dave Johns, Noel Clarke (almost unrecognisable under a wig) and Maggie Steed. Steed, Purefoy and Middleton all come from the South West (but not Cornwall!) so they do have some regional authenticity. By contrast to this experienced cast, director Chris Foggin is making only his second film. The writers have got hits like the two St Trinians films among their credits. Somebody should perhaps have known better than to string out the narrative to 112 minutes. There are several songs in the film and that perhaps explains the length. I enjoyed the songs though I think some more variety might have improved the ‘musical’ elements of the genre mix. The ‘real’ singers appear as extras in the film. Whether they are actually singing I don’t know. The one ‘different’ song sung by the Same Swainsbury character is something that might have been developed. Unuusually for a British film of this type, it is presented in ‘Scope which enhances the natural beauty of the Port Isaac setting.
Many of the UK critics marked the film down and the trade paper Screendaily remarked that despite ‘soft reviews’ the film’s wide release (over 500 screens) had been successful giving it a No 2 slot in the UK Box Office. If the film does skew towards older audiences it may well have done good business in mid-week. Overall I enjoyed the film. It won’t be a classic feelgood film and as the ‘true story’ is already nearly ten years ago the narrative itself doesn’t necessarily speak for/about 2019. But the opening week success does suggest that in the midst of debates about streaming and up against the release of Captain Marvel on the same weekend, a small independent feature can still attract audiences in large numbers. It may simply disappear next week but EFD will still feel it was worthwhile going for those 500 screens. Cineuropa also reports that the film has ‘pre-sales deals’ in Spain and Scandinavia – perhaps the universal attraction of singing fishermen and the possibility of a metropolitan man falling for a local woman can sell the film in several territories? I enjoyed Tuppence Middleton’s performance very much.